Friday, January 30, 2009


The New Avengers – Sleeper

Tonight at 12.10, BBC4 is showing The New Avengers: Sleeper, one of the series’ most memorable (if not best) episodes as our heroes stand alone against gun-toting villains in a deserted London. And Purdey’s trousers fall down. Though other Avengers stories feature Cold War ‘sleeper agents’ (House of Cards, To Catch A Rat…), the sleep here is more prosaic. In the pre-titles sequence we’re introduced to: an astoundingly powerful new sleeping gas; the antidote; and the villain who’s replaced one of the observers at the top-secret test. Then the title comes up… “Sleeper”. Coo, wonder what it might be about?
“We have made exhaustive tests.”

“Exhaustive tests on rabbits. People aren’t like rabbits.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Uncle of mine sired nineteen children. He was a keen bicyclist.”
Anyway, the plot is, Steed, Gambit and Purdey all happen to be staying in London overnight – even Steed, who in this iteration of the series has a stud out in the country to which he normally repairs – and it turns out they’re all in the very part of London seeded by sleeping gas (well, apparently it’s really a fine powder, but the effect’s much the same) S-95, which gives every single person in the area a longer than usual Sunday morning lie-in. Everyone, that is, save our three stars and the coachload of gun-toting gangsters who’re running around the city looting all the banks (or, mostly, wandering aimlessly). That’s pretty much it, save for our heroes – wait for it, spoilers – foiling the dastardly plan.

Given that the story’s so slight, it’s mostly made up not of complex plotting but of moments of character, humour and style. Fortunately, the director’s got quite a lot of style, and so has Joanna Lumley – Purdey is today’s featured Avenger, starting off by ineptly locking herself out of her flat but then becoming the lead character for most of the episode. And she’s terrific. Look out in particular (or listen out, I suppose) for all the scenes with the radio on, like Steed and Gambit rushing to the rescue of a radio drama and, even better, Purdey in an exciting car chase as she swerves around town in a stolen mini, the sleeping owner flopping about next to her, crooks with machine guns roaring after her, while she’s coolly doing the exercises to an absurdly posh wireless-wake-up-with-torture woman. Superb. Then once she’s out of the car… Boy, can she run.

The Eroticism of Pyjamas

Others, of course, will mainly remember an unarmed (but ready to high-kick) Purdey hiding from her pursuers as a shop window dummy, at which point her pyjama pants fall down. Still, Joanna manages to carry it off without losing her cool, her blue pyjamas are hugely more stylish than her nasty floral frock of the day before, and her fighting her way out of the shop afterwards showcases her brilliantly. And if you think that element of sexuality’s a bit off, this is also the episode where you can catch a bizarre level of homoeroticism among men who you really wouldn’t want to. Not only does Steed inviting himself for a nightcap at Gambit’s flat frequently seem like he’s trying to chat Gambit up, but the villain’s apparently chatted up by Dr Graham early on, too (and do note that, while he and his group of hilariously over-tooled-up machine gun and bazooka-wielding macho thugs have no compunction about murder, he doesn’t kill the doctor to preserve his secret, but merely knocks him out… And throws him a single rose). At least, when a scene turns up where Gambit’s pyjamas feature, it’s both mildly amusing and gives him points for not wearing any.

Update: Richard, on watching late tonight, is struck (right between the eyes) by the full day-glo glory of Gambit’s décor: “I kept a man here for three weeks. At the end of it, he could never look at a lime again.”

The story’s other main stylistic touch is in all the eerie views of a deserted London. Almost the whole story’s shot on location, and in the grimy ’70s it does sometimes seem like a cross between The Sweeney and Survivors, with urban shooting meeting the feel of apocalyptic disaster stories. It looks great, though, with only a few exceptions – notably, the unbelievable night-time scenes shot in full day, without even a half-hearted filter on the camera, for lines such as “It’ll be light at four forty-five” (you scream, it’s light now!), intercut with scenes of genuine night supposedly taking place at the same time. And then back again. Such little details can really sabotage a production, just as – living in London – I find it difficult to believe in just one police car crossing the ‘border’ to find out what’s happening in the nation’s silent capital, or the mind-boggling take on London geography that, for example, places the Post Office Tower in Tower Hamlets.

The Morning After That Came Before

Unfortunately, it’s not just the few miffed details and skimpy plot that let down a generally quite well-mounted story. My big problem is that The Avengers has already done the same story, and done it very much better. Eight years earlier, our heroes are knocked out by sleeping gas, coming round a day later to find the small town they’re in mysteriously deserted. Setting out to explore, they find the army gunning down “looters” and a plot involving nuclear blackmail… Yes, I’m afraid The Avengers – The Morning After does indeed have more thought, mystery, layers, tension, twists and does just about everything better than Sleeper does – despite being written by the same author. Though the scale is bigger in 1976, the ambition is much, much smaller, both of the story and the villains’ plans, our heroes (and the viewers) know from the start what’s happened, there’s no murderous betrayal by authority and consequent threat from all sides… While in The Morning After, too, from The Avengers’ much less ‘realistic’ days, sealing off a small town took several truckloads of soldiers and a huge public information campaign, here sealing off a large portion of London can be done with a group of people from just one coach. In the intervening years, even Doctor Who had done the same story, with lots of soldiers again and added dinosaurs, in 1974’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs (over which one might draw a discreet veil for many of the visuals, though it has some thought put into it). So it’s a bit of a shame for it to be so familiar, but to have so much less in it. It’s not bad, you understand, but frustrating when it’s mundanely recycling one of The Avengers’ strongest episodes.

Though it’s quite a shallow tale, you’ll also find Sleeper has quite a few ’70s concerns that are still live today, not that it treats them in any great detail: the S-95 ‘gas’ has been developed to knock out terrorists instantaneously (and magically, as one helicopter pass can put a densely populated city to sleep without a single exception, regardless of volume, wind currents or closed windows); after that mention, we’re primed to think that the looters look very much like terrorists of the time, act like terrorists in their brutal machine-gunning lack of concern for life, have a bit of a Baader-Meinhof vibe in the youngish mixed-sex couple who run the outfit… But only rob enough banks to take a helicopter’s-worth, as if Brian Clemens decided to write hard-hitting ‘real world’ villains but then copped out and came up with a plot so sanitised it could crop up in a children’s book, as is the thought that a bunch of savage killers would be entirely trusting about their bosses flying off to Rio with all the spoils. In one of the funnier moments there’s another topical touch, too; when Steed and Gambit are working out what the looters’ targets are, Steed suggests no-one would bother robbing the Bank of England when the economy’s in such a state. One of the minor actors also has a later political theme: Gavin Campbell, to be of That’s Life and career-killing anti-Europe loonyism fame. And there’s CCTV, as the main villain warns his minions to keep their faces covered because the cameras won’t sleep. Obviously, he shows his face all over the place anyway, because, well, he’s the villain.

If You Value Your Life, Don’t Befriend Steed

Oh, and Steed has yet another closest ever, ever, ever friend get caught up in the plot and die a short way into the episode. I know this happened from time to time in the ’60s series, but The New Avengers takes it to absurd lengths in an attempt to drive home the ‘Avenging’ narrative; actor Neil Hallett, who played the best friend who died in last week’s episode, was Steed’s bestest and most doomed chum in an episode at the end of the ’60s, too, so he’s really unlucky. If you want to fit The Avengers into a coherent, ongoing story, best of luck (it makes Doctor Who seem seamless), but there are two possible explanations. Either Steed had a best friend who was killed in an early episode and then, with fine attention to detail but absolutely rotten luck, he worked out who the next-best was and ‘promoted’ him – and so on, and so on, down the line – and each time he works out who’s the best out of what’s left the swines happen to choose that week to kill the very chap, or Steed, always having had an eye to technological innovation (carphone in 1967, the first answering device on British television, mind-swap machine, and so on), invented Facebook forty years early and he takes it really seriously when all these people friend him. He’s a very polite chap (except with a ’phone); even when technically looting a pub because he and Gambit need a drink, he’s adamant that they leave a tip.

If I sound like I’m in two minds about this story, I suspect I am – because how much I enjoy it really depends on the mood I’m in. It’s fun but uninspired; nice to look at, but you really need to switch your brain off. And the move towards greater ‘realism’ rather than outlandish plots and villains means, ironically, that stories like this are less believable – outrageous details are easier to swallow than mundane ones that simply don’t fit with our everyday experience. Next week: spies live and spies die, but the dance goes on. Plus, for Blake’s 7 fans, the first of two appearances by Travis in as many weeks, and for Gambit fans (there must be one, surely?), after Purdey drops her trousers in tonight’s, next week Mike gets his kit off.

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Monday, January 26, 2009


Why Is Doctor Who Brilliant?

The best television programme ever made, and one that’s become much more than just a television programme… Last November, Doctor Who was forty-five years old, and I began a series of posts looking at each year and picking out the most brilliant thing about it. I published 2008’s post twelve hours ago, so here’s a round-up of what I aimed for, which years most enthused me and just how to find them all.
“If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds – and watch them wheel, in another sky – would that satisfy you?”
And hasn’t it all been brilliant? Or, at least, good (go on, click – it’s a fab clip).

Some Doctor Who stories are adored. So are some whole periods of the show. Others get less attention, or nothing but criticism. I love it all – even the bits I’m less keen on than other bits. So my aim was to pick something that I could enthuse about for every single year since the show started, from the overlooked and the frowned at eras as well as those which are universally feted. It’s easy to get caught up in criticism, and slagging something off is often more fun to write than praise. I wanted, then, simply to say why Doctor Who was brilliant.

