Monday, 23 November 2015


Clara's exit shows just how far Doctor Who has come under Peter Capaldi.

My friend he wasn't the raven... (Image: Copyright: BBC)
In a lot of ways, November 2015 isn’t a great place to be. Following the appalling terrorist attacks in Paris last weekend, world governments are planning yet more military action in the Middle East, which I can’t help thinking once again hasn’t been thought through, and will only make the situation worse. More and more, it seems, educated and usually reasonable people that I know are making casually racist remarks. Elsewhere, the government want to save 20 billion £ on public services between now and 2020, but miraculously have managed to find millions to spend on expanding the security services. Where, I wonder, is the logic in defending a country where the quality of life is becoming harsher and harsher through threatened cuts in financial help for the NHS, police and low wage earners, and where racism now appears to be acceptable?
In the context of all that, you can perhaps see why Doctor Who has matured so much in the last two years. In Peter Capaldi’s first series, there was the running storyline of maths teacher Danny Pink’s rejection of the army because he accidentally killed a child in Afghanistan. That tied in with the Doctor’s prejudice towards soldiers (and it’s curious how no-one remembered that the first military officer to teach maths in the series was everyone’s favourite dolly soldier, and the Doctor’s great friend, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart). This year the production team have gone even further, specifically equating aliens with immigrants and terrorist groups, denouncing extremism and, this week, presenting a ‘refugee camp’ hidden from modern-day London (notably designed and shot very like Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films). In this ‘trap street’, varied alien races – Sontarans, Judoon, Cybermen and Ood among them – can, tellingly, live in peaceful co-existence.

Satisfyingly, the engagement of ‘Face the Raven’ with contemporary issues was morally very murky. While the returning Ashildr (Maisie Williams) might have created a safe haven for off-worlders, her edict of crimes being punishable by death in a ritualistic manner would have been applauded by several fundamentalist groups I can think of. Not only that, she broke her own rules, setting up the innocent Risgsy (Jovain Wade) for a murder that hadn’t actually happened so she could trap the Doctor, who a few weeks ago had saved Earth by stopping a war between Zygons and humans. New writer Sarah Dollard is a real find and I’m looking forward to what she does next with the series.

'My friend you're black and when
you fly you're wild...'
She applied the symbolism of the raven very cleverly. The use of the bird as a ‘quantum shade’ fits with Ashildr’s Viking heritage as in Norse mythology, the god Odin used two ravens as his eyes in the human world (left), while the Vikings themselves used the birds on their longships to find land. In other European cultures ravens are a symbol of sadness, loss and death, while in reality the birds are scavengers that steal eggs from other nests. You can find allusions to all these facets of the evocative creature within the story.

Dollard’s debut script was also a mystery that became a tragedy. The trap street itself was a trap, not just for the last of the Time Lords but for Clara Oswald. Her personal story’s a good example of how the series has grown up since her introduction in the creatively hyperactive Matt Smith days. Starting out as more of an idea than a character – ‘the impossible girl’ – Clara’s had to deal with the apparent death of a potential lover reborn as an abrasive uncle, subsequently not dealing with the actual death of her soul mate Danny at all, becoming an adrenaline junkie full of reckless over-confidence. Rigsy’s life was pointedly shown to have moved on, with a new home, partner and child, while Clara’s hadn’t. With hindsight, it’s hard not to see her death as inevitable. For Doctor Who – particularly modern Doctor Who – that’s downbeat and real.

This being modern Doctor Who, though, she was allowed a heroic death. Today, the alarmingly matter-of-fact killings of the companions Katarina and Sara Kingdom (‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’) and Adric (‘Earthshock’) would have been a bit too much. To be honest, my old school Doctor Who-self would have preferred that, as the lingering, elegiac shots and Hollywood fanfare that accompanied Clara’s demise weren’t to my taste. But, in these miserable days, the message was an important one: if you’re life hasn’t been perfect, you can still save others and face the end with dignity. Even here, however, there was dramatic complexity: the Doctor saved Ashildr’s life in ‘The Girl Who Died’, which ultimately led to Clara’s death, while the Time Lord was betrayed by a girl he granted immortality and doesn’t entirely trust.

