Monday, 28 December 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 13th December 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 13th December 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) The X Factor (ITV1).....................14.81 *
2) I Dreamed A Dream: The Susan Boyle Story
3) Coronation Street (ITV1).................9.46 *
4) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1).............8.71 *
5) EastEnders (BBC1)........................8.65 *
6) I'm A Celebrity...Coming Out (ITV1)......7.53
7) Emmerdale (ITV1).........................7.03 *
8) Gavin and Stacey (BBC1)..................6.53
9) Merlin (BBC1)............................6.01
10) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)..........5.53
11) Holby City (BBC1)........................5.43
12) Cheryl Cole's Night In (ITV1)............5.37
13) Waterloo Road (BBC1).....................5.21
14) Spooks (BBC1)............................5.11
15) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)...........5.10
16) British Comedy Awards (ITV1).............5.02
17) QI (BBC1)................................4.86
18) Casualty (BBC1)..........................4.84
19) Live At The Apollo (BBC1)................4.82
20) BBC Sports Personality Of the Year

BBC: 12 ITV: 8

UK TV Chart - w/e 6th December 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 6th December 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) The X Factor (ITV1)......................13.47 *
2) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1)..............9.43
3) Coronation Street (ITV1)..................9.32 *
4) I'm A Celebrity...Get me Out Of Here!
(ITV1).................9.23 *
5) EastEnders (BBC1).........................8.91 *
6) Emmerdale (ITV1)..........................7.21 *
7) Harry Hill's Best Of TV Burp (ITV1).......6.67
8) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)..................6.26
9) Top Gear (BBC2)...........................6.09
10) Gavin and Stacey (BBC1)...................6.04
11) Merlin (BBC1).............................6.01
12) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)...........5.95
13) Rod Stewart:One Night Only ITV1)..........5.84
14) Countryfile (BBC1)........................5.68
15) Casualty (BBC1)...........................5.04
16) New You've Been Framed (ITV1).............4.96
17) Small Island (BBC1).......................4.90
18) The One Show (BBC1).......................4.89 *
19) Film: Batman Begins (ITV1)................4.87
20) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)............4.72

BBC: 11 ITV: 9

Sunday, 27 December 2009

DVD Review: District 9

Tired of turkey left-overs and reheated TV repeats? Then hurry ye down to your local DVD emporium for, in the midst of the post-Christmas lull, one of the better SF blockbuster movies of the year is making its debut on shiny disc tomorrow (28th December) and if you’re bored with the noisy emptiness of the likes of Transformers and yearning for something a bit more adult in the genre you need to catch up with ‘District 9’ Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature film if you missed its cinema release because, like Duncan Jones’ ‘Moon’ a few weeks back, it’s an SF movie with a heart and a soul and a real sense of imagination.

28 years ago a great big rusty-looking spaceship parked itself above the city of Johannesburg and just...sat there. Months passed. Nothing stirred. Eventually the authorities broke through the hull and found the ship full of filthy, starving refugee alien creatures quickly dubbed ‘prawns’ because...well, they looked a bit like walking prawns. The aliens were quickly repatriated to the city below and found themselves grubbing about in thesqualor of a rancid shanty town known as District 9. The years rolled by and with their spaceship still suspended above the city, the prawns are becoming a nuisance. They’re preyed on by local gangsters who bribe the prawns with cat food (they’re obsessed with it) in turn for alien weapons technology which won’t work for humans. The prawns are becoming a nuisance generally, killing and robbing indiscriminately. Time they moved on. The Government sets up a new purpose-built compound away from the heart of the city; but how to peaceably evict a million jabbering , jittery alien life-forms? Wiry Wikus Van De Merwe is the hapless civil servant drafted in to oversee the mass alien eviction; but when he’s infected by prawn DNA he starts to undergo a grisly metamorphosis. Realising his mutating DNA will allow him – and thus humanity – to access the previously stubbornly inoperable alien weaponry, the authorities quickly lock Wikus up and start experimenting on him. But Wikus escapes and rushes back to District 9 in search of a cure for his terrible new affliction...

‘District 9’ is a frustratingly-schizophrenic movie. Apparently taking its lead from the likes of ‘Cloverfield’ (a lead still being followed in the recent ‘Paranormal Activity’) ‘District 9’ starts out in documentary-style, with grainy at-the-time photography, comments by on-screen cultural observers and sociologists, what purports to be filmed footage of the unfortunate and nervy Wikus preparing to take on a job he’s clearly been over-promoted into. So far, so real. But the trouble is that, to tell its full story, ‘District 9’ has to abandon its documentary pretensions and become a more rousing sci-fi thriller with everything that goes with it – special effects, incidental music, a proper narrative, actors acting. Given the nature of the story and the detail required to get that story across it’s clear it was always going to be thus; the documentary ‘gimmick’ is a good one but it’s one only worth utilising if your story can fully support it. So it is that, twenty minutes or so into ‘District 9’ all the social comment and contemporary recollections are gone and we find ourselves flung into a more traditional action story. It’s no big deal because the film remains hugely entertaining but the stylistic jump is jarring and it’s noticeable and, especially as the film tries to return to its roots in the last reel (against jolting the audience out of the story), it disrupts the flow of the movie and it’s hard not to wonder if Blomkamp might have been better off abandoning the documentary trapping and saving them for a story better able to support them.

What we’re left with then, when the reality stuff becomes impractical, is a gripping and visceral story of one man against humanity, fighting for his life. Newcomer Sharlto Copley plays the bewildered and terrified Wikus and it’s a rousing performance (another strength of the movie lies in the fact that there are, obviously, no star names here) as not only does his body begin to transform but his entire personality as he battles to stay alive and stay human whatever the cost. As bits of his body fall off and crumble before our eyes Wikus resorts to desperate measures and in the end he literally becomes a blood-crazed killing machine, using a prawn fighting suit and blowing his human enemies to pieces with the alien weaponry his new biology gives him access to.

In many ways there’s not much here we haven’t seen before. The last reel, particularly, sees the film become a fairly typical SF actioner with a protracted gun battle as Wikus goes on his killing spree. Maybe here the film loses its novelty value and some of its originality but it’s no less entertaining just because it appears to have Gone Hollywood. The film looks achingly grimy, Blomkamp capturing the filth and decay of District 9, the feral existence of the refugees who are really little better off on earth than they were in their stinking spacecraft and, despite its low budget, the film never looks cheap and nasty. The spaceship looms large in most sequences, hanging over the city like a metal cloud, the prawns themselves are superbly realised (even though we rarely see them together in any great number) and the Terminator-like gun battle towards the end of the movie is breathtakingly energised stuff. Tender sensibilities may not be able to stomach the effects of the prawn weaponry – targets literally blow up, spraying blood in all directions. Nice!

What's most exciting about ‘District 9’ is the fact that this is Blomkamp’s first feature film and that he’s been able to craft something as richly-accomplished and exciting as this first time out of the blocks promises much for his future efforts. ‘District 9’ seems to be crying out for a ‘two years later’ sequel but I really hope Blomkamp can resist the temptation and move on to something new. But remember how well this movie did at the Box office, especially in America. With franchise movies under-performing alarmingly recently, it’s unlikely that Hollywood will be able to resist the allure of ‘more of the same’ (hopefully not an American remake, please). Whether it gets a sequel or not, ‘District 9’ is a breath of fresh air in the rather stuffy and moribund world of modern sci-fi cinema, an action film with an element of social commentary in amongst the hardware and the explosions. Despite its one or two minor shortcomings, it’s a terrific little film which you’ll remember far longer than the latest battle between the Decepticons and the Mogadons or whatever they’re called...

The DVD: Available as a single-disc edition with a commentary, some deleted scenes and a fairly-detailed multi-part documentary, or a two-disc edition which, like the Blu Ray, has a few more behind-the-scenes bits and pieces.

District 9 is available to buy in the UK on Monday 28th December 2009

Saturday, 26 December 2009

TV review: Dr Who - The End of Time: Part One

It's never really a good idea to review the first episode of a 'Dr Who' story - or, for that matter, part of anything, whether it's a book or a film or, although I've been known to do it myself, to judge a multi-episode series on the basis of the first two episodes. But with 'Dr Who' it's really notoriously difficult to make a judgment call on half of a story. Part ones do what they say on the tin; they set up the story, establish the scenario, introduce the characters and move everybody into the positions they need to be to power the narrative towards, hopefully, a satisfying conclusion in the second episode. Two-part stories really should be judged as a whole, taking both instalments together to give a balanced view of the story as a whole. But what the Hell, this is 'The End Of Time', possibly one of the most important 'Dr Who' tales ever told, a story which, if only because it writes out the most popular actor to play the character in the show's 46 year history; the story is going to be scrutinised and analysed for months and maybe even years to come. There's quite a lot riding on this and it's asking to much of anyone to bite their lip and/or keep it buttoned until part two rolls around.

'The End of Time', Christmas Day at 6pm on BBC1, is a very odd one ideeed, first part or not. Since the revived series has established the 'Christmas Day' episode tradition, Russell T Davies, who pens the festive episodes, has always made a great play about how these big holiday episodes need to be something very different from the TV series itself. They need to be bright, bold, loud, unsubtle, high (and usually quite simple) concept, full of Christmas cheer and light and exciting enough to entertain an audience usually guaranteed to be much larger than that of the usual run of episodes, an audience likely to include several million people who don't usually watched the show but will give it a spin as they veg out in front of the TV on the laziest, slobbiest night of the year.