I also knew I have a tendency to go on a bit, and (partly as a result) to start things but not finish them. So, to guard against writing far too much for one year and never getting on to the next, I set myself several little rules as challenges. I won’t list them all, but the opening paragraph would set the scene, rounding up as many good things from that year as I had room to mention; then I’d name the story I’d chosen as the pick of the year, with a quotation from it and a paragraph about it; and finally I’d say how to get hold of a copy. I set one word limit for the introduction, title and quote – which I occasionally ended up breaking or, towards the end, just putting in more than one quotation – and another, 45 words (for 45 years), to write about the chosen story itself. As other forms of Doctor Who (the Target novels and the New Adventures in particular, but also comic strips, other books, audio plays and more) have always been as ‘real’ and thrilling to me as the TV series, I treated any Who I liked, in whatever medium, on the same basis. I also decided that I’d only name a story or its author in the introduction as a particular recommendation, and (most difficult of the lot) that I’d only write positive things. I can find something to pick holes in for every story, from the top of the lot to the fair-to-middling (and much more for those below that), but I set out not to mention anything that I didn’t like. Although I’d only say things I believed, just for once even the tiniest criticism could wait at the door. And I pretty much managed it, though a couple may have snuck in at the back…

Some stories were easier to be glowing about than others, and so were some years. I found that, having set out in part to take a fresh look at years I didn’t think much of, I could be genuinely enthusiastic about at least a part of them all – though two or three were a bit of a struggle, I managed it. There were plenty of years, on the other hand, where I wanted to praise much more than I could fit inside my self-imposed word limits (and a good dozen where a brilliant runner-up story was very close to being my ‘pick’ for the year). Of the last few entries where the drafting’s still fresh in my mind, for example, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007 all had stories that I’d have loved to have raved about cut for space. There was something about the fives, as well – I said when writing about it that 1975 might just be Doctor Who’s most brilliant year for me, in part because it was when I discovered the series, but 1995 and 2005 were extraordinarily exciting, too. My favourite eras of the show have long been Billy Hartnell’s, Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s, and the New Adventures, so I’d happily point anyone towards the mid-’60s, or 1975-78 (well, 1975-81, quite easily), 1989, 1994-96, 2005, 2007… And while I loved writing about each of those, the others were a joy, too. So if you’ve been reading them, I hope you’ve found something to be enthused about.

The Ten Faces of Doctor Who

I’ve not really answered the question in my late-at-night-administrative meanderings above, have I, and I fear I won’t come up with any great insight at this hour. To make up for that, here’s a shorter, pithier piece on the essentials of Doctor Who that I prepared earlier, which has a crack at answering the question. And is readable.

Along the way, I’ve been cheered by quite a few other people’s Who enthusiasms – among my favourites were the lovely Nick, who sent me his own complete 46 years of picks; the Doctor Who author who told me he was enjoying them; and Neil and Millennium, who each picked a year to join in on. I came across Calapine’s list of favourite bits – and “Worsts,” which I’ll resist temptation on – which had quite a few that had me nodding. One of her changes to the list she was working from is something I heartily disagree with, but as I’m being fluffy and positive for one more night I’ll merely point you to a hint.

Stuart, impressively, has been inspired by the fabulous 1981 repeat season that kept those of us around at the time going when we were agog for Peter Davison to appear, and has begun work on an update of The Five Faces of Doctor Who entitled (roll of drums) The Ten Faces of Doctor Who. He’s come up with some persuasive reasoning for the first five stories he’s picked, as well as some terrific clips, so I’m fascinated to see what his next five will be. I’d love to see the BBC remind everyone what’s brilliant about William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.

Stuart’s so far chosen The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Tomb of the Cybermen, Spearhead From Space, The Ark In Space and Frontios, all rather good and a couple of which I’d probably have picked myself. Having just done 46 individual picks, rather than being fagged out I’m actually feeling quite upbeat about the whole series in all its many forms, so I was tempted to do my pick right now. But, partly because I don’t want to gazump him – he still has five more Doctors to go – and partly because making another big list already might be a bit much, I thought I’d do something else instead.

Picking a full set of 46 stories might be a bit much for you, but if you enjoyed reading my selections, why not pick what ten stories – there you go, that’s a more manageable number – that you’d show if you were in charge of a repeat season? To help you get your thinking cap on, what sort of ‘repeat season’ would you want, and where would you want to show it? I reckon if I were in charge of BBC1 or BBC2, I’d go for ten stories edited into feature-length ‘movies’ (probably with the new DVD special effects, where they have them) and show them on ten Saturday afternoons or evenings, but if I was Mr BBC4, I’d show them in their original episodes, probably one story a week stripped across weeknights, and be more relaxed about showing talky historicals. What do you think? And would you pick the best story from each Doctor? The best individual performance by each Doctor? The best representation of each Doctor’s era (easiest for Pat’s monsters and Pertwee’s UNIT; trickiest for Tom, with his massive variety, and Peter, with his split between ‘arthouse’ and ‘macho’)? Do you balance your ten to reflect the series’ diversity, with comedy, action, drama / past, present, future, or pick them to appeal to people who’ve come to the series in the Twenty-first Century, with Daleks, Cybermen, the Master and Sarah Jane? Go on, have a rummage.
“’Pon my Sam. I may have had a bang on the head, but this is a dashed queer story.”
Update: rather belatedly, I did devise my own ‘BBC2’ and ‘BBC4’ The Ten Eleven Faces of Doctor Who sets. Almost at The Eleventh Hour, you might say (groan).

Why Doctor Who Was Brilliant – Year By Year

At last, the point of this post. I’ve written about why Doctor Who was brilliant for 46 separate years, so here they all are for you to click on and open – which I thought I’d bettter do on discovering that the less-useful-than-they-look labels at the bottom of each post only find you the last twenty. If there are any you’d like to read, here’s the easy way to do it. Because the only real answer to ‘Why Is Doctor Who Brilliant?’ isn’t to be found in someone telling you, but in you watching or reading or listening to it for yourself, and that’s why I kept my recommendations short (if numerous!). Here are some of the best stories to dip into:

1963 – An Unearthly Child
1964 – The Aztecs
1965 – The Crusade
1966 – The Daleks’ Master Plan
1967 – The Evil of the Daleks
1968 – The Mind Robber
1969 – The War Games

1970 – Doctor Who and the Silurians
1971 – The Mind of Evil
1972 – The Curse of Peladon
1973 – Carnival of Monsters
1974 – Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion
1975 – Genesis of the Daleks
1976 – The Deadly Assassin
1977 – The Talons of Weng-Chiang
1978 – The Androids of Tara
1979 – The Iron Legion

1980 – Full Circle
1981 – The Master’s Doctor Plan (The Keeper of Traken / Logopolis / Castrovalva)
1982 – The Tides of Time
1983 – Snakedance
1984 – The Caves of Androzani
1985 – Revelation of the Daleks
1986 – The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet
1987 – Paradise Towers
1988 – The Happiness Patrol
1989 – The Curse of Fenric

1990 – Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks
1991 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Timewyrm: Revelation
1992 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Nightshade
1993 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Lucifer Rising
1994 – Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures – Venusian Lullaby
1995 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – The Also People
1996 – Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Damaged Goods
1997 – Doctor Who – Alien Bodies
1998 – Doctor Who – The Witch Hunters
1999 – The Curse of Fatal Death

2000 – Doctor Who – The Shadows of Avalon
2001 – The Stones of Venice
2002 – Faction Paradox – The Book of the War
2003 – Jubilee
2004 – Death and the Daleks
2005 – Rose
2006 – Doomsday
2007 – Human Nature
2008 – The Fires of Pompeii

And it doesn’t stop there…
“No. No. Don’t tell me how it happened. Although – hope I don’t just trip over a brick. That’d be embarrassing. Then again – painless. Worse ways to go. Depends on the brick…”
This year will see a few more stories for David Tennant, and a great deal of speculation and anticipation about Matt Smith. I’m looking forward to it – and, while I’m waiting, delving into so much of the past inspired me at last to wake up my long-neglected Doctor Who blog, and I’ve gone right back to the very beginning.

Update 1: DWM gets in on the ‘Why is this brilliant?’ concept, gloriously.

There will, eventually, be more updates, as the comments below make clear that I didn’t quite answer the main question. I will, one day, though I still think ‘just go and watch it’ will provide a better answer than any article ever could.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 2008 Brilliant?

There’s more excitement from The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood (Joe Lidster writes interesting stories for both), and more surprises from Big Finish: The Haunting of Thomas Brewster; Brave New Town; The Bride of Peladon; old stage plays reimagined; and Home Truths just kills us. TV Doctor Who offers sheer entertainment in Partners In Crime and The Unicorn and the Wasp, a giant ‘robot’ and countless “Who” gags in The Next Doctor, and two simply outstanding dramas – Midnight’s claustrophobic, terrifying inventiveness, and…

The Fires of Pompeii
“You fought her off – with a water pistol! I bloody love you.”
Awesome. Filming in Rome, an exploding volcano, flaming great monsters – and a moral argument that recalls Billy’s stories. With tragedy, mystery, modern art, fabulous frocks (and nice legs), shouty villains and a superb ‘duelling soothsayers’ scene, you can almost forget how funny it is, too.
“Because that’s how I see the Universe. Every waking second I can see what is, what was, what could be, what must not. That’s the burden of a Time Lord, Donna. I’m the only one left.”

This has three DVD releases: a vanilla disc along with Partners in Crime and Planet of the Ood; in a box set of the whole 2008 season, complete with extras; and in Autumn 2009, paired again with Partners in Crime, accompanied by a magazine as part of the newly-launched Doctor Who DVD Files. You can also buy a double-pack with a toy ‘Pyrovile Magma Creature’ and ‘Roman soldier’.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 2007 Brilliant?

Gosh. The Sarah Jane Smith Adventures’ opening Invasion of the Bane and Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane… Big Finish’s Circular Time, 100 and Immortal BelovedThe Pirate Loop’s enthralling read… And marvellously interweaved TV Doctor Who: vampirism; transformations; bad, bad angels; David Tennant suffering brilliantly; Gridlock’s Dance of the Macra*; Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (the Master’s awakening making the year’s most gripping quarter-hour); and Paul Cornell’s beautiful, small-scale, essential story…

Human Nature / The Family of Blood
“But we need the Doctor.”
“And what am I, then? Nothing? I’m just a story.”
Can 1913’s attitudes, institutions and individuals deal with love and war? The Doctor’s human self doesn’t want his other life; wild-eyed Son-of-Mine wants to steal it and the show for super, super fun; and while Daleks now have no problem with stairs, John Smith does.
“Have you enjoyed it, Doctor? Being human? Has it taught you wonderful things? Are you better, richer, wiser, hmm? Then let’s see you answer this – which one of them do you want us to kill? Maid or matron? Your friend, or your lover… Your choice!”

