April 23, 2011

Series 6 Reviews

Just in case anyone pops over here after the new series of Doctor Who starts, will we will be posting reviews of Season 6 over at Tachyon TV. There will be a single review every week and many of them will be written by authors who should be familiar to you from Behind the Sofa.

You may also wish to check out our ongoing feature, Aventures with the Wife in Space, where my wife, a not-we, watches Doctor Who from the very beginning.

And we are also posting Doctor Who DVD reviews ahead of release - our latest review of the Mannequin Mania Boxset is available here.



January 25, 2011

Bidding Adieu

It is with a heavy heart that I formally announce the closure of Behind the Sofa.

When I began this blog almost 6 years ago I never would have guessed that I would meet so many wonderful people and make so many new friends because of it.

But I feel the time has come to move on, and, as you may have guessed, I've been finding it more and more difficult to keep on top of things. It doesn't help that Typepad's CMS has really started to lose the plot, but that's another story.

Many of the contributors here will continue to post Doctor Who reviews on their own sites: Frank can be found on Cathode Ray Tube, Stuart on Feeling Listless and Iain podcasts via The Thumbcast. If you haven't done so already, I suggest you bookmark them all now. You won't regret it.

I have decided to consolidate my own output by putting all of my time and energy into Tachyon TV, which has just relaunched (there's a review of The Mutants on DVD if you fancy popping over). I also hope to persaude many of BTS's authors to contribute to that site too, so I really hope you'll join us over there.

Behind the Sofa won't be going anywhere - the archives for both this site and Volume 1 will remain online for the foreseeable future. I may turn comments off eventually, depending on how bad the spam gets, but I'm really proud of this site and I hope people still get some use out of it.

It just leaves me to thank everyone who has ever posted here, commented here or just spent time here. I would especially like to thank Damon, who took over stewardship of the blog for a time. Without him, we'd have closed down years ago.

Anyway, I'm terrible at goodbyes, so until next time...



December 27, 2010

More of Gravy Than of Grave

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

Acc1a Moffat's pastiche of the Star Trek universe - old and new - opens the episode in atypical fashion. The ultra-modern cruise ship on which Amy and Rory are spending their honeymoon is captained by a Janeway clone ("Christmas is cancelled" she decides, after a spot of turbulence) and features a blind navigator who really can't see where he's going despite the whopping great bionic, infra-red whatsit over his right eye ("I'm flying blind" certainly raised a chuckle). Director Toby Haynes also cheekily emulates all those gratuitous J. J. Abrams lens flares into the camera that bedeviled the Star Trek summer blockbuster of 2009.

It deliberately wrong foots the viewer. For a moment this looks like a tale set most determinedly in the future with Trek-like sleek, anti-septic spaceships crewed by folk running around in crisp white uniforms (very Nerva Beacon for us Ark in Space fans). But mark it as yet another change in attitude from the grungy futurism that Russell T. Davies preferred in his own depiction of science fiction vehicles, bases and technologies. It may well be a parody but perhaps Moffat is now happy to show that a BBC budget can provide more of a Galaxy Quest rather than an Alien when it comes to production design and cash on the screen.

Whatever your thoughts, the visual dichotomy is established from the opening. Sleek futurism is contrasted with the faux Victoriana of Sardicktown and it must be said that you couldn't have asked for better from production designer Michael Pickwoad's debut on the series. It's a very handsome, often gloriously sumptuous looking episode with Pickwoad not only facilitating a fusion of Dickens and Metropolis in his work on Sardicktown but also adding in some Verne like modifications to the TARDIS. The rather angular looking railings that run up the steps and around the console have been replaced with more suitable curved, brass versions. The nod to Verne is carried through into the interiors for Sardick's home, the environs of the town, most definitely more 'Nautlius' than 'Noel' with the dominance of great porthole like circular windows, vast chambers and basements and the riveted coffin-like suspended animation pods all echoing Disney's classic version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and more recent fare such as The Golden Compass.

Acc3a For those that may have joined the party late, the pre-titles more or less sums up the story so far. Mr and Mrs Pond are on honeymoon, and clearly indulging in some cos-play in the privacy of their own suite (the policewoman and the Roman centurion echoing all the way back to The Eleventh Hour and The Pandorica Opens and that photo that River found in Amy's abandoned house) and the Doctor, as ever, is lacking in punctuality as they wait for his response to their distress call. 'Come along Pond' flashes up on the viewscreen to mark his late arrival and Amy, in repudiation of the Janeway-like Captain's earlier humbuggery towards the festivities, believes Santa's back in town when the TARDIS swoops overhead and she knowingly declares, in reflection of the episode's own explicit mission statement, "It's Christmas."

Lovely to see Arthur Darvill's name in the opening titles at last and I'm not sure if my ears deceived me but was there a bit more oomph in those crashes of lighting striking the TARDIS? As the Mill's CGI gives way to a plunge (rather Citizen Kane-like) through the girders and construction of Sardicktown and settles in the bustling streets, Moffat immediately makes a connection with us, here and now in post-Coalition government Britain, briefly reminding us with the newspaper headline 'Spending Plummets, Tax Soars' that his revisiting of Dicken's own Carol is as much about the haves and the have-nots of Cameron and Clegg's Britain as it is about Ebenezer Sardick's cruelty and soullessness.

If anything, I would see A Christmas Carol as a further development of the political satire of his episode The Beast Below with its own thinly veiled satire on the May election. Gambon's syrupy reflection on a populace relieved to have emerged from the darkness of Winter and anticipating the coming of longer, brighter days, marked by the Christmas festivities and the solstice, is wonderfully turned into the bitter rant of "you know what I'd call it? I call it expecting something for nothing!" that is just as chilling as recent attacks on public spending.

Acc2a Dickens was, for all intents, a political writer and Moffat's choice to 'borrow' the story of A Christmas Carol for his own purposes does not strike me as unusual in the least.  Series 5 is suffused with many of these views, is clearly a specifically authored text, and there was little doubt in my mind he would stop here, despite what would be an obvious use of political and cultural analogies in the Dickens story to our own, all too cold, harsh reality. What impresses me most about Dickens’ work is how relevant it is to our own times. Scrooge and Sardick are fiscal conservatives, statesmen dealing with the realities of their situation. Sardick even has the President's ear and his control over the skies of his own world allows him to deny a request from the President to allow the ship carrying our honeymooners and 4,000 other souls to land. When Sardick remonstrates with the President about giving the ship clearance to land with "we already have a surplus population. No more people allowed on this planet" it correlates to Scrooge's own view of the poor who claim they would rather die than go to the workhouse. Scrooge suggests they continue with their demise and "decrease the surplus population".