It goes without saying that the episode belonged to only two actors, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Next week, by the look of it, ‘Heaven Sent’ will belong to only one.

Bit to rewind: ‘You’ll find it’s a very small universe when I’m angry with you.’


Tuesday, 17 November 2015


'Found footage' stylisation and an unexpected twist ending delivers the stand-out episode of the ninth series (so far).

Who's watching? (Image copyright: BBC)

Mark Gatiss. Lovely guy and a modern renaissance man: The League of Gentlemen, Crooked House, Sherlock, actor, novelist and enthusiastic commentator on what used to be called cult TV and films. If I’m honest, though, I haven’t always warmed to his Doctor Who episodes. Although they’ve all been colourful, amusing and full of striking imagery, they haven’t always delivered in the final reel: the golden arrow in ‘Robot of Sherwood’ is a case in point. On the other hand, An Adventure in Space and Time is just sublime and ‘The Crimson Horror’ is one of my favourite Matt Smith stories, as Gatiss had the chutzpah to relocate an episode of The Avengers to the Victorian era.

For me, though, ‘Sleep No More’ is his best script so far. Maybe that’s surprising, as it’s largely free of his customary wit, is unremittingly grim and has a very bleak ending. Look closer, though, and Gatiss is on home turf with a classic base-under-siege/mad-scientist story. This staple Doctor Who concept is refreshed and revitalised by the innovative way it was executed, as a compilation of video footage of a military rescue team investigating a space station orbiting Triton, edited together and interrupted by an unreliable narrator.

Of course, that’s ‘innovative’ in the context of Doctor Who. This approach has been around since 1999’s horror movie The Blair Witch Project, to the extent that ‘found footage’ has become a sub-genre in its own right, from notable films like Cloverfield, Troll Hunter and Paranormal Activity to the host of their less notable imitators. It’s more than past time Doctor Who had a go; the closest it’s been before was in the point-of-view narrative of Elton Pope (Marc Warren) in ‘Love and Monsters’ (2006). ‘Sleep No More’ is a dramatic step forward. Its frenetic mix of colour, black and white, hi and lo res video, broken up by picture interference and camera shake, really heightens the tension and drama in a deceptively straightforward story.   

Part of the found footage’s genre’s remit is to be deliberately distracting, so to anchor the visual collage Gatiss was really on form in a lean script packed with detailed world building. 38th century genetically engineered troops, ‘grunts’, with numbers instead of names – portrayed here by the quietly scene-stealing Bethany Black as 474 – talk of a cultural and physical collision between Japan and India, singing hologram idents for the sleep-devouring Morpheus machines, as well as an absent, partying crew reprogramming a door so users had to sing the pop song ‘Mr Sandman’ to use it, all helped convince you that you were involved in a lived-in world that had a life beyond the episode.

After the hit-and-miss satire of the Zygon story, it was gratifying to see something as subtly infuriating as the Morpheus machines that eliminated the need for sleep in humans. Going by our 24/7 culture, it’s a dead cert that someone, somewhere is developing something similar that will further erode our increasingly precious personal time in order to maximise profits. It was good to see the Morpheus devices follow another classic Doctor Who trope, that of corporations upsetting the natural order of things. The idea of carnivorous monsters involving from sleep mucus is both endearingly daft and poetically chilling, resulting in some wonderfully gloomy dialogue from the Doctor: ‘Sleep isn’t just a function… Every morning we wake up and wipe the sleep from our eyes and it keeps us safe from the monsters inside.’ While on the following- through-ideas front, exactly how video signals could be accessed through ‘sleep dust’ could have done with some clarification.

Two gentlemen. (Image copyright: BBC)
The cast all bought into the urgency of the situation, but if anyone deservers the acting honours here, it’s Gattis’s pal Reece Shearsmith (left, with Mark) as the contaminated Professor Rassmussen. Deceptively ineffectual and nervy as the narrator of events on the Le Verrier Space Station, his final scene elevated ‘Sleep No More’ to greatness: the whole video compilation was revealed as a self-aware trap by Rassmussen to ensnare viewers, infect them and turn them into monsters via a hidden electronic signal. Quite why he had to wait to the end of the episode to do that isn’t clear, although the dramatic intent was obvious in a horrific twist ending to make you gasp out loud. If Gatiss has come unstuck with his finales before, he more than made up for it with this one.