Two forty-five-minute episodes make one story to get teary over, and – it’s wonderful. There are three DVD releases: a vanilla DVD along with Blink; in a box set of the whole 2007 season, complete with extras (though still mysteriously without John Smith’s anguished “I am not the Doctor” that was in all the trailers); and in Autumn 2009, paired respectively with 42 and Blink, each with magazines as part of the newly-launched Doctor Who DVD Files. You can buy the Doctor’s watch and toy scarecrows, too, while the original 1995 book on which the TV story was based is available for free as an eBook with notes from Paul Cornell.

*The piece of music most associated with this year is the terrific theme first used on the season’s trailer, its first appearance in a story for the blissful Gridlock. It opens 2007’s Original Television Soundtrack CD under the official title of All the Strange, Strange Creatures, but to us it’ll always be ‘Dance of the Macra’.

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Friday, January 23, 2009


The Psychedelic Spy and The New Avengers – Faces

At 11.55 tonight it’s BBC4’s latest episode of The New Avengers: Faces, an impressive adventure that reels you in slowly and really grabs you by the end. It’s the fourth and perhaps the best of The Avengers’ ‘doubles’ stories, going for broke with Steed, Gambit and Purdey all replaced by doppelgängers – or are they? Patrick Macnee and Joanna Lumley in particular are brilliant, and you can also catch Joanna on the iPlayer in The Psychedelic Spy, a drug-soaked, disturbing ’60s-set thriller that’s been playing on BBC7 all week (watch out for spoilers about both if you read on).
Doppelgängers were a staple of ’60s and ’70s series whose feet left the ground, especially science fiction or the more outré spy thrillers – and with The Avengers crossing the boundaries between both of those, with comedy, fantasy and more besides, it’s no surprise that the series had a go at the subject more than once. Two’s a Crowd did it as cod le Carré for Mrs Peel (and there’s a touch of it in her Who’s Who??? and Never, Never Say Die, too), while Tara King’s They Keep Killing Steed may just give you a hint as to which character is copied multiple times. The two that try for the most ‘realistic’ approach, however, are the best of them. Back in 1963, Man With Two Shadows pitted Cathy Gale against Steed, both when one of his associates tips her off that he’s a fake and when he’s shown at his most ruthless with the real doubles. More incredibly, Faces relies much further on coincidence, recovering slightly with talk of plastic surgery and a story spread over a five-year time period, but really succeeds in its intercourse between the regulars. There’s also arresting direction, and among three well-characterised villains you’ll find Edward Petherbridge, later to find fame as Lord Peter Wimsey. Oh, and before I go on with my usual spoilertastic analysis, have you got this week’s Radio Times? Ignore what it says. It’s not a spoiler, just almost completely wrong.
“I’d better have a word with him. Pull him back into line.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Hmm. He’ll just have to be replaced, won’t he?”
Like several New Avengers episodes, the opening scene’s set some years – five, it turns out – before most of the rest of the story. Unusually, this is without clearly identifying it as such, and the strong implication’s that the main part of the episode takes place over a period of weeks, if not months. Though neither script nor direction express that as well as they might, it gives the story added weight and credibility, and the director gives it real force. Two tramps see an obviously wealthy man drive past, the spitting image of one of them; after what we infer is a period of studying him, the pre-credits sequence ends with one of the series’ most striking freeze-frames, as the rabbit-poaching tramp shoots an arrow into the wealthy double who’s diving into his own private pool. It may not be a subtle way of killing, but it gets your attention.

I’ll fill in the rest later, having given you a taste; my beloved came in late from work after a hellish journey, so I’ve been ministering to his needs and cooking a big meal in an attempt to revive him. Now I’m a little sleepy on it, so I’ll finish once I’ve had a while to digest. Possibly Monday!

The Psychedelic Spy

And finally, a word on Andrew Rissik’s radio thriller, made in 1990, set very firmly in 1968, and broadcast in five parts this week on BBC7. If you missed it, it’s well worth tuning in on the BBC iPlayer; James Aubrey’s rather good as the lead, but ’60s legends Gerald Harper, Charles Gray and of course Joanna Lumley completely steal it.

I’ve been trying to work out in my head something to say about The Prisoner since Patrick McGoohan died last week – I fear it’s still in a bit of a tangle, but if you want to try unpicking the series yourself, it is of course being repeated twice every Tuesday on ITV4. It’ll only be four episodes in this week (depending on how you count them, which is trickier than it sounds), so the next one up’s as good a place as any to pick it up: Free For All is a relatively early episode, which means it explains some of the set-up, but it’s also the first to go utterly barking mad, so that gives you a flavour of what it can all turn into. This isn’t quite as much of a detour as it reads, as BBC7 has been repeating two of The Prisoner’s cousins. Each weekday morning at 9.30 they’re currently broadcasting Michael Jayston’s superb reading of Rogue Male, a 1930s thriller novel that’s a clear antecedent of Patrick McGoohan’s masterwork – it, too, has a magnificently egocentric lead character, a lone wolf at the top of his brutal profession, who’s trapped, repeatedly trying to escape, and persecuted physically and psychologically by anonymous servants of a mysterious service who want to find the purpose of his attention-grabbing opening action. And, of course, the starting point of The Psychedelic Spy is a top agent who resigns – only for his old bosses to try to bring him back in, sent against his will to a mysterious environment where no-one’s loyalties are entirely clear. With a lot of drugs.

The story is both an effective thriller in itself and a meditation on where the ’60s went sour, aided by a soundtrack including Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds and, most tellingly, the Who; the performances are uniformly excellent, the mood alternately grumpy and despairing, and the twists – all right. Look away to avoid spoilers, remember, as I turn to the outstanding actors. Robert Eddison, Michael Cochrane and Ed Bishop are all excellent as minor characters (particularly, I think, Mr Eddison’s fading old master of secret information), and James Aubrey’s rather good as Billy Hindle, the British secret assassin who wants out because he fears he’s turning into a psychopath. The first episode stars Gerald Harper, formerly Adam Adamant, as his manipulative boss Sir Richard Snark; no, with a name like that he’s not very nice, but he’s awfully good at it. The whole thing really gets going, however, when Hindle flies out to Temptation Island, run by dying charismatic genius Charles Gray and his glamorous wife Joanna Lumley. They are, in short, fantastic.

It feels very much like a ’60s thriller, not just for the stars but its mix of acid music, James Bond, The Prisoner, Callan and le Carré (with a dash of Apocalypse Now), but despite its quality, one aspect disappointed me. I think of women in thrillers being the ’40s and ’50s femmes fatale of film noir, or the powerful figures of the ’80s, or simply being treated much the same as the men since; the fact that my favourite series from the ’60s that can very roughly be described as a spy thriller is The Avengers has, I fear, rather spoiled me for a story like this that, in setting itself firmly in the feel of the time, pushes its women firmly into the background. So I admit I was disappointed as The Psychedelic Spy’s three significant women were one by one revealed to be much less interesting than I’d anticipated. In a very ’60s way, they are essentially pliant victims, and it’s notable that Hindle shags each of them. His rather drippy girlfriend whom he picks up after resigning, Marianne, was so utterly convenient that I assumed she was an enemy (or perhaps British) agent right until she was shot in his arms; I then instantly assumed, correctly, that she’d been the target rather than him, and probably at the order of either his ruthless employer or Joanna Lumley’s Tara (another Avengers name). Joanna’s performance is so magnetic – and, as she gives as good as she gets with Charles Gray and claims to be a very bad person – I assumed that she was an agent in her own right, probably responsible for the dodgy activities her husband’s implicated in. Again, I assumed that right up until the last minute… At which point it became dispiritingly clear that she was only there as unfaithful wife and then widow after all. The third woman in the story is Hindle’s ex, who’s disappeared while investigating Charles Gray’s character – our anti-hero characterises her as an evil, manipulative bitch, so I had high hopes that she’d have survived and be secretly engineering the whole thing. No such luck. It turns out, eventually, that she’s dead after all, leaving her undoubted abilities both of no use to the story and entirely framed by men who didn’t like her. I’d have liked us to meet her, instead.

The close is a little too neat – not happy, you understand, but missing a dash of ambiguity, as if what we hear in the final episode is the truth rather than leaving it likely to be another layer of lies – but still, despite being occasionally predictable and a let-down on some of the non-existent twists involving female characters I’d predicted in hope, it works on the whole. Oh, I’m underselling it now; I liked it. But you might want to listen when you’re on an upper.

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 2006 Brilliant?

Fairy-tale monsters abound: under the bed in The Girl in the Fireplace; devilish on The Impossible Planet; Love and Monsters’ all-consuming fan; Tooth and Claw’s scary werewolf (and Queen Victoria); inspiring many wonderful toys. Children’s magazine show Totally Doctor Who launches, then spin-off drama Torchwood makes it four Who-related series, peaking with They Keep Killing Suzie. The Invasion’s lost episodes are reanimated for DVD; Bernice has a Summer of Love; gods battle on The Ship of a Billion Years… And who will win? Daleks or Cybermen?

Army of Ghosts / Doomsday
“I’m – the Doctor…”
“Oh, I should say! Hooray!”
Edge-of-the-seat viewing as Torchwood rises under a fabulous villain, then falls to the Cybermen – thrilling music, tense build-up, electrifying cliffhanger and an action-packed climax to an epic season finale. Then the haunting last three scenes… Oh, and five million Cybermen against four Daleks? Easy. “Exterminate!”

