Saturday, March 31, 2007


Torchwood Series One

To limber up for the new series of Doctor Who, Richard’s reviewed three recent books on Millennium’s Diary. I’ve been meaning to review the first three Torchwood novels, but – with all those heavy hints that Captain Jack will be back in Doctor Who soon – I decide to think about his series first. Earlier today, I resuscitated my (even more) Who-themed blog to take a look at what makes Doctor Who special. It’s given me a few ideas about the reasons Torchwood didn’t seem as special as it should, and, to my surprise, one of them was Captain Jack…

Torchwood was the first Doctor Who spin-off to make it as a TV series, so naturally Richard and I watched it. It starred John Barrowman as the immensely shaggable Captain Jack Harkness, the time-agent-turned-conman-turned-hero who’d been so successful playing opposite Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, and he was running a branch of Torchwood, the fabulous secret alienbusters shown in the style of Dynasty in the terrific climax to last year’s season of Doctor Who. What could possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out, not quite everything, but the giveaway may be that, though we’ve bought the DVDs, they remain in their wrapping, even though I’d quite like to see the deleted scenes. I’m pretty sure I’ve only watched most of the episodes when they were first broadcast, and that’s unheard-of for something Whoish. As I’m typing, The Sarah Jane Adventures: Invasion of the Bane is being repeated on CBBC. It’s bright, colourful, witty and has a relishable villain and terrific monsters.
“They tend to go in, guns blazing. I just think there’s a better way of doing it.”
Gosh, it seems Sarah doesn’t think much of Torchwood either. I’ve watched her pilot story several times since it was originally broadcast, the same day the final episode of Torchwood went out. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it’s something entertaining I can sit back and enjoy. I’ve not rushed to pop a single episode of ‘rival’ Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood on since.

Torchwood has a leading man with real star quality, and Eve Myles’ Gwen is a great second lead. I was looking forward to it; I loved the trailers (“One man who can’t die / Four people who can”) and the music. And it was sold as “The X-Files meets This Life,” which put it right up to the minute for, er, ten years ago (perhaps they should have aimed for Spooks with googly monsters). But though it may be in the same universe as Doctor Who, it doesn’t share the same ‘worldview’. That isn’t because it’s ‘adult’. Doctor Who’s had times when it’s been aimed at all sorts of ages, and with any ‘family’ show there’ve been times when it’s fallen too heavily at one end of the range. I’ve equally enjoyed Doctor Who picture-books and Doctor Who novels that were only stocked in the children’s section until I took them to the counter and pointed out the lines that would have irate parents screaming the place down. What they shared was the Doctor. A traveller in time and space who can go to any planet in the past, present or future, who respects life rather than authority, and obeys no-one else’s rules. He takes joy in the wonders of the Universe, and would rather use his intelligence than carry a gun. Sometimes the series is dark and horrific, or light and frothy, or grim, or eccentric. It’s the perfect show to change mood if you didn’t take to the last story; you might like the next one, because it’ll literally be another world. Torchwood, on the other hand, is set in a sewer, and its depressed personnel only seem to go out in the dark, either to investigate depressingly horrible things or to have depressing sex with the people who make them depressed. But they have big guns.

I’m not sure I’d have watched this at all if it hadn’t been Whoish.

There have been some very incisive Torchwood reviews in the last few months. Richard reviewed every episode on Millennium’s Diary, and was probably a little too kindly. I’ve just re-read them all, and I can see how that happened. Reviewing each story in turn and wanting the best out of each of them, he gave each in turn the benefit of the doubt. After he finally excoriated one, he struck an apologetic tone in subsequent weeks. I remember that, after each episode, we’d talk about it (he sometimes quotes me), and we’d look for what was good about each – as if it was a weaker episode of a stronger series. It’s only in retrospect that we can see it’s more in the series than the episodes that the problem lies. James Graham, on the other hand, wrote a damning indictment of the whole lot that was probably a little too harsh. Still, it was bang to rights on a lot of points: he too thought The Sarah Jane Adventures much better; he identified the weakest link as writer / show-runner / co-producer Chris Chibnall; and he noticed that, while it was aiming to be a British Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it had foolishly modelled itself on Buffy Season Six, the one where no-one has any fun (they barely survived that mistake, and that was after building up five years of goodwill). There’s a lot of good in individual Torchwood episodes, as Richard identified. There’s a lot wrong in the structure of the series, as James recognised. But for me, the central problem was what should have been its main selling point: Captain Jack.

I suspect the producers of Torchwood had exactly the wrong idea about Captain Jack Harkness. He was created almost as a send-up of a Hollywood version of the Doctor – traveller in time and space, but a uniformed secret agent, impossibly handsome and with sex – but though he keeps the uniform, the looks and (it’s implied) the sex in Torchwood, and is now in charge of his own bunch of blatantly obvious agents, something vital’s missing. People went for Captain Jack because he looked like he was having as much fun as a human could have. It took the Doctor to make him heroic, but even before then he blazed with charm and confidence, and he absolutely loved what he did. And a lot of what he did was to have sex with anything alive, so long as it was gorgeous enough. He was the embodiment of exuberant sexual liberation. The Captain Jack we see in Torchwood might not have aged to look at, but he’s at least a hundred years older, lost, abandoned and hopeless, but bizarrely in charge and serious rather than a cheeky charmer. He’s at the heart of James’ ‘Buffy Season Six’ analogy: though he’s not been snatched out of Heaven, he’s been restored to life but life has lost its savour for him. He may do the same sort of things, but it’s just going through the motions, and even the sex is because he just wants to feel alive. In Doctor Who, the Doctor inspires people; in Torchwood, a human has been crushed by the responsibility of trying to be like the Doctor. This Captain Jack is suicidal, and even more depressed because, as he’s now indestructible, killing himself doesn’t work. Now, where’s the fun in that? And which Jack will be back in Doctor Who?

The flipside of this is that he provides the series’ themes. There are two that regularly spring out of the episodes, one about something fun that it makes gloomy, the other about something gloomy that it makes intriguing. The first? ‘Sex is bad’. It’s nasty, and shameful, and addictive, and the only reason to do it is to distract yourself from the things in life that are even more depressing. Well, gee; I knew Torchwood had been set up by Queen Victoria, but there’s no need to make it so obvious! The second theme is, thankfully, the best thing about the structure of the series. As Richard spotted in his reviews, it’s ‘the life after death show’. The start of that, clearly, is Captain Jack, returned to life and really not enjoying it (though Richard has a great theory in his first review on how coming back to life made him impossible to kill), but episode after episode looks at people or things surviving beyond death, and it tests from every angle whether there’s anything there at all. And those two themes tie into the feeling that there are two quite different series here, made for completely different audiences. One thinks ‘adult’ means a monster of the week, violence, swearing and cheap sex, and ‘story’ only gets in the way. The episodes of this series are aimed at heterosexual males of around fourteen, and are most strikingly written by Chris Chibnall. The other series thinks ‘adult’ stories should have stories to them, and tells sad, elegiac stories of people (human or not) and very human emotions. I’m not sure that that series has such a clearly defined demographic, but it’s the one that appealed to me.

The Episodes That Make You Think, ‘Actually, This Was Rather a Good Series…’

1.08 They Keep Killing Suzie
By a long way the best of the first series, and the only really great episode. It opens with “Torchwood” daubed on a wall in blood over a pair of gruesome corpses; I remember thinking that it looked like, if you’ll excuse the pun, a bloody Chibnall. Except I was completely wrong, and it’s saying ‘Look at me!’ to Torchwood as a trap, not to the audience as all there is. Richard and I were surprised to get a brilliant story at this point, and it was just in time – after six weeks in, I think we’d finally stopped giving it the benefit of the doubt. This was a tragic, twisted noir (you know I like noir), the most nihilistic life after death story, but it showed that darkness could be intelligent and affecting, not merely offputting. At last, it made something of what we already knew about Torchwood, rather than just getting to a slow bit and thinking ‘time to bung in a Weevil’. It centres on an insane, inspired bit of planning, and Indira Varma is stunning. It’s such a pity she had to die; she’s so much better than anything they have left.

1.05 Small Worlds
The earlier episodes were the shakiest, so thank goodness for this tale of wicked fairies from Sapphire and Steel’s creator. All right, I wasn’t all that impressed by the design of the monster of the week, but the fearful concept behind them was something else, as was the bitter ending. The touching story of lost love is the series’ best stab at seeing Jack as someone human and flawed, in the Doctor’s place but unable to deal with it.

1.03 Ghost Machine
The first story to be really good, with more than a smattering of Nigel Kneale and Sapphire and Steel, it’s an emotional Halloween ghost story with great performances all round – even a good part for Owen, and someone who could be him long down the road, played with grubby despair by Gareth Thomas. Despite the serious themes, though, there’s a moment we just can’t take seriously. Neither lead actor is given enough good material, but both work when given the chance. Eve Myles, however, has one element to her acting that makes us laugh at inappropriate moments: her upper register. There’s something about her emoting that just appealed to us both back when she was in Doctor Who, wailing “It’s ungodly!” Here, she wails that she couldn’t stop the killing, covered in blood, and I’m ashamed to say we fall about. And there’s another bit of her upper register later in the series…

1.12 Captain Jack Harkness
A beautiful, unsettling story with another touch of Sapphire and Steel. Looking at which episodes work, perhaps Mr Chibnall should be sat down in front of PJ Hammond’s opus before being allowed to strike his keyboard again. Switching between now and the 1940s, this introduces the real Captain Jack – gay, heroic and lovely – and the fabulously sinister Bilis Manger, who may or may not be an anagram but ought to be. Top marks for the moment when Gwen looks behind her and dancers pass in front of her as the time zones blur, and for the way that the story of the original Jack is, appropriately, just about the only one in the series who seems to embody Jack’s original mission that sex is good and life-affirming.

1.10 Out of Time
The 1950s rather than the 1940s this time, but here’s an anthology within an anthology series, as three short stories of culture shock interweave. Owen improbably falls for Diane, played by an actress who seems to be cornering the market in ‘incredibly glamorous mid-20th Century sexually liberated women’, judging by this and The Chatterley Affair. We get to see Rhys’ bum, which is nice, though sadly not Jack’s; our leading man is in the story about suicide, and wishes he could join in…

The Episodes That Make You Think, ‘Well, It’s All Right…’

1.09 Random Shoes
This is the cuddly ‘life after death’ story, with lots of great little observations in a Torchwood take on Love and Monsters. Eugene’s endearing, though curiously not very Welsh, and though the end could be taken as heart-warming or nauseating, “Happy Cock” still tickles me.

