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???

DVD Review: Moon

Good science-fiction films - proper science-fiction films not set in a Galaxy far,far away or else inspired by a popular range of kid's toys - are a bit like buses. You wait an age for one and then, lo, two come along at once. Or, for the purposes of this analogy, two in a year. Which, frankly, is two more than we usually get. Chances are you probably saw Neill Blomkamp's 'District 9' - about a giant alien spaceship full of alien 'prawns' suspended over Johannesburg and the eviction officer infected by alien DNA during the repatriation process because it became the darling of the genre and tabloid Press. It was good but it wasn't that good. Sadly Duncan Jones' debut feature, a science-fiction movie called 'Moon' didn't get the same treatment, despite being regarded by those who saw it as a bit of a cult classic in the making. Now 'Moon' gets its own shot (geddit?) at glory as it hits DVD and Blu Ray and, hopefully, finds a wider and more appreciative audience than it managed in theatres.

Actually, the home viewing experience is probably where 'Moon; comes into its own. It's a much smaller, more intimate movie than most in its genre. despite its 200+ visual effects sequences, 'Moon' isn't about spectacle, it's about humanity and, to quote a well-worn and sometimes rather tedious cliche, it's about the nature of humanity and...gulp...what it means to be human. Seriously. 'Moon' stars the superb Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, a space engineer coming to the end of his three-year stint as supervisor of a Lunar Industries base mining a vital source of energy from the dark side of the moon. His only company is Gerty, the base's cool sentient computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Not unnaturally Sam's going a bit stir crazy and is looking forward to his return to Earth and his wife and young family. But an accident out on the moon's surface changes everything; knocked unconscious when his lunar rover crashes, Sam wakes up in the base's infirmary, being tended by Gerty. But he's no longer the only human on the moon base. But in a sense, he is...

Channelling similarly-themed deep space 'solitary man' movies like 'Silent Running' and 'Solaris', 'Moon' is a strange, dislocating and uneasy film. It's not exciting in the traditional sci-fi style but then it's not supposed to be. It's a movie which intrigues and captivates, drawing you into the story and Sam's dilemma despite the fact there's little real sense of danger or palpable threat. Here's a man who is unravelling through solitude and neither he nor the audience can really ever be completely certain what's real and what's pure fanciful imagination. For Sam awakes to find himself joined by a clone of himself and before long he realises that he, too, is a clone, one in a long line of Sams engineered to man the base, replaced when damaged or worn out, their individuality and humanity buried long ago. Aware of the truth of himself and yet struggling to accept it, Sam is devastated to find out that time has passed, his wife on Earth is long-dead, his baby daughter now a teen who doesn't know him, and that his entire life is both meaningless and lifeless. Sam and the next clone Sam clash but ultimately work together for the sake of their own 'lives', the clock ticking as a relief ship approaches from Earth.

Writer/director Duncan Jones (he wrote the script especially for Rockwell when the actor told him he'd love to make a science-fiction movie) handles the dense and yet sparse narrative with style, the camera prowling around the cramped, stark lunar base set and what a joy to see a return to traditional special effects values with the table-top lunarscape models, the lunar rover trundling across the dusty regolith and the great clunky, ugly spaceshiop landing at the base in the film's final moments. The FX here remind us yet again of what we've lost in the age of CGI as modelwork has a realism and believability no amount of hurtling pixels can replicate. And of course this is Rockwell's film (there are a few other performers such as benedict Wong and Matt berry from 'The IT Crowd') but the movie stands or falls by Rockwell's performance and he's mesmerising here as both Sam and his clone replacemnent; the former is battered and bloodied after his lunar accident, the latter fresh and clean and newborn and as yet unsullied by the pressure of a lonely existence millions of miles from home. Rockwell inhabits Sam (both of them) and it's probably the most electrifying and real performance I've seen in a genre movie in years.

'Moon' is a film you'll want to watch more than once and I suspect it's a movie which will reveal more and more of itself on repeat viewing. I'm currently watching a review disc of the 'Transformers' sequel and, one hour in, my senses are black and blue from the visual and aural overload and my brain is leaking out of the side of my head from the vacuity of the script. 'Moon' is the absolute and perfect antidote to mindless popcorn stuff like this. Beautifully-crafted, sensitively-filmed and with a mesmerising central performance and subtle visual effects, 'Moon' is a genre film to cherish.