Gambon is perfect casting for the story's antagonist. In Moffat's eyes, he isn't the villain, he's actually a victim. But it is only through the agency of the Doctor that we see him as a victim. Gambon gets some deliciously horrible things to do and say to the poor family begging to see their frozen sister for just one Christmas (poor families take out loans from Sardick and the guarantee on paying him back is to freeze a member of their family - again, as per Scrooge's suggestion, reducing the population) and I was reminded of his turn as the foul-mouthed Albert Spica in Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and of the victimhood of Philip Marlowe in Potter's The Singing Detective. He's a pleasure to watch in this and he has complete mastery over the character, able to convince us that Sardick is simply misunderstood and has very good reasons not to be cheerful.

When he demands that the poor family go home and pray for a miracle (religious themes and symbolism are again front and centre here - from the fish that thrive in the crystalline atmosphere of the planet to the human lives bought with the currency of Gideons - and the Doctor as a miraculous and God-like presence is an oft used theme in the series. Popping out of the chimney Moffat equates him with Santa and even uses him to convince a disbelieving young urchin that Santa does exists and that "he should keep the faith and stay off the naughty list."  As the Doctor attempts to use Sardick's cloud control machine there's a lovely in-joke about isomorphic controls (a little bit of classic series continuity that was always rather dubiously and quickly ignored) when the Doctor claims to Sardick that "there's no such thing" as isomorphic controls and then is proved wrong in a pleasing moment of physical comedy between the two actors.

Acc9aA physical act is the turning point of the story. When Sardick reaches out to strike the young boy who hits him with a piece of coal and he freezes, unable to continue with such an act of cruelty, the Doctor determines a weak spot in the man's armour. It is the slenderest of moments on which to hang a plot that sees the Doctor deliberately going back into one person's time stream and affecting a complete change in their personal history. One could argue that if the Doctor can easily pop in and out of anyone's time stream and change them and their history it suggests the whole 'fixed point in time' business that the series has been banging on about is nothing but a fallacy and that the Doctor could simply go back in time and rescue the crew and passengers of the ship rather than loiter around in Sardick's closet full of skeletons.

And clearly cries of 'whatever happened to the Blinovitch Limitation Effect?' can be heard from the backbenches of fandom at the sight of young and old Sardick crying into each other's finely tailored Victorian coats come the conclusion. The idea of changing history and interfering with time doesn't seem to follow any of the previously laid down rules when we look at what Moffat engineers in A Christmas Carol. Even though the Doctor takes Sardick back into his own past, shows him his present and gets his younger past self to confront his older future, the Sardick family still holds sway over the skies and the achilles heel in Sardick's behaviour merely changes from one of psychological damage inflicted by an overbearing, violent father to one where he simply has a broken heart.

The Doctor deducts that it is daddy Sardick who has caused this self-hating people abuser to persist in his curmudgeonliness and Toby Haynes uses a succession of zooms and cuts on faces, chairs and portraits to summarise this process, reflecting the way the Doctor always spots the detail in his immediate surroundings that was first demonstrated to us in The Eleventh Hour. "You're scared of him and you're scared of being like him," concludes the Doctor but he believes that Sardick is a particular case that can be cured because he couldn't actually bring himself to hit the boy. It's the Doctor's gift to him, signed off with "Merry Christmas, Mr. Sardick." As is suggested by the Doctor, Sardick is now "half way out of the dark", as Christmas is the turning point of the year and the world emerges from the dark into the light.

Acc6a This is symbolically depicted in the Sardick corporate branding of the spiral S shape that has more than a passing resemblance to the yin and yang symbol. Thus the story becomes a dance between the polar opposites, between the contrary forces that give rise to each other - dark and light (the gloom of Sardicktown and the bright white of the ship), male and female (Sardick and Abigail's relationship, the younger and older Sardick, the Doctor and Sardick as visual analogues to each other), life and death (Abigail as the Sleeping Beauty or Snow White fairy tale figure doomed to die to give Sardick life again), predator and prey (the shark and the fish, the Doctor and Sardick).

The fish and the sharks living in the cloud layers are a wonderfully bonkers idea. The marauding sharks are apparently one of the younger Moffat's fears as a child, probably generated from watching Jaws far too many times. Clearly, the shark is a emblem of authority and aggression but it is also rather an apposite choice to represent Sardick himself, as the dark shadow swimming the skies of this world and his nature problematised by his response to parental abuse. Sometimes this type of shadow is represented in fairy tales as the dragon guarding the treasure, the being that looks fearsome and frightening but who is, in fact, only there to keep something priceless from harm until it can be claimed by its owner or someone willing to confront the beast within. Here it is Sardick reconciling his fears of his own father and coming to terms with his relationship with Abigail. The imagery here is fantastical, perhaps one of Moffat's most charming visual metaphors and one that bends the rationality of the story, turning it into a dream-like odyssey that, along with the Victoriana and the chimney sweep like Doctor figure, reminded me of Kingsley's The Water Babies.

The shark will no doubt have many reaching for the obvious accusation that the series has indeed, literally, jumped the shark. I don't think that's the case here at all. There is the troubling nature of the Doctor's eagerness to rewrite someone's personal history and how the consequences of his actions will reverberate through causality. All of it just to get an old mardy-pants to be nice for a bit but only for him to muck it up by instead committing them to a doomed love affair when we discover Abigail, the object of Sardick's affection, can only live for 8 days. Despite this, the story is solid entertainment, with Moffat managing to include his customary motifs of mind-scrambling past, present and future sub-plots, with a sense of the cubist drama I talked about in my book which Toby Haynes latches onto with his impressive ability to visually represent Moffat's compression of time.

Acc7a There is the weird Peeping Tom like moment where the Doctor shows the older Kazran home videos of his younger self (and he learns life's most invaluable lesson - that "nobody comes" when you need them - and thus emphasises his abandonment issues) and the Doctor actually steps into the projected image to become part of it as he enters through the boy's bedroom window (Peter Pan metaphors again) and begins to change the boy's life and immediately give the older Kazran a new set of memories. There is talk of Face Spiders that live down the back of wardrobes (I want an episode featuring them now, Mr. Moffat) and an amusing gag about the psychic paper failing to offer the Doctor's credentials as a babysitter ("a lie too big" for it to cope with) as once again the Doctor takes a child out into the foggy night, just as he did with Amy, to fly above the city and to catch the biggest of fishes ("because they're scary" and represent our inner fears).

The cubist nature of time is perhaps nowhere better seen in the sudden switch between the older Sardick watching his younger self and the Doctor on screen. As they attempt to open the vault containing the 'surplus population', they demand the necessary combination. Like someone in a pantomime audience the older man shouts out the combination, at first unheard because he's simply shouting at an image, but then is acknowledged by the Doctor who has instantly slipped forward in the TARDIS to get the combination from the older man. It's a lovely, playful visual and narrative moment.

