Saturday, 28 February 2009

Doctor Who 2009 - Filming continues...

Filming continues across South Wales for the last batch of Dr Who episodes starring David Tennant (sob). With the (hopefully) Easter special 'Planet of the Dead' co-starring Michelle Ryan and Lee Evans having wrapped (it's a technical expression!) the crew have moved on to the next episode which appears to to be this year's Christmas special, directed by the redoubtable Graeme Harper who has overseen so many episodes of the new incarnation of the show. Guest stars for this one include actress Lindsay Duncan (recently seen in BBc2's drama-doc 'Margaret') Gaffney, allegedly - although this may yet prove to be a vicious internet rumour. To be fair though, he was quite funny in 'Extras'... Anyway, tonight (Friday) saw the unit set up in the Stow Hill area of fabulous Newport at Victoria Place, a road of terraced Victorian/Edwardian/something-ian houses set back from the urban sprawl of Newport itself. My unerring homing-pigeon like sense of direction had me wandering around Newport for nearly two hours before I finally found the recalcitrant TV mob and I eventually wended my weary way up Stow Hill to be rewarded by the ever spine-tingling sight of the TARDIS ablaze with lights standing in the street. On-lookers were asked to move to the far side of the road looking down and across the unit from which far from ideal vantage point we could see David Tennant, Ms Duncan and a couple of other cast members emerge from the TARDIS onto the snow-dusted street (well, it is Christmas and it always snows at Christmas in a Russell T Davies Dr Who yarn.) The scene was rehearsed time and again before the unit broke for its lunch...just before midnight! The fools!!! Here's a couple of videoclips of tonight's action...nothing too exciting due to the distance from the set but clip one shows the TARDIS taken from behind (ooe-er) with its back off and the second shows Tennant and co emerging from the Ship (if you squint you can see smudgy figures...that's David Tennant and Lindsay Duncan, honest!)

Friday, 27 February 2009

UK TV Top 20 - w/e 15th February 2009

A rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 15th February 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 Coronation Street (ITV1).......................10.24 *
2 Dancing On Ice (ITV1)...........................9.08 *
3 EastEnders (BBC1)...............................8.79 *
4 Whitechapel (ITV1)..............................8.20
5 Wild At Heart (ITV1)............................8.11
6 Harry Hill's TV Burp (ITV1).....................7.87
7 Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway (ITV1)......7.74
8 Dancing On Ice: The Story of Bolero (ITV1)......7.68
9 Emmerdale (ITV1)................................7.40 *
10 Football: Spain v England (ITV1)................6.71
11 Rugby: Six Nations (BBC1).......................6.67
12 Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)........................6.40
13 Hustle (BBC1)...................................6.27
14 Casualty (BBC1).................................6.22
15 Lark Rise To Candleford (BBC1)..................6.20
16 National Lottery: In It To Win It (BBC1)........6.13
17 Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1)................5.86
18 Holby City (BBC1)...............................5.64
19 (The Bill (ITV1).................................5.55
20 (Trial and Retribution (ITV1)....................5.55

Chart commentary: After a few weeks of level-pegging ITV1 manages to just about overhaul BBC1 this week with a tally of 11 shows in the Top 20. But the ailing Network is hardly covering itself in glory; apart from trophy drama 'Whitechapel' (which held its audience rather well across three weeks) much of their output is cheap, tired stuff....its two soaps (with Emmerdale drifting away from the pack), past-their-sell-by-date glorified kid's entertainers Ant and Dec with their flogged-to-death cavalcade of shouting, cheering and clapping, a cheapjack documentary capitalising on the inexplicable success of their Sunday night celebrity skating competition and a bit of football rating highly (as does BBC1's coverage of some rugby match or other...don't ask me which one!) Elsewhere Hustle finishes its fifth run with a figure right up there with its first of the series - no wodner a sixth series has been commissioned for next year. The show's in rude, lively health. BBC1's celebrity geneaology strand 'Who Do You Think You Are?' is still suffering against ITV1's heavyweight Monday night dramas but may regain some ground in a couple of weeks as the new drama 'Law And Order:UK' (watchable but hardly event TV) pulled in a couple of million less than 'Whitechapel' on its first outing.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

DVD Review: Dr Who - The Rescue and The Romans

2 Entertain/BBC’s ‘classic’ Dr Who DVD releases have been concentrating a bit too much for my liking on the 1980s period of the show, when creative inspiration was flagging in direct proportion to the audience’s loss of interest in the series. I was there at the time and I’ve no huge desire to see the majority of the episodes screened after about 1981. But it’s always nice to revisit the show’s glory days, especially the black-and-white 1960s era when William Hartnell was piloting the TARDIS as best he could and the show was still fresh, vibrant and new. The latest DVD release is a handy and surprisingly-impressive 2-disc box set of ‘The Rescue’ and ‘The Romans’, two serials (two episodes and four episodes) from season two (1964-65) when the series was still finding its feet, testing its boundaries and doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

There’s a sense in both of these serials that the production team – producer Verity Lambert, script editor/writer Dennis Spooner and writer and former script-editor David Whitaker - were really having fun with the show, well-established and hugely-popular after its first season. Having established the show’s format of ‘adventures in Space and Time’ the series was starting to flex its narrative muscles a bit in season two.

With the original TARDIS crew suffering its first change of personnel – the Doctor’s grand-daughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) had opted to stay behind to help reconstruct a Dalek-ravaged future Earth in the previous story – ‘The Rescue’ was designed purely to introduce her replacement Vicki (Maureen O’Brien), the new girl aboard the Ship. As such it’s a flimsy, transparent affair but it serves its purpose well enough and even now impresses by its scale and its sense of visual ambition. Viewed by modern eyes it looks cheap and cheesy – the Sand Beast never looks anything less than hilarious – but let’s remember that, on a budget of about £2,000 per episodes the show was creating alien landscapes, civilisations, wrecked spaceships, monsters and working props. As such ‘The Rescue’ is surprisingly effective and, at two episodes, has just about enough going on to keep the viewer’s interest, even if the ‘twist’ in the tail – the real identity of the ‘monstrous’ Koquillion (or “cocky-lickin’” as Ian extraordinarily calls him at one point) – is so obvious it might as well have been the title of the story. The TARDIS lands on the planet Dido where the two survivors of the crew of a crashed Earth spaceship are waiting for a rescue ship to pick them up. But spiky-faced Koquillion stalks the planet with his deadly destructive spanner and Vicki is left along aboard the wreckage of the spaceship looking after the apparently-crippled Bennet (Ray Barrett). ‘The Recsue’ is a nice, warm little story. It’s remarkable how much the Doctor has softened across the first year of the series. Initially spiky and brittle, given to moments of brutality when the need arises and fiercely protective of his own privacy, he’s now become very much the dotty, absent-minded old Grand-dad figure the first Doctor is often remembered as. There are some moments of surprising tenderness as the Doctor pines for his lost Grand-daughter and, instead of treating Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) as trespassers on his Ship, they’re now his friends and travelling companions and they in turn are conscious of him mellowing, becoming older and less abrasive. Vicki seems like a natural choice as Susan’s replacement. Where there’d been an other-worldliness about Ford’s performance as Susan Vicki, with her short skirt and excitable manner, is more in keeping with the early days of the Swinging Sixties, and she’s clearly created in an attempt to make the young companion figure more easily-identifiable to the kids in the audience than the sometimes aloof and distant Susan. O’Brien does a creditable performance with an unexceptional script and although Vicki would, inevitably, become a bit one-note and irritating in later stories as the writers lost interest, she gives a good account of herself in ‘The Rescue’ and her addition to the TARDIS crew adds a lightness to the series and provides the show with a new character who can express genuine surprise at the dimensions of the TARDIS and the extraordinary places it takes its occupants.

