Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Suburban Hell written by Alan Barnes and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Somewhere in a suburb of North London, there's a crisis. More than a crisis, a positive disaster: Belinda and Ralph are expecting four for supper, and there's no Marie Rose sauce for the Prawns Marie Rose. All in all, the evening couldn't possibly get any worse... Until the doorbell rings, bringing the Doctor and Leela to the dinner party. They've got a crisis, too – temporal ruckage has sent the TARDIS to another time zone entirely. Meaning they might have to endure a whole evening in Belinda's company. But the Doctor and Leela aren't the only uninvited guests tonight. There's a strange fog falling, out in the road. And in that fog: savage blue-skinned monsters, with dinner party plans of their own. Because it's not Prawns Marie Rose on their menu – it's people!

Teeth and Curls: I love the idea of the Doctor and Leela turning up to investigate a temporal ruckage at a dinner party being held by a man and wife, with both spouse thinking they are the others' guests. Anything but a lager for the Doctor! He's deliberately baffling in places to keep everybody on the wrong foot. You can tell that Tom Baker is loving being able to call a character 'Thelma from over the road' and he relishes every opportunity. Most of his plans tend to come with the caveat that he might be ripped to pieces in the process, occupational hazard.

Noble Savage: Taking inspiration from The Talons of Weng Chiang, I could instantly see the merit in dropping Leela into a dinner party where her savagery and lack of table manners would contrast amusingly with the other guests. Which is why it is bizarre that all those opportunities for culture shock were squandered and Leela was effectively shunted onto the sidelines.

Standout Performance: Katy Wix makes quite an impression...a pretty irritating one! I cannot fault the performance but the character of Belinda the control freak wife (with an emasculating line in putdowns to her husband) is the audio equivalent of pubic lice. She just made me want to itch. It's always lovely to catch up with Annette Badland, although she has been in a fair few stories of late.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'There's only one place we can go...upstairs!'
'Are you in the realm of the dead?' 'Well I'm in the late 1970s so much the same thing!'

Great Ideas: There have been a couple of Doctor Who stories that have gone down the domestic route before with varying degrees of success. If you are going set a story inside a single house I think you have to be very sure of your story and your characters because you have little local colour to rely on. The Deadstone Memorial was a fantastic example, the Doctor entering the world of a family at siege, trying to solve the possession of a little boy and remembering that the details (ie the people) in his adventures are just as important as the details (ie the end of the universe stuff). Fear Her on the telly was less victorious, featuring an Olympic backdrop that violated the story and a bland characterisation across the board (a really dreary alien of the week didn't help either). So how does Suburban Hell fare?  This is the artificial world of 1970s dinner parties where the common man is trying to appear as conservative and as business class as possible by dolloping on the Marie Rose sauce and talking money and politics. It's the era of plastic - coffee makers, Tupperware, fake smiles and pretensions of being better than you are. Within this setting you have Belinda the wicked, putting together the most artificial of social gatherings, Ralph the long suffering husband, Thelma from over the road, Pete the toff who likes showing off his wealth and Penny the long suffering wife. The house takes on a personality of its own. It was vacant for 40 years and happy to be so but when the Belinda and Ralph arrived and weren't repulsed it seemed like a match made in heaven. Thelma (from over the road) is a witchfinder general, which is a witch that finds things, in general. The blue woman in the painting was real once, a mutant born with the most terrible glamour that made her impossible to resist, She used her innate abilities for evil and in time she came to dominate every living mind in the entire constellation. Before she died she forced a witch to put an imprint of her malign psyche into a portrait - her acolytes stole the portrait and took it to Earth. If a suitable host can be found then she can continue her evil work in this arm of the galaxy. Hopping between the two time zones provides some amusing moments, especially as Leela learns about the Doctor's activities in the past, we head back to experience then and then head back to hear her reaction.

Isn't it Odd: The ending is so abrupt I thought that I must have missed something. The whole story comes to 52 minutes which feels remarkably short, even for a 4DA. I was right in the thick of the action, things were starting to cohere and then it was goodbyes by the TARDIS. If everything was wrapped up satisfactorily perhaps  blinked and missed it.  

Standout Scene: I automatically assumed that this story was set during the 1970s because that would have been the contemporary period this would be set in at the time (and the Marie Rose sauce screamed of the era). However the twist that it is a themed party comes from nowhere and genuinely surprised me...only for the story to head back to the 70s anyway.

Result: What is going on with the fourth Doctor range? This is the third story in a row that is a massive departure from the 'it's 1977' nostalgia rush that the range has been keen to capture in the past. I could really get used to this. Remember when Tom Baker said that he turned up at a random house and asked if he could watch The Deadly Assassin part three because he was worried about the content, well the fourth Doctor and Leela emerging as guests at a dinner party and the entire story being contained in a domestic setting is just as wonderfully bizarre. I got a Sapphire and Steel Adventure Five vibe from this story that pleased me because I think it is one of the unsung stories from the series - a mystery spread across two time periods in a domestic and yet completely artificial (in terms of the furnishings and the relationships between the characters) setting. This is a lot more frivolous and frothy though, which might explain why it feels so throwaway when it is genuinely doing something a bit different. Splitting the narrative between two time zones gives the story more scope and allows the Doctor to investigate the cause and the Leela the effect and between them they sow up who is the vessel that the alien is looking to inhabit. Tom Baker is on fine form but he has been all year and I really think he has come into his own on audio now. My only complaint is that this had the opportunity to be a devastatingly witty, almost Coward-esque play but Barnes doesn't quite have the comedy chops to pull it off. Instead we have to make do with an entertaining romp but don't underestimate Suburban Hell because I describe it as such because so many 4DAs have been anything but: 7/10

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Last of the Cybermen written by Alan Barnes and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: It's been ten years since the final assault on Telos, the last act of the Great Cyber War. Thanks to the Glittergun, humanity prevailed – and the half-machine Cybermen were utterly obliterated. Out on the furthest fringes of the galaxy, however, they left their mark – in the form of a giant Cyber-head, hundreds of feet high. A monument? A memorial? A tomb? The Doctor, the Cybermen's most indefatigable adversary, sets out to investigate... but he fails to return to his TARDIS. Leaving the Ship, his two companions – brave Highlander Jamie MacCrimmon, and super-intelligent Zoe Heriot – find a stranger in the Doctor's place. A stranger in a coat of many colours, who insists that he's the Doctor – transposed in time and space with one of his former selves... But why here? Why now? Has the universe really seen the last of the Cybermen..?