Laurence Belcher is quite superb as the younger Kazran and the whole sequence of him and the Doctor encountering the shark, meeting with Abigail and flying over the city is pure fairy tale, evoking the likes of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The visual effects sequences by the Mill, and featuring the shark and the flight over the city, are perhaps some of the best ever featured in Doctor Who. Magical and Christmassy. We also see Moffat's manipulation of time later in the charming sequence of various Christmas Eves where the Doctor and Sardick repeatedly defrost Abigail (confronting her with a maturing Kazran, a variety of headgear and trips to Abigail's family, travels all over the world and a visit to Hollywood in the 1950s). What really shouldn't work is the notion of Katherine Jenkins singing to a shark. I mean, it is utterly ridiculous, isn't it? Completely daft. But somehow, in some strange way, the fantasy of it becomes transcendent (where the impossible doesn't happen "except at Christmas" argues the Doctor) and the sequence where she sings 'In the Bleak Midwinter' to the beast is curiously very affecting.

Acc10a Later, after the romance has developed between Kazran and Abigail ("it's this or go to your room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don't make my mistakes" advises the Doctor to the young man, once again emphasising his own state of innocence about these matters) the Doctor hopes the memories of it will change the older man. Little does he know that a broken heart and loneliness is as much to blame for the older Kazran's disappointment with the world as is a domineering and violent father. As the older Kazran states, learning from the Doctor, "life isn't fair". When confronted by the doomed passengers on the ship and the holographic Amy, he refutes her claim that "time can be rewritten" by arguing that people certainly cannot and that the Doctor's interference in his life has simply underlined his hard heartedness rather than change it. Gambon is very affecting here especially when the Doctor reasons, "Better a broken heart than no heart at all" and Kazran snaps in reply, "Try it! You try!" and is as angry as anyone would be that the Doctor has simply swapped his one tragedy for another.

Only when Kazran is confronted by his younger self, brought to the future by the Doctor to witness his older self's bile ("I don't and never, ever, will care!"), does his role switch to one of the default hostile father threatening to beat his younger self and finally forcing his folly into perspective for him. Only then does he feel regret and understand that the interchangeability of nature (‘The man is father to the child. The child is father to the man', as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote) provides him with his mistakes. But the Doctor has changed him so much that he no longer has control over the cloud controlling machine and only Abigail's voice can calm the storm. It's a nice way to integrate Jenkins's singing into the story and she sings 'Abigail's Song' beautifully, perhaps one of Murray Gold's finest contributions to the show.

It is again very moving just when it should plainly be rather risible (I'm sure we all wondered just how Katherine Jenkins's singing would be relevant to the plot) and the scene is carried superbly by Gambon and Jenkins. It is heartfelt and full of melancholy, precisely 'half way out of the dark' as the episode requires. Jenkins doesn't embarrass herself at all and Abigail's demise is aptly tragic and even the lyrical refrain of 'let in the shadow' perfectly summarises how Kazran must reconcile his darker self and accept "their last day together" where the Doctor also recognises the integration of the yin and yang in "everything has got to end sometime otherwise nothing would ever get started". Perhaps it is even a note of prophecy on Moffat's part when you consider some of the eyebrow raising images in the trailer that followed.

In conclusion this is a different, almost introspective Christmas special where a sense of the epic is merely the background to a personal story about one man's relationship to his father and where even the gifts offered by the Father Christmas of time and space can bring their own disappointments and consequences.

December 26, 2010

"Mardryn Undead, to begin with."

Stuart Ian Burns sings the praises of Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

Happy Christmas!  How are we all?  Still suffering from mince pie indigestion and an overabundance of alcoholic cheer?  Good, good.  Let’s begin.  Where was I?  Right, that’s right, Christmas Doctor Who!  Hooray!  Now, for a good long while on my own blog, this blog, I had the tag line, “A vast archive in place of an imagination.”, which is used by the narrator in the Italian film Il Divo to describe its subject, former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, a cold, callous, meticulous, unfeeling man without a shred of warmth.  A bit like Donna Noble at the beginning of The Runaway Bride.

Gambon small Previously I’ve employed it hopefully ironically to describe myself, but during the emotional crescendo of Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol, as the older Kazran embraced the younger version of him, my fan gene was screaming “Blinovitch! Blin-oviiiiitch!” instead of the misty-eyed recognition that my favourite tv rendition of Charles Dickens’s original tale from ’77 with Michael Horden as Scrooge, always brings as the mental documentation I have of Doctor Who’s mythology asserted itself.

It’s that COPAC of the mind which throughout also led me to wonder exactly how the Doctor could be changing history to such a degree and not be creating cataclysms in the web of time all of the place making The Waters of Mars look like the dodgy banger in a Christmas cracker and how Kazran could have two sets of memories babbling about in his head when causality itself was being messed with, and why the Doctor hasn’t employed this methodology before, on, I don’t know, Davros?

Then as the night draws in I’m visited by three ghosts (Twitter, Gallifrey Base and the TARDIS Index File) and my imagination kicks back in.  This is a whole new rebooted universe, time can be rewritten, who’s to say what’s up or down and if the Amy can play au pair to the younger version of herself in The Big Bang then hug away Kazran and let all those frozen people live again, keep Christmas well, and all the other stuff you’re going to do after the temporal duration of the episode.

Because come Boxing Day, come the second viewing, I’m delighted, beguiled and all the things writer Steven Moffat probably hoped I’d be the first time around.  This is Moffat’s answer to Davies’s previous argument (from about the time of Voyage of the Damned) that the British public can’t handle anything too complex on Christmas Day, that something like Blink couldn’t work and what you really want is Who as blockbuster movie with faux Dickensian trappings like The Next Doctor, rather than emotional chamber piece about the timelord making someone less grumpy.

In actuality, the Doctor has used a similar methodology before, in Moffat’s only 90s Who fiction, Continuity Errors from the Decalog 3 Virgin Books anthology in which the Seventh Doctor also changed history to help deal with an obstinate librarian and Paul Cornell's Telegraph short story "The Hopes and Fears of All the Years".  But the clever aspect of this story was in making the Doctor fully aware of his borrowing from literature.  I don’t remember that happening much in the Hinchcliffe era.  It’d be like the Fourth Doctor saying “Elementary my dear, Leela” in Talons.

It’s that self-awareness that stopped this from being the simple cover version it could have been and created an extra tension as to who the various ghosts would be.  A lesser writer might have employed Rory somehow as the future ghost instead of what was the rather marvellous twist that originally led to me contracting Blinovitch syndrome and indeed more clearly insert some kind of Marley figure (though there’s probably an argument that the Doctor embodied him too).  Where Dickens employs his ghosts as a device to allow Scrooge to visit various points in his own timeline, Moffat deploys the Doctor to create memories instead.

