Sunday, April 15, 2007


A Blissful Saturday Evening

For some people it’s being out in the sun, for some it’s great food, for some it’s their loved ones… Well, Richard and I had a very agreeable walk in the sun this afternoon and enjoyed our steak and chips this evening, but what we took the greatest pleasure in was our own company. And the television. You knew, didn’t you? We both thought tonight’s Doctor Who, Gridlock, was absolutely marvellous, so for once I’ve got some (spoilertastic) observations before Millennium gets there. Then watching Any Dream Will Do let us indulge our inner Statler and Waldorf to the full…

So, did you see Gridlock tonight? If not, what on New New (etc) Earth were you doing? We warmed up with some fabulous old telly, and even some of Carry On Up the Khyber – would I take that film with me to a desert island if offered just eight? I might, you know – but Doctor Who still knocked them all into a cocked hat for sheer joy, and as I’m going to say a little of why, if you don’t want to know the result then look away now. Well, I’m told it’s a special milestone with tonight’s story, as Doctor Who – already the longest-running sci-fi series in the world, even if you take out the years in which it was inconveniently missing from the screen – passes Star Trek and all its multifarious spin-offs in terms of number of individual episodes (I’ve not counted them, so if someone’s worked this all out on their fingers and got it wrong, please take my apologetic shrug as read. I’m enjoying this evening far too much to start researching Star Trek series online). The lovely Mr Matt Davies, who may or may not resemble Tobey Maguire, tells us with uncanny timing for Gridlock that it’s also the 75th anniversary of the Highway Code. However, tonight I’m more concerned with another milestone anniversary – if you’ve not seen Doctor Who, you really should stop reading now – that technically passed a few weeks ago. It’s the fortieth anniversary of the first appearance of legendary Doctor Who monsters the Macra, and I whooped aloud when their giant, crabby forms appeared through the swirling traffic fumes beneath New New (etc) York.

After last year’s fortieth anniversary re-imagining of the Cybermen, by the way, I’m hoping for a pattern. That means I’m holding out for multi-functional hovering robots popping out deadly accessories from all angles as their spiky heads spin and spin; yes, with an exciting 2008 remodelling in my head that mixes an Imperial Probe Droid and a malignant penknife, next year expect the Quarks. You read it here first.

I’ve always been very fond of the long-lost 1967 story The Macra Terror, and I’d intended for months to write a review of it for its fortieth anniversary. I’d even started writing bits of it, and was delighted when I found a new (and fabby) Reconstruction was available, just in time. I can now reveal, though, that a week or two before I posted my humungous review (well, the Macra were the largest monsters built for the old series, and it seemed an appropriate way to celebrate them), someone let slip a ‘hint’ about a returning old monster. Though I’d been desperately trying to avoid spoilers, obviously my Who-honed brain instantly turned the supposedly cryptic clue into ‘Damn, that must be the Macra’. I considered abandoning my review as a result, but at least I’d worked it out, as once I published my review a couple of people said things along the lines of ‘So you’re tying that in with this year’s surprise monster return, then?’ and I’d have been rather dischuffed if the surprise had been spoiled quite so blatantly. Fortunately, when Richard heard there was a story coming up called ‘Utopia’, he had immediately and convincingly pegged them to turn up there, so I was still able to be surprised and delighted when the Macra were revealed half-way into tonight’s show. Hurrah! Even the spoiler hadn’t managed to spoil it for me.