Softer Six: Or not so softer six as the case may be. I have been reading a fascinating thread on Gallifrey Base recently about whether the mellowed sixth Doctor is really a reflection of the incarnation that appeared in the eighties or simply wish fulfilment on the part of Big Finish and Colin Baker. The assertion is that after 200 releases that the sixth Doctor on audio is an entirely different character because he is so far removed from his televised persona. I think there is a grain of truth in this argument but it is taking the character in such a positive direction, one where he is far more admired and respected than before that it doesn't really matter. And besides in parts of Trial of a Time Lord there were massive indications of how the Doctor would develop later in his life, a much more charming, genial, thoughtful man (the Ravalox and Hyperion III segments in particular). However, Last of the Cybermen re-acquaints us with a blast from the past. The no-nonsense, fist flying, man of action that murdered his way through season 22. It's such abrasive characterisation that like walking into a sandstorm, you might get slits and cuts if you get too close to him. Baker seems to relish the opportunity to play it tough again for a time and in particular he clashes spectacularly with Frazer Hines' Jamie in parts of this play, the two characters threatening to come to blows during the more fraught moments because that is their go-to response to being helpless and frightened. He takes an instant dislike to Xennox but then he has been at this game some time and can spot the bad guy (or gal) from a distance. There is no pretence to the contrary, he picks her out of the crowd and is rude to her from the off. Troughton (who this story technically should have belonged to) would have been more subtle but I've always enjoyed Baker's bull in a china shop approach. States that he is not the prancing pixie that he used to be. Whilst it might be a nonsensical over egging of the continuity pudding, the Doctor discusses the Time Lords of this periods with a genuine sense of dread. He lays out his crimes to Jamie; stealing the TARDIS and interfering with the affairs of other planets. I love his sledgehammer tactics, when the Doctor can't think of any other way of stopping the beacon he tries to turn the TARDIS into a battering ram and literally punch his way out of this situation.

Who's the Yahoos: Headstrong, masculine and brave, I would say that Jamie was captured the most authentically by Barnes (helped along by Frazer Hines' uncanny ability to sound as though he is 40 years younger than he is). He's far more suspicious than Zoe about the motley fellow in the clown costume. He's much savvier than you might think, mocking a fight with the Doctor in order to attempt to disarm Xennox. He thought when he finally dropped this life with the Doctor he would end back in the Highlands with a pretty lass. It's Jamie who dreams up the solution that they could escape the amnesiac spell that the Time Lords will place upon them and he figures a way out for himself and Zoe. But ultimately their feelings for the Doctor force them to stay and face the future together. It is rather a touching statement of how much they love each other that his two companions are willing to lose their memories of their adventures with him rather than force him to face his people alone.

Whizzkid: Rather sweetly the Doctor refers to her as 'my Zoe.' Cybermen stories are ideal for Zoe because they operate on the same kind of cold logic that she does. Saying that I did find her characterisation a little off at times, Barnes shoving her into the adolescent victim role a little too often. It's when he treats her like a stubborn little madam that she sounded most bona fide. Whilst reeling off a ton of numbers to a decimal point might not seem like the best use of the character, it does highlight her intelligence and Zoe is instrumental in the Doctor and Jamie's progress through the citadel. Her aptitude also becomes an important plot point too so it isn't just killing time on Barnes' part. There was a chance here to involve Zoe in a romance story, finding a kindred spirit in Findel but as soon as his treachery is clear she is hooked up to the Cyberplanner and he is killed leaving this potentially characterful thread moot. Her brain is described as being half computerised already, which is why she could handle the consciousness of a Cyberplanner.

Standout Performance: Lucy Liemann dos everything that the role of the central villain asks for her and manages to imbue Xennox with an icy coolness that you would expect from a Logician. However I did get the impression that on the odd occasion that she felt as though the material was a bit beneath her and a sense of embarrassment when she had to make grand, melodramatic exclamations. Wendy Padbury felt a bit off in the same way that Katy Manning did in the last story, not quite capturing the same voice (understandably so) she had in the sixties. If you can't do it, then why try? I guess I am used to listening to the older Zoe of the companion chronicles, which is where Padbury has given her best performances. I still think her best performance ever in Doctor Who was as Mrs Baines in Davros.

Great Ideas: A 500 foot high complex in the shape of Cyberman head sitting atop a mountain, now that's the sort of visual that would get any fan boy weak at the knees. The Cybermen were utterly defeated ten years ago. I love the way Barnes disposes with the idea that there might be a hibernating Cyber-army inside the citadel, wiping out any possibility that this might be remake of Tomb of the Cybermen. The mystery purpose of the citadel is what excited me the most in the first two episodes, especially once they started exploring. The Cyber War is something worth expanding upon because it is something that is mentioned (a bit like the Time War until we actually got to see it) in a few stories without ever going into much detail. Given that they are the back up ultimate badasses of the universe (after the Daleks, of course) it does seem something of an peculiarity that we never visited a time period during the this era of great conflict between humanity and the Cybermen. Is there a haul of Cyber-equipment and weapons buried at the head of the citadel? Is that what Xennox is after? A Cyberplanner dormant in the heart of the head, waiting for an intelligent mind to sink its technological claws into and activate the citadel. Xennox is one of the Brotherhood of Logicians that dogged the Doctor's footsteps in Tomb of the Cybermen. The story of the last of the Cybermen is a myth that is embedded in history - a fleet of 10,000 ships hiding away and ready to strike. The head atop the mountain is a beacon, to guide the last of the Cybermen. That's a genuinely exciting, whacky notion. An enormous Cyber-head on a storm lashed planet sending out flashes of lightning to attract thousands of Cyber ships. I can imagine Barnes started this story with a potent visual like that and worked around it. A lightning strike put the beacon out of action and for ten years the 10,000 strong fleet has been at sea in a far off nebulae but with Zoe hooked up to the system finally the fleet can come home and launch their last devastating attack on humanity. And that's another pulse racing idea. If the two Doctors had not been translocated then none of these events would have taken place. For once, the second Doctor was happy to leave well alone as soon as he realised there was a dormant Cyberplanner awaiting activation. It is only because the sixth Doctor took his place that these events took place. Zoe, trapped in a web of technological tendrils, suspended in the air as the Cyber-intelligence settles inside her head. Another mad comic strip image but a strong one.