The DVD: Not the most colourful film you'll ever see but the cold moonscape and the functional greys and whites of the moon base are pinsharp clear on DVD. Copious extras too with two commentaries (both featuring Jones), an early Jones short, a coiuple of short but interesting 'making ofs' and a couple of Q&A sessions.

'Moon' is released on DVD and Blu Ray on 16th November 2009 in the UK.

Friday, 13 November 2009

TV Review: 'Collision' ITV drama triumph???

This week I have been mostly watching a new drama on ITV1. I know, crazy, isn't it? Who knew I'd ever be writing a sentence like that again? I admit I've been largely contemptuous of the output of the self-proclaimed "brighter side" (I have been known to refer to it as "the sh**er side" from time to time) since it fell under the spell of the grotesquerie known as Simon Cowell and his associated Hellspawn minions. I don't do the talent shows, the reality shows, the endless soap episodes. All that's been left has been the turgid drawn-out detective dramas and an addiction to 'The Bill' which has been killed stone-dead by the new post-watershed format which has sapped the show of its life and energy. But that's another story. ITV's just not been for me - and don't get me started to the advertising breaks everey thirty seconds. I even recently considered tuning ITV out of my snazzy new HD TV but reckoned that'd be stupid as I might, one day, miss something worth looking at. That day, it seems has come. Five of 'em, in fact.

Inevitably, ITV have found favour with me again by ripping off a format pioneered and championed by the BBC. This week ITV have been screening, at 9pm, every weekday evening, a drama 'event' called 'Collision', in the style of BBC1's 'Five Days' 'Criminal Justice' and 'Torchwood 3.' In the absence of a full new series of 'Dr Who', 'Torchwood' has easily been the best UK drama on TV this year. Easily. That may change if 'Collision' doesn't fumble the ball in its final episode later tonight (Friday). If you've not seen 'Collision' do yourself a favour and track it down on the ITV Player or whatever TV catch-up service is available to you - this is British TV drama at pretty much its contemporary best and it's worth the five hour commitment to watch something this absorbing, this classy.

'Collision' is the very best sort of car-crash television. Created by the prodigrous TV and film writer Anthony Horowitz ('Foyle's War', 'Stormbreaker', er...'Crime Traveller') and co-written by Horowitz and one Michael A Walker, this is a complex and non-linear thriller which tells of the events leading up to and the aftermath of a multi-vehicle pile-up on the A12. There are a number of fatalaties and, due to the presence of a Police car at the scene, fears that the Police may even have had some responsibility for the crash. DI John Tolin (former 'Primeval' star Douglas Henshell) is back on duty following the death of his own wife months earlier in a traffic accident which also left his teenage daughter paralkysed and in a wheelchair for life. Tolin, embroiled in an affair with his colleague SIO Ann Stallwood ('Shaun of the Dead' and 'Secret Smile' star Kate Ashfield) at the time of his wife's death, begins his investigation into the crash and is dismayed to find Smallwood is on the Police investigation team. Their frosty working relationship begins a slow thaw when Tolin's investigations into the accident reveal a few things which just don't add up; it seems that even the dead had their secrets and some of the survivors aren't telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Any drama series ultimately stands or falls on the strength of its first episode. This is where the story is set up, the characters put into place, the narrative given its momentum. Due to the poor attention span of TV audiences these days, audiences happy to sit for hours gawping at gormless karaoke singers or watching people who were vaguely famous in 1976 eatings insects in the Outback but uncomfortable with the notion of actually sitting and absorbing an intelligent story for a change, it's essential that the story is engrossing enough to draw the viewers drawn into the drama instantly, compelling to keep watching night after night. 'Collision' manages this feat admirably, despite the fact it introduces literally dozens of characters into the mix - some of them appearing for just a handful of minutes - and then throws away the rule book by telling, in numerous flashbacks, how the various characters involved in the actual crash found themselves on the A12 at the fatal moment. It's cleverly done, albeit a bit jarring for an ITV drama audience more used to the simple story-telling of a 'Midsomer Murders' or, simpler still, a soap opera. The first episode even builds up a palpable sense of dread as we slowly get to feel comfortable with the characters and prepare ourselves for the collision itself, the moment which changes things forever for all of them.