1.07 Greeks Bearing Gifts
Well, it’s a great whacking cliché of a title, and I made the mistake of watching Buffy’s Earshot soon afterwards, which has immensely more style. Oh, and there’s yet another addiction metaphor! A good relationship between Tosh and the alien, though, and it’s great to have a proper femme fatale.

1.01 Everything Changes
The first episode of the series is impressive in many ways, though the pleasingly noirish set-up is wrapped up in a far too much of a hurry. That anti-climax is its second-biggest problem; the biggest is that it seems like the first episode of a completely different series. Fun, fantasy things like the pterodactyl, Suzie and the glove, even the Weevils, or characters on more than one note like Owen’s implied date rape… The creator sets up mildly interesting ideas, and the lead writer drops them on the floor. What’s kept is a feeling that’s more broody than quippy, more Angel than Buffy, and where everyone’s addicted to something to escape from humdrum life. Even when their lives are vital. And, from the first, it’s utterly absurd that – after the huge Torchwood Tower, full of thrusting young things – this Torchwood doesn’t even have any support staff. I just don’t believe for a moment that five of them can hack it, which rather undermines the show from the start.

1.11 Combat
Yes, it’s Fight Club and macho, but far more thoughtful than most ‘fight’ episodes (just look at Babylon 5’s TKO, and wince). Writer Noel Clarke is lovely, of course, and bless him for all his protestations of how straight he is, when he writes the most eyebrow-raising homoeroticism in the series. For once, they don’t even forget the Weevils, and it’s interesting that Tosh tells Jack – using a Weevil as live bait for nasty humans – that he’d never do the same with a person. Of course, he did exactly that, baiting a Weevil with a human, way back in the first episode. On the down side, “In the darkness, something is coming” is so shoehorned you can’t help wincing. But masses of points for Gwen’s selfish doping of Rhys to “Say you forgive meee!” Yes, I’m afraid it’s another of her ‘suffering’ lines that we enjoy for all the wrong reasons. It’s now used every time one of us does anything mildly wrong.

1.13 End of Days
Roman centurions and stomping beasties, a sinister villain and a spectacular-looking season finale. The trouble is, it all adds up to something merely all right, and for the climax, that in no way cuts it; so, while not a bad episode in itself, for me it undermines the series by being an inadequate conclusion. Still, it’s by far the best of Chris Chibnall’s scripts. Yes, that’s right – we’ve got so far down the list we’ve reached his four stories, the rest from here down. Now, I don’t want you to think he has no talent as a writer. Just watch his episodes of Life On Mars; did you see the one with the ‘corrupt cop… or is he?’ as both Sam and Gene’s mentors are put to the test? Logic, character, a story… So it appears that it’s only in Torchwood that all he can create is empty spectacle. Rhys dies – then, with nowhere else for his character to go, has that undone by the big reset switch, making it utterly pointless (in drama, actions should have consequences; perhaps the biggest problem with this story). Jack goes all messianic, coming back to life after three days then being taken up, along the way forgiving doubting Owen. Sigh. With his own bit of ‘doubter’ nicked from Babylon 5. And the villain who’s evil because he’s evil, like the tackier outings for the Master. And, as the shape of it demands a Buffy-style ‘Big Bad’, the Rift tediously becomes a hellmouth, with a demon coming out and being – who’d have guessed? – easily overcome. Why exactly was it a brainless, lumbering beastie? In Doctor Who last year, The Beast had no mind because its thoughts had escaped elsewhere. Predictably, Mr Chibnall appears to have seen this, but thought no further than ‘Cool!’ at the way it looks. Richard’s review quotes me: “Alex suggests this is Torchwood all over – all the spectacle of Doctor Who but with its brain extracted!” I’ll stick with that.

Still, it’s better than the Robin Hood finale, which – after an uncertainly-toned series of occasionally interesting but more often laddishly brainless entertainment – was just shit, though at least its clumsy strokes at political parallels stayed on the side of the oppressed against the oppressor. …Unlike some forthcoming wingnut Hollywood excrescences I could mention. Yes, I know I shouldn’t slag off a movie without watching it, but really, have you heard about Nottingham?

The Episodes That Make You Lose the Will to Live

1.04 Cyberwoman
First, I have to say that at least the Cyber-brassiere and Cyber-heels are hilarious, like something from a Chris Achilleos rock album cover painting, even though you have to suspend your brain to forget that Cybermen slice off sexual characteristics rather than exaggerating them. And that’s this episode – looks impressive, but no brain at all. They even kill off that pterosaur I liked, and without properly saying so. Bah. John Barrowman and Eve Myles remain solid leads, but this is where it’s most obvious that it’s being aimed at the horny straight fourteen-year-old, the most monster-of-the-week, and the first time of many that one of the dysfunctional Torchwood team cries out to be sacked. And no, I didn’t even mean Mr Chibnall, at that point.

1.02 Day One
With a lost, lonely young woman desperate for contact that means something, it sounds like it could be one of those meaningful, elegiac episodes. It isn’t. It’s the story where YOU SHAG UNTIL YOU EXPLODE! It’s an Angel-ish sexfest with a very slight plot, and not even a patch on Lonely Heart. I only gave it the benefit of the doubt because it was on opening night.

1.06 Countrycide
Richard’s great at spotting whodunnit. Stick on a murder mystery, and he’ll wrap it up far faster than the detective. Aside from the really, really obvious ones (spotting the victim and murder long before the first death in one of Chris Bulis’ Bernice Summerfield books; what is it with writers named Chris?), I’m rubbish at it. So when I tell you that I guessed the ‘twist’ in the pre-titles sequence, with the only surprise in how absurdly useless the team were and how risible Jack is as a strategic leader, you might understand how I wearied of it long before it was over. For the first five weeks, I’d given the series the benefit of the doubt, with stories ranging from poor to pretty good, but no absolute cracker nor absolute stinker to ‘decide’ which side I’d come down on. Sadly, this came along before They Keep Killing Suzie did, and I’d probably have a much more positive view of the series without it. It’s a feeble, derivative slasher movie in which things happen for effect, not for logic. I wouldn’t choose to watch a story with one lone, bloody, cannibal psychopath, but you could believe in lonely madness. A community of cannibal psychopaths with no rationale (Richard’s review suggests several), just because they are, and seeming normal to everyone else… Sorry, this is just bollocks.

Still, this inspired an amusing argument with a writer about the worst Torchwood episode – I argued for this, he was passionate about Cyberwoman – and the Torchwood Declassified drinking game for every time they talk about “going to a very dark place”…


Since Torchwood finished, ITV1 has shown its own version, intended as competitor to Doctor Who but far more like the spin-off. With Charlie Brooker comparing Torchwood to Scooby Doo, this really fits the bill much more; suitable for children, monsters of the week that disappear in a flash, and if Cutter wasn’t Freddie and geeky Connor Shaggy… But, like Torchwood, an improbable team loosely affiliated to the government chase monsters that no-one’s supposed to know about and that pop out of a rift in time, though at least Torchwood left incessant playing of “What’s that coming over the hill, is it a monster?” to its documentary shows rather than over actual scenes. Astoundingly, its characters – very ITV1 – were even more cardboard than Torchwood’s, though much less quirkily dysfunctional. The actors were more wooden, with the exception of the woman from S Club 7: yep, her part largely consisted of ‘get your kit off, luv’, but she developed a character without any help from the script. Even Connor the regular geek of the world’s least convincing set of young-people-conceived-by-the-middle-aged grew on me a little, though the ‘handsome’ men were so dull it was untrue, and the woman excitingly written out of history at the season finale – fair dos, it was well done – was erased so perfectly that neither Richard nor I can remember anything about her. Her rival for Cutter’s affections, the estranged ‘I’m a psycho bitch callous scientist’ wife, may have been a cliché but was worth watching for her joyful nastiness.

Yes, it was monster-of-the-week and ITV-drab, but from less promising material it did better than I expected, while Torchwood under-performed. Torchwood probably still came out ahead, but there should have been no probably about it. Primeval was much dumber, but it had a better idea of what it was about: a recurring villain you love to hate, and cool monsters. You can hardly go wrong with dinosaurs, after all. Well, actually, they did, especially the one with comedy teeth loping about the school, but the sea monster in the swimming pool looked great. So does Torchwood need more monsters? The little boy in my brain who thinks monsters are cool says yes, but the older me who saw what a mess they made of their monster-of-the-week episodes thinks that the more emotional, human stories were what the series did best. Either way, what Torchwood really needs for its second series is to make up its mind.

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Doctor Who Index

Doctor Who’s back at 7 o’clock tonight, and Richard and I are very excited. Spring cleaning is rather less exciting, but this seems an opportune moment to collect together all the many pieces I’ve written about Doctor Who here. This may not be the most urgent bit of tidying up my blog needs, but at least it’s a start… It’ll be updated regularly (like the Politics Index, er, hasn’t been yet), and when I eventually get round to updating the Previously… Fun set of my favourite old articles in the sidebar (whoops, still September), I’ll peg it at the top. In the meantime, watch the show tonight – it’ll be incalculably more thrilling than the Index!

In-Depth Doctor Who Reviews

So Who is This Doctor Bloke Anyway? – A surprisingly snappy notion of all you really need to know about Doctor Who… And updated on my even more Doctor Who blog.

The Time Meddler – including my views on the new ‘Doctor’s Fob Watch’ toy and a a quick peek at Doctor Who DVDs for the first half of 2008

Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who: Now You See It… – On missing episodes, Recons, The Web of Fear and The Macra Terror

The Macra Terror – Even for me, this review’s pretty thorough! Including a look at the Second Doctor.