Audio Landscape: Nigel Fairs on the other hand is a name I am starting to dread as a sound designer. Like Mistfall, there was something really off with the sound design of this adventure with some very odd choices made to represent certain moments of action, a horrid, echoey effect favoured that gave me a headache during dialogue scenes (listen to when the 6th Doctor, Jamie and Zoe first meet - it sounds like they are in a tunnel, not on a storm lashed planet) and some odd perspective effects used that distracted me from the story. Far be it from me to say that Fairs isn't an accomplished sound designer but I can only say what I like and I don't like this. There was a jarring feeling to the whole production that threatened to turn me off. The worst aspect of a poor production was the Cybermen voices, which like Revelation of the Daleks for the Daleks were far too human and lacking the electronic menace of the best of Troughton stories. I know I can often be found having a moan about the inaudible electronic wobulation that Big Finish attaches to its monsters (see The Defectors) but this time it was the reverse effect. Besides you have some awesome Cyberman voices to choose from in the Troughton era and if it aint broke, don't fix it.

Musical Cues: Basic but masculine and quite catchy, Fairs' music is far more memorable than his sound design. I especially liked the stomping drama of Zoe's predicament at the end of episode two, which was given greater impact thanks to the music.

Isn't it Odd: There are a few gaping problems that have to be addressed if we are going to get to good stuff in Last of the Cybermen, problems that should almost be enough to topple the story and drag it down into the quagmire but thanks to Barnes' penchant for visual storytelling (he thinks like a comic book writer, big and bold and his set pieces follow suit) these issues are not insurmountable...
* The Locum Doctors format. It's a dud. It's rubbish. When I first heard it my initial response was that Big Finish were desperate. Desperate to appease the actors that weren't getting the opportunities that the companion chronicles gave them anymore. Desperate to squeeze more continuity into the main range. Desperate to have a quirky hook to lure listeners in rather than letting stories earn a pass on their own merit. All those things have turned out to be true. The way the later Doctors are being crow-barred into their predecessors adventures is so clunky and awkward I am starting to feel a little bit embarrassed for the writers. The opening of Last of the Cybermen feels like the work of an anxious man trying to make the transition of Doctors a natural occurrence (where has the Doctor gone...let's go and find him...well now who's this man who has appeared where the Doctor fell?) but it is such an unnatural plot device that it doesn't succeed on any level. We're two stories in to the Locum Doctors trilogy now and I am still none the wiser as to why this was supposed to be a good idea, where that particular strand of narrative is going or who it is supposed to appeal to. I'm a mad Doctor Who fan boy and I'm scratching my what would everybody else think? Beyond the joy of having Baker, Hines and Padbury together...I cannot think of a single reason why this episode of 'Doctor Swap' has taken place. Barnes' justification in the extras seems to be nothing more than because they haven't tried it before. Well they haven't tried an orgy where Vicki and Steven get their jollies off either so I'll look forward to that next month.
* Continuity. What was Barnes thinking? I don't mind a sprinkling of continuity to season a story and give it a little substance but the sheer amount of references to old stories is so vast I can only imagine that Barnes is the love child of a union between Gary Russell and David A. McIntee and is trying to appease his fathers. When the plot has to grind to a halt so that characters can regurgitate the chronological adventures that took place in season six just so Barnes can insert an appalling joke about Madeline Issigri sounding a little like Madelon Cluster you have to question where the script editor is and why he isn't ripping great hunks of this nonsense out of the script. Jamie has suddenly become a character in an Eric Saward script-edited story, spouting off references to the previous adventure as a matter of habit (it's almost as if all that hardware in The Space Pirates gave him such a hard on he's fallen in love with General Hermack and the Space Corps). Like the Locum Doctors format, it's self-conscious and abnormal. It feels like a writer trying to impress a little too hard and the result messy. I haven't even broached the subject of great waves of Cyberman continuity (although that is rather the point of the story so it's less humiliating) with glitter guns, all getting a mention. Taking inspiration from Gary Russell, Barnes is attempting to plug massive gaps that have been left in continuity (this time bridging the gap between and Revenge of the Cybermen), using ugly clumps of back references to fill in the holes. What's wrong with leaving some of these stories to our imaginations? To marry a story about the sixth Doctor taking the place of the second Doctor with a story that drags in so many elements of Cyberman history feels like over egging the pudding and the result has a strong whiff of fanwank that has gone putrid. Why not do something completely original? Other continuity that was used to plaster over cracks in the plotting; the Doctor re-arranging Jamie's face in The Mind Robber, a dagger from Salladin, the Doctor's stovepipe, the chest in the TARDIS, a Chameleon Tours brochure, a Quarks head, the 500 Year Diary, the glitter gun, alpha meson phosphor lamps, the Brotherhood of Logicians, Cyber planner, the absurd mention of Quadrigger Stoyn, re-hashing the events of The War Games before they have happened and opening an incongruous can of worms to try and undo by the final episode, Tibetan monks, the HADS, the robot receptionist from The Invasion, a bizarre trip to Telos to catch up with the Cyber fleet, Tython, Gemma and the other base personnel on the Wheel...I gave up at this point but trust me there was waves more fanwank gushing forth.
* For someone with Barnes' practice and expertise in audio drama, plenty of the dialogue in Last of the Cybermen was over-descriptive and explanatory. Some moments (Jamie explaining the Doctor sitting cross legged on the floor is like 'one of those Tibetan Monks') left me shaking my head. 'I'm sorry Mr Cyberman, I'm afraid we have to go now' is a line that would never have come out of Zoe's mouth.
* Lanky (from Lancashire, geddit?) the northern Cyberman as played by Nick Briggs. Just no.
* Bizarrely episode four skips ahead from where we left the action at the end of episode three and the Doctor fills in the gaps in one great gulp of exposition. It's a bizarre creative choice because the cliffhanger to episode three is probably the most exciting moment in the whole story and the where the story diverts to isn't half as engaging.

