Friday, 24 April 2015

Secrets of the Stars written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Michael Kerrigan

This story in a nutshell: 'The Ancient Lights will destroy you!'

Until Next Time...Miss Smith: There's a double whammy of a reason for Sarah Jane to be visiting Trueman's local appearance on stage; for one thing it is nice to spend some time with some adults for a change and she can sniff out a good story (and a suspect villain) a mile away. Like her time with the Doctor, Sarah doesn't believe in everything but she is always willing to be convinced. Astrology falls under that bracket for her. Sarah spends the show sniffing out all the parlour tricks and plants but is genuinely shocked that Trueman should have intimate knowledge of her time with the Doctor (she should have made the link to the Mandragora Helix). For anybody who gets upset by the portrayal of Sarah agonising over the fact that her 'boyfriend' dumped her on Earth and forgot about her then breathe easy, Trueman emphatically states in this story that the relationship between the Doctor and Sarah was not a romantic one. Does Trueman have a point about Sarah's irresponsibility for letting children into her dangerous world? She's willing to fight this thing and even destroy it if she has to.

Sarah's Gang: Luke not having a star sign is another way in which he differs from his friends and makes him feel even more like an outsider. It is worth pointing out once again that this show pulled off the impossible...a boy genius that you don't want to castrated and hang from the nearest tree by his underwear but one who is genuinely engaging and likable. Sympathetic writing and a gentle performance from Tommy Knight go a long way to making this a reality. We've come a long way since Adric and Wesley Crusher. Check out Nathan Goss in The Lost Boy to see how agonising this character could have been. Very often when actors are asked to play possession they go for the lobotomy act (and it's often hilarious when for plot purposes nobody seems to notice). Occasionally it has been done very effectively (like Elizabeth Sladen's schoolgirl innocence in The Hand of Fear). You would imagine possession in a children's show to be dreadfully overdone but Daniel Anthony defies expectations by approaching it in a very unusual way. Not over doing it or acting like he has had his brains scraped away but being gripped by a serene sense of calm and oneness with the universe. A polite murder is far chilling than a violent one. Clyde feels enough for Sarah Jane that even when he is ordered to kill her he cannot go through with the task. He's wiling to walk into the lions den once he has come to his senses, despite the danger. Luke gets to take some comfort from the fact that because of his differences, he was able to resist Trueman's influence and save the day. A boy genius who saves the day and isn't as irritating as pubic lice? Huh? Clyde asks what is so special about him to which Sarah Jane replies so many things, whilst gently stroking his arm. Their relationship is getting stronger and stronger.

Schoolgirl Journalist & The Folks: Surprisingly it feels as though Rani, Gita and Haresh have been a regular feature on the show for some time now despite this only being their second story. Such is the effortless way they have managed to fill the gap left by the Jackson's (Roberts' confident writing helps). Trueman accurately diagnoses that Rani has suddenly started seeing the world in a new light and she loves it. It's suggested that Rani is Sarah's protégé in exactly that same way Sarah was the Doctor's companion. Allowing Rani to come along and witness an interview is the first step in her education. Gita gets a nice role in the second episode, hypnotised by Trueman and scaring Haresh half to death (mind you this type of scene would be done even more effectively in The Mark of the Berserker with Rani and her father).

Sparkling Dialogue: 'He must be using a bio dampner!' 'What's that, washing powder?'
'It's only The Psychic Channel. When we switched on we probably doubled their ratings.'
'Believe me, I know what it's like to be taken over...' -Sarah could be referencing Planet of the Spiders of The Hand of Fear...and Prisoner of the Judoon is just around the corner.
'People used to say to me "Martin, you are not the centre of the universe" but it turns out I am!' - Trueman's ego is so out of control you can only bask in its magnificence.

The Good: I still think that The Sarah Jane Adventures got the formula just about perfect where Doctor Who has struggled with its format for the past seven years, trying to squeezed everything in to 45 minutes. SJA has hour long adventures (those extra fifteen minutes allow for extra atmosphere, elucidation of the plot and moments of character) with a cliff-hanger in the middle. Practically perfect. It is so rare for an actor/actress in this show to behave as though they are acting in children's TV show that it genuinely shocks me when they do. More often than not the villains of the piece could make the jump to Doctor Who without too any alterations. Russ Abbott is a comedian that I had a lot of time for in my childhood and me and my dad used to watch his show every week together (it is one of the few very nice memories I have of my pops). I remember when I first caught this story on transmission and I had a real problem with the arch way that Abbott played Martin Trueman, feeling as though he had stepped out of a pantomime and straight into this show but looking back on it now I can see little that is objectionable (especially when compared with other OTT villains such as Zaroff, The War Chief, Lady Adastra and Davros, all of which I love). When he is taken over by the Stars it is clear that Abbott shifts his performance somewhere into the stratosphere but watch him during the first scene, Trueman is a man down on his luck who quietly dispels a client he is hoodwinking that astrology is a load of cobblers. He's giving a really poignant portrayal of a man who has cheated his way through life. And how can you fail to make your performance theatrical when the majority of your scenes are either on the stage or acting as a TV presenter cum oracle of doom. Trueman's introduction goes to show just how well Gareth Roberts (or anybody under Russell T. Davies' tutorage) use vivid shorthand characterisation to tell us everything you need to know about a character so they live and. Trueman thought he was meant for great things but is working out of his basement as a con artist, tired and alone, and the Mandragora energy embracing him is his reward for a lifetime of giving up. Maybe Trueman got Kylie's stage team in to design his act because the glowing constellations of the various star signs and the astrology wheel offer an imaginative and striking backdrop to his show. Subtle signs show that members of the audience are nervous to get up and have their secrets spilled, Sarah is here to debunk and Haresh is deeply embarrassed by the whole affair, a man in authority being dragged to a magic show by his wife. It's these moments that give the situation more depth, rather than everybody being seduced by Trueman's charisma and trickery. His backdoor into the world of television (and thus enabling him to hypnotise the world) is through a trashy cable channel paranormal show, another little touch of reality. Roberts gets to teach his audience a little about the zodiac and its origins before having some outer space fun with the idea. The idea of another universe before ours where astrology worked as a binding force that could be harnessed is very well conceptualised and presented. This might be one of the more chilling forms of invasion by possession because it is all done so politely, asking you to take the hand of your neighbour as your mind is invaded and join a circle of contentment. A euphoric invasion of your mind, playing out in stages through the signs of the zodiac. It is a laughable thing to witness until somebody you love is taken and then it becomes very serious as it does for Haresh. Trinity Wells has become fantastic shorthand for a worldwide invasion and as soon as she appears you know that the current crisis has gone global (although the lovely effects shots of people gathering in circles around the world are well done too). Trueman admits that he was something of a nobody before the Ancient Lights chose him, selling vacuum cleaners, cleaning toilets and push trolleys. Nothing wrong with any of those jobs if you want to earn an honest crust. Trueman has a choice to go back to his old life or to be taken away by the Ancient Lights to goodness only knows what punishment. He chooses the latter so he must have really had a low opinion of his life before he was touched by the stars.

