Monday, 27 April 2015

The Ribos Operation written by Robert Holmes and directed by George Spenton-Foster

This story in a nutshell: 'I don't sell mines, Doctor! I sell planets!'

Teeth and Curls: Verity Lambert never made a secret of the fact that she didn't like the set up of the Doctor working for UNIT during the seventies but it has to be said that he was working under duress for much of that time and had no way of escaping the Earth. Whilst it might not be in character to be on a leash, why not be where the action is whilst he is forced to cling to the skin of this tiny world? In the same breath you cannot really hold it against the Doctor that for the next 26 weeks he is holding down an (unpaid) job given that it is God that has roped him into doing a spot of benevolent volunteer work to help spring clean the universe. It's kind of hard for him to say no given the Guardians can halt the TARDIS in its tracks and summon the Doctor to another ether with the batting of an eye. If he said no he would probably wind up a novelty hat stand or something. The Doctor is both respectful of the White Guardian (he calls him sir) but also quite appalled at the notion of stopping everything even for a brief while so he can do a spot of dusting. I love the idea that it is the Doctor at his most facetious and childish that is given this awesome responsibility. He can't just flit about in the TARDIS anymore, he is on a temporary contract until this awkward business with the universe is sorted out. Somehow he manages to make sending Romana off to make tea (she doesn't know how) the least sexist chore imaginable. After the first few centuries things do tend to get a bit foggy but 756 (possibly 759) isn't old, it's just mature. Romana thinks he is suffering from a massive compensation syndrome but the truth of the matter is he's just a little full of himself. I love the way the Doctor can kick back and enjoy some time with Garron, laughing at his outrageous stories about his criminal background but when it comes to asking the tough questions (like why try and sell a planet to a war criminal) he can turn deadly serious. That is the joy of the Williams Doctor over the Hinchcliffe one. The gothic Doctor was always moody and introspective whereas this version is much more at one with the universe and ready to embrace a good time. Which makes his moments of choking depth and intensity have far more of an impact. When he says he is terrified, you believe him. You can't teach an old rogue new tricks and the Doctor's bait and switch to outfox Garron's bait and switch is the icing on the cake at the climax of this wonderful story. I can't think of many stories where Tom Baker is more delightful than he is here, for four episodes he is the most glorious Time Lord that ever existed.

Noblest of them All: 'It's funny you know but before I met you I was even willing to be impressed!' What was it about the spread of companions during the seventies that just worked? It wasn't even as if the producers stuck to the same formula;  a scientist (Liz Shaw), a dizzy special agent, a savvy journalist, a chauvinistic sailor, a violent savage, a metal dog and a Time Lady in two very different incarnations. And yet for the time they were with the show they were just about perfect, you wouldn't want to swap any of them. Fantastic chemistry with the lead actors (whichever it might be), good development and a strong presence in the show. What made being a Doctor Who companion so magical in the 70s that was completely deserted in the 80s? Was it the producer? The actors chosen to play those parts? The actors chosen to play the Doctor? Why was there so much sparkle in one era and not in the other? Romana was another knockout companion courtesy of Graeme Williams, who had already brought us K.9 at this point. He joins Letts and Hinchcliffe at booking some fantastic characters for the Doctor to travel with. Mary Tamm brought real glamour and aloofness to the show and made her mark by just how stunningly beautiful she was and how little of the Doctor's shit she was prepared to take. Whilst her character may have waned a little throughout the season, (and Tamm's interest is visibly inconsistent) I am sure she made a massive impact on both the kids (a really smart female companion) and the Dads (another reason to hang around after the football). The chemistry between Baker and Tamm is palpable from the off. Baker has gotten over his attitude problem with Louise Jameson and plays the Doctor at a much softer level with his new assistant (and I'm sure Tamm wouldn't put up with any of his nonsense). The conflict between the Doctor and Romana (her intellect and inexperience contrasting with his happy go lucky lifestyle) works a treat and bolstered by some delightful Robert Holmes dialogue and the first episode sings when they are on screen together. The Doctor has three rules for a new companion; do exactly as he says, stick close to him and let him do all the talking (and also don't be sarcastic)...however it is blatantly obvious even to a blind spielsnake that those rules will be broken. Especially by the Doctor.  Interestingly given her icy coolness, it is Romana who panics when the chips are down and their lives are in danger. Romana gets quite the education in her first adventure, not only about the dangers of the universe but also how quickly the Doctor assess the situation despite appearances to the contrary. She's about three episodes behind him whilst thinking (for the most part) that she is three episodes ahead of him.