Standout Scene: Hundreds of Cybermats in the maintenance tunnels. lighting up the darkness and screaming in unison, advancing on the Doctor and Jamie is the sort of bold visual that this story excels in.

Result: Much like Heroes of Sontar and Castle of Fear, Alan Barnes has serious trouble trying to set his story up and the first episode is pretty much abysmal. It's like watching clunky, cumbersome plot gears bang into place trying to get all the characters inside the hulking great Cyber-head but once they are there things pick up considerably. Then we are in typical Troughton base under siege territory with some powerful visuals and ideas providing a backbone. There's a real atmosphere to the characters trying to figure out the mystery of the citadel and I really enjoyed how the story suddenly expanded to encompass an entire Cyber-fleet in it's latter half, from the intimate to the epic in a heartbeat. The very idea of the Last of the Cybermen making a surprise emergence and attacking is one that gets the heart racing. The story is told without a great deal of charm and humour (but then it does emphasise logic and warfare and it's hard to be laugh and minute under those circumstances) and the characterisation is pretty basic (I don't think I really believed in any of the guest characters beyond their most basic plot function - 'villain', 'victim', 'plot expositor') but those things aren't really relevant when it comes the big moments, of which Last of the Cybermen scores a fair few. I wont pretend that Colin Baker, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury don't make a great team together because they always feel as though they are made for each other (especially the sixth Doctor and Jamie who are chalking up an impressive number of stories together) but given they have been paired up together in a Cyberman story before it does invite a comparison and Legend of the Cybermen is the superior story in practically every way, certainly in terms of production values and creativity. Despite a wealth of problems that would make a novice writer/director team blush, I found this waltz through Troughton era SF melodrama enjoyable in spots. It's a bit of a disaster but one that is as enjoyable because of its faults as well as despite them: 5/10

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Mad Woman in the Attic written by Joe Lidster and directed by Alice Troughton

This story in a nutshell: Rani heads off to her old hometown to investigate strange goings on in a deserted amusements park…

Until We Meet Again…Miss Smith: The first review of a Sarah Jane story since Elisabeth Sladen’s shocking and upsetting passing but instead of writing something maudlin I intend to enthuse about her incredible work in the both Doctor Who and her own show. I would much rather celebrate the wonderful moments of joy this woman brought to my life than dwell on the ones that wont be coming anymore. My wonderful Sarah Jane, she’s at the height of her powers in this story – although she was always so good it kind of makes that description redundant. Rani describes Sarah Jane as mysterious and moody and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her. Look at how fabulous she looks in the sun blazing attic room, smiling with her friends and rocking on in that gorgeous waistcoat. When she discovers that Rani has betrayed their secret to an old friend she is initially furious. There is a wonderful moment between Sarah and Clyde where they poke fun at each other’s foibles (she’s a bit slow and he’s a bit scared) – it's almost flirtatiously fun. You can kick things down or jump over the top but her way is more stylish. Poor Sarah Jane doesn’t know what the loser sign is – she’s not down with the kids speak! She is haunted by the flash-forward she gets of the TARDIS appearing in the attic, a wonderful teaser for the next episode. Once again she speaks of her parents dying and she bravely uses that as an example of why life isn’t easy. I love how understanding she is, initially cross with Rani but reasoning that she is the one at fault because she has been alone for so long that she finds it difficult to trust people. Not all aliens are out to get us and sometimes Sarah forgets that. Love you, Sarah Jane.

Sarah’s Gang: Every year Joe Lidster writes a superb character focussing on one of the regulars – we learnt so much about Clyde in The Mark of the Berserker, Luke gets some startling development in The Nightmare Man and here it is Rani’s turn to shine, showing us her old life and what she really feels about things deep down. The story has a superb framing device showing an older, more decrepit Rani looking back on the mistakes of her life. She’s forgotten people and places and exists now as the mad old woman in Bannermen Road. All she has is pictures and faded memories now. She tells a story of our young, beautiful Rani annoyed because she brings potentially interesting stories to investigate and doesn’t get taken seriously plus she walks in on a love-in about Maria which makes her feel excluded. Rani is worried that her parents are disappointed in her, especially her dad, and she hides it behind jokes and laughter. She’s worried that Sarah Jane doesn’t think she is as useful as Maria. Eve however can see how they look at her and they love her and are proud of her. Life is difficult as a teenager; GCSE’s and Judoon, her parents and Sarah Jane and trying to keep it all secret. This all sounds quite Dawn-from-Buffy whiney doesn’t it but nothing could be further from the truth, Anjili Mohindra is such a strong actress that she manages to convey all this angst and still remain as wonderfully hip as ever. Sam started ignoring her when she moved because she had an incredible new life on Bannermen road. She is scared of the future, scared of growing old – she sees a glimpse of what is to come and it terrifies her. How gorgeous does Rani look with those glowing red eyes?

Clyde admits that sometimes he does get scared. I love it when Clyde (who fancies the ass off her) shouts at Rani when they catch up with her as if she was her dad (‘you could have been in a ditch or something!’). His faux kung fu moves make a return – very funny!