Inferno (Alternate Universe Mix) – The novelisation, The Dr Who Annual 1971, and a psychological profile of the Third Doctor

Doctor Who: The Scripts (Going Cheap) – An overview of the outstanding Season 12 through The Scripts 1974/5, including Robot, The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen

The Talons of Weng-Chiang – The DVD

The Talons of Weng-Chiang – The Story

Back to Old School: Horror of Fang Rock

Back to Old School: The Ribos Operation

New Beginnings: The Keeper of Traken

New Beginnings: Logopolis

Ben Aaronovitch and Doctor Who – The writing and moral philosophy in Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield, Transit and The Also People

Happy Birthday Professor Quatermass – The Quatermass stories, and the Doctor Who they inspired

Doctor Who Fun in Cambridge

The Ice Warriors – A story watched with friends in Cambridge in early 2006

The Curse of Fenric (Special Edition) – Another story watched with friends in Cambridge in early 2006

The Deadly Assassin – And another story watched with friends in Cambridge in early 2006

Arc of Infinity – The last story there was time to cram into that marathon viewing with friends in Cambridge in early 2006

Shorter Doctor Who Reviews and Articles

2007’s Doctor Who DVDs To Buy (or: Get The Key To Time!) – an overview of all 17 old series Doctor Who stories newly released on Region 2 DVD in 2007

Choosing Doctor Who DVDs Made Easy

Introducing the Doctor… – An overview of Doctor Who Season 2005, and the best of the rest

Escape to DangerDoctor Who: The Beginning DVD Box Set, and the First Doctor

Kevin Stoney, RIP – An obituary of Kevin Stoney, with a look at his character and performance first as Mavic Chen in The Daleks’ Master Plan then, in detail, as Tobias Vaughn in The Invasion

The Green Death

Ooh, Look, it’s Peter Jeffrey – Including The Androids of Tara

Free Doctor Who Books (…With A Small Catch) – Short reviews of fifteen Target novels given away with SFX, plus The Price of Paradise, Made of Steel and SFX and DWM Specials

A Blissful Saturday EveningGridlock and its antecedents

Torchwood Series One – Including the first series of Primeval

Verity Lambert and Doctor Who: Legendary – For Doctor Who’s forty-fourth anniversary, eulogising the series’ late, great, original producer and TV legend

Squinting For BargainsThe Doctor Who Storybook 2007 and Doctor Who – The Official Annual 2007 compared, plus the Animatronic Cyberman

Present: One Small Blog For Me, One Giant Blog With Everyone Else – A day of history, with The Sontaran Experiment

Past: History Matters – Why history is important, not least in Doctor Who

Future: Torchwood – Looking forward to the start of Torchwood

Genius Loci: Ben and Benny – Book review, holding back on spoilers and so not as incisive as it could have been

Storm Warning Warning – Introducing the Big Finish audio plays

David Maloney and Peter Hawkins, RIP

Don’t Panic! …About Doctor WhoThe Impossible Planet and 2006 ratings

What Links Politics, Football and Doctor Who?Rise of the Cybermen ratings

Chips – Russell T Davies’ secret message across the 2006 season of Doctor Who

School Reunion (Early Draft) – Tongue-in-cheek ‘missing scene’

Ooh, I Do Feel QueerThe Caves of Androzani on the Ides of March

Books – How I learned to read on Doctor Who books

Other Doctor Who Bits

The Thinking Blogger’s CartoonistTV21-style Dalek comic strip

…The Adventure BeginsDoctor Who Season 2007 Preview Montage

Two Worlds Will CollideDoctor Who Season 2007 Trailers

Doctor Who Preview RIGHT NOWDoctor Who Season 2006 Preview Montage

I’m Officially Very ExcitedDoctor Who Season 2006 Trailer

You Will Obey Me! – An ‘after’ Utopia-related picture

Don’t Open the Watch! – A ‘before’ Utopia-related picture

Ghost Stories for Christmas and Other Festive Television – M.R. James, The Martians and Us, Secret Army and previewing Voyage of the Damned

“Shaaaappps!” (Thunk) – A Tory MP and the most risible character from The Armageddon Factor; separated at birth

Caitlin Della Hill Is Lovely! – Hello to my new niece, with a visit to the Doctor Who exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester

Blake’s 7 Reborn Blake’s 7 is reimagined as audio drama, touching on Doctor Who writers and audios

The Most Perfect Eating Machine Ever Devised – the Dalek Sec Easter Egg (and a bit of John Barrowman in Any Dream Will Do)

Good Luck, Jacqueline Pearce! – A signing before Jackie emigrated

London and Fuzzy Monsters – How being without glasses is like Army of Ghosts

Six of Ood, Half a Dozen of the Other – Ood playing cards

That Post-Christmas, Post-Who Satisfied Feeling – After The Runaway Bride

Wasn’t That Brilliant? – After Doomsday

Big Finnish – How much is blogging like fanzines? A special bilingual edition

Of Course We Should Elect the Lords! – First photos of the Tenth Doctor and Martha

Man-Eater of Surrey GreenThe Seeds of Doom and this episode of The Avengers

Never Seen The Avengers? Time to Start! – After Martha’s just been cast

Another Poptastic ChartLove and Monsters and ELO

Fundamental Opposition – The Pet Shop Boys’ Integral and the Cybermen (more The Age of Steel this time)

I’m With Stupid – The Pet Shop Boys and Rise of the Cybermen

They’ve Just Incinerated Jennie Bond! – A lack of trailers for The Age of Steel

Writing Press Releases the DWM Way

Let the Fun BeginDoctor Who wins BAFTAs

WikimemeDoctor Who anniversaries on my birthday

The Iron Chicken was Robbed – Obsure Dalek reference

Went The Day Well? with Lady Chatterley – Including David Tennant

Whoops, Missed a Week – With Doctor Who and the Ladies in Pink

Life On Mars – Including Doctor Who connections to the first series

A New Blog… And It’s About Time – My Time Team-following blog of the whole of Doctor Who (one tiny step at a time)

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Thursday, March 29, 2007


The Avengers – The Living Dead

Having been all too distracted by the exciting new world of Doctor Who, I’m not ready in advance for this evening’s episode of The Avengers, which you can find at 7.10 on BBC4 (and 11pm tomorrow). It’s a ghostly episode that may seem like a shade of the first black and white Mrs Peel story, though replacing wistful Second World War iconography with picture-book Britain and spooky dukes suggests a tilt towards American consumption. But with the marvellous Julian Glover among the guest stars, who could complain? Come back after 7 as I unwisely aim to liveblog The Living Dead

Steed finds a mine of information – Emma goes underground

Sinister music, film of a real mine and obviously unreal pub, chapel and graveyard. It’s that unconvincing grassy knoll again. Still, points straight away for getting right to the dead man who isn’t dead, as a white figure rises from one of the graves to ring the chapel bell! The poor old hermit’s terrified. He’s called Kermit, you know – hmm, there’s a name that’ll never be fashionable again. It was the dead Duke’s ghost, we’re told.

The best bit in it’s in the first couple of minutes, again, but it’s not that bit above, fun as it is. It’s Mrs Peel being told she’s needed by the traffic lights. Gorgeous moment.

Steed in grey suit, white shirt and maroon tie’s all right, but I don’t like Mrs Peel’s murky jacket and trousers. Grey? Tan? Green? Like an old bit of dry mud, anyway. Is the ghostly Duke of Benedict the one from the mine disaster five years ago, or the Elizabethan one on the pub sign? Well, obviously everyone claims it’s the 1690s one, but as he’s also the spit of the one they all knew five years ago, something’s up.

Steed chases Kermit, Emma attends chapel. All she finds is a glamorous woman on the floor. I’ve known chapels like that. Anyway, she’s Mandy McKay, the fabulous Pamela Ann Davy, and she’s quite the best thing in it despite her pigtails. Nice leathers, though – comes over like a kooky Mrs Peel. She’s entranced by ghosts; can sense but hasn’t seen them, and wants to be their friend. Vernon Dobtcheff’s not impressed by her “cant and superstition” – a great clashing pair, representing FOG (Friends of Ghosts) and SMOG (Scientific Measurement of Ghosts). At least one of these is going to be a smokescreen, you mark my words.

Steed gets shot at for poaching by estate manager Masgard, who thinks he’s in season. Charm’s wasted on him, so Steed grabs the bumbling duke instead. And it’s Howard Marion Crawford! Almost everyone’s famous. Masgard is ‘Villainous Julian Glover’ again, tall, icily commanding, always one of my favourite actors. As well as villainy in three other Avengers, he’s in The Empire Strikes Back as one of those rare Imperial admirals who’s up to the job, ohh, For Your Eyes Only, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Doctor Who’s The Crusade and City of Death (a particularly fabulous villain), Faction Paradox… Shame he’s not given enough to do here, save get a fake tan and shout a bit. Lots of fake tan lotion, jumpy about ‘the cellar’… Can you see what it is yet?

Oh, Steed, Steed, why do you think it’s your turn for an even nastier murky grey jacket, and yellow shirt? While Emma’s put on a garish pink top and orange jacket. Maybe for a bet. Fun as Emma and Mandy move in on Steed in unison, though. And oh dear, Mr SMOG’s been stuck straight through with the sword from a crusader’s effigy! What was he detecting, one wonders?

Kermit splashes money about in the pub, Steed gets him to confess he lied about the lack of ghost. Great follow-up with Masgard, though – coolly tells our hero he’s quite right, and he paid off the hermit to stop tourists coming in and ruining the game. Things are perking up, with Diana Rigg in that blue and yellow Emmapeeler catsuit that suits her again to go off investigating with Mandy.

The Landlord says the mine was closed to honour the Duke and experts all lost down there in the disaster. If indeed there was such a thing. And Mrs Peel’s seeing another gravestone slide open. Could there be something underground? Gosh, wonder what? Well, running overground is Mandy, scared by a ghost. “It took Mrs Peel!” She stammers and dithers and drinks a lot of brandy. Shame she’s taken off her leather top, though; tan cardigan underneath. What is it with the colours in this story? Everything looks so drab. I’m sorry, but this is the level of critical analysis I can manage when I’m just watching it and typing straight off rather than sitting back and thinking carefully: ‘Colours pretty. Or not.’ But I’m missing Mandy’s story. “I ran.” “And Mrs Peel?” “Didn’t run.” Then she starts dancing around with excitement at realising she’s seen her first ghost. Bless her, you might think.

