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.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Doctor Who: Time Crash / Voyage of the Damned

Time Crash

“You mostly went hands-free, didn't you? ‘I'm the Doctor! I can save the universe with a kettle and some string. And look at me; I'm wearing a vegetable…’”

Hooray! At last I get to watch this with subtitles and catch all of Tennant’s dialogue! Not to be churlish, though; this is fantastic, and his performance is too.

Peter Davison’s appearance is a powerful and wonderful moment, and all the more so in the context of the Marathon. Although I can’t help wondering why he’s wearing a hat, what with it being indoors and all…

It’s interesting how different Davison’s performance is here. Partly it’s the fact that he’s older, more authoritative and, well, more authoritative. But there’s also the obvious point that this is the version of the Doctor he plays in Big Finish these days.

But just as good as Davison himself is this fantastically witty script from the Moffmeister General, in which Tennant’s Doctor gets to make some great quips about his predecessor. I love the digs at the celery, and the revelation that both of the Doctors wear glasses for purely cosmetic reasons. Davison gets the best line, though. (“You’ve changed the desktop theme, haven’t you?”)

It’s hard to believe, as the Fifth Doctor heads back to times of “Nyssa and Tegan, Cybermen and the Mara, Time Lords in funny hats and the Mara”, that this has been just eight minutes long. It’s pure joy. 5/5, no contest. Oh, and I do believe this is only our second every “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey”.

Voyage of the Damned

“Any day now they start boxing!”

Ah… there’s nothing so surreal as reviewing a Christmas special in late May as the Spring blossoms are behind us and the hay fever drugs are starting to kick in…

It’s the Christmas Day blockbuster: time for something light in mood yet exciting and action-packed for the post-Christmas Dinner hours, and easy to follow for the benefit of those of us who had a little bit of wine earlier cos it’s the one day of the year you can start drinking in the early afternoon. And this delivers splendidly; before the credits roll we’ve already established that this is indeed the Titanic, there are apparently aliens on board, Kylie Minogue is on board, and, oh, said ship is flying through space. How very Enlightenment. Not only that, but those angel robots look suspiciously Robots of Death to me. That’s two conscious homages in the space of a minute!

The first third of the running time, before the peril kicks in, are devoted to introducing us to the situation and to the characters who are soon going to be struggling for their lives. The script sparkles here, giving exactly the sort of humour the festive circumstances demand. The highlight of all this is of course the dodgy history lesson given by Clive Swift’s Mr Copper, along with the brief trip to earth which helps the Doctor to bond with Kylie’s Astrid Peth- and her joy at what we would think mundane is wonderful. We also meet a newspaper vendor (it’s London, innit?) played by Bernard Cribbins, but there’s no need to dwell on him as he’s probably just a one-off cameo.

Incidentally, we’re told again that Earth is indeed a “Level 5” planet. That settles it; there is indeed a consistent system.

Oh, and Geoffrey Palmer’s in it, too, as the Captain, and Russell Tovey’s in it, too! But here’s when things start to turn serious as the Captain deliberately allows the ship to be hit by meteors, and the Heavenly Host turn nasty. Not only that, but they have haloes of death! It’s now, in true disaster movie style, that every character has a secret and all the nice characters die, mostly nobly (I love our sweet competition-winning couple, but knowing RTD’s scripting I feared for their life expectancy the minute they opened their mouths…). Unfortunate that the black guy dies first, but probably not a deliberate use of the trope…

The Doctor’s big speech, in response to Rickston Slade’s sneering, seemed a bit over the top at the time, but in the context of what’s to come (I know that’s not really in the spirit of the Marathon!) it now looks far more like a part of a character arc with, in hindsight, a defined direction, than it ever did at the time. I also love his Christmas quip soon after (“I was there. I got the last room”).