Two forty-five-minute episodes, making one story, out on four DVD releases: a vanilla DVD along with Fear Her; in a box set of the whole 2006 season, complete with extras (including cut-down versions of Doctor Who Confidential); each on their own, once, as tabloid freebies; and in Summer 2009, paired respectively with Fear Her and The Runaway Bride, each with magazines as part of the newly-launched Doctor Who DVD Files.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 2005 Brilliant?

He’s back, he’s Christopher Eccleston then David Tennant, and he’s showered with BAFTAs. There’s behind-the-scenes series Doctor Who Confidential, Big Finish on BBC7 and Simon Guerrier’s Billy book The Time Travellers… And the trip of a lifetime begins with the world’s most fantastic trailer. The Doctor and Rose’s story involves The End of the World, The Unquiet Dead, The Empty Child, Dalek fleets and a Christmas Invasion; dining-with-monsters Boom Town and Paul Cornell’s heartbreaking Father’s Day stand out, though my heart’s with the first one we ever saw a tiny part of filmed. On Easter Saturday, Doctor Who

An ordinary life meets the Doctor’s, finding explosions, rapid-fire wit, the pain of lost worlds, window-smashing Autons, that lots of planets have Norths, and the perfect introduction to the TARDIS. Treasure Rose nodding at something that’s not completely invisible, and the closing moment’s pure joy.
“By the way, did I mention? It also travels in time.”

The first fully existing TV Doctor Who story not to be released on VHS – but you can get it on DVD many times over: in a vanilla release with amazing-looking The End of the World and gorgeous gaslit The Unquiet Dead; in a box set of the whole 2005 season, complete with extras (and where you can see Twenty-First Century Who’s most thrilling monsters, the Reapers, in Father’s Day and the fabulous Margaret Slitheen in Boom Town); on its own, once, as a tabloid freebie; and now with The End of the World and a magazine as part of the newly-launched Doctor Who DVD Files. Ooh, and you can buy The Shooting Scripts for this season, too.

If you enjoyed all that, incidentally, you might like to check out a series of Doctor Who from thirty years earlier that informs many of its concepts in exploring the future of humanity…

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 2004 Brilliant?

Christopher Eccleston will be the Doctor; the brilliant, provoking About Time handbooks begin; Of the City of the Saved… looks askew at Heaven; Sylv’s The Harvest renews an old monster; there are splendid Short Trips anthologies Past Tense – featuring the fabulous Thief of SherwoodNew Adventuresish 2040, and joyful A Christmas Treasury. And there are Daleks. Billy’s Day of Armageddon is found; little-known actor David Tennant chooses Dalek Empire III over the National Theatre; and Paul Cornell has Bernice face at last…

Death and the Daleks
“Why were you in the Secure Zone?”
“Bit of a misnomer, actually…”
Resolving the cliffhanger to 2003’s Secret Army-toned anthology-novel Life During Wartime, Benny discovers the secret behind the suspiciously advanced, history-changing occupation of her home. The Daleks have overshadowed her whole history from childhood through the New Adventures; now it’s about family. With gratuitous nudity. Yay!
“Is it too late to say I don’t agree with anything she says? I like Daleks – the design sense; spot on. That noise you keep going in here? Actually very calming. Ambient.”

This Big Finish drama, like all the others, is available on CD. As well as completing Life During Wartime and drawing together all of Benny’s life since her very first meeting with the Doctor (and before), this forms a very direct climax to Big Finish’s monster-heavy Series 4 of the Professor Bernice Summerfield Adventures. To keep the ultimate enemy a secret until the story was released, it was originally advertised not as Death and the Daleks but as “The Axis of Evil” – but, of course, there was no such thing. The rediscovered Day of Armageddon, incidentally, was the last Twentieth Century Doctor Who I got to see ‘new’ before the 2005 series began, as it was swiftly released as one of the three surviving (and beautifully restored) TV episodes of The Daleks’ Master Plan you can see on the Lost In Time DVD set.

Oh, and Lib Dem readers of a certain age may understand that, while the wonderful Lisa Bowerman is now absolutely the definitive Professor Bernice Summerfield, in my head Benny always used to look and sound like Helen Bailey.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 2003 Brilliant?

Alternative Doctors appear in novella The Cabinet of Light and Big Finish’s Unbound: Michael Jayston; David Warner’s Sympathy For the Devil (with Nick Courtney and David Tennant); Derek Jacobi first someone who’s seemingly the Doctor but isn’t, then the Master in an animated adventure. There’s Peter’s Creatures of Beauty, Colin and Sylv’s Project: Lazarus, villains like Davros, and fantastic DVD extras. The year ends with the brilliant news that Russell T Davies will bring Doctor Who back to telly. It starts with a Dalek…

“History isn’t the past, Evelyn. It’s a version of the past we choose to remember.”
Rob Shearman’s and Big Finish’s best* The best of Rob Shearman and Big Finish. Great speeches for Colin, extraordinary dialogues, bitterly black comedy, Martin Jarvis, evocative sound design, a striking cover and disturbing questions… Who is the prisoner, who the monsters, what happens without orders, and what if the Daleks won?
“More action! More excitement! More Daleks getting killed in very loud explosions! And introducing Plenty O’Toole as Evelyn ‘Hot Lips’ Smythe…!

Daleks – The Ultimate Adventure. Coming to a cinema near you, soon. Your supervisor will inform you of the cinema to which you have been assigned. Attendance is compulsory by order of the Historical Instruction Act. All praise the glorious English Empire.”

As with all the Big Finish dramas, this is available on CD and download. There are several related pieces, too, from a Big Finish ‘magazine’ CD including such deleted scenes as an English Empire Blue Peter and adverts reinforcing the message about merchandising and trivialising evil to, rather more famously, two later TV stories borrowing significant elements from the plot. The best of these is Rob’s own Dalek from 2005, with a very similar central core of a single Dalek alone set in a much less funny (though no less grim) story. Which seems an opportune moment to mention that, ironically, Jubilee was first devised for broadcast on the BBC website, but back then Rob decided that he couldn’t squeeze it down to under an hour.
“You told me it would be a bloodless revolution!”
“It will be. Dalek guns do not puncture the skin.”
“There will be a lot of dead bodies, though.”

*Richard tells me this is such an obscure Doctor Who in-joke that, unlike the other ones here, it really needs a footnote. In an English Empire that takes its concept of strength from the Daleks, contractions are outlawed. They don’t go the whole hog and speak through ring modulators at state occasions, though. Millennium, on the other fluffy foot, has his own reasons for the brilliance of 2003, and who am I to disagree?

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Monday, January 19, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 2002 Brilliant?

Big Finish produces chilling audio dramas like Peter’s Spare Parts and Paul’s Embrace the Darkness, then an epic season climax in Neverland; Kaldor City’s intrigue deepens in Death’s Head and Hidden Persuaders; Daleks surprise in the comic strip as Children of the Revolution; and I can barely read Jealous, Possessive (Short Trips: Zodiac) or Beedlemania (A Life of Surprises) for laughing. But the best Doctor Who short story anthology of all technically contains neither Doctor Who nor short stories…

Faction Paradox – The Book of the War
“The coolest character is the one whose face you never get to see.”
Lawrence Miles masterminds this metatextual Time War encyclopaedia, spinning some of the most inspired Who novels into a rich, bewildering tapestry of imagination. Amid distorted reflections of Ada Lovelace, Heaven, vampires, James Whale, The Phantom Menace, Morbius and the Bible, the most extraordinary reimagining’s ignored…

At last! The easiest way to get hold of this isn’t second-hand, for once, but still today by ordering direct from independent publisher Mad Norwegian – and, as if to show off that I’m finally recommending a book that isn’t out of print, it’s available in hardback and in paperback editions. We have both, of course, one particularly well-thumbed and with six pages of notes stuck into it. It’s described as “part story, part history and part puzzle-box,” you see, and though the A-Z structure means you tend to meander through stories in a distinctly non-linear way, there is a pathway of references that’ll take you through every entry but one and make – well, not sense, but slightly more coherence out of it. If you can’t find the ‘order’ online, drop me a line… As for the identity of the other side of the War from the Time Lords Great Houses: like The Prisoner’s Number One, it could be something you can work out from established opponents; something postmodern; or something the different writers (or even the visionary at the centre of it) all have contradictory views on. I could tell you our two most plausible theories, but there’s never going to be a right answer, is there? Unusually, some of the histories here were fleshed out into audio dramas, too, which you can get from BBV: The Eleven-Day Empire and The Shadow Play.

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Friday, January 16, 2009


The New Avengers – The Tale of the Big Why

Tonight at midnight, BBC4 brings us The New Avengers’ puntastic The Tale of the Big Why, which I’d not seen for ages but which, in one of the joys of writing these reviews, I watched again today and thoroughly enjoyed. Although it has a surprising amount in common with last week’s disappointing episode, it’s both much more exciting and much more laid back; in short, much more Avengers. It looks great, it keeps you guessing with plenty of dodgy characters (a young Roy Marsden, a crooked Tory councillor…), and Steed, Purdey and even Gambit all come out of it superbly. Oh, and the opening titles have finally replaced that uninspiring assemblage of clips with a remarkable bit of 1976 CGI, a union flag lion that so delighted the producers that, in tonight’s adventure, Purdey wears it emblazoned on the back of her rather fetching biker jacket. Along with her name, in big letters. What a fabulous secret agent she is – at last, someone’s even more noticeable than Steed.