It’s half-way, Richard’s in with some lovely things to eat from M&S the food porn shop, and Mrs Peel’s woken up in somewhere that looks distinctly solid for ectoplasm. You’re shocked, aren’t you? It matches the secret passage Steed’s found in the cellar – mechanically operated, and with a bloke in gas mask and make-up coming through. Steed’s nicking his outfit – and just as he was back in a nicer grey suit and gold tie, too. Ah, it’s Masgard, in a cheap and nasty suit, ordering the Duke about. A suspicious vaguely-foreigner ordering a peer of the realm! There must be something frightfully villainous going on. They spot the guy Steed stripped, which is alarming. Oh, let’s see, Kermit’s been shot, forgot to mention it, and Steed’s still not in the overalls, which is a blessing. Maybe it was just an extra who went past pretending to be him. He persuades the ex-miner landlord to take him down, but Mandy blinks her big blue eyes at him to come too. No, Steed! You’re meant to be the caddishly seductive one, not the other way round. Let someone charm you instead and who knows where it will lead? Well, obviously, it’s leading underground, where we’ve just seen Mrs Peel for a moment again as she watches an execution in a huge, tall, empty city. She’s not got a lot on this week, it appears.

Hmm, Mandy’s impatient and suddenly doesn’t believe in subterranean ghosts, while Steed’s stuck a miner’s lamp on his bowler (doesn’t suit it) and Masgard has the lines to the old mine lift cut up top, holding the poor landlord at gunpoint with his minions. But despite Mandy’s dubiousness, Steed finds the underground city, great white walls of windows stretching up and along. Oops, did I say “dubiousness” instead of ‘doubtfulness’? Easy mistake to make, as she’s just about to pull a gun on Steed for investigating. Gasp! No, really, she’s one of their best late-reveal villains, and fab to boot.

Meanwhile, Villainous Julian Glover is explaining all to Mrs Peel. ‘Dead’ Duke Rupert escaped and started the ‘ghost’ scare before he was dragged back below, but it’s a surprise the Avengers don’t recognise what’s going on. Just as in The Town of No Return, some dubious Cold War foreigners are stocking up an underground HQ in preparation to seize the country. This time we get to see the whole underground city, which is pretty impressive, but noticeably deserted (and the whole thing has less verve).
“It’s far too elaborate for a private fantasy.”
Ooh, I recognise that line! It’s one of several innuendos sampled into an Avengers remix done sometime in the early ’90s. Haven’t heard that for ages; wonder if they did a video for it? Steed’s beautifully delivered but linguistically improbable line about “Exit” was in that too, I think.

That line of Steed’s won’t be along for a minute – I just remember it. He’s down far below Mrs Peel’s high cell, about to be shot. Well, I say “about to be”; you could work out which dastardly country supplies the villains by spotting which one has the most astoundingly protracted execution preparation, and with a very nervous sergeant-major in charge, too. Plus they all have very nasty little helmets, like a riding helmet gone wrong. Steed’s last request: “cancel my milk.” Ooh, he’s cool. Good job, as it takes Emma simply ages to save him. She knocks out Masgard, then has an exciting fight with Mandy, and only just makes it on “Fire!” to machine-gun the entire firing squad. That’s a bit graphic (with provocation, I suppose). And now the “Exit! …To depart from, to leave, to escape!” Terrible last “That’s the spirit!” pun that makes them all laugh (fortunately, the Duke and friends were there as burial party, so they can pop up top and entomb Masgard now he’s sealed the back way in himself). I love a terrible pun normally, but that was too bad even for me. And uninspired by Mrs Peel under Steed’s engine for ‘ghosts’ at the tag scene, though Steed actually looks rather nice in a chocolatey brown overcoat. Mmmmm. Chocolate.

Well, that was much as I remembered it – competent but a little flat, borrowing a lot from better episodes and never terribly original or sparkling. Still, Pamela Ann Davy is great, Julian Glover’s always worth the money, and the city looks huge – a mix of false perspective and glass painting, Richard suggests, but either way it’s a spectacular size. Just not wildly exciting.

Now time for my patient beloved to see that fantastic Who trailer thingy…

Phew! Finished typing it all by three minutes past eight – hurrah for long credits! Wonder if it makes any sense?

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…The Adventure Begins

Here am I, innocently writing a piece about tonight’s Avengers (BBC4, 7.10), when I idly change channels only to find something even more exciting than Julian Glover.

Never mind those 40-second trailers: a minute-and-a-half-long Doctor Who preview montage is currently playing on a continuous loop on TV.

Turn now to Freeview Channel 302, and doubtless on other digital platforms too (and, all right, I didn’t tune in entirely by accident. After last year, I’ve been checking daily. Blush).

It contains… Not quite spoilers, but tantalisingly heavy hints.

Here are some tantalisingly lighter hints about those hints:

The Doctor and Martha

Slowly building, rousing music

Walking… Things

Flying… Monsters

A very creepy family

A lot of running

Big explosions

Big frocks

Familiar faces

A very familiar building

A word describing one of my least favourite (but often-written about) concepts

David Tennant saying something that you really wouldn’t expect him to say

And could those be crossovers with the BBC’s two other hit fantasy series?
“You’d enjoy anything.”
“That’s me.”




PS If you think you can turn on the wireless to get away from it…
The Doctor’s back, on BBC1. And he’s got a new companion.
(‘Have You Met Miss Jones?’ plays against the sound of the TARDIS)

“You never even told me who you are.”
“I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord.”
Right. Not – pompous at all, then.”

When their two worlds collide, anything can happen.
Doctor Who Theme)

“Landing’s a bit bumpy!”
“Welcome aboard, Miss Jones!”

Brand new Doctor Who – starts Saturday night at seven, on BBC1.

Remember, that’s Channel 302, or press your red button.

I’m very, very excited. And Richard hasn’t even seen it yet… We may watch it once or twice tonight. And possibly into the morning.

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Monday, March 26, 2007


Two Worlds Will Collide

Exactly (glances at watch) two years ago tonight, Doctor Who returned to our screens in a blaze of success with Rose.

In exactly five days’ time, it’ll be back again, when Doctor ‘John Smith’ will meet Martha Jones.

In the meantime, look out for how Martha’s and the Doctor’s worlds collide in the trailers
“I battle with my textbooks…”
“I battle with monsters.”
“I try to save money…”
“I try to save the Universe.”
“I’m going to be a doctor…”
“I am the Doctor.”
“Well – let’s hope this box is big enough for the both of us.”
“I need a guy who’s smart…”
“Suit and trainers works for me.”
“Who likes travelling…”
“I’ve been round the block a few times.”
“Who has a big heart…”
“Two of those, actually.”
“And someone who can make the time.”
“Ah! Now that’s my speciality.”
I’m excited.

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Rogue Male in The Trap

Did you see the final part of Adam Curtis’ “documentary” The Trap? I fear I was shouting at the screen so much last night that I didn’t make the detailed notes needed for a full rebuttal, so hopefully Tom Papworth will give it a thorough fisking while I just hit it with a hammer. Meanwhile, I’ve caught the far more satisfying first episode of BBC7’s thriller serial Rogue Male (listen again tonight). I’ve never read Geoffrey Household’s original book, but after discovering Michael Jayston’s superb reading last time BBC7 broadcast it, I’ve tuned in promptly now it’s come round again…

Rogue Male

First, the dark side of Boys’ Own. I tuned in part-way through this story when it was last on BBC7 a year or two ago, and to my surprise I found it gripping. I suspect I listened initially because my favourite radio show of the 1980s – sadly not yet come to BBC7, nor to any commercial release, and my tapes are rather rickety – was Brogue Male, a terrific spoof of heroic British 1930s adventure tales starring Richard Johnson as dashing gentleman adventurer Sir Digby Spode, Royce Mills as his faithful friend Hubert Carstairs and, in especially large letters at the end, Stephen Greif as the villainous Count Lazlo Stroganoff. This absolutely fantastic but short-lived series evidently borrowed its name from Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel, but at the time I’d never heard of it (and I’ve still not read it, and seen neither Fritz Lang’s nor Clive Donner’s film versions). After a couple of episodes of Rogue Male, though, I was listening to it on its own merits and not just thanks to Sir Digby.

The story is being broadcast from today in 15 half-hour episodes every weekday at 9.30 am, with repeats at 8.30 pm and 1.30 in the morning (I think I’ll give that one a miss), as well as the BBC7 website’s week-long ‘Listen Again’ function, so it’s not difficult to catch. What I think caught me about it is in part the tension of the thriller itself, but perhaps foremost Michael Jayston’s brilliantly sardonic reading style. Written in the first person, it’s ideal to be read, with Mr Jayston lending it a huge amount of character: he comes across as slightly dispassionate and distanced from events, but also as if he’s constantly taking you into his confidence. With so many episodes of such constant tension, it could have been disastrous if it had been read in an over-emotional style – with the unnamed, but far from ‘anonymous’ anti-hero undergoing gruesome torture and near death even from the first, if he had started off sounding on the edge, it’s difficult to know where he could gone from there. The story dares you to side with its protagonist, an affluent, conventionally amoral gentleman who actually has his own keen sense of morality, though as the story unfolds you feel how his honour and individualism both bind and distance him from his establishment background and politics (he claims none, though thinks he could easily have sat for an agricultural constituency in the South of England). I’m not instinctively on the side of a well-off member of the establishment with a misanthropic streak and whose fame lies in shooting animals for fun, but it worked remarkably well on me. Most of all, his survival instinct comes to the fore as, you’ll not be surprised to hear, the hunter becomes the hunted.

I generally prefer my old-fashioned heroic adventures more tongue-in-cheek, but this – though with quite an arch voice to it at times – seems to go rather the other way in making them darker, more realistic, and not a little macho. The anti-hero’s self-reliance and gritty manhood is tested to the limit as he undergoes torture, pursuit and horrible enclosure, turning by turns philosophically introspective and near-feral. But what’s he done to get himself in this situation? On holiday in an unspecified European country, the big game hunter used to stalking beasts becomes fascinated by the idea of hunting the biggest beast. If this was The Avengers, he’d be the villain; in that series, a more wholesome but not entirely dissimilar fantasy of Britain, any hunter who’s serious about their ‘sport’ inevitably turns to human quarry, and our heroes rather frown on that sort of thing. Rogue Male plays with rather more moral shades. His quarry is not a defenceless victim he’s chasing down in bullying fun – instead, he gets himself into the position where he could kill a dictator (and in early 1939, with a ruthless secret police set after him, you can guess which one would have been the biggest). He tracks the man, and aims his hunting rifle through telescopic sights… Then he’s arrested just before he could shoot, but that raises two complex questions from the start. Would he have shot? He tells himself he was just play-acting the possibility merely to see if it could be done, but is that true? And, given the target, might you have wanted him to shoot? So, though it draws on stiff-upper-lipped adventure fiction (and rogue elephants, but household sensibilities forbid me from examining that angle), it anticipates The Day of the Jackal, with just as much tension but in many more shades of grey. And all the ‘trial assassination’ business, first capture and escape is in just today’s first episode, so his ‘big game hunter’ moment is pretty much just a prologue to the role-reversal of his becoming the quarry throughout the rest of the book. I seem to remember it goes on quite a bit (well, it is unabridged) as he’s pursued by the ruthless ‘Quive-Smith’ – the only significant character with a name, but I’m sure it’s not his own – and driven to earth, but as in many ways it’s much more a ‘mood’ piece than a ‘plot’ piece, I also remember that not seeming to matter very much. I suspect I’ll keep listening to the end the second time around too…

The Trap: Whatever Happened To Our Dreams of a Political “Documentary” With a Brain?