The Bad: A powerful astrological force that inhabits people with a glowing orange aura that has attacked Earth at exactly the point where the fourth Doctor claimed it would in the first story of his third year...this is without a doubt the Mandragora Helix whether it was supposed to be so or not. Wasn't it some kind of legal or financial consideration that prevented it from being name? It is frustrating that Sarah Jane cannot make the connection because it would be a lovely nod to the past but I take it as written that the 'Ancient Lights' is simply another name for the Mandragora Helix. It's very interesting that Gary Russell's novel Beautiful Chaos was released just a few months after Secrets of the Stars was broadcast and features a similarly astrological threat to the Earth that the Doctor and Donna face that is specifically referenced as the Mandragora Helix. Perhaps that is why they were denied the name in this story? Russell also script edits The Sarah Jane Adventures and so it is nice to see him tying up the two shows with a similar theme/monster. Stuart is so deeply uncharismatic that I could understand precisely why Cheryl has been seduced by Trueman's showbiz lifestyle, possession aside.

Result: Maybe I'm getting soft as I get older or maybe tastes change because I had something of an allergic reaction to this story when it was first broadcast but I find with each subsequent viewing I enjoy it more and more. Now my opinion has taken a 180 and I find it a lot of fun, packed full of great dialogue, some surprisingly mature details and a great role for all the regulars. An old friend introduced me to all manner of fascinating children's television from the sixties, seventies and eighties and one of the reasons that this was so enjoyable was because it had the rollicking atmosphere of adventure and fun that those shows also employed. There's a definite The Tomorrow People/BUGS/Tripods feel of not trying to venture too deep beneath the surface but provide an hour of top class entertainment. Fraudulent astrologist turns galactic representative and tries to seduce the world with the power of the stars. That premise could be picked up by practically any show that is willing to give it a go. With the Sarah Jane Adventures you get the bonus of robust characterisation, top notch acting and a production that will convince you that this allurement has consequences for the entire world. If there was any fault I would say that the second episode plays along familiar lines (possession by aliens was the tagline of both The Christmas Invasion and SJA's own Invasion of the Bane) and Russ Abbot, although giving 100%, does (understandably given Trueman's monumental ego) occasionally trips over into hammery. I do also think that Michael Kerrigan's direction is a step down from the rest of the series, although it is nowhere near as apparent as it was with his work on season 26 of Doctor Who. All told one of the few stories where my opinion has radically changed and whilst not top flight SJA it maintains the quality of the series: 8/10

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

End of Days written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Ashley Way

This story in a nutshell: All hell breaks loose in Cardiff…

Hunky Hero: Jack proves that he might not be the best guy for the job when Ianto discovers the answer as to why this chaos is being brewed up right on the nail and his lover tells him to shut up. If I were Ianto I would have said ‘ner ner ne ner ner’ or something of that kind when the danger was over. His management skills leave a lot to be desired too in general when Gwen tries to tell him that even Owen has feelings his dry retort is ‘well you would know’ like a jealous lover. Rule one – when the shit hits the fan you need to try and whip your team into as effective a unit as possible to deal with the crisis and not prey on their insecurities and start pointing the finger. To top off this glorious example of retarded middle management Jack declares that he cannot stop this threat and publicly humiliates Owen in front of all of his colleagues. Is Jack going for the ‘boss of the year’ award? John Barrowman is hilariously bad when he kicks Owen out of Torchwood, taking hammy to a whole new level. I love the fact that Jack grabs a hold of Gwen’s hand and half heartedly tells her that of course Rhys isn’t going to die and then a second later the entire base is bleached in the same red as her homicidal vision. Even dramatic irony is working against him. All the in fighting comes to a head when the Mickey Mouse Torchwood team are sick of Jack standing around posturing impotently and decide to take matters into their own hands. They have basically come to the same conclusion as me that he is a terrible boss and needs to be put down like Old Yeller. When he can’t get his own way he pulls a gun on his staff and threatens to murder them all and starts dissecting all their personality faults. As you do. In hysterical Torchwood fashion Jack finally steps into action by kneeling before the Abaddon like Jesus before the Devil and pours a white light into his ass and kills him. Its all so subtle I can barely perceive what is happening. Jack has been so neutered and perverted as a character it was going to take a massive intervention to try and get him back on track again so the final scene where we hear the TARDIS materialising nearby (tying in with the series three episode Utopia) it offers a glimmer of hope for the guy.