How typical, then, of Davies to tear up his own personal rule book this year. Faced with the need to craft a story which will, most likely, conclude with the death of the Doctor, Christmas 2009 was never really going to be a light and frothy affair. But how perverse to create a story which requires a not-inconsiderable knowledge of the recent history of the series in a story which flashes back to the end of season three, 'Last of the Time Lords', reintroduces a supporting character from that story for a brief (and really pointless and easily-avoidable) cameo, harkens back to 'classic' Dr Who by resurrecting the Doctor's oldest foe The Master, brings back Wilf Mott and his grandaughter, former companion Donna Noble and, at its climax, brings back (spoiler ahead for those who've not yet seen the episode!), the entire Time Lord race, big collars and all, the one story element from the old series Davies was quite keen to jettison before writing one word of his new series because they typified the continuity baggage which dragged down the old series and chased away its casual viewers back in the 1980s. Maybe it's something in the show's genes; it's hard to resist its history and clearly the show's burgeoning popularity and the audience's apparent happy acceptance of old Who lore into the new series has persuaded Davies that the time is ripe to bring back the ancient Gallifreyans, even at the risk of opening up all those old cans of continuity worms which did so much damage in the past. Maybe it's the work of a writer who knows, deep down, he can get away with almost anything with an actor as popular as David Tennant in the lead role. Whatever the reason, it's clear that Davies felt confident enough to throw caution to the wind and bombard his Christmas night crowd with something dark, deep and, ultimately, quite barking mad. It seems to have worked, too; overnight figures of over 10.3 million may be down on the last two years but the numbers for everything else are down this year too. It seems that TV wasn't on the menu for quite as many people this year and it seems that Dr Who remained one of the few shows the audience really made an effort to sit down and watch. I wonder how much of an effort they found it to make head or tail of this rattling, random story of an insane flying Time Lord, conker-headed aliens, a morose Time Lord spiralling towards his doom, an old man in a red bobble hat and a machine which turns everyone in the world into John Simm!

'The End of Time' is Davies with the gloves off. In his last storyline for the series he plays to all his strengths (sometimes seen as weaknesses by his detractors who just can't come to terms with the hugeness of some of his ideas). A moody intro - narrated by Timothy Dalton (who becomes a more forbidding presence as the episode rolls on) - sees the Earth in trouble again as everyone is having bad dreams. Wilf Mott (the brilliant Bernard Cribbins), is Christmas shopping and receives an ominous warning from a mysterious old woman and it's clear that the Doctor is on his way back to Earth. The Doctor, meanwhile, has taken a circuitous route back to the Ood-Sphere where he's informed that not only has his old nemesis the Master survived their last encounter but something even bigger is moving in the darkness. Yikes! Back on Earth, the Master (John Simm) is revived in a hugely-improbable bit of gobbledegook and the rest of the episode concerns itself not so much with moving the story forward but getting the Doctor and the Master to confront one another before allowing the Master to use a remarkable piece of technology to create a new human race in his own image - the Master Race. This done, the Time Lords march en masse out of the darkness - they've survived the Time War after all! - and the pieces are all in place for the tenth Doctor's endgame.

'Voage of the Damned' this ain't. And in all honesty, two viewings in, I'm still not sure what it was. It's big and bold and brash and in places it's quite ridiculous - for once I can understand some of the hand-wringing angsty whining of the fan hardcore (only some of it, mind). The Master gorging on turkeys, firing bolts of fire from his hands and bounding around the place like The Incredible Hulk looks wonderful but it doesn't yet make a whole lot of sense. The new alien race - the Vinvocci - are clearly introduced for a bit of comic light relief and, as a result, aren't even especially comic or much of a relief. Much better comedy value from 'the Silver Cloak', Wilf's coach-load of feisty pensioners enlisted to seek out any sign of the returning Doctor. June Whitfield is on twinkling form as cheeky Minnie Hooper who can't resist a photo opportunity and a saucy grope of the Doc's bot. The problem is that these moments of humour don't sit well in a storyline as dark and portentous as this one; we know, broadly speaking, where 'The End of Time' is going. No big happy ending here, no laughs and smiles and the Doctor wandering off for Christmas dinner. Next week the Doctor dies; we all know it, there's no escaping it, it seeps from every frame of this episode. Just this once those trademark flashes of humour seem a bit inappropriate and forced.

This is an episode which just rages off the screen. John Simm is absolutely electric (literally) as a Master who's been resurrected as insatiable and insane - I've rarely seen a performance of such mesmerising and utterly impacable insanity on screen and it's really quite unsettling. Tennant and Cribbins are the perfect combination, the most unusual TARDIS travelling team in the show's long history. But admist all the bang and flash and all the cackling, the very best scene of the episode is a simple one where the Doctor and Wilf, reunited, sit in a cafe and just chat. They chat about life and the Doctor's death, which he can see staring him in the face. Here's the Doctor stripped bare, terrified and dejected, a man facing his own destiny and yet determined to do all he can to avoid it. Fascinating too the way this scene makes the audience think about the process of regeneration; whereas before we've just seen it as the sloughing off of a damaged or exhausted old body and the assuming of a new one, now it's clear that the process is a very real 'death' and the anguish of facing his own alien mortality is written right across Tennant's features in one of his best ever performances in the series. For just a moment or two the Doctor is alone and afraid, facing the mystery of death in a way we've never thought the Doctor has had to before.

Then there's Donna, mind-wiped and blissfully unaware of her past with the Doctor. Wonderful to see Catherine Tate back in the series (and catch up with her Nan Christmas Special too, if you can, it's a hoot!) even if she's yet to spend any time with the Doctor and she remains the bolshy, aggressive woman we met in 'The Runaway Bride' in 2006 rather than the more thoughtful and mature women she became after travelling with the Doctor. Poignant too, when Wilf hints that, despite her apparent happiness with her new fiance she sometimes looks sad although she doesn't know why. This is really what Davies does so achingly well, brilliant moments of real humanity, moments that touch your heart just before he lurches off into some wild flight of eyebrow-raising fantasy.

So there we have it - part one of a two part story judged on its own merits. It's hard to compare it with previous Who Christmas episodes because it's nothing like any of them, paying lip service to Christmas as it does. Obviously the story which writes out the tenth Doctor was always going to be epic - and it looks as if part two is going to be sutiably enormous - but part of me's wondering if it might not have been wiser to have scheduled something a little more traditional - last month's 'Waters of Mars' could have fitted the bill with just a little tinkering - and then shown Tennant the door early in 2010 in two episodes unencumbered with the need to crowbar in a bit of glitter and a few Christmas trees just because of a quirk of scheduling. 'The End of Time' isn't the best of modern Dr Who but it's quite unlike anything we've had since the series came back. Its very much defined by the glittering, dynamic performances of its three leads and its pervading sense of foreboding and it may well be that part two will force many of us to reappraise part one. As it stands it's an episode almost wilfully designed to infuriate old-series die-hards and simultaneously entertain and frustrate those who have embraced the new series. It's big, spectacular, lunatic stuff and it does nothing to damage Dr Who's reputation, all these years down the line, as the most extraordinary series on television. I'm both looking forward to and dreading episode two...but bring it on.

Coming next week....the beginning of the end for the tenth Doctor...

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

DVD Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Arsed Film

Six films in and it's time to face the grisly, unpalatable truth. I really don't care much for Harry Potter or his movies. Yes, a couple of the early ones were fun - lots of ogres, giant spiders, snakes, whizzy bits of magic and a real sense of awe and wonder. But the kids - Harry, Ron, Hermione and all the others - are growing up fast and the films are growing up with them - or at least they're trying to. But growing up often leads to a loss of innocence and so it is with Harry's cinematic exploits, nevermore apparent than in this overlong, drab and largely action-free sixth movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This is Harry Potter for the Twilight/High School Musical generation, more concerned with teenage crushes, snogging, fancying one another and saying 'bloody' more than is really necessary in a film series aimed predominently at kids.

Now I'll readily admit that I've always been a bit ambivalent about the whole Potter phenomenon. I'm happy to see kids reading books rather than sit drooling in front of The X Factor but I remain utterly baffled as to what adults get out of these stories apart from the vicarious pleasure of seeing their kids enjoying something a bit more intelligent than your average soap opera or TV talent show. But I share comedian Stewart Lee's amusement and frustration (if not his abject cynicism) at the sight of grown adults sitting on buses and trains enraptured Rowling's latest doorstop - "Have you read the latest one...Harry Potter and the Tree of Nothing?" as Lee pointedly put it). And I'm not writing out of pure ignorance of the text; I tried to read the first two books, I ploughed through a few chapters of the last one. I just find Rowling's writing flat and uninvolving with no sense of adventure or scale, just words on a page going nowhere and saying nothing very interesting in any really interesting way. The Potter books just seem to me like adequately-written books for children (Phillip Pullman they're not), populated by people with childish names like Slughorn, Dumbledore and Snape, roll-around-your-tongue playground character names. Precious little meat in the Potter series for discerning adults, surely.

The films have tended to work better - but still as kid's films - by boiling down the stories into their set pieces with just the characters and incident which drive the series forward and all the flab excised. Until now, that is. 'The Half-Blood Prince' is clearly a scene-scetter for the final epic showdown between Harry and the Dark Lord Voldemort in the next two films (the final novel split into two movies....sounds ominous) but it has no story of its own to tell, no conflict to depict and precious little of interest to hold the attention. Despite one of the Blu Ray special features getting all worked up about the film's location filming, the majority of the movie is set - again - in the shadowy halls and cloisters of Hogwarts (another silly name) with just one brief and refreshing scene set in London and a few others set in a world so removed from the real one as to be pretty much totally unindentifiable. This is part of the problem I have with the series; it's so unconnected with humanity, with real people, it doesn't really seem to matter what happens in Harry's parallel world becauswe it never seems to impact on us mere 'muggles' (another silly name) who remain blissfully unaware of all these dark supernatural doings. So once again the audience has to endure -and so little happens here it really is an endurance test - a bunch of kids in silly wizarding robes wandering around Gloucester Cathedral (doubling as Hogwarts) and making gooey-eyes at each other as they discover their burgeoning sexuality. After the intitial aforementioned Death Eater attack on the Millennium Bridge a good hour passes before anything remotely exciting happens as the film tells us that Harry fancies Ron's sister, Hermione fancies Ron, Ron fancies some other girl (they can't stop snogging!) and Ron's sister gets groped by the school jock. Who cares? Meanwhile an old Hogwarts teacher called Horace Slughorn (another silly...oh, you get the idea), who taught Voldemort before he became evil, returns to the school and Dumbledore encourages Harry to befriend him to find out whatever secrets he passed on to junior V. Meanwhile slimy Draco Malfoy works in secret with Severus Snape (Alan Rickman given a bit more to do than usual) for reasons which seemed too dreary to commit to memory save the fact that they led to the Shock Death of a major character (whose identity you'll know if you've persevered to the end of the sixth book).

In between all the kissing and cuddling (and God there's a lot of it) there's the odd bit of magic but it's all so low-key and underplayed as to be barely noticable. Even the one obligatory Quidditch scene seems crowbarred into the story just to brighten things up a bit. There's really nothing especially magical about the film and I remain confused as to quite why Voldemort is supposed to be such a threat when Harry's kicked his ass in every film so far. If V is so powerful why can't he just wipe Hogwart's and all its loved-up teens off the face of the Earth and save us all the torture of the last two films in the series?