Oh well, time for a swipe, then, and though I didn’t stop shouting long enough to get any of his lines down, never fear, I’ve found another source with similar logic to quote instead. I thought The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis’ last polemical “documentary” series for BBC2, covering the neo-cons and Al-Qaeda) was rather good, and was looking forward to the heavily-trailed follow-up. I wasn’t expecting such an incoherent mess. When Tom Papworth’s Liberal Polemic took the first two episodes apart, I thought he was a little harsh. I’d found Mr Curtis’ first two episodes more of a mixed bag than Tom’s critique suggested, and could see decent points in what each of them had to say. As far as the third goes, though, it was the most absurd critique of freedom I’ve ever seen and I hope Tom tears it to pieces and stamps on them. In his impeccably intellectual way. Could this just be because last time Mr Curtis was having a go at political beliefs I despise, but this time he was dissing liberty (though rarely ‘Liberals’, as it happened, because we’d have mucked up his paper-thin thesis)? There’s probably a bit of that. I get less animated if someone else is grievously misrepresented, true, but in part because I don’t know their arguments so well. Mr Curtis clearly doesn’t know his own terribly well.

To go back a little, one problem with the ‘series’ was that the three episodes didn’t follow on from each other with any kind of logic and felt instead like separate programmes. This would have mattered less if he didn’t treat unconnected ‘facts’ as if they were proofs of each other, presenting us with an entirely false syllogism. Using misleading phrases like “We have shown…” to give the illusion of having established a link, when he’s done nothing of the kind, merely got my back up. ‘There are some bad things in the world,’ would have been his starting point. ‘I believe they’re all the fault of people being encouraged to make up their own minds about things instead of accepting the wise instructions of left-wing intellectuals, so I’m going to make a wisely left-wing and intellectual programme with lots of scary clips and music to make people go “ooh”. Oh, and some evidence if there is any, but knowing The Truth is more important than any bourgeois so-called “facts” that might get in the way of belief.’ At least if he’d been on Tedious Platitude For the Day like most evidence-free authoritarians who want their beliefs imposed on everyone else, he’d have been two hours and fifty-seven minutes shorter.

The first programme had, I thought, some fair points against practises in psychology and economics, and though it gave no notion of what he was actually in favour of, his revelations about Game Theory (satirised by Doctor Who as far back as 1979, if you’ve fallen for Mr Curtis’ ‘I’ve got a uniquely brilliant insight!’ shtick) or political groups that argue there’s no such thing as altruism, the public interest or public service, and that people can only act selfishly, all seemed at least intriguing. His second programme, dealing with the failure of central targets and ‘marketising’ seemed good in the round, shaky in the detail and highly questionable in his claims about what the philosophies behind it were, but I wasn’t prepared for just how self-contradictory the final piece would be. The biggest trap that Mr Curtis appeared to fall into was the notion that anyone who uses a particular word subscribes to exactly the same world-view as anyone else who uses it. When it comes to a ‘hurrah-word’ like “freedom” that everyone wishes to stake a claim on, basing your programme on the idea that all rhetoric around freedom reflects the same ideology goes beyond ‘foolish’ and into ‘absolutely bloody stupid’.
“When I use a word,” Tony Blair said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alex, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Tony Blair, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Mr Curtis appears to be the last credulous buffoon in the world who takes every word from Mr Blair at face value. In the Looking-Glass world of Mr Curtis, a Labour government with an unprecedented record of removing individual freedoms and grabbing control to the centre is proof that governments that are in favour of freedom don’t work. The thing is, while Mr Blair’s rhetoric may occasionally mention freedom – though usually just in international speeches – his philosophy and his policy record is entirely different, and most people with a brain would realise that someone hailing “freedom” who stamps down on it at every opportunity does not, in fact, believe in it, rather than taking it as evidence that all believers in freedom must turn to the dark side. Yes, Mr Blair’s tried to co-opt “freedom” into his ‘big tent’, but he’s tried to do the same for every political buzz-word. Back in 1997, that meant an awful lot of people heard what they wanted to hear. Ten years later, everyone has something a bit sturdier to go on. Mr Curtis, on the other hand, thinks that anyone who’s once said they believe in freedom – even if they’ve also professed to believe in a dozen contradictory things – is part of the same philosophical team. So, if you were watching last night, you’d have been told that people inspired by classical Liberals like Isaiah Berlin inevitably do the reverse of what he said, and so what he advocated becomes inseparable from shiftless authoritarians like Mr Blair, American neo-conservatives, ’60s European drop-out terrorists, Marxist revolutionaries in Africa, the Iranian theocratic revolution, the Khmer Rouge and George Michael, who all believe in exactly the same idea of freedom, and any failures for any of them are the fault of all. And of you and me, for liking the sound of “liberty”. If you think that’s an absurd caricature, it is; but by Mr Curtis, not of Mr Curtis. The only reference I made up there was George Michael. Yes, Mr Curtis admits that Mr Berlin argued positive liberty is dangerous, but claims that anyone proposing negative liberty enforces it by positive liberty and is therefore bad, so the solution is to have more nice positive liberty with which to inspire people (despite terror, Cambodia, Iran and Marxism, telling people what they should be inspired by is worth giving up the negative liberty of not killing them if they aren’t suitably inspired. I’ve never been sold on the idea that “negative liberty” is the only worthwhile sort, but another dose of Mr Curtis’ rubbish and I might convert). He repeated the terms constantly, but they may as well have been sheer noise for all the meaning he invested them with. When he railed against the way neo-conservatives reduce the idea of freedom to a very carefully circumscribed ‘economic freedom’ so that the state serves big business, telling people what to think and do for the advantage of big business, I could easily agree. When his woolly antidote was that the state should serve itself, and so tell people what to think and do for their own good, and that that would be lovely… Somehow, I didn’t find either option very attractive.

Isaiah Berlin was constantly referred to throughout – “negative liberty” was attacked at least once a minute – despite the fact that in a clip played of him within the first few minutes, he pointed out that one of the keys to freedom from being bossed around is that the state can’t therefore impose a utopian ideal into which you don’t fit. Like Mr Berlin, perhaps in part from having read his famous essays about concepts of liberty many years ago, I’m deeply suspicious of utopianism, and believe it leads to terrible things in the name of the ‘perfect’ ends justifying the means (my most recent piece about it is here, though as even for me it’s rather long, you might scroll down to the section headed ‘Free Will and Utopia’). I don’t claim to know best for everyone, because everyone’s idea of ‘best’ is different. Mr Curtis doesn’t think people should decide their ‘best’ for themselves, so he quotes all this without understanding a word of it. He says anyone going out to clobber other countries while using the rhetoric of “freedom” – even when they’re doing exactly what Isaiah Berlin warned against – is fulfilling Mr Berlin’s prescriptions. And he also claims that making sure people have freedom to find their own way of life leaves them with nothing to live for. What?! If you need the state to provide your aim in life, what’s the point in having one? Having the freedom to decide your own way of life is not a way of life in itself – it just makes sure that, when you make your own decisions on your own ideals, you don’t clobber everyone else’s ideals along the way.

The number of times Mr Curtis flatly contradicted his own argument made me wonder if, like the odd blog piece I write in a strop, he’d actually read what he’d written before publishing it. The Trap was very like a blog post - a post many, many times longer even than mine, but with lots of pictures and music to make it exciting and cover up that he wasn’t saying anything meaningful. It’s a relief these days to find someone even attempting to make a “documentary” on politics, so I’ll give points for that even when the result was such inept, ill-thought-out, sensationalist drivel. It’s just a shame that the producer didn’t say at any point, ‘Here, Adam, you say these things are connected, but you’ve not brought in any evidence for that,’ and that there’s no fourth programme in which people who know what they’re talking about – or even that don’t – can bung questions at Mr Curtis and show up just what nonsense he was talking. Because three weeks of unchallenged portentous polemic pretending to be the objective word of God was just nonsense.

To paraphrase last night’s edition, Mr Curtis claimed that because people whose rhetoric has a tenuous link to other people who’ve said ‘people should be able to make their own choices without the government pushing them around’ are going around pushing everyone around and making everyone’s choices for them, it proves that letting people make their own choices is a bad idea and we should go back to finding a grand vision, whatever it might be – any one will do, he didn’t say what – and in the name of that, we can then push people around and make their choices for them, for which they’ll thank us because they have something to believe in again (and, presumably, new ‘witches’ to burn who disagree). At the end, Mr Curtis’ inspiring call to arms appeared to be this: authoritarians use the name “freedom” in vain, so freedom has failed and we should give people something to believe in from the top down, because only the government telling them what to think will make them truly free. For the life of me, I can’t see the difference between the “freedom” he was proposing and the “freedom” he was criticising.
“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
Update: while I was writing this, Tom Papworth did indeed post his own piece on the final part of The Trap, followed by his concluding views on the series as a whole. Joe Otten also has a thoughtful piece. But neither of them shouted as loudly as I did: I can tell.

Update 27.03.07: The Trap’s concluding programme has inspired still more critical blog posts… Look out for Liberal England’s crisp note on Isaiah Berlin and, courtesy of Jonathan there, Not Saussure’s detailed analysis.

And another update on the 28th: Millennium has now trampled down all three episodes.

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Friday, March 23, 2007


The Avengers – The Winged Avenger

Tonight’s Avengers episode on BBC4 at 11.40 is one of the most memorable; perhaps not quite one of the best, but if you see it, you’ll remember it. Dark and threatening, knowing and colourful, and all enormous fun, this borrows both sides of Batman – the grim avenger of the comics, the caped campery of the TV series – and turns them into something that could only be The Avengers. It looks great, though to say that it doesn’t look entirely realistic… Well, even for this series, here is an incredibly stylised story that repeatedly bursts through the fourth wall.