But once episode one is out of the way, ending with the crash itself - perhaps not as spectacular as we might have imaged, but powerful and dramatic and heart-in-mouth enough as it is, the series really picks up its pace and never lets the audience sit back and relax, demanding increasing attention as the episodes roll by, introducing new characters, new backstory, leaping back to characters barely referenced since the first episode, picking up oin threads hintyed at back at the start and, in some cases, gradually developing relationships and storylines. Horwitz and Walker tell their mutli-layered story deftly and with style and whilst, on occasion, some characters seem neglected for just a bit too long, their scripts are slick and sophisticated, laying on the intrigue and the mystery as the story weaves around between people-trafficking, industrial espionage, infidelity and, it seemed at first until the actual outcome was something a bit more prosaic (if a bit unlikely!!), even a bit of paedophilia. Yikes. 'Collision' has assembled an impressive and frnakly-astonishing rosta of acting talent, including faces we don't get to see much of on TV any more, old school character actors who remind us what a wealth of real talent being wasted out there as TV continues its obsession with cheap rerality tosh at the expense of good drama. So here we get, as well as Henshell and Ashield, the always-watchable Paul McGann, the brilliant Phil Davis, jan ("Juyst Good Friends" David, the edgy Dean Lennox Kelly and his brother Craig, veteran Sylvia Sims, Brian ("Get Some In!") Pettifer, Claire ("Carrie and Barry", "Dr Who") Rushbrook as well as newer faces like Leonora ("Being Human") Critchlow, Lucy ("Robin Hood") and Billie Piper lookey-likey Jo Woodcock, a real talent and a name to watch out for in the future. With a cast of this calibre and scripts of this confident quality, 'Collision' could hardly fail and, by episode four we're completely sold on the series, embroiled in the labyrithine lives of its characters and anxious to find out where it's all heading and where it will all end. Special kudos for the slap-in-the-face climax to episode four which sees one major character - and star name - come to a surprising and grisly end.

I really can't praise 'Collision' highly enough. With the BBC floundering badly this Autumn season, ITV have raised their game spectacularly and whilst much of their output is still a bit too tacky and disposable for my tastes, they're to be absolutely congratulated for freeing up five slots they'd normally have occupied with cheap tabloid documentaries or - worse - the ghastly Rrinny and Susannah - and given its audience a proper, meaty adult drama. 'Collision' has been a pretty substantial hit for the ITV Network; let's hope this is the start of something good for ITV, rather than just a flash-in-the-pan one-off cast aside in favour of the easy quick-fix of more gurning "I want this more than anything" reality show losers. TV should be about so much more - and 'Collision' shows that, even on ITV, it could yet be. Brilliant and unmissable TV.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 1st November 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 1st 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)......................13.13 *
2) Doc Martin (ITV1).........................9.95
3) Coronation Street (ITV1)..................9.53 *
4) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1)..............9.14
5) EastEnders (BBC1).........................8.92 *
6) Emmerdale (ITV1)..........................7.06 *
7) Countryfile (BBC1)........................6.90
8) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)...........6.77
9) (Murderland (ITV1).........................6.61
9) (Benidorm (ITV1)...........................6.61
11) Midsomer Murders (ITV1)...................6.43
12) Merlin (BBC1).............................6.14
13) Harry Hill's TV Burp (ITV1, Sat)..........5.94
14) (Holby City (BBC1).........................5.86
14) (Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)..................5.86
16) Casualty (BBC1)...........................5.63
17) Life (BBC1)...............................5.55
18) P**** M*****'s Life Stories (ITV1)........5.29
19) Waterloo Road (BBC1)......................5.06
20) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)............5.00

BBC: 10 ITV: 10

Monday, 9 November 2009

DVD Review: 'Frozen River'

Tired of spandexed superheroes hitting seven shades of CGI out of each other? Bored with boy wizards and moody vampires mooching about your cinema screen? Slightly fed up with outsized robots demolishing one another? Yep, me too. Allow Stuff to offer you a 93-minute cinematic penacea to your celluloid ennui in the form of 'Frozen River', an absolute gem of a movie without an explosion to its name and a film which, whilst being set in the snowy wastes of upper state New York, will bring a rosy glow to your heart and remind you just what it was about cinema you fell in love with in the first place.