Ultimately it really all boils down into how much you've bought into the Potter myth. Fans may thrill at seeing Harry growing up and kissing and Ron frothing at the mouth and Hermione reduced to tears when Ron gets off with someone else. Me? Well, I couldn't honestly give a damn and That Death left me as cold-hearted and unmoved as a very cold-hearted not-moved person. Technically David Yates has crafted a big, atmospheric film packed with performances which are better than the material (Broadbent is great as Slughorn but the likes of Mark Williams, Julie Walters, David Bradley and Tim Spall are wasted in cough and spit cameos) but it's cold, soulless and pretty much bereft of a coherent, interesting narrative line. I found it a real drag to get through and I suspect that if I'd ventured into the cinema to see it I'd have either fallen asleep or left halfway through. I've found the previous movies reasonably enjoyable but this one just misses the mark almost entirely and is about as unessential as a franchise movie as one could really ever imagine. Terribly disappointing.

The Twelve Days of Christmas Telly (Plus Two) - Part One

I did it last week. I bet you did too. If you didn't you're sure to find a few minutes to indulge yourself later this week. Go on, you know you want to. You know you need to. Yep, it's that time of year again when we sit down with our hernia-inducing big ol' bumper double festive edition of the Radio Times (other listings magazines are available...but they're all a bit crap frankly, and usually have Stacey Lacey and that red-faced kid off EastEnders on the cover so why would you bother?) with a coloured marker pen and dutifully circle all those TV shows and specials and films and odds and sods we really want, nay need to watch over the festive fortnight. Come on, it's as much of a tradition as Cadbury's creme eggs appearing in the sweet shop by December 4th. But, in the interests of saving you some time as you busy yourself stuffing the tree and wrapping the turkey or whatever it is people do at this time of the year, why not spend a moment or two perusing some of Stuff's own preferred viewing options this Christmas? You know you can trust my impeccable taste - I don't watch any old rubbish after all...

Christmas TV starts this year on December 20th because the Radio Times says so. That's good enough for me. It's a Saturday and I'm out for the evening (more of which later in the'll all end in tears unless it doesn't) but I'll be setting my Virginmedia Digibox thing to record the last episode in the much-improved but still faintly disposable second series of BBC1's fantasy adventure Merlin (also to be reviewed in more depth later this month). If you saw last week's twelfth episode you'll know that Merlin's released the dragon (voiced by John Hurt) which has been lurking for two series beneath Camelot and it don't sound 'appy. Much fire-breathing rampaging is promised. Over on ITV (heretoforth referred as "the sh**** side") there's really naff all on over the whole fortnight; ITV have shot their proverbial ratings bolt with their autumn splurge of horrible talent/reality shows and their cupboards are traditionally bare over Christmas as they don't make much of an effort as there's not much advertising revenue to be had. Saturday promises a 90-minute Take That concert (squee!) and a scintillating cheap old filler entitled Stars on the Street about some famous people who have appeared on Coronation Street. Wow. Over on 5 the morbidly-curious might want to tune into the terrestrial premier of the ill--fated (and now cancelled) remake of Knight Rider. Then again wiser heads might not. Slim pickings generally across what we might lazily call the 'non-terrestrial-channels' (ie not the big five...if I can be as generous as to call the feeble Channel 4 and cheapo 5 'big' in any way) but you really should find time this weekend to catch up with a repeat screening on BBC4 of the last part of Mark Gatiss' Crooked House portmanteau horror from last year and ITV3 are turning the larger part of their weekend schedule to the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes (is there a new movie on the way, by any chance??) which will feature numerous episodes of the classic Granda TV series starring the wonderful Jeremy Brett. ITV don't make 'em like that any more, sadly...

Sunday 20th is where some of the big Christmas guns are wheeled out. Let's get this straight; I don't do 'bonnet' dramas. Yer Persuasions and Emmas and Lark Rises...nope, not for me. But, like most of the country, I was caught up in the spell of Cranford on BBC1 a couple of years ago, five glorious and oddly-subversive hours based on books written by Elizabeth Gaskell. The BBC have done the decent thing and filmed two new ninety-minute episodes, the first of which screens tonight with the second the following Sunday. Over on ITV, in case anyone cares, there's the Christmas specials of long-past-its-sell-by-date quiz Who Wants To be A Millionaire; clapped out it may be but it's a celebrity special and since it features Togmeister Sir Terry Wogan and his (brilliant) upstart Radio 2 breakfast show replacement Chris Evans, it may be worth a look - which is more than can be said for Ad of the Decade which follows on ITV at 8pm which promises/threatens (delete as applicable) to go behind-the-scenes of some of the most popular TV adverts of the last ten years and...oh, I can't be bothered writing any more about such cheap twaddle. A better bet should be The Fattest Man In Britain a new comedy/drama from Caroline (Royle Family) Ahearne and Jeff Pope and starring the ever-reliable Timothy Spall as...well, the fattest man in Britain, presumably. Probably warm-hearted fun but you can't really go wrong with anything written by Ahearne.

December 21st!! Four days to go! What's on the box?? Er...pass. Pretty much your typical Monday night line-up of soaps and more soaps but BBC2 might be worth a look as it's screening a selection of Victoria Wood shows in preparation for her all-new Christmas Eve BBC1 special. Fools may be tempted to watch Nigella's Christmas Kitchen on BBC1 at 7pm or Come Dine With Me Christmas Special on Channel 4 at 8pm but such people aren't welcome here. Be off with you. 5 picks at the bones of Michael Jackson with a probably-sleazy cheap documentary about his last days but a 30th anniversary concert at 10pm might be worth a glance if only to remind us of the supreme talent we lost this year, dammit.

More MJ on Tuesday 22nd as BBC2 screens a Culture Show special at 1.45pm which promises to be rather less salacious than 5's effort the ight before, followed by a 2 hour concert from the star's Dangerous Tour in 1992. Over on BBC1 the frustratingly half-arsed sci-fi/Police drama Paradox fizzles to the end of its first (and, due to poor viewing figures, probably only) series at 9pm (shunted to 10.35pm in Wales) whilst viewers in Wales (including me, ha ha) will watch Ruth Jones's Christmas Cracker somewhere along the line to see what's occuring (geddit?) as the Gavin and Stacey star interviews celebrity chums James Corden, Katherine Jenkins, Michael Ball and Dr Who supremo Russell T Davies. ITV has Coastline Cops and Grimefighters so nothing to see there. Allow me to nudge you in the direction of BBC3 where the second of two unexpected special episodes of my sitcom guilty pleasure Two Pints Of Lager And a Packet of Crisps screens at 10.30pm. I wasn't expecting these new episodes (the first of which is a musical) and there's been no publicity for them so I suspect these will be episodes which will resolve the cliffhangar from series eight and tie up any loose ends for the series generally. It's been fun. Unmissable stuff on BBC4 at 10.30pm as the brilliant, coruscating Charlie Brooker will utterly dismantle the TV of 2009 in a special episode of Screenwipe. Over on BBC2 at 9.30pm there's a second chance to see the Dr Who-themed edition of Never Mind The Buzzcocks hosted by David Tennant and featuring his TV chums Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins. Ood have thought it? Eh? Oh, please yourselves...

Slim, of not positively anorexic, pickings on December 23rd. The slightly-unengaging latest series of Spooks rattles to an end on BBC1 at 9pm but like last year's finale of the first series of Survivors which also aired on 23rd December, it's likely to find most of its audience out carousing despite the fact we're promised an explosive end to the season. The very last episode of underachieving-but-funny BBC sitcom Not Going Out arrives on screen at 10.35pm, over a year after it was made, held back because it's a Christmas episode. Not sure why it didn't make the schedule last year but then who am I to question these things, eh?? During the writing of this piece it's been revealed that the BBC have just un-cancelled Not Going Out and a fourth series will be screened next year. Funny old world, TV. Meanwhile, ITV laughs at you and assumes you're an idiot at 9pm by throwing The Nolans In The Mood For Dancing in your face like a cold bucket of rat sick. Cheers. BBC2 offers a TOTP2 (that's Top Of the Pops Two to you) Christmas special which will undoubtedly regurgitate all those old studio performances of the classic tired Christmas pop hits and there's some other comedy stuff across the evening on the channel including the 1200th screening of the 1975 Porridge Christmas Special. Last episode of series one of the superb True Blood over on Channel 4 at 1pm - I've seen it, it's brilliant and it sets us up nicely for the soon-come second series. Full series review coming soon!

Christmas Eve dawns deep and crisp and even and, unless you're some kind of crazy person and have done all your Christmas shopping, you won't be settling down to watch the box until after the shops have shut. If you're well-organised though, enjoy a sip of mulled wine (I had my first taste a few weeks ago, quite the revelation!) and maybe a mince pie or two and put your feet up in front of any one of a number of happy family films dotted around the schedule all day from the first Narnia movie, Shrek 2,South Pacific, Three Men and a Baby (not sure about that one, actually). The good stuff (such as it is) starts after dark and BBC1 get the first strike in with a comedy triple whammy. At 8pm there's an hour-long My Family (if you like that sort of thing) which sees the Harper family still together and celebrating Christmas in 2039 - with hilarious consequences! 9pm sees Victoria Wood's Midlife Crisis; her first Christmas special in nearly ten years and when Victoria's on top form she's brilliant. Here's hoping. There's a QI special at 10pm with David Tennant guesting; he's on a couple more times over Christmas in case you didn't know. Ignore ITV unless you can't resist grainy footage of old men and cats falling over in a You've Been Framed Christmas Special at 7pm and I have reason to believe there'll be a murrrrder in the 100th edition of reliable old Police warhorse Taggart at 9pm.

Christmas Day dawns deep and crisp and even and with a schedule which suggest you need never stray far from Channel 1 (BBc1) all day. As we cool our heels and wait for the first part of the Davbiod Tennant Doctor Who finale at 6pm, there's a welcome chance to see the man himself in his recent guest role in kid's spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures as BBc1 screens a compialtion repeat of 'The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith' at 11.15am. The Christmas Day edition of the long-defunct Top of the Pops has lost its cachet since the parent show was killed off and with the execrable Fearne "wow, that was amazing" Cotton and Reggie "I was in Dr Who" Yates still co-presenting, this rundown of reality show chart toppers and incomprehensible r'n'b artists miming their big hits from 2009 doesn't quite have the appeal it might once have had but it's nice to have on in the background while the turkey's being sliced up. Post Queen's Speech the afternoon is, as usual, given over to family movies and this year BBC1 screen the terrestrial premier of Pixar's The Incredibles followed by the third screening of the short Shrek The Halls and over on ITV1 it's Robert Zemeckis' slightly creepy The Polar Express followed by all-singin', all-dancin' penguins in Happy Feet. I'll most likely be snoozin'...