Unfortunately for Vicki and her sense of adventure, the first place the TARDIS takes her is to Italy in 64AD and ‘The Rescue’ ends with the most literal of cliffhangers as the TARDIS, in an impressive visual effects sequence, materialises on a cliff edge and proceeds to topple over it. As the next story (and disc) opens, the TARDIS is nestling at the foot of a cliff, covered in vines, and its crew are relaxing and languishing about in togas in a Roman villa they've somehow appropriated while its owner is away. Writer Dennis Spooner provides the cast with some lovely, naturalistic dialogue – a bit of a rarity in the series - which allows them to indulge in some witty banter which really gives the impression that these are real people doing the most amazing things in amazing places. In best Dr Who tradition Spooner quickly splits the group up and launches two narrative threads; the Doctor, bored by sitting about and irritated by the chatter of his companions, decides to visit Rome with Vicki tagging along. Ian and Barbara are content to lounge about drinking wine and basking in the sun. But before long the Doctor is mistaken for murdered lyre player Maximus Petullian and Ian and Barbara are kidnapped by slave traders. ‘The Romans’ is the show’s first attempt at a comedy episode. albeit one set within the confines of what had previously been the rather po-faced and educational historical serials which had studded the first series, stories told with a bit of a wagging finger. Spooner’s not so interested in educating his young audience; he just wants to make them have a bit of a laugh. Although there’s a spine of serious drama running through the four episodes there’s a distinct air of farce about proceedings, especially when Emperor Nero (Derek Francis) appears on the scene and starts lusting after Barbara and chasing her around the corridors of his villa. The quips and gags come thick and fast but Spooner’s not one to avoid the clichés of the setting; slave galleys, Roman gladiators, stock footage of a lion…it’s all here and presented with gusto and a serious sense of tongue-in-cheek. Purists and historians may balk at the silliness of it (although, according to one of the documentaries on the disc, the historical trappings are actually quite accurate much of the time) but ‘The Romans’ is a story which knows it’s a romp and it’s quite fun to see the regulars, Hartnell especially, letting their hair(piece) down and enjoying themselves in a fruity, throwaway bit of fluff which, a frightening 45 years later, retains the freshness and vitality it must have had when it was originally-broadcast to a Dalek-hungry Dr Who audience.

All in all, this a welcome DVD package and it would be very nice to see more early days Dr Who making its way onto DVD rather than the succession of pompous, increasingly-tacky 1980s efforts which have been cluttering up the bargain bins in the last year or so.

THE DISCS: The picture restoration on both stories is remarkable, the images pinpoint sharp and a massive improvement on the fuzzy, muffled VHS release from several years ago. The restoration does lay bare the deficiencies in the production though; when the TARDIS lands in the cave on Dido in ‘The Rescue’ and the travellers stumble out through the doors, the rear wall of the cave is now clearly visible through the doors, suggesting that the TARDIS prop was assembled with only three walls! And the shambling, grinning Sand Beast was never ever meant to be viewed with such cold clarity! ‘The Romans’ looks quite gorgeous though; the sets are rich and vivacious, the dressings and costumes (many from the BBC’s then-extensive prop store) impressive and the story looks big and grand and expansive (not to mention expensive). There are some good extras too. ‘The Rescue’ boasts just a twenty-odd minute 'making of’ which offers on-screen memories from William Russll, Maureen O’Brien, Ray Barrett and some fans whilst ‘The Romans’ has an eclectic selection of bits and pieces. ‘What has The Romans Ever Done For Us?’ is an absorbing 30-plus minute look at the history of Rome and the Romans, the making of the story itself and other film and TV depictions of the era with contributions from the likes of Anthony Andrews and (ulp) Christopher Biggins, both of whom have donned togas and done their bit for the Roman Empire on the box. Elsewhere there’s a look at the Dr Who work of writer Dennis Spooner with fond recollections from his friend Brian Clemens and other luminaries involved in his episodes. Spooner, much-missed, is the sort of writer TV is crying out for these days. Then there’s an amusing, but barely relevant, segment from an old Blue Peter where Val, Lesley and Peter indulge in their own Roman banquet with a toga-clad John Noakes acting the slave (and the goat). Surreal. ‘Girls Girls Girls’ is a dynamic piece briskly chronicling the lifes and times of…well, the girls of the show during the 1960s, from Susan in 1963, right up to Zoe in 1969. Terrific fun. Elsewhere there are commentaries, photo galleries and a ghastly preview for the next DVD release, 1985’s ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ which despite the trailer’s dramatic Murray Gold-esque musical score, still looks like a cheap, tacky, tired piece of 1980s sci-fi tat from a show no-one was much bothered about anymore. No thanks.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Torchwood - They Are Coming...

Still no sign of when the new five-part Torchwood series 'Children of Earth' is likely to hit Britain's Tv screens but the buzz is definately building now and it seems that a Spring screening is on the cards. Over at the New York Comic Con cast-member Eve Myles (Gwen) and director Euros Lyn have been bigging-up the show (pah! who said I'm not down wiv ver kids??) and BBC America have just released this tantalising promotional poster for the series...bring it on Mr BBC!! Click the Video Bar to the right to see the official Torchwood trailer and to see Euros and Eve backstage after their Comic Con panel...

With thanks to BBC America and Frank over at the superb Cathode Ray Tube

Sunday, 22 February 2009

My Pod - Music and Stuff: The Boss and The Kings

Bruce!! Bruuuuuuuce!! I can't say I've ever been a huge devotee of the work of the man they call the Boss, or Bruce Springsteen as he's generally known. Yes, back in the day (whatever that means) I thought 'Born To Run' was a rattlingly good rock song and the 'Born In The USA' album struck a collective nerve back in 1985. But Bruce, a bit worried by the fact he'd gone all commercial and pop-starry, decided to run away from the sound of crunching guitars and tight drums and went all angsty and introspective and reflective and I lost interest. But the old feller's found his creative muse again as he canters through middle age and it seems that he's no longer quite so bothered about being 'cool' and is happy to cocentrate on churning out the good ol' blue collar rock'n'roll which made him famous. Less than 2 years on from the release of the likable, uplifting 'Magic' album (and that's almost indecently hasty by modern standards)here's 'Working on a Dream', a new 13-track grab-bag of lively, catchy rock stompers with a couple of moody ballads for good measure. This is good stuff, great driving music (even in miserable February-weather Britain)andf there are a handful of radio-friendly tunes here which are up with the best of the man's work to date.

Buty tha album doesn't get off on the best footing. 'Outlaw Pete' is a rambling, bluesy eight-minute track which borrows, unfortunately, from Kiss front-man Gene Simmon's solo hit 'I Was Made For Loving You' so all attempts at credibnility are shot from the first chorus. The song's pleasant enough but it doesn't really need eight minutes, thanks. Elsewhere we're on more familiar ground - Bruce rocks it like he always did (?) on 'My Lucky Day'. the title track, 'Surprise Surprise' while 'This Life' kicks off with some unexpected Beach Boys harmoninising. 'Good Eye' has a distinct yee-he country hoe-down feel. 'Tomorrow Never Knows' is a semi-acoustic shuffler with a chorus which is already lodged deep in the recesses of my brain and as the album races for the finishing line the pace slows down with 'Kingdom of Days, 'The Last Carnival'and the bonus track 'The Wrestler', from the fabulous Mickey Rourke movie.

'Working On a Dream' is the sound of a maturing rock star, a man comfortable with his place in the musical firmament and unafraid to just indulge himself (and his fans) with the sound and style which made his name. It's the companion piece you might have expected for 'Magic' and it's a fine, unpretentious and enjoyable rock album which, quite rightly, in unafraid to be a little bit pop. Good stuff.

I just can't decide whether the album of 2008 was Elbow's 'Seldom-Seen Kid' or Coldplay's 'Viva la Vida or Death And All His Friends'. The former I only really became acquainted with over Christmas, the latter's been in and out of my in-car CD player since release. But what about the Kings of Leon? Despite the fact they've released a handful of increasingly well-received albums, they've never really wandered onto my line of vision before. I heard 'Only By the Night' last year when a kindly lady who works at the hotel where I've been known to spin a few discs in the name of DJing (but never anything like the Kings!) ran me off a copy because she gets a bit sick of my wedding party playlist (*but nothing like as much as I do). Hmmm, this is good stuff, I thought as I listened to it once or twice and then put it away. But in light of the band's well-deserved Brits win this week, I purchased my own proper copy of the CD and I've suddenly realised what an astonishing album 'Only By The Night' actually is.

This is a big, powerful, beefy selection of great songs, songs which are dark, brooding,sweeping, majestic...and pretty insidious. The CD kicks off with a four-track run of songs which is pretty much unbeatable. The CD's first track, 'Closer'. is musically brilliant, rolling and creeping along and sweeping the listener along on a virtual tidal wave of sound (hmm, wonder if there are jobs going at the NME?). Next up we have the crashing 'Crawl', the next single (or whatever passes for a single these days) before we hit 'Sex On Fire', the first single and a massive number one hit - and I'm ashamed to say this is a song which didn't click for me for ages. Now I can see it as the most energised rock anthem of the last ten years and it's right up there with Elbow's gorgeous 'One Day Like This' from last year as the best track of 2008. Current single 'Use Somebody' is up next; more mannered than 'Sex on Fire' it's powerful and insidious and frnakly, the powerhouse punch of these four tracks leaves you rather thanfkul that track five, 'Manhattan' is a bit less memorable. 'Revelry' raises the album's game again with its joyous chorus and by the time we reach the superb 'I Want You', via '17' and 'Notion' it's pretty much inarguable that what we have here is a Classic Modern Rock/Pop album.

