Over the last five or sixth months either Film4, one of the ITV channels, or perhaps even a combination of the two, peppered their schedules with films like Avalanche Express, Bear Island, and The Cassandra Crossing. As films go they aren’t particularly remarkable and certainly won’t ever be inducted into some movie pantheon or other. Made by journeyman directors who weren’t out to make any kind of artistic statement, they had some big names in the cast and were pretty decent stripped down thrillers, which makes a change from a lot of the bloated nonsense we get nowadays.
Watching these films again reminded me of seeing them on their initial release, back at the tail–end of the 1970s when audiences didn’t give a damn about budgets or box–office takings and certainly weren’t subjected to all this current day hullabaloo and tiresome hype. Instead they simply pitched up at one of the local cinemas with precious little fanfare and proved to be just the sort of movies that helped while away a Saturday afternoon. Even if they would be amongst the many titles destined to fall between the cracks of memory, when it came to providing some decent entertainment for a couple of hours, those films did all right, then and now.
Being reacquainted with them for the first time in more than thirty years, it reminded me of the challenge set last year by Stephen Gallagher to list the films that I’ll happily watch from beginning to end any number of times. Back then I came up with 31 titles most, as I said, weren’t all award winners overflowing with artistic merit but were the movies that I enjoy watching again and again, whether late at night or on a rainy weekend afternoon, with or without a shallow tub of vanilla ice cream and a clear plastic container of warm orange squash to add to the viewing pleasure.
I knew there were always more. And since New Year another 30 titles that have seen me through the years proved to be indispensable during the particularly crippling bouts of insomnia or the many empty hours of a Sunday when there was nothing to catch up with on iPlayer. One film in particular (which is eighteenth on this new list if you’re interested) stayed in or close to the DVD player and I watched it three nights in a row as part of the triple bills when sleep steadfastly refused to beckon.
Once again the titles are in alphabetical order. For one movie, because I vastly prefer the director’s cut, I’ve listed it under that extended version’s title, which puts it at the end rather than near the beginning. This time around the images have simply been numbered so there’s no chance of reading the file names in the browser window, which means you either know them or you don’t. Or you could make an educated guess. Either way, they are:
Back at the beginning of January, when I’d posted a few curt observations about the movies seen last year, I’d come to the conclusion that it was best to stick with what you know and have some of the old classics to fall back on when the current crop of rather abysmal films fail to impress. Until Forbrydelsen appeared on the screen (with the third series of the French crime drama Engrenages hot on its heels) I was beginning to think that I’d have to do something similar when it came to watching television this year.
It got off to a cracking start on New Year’s Day with the wonderful single drama Eric and Ernie, about Morecambe and Wise’s early years, originated by Victoria Wood, but was immediately followed by the detective drama Zen. I’m sure I’ve read one of Michael Dibdin’s novels featuring his Rome–based police detective sometime in the past, either picking it up on holiday or maybe taking it out of the library, and the plot of the first episode certainly felt vaguely familiar, but while it looked very nice with high production values the drama left me cold so that by the end it felt like absently flicking through a glossy magazine in a doctor’s waiting room.
I had the same feeling with Boardwalk Empire, even though a shitload of money had been thrown at it, not even getting all the way through the first episode, directed by Martin Scorsese. Maybe I’ll give it another go sometime in the future because it could just be that I’m all tuckered out when it comes to gangsters. Great as its final episode was, I felt The Sopranos went at least two seasons beyond its sell–by date. Probably when I come back to Terence Winter’s prohibition drama will be around the same time I give David Simon’s Treme a proper shot because at the moment I’m finding myself strangely ambivalent to that as well. Maybe it’s just a phase I’m going through, much as I love the great city of New Orleans.
