Category Archives: TV

Look! Who’s back!

WebOfFearThe last week or so has been just about the most exciting time to be a hardcore longtime fan of Doctor Who ever: at midnight last night after months of frothing online speculation it was finally confirmed by the BBC that nine previously missing episodes of the show from the late 60s Patrick Troughton era had been recovered. And if that were not enough to cause severe palpitations across a large swathe of middle-aged men around the world the Beeb also announced that the episodes would be made available via iTunes with immediate effect, with DVDs to follow in the next few weeks.

Some context is probably called for here. Back in the days before home video players television was considered a pretty ephemeral medium and the idea of preserving and archiving entertainment programmes didn’t really exist. The videotape on which shows were recorded was expensive but reusable so it made sense to wipe the tapes of broadcasts after a respectable interval had passed – the BBC even had a policy agreed with the actors’ union of not repeating programmes more than once, as it was felt that repeats cut down the time available for new commissions. Subsequently by the mid-70s the cupboard was pretty bare of vintage Who, though some episodes had managed to hang on to existence by dint of being transferred onto film for potential sale in other countries. By 1978 when the Corporation woke up to the possibility that they were destroying an exploitable asset there were only 118 black and white Doctor Who episodes known to exist, with 135 missing. Over the next few years recoveries were made in dribs and drabs from overseas television stations and private collectors, with the most notable find being all four parts of the Troughton story The Tomb Of The Cybermen which was reclaimed from Hong Kong in 1992. After this last though it looked like that was that: in the next twenty years only another four episodes were located and by last year it seemed pretty unlikely that the missing episode count of 106 would be whittled down any further.

However. Doctor Who fans are nothing in not tenacious, and one in particular had the time and resources to actually travel to broadcasting companies across world in search of missing TV programmes. Philip Morris started his epic hunt round about the time that the successful revival of the programme hit our screens and has been trawling archives across Africa and beyond. His dedication paid off: the trail eventually led to a TV station in Jos, Nigeria where he found some highly interesting cans of film. The full results of his labours are yet to be revealed (one persistent rumour suggests that he’s dug up something like ninety of the missing Who episodes, along with tonnes of other programmes that went AWOL in the 60s and 70s), but the discovery of just these nine episodes is mind-boggling enough, particularly as they represent the complete restoration of one Troughton six part story The Enemy Of The World and the near-complete restoration of another, one of the fans’ absolute Holy Grails, The Web Of Fear (aka The One With The Yetis In The London Underground. You know, the one where the Doctor meets the Brigadier). I know it’s basically just a children’s TV series we’re talking about here, and a fairly cheaply made one at that, but for those of the anorak persuasion this is on the order of someone suddenly popping up with ten hitherto-unsuspected Shakespeare plays, or five unreleased Beatles albums, or a revised version of the 1990 World Cup which shows England beating Germany on penalties in the semi-final and going on to lift the trophy. The 50th Anniversary year of Doctor Who has until now been something of a disappointment, with not even the casting announcement of the fabulous Peter Capaldi (surely one of the two men on the planet best equipped to play the Doctor, and Benedict Cumberbatch has already let it be known he’s not interested) really making up for the paucity of new episodes and the slightly so-what quality of those that have been screened, but it’s hard to imagine a better end to it than this.

I haven’t downloaded the material as it perversely seems a bit too…well…easy, and I prefer to watch things on DVD rather than on computer screens anyway, but I’ve seen a few clips from the recovered stories and they look bright, shiny and as in good nick as any of the stuff that’s been available for years. Pat Troughton looks like he’s having a whale of a time and is uncannily reminiscent of Matt Smith in places…or should that be the other way round? This is an amazing find, and the possibility that it might just be the tip of an iceberg may be enough to make the whole of Who fandom spontaneously combust. Mr Morris, we thank you very much.

Notes on Red Dwarf X

Well, that was surprisingly…not terrible.

It might not win me any points in the serious movie critic stakes but way back in the day I was a big fan of Red Dwarf. Round about the end of the 1980s, when the original run of Doctor Who was going through an extended and widely derided death rattle and plush US product such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X Files were yet to wash up on the shores of British programming, there wasn’t a whole lot of TV sci-fi to choose from. There was however a comedy series set on a mining ship three million years in the future which over six series quietly evolved from a zero-budget variation of the classic “two men who can’t stand each other trapped in a room” sit-com scenario (see Steptoe and Son) to a witty and tightly paced vehicle for some really imaginative takes on the sort of ideas about identity that wouldn’t be out of place in a Philip K. Dick story. Characters would come face-to-face with alternate, and frequently deviant, versions of themselves, or be suddenly woken up to the horrible realisation that their whole existence has been a video game. It was in some ways pretty heady stuff for something made by the light entertainment department. In other ways however Red Dwarf qualified easily as a classic sit-com, with its strong character-based humour deriving naturally from the interactions between its small cast of misfits and losers: Lister the slob, Rimmer the officious coward (deceased), the wisecracking narcissist Cat and the fussy and neurotic service-droid Kryten. The fifth series in particular is for me one of the most consistently funny and rewatchable batch of comedies the BBC ever put out, up there with the best of Fawlty Towers and Blackadder (and God knows how many times I rewatched it back in the days before I could entertain myself with DVDs and multi-screen arthouse cinemas).