Make no mistake, this is ground-breaking stuff for Doctor Who. Stories usually end on an optimistic note, and on only four occasions that I can think of have the villains won, and three of those – ‘The Aztecs’, ‘The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve’ and ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ – were in the show’s ‘classic’ run. Not only that, but ‘Sleep No More’ scored another first with the Doctor never finding out what had really been going on or that he’d been manipulated.

Brave stuff, and I’d like to see more experimentation like this. The final frame of Rassmussen’s face disintegrating had me thinking about the story for a long time afterwards; I’ll also take a safe bet that, ironically, it caused a few sleepless nights in the under tens. In the circumstances, it’s just as well the episode finished with the reassuring ‘Next Week’ trailer and the end titles (which did jar slightly with the titles being deliberately dropped from the beginning).

An extra gold star to Mark Gatiss for using the title ‘Sleep No More’. Although it’s a quote from Macbeth (as the Doctor pointed out), I’ll wager that he knows it’s also the name of the second album by the vastly underrated New Wave band the Comsat Angels, dating from 1981. I always knew Mr Gatiss was a man of taste, but now he’s gone up even more in my estimation.

Bit to rewind: All of it.

Monday, 9 November 2015


Peter Harness's allegory on terrorism, immigration and race relations comes into focus in a stunning second half.

What's in the box, Osgood? (Image copyright: BBC)

I’ve been thinking a lot about satire in Doctor Who this week. Specifically, if I was too hard on last week’s ‘The Zygon Invasion,’ as it’s allusions to Islamic State terrorism and immigration in general weren’t exactly understated. I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t. In the past, Doctor Who has done satire beautifully. The series’ very first trip to another planet, ‘The Mutants (a.k.a. The Daleks)’, was a nuclear war allegory, but it didn’t resort to the sledgehammer-subtle topical references of last week; the parable arose from intelligent conjecture on a contemporary situation. Likewise ‘Carnival of Monsters’: the alien Miniscope is analogous to television, but the device was also a carefully thought out sci-fi idea wrapped up in a political plot.

Interestingly, conflicts that are morally and ethically murky have made TV sci-fi writers nervous in the past. I caught the original, 1960s Star Trek series’ ‘A Private Little War’ this week. When Captain Kirk and company find that the Klingons have been arming one primitive tribe on a neutral planet with flintlocks, after a thumpingly direct reference to ‘brush wars on the Asian continent’, before you can shout ‘Vietnam!’ Kirk has decided to start an arms race by giving an opposing community similar guns, even though he knows it’s wrong. For Star Trek this is a very cynical ending – significantly, the only one in its initial run – totally contradicting the utopian ‘United Nations in space’ remit of the series. Trying to make a comment on something that was happening in the real word, writer and creator Gene Roddenberry effectively gave up creatively (or revealed his true political colours).

Bearing all that in mind, it was going to be intriguing how the concluding episode of the Zygon two-parter played out. In a week that saw a Russian airliner apparently blown up by ISIS, would it have the courage to make a profound statement on relations between different cultures (‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’), or give in with a moral cop-out (‘Kill the Moon’)?

As it turns out, the former. And an optimistic one at that.

Zygella: terrifying. (Image copyright: BBC)
The more the scale became smaller – from a global conspiracy to a confrontation in UNIT’s Black Archive – the more the dramatic intent of the story came into focus. Here was a classic allegorical set up, ‘a scale model of war’: two sets of doomsday boxes, each containing two buttons that would either destroy (at the hand of UNIT’s Kate Lethbridge-Stewart) or unmask the 20,000,000 Zygons on Earth (at the claw of ‘Zygella,’ the alien commander). It’s a concept both simple and powerful as, more than ever, military action now revolves around the flick of a switch with consequences many miles away. There’s also been a lot media interest recently in the new leader of the Labour Party refusing to ‘push the button’. The final twist – that the boxes weren’t connected to anything – was particularly satisfying.  

