Saturday, 28 June 2008

Last-minute change

What? What?!

As your correspondent (currently convalescing in East coast exile) drops, drained and confused, into the Chair of Reckoning for the weekly outpouring, the mobile goes off.

It’s a distress signal from the sofa back at Watcher Acres - and if I were to record here precisely what the text said just after the end of the episode… well, it would effectively be my resignation letter. Let’s just say it’s like ‘Flippin’ eck’, only turned up to 11.

As your resident Mysterious Projection From The Future, I feel I’ve let you down, because I just didn’t see it coming. But did you? I mean it can’t be, can it? If it is… but it can’t be! But it could be! No, but it isn’t. Relax: in the cool, calm seconds it’s taking me to type this, I am suddenly at one with everything. It isn’t. Breathe, and relax. Think of cool, cool moss…


I blame the trees, a lovely mindless day walking in the trees, tea in the flask, breeze in the face, not a care in the world; I was lulled, sloppy, mind off the job. But, in my defence, there was no disturbance in The Force, no sign of The Darkness threatened in the weather forecast, no distant clang of the Cloister Bell.

‘Yes, the Daleks are back tonight’, I remember musing idly – I may even have been humming something by Delia Derbyshire – ‘and one’s had a bit of a paint job, and unless that shadowy figure was Jackie Tyler in a pimped mobility scooter, we should see Davros again tonight, and we haven’t seen him for ages, have we, not since… ooh, I wonder what kind of tree that is…’

And all that did happen, of course, although up to about the 44th minute this was perhaps the most horrible, noisy episode we’ve had, genuinely hard on the eye, ear and soul. I felt like I was trying to watch the actual show while someone changed channels by smashing my face against the television set: ooh look, it’s Sarah Jane (PMPHH!)… I mean, Captain Jack (PMPHH!)… no, it’s the other one…(PMPHH!)… er, is that Dempsey and Makepeace? PMPHH! PMPHH! PMPHH!

People running, shouting, watching people watching other people watch other people on big screens, big guns locked and loaded, the end of the world redone as a kebab-house rumble. I almost wasn’t having any of it, until the Daleks zapped that mouthy bloke’s house, a restful suburban dream-wish moment amid all the volume and face-pulling.

But then it was back, the only calm clear voice the Judoon sergeant, whose ‘Kro! Blo! Flo! Mo! Ho! Yo! Bo! Ho Ho Ho! Toe! Flo Jo!’ seemed to sum things up nicely. Pity he’s thrown his lot in with The Shadow Proclamation, which is, apparently – and despite all the dark mutterings – merely the foyer of a smart dental practice, now ‘manned’ by former child genius James Harries.

But that was before The Big Surprise…

Russell T Davies: part genius, part wind machine. He’s like a brilliant chum you invite round for dinner in the hope of bons mots and airy charm, only to see him eat everything in sight, off every plate, before regurgitating and rounding out the evening with a protracted postern blast.

Except… he then comes back, washes up, and tells you the most thrillingly brilliant thing ever.

He did it last year with Utopia, the cosmic twin of this show in which nothing much happened for 30 minutes… and then suddenly The Master’s back. The writer even organised a real-life thunderbolt for that bit, at least at a storm-lashed Watcher HQ, and the effect was pretty much the same this time.

Ah, that deliberately-overdone run as Rose and the Doctor rush to embrace; the slo-mo; the syrupy strings; the wry smile on Donna’s face.

The Dalek.

The gone-into-negative death-ray.

The regeneration crisis.

The regeneration.

I mean it can’t be, can it? If it is… but it can’t be! But it could be! No, but it isn’t.


Saturday, 21 June 2008

Left in no doubt

Well, it was the Doctor-Lite one… but otherwise this was as heavy, bleak and brilliant as anything ever done under the Doctor Who banner. It was almost… ach!.. too good

Doctor Who’s always been about death, see, really; something about death. Not morbidly, but courageously: it champions life - grabbing at movement and sensation and change - because it understands that death is always the favourite in the big race.