And then, as any long-running series tends to, it went off the boil. By the mid-90s the Dwarf was a definite cult, with the weight of expectation that implies, and the seventh and eighth series were both disappointments. Part of this is down to personnel changes – co-creator Rob Grant had left, leaving his partner Doug Naylor to recruit other writers to help him with the scripts, and crucially actor Chris Barrie took a sabbatical, leaving four episodes fatally Rimmer-less – but the main factor in the relative failure of these shows is the well-intentioned but ultimately misguided decision to water down Red Dwarf‘s original premise, firstly by tacking towards comedy-drama rather than out-and-out laughs, and then by introducing a resurrected full ship’s crew. In addition to this, the neat and ingenious cod-scientific concepts at the heart of the episodes had been largely replaced by slick but facile digital effects. It all just wasn’t the same, and the series was rested in 1999, with vague talk about a feature film not exactly inspiring hope in the fans that remembered how specious a similar aspiration regarding the future of the never officially cancelled Doctor Who had turned out to be.

Now then. We’re not quite three million years into the future yet but we’re far enough for there to now be myriad digital TV channels looking around for audience-pulling content and no cult series can now be left in peace if there’s any possibility of milking it further. One of the more prominent of these channels is called Dave, and it’s probably best known for endlessly re-running old editions of Top Gear to reasonably healthy effect, in terms of ratings anyway. A while back they also started repeating Red Dwarf, which is in some ways a pretty good fit for the station’s cheerily laddy image, what with the running jokes about lager and curry and personal hygiene and the all-male crew who never encounter women who aren’t either impossible objects of desire or homicidal dominatrixes. Again the ratings were good, so when Dave started to get serious about generating some original programming the Dwarf seemed like a prime candidate for a re-boot, given that the cast and writer were still alive and kicking, and the BBC didn’t seem to have any interest in continuing the show. The first fruit of the revivified franchise emerged in 2009 in the form of a three part special called Red Dwarf: Back To Earth (or IX if we’re keeping count), and although it was a bit cheap and shoddy and got fairly mauled critically it did at least prove that there was still an appetite for this stuff. A full series of six half hour episodes got commissioned and it’s this that’s just finished its run as Red Dwarf X.

The new series has got all the significant players in position, though it’s a shame that Rob Grant didn’t come back as a co-writer. It’s got the same cast, although as the ship computer Holly doesn’t appear neither do either Norman Lovett or Hattie Hayridge, and over twenty years down the line they really don’t look half bad and are as on top of their characters as ever. Danny John-Jules in particular doesn’t look a day older than he did in 1988. The theme music and opening montage are present and correct, as are the Alien-inspired spaceship sets, and while I can’t quite work out how it fits exactly with the continuity of the earlier series that’s not the sort of thing it’s worth losing sleep about.

And you know what? It’s surprisingly not terrible. And you know what else? Unlike series VII and VIII it actually feels like Red Dwarf. Like old old Red Dwarf actually, as in the first couple of series before the sci-fi and action elements started coming to the fore. It’s probably more to do with budgetary limitations than anything else, but this series restores the claustrophobic time-killing feel of yore, with many scenes being basically extended rants or petty arguments about protocol or wistful reminisces or workings out of personal complexes. There is usually a storyline or two but there’s no desperate urgency on the part of either the writer or the characters to get on to the next plot point, and one of the best episodes (Dear Dave) is quite happy not to get started at all and exist solely as a deep space shaggy dog story. And despite the generally relaxed tone there are one or two cleverly worked through faux sci-fi devices that stand comparison to the Dwarf of my youth (the condescending computer that predicts behaviour and adjusts conditions accordingly and the teleporter that’s powered by lemons, for example). I had low expectations but I found myself laughing quite a few times once I’d adjusted to the pace (and the ad-breaks! Sacrilege!) While this is hardly a Universe-bestriding triumph of a resurrection on the scale of 21st Century Doctor Who it’s still very nice to spend some time with. Preferably with some tins of lager and a takeaway. Not terrible is the new cutting-edge, and I’m old enough to be very comfortable with that.

Top Of The Pops 1977 reaches the Jubilee

Now. I’m one of those irritating people fond of airily declaring “oh, I never watch television” every time the discussion turns to the latest talent competition or Scandinavian crime drama or sensational soap denouement. I’d like to pretend that this not because I’m a typical middle-class highbrow elitist culture snob (I know that I am all those things), but because I haven’t got enough time because my free hours are taken up with more wholesome pursuits, like gardening, and cooking, and composing light operas and so on…the truth is however that much of my leisure time is spent listlessly flipping about on the internet, or solving excruciating Japanese number puzzles, or just failing completely to commit to the very basic chore of bothering to watch a series from the start, for however many weeks it runs for. And given that I’m equipped with a personal video recorder and fast enough broadband to effortlessly access the various helpful catch-up TV services that’s not really a very big ask these days.

