Sunday, 31 January 2010

DVD Review: Dr Who - Peladon Tales

When it comes to DVDs of the 'classic' Dr Who series I tend to operate a pretty rigid rule of thumb; if it's pre-1981 you can't go far wrong. The black-and-white stuff is often better than you might imagine/remember (the underfunded 1960s episodes are bristling with good ideas even if the production is sometimes clunky to modern eyes) and the 1970s...well, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker? What's not to love even in their (rare) duff stories? But after about 1981...well, you're on your own there and you get what you pay for.

2 Entertain are rattling through archive Dr Who now, presumably in their haste to go back to the beginning and repackage early releases with the sort of in-depth features we've become spoiled by and used to these last few years. Random and often vaguely-themed episodes are nowadays bundled together in boxset form - a forthcoming 'Myths and Legends' set collects one of the worst Pertwee stories ('The Time Monster') with a couple of shonky late-period Bakers ('Underworld' and 'Horns of Nimon') and frankly they'd have to give Lalla Ward away as a free gift to persuade me to part with my pennies for that one - but the recent 'Peladon Tales' release, if not exactly an must-have purchase, is a set worth investigating if you're in the mood for some 1970s Who and you're fascinated by Jon Pertwee's bouffant hair.

Back in 1972 Dr Who's producer (the late Barry Letts) and script editor (Terrance Dicks) were becoming increasingly frustrated by the format imposed upon the show by the previous production team who, for creative as well as budgetary reasons, had decided to make the show a bit more earthbound in order to give it a new lease of life as it blundered, weary and unloved, into the 1970s to await the delights of colour TV and improving visual effects technology. With the regenerated Doctor (Jon Pertwee) now exiled to Earth the show was becoming uncomfortably restricted in terms of the sorts of stories it could tell. Teamed up with the six-man UNIT army led by the redoubtable Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the Doctor found himself fighting an assortment of mad scientists and hostile invading aliens. Every week. Letts and Dicks yearned for the broader canvas of outer space and, in 1971, had concocted a method to get the Doctor off world every now and again. They came up with the concept of the Time Lords using the Doctor as a covert secret agent, reactivating his TARDIS so they could dispatch him to some cosmic trouble spot where he could put things right before they catapulted him back to Earth again. The idea had worked well enough in 1971's under-rated 'Colony in Space' (itself long-overdue a DVD brush-up) so it was wheeled out again in 1972's ninth season. This time writer Brian Hayles, creator of the Ice Warriors back in the 1960s, was charged with sending the Doctor back into space - albeit briefly - and in doing so he crafted a story which was popular enough to generate a sequel a couple of years later. Both stories - 'The Curse of Peladon' and 'The Monster of Peladon' - are now bound together in this handy little boxset along with the usual number of eclectic special features.

Of the two stories 'The Curse of Peladon' is the more accomplished. The TARDIS arrives, balancing precariously halfway up the mountain of the Citadel of Peladon and the Doctor and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) find themselves caught up in the courtly intrigue and guttering flambeaux of a nervy, superstitious planet struggling to emerge from its own barbaric Middle Ages by joining the Galactic Federation. But there's infamy afoot as someone's out to sabotage the delicate negotiations. But is it Hepesh (Geoffrey Toone), booming voiced Chancellor to the court of the fey King Peladon (David Troughton)? Hepesh is fiercely loyal to the old ways and he distrusts outsiders - especially head-in-a-box ambassador Arcturus and the eye-popping cloaked hermaphrodite hexapod Alpha Centauri. What about the Ice Warriors? The lumbering reptilian Martian reptiles claim to have abandoned their warlike ways for the sake of the Galactic alliance but does a big green reptile really change its spots? Or has the Curse of Aggedor - a legendary big roaring bear-like beast - really struck again?

'Curse of Peladon', with its shadowy corridors, throne rooms and its motley assortment of aliens, is a startling contrast to most of the Pertwee stories to date which had been ferociously Earthbound. It's a well-written, atmospheric piece with some good effects sequences - the TARDIS toppling from the cliff is particularly well-realised - and whilst the aliens suffer from the constraints of the budget (no show on Earth would put something like Alpha Centauri before the cameras today) it's a serial which demonstrates Dr Who's ability to overcome its shortcomings by presenting good stories well told. It even coaxes a halfway decent performance out of the shrill Manning which was no mean feat in itself...

Two years later the Doctor, now accompanied by the legendary Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) returns to Peladon and things are no longer the same. It's fifty years later, Peladon's daughter Thalira (Nina Thomas) is on the throne and the planet is being mined for its valuable mineral resources. Trouble is, the miners are revolting, rebelling against the introduction of alien technology and there's something nasty hiding behind the refinery door with its own agenda. Where the earlier story was short and punchy and to the point, 'Monster of Peladon' has the luxury of two extra episodes and frankly it's a luxury the rather thin and dreary story neither requires nor demands. Peladon's lost its appeal second time around - we saw this done two years earlier and it was done a lot better. Hayles' script wanders all around the houses before the Big Reveal of the baddies we've all been waiting to see at the end of episode three and much of the rest of the story seems to consist of badger-haired miners racing around tunnels indulging in unconvincing sword fights and spouting rhetoric about miners rights and blah de blah, all very contemporary in a strike-bedevilled UK of 1974 but really just so much desperate shouting 36 years later. Sarah Jane in 1974 was a feisty feminist and the script gives her the odd opportunity to encourage the limp Thalira to stand up for Wimmin's Rights and not be made a doormat of. But not long afterwards Sarah Jane is screaming her head off as something green looms over her and the end of an episode fast approaches...