Luke thinks he can make a connection with Sam which just goes to show that his social interaction is getting better and better. Sam suggests he is some kind of Frankenstein’s creature.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘People can’t afford to have fun anymore.’
‘The universe is full of nightmares and you make fake ones.’
‘Sometimes they just need a helping hand.’

The Good Stuff: The opening with the bitter and twisted Rani living amongst the cobwebs in the lightning streaked attic is an arresting opening and immediately gets you wondering how on Earth this could have happened. Souad Faress is extraordinarily good as the older Rani, they have found someone who matches her look to the letter and she gets all the mannerisms and speech perfect. I love a beach location and the deserted amusement park has a melancholic, out of season atmosphere. The story employs some very simple but creepy effects; the red face in the mirror looks gorgeous but nothing could have prepared me for the grinning red eyed zombies on the ride, especially the guy in the hoodie whose smile is terrifying!). ‘I could eat children for all you know’ – rather than just using them as a framing device Lidster builds a lovely relationship up between the older Rani and Adam. I love how the Sarah Jane Adventures can add even more depth to the Time War, Eve’s race were attacked by the Daleks because they could read the timelines. There are lots of flashbacks that remind you of Sarah’s long association with the Doctor and flash forwards that hint at wonderful things to come. Rani stands in front of the mirror and the scene splits between her older and younger self, that is some mighty fine direction. The camerawork and editing as Eve makes the rides go faster and faster is as exhilarating and disorienting as if you were on the ride yourself. How cool is the spaceship under the beach – every time kids visit the seaside now they will be imagining all sorts under the sand! We get a wonderful fairytale ending that sees the dysfunctional family of Harry, Samuel and Eve heading off in Ship. A cried with joy at the line ‘K.9’s coming home!’ and his immediate tension with Mr Smith promises great things. I love how Joe Lidster subverts the shows staples by undercutting the usual twee schlock with a tragic ending. The framing device manages to surprise you too with Adam turning out to be Eve and Sam’s son and returning to change Rani’s life. Love Ship tearing free of the sands and the team sharing a joyous moment captured on celluloid is ultra poignant given recent events. 

The Bad Stuff: Sam is so obstinate in the first episode that if I was Luke I would slap him round the face with a wet halibut and throw him out his bedroom window. ‘I’m just a stupid kid that can’t get anything right!’ – that is the only moment in this two parter that feels CBBC.

The Shallow Bit: Far too many cute boys for me to get a handle on the action at times with Sam, Clyde, Luke and Adam all very attractive lads. Anjili Mohindra is an exceptionally beautiful young lady and it is always worth remembering how gorgeous Lis Sladen looks.

Result: Bringing Joe Lidster across to the Sarah Jane Adventures was a stroke of genius, he manages to take a show that is aimed at children and add some remarkable depth to the regulars. The Mad Woman in the Attic has a clever, characterful framing device that gives the tale a real sense of frisson and we get to explore Rani’s feelings about a whole manner of things and come out knowing the character so much better. It is beautifully directed by Alice Troughton who once again proves that a lack of money doesn’t mean a lack of skill and there are plenty of creative touches and visual splendour. The episode ends with a warm burst of pleasing sentiment that really appealed to me - there are no villains in this story, just a misunderstanding and as an example of why this cast works so well together it is another great illustration. Impressive: 9/10

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Dead Man Walking written by Matt Jones and directed by Andy Goddard

What’s it about: Owen wakes up from the dead…

Hunky Hero: John Barrowman hasn’t quite mastered the gift of understatement and leaps onto the scene of Owen’s autopsy (which oddly the rest of gang have gathered around to watch) screaming ‘Stop! Nobody touches him until I get back!’ Calm down dear. I get that Jack wants to be able to say goodbye to Owen but seeking out the glove once again proves how dangerous these people are messing around with the natural order. When it turns out he brought him back for the code to the alien morgue it makes him seem more heartless than ever. Jack dated Proust for a while and he found him really immature.

Dark Doctor: Imagine being woken up from the dead and being told you have two minutes left to live? What on Earth would you fill your last two minutes with? Owen getting up and feeling for his own heartbeat and finding none there must be chilling. Is the a difference between a dead man walking and Death itself? Sleeping, drinking and shagging are his three favourite things and he can’t do any of them anymore and so he would rather sacrifice himself than continue dying like this. This is pretty surface characterisation in comparison to what comes in the next episode and proves that Owen was as shallow and as crass as we all imagined. What a shame to revert to this after all the efforts to make him a more rounded character this season elsewhere. 

Jack’s Crew: Tosh takes the opportunity to tell Owen that she loves him and she always has which makes his continued consciousness…awkward. Clearly Tosh does love Owen but he makes it easy for her by telling her that she didn’t actually mean what she said and she was just trying to cope with her grief. Martha is desperate to know what is beyond death and as a woman of medicine I can understand the need to understand it. She demands to know why Jack had the power to bring back the dead and didn’t share it with UNIT.

Sparkling Dialogue: Is it still necrophilia if I’m conscious?’ – the usual Torchwood sleaze talk given a dark imaginative yank.
‘My hunger will know no bounds but I keep getting redirected to Weight Watchers!’

The Good: Either they junked a real church or they built a massive façade of one in the studio but either way that is an extremely impressive set for only a few minutes of footage. Love Jack tippy toeing through the Weevils that are using the church as a squat. I’m glad that the writer mentions the events of They Keep Killing Suzie because they are remarkably similar. Something in the darkness beyond death waiting for you…that is a terrifying idea. I love the idea of Owen and Jack being jealous of each other because one might have seconds to live and the other has forever. The Weevil make up continues to impress and their supplication before Owen is effective. Something from the other side of death using Owen as a gateway to Earth, another scary concept. Owen puking out the black gas is a pretty stomach churning effect, if lacking in subtlety. Oddly the most affecting scene comes when Tosh lives up to her clichéd nature and screams at Owen as he closes a door between them and he heads off to give Death a bop on the nose.