I'm a bit of a groove man, really. I like songs with tunes, songs with rhythm - maybe that's a side-effect from my life as a DJ. I love a good, clever lyric too, but really I'm up for a top tune and something that just touches that part of my brain which makes me remember a damned good song. 'Only By the Night' is just full of great songs. I'm struck by the confidence and power of the music, the rawness of the vocals (I'm not ashamed to say I don't know enough about the band to even be able to name the lead singer with any confidence) and the energy in the production and performances which just explode out of the speakers.

So...that album of the year dilemma? Solved, I think...

Thursday, 19 February 2009

UK TV Charts - w/e 8th February 2009

A rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 8th February 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 Coronation Street (ITV1)..................10.96 *
2 EastEnders (BBC1)..........................9.63 *
3 Whitechapel (ITV1).........................9.26
4 Dancing On Ice (ITV1)......................8.56 *
5 Emmerdale (ITV1)...........................7.86 *
6 National Lottery: In It To Win It (BBC1)...7.81
7 Wild At Heart (ITV1).......................7.69
8 Casualty (BBC1)............................7.36
9 Total Wipeout (BBC1).......................6.80
10 Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)..................6.75
11 Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1)...........6.44
12 Holby City (BBC1)..........................6.37
13 Harry Hill's TV Burp (ITV1)................6.15
14 Lark Rise To Candleford (BBC1).............6.14
15 Watchdog (BBC1)............................6.06
16 Trial and Retribution (ITV1)...............6.00
17 Hustle (BBC1)..............................5.95
18 The One Show (BBC1)........................5.81 *
19 New You've Been Framed! (ITV1).............5.64
20 The Bill (ITV1)............................5.43

Chart commentary: The week which will do down in history as "snow week" (apparently) saw some huge figures for the Monday night this week, with the Big Two soaps scoring 11 million figures as Britain battened down its hatches against the ravages of a few flurries of snow. Biggest benefactor of the Arctic weather was the first episode of ITV's ultimately-disappointing murder drama 'Whitechapel' which pulled in over 9 million for the first of its three instalments. ITV should bear these figures - and similar good figures for other Monday night dramas recently - as they make plans to scale down their drama production and programme more - wait for it! - reality formats! Yaaay. BBC1's Saturday night hit Total Wipeout continues to build its audience and BBC1's pop geneaology series 'Who Do You Think You Are' returned for its umpteenth series but found its audience eroded by Whitechapel. 'The One Show' continues to impress for BBC1, sneaking in at no. 18 with a good average figure (the Monday night episode logged in just under 7 million!) and a rare entry for earnest consumer show 'Watchdog', also benefitting from a bit of snow. Elsewhere it's business as usual with the current run of dramas holding up well as they come to the end of their runs and the Top Ten remaining pretty much unchanged. Five will be disappointed that their much-hyped return of 'Minder', for which I'd expected a good 6 million viewers for its debut episode and an easy (and first) Top 20 placing, foundered badly with less than 3 million. It's actually a lightweight little show, not bad at all, but its performance will probably nix any second series and prove to be a deadly blow to any future plans Five may have for original drama.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Being Brilliant...Being Human on BBC3

Early in 2008 BBC3, the Corporation’s ‘yoof’ channel, as part of its ‘rebranding’initiative, aired six one-off drama pilot episodes, each of which had, apparently, the potential to be commissioned as full series depending on public reaction, audience figures etc. Several of them were forgettable right-on modern dramas which went largely unnoticed. One, a colourful comic strip adventure starring Jamie Winstone and called Phoo Action, was quickly commissioned for a full series; a bit of a puzzler, this decision, as the pilot was utter rubbish, nonsensical from start to finish and clearly displaying no real potential without a major creative overhaul. Sure enough, the planned series was abandoned a few months ago. Ha ha and good riddance etc. Then there was Being Human in which a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost share a house in Bristol. Written and created by Toby Whithouse, who has written for both Dr Who and Torchwood this was easily the best of the six pilots – but following broadcast the word was that it wasn’t going to be spun off into a series. Boo hoo. Then public support started to build – the usual online petitions, enquiries, wailing’n’screaming – and suddenly Being Human was back as a six-part series, albeit with a slightly-adjusted cast to (sigh) appeal to BBC3’s perceived demographic. Yeah, right…

Anyway, the series is currently airing on Sunday nights (and at various times throughout the week) and is an absolute revelation. Forget your Torchwoods, Primevals, Merlins, Apparitions, Survivors, Demons (please forget that one), Being Human has quickly – and apparently effortlessly – established itself not only as the best new genre show on British TV since the return of the Doctor in 2005 but I’d go further and say that it might well be the best new drama on British TV in the last ten years. And that’s not just the hyperbole of a dedicated fan of this sort of stuff – Being Human manages the difficult (sometimes almost impossible) feat of satisfying the demands of good imaginative ‘fantasy’ TV and good, solid conventional drama. In that way it has much in common with new Dr Who which tells powerful fantasy stories shot through with real emotion and real humanity. It can be no coincidence that Whithouse has worked on the Who family series; he’s clearly picked up a few tips on how to write outlandish, ostensibly completely fanciful TV and yet make it work as good drama.

So basically we have three characters struggling with humanity – with being human.. Annie (played by Andrea Riseborough in the pilot, now recast with great success and played by Leonora Critchley) is a ghost. In life she died in the house after a fall down the stairs. Episode three revealed that her death wasn’t the accident she’d previously thought it was – and this is likely to have a devastating effect on her and she struggles to come to terms with the fact that she’s dead. Then there’s George (likeable, jug-eared Russell Tovey) who’s been infected with the curse of the werewolf after a bloody encounter with a wolfman. George, nervy and neurotic at the best of times, hides his affliction and does his best to transform into a monster in circumstances which aren’t likely to cause him to murder anyone. But his condition is hard to live with and he eschews relationships and broad human contact and just wants to keep his head down and lead a quiet life. Finally we have Mitchell the vampire (Guy Flanagan in the pilot, now played with a brooding intensity by Aiden Turner). A bit like Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer he’s a vampire who’d really rather not kill anyone so he’s trying to lay off the red stuff and blend in with normal society despite his own cravings and the temptations thrown in his way by other vampirekind who are clearly working towards a vampire revolution. Mitchell – like all the vampires in Being Human - is no cloaked, fanged, snarling vampire; he looks just like you and me (well, you maybe) and, whilst there’s been the odd reference to him being sensitive to light, he seems to function well enough in the daylight hours, albeit with the help of a pair of cool shades, and there’s no sign of him running away screaming from garlic or crucifixes. The analogy’s clear enough; Mitchell is effectively a junkie trying to kick his habit and it’s hard when there’s so much temptation out there and other ‘users’ waving their addiction and their love of their addiction in your face.

In the pilot episode this peculiar trio gravitate towards one another when Mitchell and George move into a new home, already occupied by the ghostly Annie. The series picks up pretty much where the pilot left off. George and Mitchell are still keeping their heads down in lowly jobs at the local hospital, Annie is enjoying the company of two other less-than-human beings who can at least see her and inter-act with her, even though she can’t understand why she hasn’t ‘passed over’ and is still inextricably tied to the mortal coil. Mitchell is still being tormented by Herrick and his minions, partciularly Lauren, a recent 'victim' of Mitchell's condition, as they try to tempt his back to the dark side and poor George is more desperate than ever to ‘fit in’. The first three episodes of the series see the trio face new difficulties and hew obstacles. Mitchell is attracted to a nervy young girl from the hospital but he’s still batting against the bloodlust and when Lauren strikes again he has to decide whether to ‘save’ the girl by turning her into one of his own kind or else show true humanity by letting her die. Episode two sees George befriended by Tully (Dean Lennox Kelly), a fellow werewolf. Despite George’s reluctance he becomes friendly with * and the house dynamic is threatened – until George learns the truth about Tully in a gripping, dark woodland confrontation. In episode three Annie makes the acquaintance of a fellow-ghost named Gilbert and she in turn discovers some terrible truths about her own predicament.