Welsh Babe: It's really nice to open this episode with Gwen watching Rhys sleep contentedly after the roller coaster cheat ride she has been on in season one. Gwen was supposed to be our audience identification character on this show but Davies did some quite perverse in making her more unlikable as the show continued, cheating on her long suffering boyfriend with an absolute asshole. It came to a point where Gwen was literally wretching up snot and tears over pizza on her own in order to connect to the audience and come to terms with what she has done and now we are at the other side of her affair where she has decided that she does love Rhys and wants to make a proper go at it with him. This whole affair malarkey leaves a really bad taste in the mouth as far as Gwen is concerned and in the future when they get married and have a baby it leaves a black cloud just on the horizon of these happy events. I don’t know if Davies thought it would make the character more interesting if she was as promiscuous as the rest of them or whether everybody has to be deeply flawed on this show but it was probably the biggest mistake the show made. Thankfully they seem ready to forget the whole sorry affair and so are we. Gwen has a smile that she uses to try and reassure people that everything is fine even though everything has actually gone to shit and that’s how Andy knows that her talk about time cracks is real. Clearly Gwen knows she is in a science fiction show because when Rhys is killed she starts suggesting they resurrect him with alien technology or that they head back in time to stop it ever occurring. Whilst its nice to know she has picked up something from her job its hardly the most stable response from somebody who has just lost their other half. When the tears do finally come its in true Torchwood style – she flings herself at Jack cussing and swearing and batters his chest as she wails like an out of control banshee. That’s a bit more realistic but without an inch of restraint it leaves Eve Myles looking like a right nana. Gwen moons over Jack’s corpse for an age after the events of the episode come to a head obviously forgetting that in the heat of the moment she threw the praise-worthy insult ‘what’s the fucking point of you?’ at him during the climax.

Dashing Doctor: Finally Owen is accountable for his out of control behaviour and attitude and he looks scared shitless at the fact. Jack has no compunction about protecting him and lays the blame directly on his doorstep. Owen is literally having palpitations as he braces himself to leave Torchwood for the last time – I can’t say that I’ve ever had that much trouble leaving a job. Owen pumps bullets into Jack because ‘he’s sick of people doubting him.’ What the hell were the psychological evaluation team doing during the Torchwood interview process? This is the man who is entrusted with powerful alien technology?

Eye Candy: I’m always happy for a show to add depth to their current episodes by referencing the past except when the past episode mentioned is Cyberwoman. Don’t do it again. We don’t need to have our memory’s refreshed that Torchwood was dishing out such ineptitude in its opening episodes.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I can see the whole of history but I don’t exist anywhere within it…’ – Billis Manger remains far more interesting than anything else in this episode.

The Good:
  • Finally we get a good idea of what a danger the Rift could be to the world and there are number of gorgeous Sapphire and Steel-esque horrors that burst from its recently opened maw and threaten the planet. Cue all the devastatingly epic scenes you would imagine from a finale from a show created by Russell T Davies – UFOs hovering over the Taj Mahal, Roundheads on the streets of London firing on the police, Romans hacking and slashing in Penarth and a general stir of panic and talk of the ‘end of days.’ It’s a great dramatic start for an episode that promises an awful lot. Whilst it has a touch of Army of Ghosts about it there is a simple visual of the spider web of time fractures bleeding out from the Rift that points the finger directly at Torchwood (specifically Owen) being responsible for all of this madness.
  • Billis Manger was such an interesting character in Captain Jack Harkness precisely because he was so ambiguous (and menacingly camp which really marked him out as something a bit different) and it is definitely a point in this episodes favour that he returned so soon. Operating a horologists shop in Cardiff is a lovely touch and it would have been lovely if this character could have become a recurring menace for the Torchwood team. When he pops off into time to the sound of a ticking clock I was hoping that was going to be the last we saw of him until his next mysterious visit but alas his story on television was to end here. He had a future in a Gary Russell novel but that’s a fate no character worth this much deserves.
  • The best thing this episode has to offer is the technical ability of its production team. I wont blame Ashley Way for the over dramatic script he is being asked to bring to life (he did a marvellous job with Captain Jack Harkness) and he does the best with what he is given. Whilst Rhys’ death might be dramatically vacant it is exquisitely filmed in a throbbing blood red light. When the conclusion threatens to tip the Earth into hell Way is on the ball offering slow motion savagery from the Weevils, screaming Romans and shattering windows. Its this imagery that sticks in the mind far more than the narrative itself.
  • There is a beat of character that rings true at the end. I’m not sure that I buy everybody falling into Jack’s arms as soon as he is resurrected but when Owen breaks down in his arms I actually felt something for one of these characters for the first time in 45 minutes. Angel pulled off a similar trick with the character of Faith in the episode Five by Five when she had committed such terrible acts she breaks down in Angel’s arms and begs for forgiveness. One of the advantages of taking Owen to such ridiculous extremes is that his redemption begins here and it is genuinely affecting.