The Bad: Just when the episode is playing it subtly for a change with the chilling sequence of Owen trapped in the dark void it drops a clanger when he returns to the Hub with the campest black contacts I have ever seen – they’re huge. The direction of the scenes when Owen is wobbling all over Cardiff nightlife is distractingly embarrassing. This episode is trying to too hard. We could really have done without the scene where Owen fails to get a stiffy because he no longer has blood running through his veins but in typical Torchwood style in it goes. Jack and Owen fighting and screaming in the nightclub is symptomatic of this episodes penchant for overdone melodrama. Puking up his beer upside down and farting in the cell – I was starting to lose the will to live at this point. ‘I’m going to miss farting! And sex!’ ‘Sex more than farting I hope’ – typically bull in a china shop dialogue from this show. Fortunately when Owen turned evil for a few seconds he looked straight at the CCTV cameras. Did they not think that killing off Owen twice earlier in the season might blunt his actual death in the finale? The Resurrection glove on the rampage is more funny than it is scary but everybody plays the scene with deadly earnestness which makes it even more funny. There are two more examples of ‘we’re Torchwood so do as we say’ in this episode which makes you want them to fail…frankly the destruction of the Hub and their massive egos in Children of Earth cannot come soon enough. Given their track record and general idiocy, I cannot imagine where this sense of egotism has come from. Bloody skeletons in the hospital beds – this episode has really missed the subtlety bus. Spare me the scenes of the young leukaemia patient alone in the hospital being pursued by Death and who reminds Owen that life is worth living. Has Matthew Jones been taking lessons in character subtlety from Paul Cornell? Rather awkwardly the living embodiment of Death seems to be a CGI skeleton that really needs to give up smoking. Owen waltzing with Death (I’m not exaggerating, it actually looks as though they are dancing together!) is really, really funny and I truly don’t think that that was the reaction they were aiming for. Martha gets a magical reset, Star Trek Voyager style, by the end of the episode so her ageing lasts one scene and makes me wonder what the whole point of it was. 

Result: The weaker of the two episodes dealing with Owen’s sudden death, Dead Man Walking is a silly and unsubtle piece for the most part with the odd moment of potency. Basically Owen discovers that he can no longer have sex and so decides to see his death through before having a fight with a manifestation of Death itself, neither of which convinces in the slightest. Jack screams and shouts, Gwen can’t stop crying and Tosh hangs onto her one character thread offering moon eyes at Owen from a distance. Oh and Martha’s there but completely wasted in her second appearance. After running on the spot for half an hour the episode tries to throw in a couple of surprises in the last handful of scenes and wastes the idea of Martha ageing and death stalking a hospital because there isn’t the time to explore them. The episode tries all manner of creepy tricks to suggest the wrongness of Owen’s return but the result is an unrestrained and embarrassing affair. To see how this sort of thing should be done with sensitivity, imagination and real character insight stick around for Joe Lidster’s A Day in the Death:3/10

Friday, 15 May 2015

Prisoner of the Judoon written by Phil Ford and directed by Joss Agnew

This story in a nutshell: A Judoon and a body stealing prisoner spells double trouble for Sarah Jane who isn’t quite looking herself…

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: The Earth melting into Sarah Jane’s eyes is a lovely visual representation of the world she has sworn to protect. This ones’ literally got stars in her eyes. Sarah is still in the market for a good scoop and asks the tough questions even if it means she is ejected from the premises with a punt up the posterior (besides she has the perfect revenge plan – inflicting Gita on them!). She doesn’t want UNIT finding out about Mr Smith and so tried to have as little contact with them as possible. Sarah tosses aside a gun as though it is the most offensive thing she has ever held. When the Tybo tries to swat aside their interference in his hunt Sarah is strong enough to stand up to this lumbering space rhino and tell him that he has to answer to her! Elisabeth Sladen is having great fun playing Androvax and your enjoyment of this story might come down to how well you can take to her eye rolling villainy. On the plus side she adopts a much more sinister body language and has the terrific moment where she slides into the attic and purrs ‘Mr Smith…I need you’ which is one of the most chilling moments in the entire series. On the downside she later adopts a comical voice (it sounds as though she is being sick with every line she utters) which almost threatens to dispel the illusion. I can see entirely why the writers would go for this approach because to see Sarah Jane, their authority figure in this series, behaving so inappropriately must have been pretty scary. But I would say that Sladen did a better job of it with her childlike menace in The Hand of Fear overall. However they do learn some lessons from this story and the possession performances in Androvax’s second story are much more subtle and menacing. Sarah tries to fight her way out of him by afflicting him with her conscience. Sladen’s ‘don’t you want to give me a hug?’ as Androvax is delightful, poking fun at the occasional lovey doviness of the series. Destruction is part of the universe but Sarah has been taught by the best and understands that when it comes that just means the beginning of something else new and exciting.

Sarah’s Gang: This is definitely the point where Tommy Knight went from being cute little alien Luke Smith to being ‘I don’t want to look like a dweeb in front of my mates’ Luke Smith. He’s been alive for over two years now so its nice that he’s finally talking the talk and dressing a bit smarter. Clearly Clyde is rubbing off on him1 Luke, Clyde and Rani trying to wrestle Tybo into the shadows to prevent Gita and Haresh from seeing the Judoon is some of the best physical comedy you will see on this show. Knight, Anthony and Mohindra are like a well oiled machine by now. Clyde admits that he usually gets by on good looks and one liners and who am I to argue with him? Why is it when a brain child like Wesley Crusher in Star Trek TNG saves the day it is nauseating but when Luke shows off his talents it feels like the most natural thing in the world? He gets to flaunt some nifty technical knowledge here and save the world (again). He’s done it so often now he shrugs his shoulders at the praise.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘UNIT carry guns and so do the Judoon. If you ask me that spells trouble…’
‘You know a planet could start to get a complex!’
‘Who d’you think you are, Jack Bauer?