There’s a bit of me that wanted a bigger part for them than ‘monster in the pit’, but I can see the logic: if you’re having secret monsters under a human settlement in the far future that live off toxic gas, if they hadn’t used the Macra people would just have said, ‘Oh, they’re just like the Macra.’ Like the Slitheen and the Foamasi. And, in the end, I think the Macra were rather well-used. There are echoes of the earlier story without repeating the plot – the Doctor overturning the system and freeing everyone, of course, but also touches like a traffic hologram replacing jingles, or people being trapped without being aware that they’re trapped, despite the rumours that everyone knows but daren’t repeat. And, no, they weren’t behind (beneath) it all this time, but the setting actually turned that to a strength for me rather than a disappointment. In 2005’s The End of the World, the Doctor has a witty adventure in the year five billion (see if you can guess one of the main events taking place in it), encountering among sundry non-human people the wicked Lady Cassandra, who’s technically the last human but has had so many changes that she looks like a huge, stretched skin – the most striking image in a gloriously rich set of visuals. After all that, I found that most people pretty much looking human in last year’s visit to New Earth in five billion and a bit was a bit of a let-down. Along with some extra effort at diversity among the human-ish and non-human but also people this time – five billion and a bit more – and, hurrah, an old married same-sex couple and some naturists (we’d fit right in), the Doctor observing that the Macra had, over billions of years, devolved to the level of snapping beasts was a very welcome reminder that change happens, as well as that ‘progress’ and evolution are not always linear synonyms.

For readers of my review of The Macra Terror, incidentally, though I’ll leave the in-depth review of Gridlock to Millennium, I have a couple of observations relating to theories there. I noted that there isn’t an explanation of where they come from in the original story, and that some people suggested there’s a circle of oppression in which the humans they exploit forced them underground in the first place: no, says Russell T Davies, they were all over the place and did this sort of underhand aggression quite a lot. And as for my going into how they were the Colony’s psychosis made manifest… Well, perhaps they were the same for the car people, de-evolved and bestial and simply surviving, just as the gridlockees just went round and round aimlessly. OK, that’s more of a stretch, particularly with so many associations of the underworld / afterlife and how blind faith keeps them going (both misled and ultimately keeping them alive until they’re redeemed), and I’m not sure how to fit a crab psychosis in with the religious allegories…

I did love the huge energy of it all, with the Doctor hopping down through the cars – that joyous kinetic feel was superbly balanced by the relentless horror of the gridlock itself, and it all segued beautifully into the heart-wringing requiem for the Face of Boe and the Doctor’s people, and the fantastic spectacle of the city coming, out of all that death, back to life. In all, the story had just as many moods as last year’s New Earth trip, but here they complemented each other rather than clashing. I enjoyed all the undermined expectations, too: the Macra not being the main antagonists once revealed as at the bottom of the gridlock, for example; the real reason for the cars being sealed off; the nun with the gun turning out nice (seeing a preview image, I’d assumed she was out for revenge); the motive of Martha’s kidnappers, and so on. Admittedly, we’d guessed precisely the Face’s secret, but it would have been a disappointment otherwise, wouldn’t it, and the Doctor’s talk with Martha was another movingly bittersweet moment. I laughed, too, at Martha teasing the Doctor for taking her on the same dates he took Rose, but then, I would.

And, of course, when Any Dream Will Do was over and we were able to watch our recording of Doctor Who Confidential, it was a treat to hear Russell talk about 2000 AD as another inspiration (and not the only artistic reference, either). Issues are tending to pile up unread now, but there are a few early years of the galaxy’s greatest comic that are fixed into my head – as well as thinking of New New (etc) York as a bit of a futuristic urban Alice with a dash of Coruscant, the wild tone had reminded me of 2000 AD. I’d spotted Max Normal as soon as he said it was deliberate, but though of course Mega-City One (Judge Dredd’s home city, name-checked tonight) is the original New New York, the whole thing reminded me rather more of Terror Tube mixed with Halo Jones’ Hoop… That holographic traffic announcer was the spitting image of Swifty Frisco. The whole thing had a flavour of the dear old New Adventures, too, while firmly setting itself at the heart of the new Doctor Who series. Beautiful.

I thought Smith and Jones was terrific – fast, exciting action, but with stunning images, a great (and amusing) villain and altogether making a brilliant introduction, easily the best ‘new season’ opening episode since the Doctor returned in 2005 and among the best the series has ever delivered. Perhaps because I had such high expectations for it (I love adventures in history, and was really looking forward to TV Doctor Who from that particular author), The Shakespeare Code was a relative disappointment; lots of individually fun bits (Bad Queen Bess was a scream), but neither Shakespeare nor the witches convinced me. Bearing in mind that I love all Doctor Who to bits, I had relatively low expectations of tonight’s story, so perhaps I’ll change my mind after a second watching – with most of my Who reviews I like to sleep on it, usually (like Rip Van Winkle) for a couple of decades – but for now, I’m still bowled over. It’s rare that a story keeps surprising me and is both moving and fast-moving, but the rest of the season’ll have to do very well to get better than this. I’m hoping it will, of course.