Steed goes bird watching – Emma does a comic strip..

A couple of weeks ago, I was a little grudging towards the previous Avengers episode, the curiously lacklustre The Bird Who Knew Too Much. If you want an Avengers take on sinister birds, try this one instead; it’s far more creative and distinctive, and though also far more violent, the violence is of such a stylised nature that it’s far less unpleasant than an ordinary-looking man with a gun. I rather enjoy comic art, but even if you’ve never touched a graphic novel, you’ll recognise Batman here; you might also recognise such guest actors as Nigel Green, an impeccably British authority figure in many films of the time, or a young Colin Jeavons, later the oily whip Stamper in House of Cards. What really stands out about it, though, is the way it keeps reminding you that it’s a television programme – did you see the latest Life On Mars on Tuesday (if not, it’s the fifth episode of the second series, repeated next Tuesday on BBC4 just after the sixth one)? It was a brilliant piece of television, and more like The Winged Avenger than pretty much anything else in the forty years in between, from the stupendous opening Camberwick Green scene to the climax as Sam, in a coma within a coma (probably), watches the other officers in danger against the villain on a TV set inside his head. When the grainy shot that’s on Sam’s TV melts into exactly the same shot in ‘reality’, it echoes the most extraordinary sequence in tonight’s Avengers as, about forty minutes in, the episode switches from the relatively normal ‘mysterious killer’ plot to showing exquisitely drawn pieces of comic artwork fading into exactly the same frame of film of what’s happening for ‘real’…

The rest of this is hurriedly being written before 11.40, but really, if the above doesn’t make you want to watch it, what will?

…OK, finished off now (a couple of hours and a tasty dinner later), so back to the start as the episode opens with a sinister, cloaked figure in rather outré silver boots approaching the office block headquarters of a major publishing firm, within which the ruthless owner is giving his son lessons in how to be a cold-hearted grasper. Before long, a faithful employee has been sacked, and the ruthless businessman torn to pieces by the grotesque claws of a bird-masked thing that has climbed up the side of his offices, to music that’s first ominous and then, in the Winged Avenger’s special four-note theme, positively strident. It’s an arresting opening, though perhaps seeing the man in the bird mask at the first murder isn’t the best strategic decision; much of the first half of the story makes valiant efforts to establish red herrings, or rather herons, but though regular viewers know that the early leads are frequently false ones, having already seen what’s doing the killing is a bit of a giveaway. ‘Mysterious’ news of other murdered businessmen in high places! Books of killer birds studied! Sir Lexius Cray and his falconer’s glove! All wasted, I’m afraid, but watch out for the moment about twenty minutes in when Mrs Peel finds out how this enigmatic killer has managed to scale the outer walls (spoiler coming up in a couple of paragraphs) and breaks the news to Steed, who’s been trying to puzzle it out with the aid of lovingly made models covered in flags and trajectory lines:
“Does it ruin your theories?”
“I have two possible alternatives. The murderer inflates a small balloon – he rises up the nearest building, he fires a rocket line across to the penthouse, he drops a trampoline, he bounces on it, in through the window. Possibility number one.”
“And possibility number two?”
“He bribes the doorman.”
I don’t want you to think the first half of the story isn’t enjoyable; it just has a few structural problems that undermine the tension. Still, along the way the scratches left by the huge claws are rather more graphic than you usually find in the series, and (though bloodless) the various deaths are pretty raw. With the Avengers a little ambiguous but definitely in some way working for law and order, such message as there is in the fairly basic what-or-who-dunnit plot is that they have little sympathy with either the killer or his victims. You’ll have spotted the story’s very broad critique of superheroes as scary vigilantes, but our heroes aren’t fans of the people they’re rushing to save either – at one point they work out who the next victim is going to be by looking in the paper for the day’s rapacious hate-figure and pretty much say, ‘He looks like the sort of complete bastard likely to be knocked off’. Meanwhile, the audience is even more in on the joke than usual, beginning with the ‘Avenger’ title and the first victims; they’re publishers who rip writers off and are mauled to death. Just a little bit of a wink, there. One of the first and best ‘fourth wall’ gags goes to Nigel Green, despite not having much to do as Sir Lexius. A mountaineer first seen with Mrs Peel on a rock face in howling wind and snow, looking as convincing as any ’60s studio set, the camera pulls back to show it’s built in his library and he just likes to keep in practice at home. All his acting ‘suspicious’ goes rather to waste, though at least he’s not as suspicious as his distracting manservant Tay-Ling. This is the least convincing ‘Oriental’ character outside of Benny Hill, with no make-up or any other facial resemblance to an actual Chinese actor; his presumed ethnic background is communicated entirely by the music, a set of false teeth and a feeble cod accent, of which the music isn’t too bad. I suppose a genuine Chinese actor wouldn’t have looked all that Tibetan or Nepalese either – it’s implied he’s from somewhere around the Himalayas – but at least they might have looked less like Nosferatu.

Steed and Emma’s look is rather better than Tay-ling’s – even the butler’s jacket-and-t-shirt ensemble is unflattering – and this week Mrs Peel definitely has the best time of it. She gets a couple of catsuits, a mustard-yellow and maroon one that doesn’t quite work but a vivid blue one with pink highlights that’s very striking, as well as a rich green jacket over a black top. Even the pink frock looks good. Steed has a more variable time; quite a nice navy pinstripe, and of course that grey suit with gold tie, but he spends altogether too much of the episode in a pond-slime-brown checked jacket that he really shouldn’t. But back to an outfit that’s important to the plot… In the absence of a giant killer bird, the murders turn out – gasp! – to be being committed by a man in a stylised bird costume, climbing walls with the aid of special magnetic boots, as invented by the eccentric (boy, does he try to be eccentric) Professor Poole. The Professor lives in a huge gothic pile at the top of a rather fabulously vertiginous set of stairs, and has a serious case of bird envy: he tries to do the calls; he tries to fly; he hangs upside-down from the ceiling. Yes, I know, they’ve forgotten that this is Batman ‘Birdman’ for a moment, haven’t they? He’s made the mistake of flogging his boots to someone ever-so-slightly unstable from the offices of Winged Avenger Enterprises, Britain’s premier judge, jury and executioner superhero until Judge Dredd came along ten years later (and he’s got an eagle on his shoulder, you know, so think on). Our heroes have also found copies of Winged Avenger comics at the scenes of the crimes, and noticed some of the splash frames of bodies ‘executed’ by the Avenger bear an uncanny similarity to the real dead businessmen. Could it be a coincidence? Of course not. Check your watch: ‘red herring time’ expired five minutes ago, along with the bloke on the duck shoot.

Ee-urp! The Secret Identity Revealed

The remainder of the story appears to be shaping up as ‘which of the Winged Avenger staff has gone bonkers in the nut’, and that’s not too tricky to spot. There’s Julian, who dresses in the costume and poses for the drawings (note: this is not, in fact, how comic artists work outside of The Avengers), but he’s too dull and has too few lines to be the villain; there’s Stanton the writer, who’s prissy, highly strung and on the edge of losing it – yes, the one with the ‘I’m so obvious it can’t be me’ sign from the Agatha Christie job lot hung round his neck; or there’s Arnie the artist, who seems completely in control but wants to abandon the successful partnership and take over in his own right. Almost as if he needs to decide everything in the world himself, from the story to life and death! Well, all right, the plot’s not a complex one even by Avengers standards, but here’s where the style really starts delivering. Not just the enormously entertaining variations on the word “Ee-urp!” (which like “KKLAK!” must be experienced rather than explained), but the gorgeous panels of artwork that suddenly become the stars of the show. They’re beautifully inked and coloured panels by the extraordinary Frank Bellamy, but it’s the way that among pictures of all the victims we suddenly see Professor Poole on the ’phone to Emma, then see him ‘really’ do just that, then his double-take at the claw coming into shot, which reverts back to artwork again… That’s what has a touch of genius about it. Forty minutes in and it’s suddenly hit creative overdrive with the way that, abandoning even the most meagre pretence of realism, Steed and Stanton start following the story by using impossible artwork as if it was CCTV. It looks absolutely fantastic, even if the drawn Emma going up the enormous stairs has a much bigger bum than Diana Rigg, or even her ‘double’ on location (though to be fair, the Winged Avenger outfit looks a lot more stylish in comic strip form than in fluffy costume).
“I am the eradicator of all evils. I deal out justice and vengeance to those whom the law cannot touch. And to those who stand between me and my purpose!”
Of course, much of this sounds like the job description of the Avengers themselves, and the title is a subtle clue to that line of commentary, but you can spot the difference: Arnie really only gets one scene to speak ‘in character’, and he’s rather less ‘diabolical mastermind’ than just maaaad. He does, however, threaten Mrs Peel in an upside-down fight after he’s finally revealed, and who can save her now? Well, usually she would herself, but those claws are jolly mean, so after a story of implying ‘that grim vigilante chap who hangs about dressed as a Bat; he may not be entirely stable’, and as it’s the mid-1960s, where else could it go for the grand finale than Adam Ward’s camp TV Batman? In dashes Steed, still holding those artwork panels, and uses them to batter Arnie before he can strike out. You’ll never guess what the boards have on them here, either. Oh! It turns out you have. Being hit by “POW!” “SPLAT!” and “BAM!” distract him sufficiently for Mrs Peel to be able to kick his legs away, and he plummets through the window to a music you might also be able to recognise (and it’s amazing the lawyers didn’t object to). All that remains is for Steed to draw a meal at Emma’s flat and convert it into reality, serving it with a “PING!” as she pops the champagne with a giggle. It’s a very satisfying end to a very stylish story, one that started well, fumbled several times as it went along, but teetered on the edge of genius as it veered unsteadily to its climax. Very funny, very silly and very good fun, this is a fitfully brilliant fusion of comic strip art and ’60s pop art. Just watch out for the day when Gordon Brown starts dressing up as a giant buzzard.

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Gordon Widens Gap Between Rich and Poor – Tony Lies About It

Who says they don’t get on? The Prime-Minister-in-waiting-and-waiting-and-sulking-and-waiting has, in his final Budget, straitjacketed his successor into doubling tax rates on the lowest-paid, while on the same day the Prime-Minister-in-custody told Ming Campbell that the lowest earners pay no higher a proportion of their wages in tax than the highest. That was untrue then, and it will become more untrue as a result of Mr Brown’s Budget. With so many excellent blog pieces already analysing the Budget, I hadn’t intended to join in, but clobbering low earners like that makes me rather cross. Besides, I have some questions to ask.