The main man was on fire this week.
(Image copyright: BBC)
It was a great setting for a debate on the ultimate futility of war, that can only end when people ‘sit down and talk’, fuelled by an incendiary performance from Peter Capaldi (left). It was mesmerising to watch his formidable acting range, from the amusingly flip remark ‘I’m old enough to be your messiah’ at the beginning, through his cranky geriatric walk to the emotionally scarred Methuselah who’s seen so much carnage that he doesn’t want anyone else to ‘feel this pain.’ On this occasion, reasoned argument and peaceful coexistence won out, a status quo underlined by Osgood refusing to reveal if she was human or Zygon. The upbeat message is that, whoever we are, we’re not really that different, an idea that also came through in how the two Clara’s hearts and minds were linked – the real one stopping the copy from pulling a missile trigger was a great touch – as well as the Zygon ‘traitor’ who ‘just wanted to live here.’

Picked you up on my TV screen...
(Image copyright: BBC)
On this showing, it seems that a smaller canvas suits Harness as he can develop ideas better, though one of my favourite things about the episode, the dream sequence in which the two Claras confronted each other (left), seemed more characteristic of Steven Moffat: the use of Morse code through winking was very him, very funny and very Doctor Who. In these scenes, even more so than last week, Jenna Coleman demonstrated what a skilled actress she is too. The real Clara was witty, clever and humane, Zygella was sleek, severe and raging beneath a cool exterior. Her delivery of the line ‘We will die in the fire instead of living in chains,’ minus any trace of a Northern accent and alluding to a Zygon Jihad, was especially chilling. 

To use a random football reference, ‘The Zygon Invasion/Inversion’ was the proverbial game of two halves. In the unfocused first episode, the symbolism was at its most obvious and the tone uncertain. In the focused second, unsurprisingly the allegory and drama were at their most intelligent and strongest, delivering one of the best episodes of this series and Capaldi’s tenure so far; I reckon in years to come the closing Black Archive sequence will be seen as one of the classic moments of Doctor Who (if it isn’t already). Ultimately Harness’s tale was really rewarding, and it was good to see him have the artistic confidence to more than better Trek’s ‘A Private Little War’.

Whether it was always intended to transmit ‘The Zygon Inversion’ on Remembrance weekend or not, it was very timely, particularly as it will make children think about important issues (if, of course, there were any watching at 8pm). On The Andrew Marr Show this morning, they were discussing the nuclear deterrent and speculating whether or not ISIS now have missiles that can bring down airliners. 

If only they would sit down and talk.

Bit to rewind (again and again): The climactic sequence in the Black Archive.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015


Satire on ISIS and immigration + Doctor Who monsters =
'The Zygon Invasion.' But did it work?

'Bad Clara' fights for the homeland. (Image copyright: BBC)

Last year, after ‘Kill the Moon’ and ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, I looked up Peter Harness and Jamie Mathieson, the respective writers. I found that Mathieson was a relatively inexperienced television author, while Harness had an extensive CV, both on the TV screen and on the stage. I was surprised, because Mathieson’s stories were full of originality, nuanced dialogue and worked on several levels. By contrast in ‘Kill the Moon’, Harness offered a didactic parable about the right-to-life with no subtexts, little light and shade and, on reflection, a bit of a cop-out solution. 

Maybe the Doctor Who production were impressed by the – admittedly great – showdown between Clara and the Doctor in Harness’s script, because this year he’s been given a big budget two-parter. Strikingly, the first instalment, ‘The Zygon Invasion’, doesn’t look like any Doctor Who story seen before, as there are several important scenes set in other countries in the present day – ‘Tumezistan’ (i.e. the Middle East) and New Mexico – that are convincingly realised on location. They help sell the production as an international action movie, from a UNIT safe house in South London to the heavy ordnance used by UNIT forces in the field, and the cliffhanger is genuinely dramatic, backed up by the lack of a ‘Next Week’ trailer. Among the guest cast, Ingrid Oliver, as believable as ever as UNIT geek Osgood, was the emotional heart of the story. Elsewhere, ‘Bad Clara’ is obviously a treat for Jenna Coleman to play.