Where 'Curse of Peladon' seemed fresh and vibrant, 'Monster' just seems tired and perfunctory. Pertwee, visibly older, looks a bit bored (by this time he was just weeks away from his final appearance in the series and obviously the actor was clearly demob happy and just twiddling his thumbs by this point in production) and many of the supporting actors are either unconvincing (Thalira) or embarrased (anyone wearing a badger on their head). The whole affair perks up a bit when the Ice Warriors appear, reverting to type, but it's really too little too late and by the time we stagger to the end of episode six we're probably quite happy to wave bye-bye forever to Peladon and its cut-price Shakespearean histrionics.

'Peladon Tales' presents a couple, of uncharacteristic 1970s Dr Who stories which, although they've hardly stood the test of time and can occasionally be an ordeal to wade through, are still worth a look because, let's be honest, even the duffest of 1970s Who is worth so much more of your time than anything from the 'classic' series from about 1985 onwards.

The DVDs: And of course here's where the set becomes a bit more essential. 'Curse', previously presented in a fuzzy, indistinct print rescued from some overseas broadcaster, has been spruced up a bit here and looks sharper than I've seen it since it was first broadcast. It's not outstanding quality, no, but it looks as good as it's ever likely to. 'Monster' looks good, a clean, crisp image which sadly only serves to highlight some laziness in the production (was Pertwee's stunt double Terry Walsh ever more obvious than in the Doctor's fight with the miners at the end of episode four?). The special features are the usual delight. The 'making of' is split into two sections, obviously, but there's other good stuff including short pieces on Pertwee and Manning's on-screen relationship, a piece on the Ice Warriors, a reconstructed 'deleted scene' from the second story and a charming feature on the importance and impact of all those lightweight Terrance Dicks Target Books novelisations of stories we never thought we'd ever be able to see again, let alone pick up off the shelf at WH Smith's on shiny silver discs. Add to all this the usual commentaries and trailers and photos and you've got another set which more than does justice to two of the lesser stories from Dr Who's long and colourful history.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Torchwood Goes Stateside?

Check this out, reported today at "The Hollywood reporter"...

Exclusive: Huge news for sci-fi fans: Fox is developing a stateside version of the U.K. hit series “Torchwood.”

The project is from BBC Worldwide Prods., with original series creator Russell Davies writing the script.

A more straight-faced spinoff of “Doctor Who,” “Torchwood” is about a covert group that investigates and fights alien activity. Two series aired domestically on BBC America as well as last year’s well reviewed stand-alone miniseries, “Children of Earth,” which broke all ratings records for the network. (If you're a fan of serious sci fi such as "Battlestar Galatica" and haven't seen "Children of Earth," rent it. You don't need to know anything about the series. And I know the previews for "Torchwood" can look silly. Trust me, it's terrific. Like "24" with aliens).

Unlike U.S. adaptations that have gone awry, “Torchwood” fans can take comfort that the original producing team is on board. In addition to Davies, exec producers include Davies’ producing partner Julie Gardner (former head of drama at BBC Wales for the show’s first season) and Jane Tranter (another BBC vet, now exec VP programming and production at BBC Worldwide Prods. in the U.S.).

Also, some of the current cast — most likely John Barrowman, who plays the immortal Capt. Jack Harkness — might star if Fox orders “Torchwood” to pilot.

As for the new show’s plot, the U.S. version will contain a global story line compared to the more localized sensibility of the first two BBC seasons.

Tranter might try to reboot “Doctor Who” for U.S. audiences while departing “Doctor Who” star David Tennant stars in NBC’s pilot “Rex Is Not Your Lawyer.” “Torchwood” (which is an anagram of “Doctor Who”) debuted in 2006 on BBC 3 and set ratings records, then was moved to BBC 1. Russell also reinvented “Doctor Who” in 2003 and was writer-creator of the series “Queer as Folk.”

So what do we make of this? News on Torchwood's future has been in short supply these last few months but the rumour mill has been working on overdrive for some time. Following the huge international success of the five-part 'Children of Earth' mini-series last year (nearly 7 million viewers in the UK and a massive numbers on BBC America) it seemed odd that the BBC didn't rush to announce the commissioning of further episodes of Dr Who's it-got-there-in-the-end adult spin-off. I mean, not many drama shows on BBC1 get 7 million viewers at all, particularly not in the height of the summer months. John Barrowman himself recently let slip on Radio 2 that a fourth series of 13 episodes had been planned and Russell T Davies has also been dropping hints here and there when the subject's been raised. But rebooting the show totally in America? It makes a sort of sense.

Following the events of 'Children of Earth' it was always going to be difficult to accept that Torchwood could just reset itself and bring Captain Jack back to Cardiff for more Rift-based shenanigans; the show just seems to have left that rather prosaic and cutesy setting behind. 'CoE' made the show seem broader, grander, more real. With Davies, Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter now over in the USA trying to build a BBC presence overseas, it seems a fairly wise move to try and make inroads with an established and well-liked franchise, one with an inbuilt familiarity. The curveball is the suggestion that the Fox network is interested in the show; Fox are notorously impatient with their genre shows - if they don't get big numbers straight away they get chopped fairly swiftly. And Fox have a habit of dumping their genre shows in the 'death slots' on Friday night when, it seems, hardly anyone in America watched TV. However with a bit of smart and sassy retooling - and with Barrowman's twinkling eye and languid drawl - it's not impossible to see the show refocussed along more traditional American TV lines - think a 21st century 'X Files' and you could do a lot worse. Importing Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) might not be easy or sensible and it'd be a shame to lose what's left of the Torchwood family of characters - Gwen, Rhys, PC Andy - although it has to be said 'CoE' was clearly written to wrap the whole show up if necessary or at least close one particular Welsh chapter. Jack returning to Cardiff would just seem contrived and, with the whole Universe at his disposal, a bit unlikely, regardless of what friends he feels he has left in the city. The whole point of Jack basing hismelf in Cardiff was the fact that he was waiting for "the right kind of doctor" to come along - which he's done and loose ends in the Doctor/Jack story have been tied up. Jack's a free agent now and I suppose he might as well pitch up in LA as Llandaff.