Things are going well with Astrid until she agrees to be the Doctor’s companion; at that point you know she’s doomed, just like Lynda with a “y” in a similar scene. This is where it starts, though: RTD, awesomely great writer though he is, has been writing the series for three years ago, and from this point onwards we’re bound to get little bits like this where he repeats his earlier tricks. It can’t be helped, and it in no way undermines RTD’s stature as a genius, but it’s there.

Still, RTD is often criticised for his climaxes but there’s nothing to criticise here. The doctor’s plan to get himself to the bridge is genuinely clever, Max Capricorn is a great villain, superbly played by George Costigan (yes, I know his performance is a tad broad, but so it should be- that’s the character, and it’s appropriate villainy for a Christmas special). The final revelations tie things up nicely- and were even foreshadowed earlier. Unfortunately, Astrid has to die at this point. Even more unfortunately, the Doctor ascends to the heavens with two angels. Now, I’ve been quite tolerant of this pretentious Christ imagery, but this is the point where, for me personally, the screaming starts. Please let there be no more…

Again, it’s interesting in the light of later events (not strictly in the spirit of the Marathon, again!) to see the Doctor trying so hard to bring Astrid back, insisting that “I can do anything!” Importantly, though, he fails. Not yet is he the Time Lord triumphant, but he’s travelling alone, and certain tendencies are going unchecked…

The last scenes with Mr Copper are splendid. I love the metatextuality of Mr Coppers comment, after Rickston Slade again shows himself to be an obnoxious git, that “Of all the people to survive. He’s not the one you would have chosen, is he?” But anyone making such a choice (ie, the writer) would be “a monster”. Is this RTD commenting on his own rather more than usually homicidal tendencies as a writer?

Good to see the recently departed Verity Lambert get an acknowledgement, too. Casts me back to the early days of the Marathon, that does.

Brilliant. Not quite up there with the 5/5, but one of the very top 4/5’s.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Lost Boy

Part One

“Children have no place in my life.”

Ah. It appears this write-up may also be a little longer than I’d intended my SJA write-ups to be. Bah.

We get a very early mention of Slitheen- do you reckon Phil Ford might be insinuating something here? It’s a nice and well acted scene, with Maria calmly explaining to her father just what she’s been doing all these weeks. Alan takes it well, but he’s worried that his daughter might be exposing himself to danger and, well, he’s right. Still, he changes to mind and the whole gang’s now one happy family. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

Suddenly the rug is pulled out from underneath everything with the revelation that Luke is apparently a kidnapped boy called Ashley- and Mr Smith confirms this. Instinctively we wonder if this might mean some kind of reality shift just like last time. Chrissie calls in the police, and things are looking grim.

Fortunately, Sarah has powerful friends and the investigation is not pursued. Still, Sarah Jane has been hurt deeply through being forced to give up Luke and, not for the first time, she responds by retreating inwards, wanting nothing more to do with Maria or Clyde for fear of being hurt more. This is an interesting development of her character, very well portrayed by Lis Sladen, which clearly has roots in her abandonment by the Doctor.

Then everything is turned on its head again as Luke’s new “parents” gradually reveal themselves to be baddies. And in a puzzling interlude Mr Smith sends Sarah Jane on a trip to somewhere called the Pharos Project, where we encounter a Professor Rivers, played by kids’ TV goddess Floella Benjamin. Blimey. Watching her presenting Play School is pretty much among my very earliest childhood memories, possibly thirty years ago. Now that makes me feel old.

We end (almost) on a double cliffhanger, as Luke’s “parents” and an annoying kid genius reveal themselves to be Slitheen and, incredibly, Mr Smith reveals himself to be a baddie and zaps Clyde (thereby making sense of their first meeting earlier in the series!). I make that four times in one episode that we’ve been shown that everything we thought we knew was wrong. Brilliant.

Although I must say was a bit surprised to see our heroes skiving school on a BBC kids’ programme…!

Part Two

“Well done, Clyde. You’re not as stupid as you pretend to be, are you?”