Just as years ago, the casting of Simon Callow as Dickens demonstrated this new version of Who meant business, the glinting eyes of Michael Gambon as Kazran shows how ambitious the show has become.  Oddly enough, this is the first time he’s Scrooged.  He played the Ghost of Christmas Present to Callow’s Scrooge in the animated Carol in 2001, the one were Kate Winslet sang, as well as Jenkins actually, but in fact he’s barely done any Dickens on screen so no wonder he took up this opportunity.

Gambon’s modesty in Confidential suggested that all he did was see in which direction Toby Haynes pointed and went there, but this was about as layered a performance we’ve seen from a Who guest star, utterly captivating especially in the scenes when he was called upon to remember fondly the memories captured photographically even though this was the first time the older Kazran was remembering fondly those memories, scene which themselves were reminiscent of his long term collaborator Stephen Poliakoff.

His performance might have been enough had the actors playing the younger Kazran’s not been up to the job, but luckily both Laurence Belcher (whose making quite a career from playing smaller versions of our greatest actors – he’s the teenaged Xavier in the X-Men prequel, understudying Patrick Stewart) and the new to the IMDb, Danny Horn, were more than capable of carrying the collective emotional weight of the single character, this was no Matthew Waterhouse turning into Andrew Sachs (cf, the Big Finish audios).

Matt clearly enjoyed the challenge of slightly pitching his performance differently with each of them and like Death to the Doctor we can clearly see now that he’s worked out how he wants to play the character and how Moffat wants to write it.  His petulant reaction to all the kissing and marrying Marilyn was just perfect, and more importantly very specific to him, though it does explain somewhat how Tenth might have nabbled Liz I.  Nevertheless, David Tennant seems like a very long time ago.  The End of Time was only a year ago.  Amazing.

The strength of the episode even managed to soften my heart towards Katherine Jenkins, a figure I usually have a snobbish enmity towards because of what she represents in the classical crossover market as I watch her compilations massively outselling the likes of “proper” singers like Anna Netrebko, Renee Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu, Classic FM to Radio 3, Classic FM Magazine to BBC Music, Pip and Jane Baker to Robert Holmes, David Gooderson to Michael Wisher.

Moffat somewhat protected her by making Abigail Dickens’s Belle figure, an obscure object of desire, Mulveyian projection of male desire only now and then allowed her own emotional beat.  But in places, Jenkins melted my heart, especially when she sang as in the goofy coddling of the shark (Spotify link) and in the Murray Gold rush job that played out the episode (and how demeaning for the rest if us under achievers that Gold can knocking something like that out in a couple of days).

Speaking of Confidential discoveries, how have we only just employed Michael Pickwoad, a man who looks like he should be revealing how he created an entire Cyber-battlefleet in the 60s from a contemporary lunch budget not taking over now and showing the previous comparative youngsters how these things should be done?  Pickwoad is of course a legend; his first proper prod. des. job was Withnail & I and he’s been providing drawing rooms for corsets and bow-ties on tv for years including The Old Curiosity Shop a few years ago.

His design work in A Christmas Carol was stunning, nodding not just to a kind of Dickensian steam punk aesthetic but also the soulless interiors of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, the same kind of soulless privilege born from a heartless past.  He’s brave too; obviously Moffat’s detailed script would have suggested the classically futuristic interior of the spaceship, but Pickwoad pushed it further than we’ve yet seen in nu-Who, as close as we’ve been to the plastic polish of some 80s Davison stories (in which a bridge would often be left to suggest the contents of an entire ship).

All of which didn’t seem to leave much room for Amy and Rory.  Typically Arthur Darvill finally receives an opening credit but is barely in the episode but it certainly explains their absence from the cover of the Radio Times.  They received a few good moments, not least the unspoken explanation for why they were in those costumes (not the timey-wimey reason suggested by the trailers) but essentially they were in the classic companion of waiting for the Doctor to save them.  There’s a longer discussion to be had about this with reference to The Christmas Invasion, but I’ve been writing for three hours and five years already and it's time to wrap this up.

A Christmas Carol hasn’t convinced everybody but Moffat’s achievement has been to soften the heart of us Scrooges who too easily look to the details when it’s the emotional sweep that is important.  Davies was capable of that too, though arguably most of his specials overeggnogged the Christmas pudding too much not least in the ghostly resurrection of Astrid.  Unlike Dickens even, who at the end of his tale makes it plain that Tiny Tim didn’t die, there’s no cure for Abigail, who’ll pass away in Kazran’s arms once their shark-ride is over.  We’re left with the message that sometimes we can fight, but sometimes the courage is in our acceptance, and that’s well worth ignoring five or fifty years worth of mythology for.

November 19, 2010

I say high, you say low. You say why and I say I don't know, oh no.

Stuart Ian Burns says Sarah Jane Adventures: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith

Back in the distant past, in mid-October when I was still exactly in my mid-thirties, it seemed as though the production team were taking the brave step of writing out Luke and K9 in an effort to move away from the too easy deus ex machina style story conclusions which have tin-dogged the series from the start.  Luke may have stuck around as a dismodied head and shoulders on a flatscreen, making fleeting appearances to justify his continued presence in the introduction ("Boy GEEENIUUUS"), but the stories since have arguably been more thrilling because, with one obvious exception, the remaining attic allies have needed to rely somewhat on their wits, putting the clues together without too many easy answers (even to the point of taking Mr Smith out of the equation for this or that reason) and a fair bit of trial and error.

Which makes me wonder whether Clay and Gareth, in crafting the conclusion to Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith and this season are being entirely serious when offering a solution that requires the combined effort of Luke, K9, Mr Smith and newbie electronic soap tray Mr White and a return to the worst excesses of previous stories: the kind of easy research leaps Lisbeth Salander would be proud of, action sequences lasting what seems like mere seconds piled one on top of another in which characters shift geographical area in moments and not always through teleportation and a villain that requires the emotional fallout from a fake global terror to be destroy. Epic concepts like Clyde trapped in the orbital golfball which would have been explored over whole episodes in the old Doctor Who (and did in the case of The Space Pirates) are ushered in and out all too soon.

As ever I was simultaneously elated and appalled, especially since the first episode is actually a quite sensitive (well sensitive for this panto) portrayal of Alzheimer’s or at least the stresses of watching a trusted friend or family member getting old.  Who of us hasn’t forgotten something or witnessed someone else forgetting something really rather major like the current residency of their son and wondered – are we or they alright?  Lis wonderfully demonstrated first the denial to friends, denial to oneself before acceptance and the decision on whether to fight or relent and let nature take its course.

Ruby Of course, in the real world none of this is brought about by a milfian temptress in a red sports car with matching couture.  Like Samantha Bond and Suranne Jones before her, Julie Graham senses rightly or wrongly (it oscilates) that this isn’t the place for subtlety though she manages in the first episode to just about convince us that Ruby could be a potential replacement for Sarah Jane, cleverly approximating some of Lis’s business (the walk, the stance, the flick of the hair).   By the cliffhanger, the needs of the show kick in of course and it's as though Kate O’Mara is in the room (not least because Ruby’s plan, to steal people’s life essences wasn’t a million miles away from the real Rani’s in her first adventure, if you squint).