Before the analysis and the spoilers, for the second week running, the most entertaining scenes include those of Gambit and Purdey zooming about the countryside. Again, he’s at the wheel, but this time rather than his talking about sex, it’s Purdey’s carnal lusts that drive their destination. She’s gagging for a meal, and dreams of Italian. Gambit, bless him, pulls up outside The Chef’s Hat, a roadside hot dog caravan. Purdey, not finding this what she had in mind, emerges from the car in a gold lamé cocktail dress and, in between bites of huge sausage sarnie (actually, I rather fancy one as I watch her), engages first Mike and then the cuisinier in conversation:
“Is this one of your favourite restaurants? I suppose you bring all your girlfriends here… Did he book?”
“Nah, he’s just lucky!”
The script’s fast-paced and, though simple in its story, quite complex in its plotting, so it’s to The Tale of the Big Why’s great advantage that Robert Fuest’s in charge, probably my favourite and almost certainly the most strikingly pop-art Avengers director. The story’s shot almost entirely on location, and illustrated with many striking images – justly the most famous is the recurring close-up of a beer glass used as chronometer, but it’s also perhaps the New Avengers episode most packed with chases. My favourite moments are probably of Purdey on her motorbike, zooming towards a great stunt in the pre-credits freeze-frame or popping suddenly into startling close-up, but there’s a lot more variation than that. Through tonight’s story, the vehicles move from a motorbike to an exciting chase with smashing cars (well, very ugly cars, actually, but they get smashed up), then lots of action with a crop-duster plane. Even Gambit gets a strikingly heroic moment facing off against it.

The Regular Characters (and some familiar plots)

Though it’s not quite as light-hearted – there’s an unexpected death, which I’ll mention shortly so look away now if you want to avoid spoilers, which comes quite early on and has a particularly grim aftermath – this has a lot in common with the marvellous Avengers episode Dead Man’s Treasure. That’s more of a summery week off than this is, but both feature extended treasure hunts with remarkable numbers of participants on remarkable numbers of sides. Admittedly, Dead Man’s Treasure has many cryptic clues while The Tale of the Big Why features only one, but the near-eponymous racy Western The Tale of the Big Y is a doozy (despite our heroes’ cracking it rather depending on all aviators’ maps being identical).

The other story from the same stable that this week’s bears an uncanny resemblance to when looked at from the right angle is, as I mentioned above, the previous New Avengers episode, To Catch a Rat. On paper, you’d think this was shallower – there’s none of the genuine emotion of a wounded old spy recovering himself to take on his old enemy, but rather more of the jolly runaround. On screen, it comes across as having a lot more to it. While the actors injected considerable pathos into the last story, it moved very slowly and had very little to it to live up to its serious intent – you could have halved it to a 25-minute episode without losing anything very important, while this week’s all-action frivolity not only deserves its length but passes the time much faster. The chasing around the countryside has had far more thought put into it; there’s far more variety, of scenes, of characters, of vehicles; again, there’s someone emerging after years away to expose a traitor in the Department (one of the perennial New Avengers clichés), but this time the exposer’s corrupt, too, and swiftly dead, which is a real shock after last week’s weary dragging-out. The feel’s improved, too, by a Jazz-flavoured score with which Laurie Johnson is clearly more comfortable than the usual more noticeably ’70s style; though Cornelltoppingday dismiss it with “Porno Funk Music Factor: 10,” I’d say it’s far less dated than that, and I rather enjoy the jazzy ‘chasing around’ theme that accompanies Purdey’s bike and the odd other vehicle.

Though there’s a less powerful emotional core to the acting than Ian Hendry provided and the script is one of the last gasps at fetishising macho Mike Gambit, this story makes far better and more interesting use of the three leads, too. I’ve mentioned Purdey’s fabulous biker’s outfit and gold frock; Joanna looks great in a fairly practical red jacket and black skirt, too, so it looks like the days of the diaphanous dress (so handy for running in) are behind her. Nothing can save Gambit and most of the others, though. Anyway, not only is she better-outfitted, but her part continues to break out of the sexist trap the series’ initial set-up had consigned her to. She’s heavily favoured early in the story, with some fantastic bike work as she takes the lead, Gambit only following at a distance and mainly to report back to Steed at ‘home base’. Towards the end of the story, Purdey’s kidnapped so the two men will break and have to save the poor little girlie – sigh – but, again, that template’s swiftly broken, as Purdey gets hopping mad and, in a terrific scene, shows that she can beat the villains with both arms tied behind her back.

Steed, too, has a much better part this week – rather than kept back until virtually the last scene, he not only has much more to do back at ‘base’ but gets out towards the end, where he’s caught up in some splendid action sequences and has a great time exploring the wonders of nature (while tiring out poor Gambit). Given a far more dynamic role, he seems far more like the old Steed than in most of the previous New Avengers episodes. It’s not that he takes the lead as the action man – though, when two heavies come calling, there’s a great moment where he slaps a gun out of one villain’s hand, instantly punches him out, then repels another with his hat – but that he gets the space in the narrative to relax and enjoy himself. It’s how Steed should be: carefree in doing his job, serious in what he does but not how he does it. He’s perfect when sent to charm a lady and catch a package in his bowler hat, when performing a Holmesian piece of deduction in tracing a location through orchard crop-spray on a pair of boots, or when giving Purdey her moment at the climax with a typically off-the-wall distraction, and Gambit rewards him with absolute trust (when it matters). Amid a profusion of villains, it’s Steed’s attention to detail that captures the most important one, because he’s got almost as much of an eye for photos and guns as for antique doorknobs. We also spend time, for once, not in Purdey’s bedroom but in Steed’s palatial apartment and Gambit’s groovy pad, and to complete the set Gambit gets two action set-pieces towards the end (against a plane and a gun) which really work.

The Irregular Characters (and a deadly sin)

Although I’ve made it sound like it’s all rather fun, and it is, there are some serious undercurrents, particularly in the guest parts. Rarely, almost every new character in the script is working for someone different – themselves, for almost all of them, and so many of them chasing that it resembles Wacky Races – yet almost every one of them has the same motive: greed. It opens with everyone focused on Burt Brandon, a spy just about to get out of prison after nine years and all set to make a fortune, he claims, by exposing a secret at the heart of government. Played by George A Cooper in his third Avengers role, he’s an instantly recognisable actor (Mr Griffiths from Grange Hill) and so blatantly the centre of attention that it’s a real shock when he’s killed barely a dozen minutes in. This takes the viewer by surprise, not least because now it means that no-one knows what they’re looking for, nor where to find it: the chase becomes that much more unpredictable. And, of course, when Steed and Gambit finally unearth the ‘buried treasure’, it isn’t there, so even solving the clue of the pulp paperback doesn’t tell you who has the goods, let alone what the goods actually are.

The story’s main ‘villains’ are apparently Eastern Bloc heavies gone native – they’re communists who’ve turned capitalist, the power of all that money having turned their heads. And one of them’s a Conservative councillor into the bargain! Well, all right, that’s not strictly true, but a corrupt, communist, capitalist traitor Tory is believable, isn’t it? It’s not like we can’t all think of the odd crooked Tory with an extremist political past… No, no not that one – I’m actually thinking of the actor’s later role in The Vicar of Dibley. Yes, it’s him, isn’t it? That surprised you. Anyway, where was I? He and his nervous henchman ambush Brandon and kill him without actually intending to, as this means they can’t get the truth out of him; instead, in the episode’s grimmest sequence, they strip and search his body, splayed out in the middle of a field. Fortunately, the nastiness of that moment is swiftly followed by a surreal echo as, having failed to find anything on him, they search his car then take it to pieces and lay them out around the frame, creating an image in the field like an exploded diagram of all a car’s components. Gambit drives up later, seeing Purdey sitting on the completely disassembled wreck of a car:
“I say! Need any help? Could be a blocked carburettor.”
Brian Clemens creates an interesting flourish with the names, too. The two heavies are Roach and Poole, and there’s something distinctly fishy about them; Roy Marsden plays Turner, an apparently ordinary guy who’s tempted to the dark side by the lure of lucre (his first name, ironically, is Frank); and the top civil servant who’s sold out his country for whacking great pay-offs (again, entrepreneurship from the communists) is called Harmer. Incidentally, for Doctor Who fans of old, the two main suspects for the turncoat at the top are Hepesh and Shardovan, but the traitor’s the other way round in this series. With so much money said to be washing around, one of the most memorable things about this story is that it creates new villains among everyone who hears of it, as they’re all tempted just that little too far – an ordinary woman turned gleeful gas-bombing femme fatale, crop-sprayer Turner who takes the vital parcel (and who never had any hair) and is prepared to sell to the highest bidder… Though, with each, there are hints that the lure is only bringing out incipient corruption: the woman is jailbird spy Brandon’s estranged daughter; bluff, friendly Mrs Turner is first seen at her farmhouse, dipping bits of machinery in acid to sell them on to “Genuine Antiques”. But the multiplicity of villains, like the multiplicity of chases, help to keep the episode constantly lively, unpredictable and much better than the ordinary. It all leads up to a splendid series of climaxes with different villains – big and small – and they’ve all been set up so well that each grabs your attention, whether it’s an edge of the seat fight with Soviets turned independent, an impressive stunt with a plane to stop an ordinary bloke, or the fun of revealing and dealing with the traitor that, it turns out, the whole thing’s been about.

Next week, it’s about-face for a story of spies right up close rather than ones you have to chase, and there’s another villain who’ll grow up to be a famous detective on TV, in one of The New Avengers’ best.

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Why Mr Churchill Is A Better Prime Minister Than Mr Brown (Number 5069 in a Series of Eight Million)

Watching tonight’s QI, in which Mr Stephen Fry has been visibly straining (and failing) not to mock Pam Ayres, there was a discussion of bearskins – you know, the big, stiff, furry things associated with a guardsman and head. Anyway, the conversation turned to the remarkable number of guardsmen caught in thoroughly interesting positions in the 1950s. Apparently, one morning Winston Churchill was woken by a Prime Ministerial aide, who nervously informed him that a backbench MP had been arrested in the bushes with a guardsman, and that the newspapers had got hold of it (as, presumably, had the soldier).

Mr Churchill ruminated for a moment, and then asked whether he was right in thinking that it had been particularly cold the previous night. The aide shakily confirmed that it had been one of the coldest February nights on record. Before turning over and going back to sleep, the Prime Minister exclaimed,
“Makes you proud to be British!”
Likelihood of the dour, Puritan, killjoy, bullying, Mr-Ban-Everything current occupant of Number Ten saying anything of the sort: nil.

Now I must buckle down and attempt to finish my review of tonight’s jolly entertaining episode of The New Avengers, up on BBC4 at midnight. Though tragically naked guardsman-free, on the bright side it not only makes you proud to be British (or better-disposed if you’re not), but it’s quite a nippy night and you can stay in for it.