Someone’s decided to make everyone’s favourite shape-changing aliens the Zygons, marooned among us since 2013’s ‘The Day of the Doctor’, symbolic of the War on Terror in general – quite literally the enemy within, because anyone you know could be an alien terrorist – and Islamic State in particular; a splinter group who, if bombed, could ‘radicalise’ all their kind. Add a further level of allegory with the Zygons having ‘no jobs, nowhere to live and no money’ and it’s been a long time since a Doctor Who story has been this politically direct.

Please - don't do that again. (Image copyright: BBC)
I’m all for it. Some of the best stories have satirically tackled contemporary issues: ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’, ‘The Green Death’ and ‘The Sun Makers’, to name but three from the last century. Here, though, Harness seemed intimidated by the subject matter because, just as in ‘Kill the Moon,’ he’s made it very literal. Present day allusions, like ISIS-style internet hostage videos and drone strikes on civilian population centres in the Middle East, sat awkwardly next to references to question-mark underpants, the Doctor throwing adolescent rock star shapes and making jokes about Zygons stealing benefits. Doctor Who has always thrived on contrasts, but to compensate for his (commendably) serious themes Harness made the humour almost hysterically broad, resulting in a production that was nearly schizophrenic in tone. There was, however, more on offer for the youngsters here than last week, with distinctive, creepy monsters who could turn out to be your best friend.

With its The X Files-style captions underlining a change of international scene, ‘The Zygon Invasion’ would like to be a balls-out, relevant, political conspiracy thriller like Homeland or 24. However, the genre hasn’t been adapted confidently or comfortably enough to either the family-viewing time slot or the science fiction context, and you sense that, for the most part, director Daniel Nettheim isn’t convinced by the uneasy compromise Harness has come up with. Tellingly, the best scene in the episode was when UNIT officer Hitchley (Todd Kramer) was confronted by a Zygon duplicate of his mother (Karen Mann), a sequence that didn’t intersect with the contemporary symbolism in the story.

The episode also illustrated how up and down the Doctor’s character has been this year; if he was Tom Baker, Capaldi has gone from the brooding, detached alien of ‘The Seeds of Doom’ to the madcap eccentric of ‘City of Death’ in the space of four stories. I’m starting to suspect that the shades, guitar and hoodies, not to mention calling himself ‘Doctor Disco’ and ‘Doctor Funkenstein’, is the production team back pedalling and saying ‘Honestly, kids, the old guy’s really with it!’ If that’s the case, it’s a damn shame after they were so committed to the radical overhaul of the character last year.

It’ll be interesting to see how the story resolves in ‘The Zygon Inversion’. Harness will have to pull off something pretty amazing to redeem the first episode’s nervous and uneven style.

Bit to rewind: ‘Bad Clara’ going all Fiona Volpe with a motorbike and rocket launcher.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

50 YEARS OF EMMA PEEL WITH DAME DIANA RIGG at the BFI, Sunday 25 October. Report.

Diana Rigg talking about The Avengers? It doesn't happen very much
these days.

Dame Diana Rigg on stage with Dick Fiddy in NFT 1.
(Image copyright: David Walliams)

For whatever reasons, the distinguished actress has for several years distanced herself from the 1960s fantasy series. Having her appear at the British Film Institute for an on-stage interview to celebrate 50 years of the iconic feminist Emma Peel, still her most famous role – whose significance, as host and interviewer Dick Fiddy noted, has blossomed far beyond its original context – is therefore quite something.  

Diana’s on-stage interview was bookended by the screening of two episodes, ‘The House That Jack Built’ and ‘Return of the Cybernauts’. Shooting The Avengers on black and white film somehow brought out the more disturbing elements of the bizarre ideas the stories offered, and there’s no better place to see that in ‘The House That Jack Built’. Emma experiences a real threat to her sanity when she’s imprisoned in an automated house, and her potential future can be seen in the figure of an escaped convict, driven mad by her prison’s workings.