Ultimately ranking about a seven on the Zaroff scale you still have to applaud the determination with which Graham sells the Katesh’s gastroschisis state and the boggle eyed notion of a stomach which exists outside an alien’s body, the writers sadly failing to have Clyde suggest it as useful alternative to a gastric band.  What I would have liked to have seen would have been a proper battle of wills between Ruby and Sarah Jane the latter having already lost her wits before the former reached ascendancy.  Would I be wrong in suggesting that the title character has been even less present this series, mostly falling into her old form of having to be rescued?  In nearly ever story this year she seems to have been zapped or put through some sort of mental torture.

Which brings us back to doe in which I also expected the Doctor to arrive for good measure.  Whilst its true that both Rani and Clyde also have a hand in the solution, there’s always something slightly unedifying about a character who’s previously had little input on a story charging and saving the day.  Perhaps Luke’s still ill-advised scarf is meant to hide the chord which is being used to dangle him in like the original gods that would be brought in at the close of a Euripidian Greek tragedy.  Aristotle hated this approach to drama and said so in Poetics where he proposed (radically for 335 BCE) that the resolution of the plot must always spring from the internal actions of the play, a model which has worked for much of the rest of the series. 

Or as Hitchcock says, if you show a gun in the opening reel it has to have gone off by the end.  What just about makes it saleable (other than the fact that Luke did at least put in an appearance in the first episode) is Tommy Knight’s burst of adolescent vitriol, his character bawling out Rani like a refugee from a John Osbourne play, as though what we’re actually seeing is the result of some whole other unseen narrative which is happening at Oxford, with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as the main villain (a tricky bugger once you’ve reached the middle section).  When he later clumsily tells Rani that he loves her, it begins to seem almost exactly like my university experience.

But predictably amid all the shouting and running, the best scene is the quiet moment between Rani and her mum, in which Gita describes quite logically the jealousy of seeing her daughter palling about over the road with this second mother figure and the secret they clearly have between them, Mina Anwar perhaps suggesting, just as she did with the alternative version of the character in The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith that the feckles, flowery, “HELLO SARAH!” version of her character is an act or defence mechanism and that, eep, Gita might have hidden depths which is quite a contrast to Graham’s gurning from across the road.  It’s this contrast which has, on the whole, made this series such a joy.

Next Time:  I don't know.  Time's caught up with us.

November 12, 2010

The future is brighter and now is the hour.

Stuart Ian Burns gets Sarah Jane Adventures: Lost In Time.

One of the story ideas for the new series of Doctor Who which I’ve coveted over years but is unlikely to happen is for a good old fashioned pure historical, one in which the only sci-fi element would be the Doctor and his plus one.  I know these were largely curtailed in the 60s due to poor ratings, but the contemporary twist would be that the TARDIS team and the audience after decades of conditioning would assume that a monster or some other fantasy element is the cause of whatever mischief is, but in the end historical truth would assert itself.  In other words, a reverse of The Time Meddler.

While we wait for Moffat or his successor to come to his or her senses, Lost In Time is an entertaining stop gap, with enough historical exposition to keep Lord Reith’s ghost from haunting Mark Thompson for a couple of nights at least (or at least until Strictly’s on and the poor John’s grave rolling begins again).  It’s also one of the more blatant homage’s to the classic series, The Key To Time season retold in just over fifty minutes.  Oh how Russell and Rupert Laight must have chuckled as they made sure one of the objects was an actual key.  It’s just a pity Lalla Ward wasn’t available or willing, probably.

Shopkeeper But this is an episode filled to the brim with homages of one form or another not least in the figure of the Shopkeeper, who appears from Mr. Benn, casting the team out to the various points in time, albeit without a new choice of fancy daywear.  Cyril Nri tries his best with a part that mostly replicates the cast of Trial of a Timelord in standing around commenting on the stories and offering some much needed cliffhanger acting when required.  Who is this mysterious figure, one of the Trickster’s lot or something else?  Perhaps there's another Shopkeeper out there holding the balance of power, their constant Sinden/Davies-like rivalry a cosmic version of Never The Twain (but fighting over the health of planets and moons rather than a cheap bit of Carltonware or a mahogany table).

Each of the three yarns also looks towards other fictions.  Rani’s story, though based on fact has the beating heart of a Philippa Gregory novel, putting a recognisable human face on a historical queen.  Demonstrating that a quite complex drama can still be told on the BBC in a couple of rooms, a cast of few and some entertaining corsetry, this neatly describes the events leading up to the scene in Paul Delaroche’s painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey which hangs at the National Gallery, actress Amber Beattie sympathetically portraying the doomed young monarch rather misused for religious point scoring.

Given that for some younger viewers the second world war is as distant a memory as the Nine Day’s Queen, perhaps we should be cautious in welcoming Clyde's story,  Theories abound on whether the Nazi’s did indeed land on England’s mainland shore as depicted here and in its anticedents Went the Day Well?, The Eagle Has Landed, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, um, The Curse of Fenric.  But the exposition is clear enough to explain that Thor's so-called Hammer is changing history so instead let’s just give a cheer for what is a really ripping boy’s own adventure of the kind which seem all too rare now and no I didn’t see that coming.  I did indeed yelp.

Sarah Jane’s segment is almost pure Sapphire and Steel, with just a pinch of Moffat magic and a public information film from the 70s.  Arguably the weakest of the three, it does still have a peachy performance from Gwyneth Keyworth as a Charley Pollard alike and the random casting of Lucie Jones from last year’s X-Factor as the kind of figure Princess Superstar warned us about.  The problem is perhaps that this the story with the least direct jeopardy for the main character (apart from returning hime obviously), though at least kids might get the message that its dangerous to play with matches.

The editing challenge of running these three distinct stories next to each other is carried off well, even better perhaps in cutting between distinct timeframes than The Hours or Julie & Julia and without their direct plot connections.  On reflection, both of those films would have clearly benefited from a fez wearer offering a running commentary to his parrot ("She's running out time!  There's no way she'll manage to cook all of those recipes in a year!  Why do they all look like Meryl Streep?" "Sqwark!").  The trick is in giving Clyde the majority of the action beats, balancing the pacing and having using the old hyperlink cinema trick of matching the shapes of shots in different locations.

What also ties the episode together is the willingness to, for want of a better phrase, “go there”.  In both of their stories, Rani and Clyde are the victims of discrimination.  If Rani’s is the same kind of euphemistic public school insult endured by Martha Jones during Human Nature, the Nazi’s description of Clyde is absolutely shocking, especially for this timeslot.  The strong way that both of them deal with it is how role models are made, both Anjli and Daniel motivated to give some of their best acting of the season (last week’s near two-hander accepted).  Too late sadly for forthcoming dvd documentary Race Against Time, but a welcome detail nonetheless.