Episode four, just screened, is the strongest of an already-strong bunch, taking the show into another level altogether. Still fighting to be accepted in normal society despite the secret afflictions which hold them back, the trio find things coming to a head when Mitchell befriends a local single mother Fleur and her young son Bernie, Annie makes a decision about her place in the scheme of things and George has to make a decision about his future with Nina. A terrible misunderstanding over a Laurel and Hardy DVD (and we’ve all had one of those!) has appalling consequences and Mitchell and George find themselves becoming even more cut off from the real world. This is a stark, powerful and black episode. George and Mitchell are depicted as ‘monsters’ to their neighbours but a completely different sort of monster to the ones they actually are. But, in the most richly-layered episode yet, it seems that everyone’s a monster; George’s girlfriend Nina, who he splits up with for her own sake, has her own scars (she’s been a victim too) and ugly suspicions expose the cruel, dark, irrational side of human nature – the one we see plastered across our tabloid newspapers days after day.

In just a handful of episodes Being Human has established itself as something very special, a real shining light on the TV landscape. Where much ‘fantasy’ TV in the UK can seem frivolous and whimsical, aiming for a family demographic and too scared to aim its imagination at a more adult audience, Being Human confronts the genre head-on and makes no concessions. In some ways it’s not easy television. It makes demands of its audience. It requires them to take on the concept of three supernatural beings walking amongst us in a very recognisable, gritty modern-day world and dealing with all the fears and frustrations which confound us all, and it requires them to take a very close look at the nature of humanity in a world that doesn’t always seem to be very humane. It’s about outsiders, about conformity, about growing up different and trying to find acceptance. It’s about the struggle to do what’s right in the most extraordinary of circumstances. First and foremost it’s a drama about people but it’s about people who really aren’t people in any accepted sense. George and Mitchell are monsters but they’re monsters within a shell of humanity and despite all the terrible things they do or can do, they’re often depicted as far more self-aware and far more human than the narrow-thinking and small-minded people who bustle around them. Annie may be dead but she has a greater sense of life and what it means now that she’s no longer involved in it and, intriguingly, episode four, where she suddenly becomes corporeal and visible to people, suggests that in death she’s becoming something bigger than death.

Over the last few years ‘fantasy’ TV has grown up. It’s no longer just about monsters, explosions, special effects and a happy ending forty-five minutes later. Characters in these shows now have lives, they have problems, they grow and they learn and they develop as people. Buffy the Vampire Slayer led the way in this regard, to the extent that the monster-slaying just got in the way of the human dramas of Buffy Summers and her Sunnydale friends and, under the guise of light fantasy, Buffy was able to deal with extraordinarily mature and sophisticated storylines and dilemmas and present them in richly-rewarding and imaginative ways which completely belied the perceived nature of the series. Over in the UK Dr Who in particular has taken this lead; it’s always fun watching the Doctor face off against the Daleks or racing to escape a giant bee but as pure drama it’s much more interesting to see him coping with survivor guilt, coming to terms with grief and loss and unfamiliar emotions like unrequited love. Because ultimately any drama series can only be as good as the dramatic situations its characters find themselves in. Being Human has followed the examples of both Buffy and Dr Who but instead of placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations it’s turned things around and put extraordinary people – monsters and ghosts – in the cold and brutal world of the 21st century where people worry about finding enough money to pay the rent and avoiding the casual violence which comes hand-in-hand with the modern world. And it’s not easy. But it makes for brilliant, audacious and sometimes breath-taking television. And it’s on BBC3. Where Two Pints lives.

Being Human absolutely deserves your time. It deserves a rapid prime time BBC2 repeat. It’s a cult show just waiting to happen. If you wander into the World of Stuff and ever take anything away with you, do yourselves a favour and just track down Being Human by fair means or foul. It’s simply unmissable television and a real reminder of just how much the medium can still offer an audience when a show is made by people who care, people with vision and talent and the ability to tell good stories about fascinating, complex people. Being Human is brilliant. and really that’s probably all that needs to be said.

Friday, 13 February 2009

DVD Review: Dr Who Series 4 and The Trial of a Time Lord

Catching up with some recent BBC DVD releases from two rather different eras of Dr Who...

Released just in time to catch the Christmas 2008 market, this beautifully-presented six-disc boxset collects together all thirteen episodes from the most recent full series of Dr Who plus 2007's blockbuster Christmas special 'Voyage of the Damned' as well as the Children in Need mini-episode 'Time Crash' featuring the return of the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison. Aimed more at the mass market general audience the show has nowadays rather than the more completist, narrower audience of the so-called 'classic series' releases, the new series boxsets have been packed with fluffy, colourful, 'everything's wonderful' special features whereas the DVDs from the old show have occasionally taken a more warts'n'all approach, especially when presenting material from the show's more contraversial 1980s period.

Series 4 of new Dr Who was probably the slickest and most accomplished series since the show triumphantly returned in 2005. The episodes have a scale and confidence about them, a real sense that here is a programme which can do anything and go anywhere, made by people who know they can do it and who know they've got a big audience out there ready and waiting. Oddly though, the fourth series took a few weeks to find its real form. The series recalled Catherine Tate to companion duties as Donna Noble after her debut appearance in 2007's Christmas episode 'The Runaway Bride.' In all fairness the hardcore fans and the general public were a bit wary of Catherine taking up residence aboard the TARDIS - I really can't resist saying they were a bit 'bovvered' at the prospect, no matter hard I try. Many critics, though - even ones who should have known better - had anticipated a seaon of the shrill, shrieking, ranting Donna Noble who the Doctor first met at the beginning of 'The Runaway Bride', choosing to ignore the fact that by the end of the episode Donna had been mellowed and chastened by her experiences with the Doctor and had become a rather more mature and contemplative character. This is the Donna who stepped back into the Doctor's life in 'Partners in Crime', the first episode of season four, this is the Donna that Russell T Davies and his team clearly felt had a lot of potential for development throughout an entire series. Davies' 'Partners in Crime' is a brilliantly-irreverent first episode, packed with the mad energy and razzle dazzle we've come to expect from season openers these days. Sniffy fans shudder at the sight of cute but deadly Adipose trotting along the streets and bursting out of human bodies and some even had problems with the wonderful repartee between the Doctor as he's reunited with Donna (their mime-show meeting is Dr Who comedy gold) but the episode is superbly-paced and beautifully-judged. It even has that amazing 'I've-just-fallen-off-my-seat' moment as Donna, full of excitement at rejoining the Doctor and finally getting the chance to take up that offer he made a year or so earlier, tells a blonde girl out on the street where her mum Sylvia can find the keys to the car she's abandoned in favour of a rather more unusual form of transport. The blonde girl turns to camera and it's Rose (Billie Piper), back from a parallel world and looking a bit worried. Along with an early reference to planets going missing, this is the first hint of this series' running theme and there are further hints threaded throughout the series and even the odd flash-frame of Rose showing up in the oddest of places.

It's a long time until we get anoother script by Davies and until then it's business as usual for the show with a run of solid, spectacular, enjoyable episodes, all of which have their moments but many of which, because they're not by Davies, just don't have that extra something he brings to the party. Despite the undoubted brilliance of new showunner Steven Moffat, I still worry about a series of Dr Who without any involvement from Davies. But that's for the future. 'Fires of Pompeii' and its mix of cutesy modern colloquilism and on-the-spot location filming in Rome boasts some incredible FX whereas 'Planet of the Ood' sees a second - and hopefully final - appearance by the spagehetti-faced slave race The Ood who first debuted in season two. It's a tough and visceral episode but, despite its homily about the evils of slavery and the importance of freedom blah blah blah it really left me as cold as the snowy wastes the TARDIS pitches up in. Helen Rayner's two-part Sontaran story could have been torn straight from the Jon Pertwee era with its pitched battles with UNIT soldiers and its military hardware but the story ultimately raises its stakes a bit too high - the Earth choking to death from carbon monoxide poisoning, the whole atmosphere on fire the burn off the fumes - and the new Sontaran masks and costumes, impressive as they are, still can't hold a candle to John Friedlander's 1973 original, still the best after all these years. But at least we've got our Martha back; Freema Agyeman, fresh from her three-episode stint on 'Torchwood' is back where she belongs and at the end of the story finds herself back aboard the TARDIS for one final trip which sends her to the war-torn planet Messaline where she, the Doctor and Donna meet 'The Doctor's Daughter'. Here's a high concept idea which really needed more than 45 minutes to do it justice; Stephen Greenhorn's ambitious script needs more room to breathe and, for a series which has now learnt to pride itself on its emotional maturity, it doesn't really get to the core of its drama - the Doctor coming to terms with the fact that he's a father, of sorts (albeit courtesy of a bit of sci-fi technobabble machinery) - but it does allow David Tennant to indulge himself with a bit of shouty moral high ground acting which he always seems to enjoy.