By the time the abhorrently clownish Outcasts appeared I was already lining up the box sets of the BBC adaptations of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley; Troy Kennedy Martin’s Edge of Darkness and Reilly – Ace of Spies; a selection of Poliakoff and Potter, and a few choice cuts from Alan Bennett; Secret Army, Das Boot, Angels in America and An Ungentlemanly Act, thinking that if I wanted to catch some exceptional drama I’d have to look to the past and just stick to the current television schedules for Top Gear, University Challenge and a fine number of natural history and science documentaries. And pretty much the whole of BBC4.
How did Outcasts end, by the way? It doesn’t matter if you don’t know. I don’t really care. The last episode I caught, just to see if it had improved just a scintilla was the one before it was booted out of its weeknight primetime slot where it turned out the planet was riddled with radioactive hotspots within walking distance of the settlement, flawless cut diamonds were available if you knew where to look for them, and alien remains could lie partially buried on a beach and not be affected by tidal erosion. Still, it was nice to see Vincent padding about again, even if Rose and Bernard weren’t there to look after him, and to note that as well as Forthaven being a piss–poor, unimaginative version of New Caprica, Carpathia might actually be a piss–poor unimaginative version of Solaris.
As the characters appeared clueless at every turn it simply reinforced the fact that the writers simply didn’t have one fucking clue either it became apparent that if Outcasts had been taken just that little step further from being ludicrous and ill thought out to becoming absolute bonkers it might actually have been mildly amusing. And God knows we could have done with a decent comedy as the New Year began to stretch out in front of us. Instead we got the utterly dull and wretchedly unfunny Episodes. Coming from one of the creators of Friends and a writer from Mad About You I wouldn’t have expected much, but certainly something far better than this.
There’s certainly a lot of mileage to be had satirizing the foibles of Hollywoodland but to get anywhere near the target means following in the footsteps of Billy Wilder and making a solid play at biting the hand that feeds you rather than aimlessly stumbling around and giving it the odd nuzzle every now and again. Everyone who goes there has some strange tale to tell about their experience in that crazy town, so rather than put money into such tame nonsense wouldn’t it have been far more entertaining to make a documentary filled with the war stories of the Brit professionals who went abroad?
Episodes was pretty much dead for me from the outset simply because the creative couple at the heart of the show were so preposterously naïve it was it was amazing they had made it here let alone over there. Putting Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan together in something not very good made me hanker to go back and watch Green Wing in much the same way that if I wanted to see American actors play extreme versions of themselves, or simply act like complete arseholes, I’d spin up some episodes of The Larry Sanders Show or Curb Your Enthusiasm. I suppose when people talk about writing about what you know the edict should be amended to: write about what you know but for the love of God add some real zing to it otherwise it’s all just a waste of breath! And if the BBC wants to save money they should have simply repeated the first series of Rev starring Tom Hollander as the embattled inner city priest.
Then again, I suppose it’s still early days for 2011. Last year didn’t start out spectacularly well but things soon changed for the better once the sublime documentary and Around The World By Zepplin, chronicling Lady Grace Drummond–Hay’s journey aboard the Graf Zepplin as it circumnavigated the globe in August 1929, arrived on screen, accompanied by the BBC Natural History Unit’s simply astonishing Great Rift: Africa's Wild Heart. In the following months BBC4 came up with Andrew Graham–Dixon on European art history, the latest series of Timeshift, and Runnin’ Down a Dream, Peter Bogdanovich’s four–hour history of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
Dan Snow’s outstanding Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World, benefited from having a presenter who was an accomplished sailor and historian rather than having a familiar face parachuted in to flap their mouth simply to attract an audience. The same was true of the equally entertaining and informative three–part A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss, which pretty much rounded off the year with an exploration of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 40s; the British horror movies of the 1950s onwards, dominated by Hammer Films; and the gorier American horror films of the 1970s.