Ray Eedy (Melissa Leo)lives with her two kids in a ramshackle static home on the icy plains of the Canadian/New York state border near a Mohawk Indian reservation. She earns a pittance working at a local hardware store and what money she does earn is stolen by her errant husband who slopes off and gambles it all away. It's nearly Christmas and Ray is in danger of losing everything including the family's dreamed-of new luxury (well, compared to the one they currently live in) new static home. Desperate and at her wit's end Ray tries to track down her husband before he can blow all their hard-earned cash and she finds his car outside a tatty Bingo hall. Much to her surprise a chunky young Mohawk girl comes out and casually drives off in the car, having seen its owner leaving the vehicle behind and therefore assuming it was fair game. Ray follows the girl to her own grubby caravan home. This is Lila (Misty Upham, sister of Theydontlikeit...oh, please yourselves) a surly short-sighted girl with her own problems and a reputation as a people smuggler. Somehow Ray allows Lila to persuade her to use the trunk of her car as a means of smuggling Chinese immigrants across the unpatrolled border via a potentially-perilous drive across the frozen St Lawrence River. Ray and Lila strike up an uneasy alliance and the money their partnership brings in eases Ray's financial burden. As the New Year dawns Ray embarks on one final trip with Lila...a trip which will have devastating consequences for Ray.

This is a powerful, raw and yet ultimately heart-warming movie from first-time writer/director Courtney Hunt, a film which picked up a string of festival accolades and led to a well-deserved Oscar nod for star Melissa Leo who delivers a striking and compelling performance as Ray, a woman on the edge who'll do whatever she has to do to keep a roof over her family's heads. The stark, snowy, muddy backdrop gives the film a detached and rather stately otherworldliness and there are echoes of the classic 'Thelma and Louise' in the edgy story of two women bound together in adversity and yet never even considering giving up. Both women become tougher and more ruthless as they become more deeply embroiled in their illegality and there's a palpable edge-of-the-seat excitement and sense of dread as one particular trip sees Ray forced to dump one immigant couple's luggage out into the snow only to find, at journey's end, that they've thrown a living cargo out into sub-zero temperatures. The race against time to rescue the hold-all, at dead of night in the freezing cold, is stomach-churningly agonising.

'Frozen River' is a passionate and realistic film full of spot-on performances (apart from Leo and Upham there are great turns from Ray's two kids), beautifully crisp and cold cinematography and the lack of a substantial music score reminds us just how much modern cinema's insistence on big, bombastic background music can take us out of the fiction. If you're looking for a breather from action movies and clumsy American comedies, Stuff can't begin to recommend 'Frozen River' highly enough. Intelligent, thought-provoking and, above all, a real human story (for a change), 'Frozen River' is a film you'll cherish and remember far longer than the latest 'Transformers' or 'X-Men' effort. A clear contender for 'film of the year' as far as this blogger is concerned.

The DVD: The film looks gorgeous despite the fact it's not exactly the most colourful movie you'll ever see, the charactersd being uniformly drab and unglamourous. But DVD brings out the pinpoint clarity of the film's snowy locales and whillt the disc isn't exactly bulging with extras - there are fairly substantial interviews the star and the director - this is a disc that's about the film far more than the frills. An essential purchase for lovers of quality movies.

Coming soon to Stuff: Moon on DVD, Braveheart on Blu-Ray, ITV's fabulous five-night drama 'Collision', 'Sarah Jane' update, 'Waters of Mars' reviewed, 2010, the new CD from Robbie "The Robster" Williams and much more...