I think my ennui concerning events televisual may be something to do with there just being too much damn choice of what to watch these days (my list of multi-season TV shows that well-meaning friends have insisted I simply must get up to speed with is so long that I’m paralysed into indecision every time I consider it, so never watch any of them). Whatever the reason, I find myself retreating more and more into watching stuff that I’ve already seen, or already know about. Pretty much the only new show I make any kind of effort for now is Doctor Who, more through decades-established habit than anything else these days (though it’s still holding my attention: see here and here), and lately I’ve been finding myself drawn to watching the repeats of one of the other must-see programmes from my youth, to wit Top Of The Pops, which BBC4 started repeating week by week last year. Like Doctor Who, and many other iconic shows from the 60s and 70s, the BBC’s archive of early TOTP is pretty patchy, with most of the programmes long-wiped – they do however hold a continuous archive from 1976, which is the point from which they started screening the repeats. They’re currently up to June 1977, an interesting month for a reason I’ll go into later.

The BBC have been harvesting choice performances from old TOTPs for years for presentation in compilation shows, but it’s a funny old business, seeing these unedited samples of soft rock, limp balladry, workmanlike soul and very occasionally searing pop genius again. I was eight years old in 1977 and would have been glued to the screen when TOTP was on, but most of these songs seem to have made no impression on me whatsoever – they’re formulaic, uninspired, well-crafted filler, usually delivered by uncharismatic session players. The soul and disco numbers are significantly better, even if there’s something a bit disquieting about watching talented singers working through tightly choreographed routines in matching brightly-coloured outfits. At least you can imagine people dancing to them, even if you can’t actually see anyone in the studio audience busting out any moves – one of the most endearing features of TOTP 1977 is the way that the ordinary (and reassuringly non-glamorously dressed) punters spend most of their time just sort of milling about looking resolutely non-excited about proceedings.

In fact, most of the time the most memorable, and not in a good way, aspect of these curiously washed-out shows is the attitude of the Radio 1 disc jockeys selected to present them. Noel Edmonds is smug and condescending. Dave Lee Travis is odious, lecherous, smug and condescending. Jimmy Savile is weird, and you can’t help worrying about the safety of the young ladies in the audience that have been shepherded into his proximity. Only Kid Jensen comes off as a halfway reasonable human being. TV presenters these days are often accused of being vacuous or cynical, but you can’t help feeling that we’ve come a long way. These self-important specimens are nearly enough to make you turn off, but not quite…sometimes, not often but sometimes, a jewel of a song comes down the sluice of mediocrity to remind you why you love pop music so much in the first place, most recently Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You, which is, astonishingly given the amount of abuse it’s had over the years by the hand of Steve Coogan, still heart-rendingly affecting. Even the kitsch “memories” voiceover bit in the second verse. And the simple, largely effects-free, video is simply devastating.

So I’m going to keep on watching, for the next few weeks at least, to relive a particular memory. There was a Jubilee going on in 1977 as well, and I remember at the time being puzzled and alarmed by the presence of a record at number 2 that I’d never heard and nobody seemed to want to acknowledge. Have a good weekend, and God Save The Queen.

Doctor Who 2011 season…and now the second half

A few months back I found myself ruminating about the first half of the 2011 season of Doctor Who and about how showrunner and lead writer Steven Moffat was risking alienating his audience by introducing complicated and nonlinear story arcs. The second half of the season has now aired, and I find that I’m somehow not as bothered about the convoluted nature of this year’s ongoing narrative as I was in July, though I don’t think this is because Moffat’s neatly tied up all his loose ends and explained all his murky plot elisions satisfactorily (I would have to re-watch both his seasons back-to-back to work that one out) – it’s probably more to do with becoming conditioned to this dot-to-dot style of storytelling, and the fact that I’ve gradually become more and more distracted by another change I’ve noticed to the traditional Who formula.

It’s like this, and while I know what follows is an over-simplification, I don’t think it’s a serious one. Way way back in the day, when there were only three TV channels and the Doctor was characterised as an eccentric outsider rather than an angry-God-slash-sex-object, Who tended to use and re-use only a very small number of stock scenarios, along the lines of: 1) aliens want to conquer the Earth/galaxy/universe, 2) mad scientist/emperor wants to conquer the Earth/galaxy/etc, 3) evil entity from before the dawn of time wants to destroy the Earth etc etc, or 4) over-curious scientists/greedy industrialists unleash primal unstoppable force that will inevitably destroy and so on and so on. These set-ups and slight variations on them would play out over and over again, but it really didn’t matter because, and much as I distrust sweeping generalisations I’m going for a biggie here, nobody watches Doctor Who for the plots. Now and then you’d get one that would make you sit up and take notice (the beyond-fabulous City Of Death, which deserves to be studied at degree level), but the appeal of Who was always to do with its wit, its charm, its occasional light satires on modern society and its ingenuity at devising reasonably-priced and family-friendly chills and thrills. The decline of the programme in the 80s had a lot to do with its makers losing sight of the importance of these qualities.