A genuinely enthusiastic fan of the genre, Gatiss’ very personal journey branched off into Cold War–era science fiction, Roger Corman’s colourful adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, the English “folk horror” sub–genre, and the legacy of those early slasher movies to give a remarkably detailed exploration of the history of horror films in such a relatively short space of time. Amongst the wealth of information on screen perhaps the most surprising revelation was Halloween director John Carpenter outrageously dismissing the celebrated swimming pool scene in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People after declaring that producer Val Lewton was “overrated”, which might go some way to explain his rapidly declining career.
In terms of drama there were any number of really wonderful surprises. Lost ended brilliantly, which wasn’t really a surprise to many but I thought was worth mentioning again. As I’d said before, anyone who started watching it but gave up should seriously think about giving it another go, especially now there isn’t a week’s wait or more to catch the next episode. If you go for character–oriented drama you’ll be justly rewarded, especially after being affronted by so many ill–conceived and short–lived Lost–inspired series, cobbled together by people who simply ignored how the island drama had taken the time to first established characters and situations before drawing them into its intriguingly labyrinthine story.
Not so much a surprise but more a complete shock was that ITV actually came up with a really exceptional drama in Downton Abbey. A lot of industry types have said, over the past years, that British television drama should look to the best of the US drama for inspiration. Whereas many commentators suggested that Julian Fellowes’ period drama was simply an extension of his Academy Award–winning Gosford Park, I saw the roots of the period drama partially in The West Wing more than anything. Perverse as that may seem, certainly one of the opening shots of the first episode, when the camera prowls around the country house as the servants make ready for the new day, suggested Thomas Schlamme’s long tracking shot as Leo McGarry makes his way through the corridors of the White House in the pilot of Aaron Sorkin’s lauded political drama. And Downton Abbey’s title sequence was equal to the best of anything devised for an HBO drama, bringing to it a refinement and attention to detail reflected in the show as a whole.
At the same time audiences were served up this new historical drama, there was an old historical drama on offer as well with the Yesterday channel showing all 28 episodes of the BBC POW drama Colditz. This was a real godsend for me because it came from that distant era when the average household had two choices when it came to viewing a television programme: You either watched it on the day of transmission or you didn’t. Those were the only options available. Although I was very well aware of the show when it was first broadcast toward the end of 1972, and would soon possess an edition of Major Pat Reid’s book – although if memory serves it was The Latter Days at Colditz rather than The Colditz Story – as well as the eventual Escape from Colditz board game, I was at an age when the series’ time of transmission was considered by my parents to be well past my bedtime.
Having to content myself with watching the old 1955 film, The Colditz Story, directed by Guy Hamilton, which was probably shown one rainy weekend as part of BBC2’s afternoon matinees as a consolation, I only ever managed to see one episode of Colditz during its original run – the penultimate episode of the second series – simply because it was shown during my parents’ annual skiing holiday. Somehow I managed to convince my grandparents, who were looking after me for that week, that it was quite all right for me to stay up and watch it, even though by then the drama had moved from the mid–evening slot and was broadcast directly after the Nine O’Clock News.
Was the almost forty year wait worth it? Absolutely! And I suspect I appreciated it more watching now as an adult than if I had back then as a child because it wasn’t overdramatic or “sexed–up” as so much material can be nowadays, instead sticking to the facts. Of course I wouldn’t have expected anything less from producer Gerry Glaister who, in almost all his television endeavours, brought in technical advisors to bring a real sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings. For Colditz he naturally employed Pat Reid. Watching the two series back to back, there is a very subtle shift in tone between the pair, which could be due to the fact that by the time the events of the second year began Reid had, along with Major Ronald Littledale, Lieutenant–Commander William Stephens and Canadian Flight Lieutenant Howard Wardle, scored a “home run” and left Oflag IVC prison camp for Switzerland.