Friday, 6 November 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 25th October 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 25th October 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).......................13.41 *
2) Coronation Street (ITV1)...................9.88 *
3) EastEnders (BBC1)..........................9.45 *
4) Doc Martin (ITV1)..........................9.23
5) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1)...............8.88
6) Question Time (BBC1).......................8.35
7) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1)............7.41
8) Murderland (ITV1)..........................7.32
9) Harry Hill's TV Burp (Sat. ITV1)...........7.05
10) Emmerdale (ITV1)...........................6.98 *
11) Benidorm (ITV1)............................6.68
12) Countryfile (BBC1).........................5.90
13) Jimmy's Food Factory (BBC1)................5.70
14) New You've Been Framed (ITV1)..............5.57
15) Merlin (BBC1)..............................5.53
16) Holby City (BBC1)..........................5.48 *
17) Casualty (BBC1)............................5.45
18) Have I Got News For You (BBC1).............5.43
19) Harry Hill's TV Burp (Sun, ITV1)...........5.39 (rpt)
20) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)...................5.06

BBC: 10 ITV: 10

Chart commentary: Another level-pegging week with BBC and ITV both managing ten entries in the 20...but most of the BBC's are in the lower half of the chart. Say what you like about ITV (and I frequently do) they do at least make an effort now in the Autumn and throw their 'big guns' at the screen to great effect. Their ratings and share performance is on the increase because they're carpet-bombing the schedule with the sorts of shows their audience likes to watch. The BBC schedule has been poor at best this autumn with barely any new dramas or comedies and just the tired old warhorses like Holby City and Casualty staggering across the week like wounded animals on their last legs and Merlin -a reliable Saturday night performer - shunted around the night at the whim of the horribly-overlong dancing extravanganza. Come on, BBC, where are the new dramas? The comedies? The only real new impact they've made this week is with a huge edition of 'Question Time' (which usually manages 2 - 3 million) ballooning to over 8 million thanks to the controversial appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin - and some cheap daytime cooking filler promoted to the evening schedule. This isn't good enough. Still, the new series of 'Waterloo Road' and 'Spooks' have made strong starts in the last week or show and should boost BBC1's presence and of course the forthcoming new Dr Who special should make a strong top 5 showing in a few weeks.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Dr Who: here's to the future...

The 21st century reboot of Dr Who is, I think all right-thinking people would agree, a pretty remarkable thing. One of the most consistemntly remarkable things about it is the way that, after nearly five years back on our screens, it hasn't started to wear out its welcome yet. The audience isn't getting bored, they aren't drifting away, they're as enraptured and engaged by the series as they were when it exploded back onto BBC Tv in March 2005. Series three and four, in particular, have seen average viewing figures climbing steadily and the most recent Christmas episodes have pulled in an astonishing 13 million viewers. Much of this is down to the show's brilliant publicity machine and the way it's been (and is being) stage-managed by Russell T Davies and his crew. 2009 has been a prime exmaple of how the show has kept a bubbling presence in the nation's consciousness even when it's only aired one episode so far this year.

The Dr Who internet fan community (largely represented by self-important little fan forums which take themselves a bit too seriously) has spouted a lot of old rubbish about 2009 being a 'gap' year. Of course it's not a gap year - Dr Who has been on the telly and will be on the telly again this year. No, the show's been on reduced duties in 2009 for all sorts of reasons - one of which is precisely so the audience doesn't get sick of the series rolling around year after year like The X Factor or the dancing thing. But Dr Who is never far away from the nation's hearts even when it isn't broadcasting; all year we've had little teasers of what's to come, photos and features in the press about the new cast, the filming of Tennant's last few stories, photos from the set of the new series. The public knows the show is out there even if it isn't on screen regularly at the moment.

Which brings me to the events of the last seven days when Dr Who has found its profile at its heighest since last Christmas and the is-he/isn't-he furore over 'The Next Doctor'. This week has seen David Tennant making his much-awaited guest appearance in two glorious episodes of 'The Sarah Jane Adventures' (more of which later this week on Stuff), cleverly timed to coincide with the Press launch for the next of this year's special Who episodes 'The Waters of Mars' (now confirmed for broadcast at 7pm on BBC1 on Sunday 15th November) and the resulting Press coverage both in print on-line (all of it effusive and extravagenty-positive) along with reports of Steven Moffat's address to the Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival where be 'bigged-up' 11th Doctor Matt Smith and gave some tantalisingly-vague hints about what audiences can expect next year has made everyone sit up[ and takle notice and realise theyv'e actualkly missed the Doctor this year. Which, I suspect, has rather been the point of the 'reduced duties' year and all this sudden rush of publicity.