Conmen: A hotly contested placing is the ultimate Robert Holmes double act. My money is on Garron and Unstoffe (although I would be willing to listen to argument made for double acts that feature in Carnival of Monsters, The Time Warrior of Talons of Weng-Chiang). It's a striking relationship because it is one that manages to be both very funny and something far more poignant and both characters shine in the pairing and individually. Like all good crooks, Garron is both charming and ruthless and in both cases is the head of the organisation. Unstoffe is his protégé, a much younger, sweeter man who acts the conscience of the duo. Watching Garron at work playing everybody around him is a wonderful thing, this is a man who could talk his way out of any situation. Only the Doctor can see through him from the start. So when he finds himself facing an execution squad it is not a situation he is accustomed to and he has to start improvising to keep his skin wrapped all over. Watch out for the entire 'Scringe-stone' sequence, utterly disrespectful to country folk but highly amusing. I love that the sting in this operation isn't selling the planet itself but hot footing it with the deposit, a small detail in the overall scheme of the business exchange but a massive punch in the face to the Graff given there was never a planet to sell in the first place. Garron is the sort of man who admires competence in the competition, probably because it forces him to raise his game.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Nothing? You mean nothing will happen to me?' 'Nothing at all. Ever.'
'My name's Romanadvoratrelundar' 'I'm so sorry about that, is there anything we can do?'
'It's you name' 'What about my name?' 'It's too long! By the time I call out...what's your name again?' 'Romanadvoratrelundar' 'By the time I call that out you could be dead. I'll call you Romana' 'I don't like Romana' 'It's either Romana or Fred!' 'Alright call me Fred then' 'Good...come on Romana!'
'There's no comfort in dying. I've always said it was the last thing I wanted to do.'
'He was an Arab. I sold him Sydney Harbour for fifty million dollars. Then he thought I should throw in the Opera House as well!' 'No!' 'Oh yes!' 'Yeah, the Opera House but I refused. I mean one must have some scruples, mustn't one?' 'Of course' 'I couldn't let that noble edifice to our cultural heritage fall in the wrong hands, could I?' 'No' 'But my refusal upset him. He took the impressive documents that I had prepared and so my little ruse was prematurely rumbled! He came after me! With a machine gun! I never went back.'
'K.9, don't stop at all corners' - is that the naughtiest line of classic Who?
'For years I was jeered at and derided, I began to doubt even myself, Then you came along and told me I was right. Just to know that for certain, Unstoffe is worth a life.'
'Money isn't everything, Garron!' 'Who wants everything? I'll settle for 90%'

The Good:

* Do you know what I love about the Williams era? It wasn't afraid to make the scope of the show BIG, even when it didn't always have the budget to support it. During these three years (and with the help of Holmes, Read and Adams) the show wasn't afraid of taking us to far away places, showing the vastness of the universe and constantly reminding us there is far more to explore than just the Earth. The beginning of Ribos is probably the finest case in point which introduces us to a figure in the universe that is even bigger than the Time Lords, a Guardian with the ability to stop the entire universe and correct the balance if necessary. That is a massive concept to get your head around. Even more impressive is that the season will consist of stories that see the Doctor on a mission to find the various components of the device that can make this temporal pause in the universe possible and that they are disguised across all of time and space. The canvas that has opened up for the show is awesome. And all of these mind expanding concepts are brought to life (and fire up the imagination in all the best ways) on a simples set with just two actors. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, George Lucas. You might have had the budget to splash special effects all over the cinema at the time but Doctor Who was working on a universal scale, for all intents and purposes working for God and traversing all of time and space to hit pause on all of existence while the big man tinkers about with things. The two are simply incomparable. And do you know what I like even more about this extraordinarily magnanimous opening? That it is tied to possibly the smallest scale Doctor Who story of all time, an intimate character piece that doesn't concern itself with much more than the dodgy deals of a pair of conmen on a under developed planet. The contrast between the epic and the intimate is palpable and very Doctor Who. Mind you, when you realise the scale of Garron's operation, not selling mines but entire worlds, the scale of the story tips dramatically again.
* There is talk of a moment approaching that will plunge the universe into eternal chaos. We never find out what it is...but it sounds really exciting, doesn't it? More conceptual excitement comes in the form of the Black Guardian, the polar opposite to the Guardian that we meet who is after the Key to Time for an evil purpose. And when we are talking about the entire universe being tinkered with that is a pretty awesome level of evil. He could have agents in any story. He could be in any story. He's a badass that would hound the Doctor for many years to come.
* After the embarrassing budget saving exercises that were Underworld and The Invasion of Time (which was especially humiliating when this was supposedly the end of season epic) it is wonderful for there to be some money in the kitty again at the start of a new season. And it shows. Ribos is a richly designed and lit story that takes place in detailed sets that feel as though they are steeped in a long history. Combined with one of Dudley Simpson's most striking scores (again the idea of a rich account of times gone by is conveyed through the soundtrack) and you have some of the most atmospheric scenes of the entire era taking place in this story. With polystyrene snow wafting about the place and church bells ringing in the distance, you can lose yourself entirely in this world even though you know it is being conjured up in a studio. Doctor Who sound effects have often saved the day when the budget has failed to conjure up visually what a script is hoping for but in Ribos they are used to add extra colour on this world; monks singing echoing through the corridors, dogs barking in the poorer parts of town, people screaming in the warrens. It must have cost a fortune in candles but the entrance to the catacombs looks amazing.
* When I think of Doctor Who planets that are conjured up evocatively through words it is Ribos that always springs to mind first. It's a world rich in mythology and history where everything from rituals, seasons, superstitions, poverty and a class system is considered in Holmes' script. There is so much more than just the world of Ribos that is magicked into existence through words alone; the Graff's military campaign and shocking family betrayal when he returned home, his long relationship with Sholack, Garron's dramatic and hilarious criminal history, Binro's personal mission to educate his people and his subsequent rejection. Ribos is a story that tells stories and paints pictures of events far beyond the scope of the events here. It's vast.
* The relationship between Unstoffe and Binro needs to be ripped out of Doctor Who and held aloft as exactly how to pull off a touching and meaningful relationship on television with relatively economic screen time. The two characters come together in the last two episodes and spend all of ten minutes together but with them Holmes manages to achieve the impossible, he manages to bring me to tears watching Doctor Who. Two people who never should have meet come together and an old man who has been rejected by his society for his outlandish theories has his life's work justified and a young con artist sees the value of friendship and respect for the first time. It's dazzlingly poignant and heart-warming. It makes my heart sing just to think about it. The fact that Binro is willing to lay down his life for a man he barely knows, just because he was kind enough to give him the gift of belief chokes me up every time. Unstoffe's reaction to his casual murder is unusually emotional for this period in the show and Garron's reaction to meeting Unstoffe's deceased friend ('charming fellow the little I saw of him') is a scream.

The Bad:

* I wish a little more money could have been spent on the desert landscape that the Doctor and Guardian have their little chat in because it is clearly a set despite the Guardian pretending to sun himself under the heat of the BBC lighting grid.
* Every Doctor Who story has its vice and for Ribos it is the realisation of the Shrivenzale, what should be a terrifying beast that is guarding the relic room but winds up looking like exactly what it is: a man in a cumbersome costume on his hands and knees trying to dash across the sets and look menacing with his floppy claws. A shame because the idea is really frightening (and I like the blood that is smeared around it's snapping mouth).
* The Seekers screams cut through me like a laser.

The Shallow Bit: Is there something kinky going on between the Graff and his aide? Everything about the Graff is incredibly passionate (he'll shoot a man in the face when he is kept waiting too long), from his attitude to war (naturally) to his feelings on betrayal to his opinion of his family to his relationships with his men. Never to take place in the list of the most subtle characters in Doctor Who, the Graff finds himself wiping away tears when Sholack dies and kisses him passionately on both cheeks, promising to bombard Ribos with missiles for taking this man from him (not for ruining his plans to buy the planet and take revenge on his brother). It certainly seems to suggest a deeper relationship and that's another unique aspect of this story. I wish the Graff could be the villain in every Doctor Who story, he's a vividly demented villain. Like all the characters in this story he has moments where he is outrageous but he's also written intelligently and is capable of moments of depth too. And given his penchant for shouting and stroking his ego, that is quite something.