When I interviewed Gerry Glaister shortly before his death in 2005 he touched on Colditz even though we were primarily talking about Secret Army and he was still rightly very proud of the show, in particular episodes like the John Brason–scripted Tweedledum in which Michael Bryant’s Wing Commander Marsh feigns madness for months on end as a ploy to getting repatriated on medical grounds. As startling as the episode is, especially given the horrifying denouement, what had me seriously on the edge of my seat was the final scene of the first series’ penultimate episode when the quartet of prisoners, including Edward Hardwicke’s Captain Pat Grant as the fictionalised version of Reid, begin the escape attempt that would see them venture through the POW’s kitchens, across the outer courtyard to the cellars of the German Kommandantur and then out across the dry moat.
First they had to get out of the castle’s inner courtyard without being noticed by the guards on duty, and not only did their sheer ingenuity deserve a round of applause but the on–screen re–enactment, with only the sound of a German guard’s footsteps on the cobblestones adding to the tension, proved to be an incredibly nerve shredding piece of television. It’s a shame the producers of that godawful 2005 ITV miniseries, which was, staggeringly, written by Peter Morgan, hadn’t paid close attention and realized the wealth of material and succession of ingenious escape attempts meant that they didn’t need a load of made–up, melodramatic bollocks that included the most clichéd of love triangles.
Then there was Mark Gatiss again with his adaptation of HG Wells’ The First Men In the Moon. It may not have equalled the Charles H. Schneer–produced 1964 film featuring Lionel Jeffries’ “absolutely imperial” turn as Professor Joseph Cavor, but it was a worthy and enjoyable attempt. When it came to the moon–dwelling Selenites, the drama proved that computer–generated imagery, albeit produced on a BBC budget, still can’t hold a candle to Ray Harryhausen’s proven stop–motion animation. Of course Gatiss had also been responsible, in tandem with Steven Moffat, for Sherlock, the BBC’s update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary creation. Back in 2009 I’d stupidly wondered how the characters would work in contemporary times now that the police had much more advanced methods in detection. Suitably abashed, the answer was: simply brilliantly. And that’s all that needs to be said.
Thinking back to Episodes, it soon became clear that the sitcom was based on Moffat’s misadventures in LA, adapting his UK sitcom Coupling for the American market. A shame then that he hadn’t been hired to write a comic roman à clef, but then he had far bigger and better fish to fry. Mid–June of last year, giving the BAFTA Annual Television Lecture, Stephen Fry was quick to point out:
I am fully and furiously and timorously aware that over the course of the next forty minutes or so I might say a thousand harmless, possibly even true, things and yet make one hasty or ill–considered remark and it will dog me for weeks to come for I am to talk about television, and if there is one thing that the newspapers of this country like to pounce upon, it is any breath of criticism directed from an insider at broadcasting networks and their executives. It’s one of the media’s favourite indoor sports.
Though he got through the lecture unscathed, it was during the conversation with producer John Lloyd that followed where things came a little unstuck, declaring:
The only drama the BBC will boast about are Merlin and Doctor Who, which are fine but they're children's programmes. They're not for adults.
If he had said this a year earlier I would have wholeheartedly agreed with him. But something very strange happened around Easter of 2010. I watched the new series of Doctor Who. And I bloody loved it! This of course may come as a surprise – or even a complete shock – to anyone who has read my posts for any length of time. In fact just over a week after starting the blog, back in 2006, I was already writing about how I felt like Miles Bennell, frantically running from a blank–faced populace that had succumbed to the collective madness and unconditionally fallen under the spell of Doctor Who, while I couldn’t see why such a ratty piece of tat deserved so much hysterical jubilation and congratulatory circle-jerking.
I’d watched the show as a kiddie, from the end of Patrick Troughton’s run through to some time before Tom Baker decided to call it a day, because that’s what you did but didn’t see the need to go back to it, 30–odd years on, with the same fervour of my contemporaries the same way I didn’t feel any real need to revisit the Ladybird books I’d read so many years ago as a child. Out of curiosity I’d caught the first episode with Christopher Eccleston, was puzzled that the BBC had made a really inferior genre–swapped rip–off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and was happy to leave it there. The only problem was the whole damned country seemed to have happily gulped down the Kool–Aid and just wouldn’t shut up about it.