It's all clever stuff, beautifully-orchestrated and meticulously planned; hard not to wish the BBC could take these or similar techniques and deploy them for more of its output - these days new dramas and comedies slip into the schedule unannoucned and with little fanfare and are left to sink or swim on their own merits, the audience expected to seek them out rather than being constantly reminded of their existence. Sadly at this time of year the BBC is pretty much fixated on its Saturday night dance-a-thon and anything else takes its own chances. But meanwhile, as we anxiously await the end of an era for Dr Who - and having seen Tennant light up the screen again in 'Sarah Jane' this week, it's fair to say I'm dreading his departure more than ever, frankly - it won't do any harm to look over the horizon, into 2010 and wodner what the fickle finger of fate (and a potentially-fickle Tennant-loyal audience) might have in store for Dr Who series 5.

If it's not too inane a question to ask of a series about a time travller, what does the future hold for Dr Who? Are the glory days about to end? Will Tennant's fans - and that's pretty much everyone - turn awayu from the series when he leaves? Will they boycott the new boy before he's even met his new companion? I have no idea but at least we can look at what we know about what's to come and, ultimastely,. let's hope that Dr Whho's audience (who must be pretty smart to be watching this show in the first place) are smart enough not to let the exit of the most popular star the show's ever had sour them against the series for the future.

We've been here before, of course. In a sense this is a dilemma the show has faced ever since William Hartnell morphed into Patrick Troughton back in 1966. The idea of recasting the Doctor was forced on the show's then-production team by the fact that the ailing Hartnell had to bow out due to the poressures of the show's near year-long filming schedule. Recasting the star of a high profile TV show is pretty small beer these days but back in 1966 it was pretty much unheard of. But by casting the hugerly-=talented actor to portray a vastly-different sort of Doctor, the show pulled it off and forged on triumphantly for three more years. In 1970, teetering on the edge of cancellation in the face of declining viewer interest, the show did it again and surged into the 1970s in colour with Jon Pertwee dandifying the role for five successful years. In 1974 Tom Baker took over, becoming the lognest-running and, until recently, the most successful Doctor in the show's history. So successful was he that his successors - Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester Mccoy - never really stood a chance and the series finally slid off screen with a whiumper and tiny audiences in 1989. More recently we've seen the series relaunched in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as a dour, tougher version of the Time lord, all leather-jackets and big boots. The series was a massive hit all voer again from the outset - but the week after transmission of 'Rose', the first episode - news leaked that Eccelston had already quit the series and would be replaced for the already commissioned second and third series. Davies and his team maintained that this was always the plan, that Eccleston was always a one-year deal and the idea was to totally surprise the audience by killing him off and regenerating him at the end of the series. Other rumours suggest that Eccleston wasn't happy with some of the material and people he was working with and found the schedule too gruelling so unexpectedly quite - the truth is we'll very probably never know the real truth. However, before long relatively-unkown Scottish actor David Tennant was announced as Eccleston's replacement - amidst mumuring that there was no way this bloke could be as good, it was all voer, the show was finished before it had really had a chance to find its stride.

Watching Eccleston's episodes now it's easier to sit and wodner what might have been. How might he have developed the role in a second batch of episodes, basking in the glow of the success of the first run and extra rush of confidence it would have given him? We'll never know, of course, and fortunately, when tennant came on board iat Christmas 2005 we all stropped really caring. Thsi enw guy was good - he looked as if he was born to play this role. Lighter and efecter and more at home with the wackier side of Dr Who, tennant took the fledgling success and dragged the series to new heights across his three full series. More than that, in his geek-chic crumpled suit, overcoat and red Converse trainers get-up, he seemed to typify and embody an 'everyman' quality about the Doctor. Here's a man like you and me, a man on the street - but what things he can do, what secrets he has, what places he's seen.
Open, likable,w arm and witty - and even a bit dark on occasion - Tennant's Doctor was more welcoming than Eccleston's and as a result he enticed a bigger and, it seems, more passionmate audience. There's an element of rock star in Tennant's public personna too, evidenced by the hysterial screaming when he attends awards ceremonies and public events. I don't think that ever happened to Jon Pertwee, bless him.