Moffat's back with his massively-imaginative two-parter 'Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead' which is packed with more spiffing SF ideas and plenty of scares - cannibalistic shadows, skulls in spacesuits, misshapen faces, yikes! - than ten whole seasons of 'Demons' (and let's not even dream of a world where such a terrible thing might be possible). Moffat's playing to his strengths and there are themes here we've seen in some of his earlier work in the series - salvation and redemption and not much death, scary catchphrases eminmently repeatable in the playground ("Hey! Who turned out the lights?") - but let's not worry about that here as I'm sure Moffat will have plenty more surprises up his sleeve when he gets a whole series or three to play with. Davies is back in 'Midnight' and he shows, almost effortlessly, that he can out-Moffat Moffat in the hair-standing-up-on-the-neck department. This is great stuff, virtually Dr Who-as-stage-play with the Doctor on his own (Donna's off sun-bathing) trapped in a vehicle travelling across the inhospitable surface of an alien planet while something nasty and invisible is trying to get in. Series-best performance by Tennant is matched word for word (literally|) by guest star Lesley Sharp, the UK's most under-rated actress - fact. Davies is on fire as we coast towards the end of the series and 'Turn Left' is one of those bold, format-breaking episodes we've come to expect. With Tennant taking time off, Tate handles an episode which weaves in four years worth of potentially-arcane recent Dr Who continuity in a story which tells the audience what might have happened to Donna - and to the world - if she'd made a very different decision two years previously and ended up never meeting the Doctor at all. Bold, cold, stark and terrifying (despite the plastic beetle) this is new Dr Who on top form.

So to the barking two-part series climax, very much a 'greatest hits' of the last four years as Davies delivers his final finale. The gang's (nearly) all here; the Doctor, Donna, Rose, Captain Jack, Sarah Jane Smith, Martha, Mickey (the idiot), Jackie Tyler,K9....and the Daleks,reunited with their evil creator Davros (brilliantly reimagined by Julian Bleech) in an insane story where Davies allows the Daleks to try to go one step further. They've always been determined to wipe out all non-Dalek life; now their game's raised - they want to destroy reality itself so that nothing exists except the Daleks. Forget the illogicality of it all, ignore the breathless scientific impossibility of it and just go along for the ride of a lifetime. Just as the audience has finished punching the air as the TARDIS tows earth back to its rightful place in space Davies goes and breaks our hearts again as the Doctor is forced to erase Donna's memory of him and all their exploits together for the sake of her own life and a tearful, rain-soaked Doctor trudges back to the TARDIS with the good wishes of Bernard Cribbins ringing in his ears, the last of the Time Lords on his own again. Sob.

Despite taking a few weeks to find its pacing, this is another monstrously boisterous, imaginative series of Dr Who. Catherine Tate's nay-sayers were silenced almost immediately (apart from the stubborn ones who were obviously lying and/or just being awkward) and David Tennant cemented his reputation as...yes, the best Dr Who of 'em all. I remain excited about what Matt Smith can bring to the series in 2010 but watching these episodes again just reminds me what a very tough act he's got to follow...

THE DVDs: Outstanding picture quality, of course, and 5.1 surround sound for those with speakers dotted all around their living rooms. Special features are copious if not hugely revealing. There are 2 15-minute David Tennant video diaries which are a bit like crashing a private party, such is the fun being had amongst the contributors, a nice clip-packed retrospective called 'The Journey (So Far)', deleted and extended scenes, commentaries, trailers and, most poignantly, the scenes filmed by actor Howard Attfield who plays Donna's Dad. Attfield died during filming so rather than recast Bernard Cribbins was recruited to film the scenes (brilliantly) as Donna'a Grandad Wilf. All in all it's another cracking boxset and one which I suspect will be well-worn as we twiddle our thumbs waiting for the next batch of episodes...

Bringing us crashing back down to Earth comes this lavish four-disc boxset of the much-maligned and, to be honest, rather tacky 23rd season of the original series. 'The Trial of a Time Lord' aired in 1986 as Dr Who emerged from its 18-month suspension. Now starring Colin Baker in a dreadful, multi-coloured clown's coat, the 14 episode series mirrors the show's predicament at the time - out of favour with both the public and the BBC, Dr Who the series was fighting for its life on TV. The production team (predominantly long-time producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward) rather foolishly opted to put the Doctor himself on trial much as his TV show was. The resulting 14 weeks unfolded as the Time Lords put the Doctor on trial for his casual interference in the cosmic order of things (which they'd already done in one episode in 1969) with the series being split into multi-episode stories which purported to be both prosecution and defence evidence. Unfortunately none of the four stories are particularly inspired, and they're certainly not stories which were ever likely to reignite the series' affections in the hearts of an audience now more interested in flashy Amnerican fare. Veteran writer Robert Holmes' first four-parter (referred to as 'The Mysterious Planet' but, anal fanboy I am, I can't call it that as it's not referred to on screen by that name!) boasts some decent writing, jokes and characterisation and some atmospheric outside OB filming but its tired tale of a devastated Earth moved across space does nothing we've not seen before done better a dozen times. A couple of clumsy robots trundle about the place and much has been made about the impressive space statiopn model sequence which opens the series but beyond that there's not much to recommend to the modern viewer more accustomed to the slicker offerings of the latest series.

The second story (some call in 'Mindwarp') is marginally worse. It's the story of the Mentors, slug-like aliens on the planet Thoros Beta and specifially Sil (Nabil Shaban) who popped up in the previous series (the one which got the series suspended - maybe not really a hugely clever idea to bring back a character from a season which almost caused the axe to fall on the whole thing!). Largely studio-bound (this from the days of the BBC's videotape studios) this one is characterised by lots of shouting from guest star Brian Blessed (ow, my ears) and some silly plot about brain transference. The story seemed to redeem itself by its brave narrative decision to brutally kill of the Doctor's whiney American pal Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant)...or so we thought.

Backstage problems led to Dr Who's worst ever writers (Pip and Jane Baker)being commissioned to write an Agatha Christie in space story for the next four-parter ('Terror of the Vervoids', apparently) and it's a tacky thing of not much beauty, as rude-looking alien plant-men wake up up and rampage about a cheap-looking space cruiser on board which, for some reason, is Honor Blackman slumming it a bit. Fianlly we have the last two episodes (''The Ultimate Foe' if you like) which runs entriely out of steam, brings back ho-hum bad guy The Master (Anthony Ainley) and ends up with a final episode written hastily when Pip and Jane Baker were drafted in to replace the script written by Eric Saward (writing from ideas from Robert holmes who passed away during production of the series) which Saward withheld when Nathan-Turner vetoed the season ending Saward had written which effectively ended the entire series.

Back in 1986, writing for the now-defunct 'Starburst' Magazine I tried to put on a brave face and find the strengths in this batch of desperate episodes. 23 years later and it's harder to find anything positive to say beyond the fact that it's a season which, like much archive TV, needs to be watched with an eye to its cultural positioning, with an awareness of how TV was made back then and, particularly in Dr Who's case, set against the background to the appallingly turbulent and unsuppoortive times it was in. But however you chose to view these episodes (if you chose to view them at all) you'll be hard-pressed to come away doing much more than shaking your head sadly and thanking your lucky stars that days like these are gone forever for Dr Who.

I hope...

THE DVDs: The episodes may be eminently forgettable but the 4 DVDs are packed with amongst the best extras I've seen on a Dr Who set. Best of all is disc 4's enthralling 55-minute 'Trials and Truibulations' documentary which rattles threough Colin Baker's era with particular emphasis on many of the questionable creative decisions of the era, from, Baker's costume, the scripts, the stories, the behind-the-scenes bally-hoo and shenanigans. There's some remarkable candour on display here as Saward has a gentle 'go' at last producer Nathan-Turner (represented by pertinent archive interview clips) and honest comments from the BBC's Jonathan Powell who virtually admits to having no real interest in the series and that the BBC at the time weren't really bothered about it any more. How times change! This fascinating, raw documentary itself is worth the price of the boxset (well, if you can get it cheap, that is) but each story has its own twenty-odd minute 'making of', deleted scenes, trailers, variable commentaries and other odds'n'sods including a feature on location filming for the season and lots of at-the-time TV coverage with extracts from news shows, chat shows, etc. Altogether a fascinating and compheneive time capsule of a very difficult time in the history of Who. It's a set that's recommended for its extras if not its episodes. And I didn't even mention Bonnie Langford...