More coolness, as Sarah Jane gets to steal an artefact from the Pharos Institute, while Alan earns his spurs with the gang by helping Maria track down Clyde. And Clyde, in an extremely cool scene, gets to show how indispensible he is by making text appear on Alan’s laptop and revealing that Mr Smith has gone bad; he’s come a long way from the start of the series.

If we hadn’t had enough big reveals already, it turns out that Mr Smith is playing both our gang and the Slitheen against each other. Fortunately, they team up to defeat him, and Alan turns out to be a bit of a computer whiz, which is nice.

Less nice is the revelation that Mr Smith has been using Sarah Jane all this time, and for eighteen months he’s been working towards this moment; the release of his Xylok mates from within the Earth’s crust, destroying the world in the process. Fortunately, Sarah Jane defeats him with a bit of surprise help from K9 (yay!) and Alan’s disk. We end with a nice little heart-warming coda where everyone, even Chrissie, is shown as one big family.

I loved that. So much so that it tops even the last episode. 5/5.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?

Part One

“Somebody just walked over my grave…”

Oh dear. Looking at my notes for this one it’s going to be the sort of full-length write-up I said I wasn’t going to do for SJA. Bad, bad Gareth Roberts with all his pesky subtext…

We start with exactly the kind of ideal family scene which gives us a pretty clear idea that things are about to go very bad very soon, and any kind of experience of how TV drama works will give us a pretty shrewd idea of how. Sure enough; this status quo is smashed, in the form of reality being altered so that Sarah Jane died at the age of thirteen. And, as we’ll see, the status quo is to permanently change in relation to Alan, but that’s for next episode.

One niggle; how come Andrea (played by the really rather famous Jane Asher) coincidentally end up living in the same house as Sarah Jane? There’s no obvious reason other than plot convenience why she should. But I’ll overlook this, I think; it’s handwaved away quite nicely with the focus on Maria’s adjustment to the new reality misdirecting us away from such inconvenient thoughts. Anyway, perhaps reality simply adjusts the minimum amount possible? I can buy that.

This is an excellent way to handle a Sarah Jane-lite story, and a rather good example to the parent show in this respect, and this episode fully experiences the consequences for Maria of reality changing around her. Particularly powerful is the realisation that Clyde isn’t particularly friendly to her in this reality- showing us how much he’s changed in a few short weeks.

This is Maria’s episode, though, and we get more development of her relationship with her dad. Only at the end is it revealed that Andrea made a Faustian pact aged thirteen with the mysterious hooded figure we saw skulking around earlier. The episode ends with a Graske turning up (Not that I’m particularly vexed by such questions, but did their “previous” appearance count/ Whatever.). This is not exactly the prosthetics department’s finest hour, but it just about gets away with it.

Part Two

“Chaos is my blood and air and food…”

Maria is sent back to 1964 for reasons which are not entirely clear, where she meets two thirteen year old girls, Andrea and Sarah Jane. But why is Sarah Jane not speaking in a Scouse accent? Not only are there traces of Liverpool in Lis Sladen’s speech, but I recall some dialogue from Invasion of the Dinosaurs in which she used the Liverpool Docks as an example of something normal and familiar. Bit of a minor continuity error here, methinks. On the other hand, I love Andrea’s reference to “a Triffid coming to get us”. No doubt she saw the previous year’s film version featuring Doctor Who’s Carole Ann Ford.

Maria, erased from existence at Andrea’s whim just to stop her feeling bad, ends up in “Limbo”, where she meets Sarah Jane. We then meet the villain of the piece: the Trickster, a lover of chaos who refers to humans as ephemerals (hmmm…). His plan makes sense, sort of, and I’m glad we get an explanation as to what happened to the previous alien invasions which now won’t have been stopped by Sarah Jane. Apparently the upcoming meteor strike will be a much more aesthetically pleasing demise for the planet to the discerning aficionado of chaos.