The Good:
  • One thing this show always did so well was to suggest the excitement and the beauty of venturing out into space without ever actually getting to do it very often! This show opens out on a stunning, kaleidoscopic journey through the solar system with a beautiful Elisabeth Sladen voiceover. I love the zooming in shot of the nanobots too, homing in on one of the little metallic beasts that slices its antennae to the camera. For a show that was starved of money they sure made what little they had count.
  • There’s a very funny moment when the show almost seems to be parodying itself when Sarah Jane suggests if you can keep your eyes and minds open you will see extraordinary things everywhere…and looks up to see a bloody great flaming escape pod tearing across the skies of London! Trust me it isn’t just going to take somebody with an open mind to see that!
  • ‘From what I’ve heard their methods aren’t exactly softly softly…’ How wonderful that this show can continue to explore races that have appeared in Doctor Who with a little more depth. They did it before with the Sontarans and the Judoon get a similarly good showing. The Commander is introduced in spectacular style firing his gun with casual abandon as he tries to take down his escaping prisoner. What’s brilliant about Tybo is how much humour they manage to derive from his character without every undermining him or diminishing his presence. I love his mad strop in the hall tossing the props about and how he tackles the lout in the car who is making a racket with his noisy music (basically pointing a gun in his face). This scene is remarkably similar to the one in Torchwood with the blowfish at the beginning of season two except it is much, much funnier and more charming. Its great fun watching the gang trying to cope with this lumbering oaf and Rani’s reaction when the police car pulls up is a scream. Tybo tears the handbrake out of the police car (and the very image of him driving is worth watching this story for) but at the same time insists they stick to the speed limit! He is a police officer after all! When rushing to the rescue of Sarah Jane Tybo holds up the kids by forcing them to Pay and Display! After the kids lock him up in the second episode he is ready to gun them all down in return once he breaks free.
  • The Judoon prosthetics are free (borrowed directly from Smith and Jones/The Stolen Earth) and as detailed as ever (I love the scene where he bleeds, nice to see a little blood on this show) and before anybody complains that this is a cheap tactic they should take a look at the detailed make up of Androvax who is a wholly original piece of work. The Vale are an intriguing species with a backstory that is gagging to be explored further (see seasons fours The Vault of Secrets) and thanks to some subtle music and Mark Goldthorp’s unnerving performance the prisoner of the title is a genuinely menacing presence. Androvax travelled the stars and when he returned to his home planet he found it a ball of ice and his people frozen at its heart. He’s been alone for so long and seen so many worlds teeming with life and considers it his life’s work teach them what the universe will do to them.
  • Its deeply obvious that the little girl is Androvax in disguise and I was screaming at the TV for Sarah Jane to realise so it’s a good thing that they don’t try and keep this subterfuge going longer than a minute. The moment when he bursts free of her made me recoil its done so suddenly.
  • On a purely ‘Oh my God how cool!’ level the imagery of the nanobots flooding away like an stream of black water and assembling a space craft on the roof of the NanoTech building definitely gets my vote!
  • As much as this is pure escapism the events of Prisoner of the Judoon do have consequences. Androvax would be back in next seasons Secrets of the Vaults and would undergo a radical character change as we learn that he isn’t quite as villainous as he appears. Gita would also be seeking advice on her encounter with aliens from this story in its sequel. Plus Rani and Clyde’s grounding by the Judoon is referenced in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith and is the reason why they aren’t beamed away with the rest of the Earth’s population in The Empty Planet.

The Bad: Thank goodness the estate that the escape pod crashed into is one that has been on the council renewal list for years! Had this been Torchwood it would have been a fully populated and full of dead bodies but since this is SJA it is completely empty! It would have been better had they just said it hit a warehouse or something that is always deserted. The direction of some of the early scenes is a little pedestrian, it literally feels as though some fans went out to some back streets with a camera to shoot some Sarah Jane action. I get that Gita’s plan is to interest corporate business in buying more attractive foliage for their offices but is turning up and dumping a whole van load of plants on their doorstep really the most subtle way (guerrilla planting?) to go about it? At least with Haresh there to point out how crazy she is! The Mr Smith is a bomb cliffhanger is simply a moment of jeopardy to get us the first episode to the second rather than a necessary part of the plot. The security guard that locks up Gita and Haresh is definitely from the CBBC school of acting. Sometimes their scenes are very funny (Gita meeting the Judoon) but more often they miss the mark and by the end it just feels like they are disconnected from the action and just hanging around corridors waiting for the world to end. More thought to go into their inclusion next time please.

Result: Prisoner of the Judoon is not one of the best Sarah Jane Adventures but its still an engaging action adventure tale with plenty to recommend about it. Bringing the Judoon into Sarah Jane’s world is as obvious as the Sontarans and it works just as well and we are treated to some charming and very funny comedy moments with the lumbering Tybo. I wouldn’t have complained had they decided to keep the character on somehow because he was an absolute blast. The criminal Androvax is a sinister presence (with terrific prosthetics) and clearly has more of a story to tell beyond this adventure. And the very idea of building a spaceship out of nanobots is really exciting and makes for a visually impressive concluding part. It surprises me where the show falls down because these are not areas that I am used to SJA faltering; the direction is a little lacklustre in places (Agnew is usually more than reliable), the nonsensical Gita/Haresh subplot eats up too much time (mind the look on Gita’s face when she first spots the Judoon made me howl) and Elisabeth Sladen occasionally enjoys her turn as Androvax a little too much. Solid action adventure enlivened considerably by the Judoon: 6/10

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Reset written by J.C. Wilsher and directed by Ashley Way

This story in a nutshell: Martha joins Torchwood!