One of the many pleasing aspects of Russell T Davies’s hyper-successful reactivation of the franchise in 2005 was the clear sense that he fully understood the underlying reasons for the show’s long-running popularity. He made it a priority that the show should be funny and accessible as well as scary and escapist and was happy to rely on plotlines that used variations on the stock scenarios listed in the previous paragraph. We got a number of villains who were essentially extreme capitalists who just wanted to own everything, a re-introduction of the Daleks as arch-xenophobes who wanted to wipe everyone else out and a few episodes functioning as allegories on society that might be positive (the wonderful and uplifting Gridlock) or deeply troubling (Midnight, which may be one of the most disturbing dramas ever broadcast by the BBC at teatime). The Earth was being invaded on a fortnightly basis, lunatics were threatening to blow up the universe, petty bureaucracy and sleazy Murdoch-style oligarchs were being lampooned, and all was right in the world.

With this in mind, it’s worth now considering the latest tranche of episodes, and the 2011 season as a whole, and the contrast in scale between the threats presented here and those we’ve seen before starts to become really striking. If you disregard the five installments written by Moffat that deal with the series arc to do with the Doctor’s death and his relationship with his lover-or-assassin River Song you’re left with a clutch of small, personal, almost intimate, episodes that take place in closed environments and are mainly concerned with the relationships between the lead characters. Villains and plots to invade or conquer are almost entirely absent – there’s the capricious and greedy House from The Doctor’s Wife, and some particularly ineffective and mainly sidelined Cybermen in Closing Time but that’s about it. Drama and conflict are instead generated through ostensibly benign systems malfunctioning (The Curse Of The Black Spot, The Rebel Flesh, The Girl Who Waited) or misunderstood alien entities causing suffering unwittingly (Night Terrors, The God Complex). I’m not sure if the small-scale nature of these stories is to do with budgetary considerations, but they all undeniably look inward, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any comment on the real world within them.

Does it matter? Isn’t the main issue whether the stories are any good? Well, that’s a reasonable point, but I’d hate for this show to stop engaging with the outside world entirely and vanish up its own fundament. As it happens, some of these episodes are pretty good. I mentioned the lyrical and imaginative The Doctor’s Wife before, but for my money it’s beaten by The Girl Who Waited, a simple but heartbreaking scenario involving tangled time-streams that gives Karen Gillan the chance to show what a great actor she can be – her performance and the brilliant make-up job make the older, bitter version of Amy forced to spend thirty years alone in a hostile environment utterly convincing. The light relief Closing Time is also entirely successful on its own terms, and gives Matt Smith a chance to display his formidable comedy skills, and The God Complex, although coming across in parts like a weird throwback to certain “difficult” Sylvester McCoy-era Who stories, is tight and claustrophobic and boasts some very sharp dialogue. Only Night Terrors really disappoints from this half of the season – its tower block setting is nicely rendered, but the characterisation and scripting isn’t great, and spooky doll houses seem a bit clichéd and played out. All of these “small” stories do however have the whiff of filler about them, as though they’re marking time between more significant events.

Which leaves us where we came in, with Moffat and his grand design. He gives himself two episodes this time, and they’re both so uproariously confident and entertaining that I’m giving him a free pass on the fact that certain plot points that seemed very important earlier on appear to have been fudged or glossed over. Let’s Kill Hitler, kicking off the run, is almost insanely bold, with the TARDIS crew crashlanding in the Führer’s office and then insouciantly bundling him into a cupboard when the more pressing matter of the mysterious River Song’s psychopathic tendencies raises its head. Plus you get crop circles, lethal lipstick and a shape-shifting robot occupied by tiny people. The series closer The Wedding Of River Song is no less outrageous, starting as it does with scenes of modern London with steam trains coming out of high rise office buildings, pterodactyls in Hyde Park and Churchill annointed as the Holy Roman Emperor. The skilful and intricate flashback structure, frequent switches of location and endless cavalcade of witty one-liners help deflect one’s attention from the fact that the villainous and arch Madame Kovarian’s scheme to kill the Doctor is convoluted beyond all sanity – why go to the trouble to kidnap a child and spend years programming her as an assassin when you’ve had multiple opportunities to just shoot your target dead with a gun? The series ends on an interesting note: the Universe now thinks the Doctor is dead, which with luck will mean that all the tedious guff about him being an oncoming storm that can defeat foes purely through the force of his reputation can now be dropped.

So, Doctor Who, 2011-style. Different, unpredictable, undoubtedly alienating for the casual viewer and with at least one curious lapse in consistent script-editing (given that Amy and Rory had their baby abducted halfway through the run they seem remarkably unconcerned in subsequent episodes). It’s nice to vary the formula but I’m hoping next year’s series will be a bit more digestible, and a bit more outward-looking.