By the time ‘Return of the Cybernauts’ came along, The Avengers was in full colour. Producer Brian Clemens felt that continuing to produce The Avengers in black and white was ‘like making The Wizard of Oz without colour,’ but with the change the series definitely lost something. ‘Return of the Cybernauts’ brought back the popular robots from the previous year, and while like most Avengers episodes it’s highly entertaining, it doesn’t have the disturbing edge that most of the black and white episodes did.

Back in the present, Dame Diana was greeted by enthusiastic applause and returned the crowd’s fervour warmly, by turns funny, charming and respectful of the opportunities that playing Emma Peel offered her. Whatever issues she’s previously had with the way The Avengers has continued to follow her around certainly weren’t in evidence.

At your service. (Image copyright: StudioCanal)
Sunday’s Diana was the one you can see in the episodes, obviously enjoying the light comedy and repartee in her partnership with the avuncular Patrtick Macnee, who played her debonair, crime busting partner John Steed (left). ‘He was incredibly kind and helped me through the audition,’ Diana remembered of her co-star. ‘I think he said a word in the producer’s ear: “This is the girl I want.” He was adorable. He loved his work. We were a lot in accord and always did the best we could. We were always finding dead bodies, and would re-write our dialogue for those scenes, which the producer was fine with. We were a real team… He was a dear, dear man and I mourn his passing.’

Apart from minor rewrites, the pair ‘played out’ what was in the script, which was written in the style of other will-they, won’t-they pairings like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, which ‘kept people guessing’. Interestingly, Macnee and Diana ‘never really discussed’ any romantic involvement between their characters, which helped to make the duo stand out among traditional male/female roles in the 1960s.

Talk inevitably turned to the ground breaking fashions Diana wore, taking in the leather fighting suits, which she found ‘deeply uncomfortable,’ and the later full-colour cat suits, which she felt ‘showed the body altogether better.’ Away from The Avengers set, he main criteria for clothing wasn’t risqué trendiness, but ‘the most comfortable clothing possible.’

Having watched ‘The House That Jack Built’ – only the second time she’d seen it as ‘I don’t watch myself’ – Diana confessed that she ‘loved the black and white [episodes]. The lighting is so wonderful: more capable of making a woman look beautiful than colour.’ This artistry came from directors like Roy Ward Baker and Charles Crichton, moving into television because the ‘British film industry was dying’ who, had Diana known their pedigree, she would have made a more conscious effort to learn more from. 

Emma lives on. (Image copyright: Fineart America)
When Diana was working on the series it became an international success, which, at the time, she wasn’t aware of, as The Avengers’ team’s collective noses were ‘to the grindstone… it was a nice surprise.’ Quizzed about the series’ continued longevity, Diana first raised a laugh by saying she was ‘grateful,’ before going on to intelligently consider the reasons for The Avengers’ staying power: ‘it wasn’t because we were way ahead of our time, it was because of a happy accident: Honor [Blackman]’s character was given scripts for a man, they wrote in that style [and] Emma became this avant garde woman, and my God was I lucky to get the chance to play her.’ Concisely explaining the character’s importance, Diana concluded: ‘I truly think she was a very, very potent influence in women claiming their place in the world.’

After that, Fiddy opened up questions to the audience. This resulted in some amusing stories about Theatre of Blood and the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which Diana co-starred in, as well as the Doctor Who episode ‘The Crimson Horror’ in which she appeared with her daughter Rachel Stirling, also in the audience, which Diana admitted ‘it was hard to keep a straight face’ working on. Intriguingly, one question elicited the response that she didn’t think The Avengers had helped her film career at all, which might partly explain her ambivalent attitude to the series in the past.  

Diana herself brought proceedings to a close with a whispered ‘one last question’ and, following another rapturous round of applause, she was gone. At the screening of ‘Return of the Cybernauts’ which followed, Fiddy humorously confessed ‘it’s very odd interviewing you first crush,’ reinforcing the feeling that this afternoon had been something special.

After 50 years, Emma’s still needed. And, happily, probably always will be.