Result: Just wonderful, The Ribos Operation kicks off the Key to Time season with style, wit and class. The plot of Ribos is highly unusual from a Doctor Who standpoint, a heist tale on an alien world where a pair of conmen are trying to sell an entire world to an intergalactic psychopath but trying out new things is exactly why this show has managed to survived for so long. Add in a fully fleshed world, a rich cast of characters and more fantastic lines than you can shake a stick at and the net result is an immensely pleasurable Doctor Who story which happens to be unique in tone and structure. Technically there are three double acts in this story; the Doctor and Romana, Garron and Unstoffe and the Graff and Sholack. Exquisitely written, it is how these six characters orbit one another that makes this story so sublime. Like all good heist stories it is when the shit hits the fan that it is most entertaining and so whilst the set up episodes are great fun, it is episodes three and four that score the best scenes (especially those between big Tommy B and Iain Cuthbertson and the unexpectedly moving relationship between Unstoffe and Binro). As discussed above there is an intimate and epic scale to this story and in both respects it impresses. Visually Ribos is a treat for the eyes with some gorgeous sets and costumes and if it was sold on it's atmosphere alone it would still be a winner (Dudley Simpson's music hits one of its peaks). But because its delights lie in it's scripting and performance, this story has hardly dated at all and remains as delightful now as I'm sure it was when it was first transmitted: 9/10

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Ashley Way

This story in a nutshell: Introducing Captain John!

Hunky Hero: Jack is punished by his team for abandoning them at the end of End of Days (he’s been off having the adventures with the Doctor and Martha against the Master in Utopia/The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords) leaving his Mickey Mouse organisation to cope without him. It's what I’ve been saying all along…they are much more organised and sophisticated a unit without him! Jack is eager to make John’s acquaintance as soon as he realises he is in town and their shared history is summed up in how they can’t keep their hands off each other, kick the shit out of each other and then share a drink. He and John were partners in every sense of the word and as nothing could ever be simple for Jack they were stuck in a time loop so their relationship stretched to five years rather than the two weeks it actually was. Yeah, before Simon I had relationships that felt like that. When Gwen is selfishly whining on about being deserted I would have thrown in a comment that I had helped save the world (and incidentally her life) from Harold Saxon and told her to stop going on like a kid who has been dragged from a sweet shop empty handed. His time with the Doctor facing the end of the world has reminded him that he belongs with this group of people (it must have been especially tough if this is the better alternative). Barrowman doesn’t quite have the subtlety to pull this scene off, he should stick to lip locking and trading insults with Marsters because that’s where he looks most comfortable. When he is spectacularly thrown off a building Jack even manages to land in an over the top way. 

Jack’s Crew: Gwen has a little paddy about Jack abandoning them and completely failing to notice how well they have coped without him. She and the whole team are frustrated with his evasiveness but seem to think it is more fun when he is around. Fun? Are you kidding me? They were ankle deep in corpses and spunk last year! There is a lovely moment where Jack starts getting frisky with Gwen (is there no such thing as personal space in Torchwood?) and discovers her engagement ring that puts a stop to all that. Or so you would think…she admits that she said yes because ‘no one else would have me’ which is just about the worst note to start a marriage on. How comes Gwen ran the team whilst Jack was away considering she is the most naïve and the least experienced? That’s probably the Torchwood employment policy! She was clearly going to say ‘tell Jack I love him’ just before she was about to sacrifice herself to the rift – after letting Owen bone her and now having an affair of the heart with her boss its any wonder she has any time left for the only man who will ever truly love her. If I were Rhys I’d move on to somebody worthwhile. 

When we cut to Owen and Tosh in the storage locker I was shocked because I had forgotten they existed! When he asks ‘what are we doing with our lives?’ my first thought was ‘what lives?’ When they trimmed the fat out of the show and excised these two characters (despite losing a perfomer as strong as Burn Gorman) it is telling that the next season was the series’ peak. 

Despite a couple of rounds of hide the sausage last year you could hardly say that Jack and Ianto got their relationship off to a solid start. Jack vanishes for an age and when he shows up again he snogs another man (not to mention his namesake last year)…and then he asks Ianto out on a date. And Ianto says yes! Clearly trust issues are not an issue in Torchwood and there is an open door policy (ewww) when it comes to relationships. It's not something that I can buy into so until I see some mutual respect and commitment between these two it isn’t a relationship of any sort that I recognise. 