An interesting development, nonetheless and we'll have to wait and see which way this goes. Certainly at the moment BBC Wales, preparing to move into a £25 million new studio complex in Cardiff, is expecting to take Dr Who, Torchwood, Sarah Jane on board as well as the relocated Casualty and Being Human. But if these rumours are true Torchwood will be losing its Cardiff roots and becoming something rather more international. Stay tuned...what do you think about these rumoured plans for Captain Jack? You know where the comment box is...

Monday, 18 January 2010

DVD Reviews: New from Network...

Network, the finest purveyors of archive TV (sometimes the most obscure of archive TV) in the UK, have embarked on another busy year of releases with the usual selection of wildly eclectic titles from cult TV and half-remembered comedies via variety compilations and classic, landmark dramas. Stuff hopes to cover the best of Network's output throughout the year so to get 2010 off to a rousing start here's the pick of January's Network titles...

It's been so long since 'Armchair Theatre' faded from ITV screens that it's easy to forget what an important and revolutionary piece of TV the series was. The show, which ran intermittently between 1956 and 1973 was very much ITV's flagship anthology drama series,attracting the cream of British acting and writing talent in taut, intelligent hour-long dramas which were not only compelling as contemproary storytelling, they were very often important social commentaries. The plays documented and encapsulated their eras as well as any newsreel footage and, watched in the super-slick, super-cynical 21st century, they've lost little of their dramatic power and, if anything, they make the viewer yearn for a time when drama actually said something about society and the way people live their lives. The tantalisingly titled 'volume 1' of network's 'Armchair Theatre' releases collects eight classic plays - each of them mounted and performed like stage-plays (hence the umbrella title for the series) with generally small casts and one or two large sets. Network have selected eight plays which ably demonstrate the range of the series with scripts by Colin Welland (who also stars in the stifling BAFTA-winning 'Say Goodnight To Your Grandma'), Roy ('Last of the Summer Wine') Clarke, Fay Weldon, Ian Kennedy Martin and Dominic Behan. Weldon's 'Office Party' expertly lays bare the often-repressed tensions and frustrations of out-of-hours office life and Clarke's 'Will Amelia Quint Continue Writing 'A Gnome Called Shorthouse'?' explores the quirky life of an eccentric children's writer cajoled out of retirement to write yet another book. Elsewhere there are edgy thrillers - 'Red Riding Hood' and 'Detective Waiting' and 'The Folk Singer' is a coruscating condemnation of the conflict in Northern Ireland which dominated the headlines throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

'Armchair Theatre' called upon the services of star names like Beryl Reid, Rita Tushingham, Tom Bell, Richard Beckinsale, Peter Barkworth, George A Cooper and dozens of other familiar character actors who give uniformly rich, powerful performances. The plays are of their time, of course, they look resolutely stagey but that's the point; Sydney Newman, who created the series, wanted to bring the theatre into people's homes and that demanded good actors and good scripts and that, by and large, is what 'Armchair Theatre' delivered. Not every play here is a classic; one or two wander a bit and there's a sense of 'so what?' about the odd play but at their best - that'd be Welland's contribution in this set - they're electrifying. Hugely recommended.

Although already released some years ago, the first series of the classic black-and-white ITV thriller series 'Danger Man' gets another outing in a lavish new six-disc boxset which includes all 39 half-hour episodes of the Ralph Smart-created series first screened in 1960. Sadly 'Danger Man', chronicling the exploits of British Intelligence agent John Drake, hasn't really stood the test of time all that well; the stories are routine espionage yarns which, although ostensibly set all over Europe, appear to be largely filmed in and around the Borehamwood Studios and involve plenty of standing about in front of back projection footage. Of course the series' USP is the hugely-charismatic Patrick McGoohan who went on to star in and create the legendary fantasy series 'The Prisoner' a few years later. McGoohan is a dark, brooding presence across the episodes - he'll never smile when a scowl will do - and he swings a mean punch too. Worth a look for completists but not a boxset you'll want to rattle through. Extras include an exhaustive booklet by inexhaustible historian Andrew Pixley and an extensive picture gallery which includes dozens of never-before-seen photographs from the series.

Call me shallow but I'm not ashamed to admit that my favourite Network release of the month is the charming 2-disc collection of the entire 1974/5 comedy series 'No - Honestly' starring real-life couple John Alderton and Pauline Collins. I have vague memories of this little Saturday night comedy from its original screenings and age, surprisingly, hasn't dimmed its comedy value. It's achingly old-fashioned, of course - you'll wince at some of Alderton's suits even as you're reaching for your sunglases - and the relentless upper-classness of it all (so many RP accents!) is startling when so much modern TV is barely literate and often unintelligible. But 'No - Honestly' is actually funny; it's actually very,very funny. Terrence Brady and Charlotte Bingham's scripts are packed with great gags, both visual and verbal, and Collins and Alderton are consummate comic performers, wringing all the big laughs from the comedy entrance and the humourous expression. Alderton and Collins plays CD (Charles Danby) and Clara who top and tail each episode telling the audience about how they met and how their relationship developed ten years previously. Each episode is then told in flashback as the stumbling couple embark upon their sweet relationship which, of course, ends in matrimony and the ups and downs of being newlyweds. Many comedy shows from the 1960s and 1970s - especially the clumsier ITV shows - look horribly dated and just aren't funny any more. 'No - Honestly', despite its occasional naivity, is still a hoot. How refreshing to watch a comedy where the audience roar with laughter at the word "cami-knickers" and gasp as Alderton tries to delicately explain what "cobblers" means to the cossetted Clara.