My circle of drinking buddies were all lapping every episode up with gusto, as if it was the television equivalent of Linus’ comfort blanket, which made some evenings out decidedly tricky, but I could avoid them. What wasn’t as easy to avoid was the all–consuming promotion and Russell T Davies’ endless self–promotion that made it frankly unbearable. If the Fat Controller had simply stuck to the small market of genre magazines written by fans eager to toady to a programme made by fans he would stayed out of my line of sight. Unfortunately he managed to worm his way into what used to be called the quality press and wouldn’t stop banging on about how brilliant the show was and how brilliant he was. For all the money the BBC threw at the series in the beginning to ensure success, it’s a shame a few quid hadn’t been allocated to pay someone to stand behind RTD and whisper in his ear the warning that all glory is fleeting.
If I caught the odd episode it was only to revel in the sheer ridiculousness of the stories that would unfold, marvelling at the sheer lack of internal logic and trying to guess what the eventual deus ex machina would be, and knowing that when I’d bring these criticisms up to the drinking buddies their default response would be, “Well, it’s science fiction, it doesn’t have to make sense!”, which would usually infuriate me even more than the previous 40 minutes of daftness. If they countered by stating it was a children’s show I’d ask why they were watching it. If that was then revised to calling it a “family show” instead, I’d tell them the mix of adult drama with utter childishness didn’t gel. Topped up on a couple of pints, they’d take on board what I had to say and then ignore it.
The Fat Controller didn’t seem to be able to take on board any criticism and dismiss it as easily. Not having the article around anymore, I can’t remember who hadn’t been willing to deify him but in The Times’ cultural guide The Knowledge in October of 2006, he wrote:
...I’m not a hack, I’m not a new boy, I’m a very, very experienced and successful TV writer and there’s no way I could have got there without understanding character.
There’s no denying he could write wonderful little character moments, but constructing a coherent plot seemed to be beyond his grasp. Years later there was an edition of Have I Got News For You where Paul Merton observed that the real tragedy of Gordon Brown was that he always wanted to be Prime Minister yet when the opportunity arose he couldn’t do the job. When I heard that it seemed the perfect way to describe RTD’s tenure overseeing Doctor Who, because there were times when I wondered if he had been watching the same programme that I had when I was a kid. In that very same article, discussing his approach to Doctor Who, he explained:
I always wanted there to be some ordinariness in there; some mundanity with the extraordinary. These days there are 500 shows, good and bad, which have fleets of spaceships and monsters all creeping on what used to be Doctor Who’s preserve. So, in looking for scripts, you have to think, well, Battlestar Galactica’s got the big spaceships and Buffy’sgot the fantasy and the vampires, what have we got that’s unique? And it’s the real world.
Really? I seem to recall a number of Gerry & Sylvia Anderson shows from my childhood that had spaceships, and monsters. Irwin Allen made a few as well. And I think there’s a little bit more to Battlestar Galactica than just big spaceships, the same way that Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t really just about vampires, but who needs really subtext and allegory when there’s a lot of whiz–bang and shiny–shiny to soften the brain and glaze the eyes. But what about that last line? I found the extended “real world” sequences that went beyond establishing the time and place incongruously intruded on the stories and ate up precious minutes that could have been better served on plot. Or, as English Dave commented when I first ran the quote: “I beg to differ with RTD here. What you have that is unique is Time Travel.”
From then it went from bad to worse. Over the odd pint I’d voice an increasing concern about the amount of direct references to other material in the episodes. Briefly paying homage to previous works or being influenced by them is one thing – and the great Canadian animator Richard Williams once mentioned to me when I spotted a brief sight gag from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup in the workprint of The Thief and the Cobbler, that you should never copy anything unless you can vastly improve upon the original, which he did – but it was becoming clear that Doctor Who had incessant “magpie tendencies”. But rather than drawing inspiration from earlier sources it was directing lifting elements and dropping them into the episodes, unchanged, to fill the lack of hard-earned original thought in the stories.