Another excellent story then in what’s turning into what might be the best series yet, despite the Fordist Rentaghost influences.  Continuity buffs will also be pleased to see, thanks to that newspaper clipping, we finally have a date for when these episodes are happening, contemporaneous with broadcast and so definitively after The Big Bang and so confirming the reset of the extra year which was a legacy of Aliens of London all those years go, although as I’ve just discovered it's all a bit of a mess anyway since The End of Time is apparently supposed to have “happened” in 2009 before Planet of the Dead and The Eleventh Hour in 2008 when Saxon was in power (breath).  Yes, I know, the silence, the cracks, the time war, the Faction Paradox ...

Next Week: Speaking of which, the Earth wasn't as defended as we thought judging by the weaponry.

November 06, 2010

Million Pound Shock

Mc OK, so I'm watching The Million Pound Drop on Channel 4 last night, and suddenly there's an option for a Sci-Fi question. A couple with over £600,000 still in play opt for that category, so imagine my delight when the names Slyvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant come up. "This will be so easy," I tell the wife, expecting a question like "who played the 8th Doctor" or some such variation. It's only the second question after all.

When the question finally came up I was dumbstruck: "Which actor played the Doctor for the longest period?"

Now, what would you have done?

Of course the correct answer is McCoy - he was technically the Doctor from 1987-1996 - but I also knew that the bloody researcher would have gone for David Tennant because THEY'RE STUPID.

Ironically, earlier in the show McCall made fun of Wikipedia for being unreliable and yet I bet good money they used the very same source to get a cursory answer to their incredibly ambiguous question. Define "period" for starters.

Of course you could try to make a case that McCoy had a break between his appearances, but so, technically, did Tennant.

I honestly don't know what I would have done in the same situation except to refuse to answer the question before an adjudication could be made and the situation clarified.

Sadly, the poor couple weren't fans and even more sadly they split their million quid between every actor BUT Tennant, with a hefty wedge left on McCoy.

They went home empty-handed.

Surely they should be asked back tomorrow night? The world is unfair enough right now without Davina McCall adding to it.

UPDATE!: C4 have admitted the blunder and they are bringing the couple back on Friday with the £325,000 they put on McCoy back on the table. Great news. Now where's my cut?

November 04, 2010

Isolation is not good for me. Isolation I don't want to sit on the lemon-tree.

Stuart Ian Burns gets lost in The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Empty Planet.

Since the first series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, one of the “motifs” repeated across the stories (other than parents are good) has been the lack of people on the streets or stories occurring in locales that don’t require too many non-speaking extras shuffling about, improvising silent conversation or walking a dog, with entertaining expository reasons from the cast such as “Well, it is a Sunday” or “The fairground closed?”  Now finally, we have a story which turns this budgetary weakness into a strength in a way which will no doubt become the model as the license fee is squeezed.  

Empty The Empty Planet offers the same bracing images of peopleless streets familiar from the likes of 28 Days Later or the various versions of I Am Legend in which the mass of humanity is just gone and those of us who ironically like people but hate gatherings can fantasise about going to the cinema without being disturbed by the rest of the audience (once we’ve worked out how the projector works), break into the National Archive and see what’s really been covered up under the seventy-year rule and having the run of the expensive food isle in Waitrose.  Or is that just me?

True, with just a roof shot of the London skyline to sell the absence, much of the action takes place on the same few empty streets, but as with the best of this franchise, the non-diagetic implication of what’s happening beyond the main characters field of vision can be just as chilling as endless shots of a deserted Trafalgar Square.   These are the best scenes in the story, Rani dashing about suburbia to a soundtrack of nothing other than the low hum of the electricity supply showing off her inquisitive nature as she checks her neighbour's houses for signs of life.  And what a messy bunch they are. 

Except in such narratives, once the main character has twigged that they might be alone, often the scariest notion then is that they aren’t. Luckily for Rani, especially since all she had to defend herself with was in the dull end of tv remote control, that meant Clyde and luckily for us since writer Gareth Roberts replaces the silence with some really good character moments as the kids come to terms with their isolation and also their responsibility to discover what’s been going on despie being the zeppos of the group.

Like Sarah Jane, like the Doctor, like Xander, they’re so caught up on this life that they run towards the danger rather than away from it unless they're told not to and even then.  For once, Daniel Anthony and Anjli Mohindra were allowed some meaty scenes (that's two stories on the run) in which their characters considered their place in the world (of the kind usually reserved for Tommy Knight) and what they might mean to each other and they were mostly up to the challenge providing some useful chemistry, Anjli offering her now trademark dreamy doe-eyes.

To an extent it’s a shame that as a kids rather than teen show a plot rather than just puberty has to assert itself; a real format buster would have had the two of them trailing about the streets of London (or Cardiff) coming to terms with the loss of everything, especially their parents, the true horror being that Clyde’s joke about him and Rani being the new Adam and Eve might come to pass with the loss of innocence that follows.  Humanity would then have popped back in for some unexplained reason after an hour, along with the disappointing return of their hierarchical place within the family unit or some such.

Not that this necessary plot isn’t entertaining with plenty of moments for us to match our wits with the main characters as we um and aha along with them.  Kids who’ve just finished watching the release of the third series were no doubt shouting about Clyde and Rani’s grounding by the Judoon and I was especially pleased with myself when I realised what kind of air, the robots were really thinking of, with its shades of Raymond F. Jones's pulp novel The King of Eolim and Lance Parkin’s Father Time, even if the number of choices isn’t exactly huge.

Following which we were gifted that gorgeous shot of an alien world reminiscent of the Boeshane Peninsula and Gallifrey.  If only the budget could stretch to us seeing one of these places for longer than a few seconds.  How do these robots fit within that society?  Is this a Naboo affair were a small child is the one thought best for high office with Ketchup and Mustard or whatever they’re called as nursemade and coup-repellers?  Perhaps if Big Finish’s licenses is relaxed a bit – as is rumoured (I read on the internet) – we’ll be gifted with a ten cd series by way of explanation.

Either way, The Empty Planet is brill entertainment, certainly the best story this series that doesn't feature the Doctor, making the most of the need to give Lis Sladen a holiday.  It's also surprisingly interesting in mythology terms; the reactions of Haresh and Prince Gavin almost confirm now that Journey's End and The End of Time have effectively been rebooted out of everyone's memories.  Again I ask (because I'm fishing for suggestions) are we to assume that its simply RTD taking advantage of the cracks or feeding into the ongoing main Doctor Who storyline in relation to the silence (whatever that is?).

Next week: That guy who played thingy in whatitsname.