In its time this was sophisticated stuff and it's still clever and witty even now; if you can turn a blind eye to the 1970s fashions and mannerisms and avoid the urge to throttle the infuriatingly-dim Clara you'll find there's a lot of fun to be had in the 13 episodes spread across these two discs. They just don't make 'em like this any more. Oh, and the Lynsey de Paul theme is just pure class...

'Armchair Theatre Volume 1' is released on 18th January, 'Danger Man Series One' is released on 25th Janaury and 'No - Honestly' is released on 25th January

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Film Review: Daybreakers

Wot, more vampires? Really? The undead have enjoyed a bit of a resurrection lately thanks to the likes of 'True Blood', our own 'Being Human', the forthcoming (to the UK) 'Vampire Diaries' and, of course, the rather wet bloodsuckers of teen-screamer 'Twilight'. You might well think that the vampire well has run a bit dry lately but writer/director team Michael and Peter Spierig would beg to differ and they've created 'Daybreakers' which has just slipped into the multiplex without much fuss - which usually suggests a film too naff to be allowed to suffer the indignities of Press attention. Far from it here, though; 'Daybreakers' won't change your life and it won't rock your world but it manages, against the odds, to put a new spin on some over-familiar vampire tropes and it's a surprisingly-entertaining way of burning off 90-odd cinema minutes.

It's 2019 and a plague has swept across the Earth, turning most of the poulation into vampires - fanmgs, fear of sunlight, the lot - and the humans that remain are either kept alive as blood banks or else hunted to the point of extinction. The vampire/human race maintains all the trappings of human civilisation but catastrophe is close at hand as the human blood supply becomes scarce and plans to manufacture a blood substitute are stalling and, in any event, are facing considerable resistance from the vampires who'd rather drink the real thing - and I don't mean Coke. Sympathetic vampire scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), frustrated by the failure of his blood-substitute experiments, has a chance encounter with a group of rogue humans and is eventually recruited by crossbow-crazy Elvis (Willem "my parents couldn't spell William" Defoe) who needs Dalton's help if humanity is to be saved and the vampire plague cured. Meanwhile power-hungry corporate boss (and vampire) Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) has his own reasons for wanting the vampire race to be able to feast on real human blood.

'Daybreakers' is an unusual, engaging film. Stylishly shot in a way which suggests the near-future without over-egging its pudding, the movie actually manages to find a new twist on vampire mythology by making the creatures the dominant species and the human the ones on the run. Here the vampires have the upper hand, they're the ones in charge, they're the ones with the technology, the plague having allowed them, apparently overnight as it were, to have stepped into the shoes abandoned by those untouched - so we have vampire Police, vampire soldiers, vampire businessmen. There are other twists, too - vampires who don't feed regularly turn into grisly, feral winged bat-like creatures which forage underground and occasionally invade people's homes in search of the red stuff. Then there's the 'cure' to vampirism, which Dalton stumbles on almost by accident...

Despite the blood and the violence - and there's a lot of it for a 15-rated movie -'Daybreakers', probably due to a fairly low budget (which it spends wisely on a few set pieces), is a wordy movie with plenty of chat about the morality of humanity and the inhumanity (or otherwise) of vampirism. But the film really catches fire when it flares into action; fleeing humans surrounded by vampire soldiers emerging from the dark, the subterranean vampire attack on Dalton's home, the final blood-crazed vampire massacre and the strangely-brutal scene where a chain-gang of vampires are dragged screaming out into ther sunlight to meet their fiery fate. Ethan Hawke has a quiet charisma as Dalton, the vampire scientist who just won't drink the hard stuff and who is determined to find a way back for the human race; he's nicely counterpointed by the always-reliable Sam Neill as the vampire CO who'll even sacrifice his own human daughter for the sake of the advancement of the vampire species.

'Daybreakers' evokes lots of other movies - 'The Omega Man' and 'Pitch Black' amongst them - but it manages to bring something new to the vampire feeding table. It's clearly setting itself up for a run of sequels (I really wish it hadn't, though) and if you're tired of the fuss about 'Avatar' and fancy taking a chance on something darker, quirkier and, yes, shorter, 'Daybreakers' is well worth your time.

UK TV Chart - w/e 27th December 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 27th December 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) The Royle Family (BBC1)........................11.74
2) Dr Who: The End Of Time Part 1 (BBC1)..........11.57
3) Gavin and Stacey (BBC1)........................10.00
4) The Gruffalo (BBC1).............................9.80
5) EastEnders (BBC1)...............................9.65 *
6) Coronation Street (ITV1)........................9.15 *
7) Catherine Tate: Nan's Christmas Carol (BBC1)....8.46
8) Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special (BBC1)..7.57
9) Ant and Dec's Christmas Special (ITV1)..........7.46
10) Victoria Wood's Mid-Life Crisis (BBC1)..........7.45
11) Top Gear Bolivia Special (BBC2).................7.07
12) Emmerdale (ITV1)................................6.53 *
13) Film: Pirates of the Caribbean - At World's End
14) Film: Shrek 2 (BBC1)............................6.23
15) All-Star Family Fortunes (ITV1).................6.17
16) QI (BBC1).......................................6.16
17) (My Family (BBC1)................................6.03
17) (Cranford (BBC1).................................6.03
19) Outnumbered (BBC1)..............................5.98
20) The Queen's Christmas Speech (BBc1).............5.95

BBC: 16 ITV: 4

From next week (w/e 3.1.10) the UK TV Charts will be moving to a new dedicated blog - - which will feature the new UK Top 20 TV shows every week plus a detailed commentary and TV gossip. Stay tuned!