My Pod - Music and Stuff: Lily Allen: It's Not Me, It's You

When Lily Allen burst onto the music scene a couple of years ago with her reggae-lite pop anthem 'Smile' and the likable album 'Alright, Still' it was hard to ignore the slight whiff of 'famous-Dad/novelty-turn', especially when Lily started drifting into the gossip columns and doing her bit on the celebrity circuit. Lily's young and she's (very) pretty and naturally enough our fine British tabloids became far more interested in who lily's dating, how drunk Lily is, what drugs Lily takes than what she might be doing with her career. And yes, her rather embarrassing BBC3 chat show last year seemed to suggest that maybe Lily herself wasn't taking her career too seriously...

Well, pop fans, we can all stop worrying. Lily's much-delayed second album 'It's Not me, It's You' (it was completed and ready to go last year but Parlophone, in their wisdom, decided to hold it back a bit) is out (released on Monday 9th February in the UK) and not only is it a damned fine pop album in its own right it's actually exciting enough to make you think that maybe Lily's on to something and maybe there's a more than decent chance she could really make a go of this pop star lark. The omens were good, of course, when the first single, 'The Fear', started getting radio play at the tail end of 2008. Instantly, hopelessly, infernally catchy, with witty and acerbic lyrics (and a nice but of cussin' for the radio stations to bleep out!) it sounded like a Great Pop Song (and I do love a Great Pop Song) and sure enough it's romped to number one in what passes for the singles chart these days. The album's getting very positive reviews too and Stuff's got a feeling that this is a collection which is going to be around for months, spewing out a string of radio-friendly hits.

Lily's young and spunky and she speaks her mind. She's bothered by stuff that bothers most 20-somethings....hopeless boyfriends, doomed relationships, staying in and watching the telly. If it didn't sound so pretentious I'd say that 'It's Not Me, It's You' has caught the zeitgeist with 12 songs which are hugely and irresistibly catchy and are likely to connect with a lot of sulky young girls out there. There's not a duff track here - not even 'Chinese' which is ultimately a love song to a takeaway meal. Lily's moved away from the reggae beats of the first album and gone for tighter, punchier rythmns, dance beats and even a bit of juddering electro. The theme is very much relationships and how they either don't work or end up going nowhere. 'Never Gonna Happen' sees Lily trying to break it none-too-gently to an unsuitable suitor, 'Not Fair' is about being frustrated (in every sense of the word) by a selfish boyfriend, and 'Everyone's At It' is a bit of a jab at the ubiquity of recreational chemical substances. Lily even goes in for a little bit of politics and religious musing on 'Him' when she wonders if God is getting a bit fed up with all the terrible things people to to one another in His name. 'Back To The Start' stamps and rattles and has got Number One written all over it, frankly and maybe it's the sniggering kid in me but, despite the afct it starts off sounding like it's going to be a cover of the theme from 'Neighbours' 'F*** You' is just about the most insanely catchy thing I've come across since I had the flu just before Christmnas. 'F*** You' will lodge in your brain instantly and you will have to fight very hard to stop yourself singing it at home and in public (where you may risk getting arrested). Lily gets a bit cheeky in 'Who'd Have Known' which must be raising some eyebrows in Take That-land as it's virtually a clone of their 2007 hit 'Shine'.

'It's Not Me, It's You' does exactly what you want from a Lily Allen album and it does exactly what I expect from a pop album. Bright, breezy, full of life and surprisingly mature lyrically, this is a CD which will be taking up residency on Stuff's I-Pod for months and it comes highly recommended to anyone who likes damned good pop music.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

UK TV Charts - w/e 1st February 2009

A rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 1st February 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 *

1 Coronation Street (ITV1)................10.18 *
2 Dancing On Ice (ITV1)....................9.09 *
3 EastEnders (BBC1)........................8.60 *
4 Wild At Heart (ITV1).....................8.20
5 Emmerdale (ITV1).........................7.57 *
6 National Lottery: In It To Win It (BBC1).7.53
7 Casualty (BBC1)..........................7.33
8 Unforgiven (ITV1)........................7.11
9 Lark Rise To Candleford (BBC1)...........6.54
10 Harry Hill's TV Burp (ITV1)..............6.49
11 (Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life (BBC1). 6.34
11 (Total Wipeout (BBC1).....................6.34
13 Antiques Roadshow (BBC1).................6.17
14 Holby City (BBC1)........................5.80
15 Trial and Retribution (ITV1).............5.79
16 Hustle (BBC1)............................5.73
17 Your Country Needs You (BBC1)............5.61
18 The Bill (ITV1)..........................5.58 *
19 New You've Been Framed (ITV1)............5.34
20 Piers Morgan On Dubai (ITV1).............5.23

Chart commentary: Another pretty unremarkable week of figures with the long-running Winter schedule shows digging their claws into the top end of the chart. David Attenborough's one-off Charles Darwin nature documentary made a strong Sunday night showing and BBC1 seems to have found a new Saturday night entertainment hit with Richard "hamster" Hammond and his 'It's a Knockout'-like romp 'Total Wiepout.' Oh well. I considered dicontinuing the blog when I realised I'd actually have to type the name "P**rs M*rg*n" (I'm not prepared to type it twice in one night, sorry) for the number 20 slot as the ghasstly, odious so-called journalist did well with some cheap documentary where he wore shades and smarmed at people. Fortunately I won't have to repeat the experience next week as the second, undoubtedly equally vacuous show lost a million viewers and won't touch the Top 20. Personally, 'P**rs M*rg*n on Fire" is a show I'd pay to see. Or make. Interestingly 'Hustle' took a knock from P**rs on overnight figures but the former scored a spectacular 700,000 extra viewers on timeshift (shows recorded and watched within one week of broadcast) to reclaim top position in the 9pm Thursday night slot. Spin on that, M*rg*n! Indifferent figures for the finale of the Lloyd-Webber Eurovision fest 'Your Country Needs You' seem to suggest that the country actually doesn't need, want, or even have much interest in, the increasingly-dull Eurovision Song Contest. I sense another 'nul points' debacle come May.

TV Archive: Torchwood: Everything Changes (2006)

By now you’ve probably seen the new official BBC trailer for the soon-come five-part Torchwood mini-series ‘Children of Earth’, due to debut on BBC1 later this year. Much as I enjoy Torchwood – and despite its flaws I do enjoy it because it’s usually fun in an outrageous sort of way – it’s not a show I’ve ever felt the need to revisit very often. The odd episode occasionally strikes me as eminently rewatchable shortly after broadcast for all sorts of reasons but it’s very rare that I’ll decide, on a whim, to sit and watch one of the unlikely exploits of Captain Jack and his band of very special not-so-secret agents. In truth I’ve not given the show a lot of thought since series two ended last March – apart from eye-balling some location filming for the new series (videos still available!) and penning a couple of short stories just because a few ideas popped into my head.

But looking at the trailer for what seems to be a very promising, more focussed batch of Torchwood episodes set me to thinking that maybe it was time I went back and reacquainted myself with the series, just to remind myself what’s good about it and, on occasion, what’s not so good. I decided to rewind to the beginning, to the show’s very first episode, ‘Everything Changes’, first screened on BBC3 back in October 2006. At the time it presented as a solid, workmanlike effort from the pen of Russell T Davies, an effective if ultimately unexceptional introductory episode setting up the show’s premise and its central characters but its impact was rather diluted by the sheer playground idiocy of the follow-up ‘Day One’ screened immediately afterwards in a ‘new series’ double bill. The latter was such a sleazy, eye-rolling juvenile effort (sex alien on the loose, ooh, saucy!) that it had me, for one, severely worried for the future of the series (was this really the slick X Files/This Life hybrid I’d been promised?) and totally undermined the quiet, subtle work of Davies’s debut. Because, viewed now, away from the bang and crash of two full series, ‘Everything Changes’ is a remarkably understated, compelling piece of work, a script which tackles its potentially-ludicrous subject matter (a secret organisation under Cardiff fighting aliens?? Away with you!) and presents it with a four-square believability the show’s rare achieved since.