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 2001 Brilliant?

The fairy-tale Grimm Reality and The Adventuress of Henrietta Street’s complex histories are among Paul McGann’s best books – and it’s ‘new millennium, new ranges’, including the DVD releases starting in earnest; Occam’s Razor, first of the intelligent, dangerous Kaldor City CDs; and Billy novella Time and Relative. Perhaps most excitingly (not ignoring Peter’s and Colin’s fabulous Loups-Garoux and The One Doctor), Big Finish relaunch Paul with Storm Warning, then visit…

The Stones of Venice
“I don’t carry weapons. I don’t need them. But I must say, I think you treat your visitors here in a very shabby manner indeed.”
Edwardian adventuress Charley Pollard thinks the TARDIS is a gothic nightmare – wait until she reaches a poetically doomed Venice at the close of a hundred-year curse. The Duke’s moping over his lost love, her cult’s praying for resurrection, and there’s something fishy about the gondoliers…

As with all the Big Finish dramas, this is available on CD and download, both on its own and as part of a collection of the first Paul McGann stories broadcast on BBC7 (starting in 2005).

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Thursday, January 15, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 2000 Brilliant?

Big Finish really hit their stride with some thrilling audio dramas: Sylv’s The Fires of Vulcan, The Genocide Machine and brilliant, New Adventuresish The Fearmonger and The Shadow of the Scourge; Colin’s The Marian Conspiracy and, most captivatingly, Rob Shearman’s darkly comic The Holy Terror. The Web of Fear is grippingly recreated on stage at The Portsmouth Arts Centre. The books include Colin’s Grave Matter and Tom’s Festival of Death, reaching their pinnacle in Paul Cornell’s most wonderful story…

Doctor Who – The Shadows of Avalon
“Stories are about endings. They don’t mean anything unless they come to an end.”
The first Doctor Who to make me cry brilliantly explores the Doctor’s loss through the Brigadier’s – and tells of hopeless bravery, Faerie Silurians, Time Lord swearing, Armando Iannucci and The Proper Use for Chandeliers. The Doctor and his friends rediscover themselves, and at the end…
“From across the blackened turret, the sound came again… The Doctor closed his eyes and luxuriated in it. Could it really be? To him that sound meant home, safety, freedom –
“And adventures in time and space.”

Any time now we might hit novels that are still in print. But not yet, sadly, so do search it out second-hand. Fortunately, you can still get all the Big Finish plays on CD and download. Most of all, though, find this marvellous, marvellous book – even just flicking through it looking for quotes this evening, I’m a sufficiently soft old thing that I worried Richard by bursting into tears.

In real time, Paul’s signing his new Captain Britain graphic novel at Forbidden Planet in London this evening. I’m intrigued; I’ve read no Captain Britain for about two and a half decades, but I remember it being quite Arthurian, and that’s a favourite theme of Paul’s – The Shadows of Avalon itself is a mixture of love letter and literary criticism for Battlefield. I’m tempted to go, but am concerned that, in my present mood, I may blub.

“The Brigadier’s lips managed to form the word. ‘Doctor?’
“All around him, the UNIT men had started to cheer.
“‘About time and all,’ said Joe Boyce.”

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1999 Brilliant?

There are several inventive and entertaining books, from Paul’s The Taking of Planet 5 and Unnatural History, through Pat’s grave The Final Sanction to Benny’s hilarious The Joy Device (cheering me up, stuck in a grotty hotel). Perhaps the most memorable is Lawrence Miles’ Dead Romance, disturbingly brilliant and reaching across the ranges. Meanwhile, Big Finish starts producing full-scale Doctor Who audio plays starring Peter, Colin and Sylv, while on Red Nose Day the TV brings even more Doctors…

The Curse of Fatal Death
“He was never cruel, and never cowardly. And it’ll never be safe to be scared again.”
Steven Moffat’s four mini-episodes, each better than the last: very funny; rather loving; fart gags; breast gags; and a brilliant gag against Charlie Brooker (I’ll explain later). The Master’s augmented by superior Dalek technology, and five Doctors regenerate all the way to Joanna Lumley. Hurrah!

This was released on BBC Video, oddly re-edited, but there’s no sign of it yet on DVD, despite introducing many of our new timey-wimey overlord’s themes and featuring a mass of famous actors (including two who also play Doctors in other decades, a long-rumoured candidate and another actually offered the job). There was a little of it on last Christmas’ Doctor Who Confidential the other week, though.

Sadly, as I mark the last thrilling Twentieth Century appearance of the Daleks on TV, news has broken this week that the man who inhabited more Dalek casings than any other, actor John Scott Martin, has died at the age of 82. He played a host of roles with his own face on, too (next Monday evening will be the fiftieth anniversary of his second TV appearance, and the first with which I’m familiar, in Quatermass and the Pit), my favourite of which is probably the slightly deranged granddad Rico Vivaldi in Russell T Davies’ Mine All Mine; suddenly revealed at the climax of the first episode, it’s impossible not to see it as a fantastic joke on the Part One cliffhanger always being a Dalek.

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Norman Tebbit Is An Undead Christmas Present For Labour

I rarely watch The Daily Politics except for Wednesdays, after forgetting to watch Prime Minister’s Questions. Today’s boasted all my usual reasons for not watching (unfailingly smug tosser Andrew Neil, Labour apparatchik, Tory sneerer, Tory Press Office’s own Nick Robinson and no Lib Dem), but the lucky Labour Party were handed a late Christmas present. Presented with Norman Tebbit, Labour’s oleaginous Phil Woolas couldn’t believe his luck. On their loathsomely racist immigration policies, you can’t slip a BNP membership card between Mr Woolas and Lord Tebbit, but as a reminder of the wicked ’80s, Lord Tebbit was an open goal.

Bring Back the ’80s! But Only If They’re Ken Clarke

David Cameron’s attempt to present a new Conservatives has so many problems, the poor lamb. He opens his mouth or one of his palatial residences and you think of the Nineteenth Century old rich Tories, of course, but the main problem he’s been desperate to distance himself from is the last century, and the 1980s in particular. He tries not to mention it all, but that decade keeps coming back: his activists scream that he must or he’s an apostate of the Church of Thatchianity; and Labour’s principal, increasingly shrill and desperate message has for years been, ‘We’re shit, and we know we are, but, oooooh! The Tories! Scary!’

At the moment, we’re led to believe Mr Cameron’s wrestling with whether to bring back the Conservative ’80s sole remaining asset, Ken Clarke, to the front bench. In his usual decisive way, the papers have been reporting that he’s been trying to make up his mind over this simple question for the last couple of months, but – though I first remember him as a Thatcherite ultra prompting every ambulance worker in the land to go on strike, and his main activity over the past few years has been to export cancer to kids – to everyone except Mr Cameron it seems a no-brainer. Ken Clarke doesn’t just have a brain (an independent-minded one, at that), but is the only affable-seeming Tory to have come out of the ’80s. Arguably the only affable-seeming Tory in the last couple of decades, too, saving Mr Cameron’s lordly condescension to us all. And, of course, Mr Cameron’s right-hand man Mr Osborne is plainly such a useless lightweight that he really needs someone who looks like he has a clue about the economy. Only two things can possibly have prevented Mr Cameron from announcing Mr Clarke’s triumphant re-entry months ago. One is that, stood next to Mr Osborne as his main lieutenant, Mr Cameron can’t help but look capable and charismatic. Stood next to Mr Clarke… Oh dear. The other reason is, of course, that when I said to everyone except Mr Cameron it seems a no-brainer, I was excluding the swivel-eyed Tory maniacs who want Mr Clarke executed as a traitor (I’d like to say I’m exaggerating some of the views on ConHome for comic effect, but…) for not sharing their knee-jerk Tebbitastic hate of all things beyond the Channel Tunnel (or, indeed, north of Watford).

Tebbit Returns; Labourites Cry With Synthetic Outrage and Genuine Joy

The last thing that Mr Cameron needs, then, is for almost any Tory from the ’80s who isn’t Ken Clarke to rear their philosophically ugly head. So, if he retired from today’s PMQs to see any of Andrew Neil’s self-satisfied nonsense, he can only have groaned, reached for a crucifix, been grateful that very few people watch The Daily Politics and hoped none of it gets pulled out for the news. Because quite literally the worst person to appear for the Conservative case right now, given that Mrs Thatcher is in no fit state to be interviewed, is Norman Tebbit. He has in common with Ken Clarke that he was part of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet and one of the driving forces of the Thatcherite revolution, but more importantly that he’s one of the very few Tories that a significant section of the population will still instantly recognise (sagging types of my age and older, but still quite a few). And that’s not good. Where Mr Clarke gives an impression of likeability and empathy with the ‘ordinary bloke’, his image of lazy indulgence now all the more appealing after a decade of Labour’s shrill, bullying Puritanism, Norman Tebbit is forever the Spitting Image bovver boy incarnation of Thatcherite callousness, divisiveness and just plain nastiness.

As I’ve said so many times, but still so many thousand times fewer than Labour have, Labour’s main election pitch has long been reduced to ‘We’re shit, and we know we are, but, oooooh! The Tories! Scary!’ Unfortunately for them, this works less and less, like the Tories attacking Labour for the Winter of Discontent well into the ’90s (which they did, to increasingly risible effect): Mr Cameron isn’t associated with the ’80s; many voters no longer remember them anyway; after more than a decade of Labour, the present government have stored up more than a few of their own negatives, persistently dragging up to be as harsh and nasty as the Tories were and now seeming as rubbish as John Major on top; above all, Mr Cameron has worked as hard as he’s capable to try and ‘detoxify the Tory brand’ (despite that being as ’80s a piece of marketing speak as you’re likely to hear). Labour still have no idea of how to attack Mr Cameron – their ‘he’d do nothing’ charge at last has some bite, but their instinctive reaction remains ‘He’s a toff!’ Well, Tony Blair was also in the country’s top 1% of poshness, so while Labour are exercising some of their residual self-loathing over him, most of the country just don’t care. So imagine their delight whenever Norman Tebbit appears. If only the Tories ditched David Cameron and had Lord Tebbit as Leader, Labour would be in heaven. Whether they won the election or not, there’s no doubt that’s the dream election they yearn to fight.