UK TV Chart - w/e Dec 20th 2010

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

1) Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1)...................10.90 *
2) Royal Variety Performance (ITV1)................9.56
3) Coronation Street (ITV1)........................9.37 *
4) EastEnders (BBC1)...............................8.81 *
5) Emmerdale (ITV1)................................7.04 *
6) (Casualty (BBC1).................................7.02
6) (Cranford (BBC1).................................7.02
8) Gavin and Stacey (BBC1).........................6.68
9) Merlin (BBC1)...................................6.64
10) National Lottery Draws (BBC1, Sat)..............6.47
11) Top Gear (BBC2).................................6.35
12) Antiques Roadshow (BBC1)........................6.17
13) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)..................5.69
14) Live At The Apollo (BBC1).......................5.48 *
15) Holby City (BBC1)...............................5.34
16) Fattest Man In Britain (ITV1)...................5.30
17) Life (BBC1).....................................5.14
18) QI (BBC1).......................................5.04
19) Ad Of The Decade (ITV1).........................4.90
20) The One Show (BBC1).............................4.86 *

BBC: 15 ITV: 5

Coming soon: Chris Eccleston as John Lennon

It's fair to say that Chris Eccleston's career has gone in some rather odd directions since he "sensationally quit" (a phrase I have borrowed from The Sun and which I must give back to them some day) Dr Who back in 2005. He had a guest shot in a few episodes of the dreary 'Heroes' and has turned up in old toot like 'The Dark Is Rising' and 'GI Joe' (which I'm ashamed to admit quite liking) presumably because the pay check made it worth his while. But where's Chris Eccelston the ac-tor, the man who magnetised the screen when he exploded onto it in 'Shallow Grave', 'Our Friends in the North', 'Hillsborough'? Where's he gone??

He may be back! Coming soon to the BBC (possibly BBC4) is a drama entitled 'Lennon Naked' which chronicles the turbulent late 1960s period in the life of Beatle John Lennon as the band started to disintegrate and Lennon fell under the thrall of Yoko Ono. Pictured below is Eccleston as Lennon in the new production and 'Torchwood' fans (hello!) will be interested to learn (if they didn't know already and I suspect they did) that Toshiko herself, Naoko Mori, has been cast as Yoko Ono. No airing date yet for this production but it sounds like a good 'un and a return to form for Eccleston. Fantastic!

Saturday, 16 January 2010

DVD Review: Dr Who - The Complete Specials Boxset

Since Dr Who blasted back into our lives in 2005, each new series has made its way onto DVD (after a series of lucrative vanilla releases) in time for Christmas in big chunky boxsets which boasted the entire run of episodes, cut-down versions of BBC3's behind-the-scenes Confidential shows, commentaries and extra featurettes and bloopers. With no full series in 2009, just a run of 'special' episodes which finished on 1st January this year, the latest boxset, which collects together all those specials (two of which have already been released on DVD) along with a raft of extras, arrives as an early New Year gift for completists and casual fans alike. The packaging is as attractive as ever - a fat, beautifully-presented five-disc pack complete with a souvenir booklet (which includes a rather charming little narrative by one David MacDonald who imagines the tenth Doctor popping in back in time to speak to the eight year-old David Tennant and forewarn him of the best time he'll be having as an actor in his late thirties) - and includes an entertaining, if hardly comprehensive raft of extras aimed more at the new regular audience rather than the hardcore we-want-to-know-it-all-and-more fan crowd.

You know the episodes; Stuff covered them in detail at the time of broadcast. Either written or co-written by Russell T Davies these are five big, brash, barmy adventures which make you realise just how much Davies loves this show and also how much light and shade the series' other writers bring to the table and how much Dr Who needs variety in its writing if it's not to become samey and one-note. Which is not to say these episodes are at all one-note. Across five big ol' yarns we see the tenth Doctor having fun on his own, having eschewed human travelling companions after his recent losses (Rose, Martha, Donna) and deciding to just yomp about the Universe (well, the UK mainly) having a laugh. 'The Next Doctor', from Christmas 2008,sees a bunch of Cybermen in Victorian London construct a giant robot-machine but it's really all about teasing the audience with the mystery of Jackson Lake (David Morrissey), a man who calls himself 'the Doctor' and dresses the way people always imagine the Doctor dresses - frock coats, cravats, waistcoats. It has its moments but, like many of the festive episodes it's not the series at its best because (usually) Dr Who at Christmas is big and loud and fairly unsubtle, aimed at an apathetic turkey-bloated audience who just want to be entetrtained and excited. So it is here. Last Easter's 'Planet of the Dead' is another romp as the Doctor and Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan) and a handful of London bus passengers see themselves transported across Space to a desert planet infested by swarming metallic stingray creatures. Breathless stuff, about as way over-the-top as the show can get, it's an exultant, triumphant episode (considering its difficult production circumstances) and in its last moments it paves the way for the darker stuff to come. In November's outstanding 'Waters of Mars' the Doctor Goes Too Far as he dares to tamper with Time itself. This is a dark, thrilling tale, yer typical base-under-seige story with some superb guest turns (Lindsey Coulson, Peter O'Brien) and creepy water-gushing possessed human/aliens. Davies has shown us he can do episodes as dark as the best of them - 'Midnight' and 'Turn Left' from season four are pretty much jet black - and the edginess of 'Waters of Mars' (co-written by 'Sarah Jane Adventures' mainstay Phil Ford) is a welcome relief from the relentless cheeriness of the previous two tales. Tennant's two finale episodes 'The End Of Time' are still being debated amongst the cogniscenti (and probably will be for years to come) and whatever you think of them - I still think the whole story is by turns frustratingly-mad and joyously brilliant - it's worth the price of admission for John Simm's extraordinary performance as the Master and that achingly-sad last twenty minutes as the Doctor says a last goodbye to the friends he's made in his tenth body. Sob.