5.30pm sees BBc1 screen a specially-comissioned short animation called The Gruffallo featuring the vocal talents of James Corden and Robbie Coltrane. BBC1's must-see schedule launches into full effect at 6pm with part one of 'The End of Time' starring David Tennant in the first chunk of his farewell adventure. Unmissable, obviously, and surely a candidate for the highest rated show of the least until part two screens on New Year's Day. Inevitably both BBC1 and ITV1 feel obliged to bless us hour-long servings of misery in the Big Three soaps and, hilariously, ITV1 honestly think that Vernon "*********" Kay in All-Star Mr and Mrs is acceptable on Chrisatams night. Memo to ITV - it ain't. BBC1 offer us a Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special which will be strictly off-limits as far as Stuff is concerned but there's a comedy triple whammy with a brand new hour-long episode of The Royle Family starring all the usual gang, this time off on their holidays. I can't help thinking the Royles have lost a little bit of their appeal since they started going out and about and away from the couch but this is surely to be a comedy highlight for the season. The penultimate episode of series three of Gavin and Stacey screens at 10pm wityh the multi-talented Catherine Tate delivering Nan's Christmas Special featuring That Man Tennant again in a pastiche of A Christmas Carol. ITV1 offer us a new two-hour Poirot starring David Suchet at 9pm; theres a time and a place for shows like this and Christmas Day isn't it, sadly.

So there we go - the first seven days of Christmas (or soemthing). Enjoy what you do and watch. Join Stuff for a look at the best TV in that dead period between Christmas and the new Year and, of course, January 1st itself. Wonder if there'll be anything interesting on New Year's Day?

UK TV Chart - w/e 29th November 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 29th November 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) The X Factor (ITV1).....................13.90 *
2) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1).............9.73
3) Coronation Street (ITV1).................9.43 *
4) I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!
(ITV1).................9.09 *
5) EastEnders (BBC1)........................8.45 *
6) Harry Hill's TV Burp (ITV, Sat)..........7.04
7) Emmerdale (ITV1).........................7.03 *
8) Gavin and Stacey (BBC1)..................6.41
9) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)..........6.25
10) Countryfile (BBC1).......................6.11
11) Top Gear (BBC2)..........................6.10
12) Merlin (BBC1)............................6.02
13) Jimmy's Food Factory (BBC1)..............5.77
14) Holby City (BBC1)........................5.76
15) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1).................5.74
16) Waterloo Road (BBC1).....................5.40
17) Spooks (BBC1)............................5.18
18) Casualty (BBC1)..........................5.14
19) All New You've Been Framed! (ITV1).......5.10
20) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)...........5.08

BBC: 13 ITV: 7

Monday, 14 December 2009

Another chance to read....a Torchwood Christmas story...

'Tis (nearly) the season to be jolly and in the spirit of much TV over Christmas (ie loads of repeats) I decided to dust this one down and drag it out of the Archives. Written and posted here last Christmas and deleted early in the New Year, here, for the delectation of those who may not have read it, is Stuff's take on a very Torchwood Christmas. The events of this little yarn are set before this year's 'Children of Earth' mini-series, natch...

Torchwood: O Christmas Tree

by Paul Mount

'A what? You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Captain Jack Harkness stared incredulously at Gwen Cooper, standing on the opposite side of his cluttered desk in his office in the cavernous Torchwood Hub deep beneath Roald Dahl Plasse in Cardiff Bay. Gwen realised that she’d instinctively put her hands behind her back and suddenly she was back at school, facing that formidable old harridan Mrs Sandford, her head mistress, as she took the rap for some juvenile misdemeanour or other. Pushing Mary Craig’s stupid curly head down the toilet, ah, that was the best one… Gwen shook herself; this is silly, I'm a grown woman now - a grown married woman - and it’s a perfectly reasonable request in the circumstances.

'Just a tree, Jack. Just a Christmas tree.’ She paused, considered. ‘And maybe some tinsel. And some lights. A fairy too, if you like…’

Jack stretched back in his chair and Gwen was sure there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. ‘If I like? Gwen, Torchwood is a top secret security organisation…’ Gwen raised an eyebrow. ‘…a secret security organisation…’ Both Gwen’s eyebrows were raised and her eyes were wide almonds. Jack sighed. '…an organisation. We don’t celebrate Christmas or any other pagan festival you care to mention.’

‘Maybe you don’t but I do,’ said Gwen. ‘And Ianto – probably. Look, I’m not suggesting tearing the place down and rebuilding it like Santa’s Grotto…just a bit of colour. For Christmas. I thought that after everything that’s happened…’ Gwen knew she’d touched a nerve and she knew that, despite his sometimes off-hand exterior, Jack was still as raw as her and Ianto. It had been less than a year since their team-mates had died and although life was going on, it was going on with difficulty and sometimes things weren’t said which should be. ‘Just to raise our spirits…’ Gwen sensed she might be fighting a battle already lost. But then Jack’s smooth, chiselled features split into a broad grin.

‘I’m surprised you don’t want to run a radio phone-in competition and invite the local orphans in for a look around,’ he said.

Gwen nodded. ‘Well, I’ve got a friend at Red Dragon who owes me a favour…’ she said.

Jack wagged a finger in her direction. He was still smiling good-naturedly. ‘Don’t push it, PC Cooper. Okay, you’ve caught me in a good mood. Things are quiet, the Rift seems to have shut up shop for Christmas so…yeah. Why not? But don’t go crazy. Just a tree and some…balls. And no spray-on snow, it never comes off.’

Gwen squealed, jumped up and down and clapped her hands together. She felt like reaching across the desk and giving Jack a wet kiss but thought it best not to give him any ideas he didn’t already have. ‘Thanks, Jack, thanks so much. It’ll be discreet and under-stated, you know that. I’ve got boxes of stuff at home I can bring in; Rhys got a bit over-excited – you know, our first married Christmas…’

Jack waved her way. ‘Okay, okay, whatever…’ he said. ‘You’ll be wanting time off over Christmas next.’ Gwen, beaming from ear to ear, made for the door out of the office. ‘Oh, and Gwen…none of those long, stretchy balloons. Ianto gets ideas…’

‘Jack..!” said Gwen, mock-scandalised. No sooner had she opened the door to Jack’s office than Ianto, immaculate as ever in sharp suit and tie, hurried in, a worried look on his face.

‘Jack, Gwen, you’d better take a look at this.’ Ianto hurried over to a small TV monitor on a free-standing table nearby. He turned it on and a picture swam into view.

Jack and Gwen exchanged puzzled glances. ‘Jane McDonald?’ said Jack. ‘Feisty girl but I don't see what...’

‘No, not that…’ said Ianto irritably. He grabbed the remote from Jack’s desk and jabbed at it until a much more vivid picture appeared on the screen. It was a local news broadcast although for a moment Gwen thought she was looking at deleted scenes from ‘Cloverfield’. The camera was shaking, sweeping back and forth across a confused street scene of fleeing, screaming people. A red banner across the bottom of the screen read ‘Jason Rhys, BBC Wales News, Live from Cardiff.’ The reporter’s face, flushed and panic-stricken, suddenly appeared on the screen. He was on the move and the cameraman was clearly struggling to keep up with him. ‘

'What’s going on?’ said Gwen. Ianto jabbed at the remote again and the TV’s volume increased although it was hard to hear what the reporter was saying above the background soundtrack of screaming and banging and crashing.

‘…the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed, even here in Cardiff where the incredible's fairly commonplace. The Police are trying to evacuate the area and cordon the city centre off but their efforts are being hindered by the sheer numbers of Christmas shoppers on the streets and the absolute pandemonium being caused as they run for their lives. It’s really the most amazing spectacle and…we’ll try and bring you some shots of the scene before we’re…’ A Police officer appeared in view, trying to block the camera as it swept away from the reporter. A gruff, thick Welsh voice cut in. ‘Put that bloody thing down and get out of here before I confiscate it and run you in…’

But the cameraman was nothing if not a professional. He turned the camera in a quick arc and suddenly it was pointing directly along a busy, cluttered city centre street lined on either side with shops and storefronts…and in the middle of the pedestrianised street something huge and green was moving and swaying and all around its base were racing, panicking human beings scurrying in all directions…

Jack craned to look at the screen. The picture suddenly cut off and returned to the studio where a visibly-ruffled presenter was confirming that no-one had any idea what was going on in Cardiff city centre. ‘What the Hell’s that about?’ said Jack.

Ianto stood back from the television and gazed at Jack and Gwen. ‘It’s the Christmas tree,’ he said. 'The one at the bottom of Churchill Way. It’s come to life and it’s rampaging down Queen Street.’

Gwen’s mouth fell open. Jack was already shrugging on his greatcoat and checking that his Webley pistol was fully loaded. ‘This is more like it,’ he said with gusto. ‘Time for Torchwood to get festive.’ He clapped a hand on the disbelieving Gwen’s shoulder. ‘Come on, Gwen. Let's go rockin’ around the Christmas tree.’ And he was off, haring out of his office and racing down the steps towards the clanking circular entrance hatch to the Hub.

Ianto stared at Gwen for a second. ‘We ought to…you know…go with him?’ said Ianto quietly.

Gwen shook herself. ‘Yes. Yes, right…’ At the door Gwen turned and looked at him. ‘Did you say…Christmas tree?’ she said.

Ianto nodded solemnly. ‘I suppose that, strictly speaking, some sort of pun’s called for,’ he said. His brow furrowed. ‘I can’t actually think of anything at the moment…’

‘Ianto! Gwen! Get your asses moving!’ came the voice of Captain Jack Harkness from not far away.

They hurried out of Jack’s office. ‘This is all a bit crackers,’ said Gwen with a nervous smile.

Ianto winced. ‘Poor quality,’ he said. ‘Best leave it to me in future, don’t you think?’