The Bad:
  • In typical Torchwood fashion it is a case of ‘why have one really good threat when you can have a hundred barely dealt with ones?’ Roman soldiers on the streets would have been iconic had we seen some kind of pitch battle or an episode watching Owen trying to tackle the Black Death which is spreading around the world. Bigger isn’t always better but this episode keeps assaulting the viewer with more and more dangers until now of them seem to matter any more because the whole situation is unmanageable. You know that because things have become so out of control that there is going to be one great big reset button (on loan from Star Trek Voyager) that will make all of this go away. My personal favourite season finale for all of the NuWho seasons is The Big Bang because it doesn’t try and be as epic as possible but instead looks inwards at the season that has preceded it and focuses tightly on the characters. End of Days is the antithesis of that – a loud, insane, resource stretching blockbuster that is trying to bring Armageddon to Wales in as epic a way as it can possibly manage on a TV budget. Let’s hope they calm it all down a bit at the end of season two. Appropriately enough the most memorable ending to a Torchwood season is the advent of the death of a child – something as simple as that.
  • When absolutely anything can happen like Tosh getting a cryptic ghostly message from her mother (what the hell was all that about?) and Billis Manger turning up and vanishing randomly nothing seems to matter. There doesn’t seem to be a plot in place but a random selection of things that happen that our heroes (and I use that term loosely at this point) react to.
  • Owen asks what will happen when a disease from the future comes through that they don’t know how to handle. Its always a shame when an idea is touted as a throwaway line that would make a better episode than the one you are watching. I can see an escalating threat when a disease strikes that allows the human race to exploit their psychic abilities with Miracle Day style handling of the concept with big business trying to exploit people, people realising their abilities (telekinesis, telepathy…)  in unexpected ways, children attacking their parents, etc, etc…
  • ‘Who the fuck are you anyway?’ What precisely does the swear word bring to that sentence?
  • Unbelievably the world is literally being torn apart by something that has emanated from Torchwood and instead of trying to deal with the problem they all stand around in the Hub screaming at each of histrionically and dealing with a HR issue! I can’t think why nobody found this organisation credible in their first year!
  • I honestly do not understand why halfway through the episode Chibnall is introducing yet more dangers for the team to deal with. Suddenly the focus is away from the historical horrors that are striking the Earth and we are focussing entirely on the death of Rhys. Ultimately this turns out to mean nothing at all because the big fat red reset button is pushed so its inclusion baffles me. Time wasting shocks that have no substance aren’t clever. Besides, since Gwen saw Rhys dead in both the flat and at the Hub in her vision why did she taser him and take him from one location to the other? Surely the best thing to do would be to get him out of town altogether? This is the second time Rhys has been told the truth about Torchwood and the second time that that information has been wiped from his brain. Considering he finds out for good in four episodes time anyway what is the point of these constant rehearsals. By the time we reach Meat its lost its shock value. More to the point why does Billis Manger kill Rhys? Because he’s a villain and that’s what they do? To make sure the vision he gave Gwen came true? Because this is an end of season finale and that’s the sort of thing you expect to happen? Since we never see Billis again I guess you can choose one of the above for yourself.
  • I’m not certain why Davies chose to go down such a positive route for Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane Adventures (both shows suggest that there are wondrous adventures to be had out in space and on Earth and a wealth of goodies to discover) and such a negative one with Torchwood (if you join this organisation you are going to wind up alone, depressed, memory wiped or dead. Usually dead). Its not even as if the latter one is the more realistic approach, its just bringing the audience down for the sake of it. Why the hell would anybody want to join Torchwood?
  • ‘From out of the darkness he is come! The sound of the great beast! Cast out before time, chained in rock and imprisoned beneath the Rift…’ All hail Abaddon! The giant CGI monstrosity that looks about as convincing as the Loch Ness Monster and the invasion of the dinosaurs did in the day. Its not just that the effects are clearly not up to scratch or that this is practically a final nail in the coffin of Torchwood’s credibility to put something this ridiculous as its end of season threat. Oh no. Its that he has never been mentioned before or since, we learn sod all about him and he is dispatched as simply as swatting a fly. He’s a big grey roaring joke of a monster that comes from nowhere and goes back to nowhere. Its just another untidy element thrown into an untidy script. What makes me laugh more than anything is the focus on the road sweeper who stares up in horror and takes about five seconds to react and run away!
  • All those climactic dangers that were so important in the early scenes are just whisked away like nothing ever happened. How satisfying!
The Shallow Bit: Rhys wobbles his considerable backside at Gwen in the first scene! Well this is Torchwood after all!

Result: Tone it down a bit Torchwood! Just because this is supposed to be a end of season spectacular it doesn’t mean that everything has to be turned up to a factor of 100! There is so much thrown at you in End of Days that halfway through the episode my brain just switched off and stopped taking it all in and it wasn’t helped that the characterisation of the regulars (which had started to come together since Random Shoes) is at its all time worst here. Jack is the worst offender who proves himself to be a terrible leader and bad friend but they all get a moment to make you cringe. Clearly the cast have been given the finale pep talk and told how to give end of season performances so everybody is screaming (Eve Myles’ ‘Rhhhhhhyyyssssss!’ as she rushes to save him deserves an award) and pulling deadly serious poses and really focussing on their devastating reaction shots – the net result is a team of regulars that you cannot take seriously for a second. The fact that the episode promotes a wealth of dangers in its opening scenes and then proceeds to ignore them all in favour of in fighting amongst the characters goes to show that Chibnall does not have the writing chops to pull of such an important episode. That the ultimate threat from the Rift is a giant unconvincing CGI monster was enough to convince a friend of mine’s husband that he was never going to watch this show again. Torchwood survived its first series and whilst I don’t want to be too hard on a show that has produced episodes as good as Ghost Machine, Random Shoes, Out of Time and Captain Jack Harkness somebody desperately needed to take a good, long look at this show and iron out its manifest of problems. The primary one is epitomised by this episode which is that it is too too…too busy, too hysterical, too graphic, too lurid and too morally bankrupt. Restraint simply does not exist in the world of Torchwood. Pulling back a bit from some of these extremes would make this series (and certainly this episode) a far more enjoyable experience: 3/10

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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Happier Dead written by Adam Usden and directed by David Darlington & Darren Gross

What's it about: 'Collinsport Hospital is where you come if you want to die.' But no one is dying at Collinsport Hospital, even those who wish to. When student parapsychologist Amy Jennings is rushed into intensive care, she reluctantly begins to investigate, and soon finds the hospital morgue is anything but empty. But who is behind it? And what could they possibly want? Amy might be guaranteed to make it out alive, but she is about to discover there are fates far worse than death.