Torchwood: I preferred it when it was rubbish

Torchwood is in several ways one of the most unusual television drama series to have been recommissioned for multiple seasons. It was launched in 2006 as a spin-off of Russell T Davies’ astronomically successful reboot of Doctor Who, and was pitched as appealing to a more adult demographic, with the set-up involving a shadowy team of vaguely X-Files-y scientists and investigators operating from a secret base in Cardiff, with a brief to look into anything alien, or paranormal, or extra-sensory-perception-ish. The first unusual thing about the series is that the BBC didn’t bother sticking its toe in with a pilot but went straight for a 13 week run of 45 minute episodes – they obviously felt confident that anyone over the age of 12 who watched Who would also want to watch this. They didn’t however give it much of a budget. They put it out on their widely derided youth channel BBC Three and most of the money seemed to have been spent on inexplicable helicopter shots of John Barrowman’s character Captain Jack Harkness striking moody/heroic poses atop local landmarks.

The second unusual thing is that, presumably due to the speed with which it was thrown together, the scripts for the series didn’t seem to have gone through any kind of editing or revision process of the type that is needed to catch obvious clashes of tone and transparently risible plot devices. Because once the series started airing, and particularly once past Davies’ reasonably acceptable opening installment, it became obvious very quickly: Torchwood was terrible. The best description I’ve come across is that it was like a 14 year old boy’s idea of what “adult” science fiction should be like: histrionic, seemingly hormone-driven regular characters who divide their time between shouting at each other, getting off with each other and pointing guns at each other, while ludicrous (and very cheaply computer generated) aliens pop up periodically and characterlessly and generally completely non-interestingly in order to be shouted at, or shot at, or got off with. The second episode actually features an alien obsessed with shagging people to death. You get earthy Welsh humour running up against overwrought psychodrama and then colliding with purportedly uber-cool techno-fetishism and that’s really gotta smart.

However, and this third unusual thing may be the most interesting of them, despite its manifest awfulness Torchwood was also hardly ever boring, and often compulsively watchable. Part of this is the attraction of watching a bad accident unfold, but every so often you’d get a hint of something really quite promising: some of the quieter episodes would explore ideas of memory, or loss, or change and sometimes one of the extra-terrestrial artefacts that would regularly appear would catch one’s imagination – the pendant that allows one to read other’s thoughts or the machine that gives one access to the powerful memories associated with significant locations. The ratings were certainly very good, and the series came back a year or so later, this time promoted to BBC Two.

The second series was again 13 episodes, and a certain amount of reining in of extremes had been achieved, but again the feeling was of a show put together by a team under too much pressure and with too little time. Symptomatic of the problems of the programme was the plot strand in which the unlikeable Owen died, but was for obscure and unsatisfactorily presented reasons still able to walk around fully functional and conscious. He seemed to earned this privilege basically because he was able to best a smoky entity representing death in a fist fight. Elsewhere, the tone was still swinging wildly between grotesque black comedy (the wedding/alien pregnancy themed Something Borrowed), event-free “atmospherics” (Out Of The Rain) and glaring campery (anything with Captain Jack squaring off with his sparring partner/alter-ego James Marsters’ Captain John Hart). Again it wasn’t very good – again a lot of people watched it.

Given this run of form it was therefore rather surprising, and yet another unusual thing, that the third season of Torchwood, which aired over five consecutive days in July 2009, turned out to be more or less the best television science-fiction made in Britain since Quatermass. This was one story with the umbrella name Children Of Earth and it masterfully laid out a terrifying scenario in which a powerful and implacable alien ambassador arrives on Earth to present a dreadful claim on the world’s children. Everything that had previously been laughable or unconvincing about Torchwood had been comprehensively expunged and suddenly we had intelligent, probing, sometimes very funny and sometimes genuinely chilling scripts rendered expertly on screen by the actors and the production team. Before, the aliens on Torchwood had been a joke – now they were nightmarish, and the fact that they were never fully visible on screen made it even worse. Peter Capaldi gave what is probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on TV as a conflicted civil servant, and regular characters were seen to make heartbreaking sacrifices and be presented with impossible choices. This was extraordinary television.

And then…well, it’s two years later, and there’s now a fourth season of Torchwood running on BBC One. Rather unusually, it’s now a co-production between the BBC and US company Starz, which means that the action is largely taking place in the states, and most of the cast are American. As in the previous season, it’s one long story running over several episodes (ten this time, under the banner title Miracle Day), and also as before, it hangs on a simply explained concept: one day, human beings stop dying. This intriguing idea has the mark of Russell T Davies about it, and for sure he’s involved, overseeing and writing some episodes, but you know what? Three episodes in, and I’ve stopped being interested. These days Torchwood is slick and expensive and can afford big-name stars like Bill Pullman and classy location shooting but it’s also, for the first time ever, really boring. The plot is moving at snail’s pace, blatant padding abounds, all of the new characters are either bland or obnoxious and it may just be me, but isn’t it a little patronising to give characters lines explaining to the British audience what a gas station or a drugstore or an ATM is? There must be some interesting avenues to explore with a central idea as audacious as this one, but they sure don’t seem to bothered about getting there any time soon. This may be where me and Torchwood part company – shame, but as rides go it’s sure been damnably unusual.