Labour Are Tebbit’s Disgusting Race-Baiting Heirs

So, though Phil Woolas is both deeply unpleasant and almost always wheedling and ineffective, pitched against Norman Tebbit on a show about the economy, even he couldn’t fail to score. One of my defining early political experiences was the newly formed Liberal Democrats, pretty much at their lowest in 1989, alone in standing up for the rights of Hong Kong British citizens. Mrs Thatcher’s Government wanted to stand by our promises to only the richest, offering citizenship by bribery; but that wasn’t racist enough for Norman Tebbit and his fellow travellers in the Labour Party. Mr Tebbit led a Tory rebellion against Mrs Thatcher to stop anyone with the wrong colour skin entering Britain, and the Labour Party voted with him. Two decades later, Mr Woolas is one of the most shameless exponents of New Tebbit authoritarian bigot-pandering, but you’d never have known how much he’s one of Norman Tebbit’s ideological bedfellows by watching The Daily Politics today.

Both Mr Woolas and Lord Tebbit had messages they wanted to get over today, and they each repeated theirs endlessly. For Mr Woolas, it was that the economic meltdown is a global economic crisis; for Lord Tebbit, it was that, if Labour had run the economy better during the good times, they wouldn’t be in this mess now. Despite messages coming in from viewers scorning Mr Woolas’ crib sheet in pretty much his very parroted words, Mr Woolas won hands down. That’s because Lord Tebbit made two very stupid mistakes. The more minor one was laughing when Mr Woolas’ string was pulled and the line came out again. Suddenly, the Labour muppet came alive. Much as his opponent protested that he was only mocking the repeated excuse, Mr Woolas laid into him with shining eyes and the fervour of being able at last to attack the ‘real’ Tories he’d grown up with. My constituents who are out of work won’t thank you for laughing at them, he snarled, to Norman the Idiot. But of course you’re a monetarist, he went on, so we know you and the Tories have always stood back and not cared when people lose their jobs. And, in a recession, everyone who remotely remembers him nods and thinks, yes, that Labour git’s right, the Tories were horrible, and out of touch, and they never cared about unemployment.

Norman Tebbit’s biggest mistake, though, was in indulging his monstrous ego by turning up at all. He lacks the most rudimentary self-awareness. In the ’80s, his uncompromising working class Tory made good image appealed to almost as many people as it repelled. Today, all that’s gone. No-one remembers his life story, and he’s a Lord – he can’t pretend to be ‘in touch’ any more. All he is is a walking billboard for Labour’s wish-fulfilment campaign against the callous, laughing-at-unemployment Tory Government of a quarter-century ago. In short, he is everything David Cameron wants people to forget. If Norman Tebbit wants the Tories to win the next election, he should climb back into his coffin and refuse the bait of any media appearances. He’s been a blast from the past and a mere embarrassment for most of Mr Cameron’s tenure, but in the current economic climate, he’s pure poison. Every time he pops up, he can only do his party harm.

Of course, I’d love him to be all over the airwaves, too, but at least the Liberal Democrats have something positive to say in the event of the Tories not being self-destructively stupid.

In other news of Labour’s out-of-work-in-progress completion of Mrs Thatcher’s thousand-bomber-raids on British industry, the last television factory in the country has closed. For obvious reasons, I’m rather sad about that.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And in at number 49 on The Golden Ton for 2008-9.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1998 Brilliant?

The first Short Trips collection delights with stories like Model Train Set; Pat upsets Dreams of Empire; Peter faces the expletive-deleted Pope in Zeta Major; Bernice seeks The Sword of Forever and goes Where Angels Fear; the Doctor regenerates again in a DWM graphic story – or does he? And Big Finish’s first audio play stars Benny in Oh No It Isn’t! (Paul Cornell’s book rewritten for actors? Fancy). While back in history…

Doctor Who – The Witch Hunters
“Rebecca Nurse, you have been brought here to answer accusations that you are a practitioner in the black art of witchcraft.”
Steve Lyons takes us to Salem Village’s tragedy to put the TARDIS crew, the accused villagers and the reader through the emotional wringer – but the Doctor can’t interfere. I’m in the States, Fall ’98; on one of two days off, I visit the Danvers Memorial.

This is yet another one you’ll have to track down second-hand to read; once again, Billy’s Doctor gets the best from ‘his’ original novels.

Oh, and – this is getting to be a habit – popping back to real time for a moment, at this very minute (and I suspect for the whole of the last day, so it’ll probably still be there when you wake up and read this) the BBC are showing Doctor Who At the Proms on one of their red button channels. It’s much more full version than the one BBC1 showed on New Year’s Day, running at over an hour and a half rather than an hour, and a lot of it’s rather good. Other than the Doctor Who Theme, my favourite’s probably All the Strange, Strange Creatures, myself, though in our household it’ll always be known as ‘Dance of the Macra’. Anyway, on Freeview (it doesn’t seem to be there on Freesat) the appropriate red button channel is 301. Happy promenading!

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Monday, January 12, 2009


Nearly Bye-Bye, President Bush

President Bush has given his final press conference – keener to be held to account now he’s suddenly paying some attention to history (much too little, much too late). He claimed that he was “disappointed” not to have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Well, that’s one way of putting it.

He’s earned some unexpected credit over the past couple of months; he was an occasionally good outgoing President. He decided to be, at the last, a unifyer in supporting President-Elect Obama (actively so, rather than in the country uniting in relief that anyone else was to be President). It doesn’t make up, of course, for matching that with all his last-minute shittery in rushing through Presidential edicts to pay off all his big business fundraisers by destroying the US environment, and nothing could make up for the unspeakable butchery of the worst Presidency in American history. Still, it’s reassuring to find something nice to say about even President Bush, as my Mother always used to tell me about everyone (though I suspect she’d be very pushed indeed to find a nice word to say about him – but then, she was born an American, and I have dual nationality, so as well as being as horrified by him as 90% of the world, we feel soiled).

He finished by saying that history would judge him. As with his friend Mr Blair and their Cabinets, I’d rather it was the Hague.

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1997 Brilliant?

Endings and beginnings, as the Doctor’s New Adventures go out in a blaze: Lungbarrow provides some of the answers from Sylv’s decade, in new questions; The Dying Days introduces Paul McGann at the series’ end; landmark unfinished story So Vile a Sin appears at last; The Well-Mannered War says “Bye-bye!” for Tom; and Bernice voyages into several spin-off series. Then Lawrence Miles provides the powerhouse of ideas that drive the BBC Books, and beyond…

Doctor Who – Alien Bodies
“It was a dead body! Dead! Its biodata was of no use!”
“A legend never dies, Cousin. You should know that.”
A hearts-rending requiem. A laugh-out-loud comedy. A carnival of invention, from four-dimensional voodoo-cults and reverse-linear structure through reimagined monsters and crosswords to a new form of TARDIS, it’s remembered for its big idea: the future. The Time Lords are heading for a massive Time War…

Another one that’s out of print and that you’ll need to search for, I’m afraid. You can’t read this one online, but you can read three of the Virgin novels I’ve tipped, so try them out, won’t you?

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Sunday, January 11, 2009


Alternative Viewing

Richard has just put on The Andrew Marr Show, and he’s gone out to see David Cameron’s house, because the Tory Leader is now too important to come into the studio. Oh, god, and now it’s royal news. Much as I’m fond of Andrew Marr, and much as I enjoy his Prisoner fanboy opening titles, I’d rather watch almost anything else. Even ITV (well, on Tuesdays, when ITV4 at least is now repeating proper The Prisoner).

Before I go off to the bedroom to read instead, then, links to two online clips for your entertainment, one very funny, one loving.

I’m no huge fan of Microsoft, but I use a PC. And not being hugely technical, I tend to use my computer to type things into and watch things on, for which it’s adequate. I sometimes find Apple tempting because they have rave reviews from some people I know, and look pretty. But I can’t imagine touching a Mac with a bargepole for the foreseeable future. Why? Partly because learning to use a whole new system and worrying about compatibility with my last decade and a bit of PC stuff rates too high on my cantbearsedometer, and partly because of the Mac ad campaign.

No, ‘being just like everybody else’ isn’t a great selling point for me… But ‘excluding everyone else, because I’m part of a superciliously snobbish proselytising cult’ just utterly gets on my wick (and anyway, some of us prefer would prefer David Mitchell, at least if he hadn’t taken all that money from Apple). It gave a brilliant opening to giant corporation Microsoft to advertise the PC as something people-sized that breaks down barriers and lets people talk to each other instead, and that was a poke in the eye Apple fully deserved, the wankers. “Life without walls” is a Liberal message; ‘We are superior beings, so we can look down on 90% of people for being rubbish’ isn’t. Oh, and claiming that PC users are just following the herd when you’ve got massive market dominance in many other technological fields through your many iBrands doesn’t impress me, either.

So thank you, Forceful and Moderate, for this. It made me laugh.

Thanks, also, to the lovely Simon Guerrier for reminding me about this terrific recreation of a Doctor Who trailer from 1968. I’ve heard it before on audio and seen it accompanied by stills, but the CGI recreation of some of Patrick Troughton’s mannerisms is quite uncanny.

PS I love Richard very much, and this is not having a dig at him. It’s having a dig at Andy Marr luvvying up to the even-more-up-himself-than-Apple-with-even-less-reason Mr Cameron.

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Doctor Who 45th Anniversary – Why Was 1996 Brilliant?