Amy Jennings: Amy Jennings has always been unlucky in love. She loved her parents and they died. She loved her brothers and they died too. Amy is extremely sensitive when it comes to talking about werewolves. She's a hilariously inept investigator at times, asking professionals about supernatural happenings. She splits the world into two types of people, those who see cold spots and those who see ghosts. Which one are you?
Standout Performance: The best aspect of the first series of Torchwood by a country mile, Murray Melvin is one of those performers that excites because he never quite plays a scene in the way you might expect and is eye catching because of it. It's a similar technique that Tom Baker has, a compelling eccentricity and a feeling that anything can happen whilst he is acting. Edwin Beadle was the best character to feature, a witty and dry old codger who knows his time is up and wants to skip to the end of the book he is reading just in case he doesn't make it to the end.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Collinsport hospital is where you come when you want to die!'

Great Ideas: Collinsport is cursed. You breathe its air, you choke. You drink its water, you drown. You even look at it on a map and you go blind. If anyone had any sense they would level it to the ground. Amy understands exactly what to expect from a mystery at Collinsport hospital - bodies being admitted clawed and mutilated. She's been in this town long enough for none of this to surprise her. But nobody could guess the plague that seems to have struck now - life. Nobody is dying at Collinsport hospital despite having some horrific injuries. It's Torchwood Miracle Day all over again. Just like Miracle Day it is a premise that has so many possibilities.

Audio Landscape: The sequence with the hysterical screaming failed to unnerve me because I was too busy turning the volume down. It was like somebody was grating my brain. Heart monitors are used in an imaginative way. 

Isn't it Odd: Whoever played the coffee shop server has to be heard to be believed. The Happier Dead opens on a scene that really feels as though you are coming in at the middle of the story with no real clues as to what the beginning was. The dialogue occasionally made me wince ('And the Oscar goes to...', 'Cold hands, bad circulation') and it was overly descriptive in parts too ('He's charging the door!' could have been handled with a sound effect).

Standout Scene: Amy's Miss Marple moment when she realises that this wasn't meant to be such a sweeping reform where death is was only supposed to work on one person. A clever twist that I never suspected. Suddenly the one responsible is blatantly obvious.

Result: 'Leave the dead to die!' Don't get appendicitis in Collinsport! A busy script with a busy cast, a little unfocussed but full of a nice ideas. The dialogue felt a little strained at times and the atmosphere a little forced...and even the direction erred a little too close to the melodramatic for my tastes in a range that is usually quite restrained in its horror. Saying that the plot unfolded in unexpected ways and there was always something interesting going on, I'm just not sure that the execution always worked. I prefer an economic cast (Bloodlust proved to be the exception) and this is a full cast drama with too many characters to give adequate attention to. I wanted to spend more time with Murray Melvin's gloriously oddball Edwin but he was spread amongst thirteen other characters. Halfway through the story and I wasn't entirely sure what the threat was in The Happier Dead, it felt like the script needed to go through a editor one more time to iron out its kinks. At one point the script is so ill defined one of the characters makes a supposition about the motives of who they think is the villain and says 'maybe we'll never know.'  I really love the quirky idea of the heroes trying to kill people off as a mercy, the protagonists becoming the murderers in this insanely turvy topsy situation where immortality is a curse. The weakest Dark Shadows I have heard yet but it's still more involving than the worst of the other Big Finish ranges: 5/10

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Defectors written and directed by Nick Briggs

What's it about: Jo Grant is shocked to find most of her colleagues are missing. Then she discovers that the Doctor has inexplicably changed. But there’s no time to worry about it, as she and her misplaced Time Lord friend are whisked to the mysterious Delphin Isle on a matter of national security. There, they encounter a disturbingly odd form of local hospitality and learn of a highly classified incident that took place during the Cold War. Why exactly have they been brought here? And what is the truth concerning the bodies in the harbour and the vast project being undertaken beneath a cloak of secrecy?

The Real McCoy: McCoy seems quite at home in a lovely old Pertwee adventure, relaxing into the sort of atmosphere that his era rarely afforded him. If there wasn't much to the seventh Doctor's relationship with Jo Grant, he at least seems to be enjoying himself immensely stepping into his past.

Dippy Agent: This is more the snivelling, useless Jo of season eight than the competent and assertive Jo of season ten despite being told that it is set in the latter year. There's a bit of splash made about Jo being a capable member of UNIT but there really isn't much to back up that assertion in this story.

Camp Captain: Where was he?

Standout Performance: I have spent the last week listening to a number of companion chronicles, three of which were read by Katy Manning where she manages to perfectly capture the youth and enthusiasm of Jo Grant. Bizarrely The Defectors was the first time where I felt she struggled to do so, where her years felt as if they were fighting against Katy Manning. A shame because she is such an energetic and talented performer but the gruffness of her voice really took me out of the story at points and further reduced the idea that this was an older Doctor meeting a companion from his past.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I'm guessing I'm not quite the Doctor you're expecting...' - hardly revelatory dialogue but somebody had to say it.