So to the extras. Those who buy the so-called 'classic series' DVDs (and Stuff will be doing a round-up of some of the best old releases from last year for no other reason than the fact I've now picked up most of 'em cheap online!) have been spoilt by the range and depth of documentaries and features created for the old shows. Literally no vintage stone is left unturned. The new series episodes take a more general, lightweight approach but what's here is good stuff, even if it leaves you feeling you could do with twice as much. All five episodes feature the full-length 'Confidentials' and 'The Next Doctor' also includes the BBC Dr Who Prom from 2008 (already available on the episode's DVD release). Discs four and five - 'The End Of Time' - are the ones the fans will be prising out of the box first. David Tennant has contributed a fascinating forty-minute 'Video Diary'; always a highlight of previous releases this gives a candid behind-the-scenes look at the show and whilst most of the footage here centres on Tennant returning to Cardiff after his nine-month break and the shooting of 'Planet of the Dead', we see the actor trying (and largely failing) to keep it together as his last day on set approaches. Equally enjoyable is the twenty-minute 'Dr Who at Comic Con' featurette which shows Tennant, Davies and executive producer Julie Gardner in Chicago for last year's big sci-fi gathering. The trio meet the Press and their fans at a well-attended stage presentation. Great stuff and, much as I'm hyped for the new series and the new Doctor, it's hard not to wonder how on Earth we'll manage without Tennant's good humour and Davies' sheer joy in the series and its success. We also get commentaries for the last two episodes,those cheesy but fun Christmas BBC1 idents and a handful of deleted/extended scenes cheerfully introduced by Davies.

So that's it, then, an era ended. The Complete Specials Boxset wraps it all up in some style and whilst the episodes aren't really the series at its strongest they're still better than virtually anything else on the box in the UK at the moment and, with its poignant rear-cover shot of the Doctor walking off into the television sunset, it's really pretty much as essential a purchase as the boxsets of the last four series have been - and fortunately it's also a good deal cheaper.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Normal service will be resumed...

Apologies for the lack of blog updates this year so far. This has been caused by my limited internet access at the moment due to my new computer set-up but hopefully all should be resolved in the next week so normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. On the way will be regular reviews of new episodes of quality new dramas such as Being Human, Survivors, Hustle, 24, DVD and film reviews, music reviews and the ol' TV charts which will shortly be moving to their own dedicated blog to avoid cluttering up this one. Bear with me!

UPDATE 16th January: I'm back and I'm mad as, no, I'm back and there'll be updates galore in the next few days! Tinkering with the design of the site too so let me know what you think of the changes, if you give a damn...

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Blu Ray preview: Dorian Gray

If your heart sinks at the prospect of the return of 'Dancing On Ice' on ITV and a brand new vote! vote! vote! dancing competition on the BBC and you can't stomach wading through all that festive telly you stored on your hard-drive (other TV recording devices are available) for "when there's nothing else on" allow Stuff to harry you in the direction of the DVD/Blu Ray release of a fabulous, underrated gem of a movie which drifted onto the big screen last year to not a great deal of acclaim or interest and which is really worth tracking down and giving a spin which it hits the shelves in the UK on 18th January. I'm talking about 'Dorian Gray', director Oliver Parker's atmospheric and stylish adaptation of the classic Oscar Wilde novel of decadence, immorality and the ultimate Faustian pact with the Devil.

Curse me as a heathen but I'm not hugely familiar with Wilde's original work. Yes, I've seen bits of various TV and movie adaptations over the years (it's one of those stories which is always ripe for a reworking) so I came to this latest movie not knowing much of the detail of the story and therefore not setting myself up to be outraged if favourite bits went missing or new scenes were invented just for the hell of it. Broadly speaking I know what the story's all about; a vain young pleasure-seeker holds back the march of Time by secreting a picture of himself as a youth in an attic so the image can age as he remains timeless and youthful. Parker - and screenwriter Toby Finlay - have taken this familiar source material, cast an unlikely Hollywood teen heart-throb in the lead role and given the story a contemporary makeover (whilst largely retaining the Victorian setting) which, remarkably, remains true to the style and flavour of the novel in a movie spectacularly unlike any of the vapid blockbusters which trundle out of the Hollywood movie factory.

So here's the score. Young, sallow Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes from 'Prince Caspian') arrives in Victorian London and moves into the family home after his affluent father dies. He's quickly introduced to - and corrupted by - the seedy side of London society by his mentor Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth - in a good movie at last!). Dorien's youthful likeness is captured in an elaborate portrait which hangs above his hearth until Dorian finds the portrait is changing as he himself does not. Determined to maintain his young hedonistic lifestyle Dorian hides the painting away from prying eyes and his friends and lovers age all around him, Dorian remains young and vigorous. But eventually his past starts to catch up with him and when Dorian falls in love with Wotton's grown-up daughter Emily he finds himself face-to-face with his own redemption...and his own destiny.

'Dorian Gray' is a smart, gripping and powerful movie. Parker has wisely decided not to dumb down the source material; the pace is sometimes stately, the mood relentlessly unfashionable and whilst the initially off-putting casting of Ben Barnes as Dorien looks as if it's a nod in the direction of the 'Twilight' audience the actor quickly defies expectation by creating a Dorien who is at first wide-eyed and naive before becoming ruthless and gauche until he eventually becomes a dead-eyed, haunted and exhausted young man who has lived too long and experienced too much. Firth's on top form as Wotton (despite sporting one of the dodgiest beards in cinema history) and the cast is dotted with familiar British thesps like Douglas Henshell, Fiona Shaw, Pip Torrens, Jo Woodcock and Emilia Fox. Beautifully filmed and with stunning photography and set design, the movie evokes Victorian and later early twentieth century London without going over the top visually and the only real concession to a modern sensibility is the rather silly snarling CGI portrait which does jar with what is otherwise a mature and intelligent and above all respectful adaptation of one of the oft-ignored classics of the genre.

The themes of 'Dorian Gray' are as relevant now as they were when Wilde wrote the novel - possibly even moreso. With today's popular culture still drearily obsessed with five-minute celebrity and larging it and just generally having a good time and to Hell with anything else, 'Dorian Gray' is a cautionary, if fanciful, tale which retains its ability to fascinate and terrify in equal measure. Above all else this is a damn fine movie which really should find its natural home and audience on DVD or Blu Ray.