‘I think you’re right,’ said Gwen. As they rushed out of the Hub, bristling with pistols and rifles and anything else they could grab from the Armoury which might possibly give them some advantage against a living Christmas tree, Gwen had, perhaps not surprisingly, forgotten about her plans to deck Torchwood’s halls…

Churchill Way was closed off but a quick flash of Gwen’s Torchwood pass got the SUV waved through the Police ‘do not cross’ line and seconds later Jack was pulling the vehicle up, with a theatrical squeal of tires, at the end of the road and alongside the Zavvi store. Jack, Gwen and Ianto tumbled out of the SUV. Dozens of yellow-jacketted Police officers were milling around and, somewhere around the corner of the Nat West building they could hear a chaos of confusing sounds – screams, crashing, crunching…an odd guttural roaring sound.

Torchwood surveyed the situation. Gwen yanked down the hem of her leather jacket and saw a familiar wiry, curly haired Police figure loping over to them, shaking his head. He jabbed a finger at Gwen. ‘I knew it,’ he said. ‘I knew this was one of your spooky-dos,’ he said.

‘This is nothing to do with us, Andy. You know it never is,’ said Gwen. She and PC Andy went back a long way; it often seemed that whenever Torchwood came calling, anywhere in Cardiff, PC Andy was there to accuse them of being responsible for whatever had brought them to the scene. Jack was gazing intently at PC Andy. ‘PC Davison, isn’t it? Bring us up to speed.’

‘Well,’ said Andy slowly, savouring his moment of superiority. ‘Apparently it was just after lunchtime. Chaos, it was, bloody chaos. The thing just sort of…uprooted itself. Demolished Santa’s grotto.’ He nodded towards the flattened collection of wooden struts and planks piled up nearby. A dazed looking man in a Santa outfit was sitting on a bench, shaking his head in despair. Garishly-decorated presents were scattered all over the damp pavement. ‘It’s halfway up Queen Street, on its way to the Castle.’

‘Is anybody hurt?’ asked Jack.

‘Lumps and bumps, I think,’ said PC Andy. ‘Most of it caused by people going crazy with panic.’

‘That I can understand,’ said Ianto sagely.

A stout red-faced middle-aged Police Officer ambled over and stood in front of Jack, hands on his hips. ‘And you are?’ he said accusingly.

Jack grinned. ‘Out of your league, I’m afraid,’ he said.

Gwen smiled nervously and stepped in front of Jack. ‘We’re Torchwood,’ she said. ‘This is probably more our sort of thing than yours, er…’

‘Llewellyn,’ said the officer. ‘Inspector Llewellyn. Yes, Torchwood; I’ve heard of you lot. You’ve got a lot to answer for, I understand.’

Jack bristled. ‘Now wait a minute, if it wasn’t for…’

Gwen put a hand to Jack’s chest. ‘Leave it, Jack, this isn’t the time or the place.’ She turned back to the Inspector and smiled. ‘Is the area cleared?’

The Inspector looked over at PC Davison, hovering nearby. ‘More or less,’ said the younger officer. ‘Those who aren’t out of the area are hiding in Next or HMV. There’s a sale on…’

Gwen turned to Jack. ‘So we can go in. Any idea what’s happened, Jack?’

Jack’s pistol was already in his hand, his eyes were gleaming in anticipation. ‘Something weird, Gwen. And weird’s what we do. Excuse me Sergeant…’

Jack brushed past the huffing Inspector and strode off towards Queen Street. Ianto was unloading unwieldly pulse rifles from the back of the SUV and he tossed one over to Gwen who caught it expertly. Gwen smiled demurely at Inspector Llewellyn.

‘The Army boys are on their way from St Athan,’ said the Inspector. ‘I don’t know what you think you can do that they can’t.’

‘Oh you’d be surprised,’ said Ianto as he set off after Gwen and Jack.

‘I’m sorry but that’s just…bizarre,’ said Gwen. Torchwood were standing at the junction of Queen Street and Churchill Way and the three of them were staring up through the shopping precinct where, a couple of hundreds yards away, swaying and listing and lurching drunkenly, a fifty-foot Christmas tree, trailing tinsel and baubles, was moving steadily between the high-walled Victorian buildings of the city centre and heading in the direction of Cardiff Castle and St. Mary St. ‘It’s…ridiculous,’ she said.

‘The Universe is a pretty ridiculous place Gwen, don’t let anybody ever tell you otherwise,’ said Jack, looking across from WH Smith, Game, Clinton Cards and Next, behind the firmly-sealed doors of which dozens of terrified staff and shoppers were craning to get a better view.

‘But a Christmas tree coming to life?’ persisted Gwen. ‘That’s just beyond, isn’t it?’

Jack pulled a face. ‘I’m told something similar’s happened before,’ he said. ‘So let’s see if we can put a stop to it.’

‘All guns blazing? Are we going to shoot down a tree?’ said Ianto, stepping forward and locking and loading a huge chunky pulse rifle.

‘Wait a minute,’ said Gwen. ‘Look, Jack, look…up at the top of the tree…I think it’s on fire already…’

Jack produced a small pair of binoculars from inside his greatcoat. ‘That’s not fire…’ he said. Through the binoculars he could see an odd haze, a strange, shifting mist, gathering at the peak of the tree where once had perched an ornate plastic fairy. ‘It’s proof…’

‘Of what?’ said Ianto. Jack pocketed the binoculars.

‘Possession,’ said Jack. ‘Something’s animated the tree, something that’s come through the Rift.’

‘A possessed Christmas tree?’ said Ianto. ‘What’s the point in that?’

‘Probably none,’ said Jack. ‘The thing…consciousness, life-essence, whatever it is…must have just blundered through the Rift and animated the nearest, biggest thing in its path. The tree’s alive itself in a sense, that’s probably what attracted it.’

Gwen turned away from Jack and looked back towards the tree, dragging its stumpy roots along the street and sending waste bins and benches hurtling in every direction. ‘So an alien has come to Earth and taken over a Christmas tree,’ she said. ‘Rhys was right. He said Torchwood would drive me mad.’

‘Time for nervous breakdowns later on,’ said Jack. ‘We need to get whatever’s in there out before it can do any serious damage.’

‘And how do we do that?’ queried Gwen.

Jack grinned at her. ‘Don’t you believe in talking to plants, Gwen?’ He set off up Queen Street towards the base of the tree.

Jack pulled up short a good ten feet away from the tree. Looming high above it was swaying and rolling as it moved slowly forward, its roots crunching across the tarmac, its branches rustling as if caught in an unseasonal breeze. The ethereal mist at its top seemed more distinct from this distance and the tree itself seemed to be uttering, from somewhere or other, perhaps from within every fibre of its being, a strange throaty growl… Jack decided on the direct approach. He cupped his hands to his mouth.

‘Hey, you up there, hey you…’ The tree carried on its ungainly way. ‘Hey, I’m talking to you…’ The tree seemed to pause. ‘Thank you. Politeness costs nothing, even on Earth.’ The tree shivered and roared. Jack tried to remember those negotiation skills classes from his days at the Time Agency; dammit, if only he’d paid more attention instead of playing footsie with John…

‘Now look, I understand that you’re a long way from home – probably – wherever home is. And I understand that you don’t realise what you’re doing, what you’ve done. But you’re just causing trouble where there doesn’t need to be any. You see, here on Earth, trees – like the thing you’re inhabiting – don’t get up and move around. It’s not the way things are here. So here’s the deal; my friends and I have got guns; really, very big guns. We don’t want to use them but we will if we have to because it’s our job to protect this city and its people. So I’m giving you the chance, right here and right now, to…get out of your tree and go back where you came from. No-one needs to get hurt, least of all you…’

The tree continued to quiver and undulate. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Jack saw one of its branches suddenly twist and move and snake out from the body of the tree and hurtle towards him like a fist. ‘Woah…’ Jack threw himself to one side, rolling and turning, as the tree-tentacle swept down and smashed into the tarmac where Jack had been standing. Concrete and earth were tossed up into the air. Jack, crouching nearby alongside a three-sided metal refuse bin, glowered up at the tree. The mist at its peak was whirling agitatedly.

'You really didn’t want to do that,’ growled Jack. Another branch of the tree suddenly flashed into view, arching out from the rear of the tree. Jack moved again and the branch caught the refuse bin and hurled it into the display window of Boots which shattered in a rain of glass. People inside the store were screaming.

Jack was on his feet and rushing back the way he’d come. Gwen and Ianto, both carrying pulse rifles, were running towards him. Jack glanced back and saw that the tree was thrashing from side to side, still somehow emitting that inhuman roar, its branches flailing like living things, smashing windows, upending benches and street displays.

‘You’ve maddened it,’ shouted Gwen above the hubbub, dropping to one knee and fixing the body of the tree in her sights as Jack, breathless, stumbled back towards them.

‘No, Gwen…’ he called out but it was too late.

The rifle throbbed in Gwen’s hands and a bolt of concentrated light exploded from its barrel and sizzled through the air, detonating in a shower of fireworks somewhere in the middle of the body of the tree. The tree roared its fury and began thrashing and lashing out with even more violence than before. The whole tree was moving, turning, its roots crunching on gravel as the lumbering body turned its attention back to the Torchwood trio crouched down below.

‘Now that’s maddened it,’ snapped Jack, tearing the pulse rifle out of Gwen’s grasp. ‘We can’t just blaze away at it, not in a confined space like this. It’s mad, powerful - maybe even scared; it could bring the whole city down.’

‘So what do we do?’ shrieked Gwen ‘Reasoning with it obviously doesn’t work…’

Jack was fumbling with the dial settings on the side of the pulse rifle. ‘We can be subtle…for a change. All-right…’ Jack turned, dropped to one knee, hefted the rifle. ‘We go sonic,’ he said. ‘Sonic is good. I’ve got a friend who swears by sonic.’

‘What are you doing, Jack?’ said Ianto.

‘I’m going to try and evict our friend up there,’ said Jack. He pulled the rifle’s trigger and the device began to emit a low whoop-whoop sound. Gwen and Ianto clapped their hands to their ears and stepped back as the sound crept into their brains; deep, low, monotonous, a steady sonic pulse… The tree was still raging high above them, its branches now supernaturally-animated, as if they had a life of their own, whipping and lashing and smashing windows in both directions. One tentacle swept perilously near Jack who neatly side-stepped, always keeping the pulse rifle trained on the tree’s body.