Doctor Who 2011: mid-series debrief

Well, it’s all gone a bit complicated really. But I think it’s going to be OK.

Looks like this is the year when Doctor Who the series makes its break with the extraordinarily successful formula established in 2005 by then-showrunner Russell T Davies. Back then the big Welsh guy with the glasses and the infectious enthusiasm took the venerable but moribund fantasy series and worked a TV miracle: pretty much overnight it went from being the butt of a thousand jokes about wobbly sets and staircase-thwarted Daleks to being the BBC’s flagship entertainment product, gathering stellar ratings and much critical acclaim and becoming a merchandiser’s dream, with DVDs, spin-off series, action figures and original novels rife. Davies was a massive Who fan, but more importantly he was a highly competent TV pro, and he knew how to re-tool the show for maximum impact and to make it appeal to an impressive range of demographics – there were bright wizzy colours and effects for the toddlers, scary monsters for the primary kids, cool sci-fi stuff and racy dialogue for the teenagers and genuine wit for the undergraduates and grown-ups. He even managed to work in elements of soap opera to provide some real emotional heft for the first time in the show’s history. By the time David Tennant was nearing the end of his tenure in the title role Doctor Who was even beating Eastenders and Corrie and was for a short time Britain’s most popular television programme, something which would have been beyond even the most hopeless fan’s imagination only five years before.

Davies made a point of not alienating the casual viewer, and it was noticeable in his first couple of series that continuity points to the previous twenty-six years of Who stories were kept to a minimum and that anything in an episode that related to prior events was set in context for anyone new to the series. Most stories wrapped up in a single episode, and those plotlines that did spread over two or more were sure to be reprised with a “previously on…” montage. There were running motifs through all the seasons, but these tended to be extras for the fans, and in general didn’t add up to much anyway (remember the gratuitous device of having characters namedrop Torchwood in series two?) The most important continuity was to do with the emotional states of the main characters, and as this kind of thing lies well within what one normally gets with a long running series it didn’t require too much of an effort from the viewer.

The big man bowed out in 2009 after giving Tennant a suitably operatic (and some might say, overwrought) send-off, and experienced writer Steven Moffat took over as head writer. Moffat had surely earned his place. He’d written some of the best received stories of the revived series, including the sublime Blink, which managed to be simultaneously the most ingeniously plotted and the most downright terrifying episode ever made. At the same time, the relatively unknown Matt Smith took over from Tennant – would the show still pack the same punch as before?

Moffat and Smith’s first season went out last year and seems in hindsight to be a bit of a transitional phase, with the similarities to what had gone before arguably more striking than the differences. Smith is undoubtedly a very canny piece of casting: for the first time since Tom Baker we have an actor in the title role who seems effortlessly alien, although it’s a bit disappointing that the trappings of the character appear to be gradually reverting to the hackneyed “eccentric professor” interpretation of the time traveller. There was a slightly stronger link between the individual stories than before, and certain developments definitely tended more to the cerebral than the emotional, but on the whole these were still stand-alone episodes, and one can easily imagine Tennant playing the lead in most of them.

This time around however it looks like Moffat has decided to cut loose. He’s always been fascinated with structural puzzles and the possibilities afforded by a format where characters can use time to play with cause and effect, and the 2011 series throws down challenges for the viewer right from the off. The opening two-parter (The Impossible Astronaut/Day Of The Moon) is stuffed with provocative unresolved events and mysterious plot strands that raise the bar considerably (The Doctor is shot dead five minutes in? Amy’s pregnant, but only sometimes? River Song knows something momentous but isn’t telling?) and even the main narrative involving an alien occupation nobody’s aware of requires unusual concentration to join the dots. There are deliberate gaps and jumps in the timeline and the whole experience of watching it represents a leap of faith that the writer knows what he’s doing and is going to be able to tie his loose ends up adequately. This is no longer a programme you can easily dip in and out of.

The ongoing plot threads continue to make their presence felt through the next three stories, although not so heavily. The Curse Of The Black Spot is on the whole a completely generic and pretty derivative pirate romp featuring Lily Cole as an extraterrestrial siren picking off buccaneers, but it does at least provide some light relief. The Doctor’s Wife, written by Neil Gaiman no less, provides a whole new mind-warping concept to assimilate as we finally get an angle on the TARDIS’s view of the Doctor. This is a bold, imaginative and very well-written tale, but like the season’s opener it does ask you to lean in a bit to get the full benefit. Then there’s another two-parter, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, an overlong runaround set in a monastery that’s also a refinery, that seems to have been included primarily to introduce another ongoing theme, namely the existence of doppelgangers and the possibility that people may not be who you think they are.