Hunky Harkness: What has happened to Jack? Martha coming to Torchwood has an astonishing effect on the usually surly, violent and unpredictable head of the organisation – suddenly he is bursting with charm, cracking jokes and very personable. I like him much more this way. He is still struggling to conquer his shyness, it’s the jaw line; once seen, never forgotten. There’s a scene in this episode where Jack tells Professor Copley that Torchwood usually goes where it likes – typical Torchwood bullying tactics and Jack basically gets told to go and jump with the backing of Whitehall! Jack says he has had a bad experience with a politician of late and he doesn’t really listen to the law anymore but that doesn’t stop him retreating with his tail tucked between his legs.It's refreshing to see him this sheepish. He would rely on Martha if the world was ending and in fact he has. I did smirk when Jack suggested he was once intimate with Chris Isherwood especially given Matt Smith surprised all by embracing the role in every way a few years ago. It's great to see Jack with a conscience, considering the treatment the aliens are getting at the Pharm, which is tantamount to slavery. Although it does make him something of a hypocrite because those were exactly the sort of tactics he was using in the first series. 

Marvellous Martha: Freema Agyeman, never the worlds most accomlished actress but a performer with a great deal of charm and enthusiasm which counts for an awful lot in this business. I would certainly take her bouncy puppy act over Amy's stroppy mare. She really scores on making the leap to Torchwood by showing just how much Martha has grown up since leaving the Doctor. She’s now the chief medical officer for UNIT, a role that she walked into thanks to a recommendation for the role by an impeccable source. She is now a full-blown Doctor; specialised, professional and detached. Once the introductory scenes are out of the way you would think that Martha had been a part of the Torchwood team since the beginning she fits in so effortlessly. And that is a testament to how much more likeable the cast is this year too. Martha sometimes misses the Doctor but then she comes to her senses and remembers that she made the choice to leave him. She puts herself forward as a test subject for the Pharm reminding Jack that she has been in far worse places. As a human being who has travelled in time and space she now has a unique immune system and manages to stay alive longer than any of the other test subjects incubating the insect larvae.

Jack’s Gang: Gwen and Martha must be the only two ladies in the world who haven’t ridden the Harkness bike! It’s wonderful to watch Owen and Martha working together, they dance around the laboratory doing all the sciencey bits smiling and grooving to some great music (Owen cracking a smile and enjoying his work is something of a minor miracle so we'll have to put that down to the Martha effect). Owen is a huge fan of Professor Copley and his research helped him to pass his exams so it is ironic that he had should be the one to pull the trigger and end his life. Jack and Ianto dabble as the latter discreetly puts it (goodness knows why they are so discreet talking about it, we see them happily banging each other in the office in a few episodes time) and Mr Harkness is innovative and borders on the avant-garde in the bedroom department (hardly a surprise given the practice). Tosh is quietly jealous of how well Martha and Owen are getting on and shyly asks him out on a date to which he surprises us all by saying yes. Isn’t it astonishing how much more enjoyable these guys are to be around in their second year? Everybody seems to be showing the right amount of concern for one another and there seems to be some real effort going into their development. Bravo. 

The Good Stuff: Bringing Martha to Torchwood is a fantastic idea. You might think that playing this card so soon and anchoring this show to Doctor Who in such a bold way might be harmful to this shows unique identity but it had the reverse effect for me. Finally I had a reason to get involved. UNIT are described as the acceptable face of intelligence gathering on aliens. Owen scaring the shit out of Ianto with his surgical scalpel is really funny (Gareth David-Lloyd’s reaction is priceless). That is exactly the sort of character comedy that the first season was screaming out for. Reset cures diabetes and AIDS, an alien larvae incubating inside human bodies and creating the ultimate magic bullet and restoring the body to its factory settings. The bugs spewing from Marie’s corpse is a wonderful shock moment – who saw that coming? Alan Dale brings some gruffness and seriousness to what could have been quite a forgettable role as Copley. And frankly the man has turned up in every single cult TV show going and it would have been very remiss had the Doctor Who franchise (taking in SJA and Torchwood) had been forgotten). I really want some of those camera contact lenses with the texting capability. How awesome are they? Having the team typing to Martha as she is infiltrating is a great way to create tension. There are some very inventive camera shots in this episode - watch as we dash along the corridor towards Martha as the guards approach. The giant bug shows how sophisticated the CGI in this show can be when they give it the appropriate amount of time (I seem to remember this being held back slightly to make it as good as possible whereas series one was rushed out and we had effects as lame as the troll fairies in Small Worlds). Maybe the police should all use Weevils as an intimidation method during interrogations? I screamed out loud at the exploding gut. You see, gross scenes can be effective on this show! The final set piece has been set up very well, showing the dangers in the previous gut exploding scene (plus Owen’s inability to work the surgical scalpel) which leaves Owen desperately trying to get it right as Martha’s stomach bulges disturbingly a very tense climax. For once I was literally on the edge of my seat. You really feel for the captured Mayfly, forgetting that it is a special effect as Gwen presses her hand against the glass in sympathy for its torture. So often people are shot at in these programmes and we see negligible effects in the next scene so trust Torchwood to do it for real and really kill off Owen. They manage to have their cake and eat it – keeping him dead and letting him play a major role in the rest of the season. I was hungry to watch the next episode after the final shocking twist.

Result: Reset is a packed episode that handles all of its elements with poise and a whole lot of style. Martha slips effortlessly into the Torchwood team and they are all working together extremely well here – it’s a brand new style of amiability and co-operation amongst the regulars that is extremely welcome. Then you’ve got intriguing medical breakthroughs, industrial espionage, awesome giant bugs and even a gross out exploding stomach! Ashley Way’s handling of the episode is spectacular, it's one priceless moment after another and the pace is extraordinary. My one complaint is that the story could have done with 15 minutes more to explore its ideas more but that is not a luxury afforded to Torchwood so we get a rushed ending that still hits all the right notes. A stylish thriller a perfect demonstration of the shows growing confidence, this was exactly the sort of episode they were fudging in the first series: 9/10


Thank you so much to all the blog readers who supported my charity Skydive - it was today and it was the most incredible experience! I want to go again! The weather was amazing and I literally had the ground beneath my feet as I fell. Incredible. Thank you again, the money is going to such a good cause. If anybody would still like to donate, the link is below and will be active for another week.