Writer Russell T Davies certainly understands that - and what a brilliant, long game he’s playing with the viewers. First the showman’s tricks, the feints, the misdirections; ‘This season will be the ‘lighter one’(!)’. And then this.

Yes, perhaps this season has lacked gravity at some points - only suddenly that doesn’t seem at all true, after watching recent events replayed with the happy endings rubbed out. Just this once, nobody lives, the Doctor’s presence never felt more massively that by his absence.

Even the fairly fluffy Voyage of the Damned was suddenly the prelude to Threads (I know I’m not the only one flashbacking on that mushroom cloud; imagine if the Christmas Day episode had ended like that!), while the formerly-cutesy Adipose ate America, and Donna and family ended up in the desolate streets of Peter Watkins’ War Game. Martha dead. Sarah Jane and gang dead. The only bright spot was Torchwood copping it, too.

I’ve said it before, but, well: everything else is kids’ TV. Despite what the other inmates of Watcher Towers might have you believe, your correspondent isn’t actually aged eight, mentally. So I ask: how is this heavy stuff going down in the longest-day living rooms of the nation? The show’s always been scary, but some of the ideas here - labour camps, noble sacrifice under the wheels of a truck, moving to Leeds - are troubling in a way that, say, murderous giant vegetables just weren’t. Are the spawn sticking with it all?

The script was well served by director Graeme Harper too; ace with action, he handled the intimate stuff confidently. RTD has always loved the domestics - back-chat and hard home truths - and here it’s beautifully woven through a vast notion: death in excelcis, The End of Everything. Harper had something to offer every idea.

But the actors, of course, stole it. Bernard Cribbins’ cameos until now have been sketches of lovely, warm wonder; here his old soldier, all rheumy eyes and haunted heart, made the apocalyptic streets a terrible notion, not just sci-fi set dressing. And what a shame we haven’t seen more of Donna’s mum, Jacqueline King - fine actress.

But what we thought would be Rose’s night was Donna’s - I’ll stick my neck out and say Catherine Tate should make Bafta space on her mantelpiece (if that’s okay with Ant, Dec and Robbie Williams). How far she has brought the character from that first Christmas outing, a Donna any right-minded individual would queue up to push under a van. Now she’s funny and sad and brave and scared at the same time; she’s true. The scene in the time-thing where she suddenly understands that she really has to die… well, as I say, put her name on the plaque now.

Loving the new Rose, too - Rose the revenant, a ghostly, hardened time-hopper in the Doctor’s image, glib because she’s seen it all now, and words can’t convey how bad it’s going to get.

Oh, and the Bad Wolf stuff! Up there with the ‘Professor Yana checks his watch’ in the need-a-wee! stakes, as far as we’re concerned.

If we were giving out stars, it would be the big five - but the stars are going out of course…

Anyway, next time: look who they’ve wheeled out…

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Don't knock it till you've tried it

The one predictable thing about new Who is that – like the Doctor himself - you never know what you’re going to get into next. Midnight was one of those no one saw coming.

You know, a lovely old lady of the Watcher’s acquaintance often uses the word ‘different’ to describe things she’s tried, in the spirit of necessary adventure, but probably wouldn’t want to try again, thanks all the same. She uses the word kindly, diplomatically, but Midnight – a show partly about fear of the different - probably falls into just that category. And yet, and yet…

If anything it was probably scarier than the last story, with which it shared some ideas. There, when the isolated humans faced an exterior threat they stuck together, more or less; here, the intruder unleashed something really nasty - a frenzy of murderous paranoia and self-loathing.

The babble of doubling, hating, blaming voices and the booming knocks really did seem to suck the air out of the place, the tension wracked up by Alice Troughton’s (no relation) edgy direction. Are they sure this is kids’ TV?

This was, in some ways, Voyage of the Damned remixed, scaled down and made self-consciously theatrical, the big sets and simplicity of that Christmas Day confection pressed into a suffocating space where words are weapons and nobody is in a hurry to be noble (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Bad Wolf?, anyone?).

It certainly gave the brilliant-as-ever Tennant the chance to polish his Dane, as they say (no, it’s not a euphemism; he’s doin’ Hamlet, innit?). Words or action, Doctor? Well, cornered and unsure he demands silence and inaction – most unheroic.