Another change this year is the splitting of the year’s thirteen installments into two chunks, with the second lot coming in the Autumn. This is probably a good idea, as it relieves some of the pressure on the production team, and reduces the chance of a sag in quality halfway through the run. It also means that for the first time we get a mid-season finale, the self-consciously epic A Good Man Goes To War, in which Moffat again shows his reluctance to bother with establishing scenarios and traditional build-ups and his delight in throwing a succession of ostensibly unrelated scenes at the audience. We do however eventually get a few answers here after an unfeasibly large stack of questions and some good old Star Wars influenced cosmic spectacle, as well as a wrenching and unexpected reversal, and this half of the season ends in a strangely downbeat manner. It’s been a bit of a weird ride, to be honest.

Doctor Who survived through the 60s and 70s, if not the 80s, through the willingness of successive production teams to ruthlessly throw out aspects of the show they didn’t like and steer the programme in different directions. So there’s some good precedents for Moffat making his changes – I just hope he can deliver on his flashy mysteries and take his audience with him.

Eurovision debrief

Every year I put up token resistance, but as inevitably as the awarding of twelve points by Cyprus to Greece I yet again found myself slumped in front of the simultaneously spectacular, bizarre and banal festival of crud that is the Eurovision Song Contest. Or rather, the final of the Eurovision Song Contest – when I was a kid Europe only seemed to contain about twelve countries and you could easily accommodate all eligible entries into just the one three-hour extravaganza. These days, there are former Soviet and Yugoslav republics a go-go, which means there’s now a whittling down procedure involving two semi-finals, which tend to have the unfortunate effect of stripping out most of the bollocks-to-it-this-is-my-moment-in-the-sun wild card efforts (for some reason Norway used to be notorious for these) and leaving a residue of purest bland for the main event. Anyway, I’d somehow managed not to expose myself to any of these songs before Saturday night, not even the UK’s, for which apparently an actual real-life multi-hit-making boy band had been roped in, so I settled in with my score card and Twitter feed without any particular expectation as to who might walk off with the non-more-coveted trophy.

Perhaps I should have put in a little preparation. Twenty-five songs that have been tailor-made to be as inoffensive as possible is just too many to assimilate in one sitting, and by the time the interval act came on I was having trouble distinguishing my Slovenias from my Estonias. The ones that were definitely rubbish were Finland (drippy ballad about how some boy called Peter was going to singlehandedly defeat global warming), Bosnia-Herzegovina (Frankenstein-style mishmash of misbegotten Euro-tropes) and Russia (low-rent leather boys who looked like they thought were entertaining a hen party). A few countries had tested the formula a bit, notably France, who fielded a proper opera bloke singing something that sounded unusually highbrow and free of anything resembling a hook, and long-absent Italy, whose song had a classy jazz piano nightclub vibe. My picks were Serbia, who offered a punchy 60s-style pop song that got extra points for being one of the very few lyrics not sung in English and for having a female singer chosen for her vocal talent rather than for her age and looks, and what looked like the obvious winner Moldova, whose entry was performed by five energetic if not conventionally camera-friendly men wearing surreal Dr Seuss-type pointy hats. Their number “So Lucky” started as a full-on high-speed shouty rocker, before dropping into a surprisingly tender and melodic interlude during which  a girl dressed in white unicycled onto stage for a brief duet, and then morphed into a sort a mutant oom-pah thing with trombones. Honorable mention should also be given to the universally-derided Jedward twins, here representing Ireland, who did at least have a half-decent song and were undeniably giving it 110%.

The collation of the vote in Eurovision is the stuff of legend, and these days seems to last longer than it takes to listen to the songs as no less than 43 countries get to have a say. This year was marginally more interesting than usual, as no clear winner emerged early and the normal blatant stitch-up between neighbouring countries whereby they swap the big points was less pronounced than it has been in recent years, but the results were still baffling: Ukraine? Which one was that? The lady making art in a dirt box? Sweden? The self-absorbed ponce singing narcissistic rubbish about how the most important thing was to be popular? Eventually, and inexplicably, the prize went to Azerbaijan, whose “Running Scared” may well have been the least memorable morsel on the entire menu. Still, singers Eldar and Nigar were pleasingly overcome with emotion to have triumphed (they want to use their victory to “bring Europe together”), and least the UK entry’s unimpressive eleventh place disproved the theory that celebrity beats all. Moldova? Nowhere.

There’s something peculiarly masochistic about spending three hours watching something on which so much expense, time and effort has been spent to so little artistic effect. But then as Charlie Brooker says, can you imagine how shit Eurovision would be if it was any good?

Elisabeth Sladen

Last night I heard that Elisabeth Sladen had died and it felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I have never been so upset about a public figure dying – not John Peel, who’s probably had influence on me than anyone outside my immediate family and friends, not Kurt Vonnegut, who changed the way I thought about the world when I was 15. Certainly not Princess Diana, although I now feel the way I guess all those people who spent a week mourning and buying handfuls of Elton John singles must have felt.