As columns of figures tend to send me to sleep, many thanks to Will and Jonny for their easy-to-read graphs summarising the effect: that after not so much changing tax rates as shuffling them, very little changes except that you lose money if you earn under about £18,000 a year. In other words, for all that show, there’s very little change except to punish the people who already earn the least, as Ming Campbell famously pointed out in his reply to Mr Brown on Wednesday and David Cameron, er, wasn’t bright enough to spot and had to count up on his fingers later. A Conservative Leader must be very dim not to have spotted it; after all, income tax cuts for the better-off subsidised by stealthy sleight-of-hand tax rises for people on lower incomes was the favourite tactic of Mr Brown’s predecessor as Conservative Chancellor, Nigel Lawson. And of all the many other pieces written about the Budget, I’d also recommend Stephen Tall’s new and thoughtful analysis, though he obviously doesn’t share my now Pavlovian revulsion at Mr Blair (not that I hold any torch for Mr Brown, but I haven’t yet learned to disbelieve every single word he utters), and of course Jonathan Calder’s piece in which he reports what Mr Blair actually said and so is far less charitable (see there for how the richest do, in fact, pay a proportionately lower share than the poorest).

With so much writing already online, I’ll be briefer than usual; most of what I’d say has already been said. But a few questions still occur to me. The first is, what is the point of a revenue-neutral budget? If it’s neither to take nor to release more money, surely it must be to make significant changes to the tax structure. And why do that? Surely to benefit different groups, or to change behaviour. The really odd thing about Mr Brown’s Budget is that he hasn’t really done any of those things. Even his ‘simplifying’ of the income tax bands to two doesn’t actually change them for some of the non-work earnings taxed on income such as savings and dividends – so Mr Brown has ‘simplified’ three income tax bands into two bands or three bands (consult your tax tables to see which applies).

The Liberal Democrats have proposed a revenue-neutral package to make a ‘Green Tax Switch’. While Mr Brown merely fiddled at the edges of a couple of minor environmental taxes, which will change no-one’s behaviour, the Liberal Democrat plan is a huge redistribution of tax onto pollution to fight climate change, along with abolishing some of the large tax subsidies available to the rich, and to use every penny to cut taxes for people on lower and middle incomes. That includes a 2p cut in national income tax and cutting the 10p rate altogether. Now, when I heard Mr Brown speak, it sounded initially as if that’s exactly what he was doing; when he said he would abolish the 10p rate, I remember thinking, “How on Earth will he find the money to do that?” I’ve seen the figures, and know you need a pretty major tax switch to afford it. Of course, I’d been taken in for a moment by the ambiguity of ‘abolishing the 10p rate’ – as I said in commenting about Ming’s recent speech, that can mean either that we’d raise everyone’s tax allowances so instead of paying 10p in the pound at the bottom end, you’d get to keep every penny up to that level… Or that everyone’s earnings that are currently taxed at just 10p will be taxed at the standard rate instead. Of course, though Gordon had taken the headline-grabbing 2p cut in the standard rate from the Lib Dem plan, he’s cancelled it out by doing exactly the reverse of the Lib Dem proposal for the poorest tax-payers. We would have cut the 10p rate down to nothing, so the poorest two million would pay no tax at all; he’s doubled the 10p rate to 20p, raising taxes on the poorest two million so they have to pay more.

The answer to ‘why did Mr Brown bother?’ is, of course, that ‘2p off national income tax!’ is a good headline, even if it conceals robbing the poor to pay the rich. After all, it worked for the Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher, another long-serving Prime Minister with a brilliant Chancellor; another team who were smug about the widening gap between rich and poor and who, ultimately, couldn’t stand the sight of each other. I can’t criticise Gordon Brown for picking the tax cut that offered the best headline – after all, that’s why the Liberal Democrats picked it, too. What does stick in my throat is that he’s done it only for the headline, and that behind it, the change amounts to absolutely nothing. Another year to fight climate change lost; another two, probably, as this has been announced for next year, and Mr Brown evidently doesn’t trust his successor to write a budget of his own.

There remain a few more questions. How far can income tax be cut? Yes, it’s a tax on jobs, and in theory that’s a bad thing. But it’s also the tax most closely related to ability to pay, which is a good thing. Though people attack stealth taxes, the political reality is that no tax cuts are more popular than income tax cuts (again, that’s why we picked them, too). In an ideal world, I would not want to tax jobs. Or goods. Or pensions. Or homes. Or, let’s face it, anything. No-one enjoys any tax – and all taxes hurt someone, even when you aim the tax at pollution, not people. No one tax can ever be a panacea that will fund everything but hurt no-one, and anyone who claims to have found one is delusional. If public spending could be financed by magic money from the pixie tree, that would be lovely, but sadly no such thing exists (though George Osborne is still frequently seen digging up the Home Counties at night in a desperate attempt to find it). That means you can’t, in the end, cut income tax to nothing, even though doing this would reward work, because the effect would inevitably be regressive.

Coming back to regressive taxation brings me round again to Mr Brown’s tax raid on the lowest-paid, and my last question. Doubling income tax for everyone currently on the starting band has been defended by Mr Brown and his minions on the grounds that the 10p band has ‘done its job’, now that the system of tax credits is in place to give the money back to people who need it, so they won’t be worse off at all. There are several problems with that argument. It means that, instead of straightforwardly keeping their own money, people must jump through the bureaucratic hoops of a system proven to be riddled with errors and delays. It means that generally younger, single people will be singled out to be harder-hit. And it means above all that Mr Brown would rather pay the extra costs of bureaucracy and intrude into everyone’s lives to decide by his arcane whim what money they ‘deserve’, rather than let them simply keep the money they earn, because he wants to be in control, boss around everyone’s lives, and make his serfs grateful for the pittance he deigns to dole out to them. Well, we already knew that. What I don’t know is this. If the 2p cut to the standard rate is paid for by doubling the income tax rate for the lowest-paid, but Labour claims they won’t suffer because they’ll get the money back anyway through tax credits, which are more expensive to administer than letting them keep the money in the first place… If the money to pay for the headline cut is being given back to the people it’s being taken from (with an extra cut to pay for the bureaucracy), then where does the money for the tax cut come from?

No wonder he’s left the implementation of this to his successor.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Doctor Who – New Beginnings: Logopolis

It makes me feel old to realise that the final episode of this story was first broadcast twenty-six years ago today, but unlike Tom Baker’s Doctor, I’m not about to transform into a younger man. The best-remembered of the trilogy of stories in this DVD box set, Logopolis is driven by extraordinary ideas and a funereal atmosphere, with Tom giving one of his finest performances. The whole Universe is threatened, but it’s the inescapable sense that the Doctor’s future is catching up with him that gives the story its heart, building to what’s still the most moving change between Doctors.
“It’s the end… But the moment has been prepared for.”
You’ve probably seen some of the trailers that have started up in the last week for the new series of Doctor Who. The Doctor and Martha appear as two halves of the same face, living their own lives that gradually bring them together in the TARDIS. It looks great, and I still know very little about any of it all – hopefully I’ll be able to stay in that happy state of surprise and delight until at least a week on Saturday, when the new series begins. One thing I do know is that the Doctor will somehow befriend a new companion, Martha Jones, whose face you’ll now already know from the ads. After recreating itself as a big hit with Christopher Eccleston in 2005, last year it had to establish a new Doctor, and now find a way of following Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The series has always changed and evolved, and the original series had more than its share of change in the twenty-six years it ran. One of the biggest challenges of all was a full and rather scary twenty-six years ago today, when the man with the scarf, the longest-serving, most popular and iconic Doctor of the lot finally left. What could be a fitting exit? And how could you possibly follow Tom?

By accident or design, Tom Baker left Doctor Who not in a single scene, or even a single story, but as the climax of themes that had built up over an entire season of the show, its eighteenth. He’d played the part through seven years, but not in the same way throughout: moody, playful or doomy, Tom’s performance is as varied as his stories and almost as delightful, but when he’s really blazing with charm or blazing with passion as he stands up to some cosmic bully, ah, that still feels like you could watch him forever. His stories start off with scary horror, evolve into carefree fun and fantasy, then end up as sombre scientific fairy tales, and I love each approach (and that none of them stayed around too long). Again whether through chance or careful planning, perhaps just because it was the time of ‘concept albums’, all Tom’s seasons have strong themes that link the stories within them. There’s ‘body horror’, ‘dark religion’, ‘Time Lords’, ‘The Key to Time’ and even ‘the power of words’, but for me the two years with the most distinctive flavours are his first and his last, each dealing with new beginnings, one pitching a fresh new Doctor into humanity’s different missions to survive through cold science, the other building up to the ‘death’ of a tired, wise old Doctor in stories of ‘decay and change’, each one showing how things fall apart and then offering hope of new life. This final season for Tom’s Fourth Doctor is less playful than before, but still wittily quotable; scary again, with vivid images, great music, every penny seeming well-spent and an enthralling feeling of doom that gets deeper with every story… Even if you weren’t following the scripted themes and didn’t know that new producer John Nathan-Turner had determined to make his mark, you couldn’t miss the mood of it all, the way the musical and visual style had suddenly changed, or that new companions were suddenly surrounding the Doctor, now almost the last thing about the show that hadn’t changed. Fortunately, after all this build-up the end-of-season finale pays off – and though it has a remarkable visual and musical style, its strength lies not in spectacle but in its ideas and its leading man. Sitting in the middle of the trilogy between The Keeper of Traken and Castrovalva, Logopolis is not just the literal centrepiece of the Doctor Who New Beginnings DVD set but its emotional heart.

The TARDIS Inside-Out

With so much in the series changing or about to change by the time Logopolis was broadcast, nothing seemed entirely secure. With the main creative force driving this season being script editor Christopher H Bidmead – script editor being, at the time, almost as significant a position as Russell T Davies’ ‘lead writer / show runner’ status on the new series – it’s a good job he ended up writing the final story that brought it all together, or rather showed how everything could fall apart. It’s a fascinating script, brimming with ideas, whether immense scientific concepts (including a wild excitement about these new-fangled things called computers), compelling myths or a mixture of the two, with dialogue running from the sharply witty to the impenetrably technological, for me only really falling down in the way it draws some of its characters, or fails to. One of the cleverest things Mr Bidmead’s script does, however, is take things we think we know and make them suddenly strange and disturbing – almost the series’ job description, but applied to familiar elements of the series itself, most strikingly the TARDIS and the Master.