So Tennant has imbedded himself into the nation's Dr Who psyche. He is Dr Who. There's no-one else. This is the biggest hurdle Matt Smith has to face as he prepares to take over and make his (brief) screen debut on New Year's Day (when Tennant's finale is expected to screen). For a part of Dr Who's audience now sppears to be there because of Tennant as much as for Dr Who itself; hhow many of them will honestly wealk away when he's gone, no longer interested in the series and its new direction? How many of them just won't give Matt Smith a chance and won't want to?

Matt Smith has to hit the ground running. I suspect many viewers will tune in to his first episode just to see what he's like and satisfy themselves that they were right, that no-one can follow Tennant. So Matt has to do it all in his first episode, to grab the new audience with his new characterisationm, his new energy, his new style. Where Tennant captivated his audience - certainly a large female audience, too - by his style and sex appeal - Smith, twelve years younger and undeniably more awkward and angular-looking - will have a tougher job keeping the ladies on board. Moffat, not unexpectedly, says Smith's the best Doctor so far (well he would, wouldn't he?) and has, encouragingly, spoken of the fact that there's an 'ancient' quality in his performance which belies his youthfulness and, hopefully, will ward off some of the fan accusations that, with young, elfin-faced Karen Gillen on board as a younger companion figure, the series is being more deliberately skewed towards a younger audience than before. But in that all-important first episode, regeneration tramua aside, Smith needs to make the audience like him and want to spend time withn him fr thirteen or fourteen weeks every year. And to an extent, of coruse, that's also the job of the stories...

So the stories? What do we get? What do we know? Not a great deal. There's internet scuttlebutt a plenty out there and there have been some high profile location shoots in and around Cardiff (most recently in Llandaff village where Smith and Gillen were working on the first episode of the series) as well as some more remote ones (the usual factories, industrial units and graveyards). Thgere are cosmetic changes to the series - the new logo's been released, the TARDIS exterior has had a bit of a facelift and so, apparently, has the interior. Those hoping for a clean break from the rpoevious era may be vexed to learn that several old elements of previous shows are back - a Dalek episode set in World War 2 has already been filmed (and a leaked piece of recorded dialogue of Smith pronouncing the word "Daaaaaleks" caused much hand-wringing and hair-tearing amongst the hardcore crowd) and Alex Kingston is back as River Song from Moffat's series four two-parter in episodes 4 and five of the new series. Familiar characters and monsters always help smoothe the transition from the old to the new and waverers may be tempted to stick around if there's a promise of some unresolved old mystery (who exactly is River Song?) being explained and the Daleks are always worth a look, even if the new series hasn't always served them all that well. Beyond this we don't really know a great deal; there's rumour a-plenty out there but much of it is unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable. Moffat, like Davies before him, is writing the lion's share of the first series episodes and it'll be interesting to see what sort of stories he tells when he's not just contruting a high-concept one-off, as he has done in the past. How will he handle your fairly bog-standard Dr Who runaround? Will the series keep the sense of fun it often had in some of Davies' more joyous episodes? But certainly the new production tema are keeping their secrets close to their chests at the moment - which is really as it should be with so much still to look forward to from the Tennant era.

Interesting times ahead then for Dr Who. This is undoubtedly the trickiest 'transition' it's ever faced as it loses its biggest-ever star and replaces him with a (fine) actor most of the audience have never seen before. So while none of us know what's ahead I think we know the show's in good creative hands with Moffat (and fellow writers like returnees Gareth Roberts, Mark Gatiss, Chris Chibnall) so the end product has the potential, I'm quite sure, be as good as anything we've had these last four or five years. The only imponderable is how the audience will react, whether they'll be willing to give Matt Smith a chance or whether their devotion to David T is just too great. It would be such a tragedy is the series, quite right a British institution again the way it was in the 1960s and 1970s, sees its future threatened - as it was in 1981, in retrospect - by the spectre of the success of the man who gave it its greatest success of all.

Stay tuned, as someone used to say...