In case you didn’t know, Lis Sladen played Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor’s companion, in Doctor Who, between 1973 and 1976, first with Jon Pertwee and then with Tom Baker. She’s therefore the first new regular character I can remember being introduced into the programme, which I’d been watching all my life (my second earliest memory is alerting my mother that “Doctor Who’s talking to a Sea Devil!” which would have been when I was three years old). Sarah Jane Smith was brilliant. She was strong-willed, brave, independent and cheeky, but also recognisably human and occasionally vulnerable, and was the first fully-rounded, believable assistant the Doctor ever had. Some of this came from the writing (Sladen had the good fortune to join the show at about the same time as the legendary Robert Holmes became script editor), but the reason Sarah topped polls for best ever Who companion time and again is all down to Lis Sladen and her ability to sell even the most far-fetched and outlandish situations. You have to be more than a bit forgiving of a lot of what’s now known as “classic” Doctor Who (stories from both the 60s and the 80s are often toe-curlingly bad, for various reasons), but I can unreservedly recommend pretty much anything that features Sladen and Tom Baker’s Doctor – this is the Golden Age.

Sladen left Doctor Who in 1976, and had a bit of success in other stage and television roles, but she had an indelible connection with Sarah Jane Smith and she was canny enough to know how and under what conditions to exploit it. She appeared in a number of Who spin-offs and anniversary specials during the 80s and 90s, eventually recording some audio Doctor Who adventures for the company Big Finish. It was, however, the extraordinarily successful revival of Who in 2005 under writer Russell T Davies that provided her with an incredible Second Coming. Davies wanted to revive the character for a story illustrating the Doctor’s effect on the companions he leaves behind, and knew that Sarah Jane would be the perfect fit. Sladen was initially reluctant, suspecting that her part would be a glorified cameo, but eventually accepted, and the resulting story – School Reunion – provoked an unanimously positive response from the famously pernicketty Doctor Who fanbase. Sladen was back, looking unfeasibly good for her age, and working as well with David Tennant as she had with Pertwee and Baker. Full disclosure: I cried.

Reaction was so positive that Davies took the amazing step of creating a spin-off series centred around the character and her investigations into extra-terrestrial activity on Earth. The Sarah Jane Adventures, aimed at children but perfectly accessible to adults, debuted in 2007, has run for four series and has achieved great popular and critical success. Sarah Jane has also returned to the parent show twice – once in the finale to the fourth season, when I again got something in my eye on seeing Lis Sladen’s name appear in the opening credits, and once in David Tennant’s last episode. Half of a fifth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures has been shot – it remains to be seen whether this will be aired.

By a meaningless coincidence I had just finished watching the final episode of the Doctor Who story Planet Of The Spiders last night, at the end of which Jon Pertwee regenerates into Tom Baker after collapsing on the floor in front of Sarah Jane and the Doctor’s longtime friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It’s a highly affecting scene to me, made even more so this time by the fact that Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier, recently passed away. I got through it though by thinking “well, at least Lis Sladen’s still going strong”, turned the DVD player off, and had what was supposed to be a quick look at the BBC News website. I just couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t. Some deaths you can rationalise, but Sarah Jane always seemed so real and so human, and Sladen always looked so good and seemed so full of life and compassion and intelligence that this just seems wrong, wrong, wrong. RIP.

The Sinking Of The Laconia

I ended up being pretty impressed by this TV dramatisation of a really quite astonishing World War II naval encounter. The Laconia was a ship carrying troops, civilians and prisoners of war from North Africa which had the bad fortune to be spotted by a German U-Boat in the Atlantic, and the title of the piece makes obvious its fate. What’s less predictable is what happened next: the captain of the U-Boat took pity on the survivors, and allowed them to come on board his vessel. He then put out a message to Allied forces that any ship in the area that came to the rescue of the stranded civilians would not be attacked. The eventual response by the British and Americans to this message becomes the denouement of this drama.

I only watched this because of Alan Bleasdale’s writer credit. He wrote Boys From The Black Stuff and later GBH, which may be the best thing I’ve ever seen on television, and this is the first TV project of his to come to fruition since Oliver Twist, ten years or so ago. So I was initially a bit disappointed here as the dialogue and characterisation seemed slightly pedestrian, although the production undoubtedly looks great, with all the necessary period flourishes. It got better though (or maybe it was me re-adjusting my expectations), and by the second half this was properly gripping, with no cartoon heroes or villains and plenty of interesting responses by the characters to an extreme situation. Visually it comes over as a straight mash-up of Das Boot and Titanic, and I swear a lot of the facial hair of the U-Boat crew has been lifted directly from the former.

So, a second great piece of historical drama to start the year, but more pertinently a great piece of TV drama, which you can’t imagine being made for the big screen without a lot of the most interesting nuances being ironed out.