Great Ideas: For those of you who obsesses about such things this is definitely set after the Three Doctors because the events of that story are mentioned. The Doctor and Jo dragged to a mysterious coastal island by UNIT where the locals are all behaving's fairly easy to get behind a premise like that because it is so Doctor Who. In 1951 an experimental Soviet craft ditched in the sea just off the island, containing a high ranking defector. They managed to salvage most of the craft and pilot has been helping them to rebuild it. The 'blue stuff' is a secretion from the aliens to help them control their cattle back home.

Audio Landscape: Helicopter flying overhead, seagulls screaming, waves crashing ashore, smashing into equipment, banging on a door, a pool, alarms, flowing water. 

Musical Cues: I was a little distracted by the melodramatic nature of the music and it didn't have a signature of anybody that I recognised...upon investigation the soundtrack was delivered by Joe Kramer, a name I could not identify. Like the story itself, it isn't a terrible score, it just isn't a particularly distinguished one. On a completely unrelated note, I was listening to the scores of Russell Stone recently...whatever happened to him? His music in the early days of Big Finish was exceptional.

Isn't it Odd: When I first heard of the premise behind the locum Doctors stories my eyes rolled upwards and I sighed. Sometimes I feel like I am a right party pooper but the news came during a spread of stories where innovation was lacking and nostalgia was the order of the day. And this did not feel like an innovative idea (at least not in the way Big Finish were advertising it), it felt gimmicky and a bit wanky. Hardly the way to celebrate our way into the 200th Main Range release. I can even see the point of the idea, to give the companions of the early Doctors a chance to break into a the main range and prosper...but it still feels like something a 12 year old fan would do in their exercise book rather than the focus of a trilogy of adventures written by professionals. I remain to be convinced on the strength of The Defectors because putting the wrong Doctor with the wrong companions just feels...well wrong but not in a positive kind of way. The frozen inhabitants of the island is very reminiscent of The Android Invasion episode one, a story I know Nick Briggs is fond of thanks to the special features documentary he took part in on the DVD. The 'You called me Doctor' gag is repeated so many times I wondered if we had wandered into the Axon time loop by mistake as another kiss to the era. All the suggestions that the Brigadier is going to show up felt quite disrespectful to me. The creature depicted on the cover is a bizarre mish mash of doesn't quite come together as the artist intended. It reminds me of the Lazarus creature, a hotch potch of interesting ideas that look cumbersome and unconvincing when brought together. All the aliens want to do is leave the Earth and resume their journey...which is hardly the most exciting modus operandi of your average alien species. For Briggs who is a Big Finish veteran there was more than your average overly descriptive dialogue. Given he is possibly the finest audio director it is a shame he doesn't think with that hat on when he is writing. It's the return of the aliens with modulated voices so indistinguishable that you have to strain like you are forcing out a curry to try and understand them. As for Mike Yates appearing in this adventure...was it really worth booking Franklin for such a small cameo?

Standout Scene: The seventh Doctor behaves in a very seventh Doctor way in the last episode, which the third Doctor would never have done. It stands out because it is such an aberration. But again it is hardly revelatory. The seventh Doctor should behave like the seventh Doctor, whether he is story-bombing one of his predecessors tales or not.

Result: Davison taking part in a Hartnell adventure and Colin being paired up with Hines and Padbury again are two ideas that excite me but I cannot say I have ever given much thought to the duo of McCoy and Manning or that it is one that particularly lights up my world now I have heard the story. It is an middling pairing in a middling tale, a love letter to the Pertwee era that ticks all the right boxes ('What sort of base? Or let me guess...a top secret one!') but lacks three important elements (Pertwee himself, the Brigadier and the Master) and the warmth of camaraderie that powered the top drawer early seventies adventures. The Defectors is perfectly entertaining without ever threatening to become anything more than workmanlike. You could slip it into the player and kill a few hours but I can't imagine you ever doing so again (which is not something I would say about some of the other main range stories of late that I would love to experience again, especially The Widows Assassin and The Entropy Plague). I've just finished listening to it and I can't really recall much of the story because so much of it was filler material. The truth of the matter is there is about enough substance to adequately fill a 45 minute fourth or eighth Doctor adventure (and it would still be quite a light piece at that length) and the slack is taken up with lots of creeping about and empty banter. Nick Briggs is such a busy man, contributing to so many ranges as a director, actor, sound designer and writer that I think some of his talent is being spread a little thinly. Once upon a time he wrote Creatures of Beauty. Years later he wrote The Defectors. The difference in quality between the two is conspicuous. McCoy's perky performance aside (and it always comes as a pleasing surprise to me when he is the most enjoyable feature of a story), this is disposable stuff. There is nothing here that justifies the 'Locum Doctors' format and that is a bad way to kick start things: 4/10

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Harvest of Souls written by James Goss and directed by David Darlington & Darren Goss

What's it about: “My name is Maggie Evans, and this is the end of my story.” Collinsport is over. And, after recent events, Maggie Evans just doesn't care any more. She grew up here, she fell in love here, she grieved here. But no more. Maggie wants out. But there's a problem as this town won't let her go. Collinsport has unfinished business with Maggie. Maggie finds herself trapped in the empty streets, pursued by an old friend who wants only one thing. To make her happy. But Maggie Evans doesn't believe in happy endings any more.

Maggie: She is at her lowest ebb in this story, manic depressive to the point of feeling suicidal and the perfect victim for anybody who might be ready to exploit her psychologically. Be careful what you wish for...Maggie craves somebody to talk through her problems with and Gerald drops into her lap. Maggie is not the sort of person to give up normally but she has been pushed to her limit lately, especially with the death of Jim Hardy. Maggie has a chance to be happy, a second chance. But she isn't sure whether she wants to be happy, not after everything that has happened.