‘Everything Changes’ follows the template of Davies’ Dr Who series opener ‘Rose’. Here the audience learns about Torchwood (the organisation) through the eyes and ears of a naïve young female police officer, Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) who experiences their unorthodox working practices during what appears to be a brutal murder investigation in rainy Cardiff city centre. Gwen – and the audience – are intrigued by this bunch of hi-tech know-it-alls who muscle onto the scene with barely a word of warning, use a magic glove to resuscitate an apparently dead man and then swan off into the night in their Big Car. Captain Jack, lantern-jawed and flowing of greatcoat, is the most intriguing of all; to Gwen he’s the leader, the American man of mystery who’s obviously in charge of the group. To (some of) the audience he’s the bloke off Dr Who last seen being exterminated by Daleks, revived by super-Rose and left behind on a space station hundreds of thousands of years in the future. How come he’s here, now, in Cardiff of all places?

Watching the episode now I’m struck by how unusual it is in comparison to what was to come in later episodes. Davies, typically, nails the tone and style of the series in ways other writers have never yet managed (and I’m hopeful for a more even tone from the next batch of episodes as Davies has written a couple of them). ‘Everything Changes’ is an odd, disorientating episode because of its naturalism in the face of the absurd. Cardiff has never looked better and yet has never looked grimmer. Rain-washed streets, gloomy night skies, unusual, jagged, angular cityscapes. The dialogue is sharp, terse, to the point; the characters – even more outlandish ones like Captain Jack (who is here markedly less outlandish than he was before or has been since) – speak like real people, all unfinished, ungrammatical sentences, lots of stopping and starting and general bemusement. The people here speak the way people really do, not the way people do in TV drama where it’s all carefully-considered speeches and word-perfect syntax. Gwen and her chum PC Andy, at the crime scene, are initially more concerned with some forthcoming social occasion than the blood-splattered body splayed out in front of them in the rain. Gwen, after her first arms-length contact with the Torchwood crew, returns home to her chunky partner Rhys who, typically, is absorbed by the triviality of his life – the antics of his mate Banana Boat and their own mundane domestic arrangements. This all acts as a counterpoint to the wider world outside, a world where there’s a Rift in Space and Time running right through Cardiff and hardly anyone knows about it. The only people who do know about it are a very odd collection indeed…

The theme of ‘Everything Changes’, it seems to me, is Torchwood the organisation itself and the effect it has on the people who work for it. Jack’s the head of this little group of heroes working out of a cavernous underground sci-fi HQ (it has its own pet pterodactyl, you know) and while he’s a man of mystery he’s clearly very much in control, very focussed on his ‘job’ and his place as front-line defence against the flotsam and jetsam which wanders through the Rift. It’s the rest of the Torchwood crew who really provide the more interesting meat of the episode, even if it’s displayed in rather broad strokes in Davies’ script. Working for Torchwood is more than just a job, it can become an obsession. So when Jack tells Gwen that all the alien tech which washes up in Cardiff stays “on the base” we instantly cut to a string of sequences which demonstrate that this resolutely isn’t the case. Mousy Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori) takes a device home which can ‘read’ books in full and transfer the text to a computer screen (the nights must just have just flown by round at Tosh’s), Dr Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) uses alien pheromones to increase his own physical attraction to women (and men!) he fancies a bit of a quickie with and, most tellingly, second-in-command Suzie Costello (Indira Varma) can’t resist taking the resurrection glove home and experimenting on it with dead flies. If this strikes you as not entirely normal behaviour that’s because it seems pretty indicative of how Torchwood gets into the blood of the people who work for it – and once again Davies uses the economy of a handful of quick, dialogue-free sequences to emphasise this to the audience in much the same way he establishes the crushing mundanity of Rose’s existence in the first few scenes of that Dr Who debut in 2005.

Torchwood’s mission statement is never clearer than in the taut confrontation between Gwen, who’s had her recent memories of Torchwood erased courtesy of Captain Jack and a swift dose of retcon (Jack also taking alien tech “off the base”) and Sizue who, it turns out, has been the serial killer all along – but purely in the interests of scientific research. Suzi’s become fascinated by the resurrection glove absolutely to beyond the point of obsession. She needs to learn more about the glove, what it can do, how it works – and the only way she feels she can do it is by randomly killing and bringing the victims back to life. It’s an obsession which has consequences later on in the series, of course but here we see how it’s led her off the straight and narrow and turned her, inadvertently, into a ruthless psychopathic killer. Holding Gwen at gunpoint in the shadow of the Millennium Centre’s water tower in Cardiff Bay, Suzi, realising that Gwen is a bit special and that her game is every probably up, euologises about life working for Torchwood and how the ‘shit’ keeps making its way to earth. It’s a Universe-view almost diametrically opposed to the one presented on Dr Who where, despite all the monsters and the death and destruction, the Universe is depicted as a bold, bright, splendid place. Torchwood’s Universe is badder, bleaker, far more pessimistic and depressing. Ultimately Suzi realises she can’t live without Torchwood in her life and takes the only way out – she blows her own head off. As episode endings go it’s not exactly up there with the exuberance of Rose running in slo-mo into the TARDIS or Sarah Jane in her own series constantly gazing up and the sky and marvelling at how lovely everything is.

But then that’s Torchwood. The Universe is full of scum and Torchwood has to try and keep a lid on it. Working for Torchwood is presented as a joyless, thankless and every often short-lived occupation with a high mortality rate – but it’s a job which is almost impossible to give up and very often impossible to reconcile with anything recognisable as a normal life. That’s what ‘Everything Changes’ is setting up and that’s where the series ultimately takes us…

I’d go as far as to say that ‘Everything Changes’ is the best episode of Torchwood to date. It’s edgy, fearless, uncompromising and dramatically unconventional. Visually it looks gorgeous – Torchwood HQ the Hub is a masterpiece of set design even though I’ve never really been able to get a proper sense of its architecture and where things are in relation to one another, but then maybe that’s the point. Attempts to make Cardiff look like Los Angeles are always doomed to failure but stylish aerial shots of the city at night do their best and add to the atmosphere but maybe the episode goes too far in trying to depict Jack as some sort of super-hero, defending the city as he stands on top of tall buildings gazing out across his domain – frankly it looks a bit silly. Equally silly is the final scene where Jack has a heart-to-heart with Gwen, tells her he can't die and invites her to join Torchwood to replace the late Suzi. The camera pulls back and we see that, for no apparent or logical reason, they’re standing right on the roof of the Millennium Centre. Why? how did they get up there? Why did they go up there? There are plenty of bars and coffee shops in the Bay – the centre’s got one itself! - which might be better venues for ersatz job interviews than an inaccessible rooftop. But that’s just me; it looks nice and dramatic and I’m sure that’s why it’s there and ultimately these are just minor questionable moments in an episode which, over two years on, genuinely surprised me by its effectiveness as a piece of story-telling, an episode which rewards rewatching (often the case with Davies’ episodes) and which captures the ‘spirit’ of Torchwood in ways that so many episodes which followed so frustratingly weren’t able to.

So as we coast towards a new era for Torchwood, the five-part ‘Children of Earth’ serial which will expose the series to a potential huge new audience and which, one way or another, will determine the show’s future, you could do a lot worse than take yourself right back to the start and remind yourself just how good Torchwood has been – and hopefully can be again.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Welcome, welcome...

I've just added a 'visitor counter' to the site so I can keep a sly eye on how many people are wasting their my World of Stuff with their cyber-presence and I'm rather heartened to see I've had over 100 individual hits since I added the counter a couple of days ago. That's good. I think. Welcome to you all, thanks for popping over, do come back. You'll find I'm a bit haphazard in updating the site - I've got lots of Stuff to post, lots of opinions to share, lots of things to recommend - it's just that I'm sometimes a bit slow in getting stuff up here! But bear with me, stick around, I'll make it worth your while...somehow.

So, having acknowledged that you're coming here - whether it's to read my reviews and comments or just look at the odd pretty video - why not leave a post and tell me what you like or don't like? What would you like to see here if you're planning on coming back for more? More music reviews, film reviews, TV reviews? Original fiction (I do that too, y'know). Go on, don't be shy...say hello when you pop in for a browse!

Coming soon: The best new show on the box; BBC3's brilliant Being Human... 24 - Jack Bauer's seventh bad day... this new Dr Who chap Matt Smith in BBC2's Moses Jones... Torchwood retrospective; episode one...Movie update; seen at the cinema and on DVD...and much, much more...