And how perfect that this most verbose incarnation (‘A skinny idiot ranting about every single thing that happens to be in front of him!’, no less), having failed to persuade or out-brain his fellow passengers, almost dies because the words suddenly run out and they don’t trust clever types. That’s… y’know… like… heavy…

(Heavyweight cast too: you seldom see anything less than excellence from Lesley Sharp (those eyes!), but Lindsey Coulson and David Troughton (most definitely some relation) too? Many viewers of the Watcher’s vintage might shudder to see lovely young King Peladon is now a balding older man in a cardy, but there’s always the videos, and he’s still absolutely magic.)

But all that said, what was RTD OBE’s script really getting at? There’s deep, unsettling obliqueness… and then there’s sub-Star Trek-ian portentousness that can’t quite remember what it wanted to say. Which was this?

Team Watcher Might need another look at it all before deciding… but you can’t help admiring this format-stretching effort from the big man. All-over-the-place is, after all, just an undiplomatic way of saying different, and different is what we like

Anyway, next time: the Doctor’s dead, Rose has risen again and Donna’s doomed – we’re heading in strange directions in Turn Left…

Saturday, 7 June 2008

An awkward silence

Strange news from another world: it appears - and perhaps you’d better sit down - some people didn’t like Silence in the Library.

Yes, yes, I know exactly what you’re thinking: the chumps! But it isn’t like that, friends. As contradictory as it may sound, these nay-sayers are basically decent types - some sympathisers, some lapsed Whovians drawn back to the faith, some new fans, all clean and tidy types with brains and responsible jobs and partners and opinions and stuff.

They are, in a word, viewers - or at least they were until last week’s adventure (you remember: the Absolutely Brilliant One About Death with the space library, killer shadows, killer lines, a murderous skeleton in a spacesuit and some chicken bones). But one miscreant admitted - and I didn’t even know this was technically possible - actually turning the telly off halfway through the episode.

Another confessed to disappointment on discovering there was a part two due - and not as in ‘I just can’t wait another week!’, either.

The true Whovians were need-a-wee excited, of course… but it’s all led to more brooding than normal at Watcher Towers, dark mutterings of the ‘What Does It All Mean?’ variety. Because… well, what does it all mean?

Long-term fans found themselves flung into an alternative universe back in 2005, when their show was not only alive again (with three exclamation marks) but a palpable hit, and no longer a guilty secret. Everyone liked it, it seemed. That was weird, sure… but you can get used to popularity, however meaningless.

And we put up with weaker scripts, and occasional flabby bits, because mostly it was brilliant, and grown-up, and energised by a big Saturday night audience; the executive producer, the great RTD, actually said ‘We feared a small, niche audience’. Well, he didn’t get it… but is that the way things are going?

Because get this: viewing figures were down last week (although the appreciation-index stuff was gold standard). Now, a lot of weird variables feed into viewing figures, including sport and the weather, plus complicated-but-dumb other telly-stuff beyond the Watcher’s ken (Britain’s Got Talent? Yeah… but it’s probably not on ITV).

And of course, the Beeb is meant to be slightly above the mere chasing of big numbers… but having had a hit, Aunty won’t want a prodigal show go all niche-y again, will she?

Still, Watcherworld was encouraged by reports from the South, where a bona fide particle physicist of our acquaintance admitted to being ‘a bit scaredy’ after seeing the Vashta Nerada (he spends a lot of time in the dark. With, y’know, particles); and from the West, where a sensible eight-year-old was too scared to go to bed until Wednesday.
Now that’s how you blood future Doctor Who fans… and thus perhaps save the show from those swarming black clouds of disaffection…

What’s that? What about this week’s episode? Oh, brilliant, absolutely brilliant - a dark, dark, mind-blowing fairytale about (amongst other things) small matters like being, and nothingness, and the dreadful ticking of the clock.


But you knew that.

Let’s just hope that’s a good thing.

Anyway, next time: tickets please, for the bus ride to oblivion… the Doctor’s son’s on board - and it’s nearly Midnight…