The conclusion, with Andrea’s moral dilemma and self-sacrifice, is genuinely heart-rending, but the Trickster is defeated. Except… Alan now knows all about the aliens and stuff. Oops…

Truly excellent stuff. I’ve enjoyed the previous stories, but it’s nice to have something with a bit more depth. 5/5.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Warriors of Kudlak

Part One

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist!”

Hmm. There’s no denying this is a great concept for a story, in theory; a Laserquest type establishment recruiting kids for an intergalactic war seems to be exactly the sort of idea for this programme. But the execution doesn’t quite work in spite of a great central concept and plot from newcomer Phil Gladwin (Who he? I don’t know anything about him. This is the first time in the Marathon that I didn’t recognise a scriptwriter’s name, which tells you what a fanboy I am…).

There are some nice touches, admittedly; some good character stuff with Encyclopaedia Clydannica explaining life to Luke and a bit of coolness with Sarah Jane’s Pertwee-esque machine. Best of all is the receptionist. But the dialogue feels uninspired and the whole thing feels a little slow.

Part Two

“I am not programmed for peace.”

Great twist at the end; the war ended ten years ago but the computer is unable to accept this. But this episode feels very slow, and I’m rather troubled by the fact Sarah Jane seems to deliberately take Maria with her to the ship, putting a child in extreme danger. And there’s something Scooby-Doo about the ending.

I don’t want to exaggerate; this is far from awful, and the central concept is great, as is the final twist. But it feels as though there’s a little of the “that’ll do, it’s only for kids” attitude about the dialogue and some of the guest performances, a worrying first. 2/5.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Eye of the Gorgon

Part One

“It’s so sad. Everything she must have seen… and now everyone thinks she’s just crazy.”

This is Phil Ford’s first script for any of the three shows, and it’s actually quite surprising looking back that he’s only been involved since such a relatively late stage. His debut script is a cracker; a great story based on Greek myth (nicely educational there), but particularly impressive on characterisation- the whole thing with Maria and her family is brilliantly written. There’s also a very sensitive treatment of Alzheimer's for a child audience, many of whom will have grandparents in this situation.

The Sontaran reference from Bea is quite effective, making it clear that she herself had adventures with aliens once upon a time- rather nicely, we’re left to imagine the details but given the impression that this sort of thing has always been happening to people. Of course, this in no way implies they might be making an appearance in the parent programme soon…

Part Two

“No one listens to you when you’re old.”

Great cliffhanger, and once again some great characterisation for Maria; her initial reaction is believable, but importantly this doesn’t last, and the show doesn’t go too far, avoiding the implication that the children are living too dangerous a lifestyle with Sarah Jane which would portray her in a bad light- an ever-present risk which the series is going to have to be careful to avoid while still providing the required levels of excitement.

This episode is as great as the last- there’s a priest hole, a whole garden of petrified statues, and a wonderful scene with Chrissie pouring her hearts out to what she thinks is a statue of Alan. I love Chrissie- Juliet Cowan gives a great comic performance with what could easily have been a very annoying character. And I love Bea’s exasperated reaction when Maria doesn’t immediately spot what the mirror is for!

Pleasingly, we avoid a resolution which wishes away Bea’s Alzheimer’s with a magic wand- that would be insensitive and potentially upsetting for many viewers- but still ends on a positive note. Brilliant- 5/5.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Revenge of the Slitheen

Part One

“Clyde, new too. Probably hang around with you until I meet cooler people.”

I’m going to try and keep these SJA reviews a bit shorter, partly so I can catch up a bit, partly because I’m a little bit older than the target audience and partly as I don’t expect there to be quite as much subtext to talk about. Except where there is, obviously.

Anyway, we get a bit of a mini-reboot here in the first episode of a full series. Some things have changed- Kelsey has gone- but essentially this feels very much the same, right down to the baddies’ association with James Whale Frankenstein imagery. We also get an introduction for Clyde, who seems very promising indeed as a character, and a reintroduction of the Slitheen. It’s quite interesting how by this point they no longer seem to fit the tone of the parent show.