Thursday, 5 February 2009

UK TV Charts - w/e 25th January 2009

A rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 25th January 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 *

1 Coronation Street (ITV1)..................9.94 *
2 EastEnders (BBC1).........................8.53 *
3 Dancing On Ice (ITV1).....................7.78 *
4 Wild At Heart (ITV1)......................7.48
5 Emmerdale (ITV1)..........................7.37 *
6 Casualty (BBC1)...........................7.18
7 National Lottery: In It To Win It (BBC1)..6.96
8 Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)..................6.58
9 Unforgiven (ITV1).........................6.47
10 Lark Rise To Candleford (BBC1)............6.31
11 Hustle (BBC1).............................6.30
12 Harry Hill TV Burp Compilation (ITV1).....6.00
13 Trial and Retribution (ITV1)..............5.92
14 Holby City (BBC1).........................5.81
15 FA Cup Football (Saturday)(ITV1)..........5.48
16 The Bill (ITV1)...........................5.44 *
17 Hunter (BBC1).............................5.30
18 Inauguration of President Obama (BBC1)....5.16
19 Friday Night With Jonathan Ross (BBC1)....5.06
20 Total Wipeout (BBC1)......................5.05

Chart commentary: Another samey week in the chart with not much movement in the upper reaches and nothing hugely noticeable further down the listings. Hustle continues to impress with a performance which took it within a frustrating whisker of the Top 10 and two TV 'events' score highly - the Inauguration of President Obama pulled in a large early evening crowd, some football match or other (don't ask me!) dragged the punters in of a Saturday night on ITV. Elsewhere the return of Jonathan Ross to his Friday night BBC1 slot in the wake of the ludicrous 'Sachsgate' furore saw a strong 5 million plus audience tune in, possibly hoping they'd be able to phone in and complain about something they actually saw this time instead of just reading about it and being whipped up into a frenzy by the tabloids. Still no sign of a late resurgence for the ailing Demons which can only flounder way beneath the Top 20 wondering where and why it all went so very, very wrong...

Sunday, 1 February 2009

DVD Review: Survivors - Series One boxset

Whilst opinion remains somewhat divided amongst the 'Survivors' fan community (yes, there is one and it's...well, a bit stuck in the past, it has to be said) about the merits or otherwise of the BBC's recent 'reimagining' (and I'm getting a bit tired of that word now) of Terry Nation's classic 1970s post-plague thriller series, the fact is that the new six-part series was a pretty decent hit, its first episode pulling in 7 million viewers and the rest of the run settling at just under 6 million. The show was also increasingly- popular on the BBC's iPlayer viewing platform so it's no surprise to hear that a second series has been commissioned, due to start filming shortly. Now, just over a month after the first series finished, here's a 3-disc DVD release to get stuck into so you enjoy the whole thing all over again at your own leisure. That's what I'll be doing.

As a massive fan of the original show, I had my reservations about the new series (you can find those reservations posted in my Blog archive) but fortunately the new show far exceeded my expectations -mainly because I was able to set aside my devotion to the original and enjoy the new show as a series in its own right, living away from the shadow of the 1970s version. 'Survivors' 2008, at just six episodes, had a lot to do and did it, on the whole, remarkably well, setting up the disaster scenario in the brooding, doomy extended first episode and then building up its cast opf characters throughout the rest of the run. But five full episodes really wasn't enough to do justice to the cast or their characters and one or two were left a bit under-nourished, particularly Greg Preston (Patterson Joseph), a mainstay of the 1970s version for its first two years and pivotal in the third despite his absence from most of it. The 'new' Greg only started to find his depth of character in the final episode where the audience gets to learn a bit about his life pre-plague. Otherwise Greg's a fairly mono-syllabic presence lurking in the background, a man who's supposed to be a loner but who can't seem to pull himself away from the strangers he finds himself living with. The stars of the show are undoubtedly Julie Graham as Abby Grant and Max Beesley as Tom Price. Abby is a strong and determined woman who, for much of the series, just wants to find her missing son. Abby exerts a huge pull over the others in the group, keeping them together when all hope is lost and trying to encourage them to try to forge a new life in a new world. Beesley's Tom Price is a ruthless, self-centred killer, free from prison and with his own agenda. He's strong, powerful, resourceful and utterly untrustworthy. This makes him captivating to watch and Beesley captures his intensity brilliantly. Kudos also to Phillip Rhys as former playboy Al and Zoe Tapper (scratch 'Demons' off the CV, Zoe) as Anya.

One of the sticks so often sued to beat the original 'Survivors' was that it was relentlessly middle-class. Ironically, the same (and possibly worse) could be said of the new series - Abby and co are generally well off, well-bred, well-spoken. The lower classes are depicted as greedy, vicious, gun-toting ne'er do-wells - plus ca change as they say.

The whole series is taut, gripping and exciting - episode six, in particular, with a good half-dozen plot threads jostling for attention, is one of the most energised pieces of TV I've seen in years (and I've seen all the new Who episodes, remember) and by the end of it, with its multiple cliffhangars (and I won't spoil them here in case you've not caught up with it yet) had me right at the edge of my seat begging for more.

Adrian Hodges has taken the bones of Nation's original idea and refashioned it for the 21st century. I'm cool with that. I've got the old series boxsets on my shelves for when I need a shot of slow 1970s nostalgia. I'm more than happy with the new series - my only real misgivings being the unmemorable theme music and the dreadfully inappropriate pounding incidental score (a post-plague world of silence needs an atmospheric quiet ambient backdrop, not great drum rhythms and dramatic stings reminding us that this is just a drama). The success of 'Survivors' can only lead to more great fantasy dramas on prime time British TV ( a remake of 'Day of the Triffids', my favourite ever novel, is up next - now that's what I call an exciting prospect!) and after the barren years of the 1990s when SF might well have been a synonym for hard-core porn on British television, that's got to be something we can only rejoice at.

The DVDs: A chunky, nicely-packaged 3 disc set with that misleading publicity picture suggesting that Freema Agyeman's Jenny and Shaun Dingwall's David are 'survivors' when we all know they're not on the cover, the disc themselves are beautifully presented with a great 5.1 surround sound mix. Don't get too worked up about what sem to be generous extras, though; 'A New World', the 'making of' documentary, is made up of loads of clips, a few talking heads comments from Hodges and the cast and not much else. Old school fans will find themselves irritated by the fact that Hodges doesn't reference the fact that the series is a remake and even states how "determined" he was that there should be a strong female lead in the series and that it was one of his earliest ideas for the show. where it's overdue, I think, Mr Hodges? Elsewhere a few short character profiles telling us nothing we didn't glean from watching the episodes and a brief but interesting FX feature. There's also an 'Easter egg' on disc one but I'm damned if I can find it. The episodes themselves make this a worthwhile purchase as it's a series you're sure to want to return to.

UK TV Charts - w/e 18th January 2009

With apologies for this week's delay, here's a rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 18th January 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 *

1 Coronation Street (ITV1)...................10.52m *
2 EastEnders (BBC1)..........................8.94 *
3 Dancing On Ice (ITV1).......................8.41 *
4 Unforgiven (ITV1)...........................7.82
5 Wild At Heart (ITV1)........................7.73
6 Emmerdale (ITV1)............................7.56 *
7 Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)....................7.15
8 (Casualty (BBC1)............................7.00
(National Lottery: In It To Win It (BBC1)....7.00
10 Harry Hill's TV Burp Compilation (ITV1).....6.99
11 Lark Rose To Candleford (BBC1)..............6.46
12 New You've Been Framed (ITV1)...............6.26
13 Hustle (BBC1)...............................5.90
14 Film: Ice Age 2 (ITV1)......................5.85
15 Holby City (BBC1)...........................5.83
16 Hunter (BBC1)...............................5.78
17 Trial And Retribution (ITV1)................5.68
18 Total Wipeout (BBC1)........................5.33
19 The One Show (BBC1)........................5.09 *
20 The Bill (ITV1).............................5.02

Chart comment: An unexceptional week in the ratings as the schedules settle into their Winter groove. Looks as if the two soaps will be maintaining their top positions for the foreseeable but it's heartening to see a hgue range of drama titles cropping up all over the chart - from Lark Rise to Trial and Retibution, around half the Top 20 is made up of non-soap dramas (if you discount Holby and Casualty as soaps). Best of the bunch is Hustle, its figures holding up well in its fifth series which must bode well for a sixth next year (and star Adrian lester has already said he'd be up for one more series). ITV's 'Demons' (deservedly) sinks out of the Top 20 for its third episode and with ratings still tumbling it's not likely to wander back in again. BBC1 will be quietly pleased by the figures for the first episode of its two-part detective drama Hunter, a spin-off from the five-night serial Five Days screened a couple of years ago. Ice Age 2 shows that the right film at the right time can still pull in a decent audience despite the availability of movies on any number of other platforms.