When the four of them were all inside the same storage container I was screaming at Jack & John to lock the lot of them in and throw away the key. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Torchwood!’ ‘Not Excalibur?’ – John wonderfully takes the piss out of our team name by suggesting something even more outrageous! 
‘You live in the sculpture? Could you be any more pretentious?’ – John continues to sound like one of my reviews…
‘This is the entrance for tourists’ ‘I can remember the last time you said that.’ 
‘You take the roof. You’re good on roofs.’ 

The Good: 
· James Marsters’ Captain John really works although in a way he is just as ridiculous a character as Jack is. But that’s part of the reason why he does work so I’m not criticising. The reason all of the villains failed to make an impact in the first season is because they were either too earnest (Mary in Greeks Bearing Gifts), too dour (Susie), too unbelievable (Lisa in Cyberwoman…brrr!) or too ambiguous (the sex alien in Day One). It's why the best episodes for me were Ghost Machine, Random Shoes and Captain Jack Harkness because they didn’t even try to have villains, they just got on with telling a good story. Okay the last episode there had Billis Manger but he was mostly shrouded in mystery and was kept in the background so at that stage he was just an intriguing character rather than somebody who was openly opposing the team (when they tried to shoehorn him into a villainous role in End of Days he failed to work as a character on any level). The thing about John is that he is big, bold, daft, sexy and completely lacking in morality and trading his success on his charm offensive. He’s basically Jack but evil (or at least enigmatic which is much more fun when you are dealing with a villain – too often they try and make Jack ambiguous as a character which completely de-stabilises the show and leaves it without a hero) which gives him someone as equally improbable to bounce off of. When they are on screen together it feels as if the nonsensical characteristics of both of them cancel each other out and what is left is something genuinely sexy and witty for a change (‘I worked my way up through the ranks!’ ‘I bet the ranks were very grateful!’). Marsters’ plays the role with an eyebrow squarely arched at the audience which is a relief after the cringeworthy earnestness of some of the performances last year (when the show is this ridiculous you cannot take it too seriously as an actor – Eve Myles was made to look like a right pudding in much of series one because she reacted with such deadly solemnity to so many outlandish situations) and he shares great chemistry with Barrowman. When these two are together Kiss Kiss Bang Bang sings. Because they are such preposterous characters naturally the first thing they do when they meet is stick their tongues down each others throats and then beat each other up – it’s the only way two such over the top characters can say hello! The camera clearly loves him and when he is around it glides around him practically in slow motion like a fashion shoot ensuring he is given adequate coverage. His ‘help me Obi Won Kenobi’ was spot on funny. What’s really strange is that Captain John wouldn’t work in any other show…without the equally daft Captain Jack to compliment him he would feel hammy but these two orbiting each other like a pair of outrageously monstrous planets means he is right at home in big, daft Torchwood. Naturally Captain John has weapons stashed everywhere about his person except up his arse (although I bet he’s got some tucked away up there as well and is just waiting for an examination). 
· Its nice to see somebody else from the Time Agency turn up but it also appears that we wont ever see much of this organisation as we are informed that it was shut down. It was such an odd backstory for Jack because in the four years and multitude of episodes nobody exploited the missing year/time agency angle that Steven Moffatt built into the character. When it clearly had a lot of potential. Oh well, let’s revel in this little snippet and the arrival of John which paints in a little more colour and detail to Jack’s history. 
· ‘By the way…I found Grey’ is the dramatic punchline to this episode. Is this Jack’s son? Brother? Lover? Who knows but it at least shows willing that this series is going to tie some of Jack’s personal history into an arc. If the pay off isn’t great (Exit Wounds is a bit of a mess aside from one or two very powerful moments), the build up is at least tantalising. 