Oh, and the Slitheen child is great…

Part Two

“I did it! I exploded the headmaster!”

Interesting to hear the Slitheen speak of Earth as a “level five” planet- by now it seems as though the Whoniverse has a consistent system of “levels” which is a nice touch. We also get mentions of Judoon, other Raxacoricofallapatorian families, as well as a council and a senate, and even some of the planet’s animals, naturally with very long name. And if that wasn’t enough, even Clom gets a mention. And then Trinity Wells appears. It’s a virtual fanwank explosion.

It’s a good conclusion, firmly introducing Clyde as a member of the gang and giving each character some nice moments. A strong 3/5.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Doctor Who: Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords


“It’s like I’ve got a sports car, you’ve got a space hopper.”

I watched this episode on Tuesday and ended up filling up two pages of my notebook while watching it, which was twice as much as usual. I then started to write it up, and realised that these three episodes were in one single thread. Gulp. I’ve since watched the other two and made similarly expansive notes, so this is going to be a bit long.

There’ll be some proper nostalgia coming up later on, but the episode begins with a couple of welcome nods to the recent past. Once again the Doctor lands at the Cardiff rift to fill up the tank, and once again… it’s Jack! This doesn’t quite tally with the corresponding scene at the end of the first series of Torchwood, but never mind. Jack clinging on to the TARDIS as it vworps through the vortex is top stuff.

I like this alien planet, and I like the Futurekind… the overall vibe reminds me of Nottingham Rock City and other Midlands rock clubs I used to visit back in the ‘90s. So more nostalgia then. It’s the very far future, close to the unspecified end of the universe, and the Doctor is nervous- there are no longer any Gallifreyan laws for him to break, Frontios-style, but he clearly feels he’s being naughty by daring to be here.

The Doctor is not exactly pleased to see Jack again, for reasons which are not immediately revealed, but Jack is immediately back to his old self, dropping the world-weariness he showed on Torchwood. And where before I used to criticise this as an inconsistency in character, the Marathon has changed my mind. What we’re seeing here is a Jack who relishes the weight of his heavy responsibilities being lifted from his shoulders in a situation where he knows he can leave all that to the Doctor. I still think Jack was too miserable in Torchwood, but it isn’t inconsistent characterisation.

We learn a lot about him here. He used his vortex manipulator to travel from Satellite Five to Earth in 1869, and then waited 139-odd years for a version of the Doctor coinciding with his own time stream to crop up, deliberately placing himself by the Cardiff rift where the Doctor was bound to appear sooner or later. Blimey.

And then Derek Jacobi appears. Bloody hell. Forty-four years of Doctor Who plus spin-offs and forty-four years of great actors appearing, but this instantly tops everything. I would mention how great Jacobi is, but that would be a tautology.

Yana (gosh, what a peculiar name) is a likeable old buffer, a scientist and quietly a genius, with a female companion who quietly adores him. Remind you of anyone? He’s definitely human, though. I love the scenes in which the Doctor is in awe of his genius- Tennant really shines here. Yana has no real hope that he can ever get the ship to fly but, naturally, the Doctor has the solution. Oh, and Yana hears an ever-present sound of drums…

Oh, and Chantho’s great, too. I love her animatronic mandibles. It’s going to be a huge effort to get to the end of this review without talking like her, but I’m going to try.

For all that the actual plot and surroundings pretty much take a back seat to the story of Yana and the regulars here, it’s a well-realised and sketched out future, perhaps the ultimate in RTD’s determination top make future life look tough. There’s one unfortunate moment, though- apparently human evolution has led them to spends time as clouds of gas and a million years as downloads, but they “always revert to the same shape.” Aaargh! Once again an RTD script causes me to point out that that’s not how natural selection works!