It may not seem a particularly big deal to some but I remember an interview with Terry Gilliam, conducted not that long after the release of Brazil, where he was rather incensed that a UK–based agency had produced a commercial for a computer company (which might, or might not, have been Hewlett Packard) that unashamedly ripped off the scene where Robert De Niro’s Harry Tuttle disappears in a blizzard of newspaper to push this idea of PCs creating a paperless work environment. Although there were people who had already seen the film and knew the spot had nicked the idea from him, Gilliam’s beef was that there was still a potential audience out there who had seen the commercial first and, when they got to watching Brazil, would think he was the one who had lazily swiped the concept.
At least for Gilliam TV commercials are, on the whole, ephemeral, with only the most celebrated campaigns ever lingering in the memory. Watching the two–part series two finale of Doctor Who, I wondered how Philip Pullman will feel at some future book signing when some kid is going to hold up a copy of The Amber Spyglass and accuse him of ripping off these episodes, which they saw as a tot. I was utterly astonished how blatantly Davies stole from Pullman’s award-winning His Dark Materials trilogy. Did the Fat Controller care about stealing other people’s ideas? Did he fuck! In an interview in The Independent, in which such thefts were brought up – in particular the first episode of Torchwood stealing from The Silence of the Lambs and Men in Black (although the journalist forgot to mention the Somebody Else’s Problem Field from Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything) – his defence was it was “simple storytelling”, explaining:
“It’s all there for the taking, I do it gladly. The ending of Doctor Who, where we had to separate the Doctor and Rose, that was unashamedly taken from the Phillip Pullman novels. They’re brilliant, and every child reads them. So that creates a resonance, when they’ve got a story in one part of their minds and they see Doctor Who and think, ‘Oh right! You can change stories!’ If you want to get pretentious about it, it’s exactly what Shakespeare did. As long as you put yourself into it I think it’s all there for the grabbing.”
Really?! In the end I suppose it’s all about conduct and how one deports themself, whether they want to be a person of principle, working hard to come up with something new, or not, lazily stealing ideas and imagery directly from other, more celebrated sources. After a while it turned out to be best not to bother watching any episode written by RTD, although that didn’t always guarantee success. While James Moran turned in a particularly good episode with The Fires of Pompeii, there was an especially idiotic story set in Depression–era New York where humans subjugated by Daleks were turned into pig–men for no apparent reason, before another sap, tossed into a metal pepper pot, emerged with monocular vision – which is always good for impairing hand-eye co-ordination, and causing loss of manipulation and balance – and his brain outside of the cranium just for good measure. So that’s evolution is it? Somehow I don’t think so.
Even though Doctor Who comes from a long line of science fiction programmes that only had a very tenuous grasp of any science at best, a little common sense in the story development stage might not have gone amiss, even if they can’t be bothered with the usual internal logic, simply because we expect more now than we did back then. This is why I could never understand by audiences were so wowed by the Fat Controller’s episode Midnight. Forget for a moment that the actual story itself was straight out of The Twilight Zone (or maybe The Outer Limits), the set–up simply didn’t make sense.
It was set on an oxygen–free planet made of diamonds “poisoned by the sun” where the “exotonic” light from the sun will “destroy any living thing in a split second”. Borrowing a line of dialogue from Armageddon, this appears to be, if I’m not mistaken, “the scariest environment imaginable”. Since the precious gems are worthless, and direct sunlight will vaporise you, it seems to be a place to avoid. Except in the Doctor Who universe where it becomes home to a holiday resort. So the first questions that come to mind are, how did it get Health & Safety certified? And who in their right fucking minds would go there?