Gerald: When he first came to Collinsport he was at his wits end and had blown just about everything in his life. We charted Gerald's haunting and possession in The House by the Sea and now is our chance to find out a little about who has taken up residence. How can you answer the question of what it is like to bring somebody back from the dead? He has many faces and employers. His happy ending is to be able to do some good long after he should have died. Realising that doing a good deed is so rewarding.

Standout Performance: Nobody would be able to tell that Kathryn Leigh-Scott and Colin Baker weren't even on the same continent when recording this drama, such is the strength of their professionalism and performance. Of their respective ranges (Doctor Who and Dark Shadows) they are my favourite performers so bringing them together was a dream come true for me and affording them such a strong performance piece was a gift to the actors. The Harvest of Souls is a very intimate piece and all about the relationship between these two characters and it relies on two very strong actors to keep your interest when there is little else of note going on. They managed that effortlessly.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Typical Collinsport! I can't even kill myself without some monster coming for me...'
'I've come back to Collinsport and I've made everyone happy.'
'An evil man can sometimes do good...if it suits his ends.'
'It's always darkest before the dawn and the sun never really rises in Collinsport.'
'All those captured dreams; planed, chipped and carved.'
'When you dream you don't dream of this dream of the past or the future or other worlds where you made other choices.'

Great Ideas: How much does Colin Baker look like William Hartnell on the cover? Beyond the Grave gets a mention, the producers are trying to back track and pretend that it was a work of fiction rather than a documentary that went horribly wrong. I loved the mention of Alfie & Emma and Jim, characters from other stories that remind you that this part of a cohesive library of tales without their reference infringing on this as a standalone tale at all. There are so many dead and gone in Collinsport, Maggie is convinced that the town simply cannot get a happy ending. The flashbacks between Jim and Maggie as kids are vital to understand the bond between the characters, giving her actions at the start of the story a great depth. How atmospheric is the idea of Collinsport being deserted by the townsfolk who have been given the opportunity to follow their dreams whilst a manic depressive wanders the cliffs looking for a way out of this life? The creatures in the water are not of this world...not anymore and their methods aren't very subtle. They mean well but lack a friendly face. Long ago the Leviathans ruled this world and many others with ancient powers. It has been a long time since they existed in this dimension and they have forgotten how to interact with it. The Leviathan's don't give a fig about humanity, they just want to the planet back and if they can help to move people on to a better existence whilst 'cleaning out the kitchen' then so be it. Was there a single person in this town happy? Collinsport - the unhappy ones run away and the happy ones die. It is a cursed place, cursed by the shadow of the Leviathans. The science and physical laws of the Leviathans is pressing down on Collinsport like a storm. The Leviathans used to dance around the first tree in Collinsport. When they left the tree remained and grew and grew. One day a man chopped down the oldest tree and made a staircase out of it for Collinwood. The wood of the tree gave the house power, rooting itself into the ground. I can only imagine what a spectacular sight it must be to see thousands of Leviathans crossing over into our universe.

Audio Landscape: Lightning, thunder, rain, Maggie falling into the sea, bubbles raging under the water, crackling fire, the breathing, sucking, slurping creature, frying eggs.

Isn't it Odd: I realise it was a creative decision to have Kathryn Leigh-Scott play Maggie as a young girl but it can get a little confusing, especially when Jim calls her 'Miss Evans!' At one point I wondered if she was his teacher!

Standout Scene: 'You want me to take you to the moon, Maggie Evans?' 'No, I want you to show me the world!' The glorious sequence where Maggie explores her dreams and embraces a life of travelling the world. Unusual for this range but tremendously uplifting.

Result: 'On the worst night of my life you turn up to offer me a second chance?' Can evil be a force for good? That is an exciting idea to explore. If somebody were to offer you happiness, whatever your heart desires, in order to move on from this world would you ask for? These are the sorts of questions that James Goss' superb script dissects. There is also some fundamental exploration of Collinsport itself which makes The Harvest of Souls a must for anybody who is looking for an explanation for why so many terrible things happen in this town. I found the backstory of the Leviathans absolutely fascinating and would like to learn more in subsequent stories. But what really appealed to me were the character scenes between Maggie and Gerald, an intimate character drama between two lost souls looking for some meaning in their lives. Maggie has emerged as my favourite Dark Shadows character, partly because she has a formidable personality and strength of character (check her out in Bloodlust) but also because Kathryn Leigh-Scott delivers one knockout performance after another. Pair her up with Colin Baker (playing the embodiment of evil distributing good deeds) and you have something magical to deliver to your audience. Given that it starts with an attempted suicide, this is one the most uplifting dramas in the Dark Shadows catalogue. It reaches some sunny conclusions and sports some memorably poetic moments. If you are looking for the usual first class scares then move along but if you are prepared to try something a little different and more cerebral, it doesn't come much finer than The Harvest of Souls. The conclusion that it draws...that everybody is happier far away from Collinsport doesn't bode well for the next entry. Or the next. Or the next...: 9/10

Captain Jack Harkness written by Catherine Treganna and directed by Ashley Way

This episode in a nutshell: We discover that Captain Jack Harkness is not his real name…and far more besides.