‘God, Jack, the noise…’ called Gwen, her face contorting with pain. ‘Nothing’s happening…’

‘Give it time!’ shouted Jack. ‘Just a few…more…seconds…’ Even Jack’s face was starting to twist in agony as the steady, low, throbbing pulse of sound reverberated deep into the very core of his being. Just a few more seconds…

At the top of the tree the shimmer of mist became thicker, more viscous, more solid…the tree itself began to quiver, not with its usual frantic thrashing but with a strange sub-molecular vibration…the tree seemed to be enveloped in a new haze, as if it was being slowly, subtly, pulled apart…

‘Ha ha, that’s it baby, come on, do your stuff…’ shouted Jack as he saw the first signs of the fruits of his labour. Windows nearby were shattering of their own accord and he could hear more people nearby screaming. Just a few more seconds…just a few more…

Then there came another scream – a low, unearthy roar like some terrible wind. Tears streaming down his face, veins bulging in his forehead, Jack looked up and saw that the mist at the top of the tree had turned into a funnel of smoke, like a tornado, whirling out from the top of the tree and shooting up into the grey afternoon sky. ‘Come on, come on…’

Suddenly a whistling sound, like a kettle, and a great rush of wind…and it was over. The mist has spread across the sky like a deep dark cloud – and then it had gone. Jack wrenched at the controls of the red hot pulse rifle and the painful throbbing sound was cut off in an instant. The tree, standing there as if was about to fall apart, suddenly righted itself and quietly, without fuss, slumped to one side and came to rest against the Queen Street entrance to the Queens Arcade, its branches rustling peacefully in a low breeze.

Jack, gasping, dropped the pulse rifle and fell to his knees. His head was buzzing and somewhere in the middle of the sound of his brain vibrating he could hear sirens and voices… Gwen and Ianto were at his side, helping him to his feet. He could see their mouths moving, the anxiety written on their faces, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying… That damned buzzing…

By the time they’d led him back towards Churchill Way his hearing and his equilibrium were returning. People were emerging warily from the shops and the Police were already swarming up Queen Street. Inspector Llewellyn hurried by, scowling, and muttered something which, in the fug in Jack’s brain, sounded like “-king Torchwood lunatics” but he really couldn’t swear to it.

Ianto sat Jack on one of the few un-upended benches and gave him a bottle of water proferred by someone who emerged from WH Smith’s. Gwen was talking to PC Davison. ‘Are you all right, Jack?’ Ianto said through the buzzing.

Jack swigged back the water and mopped his brow. It was surprising how quickly his constitution was able to get him back to normal. He grinned at Ianto and ruffled his hand through the younger man’s hair.

Gwen came up and crouched in front of him. ‘What the Hell did you do, Jack?’

‘Like I said, shooting at it would have probably have gotten us nowhere,’ said Jack.

‘So you went sonic, yes, we gathered that,’ said Ianto. ‘But what does that mean in the real world?’

‘It means,’ grinned Jack, ‘that I used the sonic settings on the rifle. I vibrated the molecules of the tree to the point of displacement – I vibrated it apart. Whatever that thing was inside the tree, there was nothing for it to be inside. The tree ceased to exist as a tree, just for a few seconds – it was just the sum of its parts. Without a physical entity, the thing inside found itself homeless.’

‘That sounds ominous,’ said Gwen, staring up at the glowering sky. ‘So you may have made things worse? Who knows where that thing will turn up next?’

Jack got to his feet. ‘No, really, don’t thank me,’ he said wryly. ‘I’m hoping it was so disorientated by being thrown out so quickly that it went straight back through the Rift. I’m hoping…’

‘And if it didn’t?’ said Gwen.

‘Then we’ve got an intelligence which can bring inanimate objects to life loose in Cardiff.’ Jack touched Gwen’s chin. ‘My gift to the city.’

The street was now becoming thronged with people again and there was an excited buzz of chatter in the air. ‘Ianto, get a cover story out there – something about an animatronic tree going haywire, you know the score…’

‘I’m on it,’ said Ianto, touching his earpod communicator which he had already patched in to the Hub’s computer communications network.

Jack put an arm around Gwen’s shoulder and allowed her to escort him back to the SUV. ‘Come on, lighten up, we beat the tree. What’s the worst that could happen next?’

Gwen rolled her eyes. ‘I can’t even begin to try and imagine it…’

‘Let’s go home, you’ve got work to do.’

‘I have?’

‘Oh yes. Christmas decorations, remember?’

As they turned the corner back into Churchill Way, Gwen glanced over her shoulder along Queen Street to where the Christmas tree was sprawled across the street, intrigued shoppers prodding it and wandering around it.

‘Yes…well…maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all,’ said Gwen. ‘Maybe I’ll just stick a sprig of mistletoe somewhere instead…’

Jack laughed. ‘Now that’s my kind of Christmas…’

Copyright Paul Mount 2008

Monday, 7 December 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 22nd November 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 22nd November 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures. 'Rpt' denotes repeated broadcast or film

1) The X Factor (ITV1).....................14.27 *
2) Children In Need (BBC1).................10.18
3) Coronation Street (ITV1).................9.68 *
4) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1).............9.59
5) I'm A Celebrity...Get me Out Of Here!
(ITV1).................9.51 *
6) EastEnders (BBC1)........................9.18 *
7) Emmerdale (ITV1).........................7.30 *
8) Harry Hill's TV Burp (ITV1, Sat).........7.25
9) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)..........6.65
10) Children in Need Rocks The Albert Hall
11) Merlin (BBC1)............................6.30
12) Top Gear (BBC2)..........................6.19
13) Countryfile (BBC1).......................6.15
14) Celebrating The Carpenters (ITV1)........6.04
15) Holby City (BBC1)........................5.78
16) Casualty (BBC1)..........................5.69
17) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1).................5.57
18) Spooks (BBC1)............................5.26
19) Waterloo Road (BBC1).....................5.10
20) Jimmy's Food Factory (BBC1)..............5.00

BBC: 13 ITV: 7

Chart chat: A convincing win for the BBC in this week's chart with the lion's share of entries and whilst ITV supporters (there are some) would point to the huge numbers posted by ITV's flagship talent/reality shows (and Coronation Street), the worry for ITV is that most of these shows will be over with by Christmas (and their winners forgotten by the New Year!) and there's not much left in ITV's cupboard to maintain their autumn momentum. Whilst I question the wisdom of BBC1 holding off some of their big guns for the New Year - the early part of 2010 will see the return of Hustle, Survivors, Outnumbered, Ashes To Ashes amongst others - ITV seem to throw all their 'big guns' across September to December leaving them looking bare throughout the rest of the year. ITV will fizzle out around mid-December (their Christmas schedule is atrocious, frankly - All Star Mr and Mrs on Christmas night???) giving BBC1 a clear run at mopping up the audience over the festive season and it seems likely the Corporation will carry that momentum into 2010.

Stuff coming soon: The return of 'Discovering Classic Movies' with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paradox, Spooks, True Blood, Misfits and other current TV dramas, Dr Who; Dreamland animation reviewed, Paranormal Activity reviewed, Avatar reviewed and a look at some of the highlights (and lowlights) of Christmas telly.

Monday, 30 November 2009

TV Update: Dr Who and Torchwood news...

As we anxiously twiddle our thumbs and glance at our watches, mumbling irritably "Isn't it Christmas Day yet?" and wondering why we can't see that long-awaited/dreaded (delete as applicable) David Tennant Dr Who finale "The End of Time" (parts one and two) now, the series rolls on regardless. If you think guff like The X Factor and I'm a No-Mark, Get Me Back On The telly are dominating the press just now, just wait till a few days before Christmas when everyone in the UK will be aware of Dr Who as it approaches the end of its most successful period ever and moves cautiously towards a new era in 2010. Some Dr Who news coming up...but even more exciting, it seems that something many of us have quietly hoped for since July is now more or less official!!

Jack's Back!!! It was pretty much a no-brainer after the awesome creative and ratings sucesss of this summer's mini-series 'Children of Earth' but it look like those rumours are now pretty much confirmed - not least by the man himself, John Barrowman. The actor appeared on the Steve Wright Radio 2 show this afternoon (30th November) and when pressed on the future of Captain Jack Harkness, Barrowman revealed that although he doubts that the character will appear alongisde 11th Doctor Matt Smith (to the extent that Barrowman's not been asked or approached yet), it looks like Torchwood itself will be returning for a full 13-part series to enter production early next year. There're been some pretty big hints these last few weeks with series creator Russell T Davies talking of 'top secret meetings' with the BBC re the series and whilst Barrowman's comments aren't exactly official confirmation, as the star of the show he's probably more in the know than most about what's going on and as I'm aware he's keeping his schedule free for the larger part of next year, a long production run of Torchwood seems more than on the cards. Yhis is great news, of course; even after its much-improved second series most would have been a bit indifferent about the show carrying on but the mini-series absolutely nailed what the show can be and should always have been and it'll be interesting to see what a new longer run - and what a vote of confidence a 13-episode series is in these cash-strapped TV production days - can do for the show in a doubtless hugely-rebooted format. Colour me excited.

*************************DOCTOR WHO GETS MINTED*********************

As fans it's easy to get blase about the success of Dr Who; we always knew how good it was, we just had to patiently wait for the right people to come along to make it the right way and for the public to embrace it the way the rest of us always have. And now, after all the BAFTAs and the NTAs and the Hugos and the huge ratings and the general wide-acclaim the series is still getting, five years after its rebirth, one of the most unexpected and heart-warming honours...a series of commemorative medals from the Royal Mail! Here's the deal...

The Royal Mint has unveiled a new series of medals inspired by Doctor Who and featuring David Tennant's likeness.

The limited edition medals, which have just gone on sale, also feature the Doctor's robot dog K-9, the Tardis and his infamous enemies - the Daleks.

They mark the first time that television characters have featured on a Royal Mint medal.

Dave Knight, Director of Commemorative Coin, praised the show's "enduring appeal", calling the Doctor "timeless".

Head of UK Licensing at BBC Worldwide Richard Hollis said: "David Tennant's performance as the Doctor has been applauded and celebrated across the country and these medals are a fantastic way for fans to collect a lasting memento."



Scotland's Daily Record newspaper has been running a poll amongst its readers to find the greatest Scotsman ever. In what Tennant himself would probably describe as the most surreal of all the surreal moments he's experienced in the last few years, David Tennant's name has been on the shortlist alongside such figures as Robert Burns and William Wallace! Madness! My spies tell me that Tennant has just come fifth in this oddest of polls.