Logopolis begins by making the TARDIS unsettling. Viewers had had eighteen years to get used to it as a place of safety and familiarity, with the fact that its battered old police box exterior concealed a space and time ship that was bigger on the inside than the outside long past being a surprise. An Unearthly Child, the very first episode back in 1963, opened with a policeman finding a police box with two oddities: what was it doing hidden in a junkyard rather than out on the street, and why did it give off a strange hum of power? Logopolis opens with a police officer going up to what was by then a rarity, one of the outmoded old police boxes, and opening the front panel to make a call. As they’d largely vanished from the streets since the ’60s, the audience first think he’s approaching the TARDIS, then realise it’s one of the last ‘real’ ones. Then, just as we’re settling down to that adjusted perception, the police box bucks and shimmers disturbingly, the ’phone stops working and the policeman is dragged inside, to sinister music and a sinister chuckle. With the viewer no longer sure what to make of the TARDIS, we’re then introduced to the Doctor striding along dusty, ivied cloisters that make the TARDIS’ inside, too, seem strange and ancient, then hear that he too is worried about his ship and that a ‘Cloister Bell’ warning of doom is sounding to confirm his fears. The TARDIS is old and unreliable, and one of its many disadvantages is that, though in theory it should change its shape to hide more effectively, it’s been stuck for many years as the same instantly recognisable blue box. The Doctor decides to measure up a real police box, then take the results to a planet of computational geniuses he knows so they can spot the difference. Or something. Anyway, the Doctor plans to fix it, but though you’ll know even from the 2007 trailers that he doesn’t quite succeed in transforming his ship into a different shape, he ends the story in a new shape himself, while Mr Bidmead’s sly pun is that though the TARDIS’ exterior stays the same in our eyes, the script succeeds brilliantly in transforming the idea of the TARDIS in our heads.

The whole first episode is concerned with making the TARDIS suddenly an unknown and uncanny place, as the Doctor lands his ship around the same ‘strange’ police box that we saw earlier only to apparently release a spectral figure that goes on to haunt him, and to find that, rather than the tiny cupboard-like space he was expecting, for once he’s the one who’s surprised that it’s bigger on the inside than the outside. He and Adric go deeper and deeper inside the ‘other’ TARDIS, each time finding yet another police box within, each time finding it darker, dimly orange-lit as if they’re flies trapped in amber. It helps that, with so many scenes within the TARDIS, they’ve obviously spent quite a bit of money to build the cloisters and panelled corridors, as well as a new and much larger control room (though the control console itself remains a little battered). It makes the ship look properly enormous and is well-shot, often from very high angles, to emphasise that. A number of ’80s Doctor Who stories spend altogether too much time inside the TARDIS instead of getting out and exploring the strange place in which it’s landed. That isn’t the case here. In this story, the TARDIS itself has become a strange and dangerous place, and with the Doctor and Adric exploring the cancer at the heart of it, two people wander inside looking for help, one to her death – disturbingly from the TARDIS’-eye view – and the other seeing it as a terrifying labyrinth (with her then effectively stalked in the second part of the story). Unlike the ‘usual’ Doctor Who model of a scary story, where perhaps we’d come to expect and so be less affected by scary monsters, this becomes more unsettling by subverting the show’s safest place in these doomily compelling sequences, a horror story inside the TARDIS, a nightmare of infinite rooms. After starting with a reminder of the very first Doctor Who story, there’s another effect here, too, for long-term viewers; Logopolis takes elements of several stories from Jon Pertwee’s time as the Doctor and weaves them into something more dark and serious (a ‘ghost’ of a Time Lord’s future from Planet of the Spiders, TARDISes within TARDISes from The Time Monster, and a great deal from of the iconography from Terror of the Autons turned less playful and more deadly). The most obvious of these is the confirmation – a fear realised for the Doctor, but no surprise to anyone witnessing the sting in the tail that closed The Keeper of Traken – that the cause of the darkness in the TARDIS is the Master.

A New Baddie At Last
“One mistake now could ruin everything.”
The return of the Master in a new body, suave and bearded as he’d been in the early ’70s, is what pushes the story along, though the success of the changes to this character is rather more mixed than the story’s remarkable ability to transform the TARDIS. One of the Doctor’s people, another travelling exile but with a taste for power rather than a wide-eyed enjoyment in exploring the Universe, John Nathan-Turner decided that the Master should be brought back, and Christopher H Bidmead decided that he had to be more nasty and less charming. Originally devised as a Moriarty-like recurring arch-enemy for the Doctor (and yes, I know, that means he isn’t like Moriarty, though Logopolis does consciously end with a deadly reversal of the Reichenbach Falls), that version was played rather well by Roger Delgado, but was often rather more likeable than the Doctor at the time and not exactly a brilliant opponent: there are only so many times you can ally yourself with a dubious race of alien conquerors, then realise at the last minute that once you’ve done your side of the bargain they’re going to turn on you – and he often realised this after they’d turned on him – before a critical observer starts saying, ‘It isn’t them, it’s you’. He worked superbly as a burned-out, hate-filled ghoul in The Deadly Assassin and The Keeper of Traken, but Anthony Ainley’s portrayal of him in the ’80s sees a return to the ludicrous plans, and repetitive plots based on ‘I need a new body / TARDIS / microwave’ or ‘I must devise a complicated way to get my revenge on the Doctor rather than have a plan to do anything to advance my own position’, each of which motivations was a fresh take on the character in The Deadly Assassin but each of which get very stale. The other problem with the character is that he’s often used as a general-purpose cackling bad guy who, well, just cackles and is bad, and with that little to work on, in several (though not all) stories Mr Ainley cackles rather too much and adds extra meanings to ‘bad’ acting, often justifying his comedy sketch dismissal as ‘the camp one’.

Logopolis builds up the threat of the Master very well, with him an unseen but palpable presence for the first half of the story, his sinister chuckles stalking several characters and poisoning the TARDIS, and the Doctor gaunt and bleak at the first cliffhanger as he finds dead, grotesquely shrunken bodies and knows from this calling card that the Master must have escaped from Traken. Well, all right, they’re Action Men, but it’s still an effective moment. It’s once he makes a full appearance that things occasionally go awry. He is sadistic and unpleasant, and has a terrific moment when, having approached Nyssa and – as he now ghoulishly possesses her dead father – used her as an unwitting spy in the Doctor’s camp, she learns who and what he is. Challenged that he killed her father, his dismissive retort is “But his body remains useful,” which gets across how vile he is more than any amount of panto devilry. Next to old Tom, he looks young, lean and lithe, the coming man, and that’s obviously how he thinks of himself. In 1981, there’s a definite air of selfish Thatcherite on the rise, and towards the end of the story he teases the Doctor for his age and comfortable ways, able to patronise his wistful appreciation of the Master’s fully functional TARDIS with:
“Excellent, Doctor. Envy is the beginning of all true greatness.”
Other impressive moments of characterisation include his horror at the appalling results of his mistake sliding into an eye for the main chance, or the way he loses his nerve like a typical bully and bolts, even when his best interests lie in working with the Doctor to salvage the horrific mess he’s accidentally created. His ambitious impatience sparks this catastrophe, but it also makes him seem more stupid and as a result less dangerous; when his slightly silly schemes are totally outmatched by what actually happens, it’s like a B-Movie being thrashed by hard science fiction. Of course, the villain shouldn’t have the foresight or wisdom of the hero, but when he rapidly teeters over into such clichéd plotting and then gloats about it so that the Doctor is already exclaiming, “You’re utterly mad!” Well, that just makes him less sinister than a bit silly.

Though the focus of the story is on his arch-enemy, the Doctor is accompanied by a number of friendlier but equally newly cast regular characters. Well, I say ‘characters’, but like the Master, they’re less character parts than walking plot functions, and though Adric, Nyssa and Tegan also each work pretty well in this story, just like the Master they later get stuck in plots in which they function rather less well and have little in the way of well-rounded characterisation to help them out. Adric’s function here is to be the Doctor’s apprentice and old friend (even though he’s only been about for a handful of stories), and he performs it quite adequately – particularly when his dialogue with the Doctor sparks off some of the funnier moments, such as his over-literal misunderstanding of idiom (“Standing on their heads is an expression,” mutters the Doctor), or when the Doctor, on edge, snaps at him to provide some reassurance to his mentor for a change. And he gets to perch on top of a TARDIS, which isn’t an image you see every day. Nyssa’s function is even simpler: having lost her father and soon rather more, she’s there to suffer nobly, and the astonishingly vast canvas on which this story turns out to be painted needs someone to show the impact it has on people. As a result, she gets one of the most achingly affecting scenes in the story, which I’ll come to in the next and more spoilery section. Tegan, on the other hand, is supposed to be the ordinary person who asks questions and who the audience identifies with. She joins the series here when she tries to make a call from the TARDIS after her car gets a flat – she merely gets lost and taken to another planet, while her doomed Aunt Vanessa isn’t so lucky – and she’s an Australian air hostess. You can tell this, because she’s brash, shouts a lot, and talks about aircraft all the time, while aircraft are subtly heard going overhead. Despite all this, I’ve always rather warmed to her, particularly with her little faults; I can recognise that sometimes she blusters about things that she’s not actually very practical on to cover her nervousness and recklessness. I can empathise with that. As effectively the first ‘audience viewpoint character’ of the ’80s, she also provides a huge contrast with Rose, the first of the new series’ companions. Tegan spends most of her time shouting at the Doctor; Rose gets cross with him on occasion with reason, but mostly enjoys herself. Even more importantly, Tegan – like Adric and Nyssa – blatantly goes through what used to be almost a companion’s rite of passage in their first story: one of her family gets killed, she gets over it pretty quickly, and (even though Tegan is the only TARDIS traveller other than Rose who we ever see visit other family members) so, symbolically, we know no-one’s going to miss her. Rose’s family were a strong thread throughout her stories and panicked when she disappeared, yet here the Doctor is a surrogate father to three young people, all of whom have just lost an older family figure in violent circumstances. And in this story they’re going to lose their Doctor, too…

But I’m Telling You the Plot…

Not quite yet, I’m not. But soon…

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