The Disc: This looks just sublime on Blu Ray. It's not a riot of colour, of course, but it captures the starkness of the era it's set in with its washed-out, sepia tones and Blu Ray really accentuates the sumptuous sets and costumes. Unexceptional extras include a bog-standard 'making of' which consists of various talking heads discussing Wilde and the book rather than the film, production featurettes, deleted scenes and a reel of bloopers, one of which - a little girl extra in a piano recital scene who can't help waving at the camera as it pans along the crowd is amongst the funniest I've ever seen. Priceless.

'Dorian Gray' is released on DVD and Blu Ray in the UK on 18th January 2010

TV Review: Dr Who - The End of Time:Part 2

This song is ending...but the story never ends...”

In the end it really didn’t matter that ‘The End Of Time’, David Tennant’s swansong in ‘Doctor Who’ was a lot of sound and fury and big acting, low on subtlety but big on high drama. It didn’t matter that it suffered terrible longeurs halfway through when nothing much was happening and the Doctor and Wilf found themselves sitting around on a crippled spaceship waiting for the plot to catch up with them. It didn’t matter that the spiky alien Vinvocci were a bit irritating and it really didn’t matter that the Time Lord threat to destroy all life in the Universe was ended by the Doctor shooting a machine. Because, in the end, the whole point of the episode – and the Christmas day one before it – was the twenty minute coda when the bad guys had been vanquished and the Doctor finally faced his ‘he will knock four times’ destiny. I daresay hand-wringing ‘Doctor Who’ purists who’ve never been comfortable with the touchy-feely series of the 21st century will have been wailing at the illogicality of the story itself and wincing at the ‘Lord of the Rings’style extended farewells. Me, well. I’ll forgive Russell T Davies almost anything for bringing my favourite show back with such style and brio and, as he surrenders his stewardship of the show and Tennant gives up the keys to the TARDIS. I’ll give him the benefit of my doubt one more time. So while this tale of an unstable Master, vengeful Time Lords, mad scientists and talking cacti may well be the stuff which characterises Davies’ everything-and-the-kitchen-sink season finales (always the most divisive of his episodes), none of it really matters because I just loved that last twenty minutes, that long, languid, achingly-poignant and self-indulgent farewell to the tenth Doctor as, waiting for the regeneration he knows is coming, he says his goodbyes to the people he’s called his friends these last few years. It’s a sequence which plays to Davies’s real strengths; his characters and their dialogue. Let’s face it, Davies himself admits he’s not a science-fiction writer; he’s an ideas man and a people person and to him the ideas are much more important than the science behind them, real or fanciful and the people in the eye of his fictional storm are much more interesting as people, not just the more traditional faceless sci-fi cyphers often created just to power a plotline.

So where were we at the end of ‘The End Time’ part one on Christmas Day? Oh, yes...everyone on Earth has become a facsimile of the Master, the Time Lords are resurrected and everything’s pretty much gone to Hell in a handcart. Part two sees Davies throw a bit of a curveball as we’re suddenly on the planet Gallifrey, shuddering and spasming in the last throes of the Time War (with a nice CGI shot of the Citadel of the Time Lords, downed Dalek spaceships littering the landscape around its base) and the Time Lord President (Timothy Dalton) is raging against the last day of his people as he and his High Council realise that there may be a way to avert the extinction of their race. Back on Earth the Doctor is the Master’s prisoner again, this time bound and gagged rather than aged and shrunken as he was in ‘Last of the Time Lords’. Here the story starts to mark time; despite some nicely-written and performed scenes between the three stars of the show – Tennant is equalled by John Simm’s manic Master and Bernard Cribbins as Wilf – there’s a sense that the script is keeping an eye on the clock just to fill out the required episode running time. The Doctor is rescued by the Vinvocci in a final moment of comedy for the tenth Doctor (“Worst. Rescue. Ever.”) and a convenient teleport device sees the Doctor, Wilf and the spiky aliens transported to their spaceship orbiting 100,000 miles above the Earth. The Doctor shuts down the ship’s power to avoid it being detected by Earth’s security forces – all now controlled by Master-humans - but in time, after long, meandering moments of reflection, the Doctor reactivates the ship and plunges it into the earth’s atmosphere. Time for a bit of much-needed spectacle with an amusing aerial dogfight with Wilf and the Vinvocci blasting dozens of missiles out of the sky as the Master tries to destroy the Vinvocci ship. Look, there goes my disbelief, suspended about as nigh as it can get – whoops, and there it goes that bit high as the Doctor...throws himself out of the spaceship, hurtles through the air and crashes through the roof of Naismith’s mansion to crash to the floor where he’s just winded and not burst open like a ripe grapefruit. This is the point where most ‘classic series’ fans will have thrown their hands in the air in despair, the point where even I had to accept that Davies is just making this all up as he goes along because really he just wants to write the last twenty minutes. Eventually by some bafflegab or other the Time Lords reappear, everyone over-acts at one another, the Doctor faces a Great Moral Dilemma – whether to shoot the Master with Wilf’s gun or shoot the President of the Time lords with Wilf’s gun. In the end, extraordinarily, he just shoots a machine behind the Master which sends the Times Lords and the Master spinning back into the Time-Locked Time War. What just happened??