I hope you were excited by the closing Dalek trailer – a haunting line for the Doctor just before the music cut in – and, in daytime TV style, the last time I wrote about Dalek Sec Any Dream Will Do wasn’t far behind. So it proved tonight, as we watched the whole thing and, I’m forced to admit, were completely caught up in it. Tragically, I’ve even warmed to Andrew Lloyd Webber after years of thinking of him as a Tory git, and the level of talent among the potential Josephs was remarkable. No, not that sort of talent, though I admit that most tastes for different varieties of handsome young men are catered for, from blond and plastic, through waiflike and pretty, to rough and chunky. Even if they’ve evidently and off-puttingly all shaved their chests. I’ve not make my mind up on the chap with the most star quality yet (Richard may have done), but several of them were really impressive tonight. Rob stole the show from the first with a belting voice and a great physical performance; Johndeep and Daniel sung beautifully; Anthony had another great voice and, as was pointed out, practically made love to the microphone; and Seamus, despite the apparent disadvantages of looking rather like Jesus, having a slightly tired voice, and by all accounts being a bit of a tosser, had enormous charisma. It’s pure coincidence that four of those five would be the four out of the twelve most to my physical taste, of course (running from the youngest to the oldest, though neither of them look it!). Of the others, Ben, who I identified last week as ‘vampire boy’, looked far more alive with a dash of orange and gave another great physical performance, though he may have had the weakest voice of them (probably why he was nearly voted off), while Keith was endearingly cheeky, Craig too cheesy, and Lewis like a factory model printed off from Paul Nicholas in Hair (remembering an old clip from The Rock’n’Roll Years)… Wholesome, blond and bland. I have a terrible feeling we’ll be following these young men all the way through.

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I think Krotons are more likely to return next year - Alien Bodies showed how to make them interesting, and the Holmes estate would probably be easier to negotiate with than Haisman and Lincoln.

Though they might just choose to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Mind Robber by putting Martha in a spangly catsuit.
Thanks, Nick! I’m sure you’re right about Bob Holmes’ estate being easier to negotiate with, though I’m compelled to admit I wasn’t being entirely serious. I’ve loved the Quarks since seeing a photo of them as a boy, but I picked them both because I’m fond of them and because, to many fans, they’re the epitome of a ‘rubbish monster’ and unlikely to return… So are the Krotons, of course, but I think Lawrence might be grumpier than ever if they do those as well as the rest of his oeuvre (oh, that’s unfair – I’ve discovered just now that he liked this story) ;-)

And I know several chaps who’d be very happy to see the return of the spangly catsuit, too.
I think you're driving people to my blog under the false pretence that I might look like Tobey Maguire! Disappointment/confusion awaits...
Richard and I have now listened to the podcast commentary for Gridlock – Freeview not having bothered to broadcast it, despite having a channel available – and Russell T Davies does indeed name Swifty Frisco as an influence on Sally Calypso. My friend Stephen has also pointed out to me that, if you combine the two principal influences for the motorway seen in Gridlock, you get The Macra Terror Tube. Hurrah!

Meanwhile, Matt may not look particularly like Tobey Maguire, but he is still of course very pretty. Neither does he look all that much like Zach Braff, Ronan Keating or Seamus Heaney, but the pattern recognition software he tried thinks they all look alike from the clear photo he supplied – without even his wearing a hat, or dark glasses, or being in indistinct shadow, or blurred, or photographed at an odd angle. Not that people are ever seen like that in real life… But, to change the subject entirely, isn’t it good that the Labour Government is forcing a multi-billion-pound biometric computer ID project onto all of us? I mean, computer identification is infallible, isn’t it, and what could possibly go wrong?
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