Hunky Harkness: Excuse me whilst I go on a little rant for a moment but why can’t Jack be written this perceptively on a more regular basis? If you tuned in to this episode you would be under the mistaken impression that this shows lead is a thoughtful, gentle, awkward fellow that makes tough decisions of the heart. Anybody who has seen the first season of Torchwood will tell you that this is exception rather than the rule but that doesn’t take anything away from what this episode achieves and that is to make Jack likeable for the first time since the series began. That’s one miracle, the other is that they managed to pull of a gay romance without once ever making it feel sensationalist or gratuitous. Colour me impressed. But more on that later… Jack stole the real Jack Harkness’ name, he knows too much about his future and he doesn’t want to share. Being back in the 1940’s is like a nostalgia trip for him, almost a school reunion! Who was he before he took his false name? Isn’t it wonderful how sexy, flirty, confident Jack Harkness becomes a shy, awkward teenager again when he falls for somebody that he has an emotional connection with. Lets give John Barrowman plenty of credit where it’s due, he makes the scenes between the two Jack’s anguishing. He sends Jack after Nancy to kiss her goodbye, a sweet, selfless gesture despite how it clearly hurts him. A Captain has to explain the risks and tell his men what to expect. Jack was forced to watch his best friend be tortured by the worst creatures imaginable – it is unusual to hear him opening up about his past, he must really care about his the other Jack. The look on his face when Jack tells him he is scared to fight is regret; he has fallen for him now he has admitted how he is really feeling. When they lock fingers and pull apart awkwardly when people walk past it would take the most cynical person not to will them to be brave enough to show their feelings publicly. Jack admits to Tosh that Rose brought him back from death and ever since he feels as though he is alive for a reason and he’s still trying to find out what. The moment Jack finally asks our Jack for his hand on the dance floor and they hold each other, aching to be together with Tosh watching on proudly is one of those winding emotional moments that Torchwood can achieve that no other show can. They look at each other with such longing. I love how Jack has no witty quips, doesn’t pull out a gun once or hurt anybody throughout this episode, he leaves the story a broken man who has lost another love and it’s heartbreaking.

Jack’s Crew: What a fantastic episode this is for Toshiko! After a season of wafting around like a bad smell and not really connecting with the action (except for the uneven Greek Bearing Gifts) we finally get some really interesting material for Tosh. Her Grandfather is 88 today and she’s off to party! Jack grabs her and dances her around the derelict dancehall in an unexpectedly intimate moment. I love how Jack treats this all as a jolly adventure but Tosh is genuinely scared that they will be trapped in the 1940’s and she has a life that she wants to get back to. She awkwardly dances with a squaddie and Jack has to step in to protect her honour. She is terrified of what will happen to her after Pearl Harbour despite Jack’s promises to protect her. It is Tosh that drags Jack back to the 21st Century telling him that they need him. It’s not a pairing I would have thought of but Jack and Tosh have surprising chemistry. The power games between Owen and Ianto are great, at least initially as they give the former a reality check and the latter something to do at last! They insult each others failed romances, Ianto turned to Jack for solace but Owen is still bleeding. Owen describes Ianto’s way as safe and boring. Owen and Gwen only share two lines but they are loaded with tension and regret. You have to cheer when Ianto puts a bullet in Owen’s shoulder, he really is pig headed in this episode. Once we get to Fragments in series two his actions here become much more understandable, not wanting to lose another love.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’ll look after you but there’s nothing I can do for him.’
‘It was wartime but it was beautiful.’

The Good Stuff: A temporal shift to the 1940’s, Torchwood has dragged characters from the past to the present effectively and it pulls kicking our regulars into the past with just as much style. ‘Why is George dancing with a Jap?’ – I really liked the inclusion of the bullish, intolerant blond showing that beneath the veneer racism was running rife. Scenes of Gwen hearing the dance music in the deserted dance hall is pure Sapphire and Steel. Who guessed the title was referring to the real Captain Jack Harkness? Bilis Manger was the best villain of the first season (he is great but his competition was a sex alien, fairies, a Cyberwoman, a rapist, Suzie and a bunch of inbred cannibals!), he is effete, delicate and very sinister, his piercing eyes bite right through you. How he appears in both time zones feels as though he is haunting the building. Another moment of unspoken feelings comes when Jack awkwardly handles his trophy girlfriend, you can’t help but feel sorry for Nancy who he doesn’t say I love you to before returning to Jack. Tosh sending the details to help them forward in time, written in her own blood, is a gorgeous idea. White Cliffs of Dover is sung in an air raid shelter as young boys lose their virginity before heading off to war, this episode oozes period atmosphere. I like the gentler moments like Jack looking over at our Jack as he tells Tosh about his death.

The Bad Stuff: What a shame the Ianto/Owen testosterone match grinds up to such hysterical levels, it would have been a flawless episode otherwise.

The Shallow Bit: Ianto looks as handsome as he has ever been in his red wine shit and waistcoat. Matt Rippy manages to be rugged and gentle, he’s absolutely gorgeous. Is this the most anticipated kiss between two men?

Result: Reading my reviews of Random Shoes and Captain Jack Harkness might lead you to believe that I have no issues with the first season of Torchwood. Nothing could be further from the truth but they are two exceptional diamonds amongst a whole heap of rough. It interests me that my three favourite episodes of Torchwood’s first year are all written by women (Ghost Machine is the other one) and Cath Treganna mixes war and romance to shattering effect here. It's dizzyingly effctive. Captain Jack Harkness might dress itself up as a time travel tale but it’s really a tender chance romance between Jack Harkness and the man who stole his name. I'm not keen on gay romances simply for the sake of it (there is nothing wrong with that, it is a purely personal problem I have about being defined by my sexuality, which I hate) but Captain Jack Harkness offers invaluable development to the titular character and great opportunities for the series' lead actor. John Barrowman gives his best performance of the season and shares passionate chemistry with Matt Rippy, their scenes together enchanting. I’m glad we got to see more of Bilis Manger since he is the first Torchwood villain to really impress. The episode looks gorgeous too and even finds the time to perk up forgotten character Toshiko. Rift opening hysterics aside, this is a blisteringly good episode: 9/10