October 30, 2010


SJA: Death of the Doctor
Review by Neil Perryman

Watching Death of the Doctor was bloody hard work, mainly because I had to spend large portions of it shovelling backstory to my long-suffering wife. This was entirely my own fault: I couldn't stop laughing out loud whenever RTD lobbed another continuity hand grenade and I may have missed some of the more contentious revelations as a result; I was probably trying to explain to her why I thought the reference to "Dorothy Whatshername" was side-splittingly hilarious when they were clarifying whether Dodo had died of syphilis or not.

But this wasn't just fanwank. Oh no. This was full-on fansex. With tongues and everything.

Full-on fansex. With tongues and everything

Dod1 Just like an old lover who's come back for one last shag, this was pretty much what I was expecting from Russell's return to the franchise: an assured and confident performance, with just a hint of extra effort to remind you of exactly what you're missing, coupled with a cockiness that occasionally bordered on the shocking. There were even moments where it felt genuinely profound and moving.

Russell's foreplay and subsequent pillow-talk certainly felt reassuringly familiar: giant talking animals for the villains; an oblique reference to the Time War; a base that's been designed by Gerry Anderson; a plot that doesn't hold any water and a throwaway reference to the Axons. The only thing missing was the kissing.

What we got instead was an extended love letter to the past with the glorious return of Jo Jones (née Grant). And wasn't it just wonderful?

I admit that I was initially sceptical when I heard that Katy Manning would be returning to the franchise after 37 years but it took only a few seconds of screen time for her to completely convince me that Jo Grant was back in the building. Her performance was delightful, believable and entirely in-keeping with the trajectory this person would have taken in life. It helps that Russell's spot-on dialogue, where his love and respect for the character is evident in each and every line, gives Katy so much good stuff to work with, but it's still a remarkable achievement; after so many years away it could have so easily turned into a parody or a pale imitation of a cherished icon. Her performance is pitched so perfectly you can't fail to be moved when Jo finally catches up with her oldest and dearest friend. On an alien planet. In a quarry.

Russell's take on the 11th Doctor felt just right, too. I can't imagine the 10th delivering a line with a hint of blackcurrant, and even if he did he wouldn't have sounded quite so charming or as naturally bonkers as Matt Smith who, once again, shines. He really seems to relish those moments where he gets to walk down memory lane with 'his' old friends and you can tell that Smith is just as invested in the history and mythos of this show as his predecessor ever was. However, this being an RTD script, the 11th Doctor has to be ever-so-slightly mawkish - and ridiculous - too.

At least JNT saved his daft publicity stunts for the press releases...

Dod2 Do you remember how, after The End of Time aired, some of us cynically joked that the 10th Doctor held back death so he could visit all of his companions? Even Tegan? Well, it really did happen. That's right, the Doctor really did stagger around a remote rainforest in acute agony just so he could spy on Jo for a bit. Did he do this before or after he nipped off to a large crater in Mexico to pay his respects to Adric? We may never know. Sadly, no one felt a damn thing when the 10th Doctor eventually popped his clogs but perhaps that only happens when he reaches his final regeneration.

In approximately 1,600 years time.

Assuming the BBC is still around then; 16 years is pushing it at the moment.

Oh Russell, you always have to go too far, don't you? I had to explain to my wife who Harry Sullivan was (whilst simultaneously resisting the urge to tell her all about Ian Marter's role in history of the Target novelisations, just in case I missed an important reference to Brigadier Bambera) but she didn't need any prompting from me when the Doctor casually mentioned that he can regenerate 507 times. She knew damn well that he only has 13 lives and 12 regenerations, which is more than can be said for Paul McGann when he was actually playing the part.

Russell wonders why such an arbitrary limit should catch on with the general public when it was clearly just an expedient plot point back in 1976, conveniently forgetting the fact that the series has used this limit to drive many of its more high-profile stories, including an anniversary special (although offering the Master a new life cycle for his assistance ruins the conceit somewhat) and The 1996 TV Movie With The Pertwee Logo On It. Not to mention Mawdryn Undead, The Keeper of Traken and one whole season featuring Colin Baker, which I just did. Of course it bloody caught on.

Does my wife lie awake at night pondering the significance of this upheaval to decades of established continuity? I seriously doubt it (I"ll have to check) but at the risk of sounding both churlish and childish, it really pissed me off.

You could argue that the line simply exists to generate publicity for the episode, which is fair enough, it's certainly succeeded, but it has, intentionally or not, overshadowed everything else (including this review). The press coverage should have been about the return of Jo Grant and the 11th Doctor, not a debate about whether the show's hero is practically immortal or not. At least JNT saved his daft publicity stunts for the press releases. Assuming of course that this is a just a throwaway joke and not a stone-cold fact. The papers have taken it at face value, as have some fans (I've seen the Time War used as an excuse already). For some, whether we like it or not, the series has just overcome an obstacle that has been looming on the horizon like The Watcher with some really serious news.

Of course I don't advocate for one second that the series should end with the death of the 13th incarnation, even if it does happen to coincide with the death of the corporation that spawned him. I had just hoped that when the time came it would form part of an exciting adventure where the stakes have never been higher and where the solution is ingenious and means something. Even if the line is completely ignored down the road, and I strongly suspect that it will be, the urgency surrounding the concept has probably been diluted in the public's eye, whether they watched this episode or not. And that's sad and pointless, if you ask me..

This is a shame because as a celebration of Doctor Who this adventure beats The Five Doctors into a cocked hat.

I've been grooming a small boy...

Dod3 For several months now I've been grooming a small boy. I met him at a wedding and I was introduced to him as a Doctor Who expert. The boy was impressed - he was a hardcore New Series fan who could reel off encyclopaedic facts about the Slitheen and the Judoon with the very same fervour I used to reserve for facts about Zygons and Krynoids. Throughout the wedding I would find him tugging at my shirt sleeve with questions like, "What's The Key of Marinus about?" or "How did the Time Lords exile the Doctor to Earth?" and "Is The Key to Time worth buying if I save up all my birthday money?".

This boy was acutely aware that an entire universe of ancient Who-ness existed out there but, unsurprisingly, all of his pocket money was invested in keeping up with the never-ending supply of New Series guff and he was far too young to be let loose on YouTube. And so, for him, the universe that we now call The Classic Series existed just out of his reach. When I was his age I would stare at black and white images of Daleks gliding across Westminster Bridge and I would imagine what a Dalek invasion of our planet would actually look like, and now this lad was doing the exact same thing all these years later.

So I've been lending him my DVDs and shattering his illusions.

But seriously, he's been lapping them up (even The Space Museum) and so, when we were treated to what I can only describe as a YouTube-style clip montage coupled to more references to 1970s Doctor Who than is probably healthy, I can only imagine his utter delight. He would have got the Peladon references straight away. He would have known who Jo Grant was and why she was so important. And he would have been able to tell his mates at school what Metebelis III was all about. The Karfel reference would have sailed right over his head but I'm not that cruel.