This year’s New Adventures include Lawrence Miles’ debut, Christmas on a Rational Planet; Happy Endings’ comedy wedding; Just War’s Nazi occupation; and a tragedy’s aftermath in Bad Therapy. Other Doctors appear in Sylv-Peter crossover Cold Fusion, Tom’s witty The English Way of Death and Billy’s fabulous The Plotters and nightmarish The Man in the Velvet Mask. Paul McGann stars in a one-off TV movie – and Russell T Davies writes his first Doctor Who

Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Damaged Goods
“At the far end of the street, hostile armed men came to the party, and twenty minutes passed.”
A bloody, brilliant book, set on an ’80s estate haunted by past and future: Christmas, motherhood, ancient Time Lord wars; Roz’s destiny, and elements surging to TV a decade later. Be careful what you wish for, and even more so, what you try to return…

Of all the New Adventures that aren’t available as eBooks – sadly the vast majority of them – this one’s the most surprising. Perhaps Russell thinks this dark tale of drugs, despair and bargained children too disturbing, or perhaps the peppering of its ideas all across the Twenty-First Century series would just spoil too many surprises, from Rose right through to The Next Doctor? Either way, it’s another one you have to find second-hand, I’m afraid.

And once again back on the ‘real’ date, today is probably – well, I was three and a bit – the thirty-fourth anniversary of my seeing my first Doctor Who episode. I’m so glad I did.

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Friday, January 09, 2009


The New Avengers – To Catch A Rat

Are you still up? Well, stop what you’re doing, and turn over to BBC4 at 12.25 for tonight’s episode of The New Avengers, To Catch A Rat. While its sexual attitudes aren’t as wholesome as your everyday Internet porn, it’s still interesting for all sorts of reasons. On Wednesday, The Avengers was 48 years old – in this one, you’ll see the return of Ian Hendry, the show’s original lead actor (that’s right; in 1961, Patrick Macnee was the co-star). It’s a Cold War ‘thriller’ in which the story makes little sense but the main characters are rather beautifully drawn.

Gambit and Purdey are driving in circles, discussing what they were doing seventeen years ago. Gambit is driving, quite badly, and flirting, very badly. Purdey is eating marshmallows.
“Me? I was discovering sex.”
“What a waste of time. You might have been learning to drive.”
Our two young leads seem slightly out of place in this story, but they’re still among the best things in it – their relationship is coming on in leaps and bounds, as the camera has stopped fetishising Gambit as a hard man and Purdey has started taking the Mike out of him. And Joanna Lumley is fantastic at it, from the exchange above, through her pointed failure to get his terrible “undercover” pun, to one of the best scenes in it – at best peripheral to the plot – when they stumble into a church, Gambit’s gun drawn, and startle two ladies doing the flowers. Purdey’s brilliant idea for getting them out of there without causing any embarrassment is worth tuning in for alone.

That’s not to say that Joanna has it all her own way. I’ve written before about the sexism in this version of the series’ format (suddenly, an older Steed gets to do the ‘thinking’ and Gambit the ‘action’, both previously the purview of Avengers women) and in the deliberate writing and directing decisions, and Purdey is still leched over by every character to an uncomfortable degree. This was one of the few New Avengers episodes to be novelised, and the only one I’d actively urge you to avoid; the author makes every male character drool over her in a way that leaves you feeling soiled. The TV original is less sleazy, but we still get her involvement with ludicrously improbable men, and the director offers lingering shots up her legs as she rolls filigree coverings over them. No male character’s ever objectified in this way, though I have to admit I wouldn’t thank them for offering the same treatment to Mike Gambit. Thankfully, Purdey’s relaxed teasing of Gambit (and her spotting and nearly stopping the villain) points the way the series is going to go – Joanna’s clearly the one to watch here, and that leg shot is almost made up for by her scenes spent in a suit and big tie, which both looks fantastic and shows that she still commands the camera when completely buttoned up.

The main plot, though, centres on the older actors – and it’s rather nice to see so many of them about, whether in charge of records, swilling brandy and smoking cigars in the bath in the world’s largest bathroom (yes, all right, one rather nicely acted old chap gets to show off even more of his body than Purdey does, though I don’t think the director’s enjoying it so much), or of course being the main protagonists. On the one hand, the villains are rather bland; there’s a double agent to be exposed, and though technically there are several suspects, we only get to know two of them. One of these acts so suspiciously throughout that he may as well have a neon sign above his head saying, ‘You’re supposed to think it’s me!’ while the other’s more urbane until he becomes Purdey’s unbelievably slimy date. If you’re under the age of four, you may not have just worked out whodunnit. It’s odd, really, that the usually prime parts of the villains are so dull, when almost all the bit-part old chaps shine, and both Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry are marvellous, despite neither having much in common with the characters they were playing together back in 1961.

As in several of the earlier New Avengers stories, Steed largely stays in the background and gives the orders while the young ’uns handle the action; though I still prefer him light but dangerous against a diabolical master mind, this is one of the few episodes where his serious, authority figure persona really works, giving weight to the George Smiley figure in this cut-price le Carré (though the script’s so flimsy on that side that, without Patrick Macnee, there’d be nothing to it but lots of running around and looking concerned on the radio). Despite that, the show’s stolen by Ian Hendry, who’s the only actor in the whole series to get a full screen ‘Guest Star’ credit and thoroughly deserves it.

Ian Hendry and Dr Keel

Ian Hendry once played Dr David Keel, whose fiancée was murdered by drug dealers in the first ever episode of the series and who was assisted by a shadowy government operative named Steed to avenge her. He left after the first series, Patrick Macnee remained and became the lead, Honor Blackman took over the second ‘man’s’ role, and the rest is history. While every later Avengers episode still exists, only two and a half of Mr Hendry’s remain in the archives (the first reel of the very first episode, Hot Snow, up until the murder; The Frighteners, a mundane plot enlivened by great characters and performances; and Girl on the Trapeze, the only Avengers episode without Steed, and like this episode of course featuring a trapeze). His glittering film career never quite materialised, other than character roles like the violent chauffeur in Get Carter, and perhaps it’s not just his (make-up-assisted?) heavy ageing that helps inspire the melancholy feel of this episode.

In Doctor Who terms, this is less The Five Doctors, more Meglos, as the original star returns but not to play his original role. In an uneven script’s best and most self-referential bit of writing, he’s a former agent, lost for sixteen years, come back a shadow of his former self but determined, once again, to avenge his own dead. And Mr Hendry’s performance as Gunner is full of that pathos – one early scene has him struggle to pull his identity back out of his fragmented mind, then see a little girl and break into a warm, reassuring smile, not wanting to frighten her, and it’s beautifully played.

The trouble with the episode, then, isn’t with the leading actors, but with the plot. It desperately wants to be John le Carré, but misses out the multiplicity of suspects, the intricacy and, well, all the clever bits. So we’re left with a trapeze artist agent in East Germany who wounded the double agent who blew his cell – arguably the only ‘clever le Carré plotting’ here has to be inferred to precede the first scene, in the trap Gunner has laid ‘off’ for the “White Rat”; I’d rather we actually got to see some intelligent intelligence work than have to assume it was there just before we joined the story – but was then let down by his traitorous partner before he could tell London. His brain and body broken by the fall, he takes sixteen (or seventeen, depending on who’s speaking) years to be hit on the head again, in traditional fashion, get his memory back and go on the hunt for the White Rat. If you’re hoping for more character moments and subtle intrigues, tough luck; his return is just a cue for everybody to run around the countryside and the odd flat after everybody else until everybody’s either cleared or dead, or simply tired out after all the chasing. Perhaps the biggest let-down, other than the pre-titles freeze-frame, is that the logic of what passes for the plot means Steed can’t catch up with Gunner until the last couple of minutes. Patrick Macnee has one tender moment with his old co-star, but I can’t help hoping for more, and it’s not as if the story came up with a gripping alternative.

A Bit of A Disappointment, Then…?

The plot isn’t merely thin, either, but full of holes. How come the terribly wounded Gunner was moved to a ship’s hold to be found and cared for, rather than finished off or turned over to the Stasi? Why, if the villains were going to soft-heartedly put him on a boat, did they stick him on a boat to Britain, where he can expose them (Richard wonders if they gave him a memory test before dumping him)? Why does the man who dropped him from a great height just happen to be listening in all those years later to spot Gunner’s signal? Why does he then go to ‘reassure’ Gunner, when surely if the man’s finally got his memory back he might remember who betrayed and tried to kill him? Why are the villains the only ones who remember the Department’s signals and codenames from a mere decade and a half earlier, while others in the service at the time – all the other potential White Rats Gunner checks out, Steed himself – have to shrug and wonder? Why isn’t the first thing the Department does to check everyone who was involved back in 1960, then isolate and interrogate them, rather than the identity of one of the main participants being sprung as an off-hand ‘surprise’ at the last minute? And did they really think the contrived nudist jokes about Steed’s old codename were funny – though it does make me wonder which came first, the laboured puns or Patrick Macnee’s naturism? At least if Pat was already hanging out nude, the in-joke’s amusing, if not to the viewers.

So, I’m afraid this isn’t one of the great episodes (rather, among the weaker ones; not actively bad, but dull, plodding and with very little distinctive Avengers feel to the script). It does, however, have some great moments for the regular cast, and particularly from the one who stopped being a regular fifteen years before. But that’s not the only recommendation – despite on the surface being a very old-fashioned story, probably dated in 1960 let alone 1976, it has some elements that the series will take further and improve on. There are some of the first steps in elevating Purdey in the script and treating Gambit as a bit of a prat, rather than the holy soul of machismo. Most strikingly, elements of Terence Feely’s script – a pre-titles sequence years ago on the Iron Curtain, the lost old agent returning from the other side, a melancholy exploration of Steed’s past – are reworked into a far, far better script that knows what to do with them a year later, when Brian Clemens writes by a long way the greatest episode of The New Avengers, Dead Men Are Dangerous. One thing that doesn’t point to the series’ future, though, is the title sequence; sorry, I said last time that this would be the first to have the swishy, expensive, nearly-three-colour 1976 CGI opening. It isn’t. But this time I think it really is the last one to have the by-the-numbers clips montage. Tune in next week to see if I’ve got it wrong again, and for an unusual secret code, an hilarious ‘secret’ outfit and a very dubious young Roy Marsden…

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