Even if the owners did get customers for what looked like a reasonably upscale–looking resort, why, for excursions to see a “sapphire waterfall” at the less than appealing sounding Cliffs of Oblivion, is the caterpillar–tracked transport so utterly low–rent? If the windows have to be shielded – meaning there’s no view out – why are they travelling by land in the first place, especially when the round trip takes eight hours? I know, it’s science fiction so it doesn’t have to many any sense, but I’m sure if I’d seen a similar scenario as a kiddie I’d be raising my hand and calling it out as a steaming pile of bullshit.
In the end the only episodes worth watching were the ones scripted by Steven Moffat. I still haven’t seen his first episode, The Empty Child, simply because I’d caught the trailer, saw Billie Piper dressed as Jenny Sparks, the Spirit of the 20th century from Warren Ellis’ The Authority, and decided to give it a wide berth. Cajoled into checking out the second part of the story, I can’t say I was particularly impressed given that the plot hinged on the hoary old chestnut of aliens fixing injured humans without understanding their physiology and royally fucking it up. Still, The Girl in the Fireplace, his next offering, was certainly an improvement, but it was with the third series episode Blink, with the Weeping Angels, that he really nailed it and then came the two–parter that introduced the character who may, or may not, be this particular time traveller’s wife.
That was the story that really highlighted the differences between Moffat and the Fat Controller for me. Much like the differences between the Pixar and Dreamworks Animation films, Moffat created wholly organic family stories while Davies’ took childish elements, teen elements, and the odd adult piece, and loosely stitched them together with obvious pop cultural references. Whereas Davies’ incessant “magpie tendancies” lazily shored up his threadbare central narratives, Moffat took the existing genre tropes, doffed his cap to familiar conceits and spun them in a whole new direction.
So while Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead had nods to both Kurd Lasswitz’s The Universal Library and Borges’ The Library of Babel, along with Audrey Niffenegger’s bestseller, they just provided a starting point rather than the means to an end, and, in River Song, he introduced a character infinitely more intriguing that RTD’s Captain Twat Scarlet. By the time the episodes were transmitted it had already been announced that the Fat Controller was stepping down and Moffat would be taking his place as head writer and EP, which had to be cause for much celebration, and fancy cakes. A fan of Doctor Who but evidently not a fanboy, Moffat didn’t come across as the sort of cock who would breezily compare Robert Holmes’ The Talons of Weng Chiang to the works of Dennis Potter, and his lack of appearance in the press – or at least the newspapers I read – suggested he was more interested in the work at hand than perpetual self–promotion.
Of course Moffat didn’t take over immediately, with the series pushed back a year while a smattering of decidedly un–special specials were irregularly crowbarred into the television schedules, including The Waters of Mars, which was so monumentally dire that it made Outcasts look sensible. Oddly enough, when it came to the Fat Controller and his boggle–eyed puppet making their exit it was quite a decent swan song, although it seems having an immortal ruminate over his mortality probably wasn’t what the expectant audience quite expected on Christmas Day. Still, the overriding sense of melancholia that permeated the narrative meant that the actors dialled down on the usual overacting, giving far more considered and affecting performances.
Really, it was about time, even if it was too little too late. Having previously seen David Tennant actually act in Peter Bowker’s Blackpool and John Simm give sterling performances in The Lakes and State Of Play, it had been quite depressing to witness their witless pantomime gurning over the past couple years. And I guess that was why I was looking forward to seeing what the new guy would do under Moffat’s tutelage, having only seen Matt Smith before in Moses Jones where he had a handful of scenes. Quite frankly he had me at: “Beans are evil. Bad, bad beans!”, and I knew I was on for the long haul once he hurled the plate of bread and butter into the garden, shouting, “And stay out!”