The episode’s otherwise great, mind, and full of nice character moments. It reminds me of Boom Town in that respect, actually. The Doctor’s chat with Jack about his immortality is incredible; Jack simply undercuts the Doctor’s dislike of his immortality (everything has its time and everything dies) by pointing out that he’s prejudiced. And the Doctor immediately realises he’s wrong. It’s a great moment for both characters, and enables them to re-establish their friendship. Oh, and we get our first reference to “a fixed point in time”. Interesting. There’s a more general piece of possible foreshadowing in the Doctor’s admission that a Time Lord who looked into the heart of the TARDIS, as Rose did, would become a “vengeful god”. It almost feels as though the entire character arc for this Doctor can be summed up in these words.

Yana, meanwhile, hears from Martha about her and the Doctor’s lifestyle, and seems to be quite affected by it. Ruminating on time, he plays with his watch, which looks rather familiar…

This is such a charged and awesome moment. As soon as we hear Delgado’s voice from The Dæmons we know who Yana really is. The double whammy of the watch and the flashback to the Face of Boe immediately shows this to be a superbly handled season arc far surpassing anything we’ve seen in the previous two seasons. Oh, and it’s the Master!!!

Jacobi’s performance utterly changes from the minute the watch is opened, and the Master shows how evil he is by being nasty to that lovely Chantho. But she eventually shoots him, and he regenerates into John Simm. Blimey! I don’t think there’s been a single episode of the “new” series which left me more gobsmacked than this one when watching it unspoiled on its original transmission. And before the Master hops off in the Doctor’s TARDIS, leaving our heroes stranded in mortal peril, there are some more hints of what the nest two episodes will bring. The Master clearly knows all about the mysterious Utopia, and Martha knows the voice of the new Master…

The Sound of Drums

“I like it when you use my name.”

Well, that’s a quick, and in hindsight rather obvious, resolution to the cliffhanger. Still, on with the story: the Master is Harold Saxon, the prime minister, and in his timey-wimey way has been a shadowy figure plotting behind the scenes since The Runaway Bride, and indeed the Captain Jack Harkness episode of Torchwood. That’s good subplotting!

Oh, and I love David Tennant’s delivery of “The Master and his wife?” It speaks volumes…

John Simm is great in the cabinet scene. His Master is a total nutter, of course, but his unpredictability makes him genuinely scary. And, just to underline hoe evil he is, he’s been endorsed by Ann Widdecombe. Sends a shiver down me spine, that does. And sop does his discordant musical theme, courtesy of Murray Gold.

It’s rather clever how the Master seems to have appeared just 18 months ago and used a satellite-controlled low level satellite field to subtly brainwash people to not notice how blatantly dodgy he is. And the fact, revealed early on, that the Doctor locked the TARDIS between now and the future of Utopia is ultimately going to lead to some quite clever timey-wimey plot stuff.

The plot strand of Martha’s betrayal by her mother at the hands of Saxon finally comes to a head- and interestingly it’s her hitherto useless father who’s brave enough to warn her of the danger. Our three TARDISeers are now fugitives, as a charged phone conversation between our two Time Lords clearly shows. It seems the Master was regenerated especially to fight in the Time War, but proceeded to run very far away. That’ll be a whole new regeneration cycle, then. And also our first hint that the Time Lords of this era may not be all sweetness and light.

Best of all, the Master now prefers the Teletubbies to the Clangers…

Never mind that, though- it’s only a flashback but for the first time since the series came back we get to see Gallifrey! In CGI! And it all looks completely right, with Time Lords in Prydonian(?) robes and everything!! Plus there’s a bit of mythology with the continent of Wild Endeavour and the Untempered Schism. We’re shown the Master as an eight-year old boy (no Looms, it seems, fellow NA fans) and told that the drums began to sound once he’d looked into the schism. The Doctor ran away, of course; a coward, every time. Wonderful stuff.

There’s also a bit I’d forgotten where Jack tells the Doctor about his Torchwood connection, and the Doctor’s not at all pleased. Jack protests that Torchwood are not what they were, sort of implying he’s only been involved post-Canary Wharf. Hmm.