Now we get to the meat of the episode, the real reason we’re all here. The Doctor is amazed to find himself still alive...and then he hears the four knocks, the sound he’s been led to believe will herald the end of his life and the beginning of another. But it’s not the sound in the Master’s head, the sound of drums, the heartbeat of a Time Lord – it is and always has been the sound of Wilf, trapped in some piece of tech in Naismith’s mansion, tapping four times on the glass to attract the Doctor’s attention to let him out. But, as episode one subtly established, the device needs a second operative on the other side of the glass for the door to open – and whichever chamber is occupied will be flooded with radiation. The Doctor does the right thing and he frees Wilf – but at the cost of his own life. His body is bombarded with radiation and, although it doesn’t trigger an immediate regeneration (conveniently) it sets off a chain of events which he knows will lead to the inevitable moment of change.

The Doctor takes Wilf home – promising he’ll see him one more time – before heading off to claim his own “reward”. This, it turns out, is the chance to bid a final farewell to old friends – Martha and Mickey, now married, are freelance alien fighters battling a rogue Sontaran, Captain Jack is drowning his sorrows in a cantina-style space bar (and the Doctor pops up in a curiously-misjudged scene where he plays spcae-pimp and sets Jack up with a minor character from Christmas 2007 Christmas special 'Voyage of the Damned'), Donna finally gets married afetr her first attempt at marriage was interrupted by her first encounter with the Doctor and there’s even a touching coda to ‘Human Nature’ where the Doctor meets up with the descendant of Joan Redfern, the woman he fell in love with when circumstance forced him to briefly relinquished his Time Lord identity and become a human in the early part of the twentieth century. Finally, perhaps most poignantly, we’re back where it all started. It’s New Year’s Day 2005 and Rose Tyler and her mum Jackie are trudging through the snow on the Powell Estate. There, in the shadows, in the exact spot where he crash-landed his TARDIS in ‘The Christmas Invasion’, is a man in distress and Rose has never seen him before. The Doctor promises her she’ll have “a great year” (shame it couldn’t have been “a fantastic year” which would have been a nice nod to Eccleston’s Doctor) as Rose wanders indoors – pausing to look back once, briefly – and then the Doctor staggers back to the TARDIS, the Song of the Ood easing him towards his death.

Inside the TARDIS the change begins. A devastated Doctor just has time to look up, mutter “I don’t want to go” before the audience loses it completely, he turns into a human firework, the TARDIS bursts into flames...and he becomes a new man. The episode gets a sudden blast of new energy as the new Doctor – Matt Smith – briefly examines his new body before realising, with glorious elation, that the TARDIS is out of control and about to crash. The burning ship is plunging towards the Earth and an elated Doctor screams “Geronimo!” – I spy a new catchphrase-in-waiting.

So there you have it. End of an era and all that. And it was, absolutely. Fun and rattling as ‘The End Of Time’ was it’s hard not to wish that Davies hadn’t felt the weight of expectation quite so acutely and managed to craft something a little subtler, a little less brash, a little...better. I can’t help feeling that the requirement to know too much about the show’s history – even its more recent history – worked against it to an extent. I also feel that Tennant might have benefitted from a more intimate final story, something which didn’t swamp him quite so much and leave him sometimes looking like little more than a stunt man with a few lines of dialogue. In many ways though it was a story which sums out how frustrating Davies could occasionally be in his writing for the series; it’s hard to believe that this came from the same imagination as modern-day series masterpieces like ‘Love & Monsters’, ‘Gridlock’, ‘Midnight’ and ‘Turn Left’. Here he abandoned subtlety – and horror, for that matter, there was nothing remotely scary here – for a series of random set pieces hung on the shakiest and most perfunctory of storylines. The whole story stumbled along from one unlikely convenience to another with Davies creating another new contrivance – what’s a white star diamond when it’s home? – just to get his characters from one place to another and to resolve one bit of peril or another. Frustratingly, at the core of all the flim-flam was a decent enough idea utterly in keeping with the sorts of concepts Davies has played with since 2005; the Time Lords breaking free from the Time War and risking all Creation just to ensure the survival of their own species. The idea of the Time Lords being as evil – more evil – than the Daleks and all the other Time War combatants is a fascinating one but it seemed to get a bit lost in all the shouting and the dramatic ambiguity. The Doctor’s despair at being ‘last of the Time Lords’ has been the emotional engine of the series to date and the fact that they came back and he lost them again seemed to come and go fairly unremarked.

It was inevitable that Davies would end his time on the show in as big and audacious a way as he could. Here he abandoned the subtlety and light and shade which really characterise the best Dr Who episodes – his own best Dr Who episodes - and allowed his love of ‘end of season’ spectacle to cloud the judgement that should have created a better and more coherent story to send out his leading man. Ultimately there’s no denying that ‘The End of Time’ sent Tennant out with one Hell of a bang but in the end it wasn’t the bang which mattered, it was that beautifully-judged, beautifully-played final twenty minutes which gave the episodes the grace and class they’d previously abandoned in favour of loud music and flashy CGI. It now seems right somehow that Tennant has gone because Dr Who, like no other show on television, thrives of and requires change if it’s to avoid stagnating. ‘The End of Time’ is absolutely the right moment for Davies to step aside and for Tennant to bow out while he’s at the height of his powers and his popularity. Davies, ironically, leaves Dr Who as he found it – wound up in its own increasingly-confusing mythology and potentially increasingly-exclusive to those who haven’t watched every episode religiously (although, oddly, the audience hasn’t abandoned the show as they did in the 1980s when the previous production team allowed the show to eat itself). Davies leaves the show in the rudest possible health but now it’s time for a fresh start all over again with new stories, new friends and a fewwell-chosen old enemies – a clean slate for Steven Moffat and his team.

As for the new Doctor, to his credit Matt Smith literally explodes onto the screen in a brief sequence which casts aside the emotional devastation of the last few minutes and gives the episode a sudden sunburst of energy which can only leave the audience convinced that not only must the show goes on but also that it’s going to be pretty damned good. And if you’re still not convinced, just check out the brief official BBC trailer for the forthcoming fifth series posted below. Looks to me like a show with a very bright future indeed...

The new Dr Who...series five trailer...