What I found most intriguing was how those die–hard fans amongst the drinking circle, who raved about the earlier, nonsensical series hadn’t been all that impressed with Tennent’s last bow, nor Moffat’s first year on the job for that matter. The latter opinions I found intriguing, though didn’t really spend enough time with them over the summer to get to the root of their dislike. I wasn’t enamoured by every episode but I did watch every episode. Because even if the self–contained story wasn’t up to much there was always something intriguing going on with the overall story arc, expertly woven into the plots in a way the previous year’s had consistently and spectacularly failed to achieve. So while, in the Vincent Van Gogh episode, I wasn’t exactly taken by the frankly bizarre ready–to–roast alien chicken used as a physical manifestation of manic depression (however brave it was to put an issue like mental illness in the show), the artist’s presence was necessary for the inclusion of Starry Night as part of the on–going narrative.
More importantly, Moffat made the companion integral to the story arc. Back when Sydney Newman first conceived of the series, the human companion acted as the eyes and ears of the audience at home, reflecting their fears and desires as the onscreen exploits unfolded. But as actors came and went, and incoming producers put their stamp own on the show, however different they tried to make the characters, I just remember the companions being there simply to be a plot contrivance, acting as the traditional damsel in distress, whether male or female. This time it was personal, which made Amy Pond far more relevant than say Billie Piper, starting off as some kind of Albert Square Buffy Summers before turning all doe–eyed; the pointless second girl; or Catherine Tate being her usual annoying, braying self.
When Rose was wheeled back in for the final, final time at the end of the fourth series, Moffat summed the character up best during an appearance at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con, observing: “You have to hand it to the Doctor for dumping a slightly needy girlfriend by palming her off on a copy of himself.” Introducing Amy’s fiancé and bringing him along for the ride, Moffat erased the tedious “real world” soap opera that had been gumming up the works and leavened the story with the relationship humour that had made Coupling a success. That meant the best laughs came at the expense of the characters rather than the inappropriate childish japery previously shoehorned into the stories.
Making it personal meant that Moffat could built up to a big event – the erasure of everything in the universe – but play it out on a small scale, which is what the old show used to be about, concentrating on the main characters rather than strain the budget with unconvincing shots of extras panicking in the streets and all the associated nonsense that came with them. Instead the money seemed to have been used wisely, certainly when it came to hiring far better directors and cinematographers who brought a much more filmic quality to the last series, especially when it came to the contrasting colour palettes Stephan Pehrsson employed on the final two episodes.
It was a shame that a few desks couldn’t have been reassigned in the BBC’s graphics departments as well. The Waters of Mars had featured an astonishingly bad cutaway to an onscreen news report that included the supplementary headline: THE WORLD GRIEVE FOR HEROS OF SPACE TRAVEL. In The Big Bang, the museum’s AV presentation of the Pandorica through the ages included an image of bombers in flight when it reached the time of the London Blitz. Instead of German Heinkel He-111s, whoever had sourced the image had decided that a photo of American B-17 Flying Fortresses flying a daylight raid would do. Of course maybe it was another of the very sly nods to the alternate history that had taken place.
Either way, like the subtle Lost homage at the end of The Pandorica Opens it brought a smile to my face rather than raising my gorge, just as his eventual escape from that ultimate prison – while making absolutely no real sense at all – still made sense in terms of the mechanics of the storytelling. If the odd mistake creeps in at least Moffat seems confident enough to laugh at them without beating his chest and running to the nearest soapbox to rail against his critics, demonstrated earlier this year when someone passed on one of his tweets:
“Dad, the Treeborgs in Angels? Like Cyborgs but trees? Cyborg is Cyberorganism, Treeborg is tree–organism. That’s a TREE.” ”GO TO YOUR ROOM!”
Minor quibbles aside, amazingly Doctor Who is finally standing head and shoulders above other recent BBC dramas, especially on a night when they seem to have turned Carry on Cabby into a series. If there’s one thing Steven Moffat should be congratulated for is that in his first year on the job he seems to have subtly rewritten the timeline to omit all of Davies’ overblown melodramatics. Amazingly, I’m actually looking forward to the new series.