Then we get more cool stuff: the Valiant, the paradox machine, the Master acting all silly in front of the American president, the Master’s laser screwdriver (“Who’d have sonic?”) before the arrival of the mysterious Toclafane spheres. One gripe regarding the next bit, though; even I know the difference between a president and a president elect in the USA. As with the Aliens of London two-parter, RTD seems strangely ignorant of political institutions.

Still, at this point things are going very well indeed…

Last of the Time Lords

“Human race. Greatest monsters of them all!”

…But sadly the payoff doesn’t quite work. It’s a pity; the build-up, not only in the previous two episodes but right through the season, has been great. But as a finale this is flawed.

There still a lot that’s great, of course. It’s a brave move to have a year pass between episodes; this gives a real sense (deeply ironic, of course!) that all of these events matter and will have long-term consequences. And it gives Martha, in her final episode as a regular, to be magnificent.

We’re introduced to the status quo; the Master is keeping Martha’s family as servants, Jack as a prisoner and the aged Doctor as a pet. Most horrifyingly, there are plenty of subtle signs of domestic abuse in his relationship with Lucy. Her fate is particularly horrifying, particularly as we come to see how she came to be with the Master.

The escape plan fails, as we knew it would, because the Master’s laser screwdriver has “isomorphic controls”! He and the Doctor then have a quick chat about Axons and Sea Devils before the Doctor is turned into a little Gollum. Oh dear. This crosses a line into silliness.

It’s a great moment when Martha and her new, er, “friend”, Tom Milligan, capture a Toclafane and discover what it is; an evolved and infantilised human from utopia. The monsters are in fact humans from the future, exterminating their own ancestors; this is what the paradox machine is for. This is very clever, timey-wimey plotting of a sort not often said to be associated with RTD.

Martha seems to be on a quest to assemble parts for a gun with which to kill the Master but, betrayed, she is captured, and all seems lost. But it seems this was a cover story, and the real plan was to get the entire population of the planet to, er, pray at a certain time so that the Doctor can be restored, arms outstretched, and forgive the Master. Gosh, do you reckon there might just be a certain subtext here? This doesn’t feel right, which is a problem as it’s the main climax to the whole series. Still, again we get some clever plotting; the whole idea feels misguided but it was done well.

The paradox machine is destroyed, thereby pressing a great big reset button. It’s the only possible resolution, really, but it’s hard to get away from the fact it rather devalues what we’ve just seen. I don’t like the Doctor’s reaction to the Master’s overemphasised “death” either, great though Tennant is at playing it. I can accept that the two of them are close in a way, and that they’re the only two Time Lords left, but we all know the Master’s indestructible (cue the ring scene), and this degree of mourning is really rather excessive. On the other hand, I suppose it’s good preparation for a certain other part Tennant is to play in a year or so’s time…

Jack returns to his team, with Torchwood implicitly receiving the Doctor’s blessing. This makes me somewhat uncomfortable; as we’ve seen, the team are not necessarily a force for good. The hints about Jack’s future are… interesting though!

The misguided unrequited love strand of the season means the only way for Martha to keep her dignity at this point is to leave, and that she does. And I’m glad that she gets a final speech making it explicit to him why she’s doing so. Still, she makes sure they can phone each other; this is not a final parting.

It’s all over except for the “what, what, what”. For once, an RTD episode works well plotwise but doesn’t quite succeed when it comes to theme and character. It’s a pity, as the build-up has been great. The previous two episodes would both have been 5/5’s, Utopia a very high one indeed, but this flawed conclusion drags the whole thing down to a 4/5.

As for the season, at 4.375/5 it enters the chart at number 12, a pretty good placing. But as far as internal coherence and ongoing plot arcs are concerned this has outstripped any previous season, and in Human Nature and Blink it has given us the finest two Doctor Who stories yet.