We've come a long way from mumbled, obscure references to Gallifrey and throwaway dialogue about Davros and Venom Grubs.

But if that boy was happy then that's nothing compared to the joy felt by those of us who actually lived through those years. To be reminded that we're still watching the same story, on the same channel, with the same sense of wonder provided a powerful, if slightly odd, rush.

Continuity has never been so tight and so loose

Paradoxically, continuity has never been so tight and yet so loose. We are living in a world where black and white photographs of William Hartnell can appear as plot points on prime-time BBC1 and where a sequel to The Carnival of Monsters can play to packed crowds at Wembley Stadium, but at the same time we are living in a world where remakes of arguably canonical novels are replaced wholesale by televisual remakes and where a throwaway line in a spin-off watched by less than two million people can potentially destroy - or at least problematise - years of comic book storylines, audio plays and chocolate bar wrappers. And all on the whim of a writer who was, and I quote, "hooting" when he wrote it.

I'm as happy as the next fan that Ian and Barbara got married ("teachers - the very first companions - please shut up") and I enjoyed the frankly comical notion that the couple have never aged, but even I can see that this final shag for old times sake has left the apartment in a right old state.

It's scuppered any plans for one last walk-on for William Russell for a start, and up until the last few seconds at least, it could have been on the cards.

I think it's time to send that kid a copy of The Deadly Assassin. Just in case.

October 29, 2010

All these places had their moments. With lovers and friends I still can recall. Some are dead and some are living. In my life I've loved them all.

Stuart Ian Burns witnessed The Sarah Jane Adventures: Death of the Doctor

The Green Death was broadcast before I was born, Jo Grant leaving the Doctor before I was even conceived.  Yet seeing Katy Manning clumsily burst through the doors on the fake funeral presided over by the Buzzie, Dizzie, Ziggy and Flaps from The Jungle Book, I'm still filled to the brim with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, giggling at the sight of this older version of the girl who broke Mike Yates’s heart now breaking a vase, words spilling out of her like the Doctor himself with post-regenerative verbal diarriah, a young endogenous mix of her own husband and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles at her side.

Jo If nothing else, Death of the Doctor is a successful demonstration of the power of merchandising, the ability of the videos then dvds, novels and audios to keep a character alive, pickled in amber at the age she was when she originally appeared in the programme and making her important and much loved even to those of us whose first identifiable memory of the programme is Leela and K9 tracking through a corridor in some story or other (The Sun Makers?) so that when she does re-emerge “baked” our hearts leap on greeting an old friend.

Still waiting for my own Doctor Who girl so that we can make some, I don’t know what Jo’s significance is for any children watching; it’s a few year since School Reunion and even though that story will probably still be present to them for much the same reason Timelash is unfortunately to us, it’s not a bad idea that a new set of youngsters discovering the franchise for the first time should be introduced to the concept that the Doctor had a different face and companions and history before the new married couple, that same story should be roughly retold from a slightly different perspective, with some different chaps with wings.

My guess is that at least initially a lot of this material will head on over their heads except for the useful information that Amy and Rory are on a honeymoon whilst this adventure is going on, the youngsters giggling instead at the Muppet vultures and hiss at another dodgy authority figure whilst the adults are enjoying a meditation on memory, of old and new adventures, of finding a stimulating place in the world even after you’ve done what could have been the most exciting thing in your life.  In this script, Russell T Davies proves that it’s possible to write for both age groups without resorting to dated Terminator references.

And both adults and kids can agree that Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor has now clicked, the actor inhabiting the skin of the character with supreme confidence, the weight of a millennia travel gathered across his shoulders.   What we have here is (along with the climax to his first series) evidence that he’s clearly consolidated his approach, so much so that in places (aided it has to be said by a writer who’s clearly enjoying the opportunity to write for a Doctor he didn’t initiate) he almost manages to unseat the title character from her own series.  When Matt suggested in a recent DWM interview: “You’ve got to bed into this part.  I’m going to get better.  I’m going to push the part to its limit”, he wasn't lying.

So well does he capture the mix of dottiness and sober reflection and fiery danger at the heart of the timelord, that it's almost impossible to tell how accurate Davies’s dialogue is in relation to the Eleventh Doctor; rather like Paul McGann reading Tom’s previously abandoned words for the audio Shada, Smith's able to make the words his own.  Davies could just as well be giving him the full Tennant and I’m not sure would noticed.  Not that it stops the ticks of relevant previous Doctors from seeping through, a Tenth like growl when faced with a decision in an air duct, a quite Pertweesque “yes” in agreement at the relief of a still living Smith and Jones in a lead lined coffin.

With so much else happening, it’s also a pleasure to see the kids being given to emotional weightlifting too; whilst some might find it difficult to care for the plight of a teenager travelling the world as part of a family tree that seems to have an abundance of disposable income, albeit aiding worthy causes, there must be children watching who for various reasons have also been farmed off to older relatives losing contact with their parents.  With Davies offering a rare occasion when Haresh isn't simple straight man and genuine father figure to Rani, the writer's big theme in this secondary storyline that parents are good, something most of us can agree with.

Death of the Doctor is, then, one of the few occasions, blue little man group accepted, when Sarah Jane Adventures genuinely aspires to be more than programme just for children.  Sam Watt’s music brings an epic quality to a story, which like some of the best classic Who, is ultimately told in about three rooms, a corridor, some ducting and a quarry.  Ashley Way’s direction favours the close-up, all the better to capture the obvious chemistry between Lis and Katy born from years spent on the convention circuit together, the former graciously seceding the focus for a couple of weeks to a fellow actress reliving her youth.

In the final scene, Davies offers his equivalent of God's Final Message to His Creation, retconning the thematic undercurrent begun in the first season of nu-Who of the Doctor’s positive effect on the people he touches, essentially clearing up the grey skies, brushing off the clouds and cheering up a range of classic companions, taking off the gloomy mask of tragedy fitted on them by spin-off authors in the wilderness years, at least the ones still alive on Earth in whatever year this season of SJA is set in (sorry Dodo) which for some of us was rather more potent than the Doctor’s apparent publicity baiting new regenerative cycle.

On first inspection this seems like the writer disregarding even criticising the very merchandising that gave his returning character the life and relevance which made this story psychologically intelligible to most of us of a certain other age.  But in fact, he’s been rather more sensitive.  Glance through the relevant wikia pages and we discover that with the exception of Ace, whose timeline is a mess anyway, he’s simply adding to their on-going stories and in the case of Ben and Polly inadvertently offering a third act happy ending to love story told across decades via short fiction in the style of When Harry Met Sally.  In other words, returning me to the merchandise that led me to this story in the first place.

Next Week:  Challenge of the Gobots.

All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all