The Bad: 
· The pre titles sequence with the blowfish allowing the little old lady cross the road is emblematic of the embarrassing childishness of early Torchwood and how they got the tone so very wrong on the whole. Could you imagine this ridiculous scene turning up in either Children of Earth or Miracle Day? There’s actually a similar scene in the Sarah Jane Adventures where a Judoon waits at a traffic light after tearing the door of a police car which is much, much funnier and fits the tone of the series with much more alacrity. This is just odd…and does actually have much to do with anything. As an opener to the second series it seems to say ‘we’re back…and sillier than ever!’ The dialogue isn’t witty enough and the situation isn’t plausible or fun…although I think all three of these are supposed to be in evidence! The SUV looks more dafter than ever chasing a fish in a sports car around Welsh housing estates (I’m not sure if that sentence has ever been written before…or ever should be again) and tossing into the scene a man covered in blood and the suggestion that the ridiculous looking alien is smacked out on cocaine is such a discordant clash of the adult and the childish I was completely out of my comfort zone at the sort of tone Chibnall was looking for here. Then the giant, walking halibut opened its mouth and out came those cultured, aristocratic tones and he kindly spells out the character spec of each of the regulars…I’m at a loss for words, I really am. This really is television for morons. 
· The scene where John forces himself on Gwen is filmed like the beginnings of a rape scene and is uncomfortably surrounded by the silliness of the rest of this nonsense. 
· It’s when Chibnall tries to add some depth to the Jack/John relationship when it doesn’t work (‘he wont stay with you…he and I shared something…’) because it is two people who are all about sex, wit and violence trying to pretend they are about something more. Its why John’s return at the end of the season is nowhere near as effective because Chibnall pushes that angle too far and it loses all of its sparkle. 
· It's not a great sign of the strength of a series when it offers up the suggestion of something far more interesting and I start dreaming of that instead. John suggests that Jack ditches the rest of Torchwood like the rotten baggage they are and they head off into time to have adventures. I would much rather watch that show! ‘The glitter of the galaxy…the mischief we could make’ is a much better tagline for a series than ‘the 21st century is where it all happens…and you gotta be ready!’ 
· When the team rush to save Gwen’s life the music is a direct steal from the dreadful Cyberwoman episode when Gwen was strapped to the Cyber-conversion table. I’m sorry but anything that reminds me of that season one disaster is counterproductive. 
· John’s into bestiality too? There really is nothing subtle about this show, is there? Lusting after a poodle isn’t funny, it's just a bit tasteless. 
· Once this episode is over you realise that this entire instalment has been about introducing John and allowing for his ominous portent at the conclusion. What a waste of 45 minutes! After superabundant plots last year it feels like a massive step back to yank a narrative away from the series opener and focus on character vignettes alone. Especially when there is only one character worth investing in and he’s not even a regular. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is ultimately some funny lines, a bit of flirting, a few sketchy lines of backstory filled in and a lot of wandering around a very dull location. What’s especially interesting is that the whole diamond/bomb plot did not require the Torchwood crew in the slightest, it would have played out in exactly the same way for John wherever he went. When your regulars are completely superfluous to the seasons introductory episode you are in trouble. 

The Shallow Bit: Speaking as somebody who has lusted after James Marsters’ cheekbones throughout the entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I have to say it is something of a dream come true to see him enjoying some guy on guy action. To say that I didn’t have a raging boner during the scene where they snog would be a big fat lie. It's also one of the few times that Torchwood presents a gay sex scene that doesn’t feel gratuitous (the other for me is the kiss between the two Jack’s in Captain Jack Harkness because that was rather the point of the episode and also the Jack/Angelo romance which also was the beating heart of Immortal Sins) because it is steeped in the history of the characters rather than just being shoehorned in. Ianto’s sudden conversion to homosexuality in They Keep Killing Susie was embarrassing, their sex scene in the office in Adrift is completely out of place and that godawful moment in Rendition when Jack just goes off shagging without a condom because you can’t be killed by AIDS anymore throws back gay morality about 50 years. However you feel a genuine connection between Jack and John here which is actually bolstered by their intimacy rather than spoilt by it. And as I say getting to see James Marsters lip locking with another guy is hardly something I would object to. 

Result: When it is focussing on Captain John, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is excellent because he is such a perfect fit for Torchwood as a baddie with his witty one liners, amoral sexuality and penchant for violence. He is a microcosm for everything that is twisted about this show and played with delicious playfulness by James Marsters his scenes really made me smile. Unfortunately concentrating so much on introducing this character leaves us without much of a plot or a point to this episode and the slack is made up with by horrendous scenes like the blowfish in a sports car, Gwen paralysed by lipstick and fake diamonds. As soon as we move away from the charisma and wit of the Jack/John interaction it is a shocking reminder of how tedious and mismatched the rest of the regulars are and how their vacuous characters flounder when they don’t have anything to do. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is such a discordant mixture of the very good and the very bad that it epitomises Torchwood rather well and if like a Chinese takeaway it is tasty but lacks any substance whatsoever at least it is entertaining whilst it is on unlike much of last years offerings. Far from an inspiring start to the second year but fun in places, the show really couldn’t have survived another year of episodes like this: 5/10

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