**********DOCTOR WHO ON BLU RAY AND DVD*****************************
You (and I) won't have too long to wait to get hold of Tennant's finale (and, indeed, the just-screened and rather wonderful 'Waters of Mars') after their Christmas transmission as the BBC are rush-releasing the stories on DVD and Blu Ray early in January. No word yet on any extras but expect the BBC3 'Confidentials' to be included at least. Online retailers have released what's likely to be a 'placeholder' image, reproduced here because I just like Tennant's hero pose. I'll miss him. Sob.

***********DOCTOR WHO FILMING CONTINUES*****************************
But brave heart, fans! As one Time Lord snuffs it, another (well, the same one) is reborn. Filming is now about halfway done on Matt Smith's first season of 14 episodes (13 regular series episodes and next year's Christmas special) and the team are currently spending two weeks - two weeks!! - in Crotia filming what look to be a set of very lavish episodes clearly set in the past. Photos are out there on the web and they look pretty impressive, with the TARDIS parked up on the quayside and a coterie of Venitian-type extras (rumour has it the story is about vampires in Venice) milling around,as well as Smith in his usual costume and his companions Amy (Kaen Gillen) and Rory. Who? Ahhh.... Filming is also underway on Richard Curtis' episode which stars actor Tony Curran (Google him!) as Vincent Van Gogh. Season 5/1 is shaping up very nicely indeed...

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 15th November 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 15th November 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures. 'Rpt' denotes repeated broadcast or film

1) The X Factor (ITV1).........................14.23 *
2) I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here(ITV1)..10.51
3) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1)................10.10
4) Dr Who: The Waters of Mars (BBC1)............9.94
5) Coronaiton Street (ITV1).....................9.55 *
6) EastEnders (BBC1)............................8.82 *
7) Collision (ITV1).............................7.45 *
8) Emmerdale (ITV1).............................7.38 *
9) Top Gear (BBC2)..............................6.41
10) Merlin (BBC1)................................6.16
11) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)..............6.02
12) Holby City (BBC1)............................5.98
13) Harry Hill's TV Burp (Sat, ITV1).............5.97
14) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1).....................5.85
15) Countryfile (BBC1)...........................5.82
16) Waterloo Road (BBC1).........................5.78
17) International Football: Eng v Spain (ITV1)...5.60
18) Casualty (BBC1)..............................5.51
19) P**** M*****'s Life Stories (ITV1)...........5.14
20) Spooks (BBC1)................................5.11

BBC: 10 ITV: 10

UK TV Chart - w/e 8th November 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 8th November 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures. 'Rpt' denotes repeated broadcast or film

1) The X Factor (ITV1).....................14.03 *
2) Doc Martin (ITV1).......................10.28
3) Coronation Street (ITV1).................9.72 *
4) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1).............9.46
5) EastEnders (BBC1)........................8.20 *
6) Emmerdale (ITV1).........................7.16 *
7) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)..........6.88
8) Benidorm (ITV1)..........................6.80
9) Murderland (ITV1)........................6.56
10) Spooks (BBC1)............................6.55
11) Countryfile (BBC1).......................6.41
12) Harry Hill's TV Burp (Sat, ITV1).........6.04
13) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1).................6.03
14) Waterloo Road (BBC1).....................5.97
15) Jimmy's Food Factory (BBC1)..............5.90
16) Holby City (BBC1)........................5.77
17) Merlin (BBC1)............................5.62
18) Royal British Legion Festival of
Remembrance (BBC1)..5.43
19) Casualty (BBC1)..........................5.40
20) UEFA Champions League Football(Wed,ITV1).5.31

BBC: 11 ITV: 9

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Think of the worst film you've ever seen. Go on. Now imagine one ten times worse. Then think of one twice as bad again. Congratulations; you're getting closer to appreciating just how mind-rottingly appalling Michael Bay's 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' is but just in case you're tempted to rent or buy it just for a laugh or because, like me, you thought the first one was okay in a noisey sort of way, let me try to talk you out of it for the sake of your own sanity. Sometimes I'm willing to suffer through these things so you don't have to. I'm that sort of a man...

So yes, I admit it; I enjoyed the first 'Transformers' movie a couple of years back. It was loud, brash, unsubtle and it was basically about a bunch of robots based on toys (thanks, Hasbro!) hitting each other as a bunch of humans run away around their feet. It was too long, of course, and I had to rush to get to get back to my car in the multi-storey car park which was closing at midnight but....oh, sorry, gone off the point a bit there. But 'Transformers' movies do that to you; you tend to wander off and think about something else because, let's face it, there's naff all to really think about in the films themselves. But the new one, though...oh, that takes it a step further. Mindless can be okay, mindless can be fun; but when mindless becomes insulting, when mindless becomes genuinely offensive in almost every way imaginable , then we've got a film in trouble and, in Michael Bay, a film-maker who's lost control of his own critical faculties and who, it appears, has now decided to treat his audiences like utter imbeciles.

So what's the plot? Damn, I was hoping you wouldn't ask... 'Revenge of the Fallen' picks up more or less where the first film took off; the human race and the Transformers co-exist uneasily but when the hero of the first film, the ridiculously-named Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf who throughout the entire film wears the look of a man who has realised that signing on for this moronic sequel was A Very Bad Idea Indeed) leaves home for college, leaving his implausibly pouty mechanic girlfriend Mikaela (the spectacularly-wooden Megan Fox) behind to pine for him. Sam, it appears, is in possession of a fragment of some extra-terrestrial McGuffin which, it transpires, is the key to a huge doomsday weapon hidden in the pyramids in Egypt (obviously) which can destroy the Earth and blah de blah. Some big toy robot in space comes to Earth, smashes stuff up and, miraculously, the cast (including Sam's witless comedy relief parents) all end up in Egypt where they run around screaming and covering their ears. The end.

It's not just that 'Revenge of the Fallen' has the sort of storyline a three-month old infant would have dismissed as too unsophisticated, it's that, special effects apart (and let's face it, special effects are really the sole raison d'etre of films like this), the whole production is just utterly misbegotten. For a film which is really aimed at kids the script is often grubby and inappropriate (look, the irritating little robot is humping Mikaela's leg and saying "Say my name! Say my name!"), the humour is tired and asinine (Sam's Mum gets high on drugs at college, what a hoot!) and two streetwise jive-ass Transformers are probably the most racially-offensive non-existent motion picture characters since Jar Jar Binks in some 'Star Wars' film or other. The first hour of the film rushes by in a blur of mild disinterest but when John Turturro's conspriacy-theory character reappears from the first film and Sam's pointless college sidekick tags along for the ride and swiftly becomes more annoying than everyone else in the movie, we can see that here's a film which is spiralling horribly out of control, going nowhere fast and very, very noisily.

And ultimately, it is all about the noise, the sound and fury signifying nothing at all. All the way through the film things explode and hurtle through the air, robots clatter and crash together in scenes edited so tightly it's hard to work out what's doing what to what else (even if we cared) and the final robot mash-up in Egypt, hugely spectacular and a triumph for CGI as it is, is probably the most boring and unengaging action climax to a film I've ever seen.

In some ways it's odd that I loathed 'Revenge of the Fallen' so passionately. I usually like a bit of mindless pap from time to time (not ITV-mindless, though...that'd be going too far). But this one just loses it; it's too soul-less, it's too cynically-contrived and it's far too obviously the work of a director who cares nothing except for his reputation as the man who makes lots of things go 'bang' in the cinema and who,sadly, thinks that's still enough. The real horror is that this film has been one of the biggest Box office hits of the year, raking in much more than its predecessor. What caa you say? All I can say is, for the love of all that's holy in your soul, just body-swerve this one if you value your brain cells. It really is a dreadful, dreadful piece of work.

The Discs: Yes, yes, it all looks clean and lovely on DVD and the sound design is astonishing (although maybe it's just my TV set-up but a lot of the explosions seemed a bit...quiet, drowned out by the sounds of metal things clanking about the place). Disc two is bursting with featurettes about the making of the movie but I'm rather more interested in why they made it so, unless they promise me they won't do it again I really can't bring myself to look at the extras. If you take the plunge on this stuff, knock yourselves out.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on November 30th 2009. Buy Moon instead.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Now this is more fun; equally inane in its own way but far, far less offensive than 'Transformers'. Being British I know little about the whole American GI Joe thang apart from the fact there used to be toy ads in the back of Marvel and DC Comics in the 1960s and 1970s, courtesy, once again, of those nice people at Hasbro. Thanks, Hasbro. Retooled and refashioned for the flash-bang generation, 'GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra' must surely have cost nearly all the money in the world to make. Over a hundred minutes rush by in a dizzying whirl of frankly genuinely jaw-dropping special effects, from the armoured attack at the start of the film, the incredible chase through the streets of Paris which ends in the spectacular destruction of a well-known Parisian landmark, aerial chase sequences and an undersea dogfight battle which effortlessly out-Star Wars 'Star Wars', the whole thing punctuated by a stream of other big action/fight sequences to create a film so outlandishly extreme and over-the-top that only the most churlish (usually me) could put up any reasonable resistance against its brash charms. I wouldn't say I loved it but it's a real ride of a movie.

You'd be right to be wary considering the film is directed by Stephen Summers - I'll just say 'Van Helsing' and you'll know why I recommend caution. Fortunately Summers has rediscovered the mojo which made the first 'Mummy' film a big blast. 'GI Joe' is full of the energy and twinkling humour missing from too many of these sorts of films these days - and amidst all the spectacle there's actually a bit of plot and some halfway decent characters too. Stop me from fainting...

Weapons manufacturer McCullen (Christopher Eccleston - from Dr Who to this, Chris?? What the Hell happened??) – soon to be known as Destro – tries to frame NATO for the theft of his own metal-eating nano-bot rockets. The elite Special Forces group known as G.I. Joe becomes involved and almost before the credits have faded a military convoy led by officers Duke and Ripcord is hijacked by the evil Baroness and her men, thwarted only by the sudden appearance of Scarlett, Snake-Eyes and Heavy Duty, titular GI Joes, blazing away with a dazzling array of fanciful super-futuristic weaponry. Duke and Ripcord ingratiate themselves into the group on a mission to retrieve the missles before Destro, Baroness, Storm Shadow and the soon-to-be Cobras can use them in a devastating attack on major cities around the planet in their quest to take over the world!! Yikes!!

Sounds like nonsense, don't it? Well, it is, obviously. But it's done with such charm and gusto and so much genuine spectacle it's hard not to be swept along by the rush of it all, and even harder to want not to. Eccleston is a glorious bad guy, steely and hard-edged and, just for a change, the lead characters are actually given some sense of humanity via a slowly-unfolding backstory as the audience learns of the complex web of relationships which has found them on opposing sides for all sorts of opposing reasons.

There's not a lot else to be said for 'GI Joe' except that it's fun and it's enjoyable and it's a perfect wintry rainy afternoon movie. You will 'ooh' and 'ahh' at the special effects and despite the fact we all know by know this is all done by computers you won't be able to help yourselves wondering just how they Hell they did it all without bankrupting the Earth. Leap into this one expecting a thrill ride and not a deeply-cerebral movie experience and you won't be disappointed.

The DVD: A handful of 'making of' and 'FX' featurettes and a glorious DVD transfer. Bet the Blu ray will look mighty fine too.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is released on DVD and Blu Ray in the UK on December 7th 2009

Sunday, 15 November 2009

TV review: Dr Who - 'The Waters of Mars'

The Doctor arrives in the midst of a small, isolated band of human beings who are being infiltrated by an outside alien force which slowly transforms them into something monstrous which has its own designs on Humanity. The survivors of the group rush to an escape capsule but it, too, has been compromised by the alien force and the pilot has no choice but to self-destruct it to save the rest of the crew and, possibily, all Mankind... But enough about the 1975 Tom Baker story 'The Ark In Space', tonight we're looking at 'The Waters of Mars', the latest of David Tennant's final four hurrahs in the role he'smade his own since December 2005, a story which, if not the first episode of a three-part 'goodbye' is very much a story which leads deftly in to what looks like some pretty cataclysmic stuff come Christmas/the New Year.

The purpose of 'The Waters of Mars' is very clearly to add an extra moral dimension to the outoging Time Lord. Since the show was resurrected back in 2005 we've seen the Doctor wracked by survivor guilt, becoming increasingly touched by human emotions in ways he never was before his people were wiped out in the Time War and, in his latest (and greatest?) incarnation, becoming increasingly - and worryingly - omniscient and God-like. Russell T Davies has touched on the theme of Doctor-as-Messiah more than once, most famously in the eye-opening 'floating angel' sequence from 'Last of the Time Lords' where an aged Doctor is returned to youthful vigour by the simultaneous chanting of everyone left alive on earth after its decimation by the Master/Toclafane alliance. Elsewhere throughout the series we've seen the Doctor toying with the temporal power at his disposal, sometimes mercilessly dispatching his enemies to the alarm of his companions, most of whom have been wary of the darkness he seems capable of displaying in moments of crisis and sometimes just issuing threats of the wrath that he, as the last of his kind, can visit upon those who cross him. Not unnaturally, as he draws the Doctor towards the end of his tenth life-cycle, Russell T Davies (and, here co-writer Phil Ford) takes the Doctor not only to the edge of his own dubious morality but, at last, right over the line, to the point of no return and, in the end, right beyond it. By the time 'The Waters of Mars' ends the Doctor realises he's gone too far and the audience suddenly feels as if they really don't know this character they've spent so much time with these last few years as well as they thought - and it's quite an uneasy feeling in a series so keen to be family-friendly and warm and reassuringly comforting.

The narrative peg upon which the Doctor's latest personal crisis hangs is your fairly bog-standard base-under-seige yarn. Taking its cues from some of Davies' own favourite classic Dr Who serials - the aforementioned 'Ark In Space' (giant insects invade a space station aboard which sleep the survivors of Mankind after solar flares have left the Earth uninhabitable) and 'Fury from The Deep' (its images of alien-possessed humans, mouths agape, emitting poison gas evoked by the water-spewing Flood-zombies here) 'Waters of Mars' puts a small group of human pioneers (another favourite Davies motif) on Bowie Base One on Mars in 2059. In textboot 'Dr Who' tradition, the Doctor is captured by the suspicious colonists and, inevitably, things start to go wrong almost immediately (and after a slightly clunky bit of exposition which enables the Doctor to introduce the characters and give them all a bit of a potted bio). Bowie Base One has a place in history, it seems; the Doctor is uncomfortably aware of the fate it and its occupants face the very day he arrives and, recognising the events about to take place as a "fixed point in Time" which will lead to landmark strides in the development of the human pioneering spirit. The Doctor has long been aware - demonstrated most recently in 'The Fires of Pompeii' from the 2008 series - that there are some fixed moments in history which just can't be tampered with whilst, it seems, many others are just fair game, in a state of "flux" as he puts it here. The nature of which ones are which throw a fascinating new dramatic dynamic into the series, one which has rarely been explored before and, in all honesty, now it's been touched upon it can't really be ignored in the future. Meanwhile, back on Bowie Base One, a terrible water-based infection has seeped into the Base and one by one the crew are turned into cracked-skin, black-mouthed zombies using water as a weapon. The Doctor and the survivors - including the Base's chief Adelaide Brooks (a star turn by guest Lindsay Duncan) - look on in horror as the complex is slowly, fatally compromised. The Doctor, knowing that the base and all its crew must die for the sake of future history, walks away and heads back to the TARDIS, the sounds of mounting carnage ringing in his ears. Our hero is agonised, of course; wherever he's gone he's done all he can to prevent death and destruction but here, he knows, there's nothing he can do because he really can't do it. He mustn't do it. But when the shuttle ship expldoes and the Doctor is flung to the red soil, fire and debris raining down around him, something inside him flips. History and the consequences of meddling with Time mean nothing; his over-riding imperative is, as it always has been, to save the day and to Hell with all the rest. It's a scintillating and pulse-pounding ten minutes as the Doctor changes the flow of Time and saves the day for at least a few of the crew of Bowie Base One.

But back on Earth any sense of euphoria is short-lived. The few survivors - including the cute/annoying robot Gadget - bury their gratitude under confusion and fear - "Who the Hell are you?" screams crew-member Mia Bennet as she rushes off hysterically into the snowy night. If the audience has been chilled by the water-gushing zombies and the thrills and spills so far, it's now that the show takes a serious turn for the dark and the spines start to tingle. For now, when challenged by Adelaide who knows she should have died back up on Mars because history records that she did, we see how the Doctor has changed. He's no longer the benificent, wise-cracking adventurer who comes and then goes, having saved the day. Now he's the "Time Lord victorious", the man who has conquered Time and destiny, the man who thanks that it will now forevermore bend to his will because his will is all that counts. There's a new coldness about the Doctor at the end of this episode, a superiority and arrogance we've never seen before and it's as uncomfortable and unsettling as any of the horrors he's faced in his long, long lives. He's a man who has gone too far. As the Doctor wanders back to the TARDIS, triumphant yet again, having defeated Time itself as well as adversity, Adelaide takes it upon herself to put right the Doctor's interference and, to the Doctor's horror, does it the only way she can. A vision from his recent past materialises in the snow and - just for a second or two - the Doctor thinks his moment of death has arrived. But not yet. Back in the TARDIS a defiant Doctor steels himself against his fate and with a resolute cry of "No!" sets off for pastures new...

This is a genuinely outstanding piece of 'Dr Who'. The usual cadre of old series die-hards may complain about 'sentimentality' (it's called characterisation and humanity) and, their old favourite, the 'deus ex machina' ending and anything else they can lay their hands on. But really the point of the story isn't so much the story - it really is your basic runaround - but what the story means and where it takes us and the Doctor. That's not to say that the production itself was second-rate or just a means of getting the Doctor in the right frame of mind for his regeneration. Much has been made of this being the 'scariest' 'Dr Who' episode ever and whilst I can't make any real comment on that as I don't find anything much scary these days, there were certainly moments here which were edgy and creepy and may well have caused some nightmares and gibbering amongst the very young. Some sensitive adults may have been a bit freaked out by the drooling, black-mouthed zombies and their relentless pursuit of the Doctor and Adelaide and their remorseless invasion of the Base. But as Russell T Davies has pointed out again and again, these are healthy scares; non-gratuitous, bloodless, the sorts of scares which get the heart pumping and get the viewer right on the edge of their seat. Everyone here is at the top of their game as far as this show is concerned. Veteran director Graeme Harper gave the episode the pace and energy he always delivers, the Mill's CGI Martian landscapes and computer-modelling are pretty much faultless and the Flood zombies themselves are spectacularly realised by Neill Gorton and his Millennium FX team. Good to see David Tennant, in his final hours in the series, being given yet more meaty material to work with as the Doctor starts to unravel and although the supporting cast isn't exactly a starry crowd (save Duncan and former 'Neighbours' stalwart Peter O'Brien in a fairly thankless supporting role) everyone throws themslves into their role with absolute relish - and only the coldest of hearts could have failed to be moved as Steffi Ehrlich (Cosima Shaw) faced her final moments trapped in a room slowly filling with infected water by taking one last look at a video recording of her young daughter, safe and far away on Earth. Moments later Steffi's body shudders and quivers as her terrible transformation begins... Terrific stuff.

In fact, I'd say that 'terrific stuff' pretty much sums this one up. Though his style may not sit well with some traditionalists, Davies knows how to tell a rattling good yarn which can appeal to a wide modern sensibility and he knows just how to tug at the emotional heartstrings when he needs to and to maximum effect. Who could have been expecting Adelaide's story to be tied so closely to the Dalek invasion in 'Journey's End' from the 2008 series and who could have been expecting that beautiful, majestic Dalek cameo as we flashback to the young Adelaide in 2008? Sometimes the very best of modern 'Dr Who' hasn't been about the spectacle, the special effects, the gun battles and the noise and bluster; sometimes it's been about quiet moments, emotional moments, human moments - the very things the classic series didn't touch upon because they just weren't its remit. So despite all its zombies and its spacesuits and its robots (and having sad that, how I loved the FX scene of the souped-up Gadget racing across the Martian landscape towards the TARDIS, waiting patiently for the return of its owner) it's the stuff about the people - including the Doctor - that matters the most, maybe never more so than in 'The Waters of Mars'. It's a superb episode, worlds away from the fun and froth of 'The Next Doctor' and 'Planet of the Dead' and just about the best possible way of setting up the explosive events of Tennant's swan-song.

Why isn't it Christmas yet, dammit???