Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who @ Xmas 2006

By Jim Smith on 02 January 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

An hour of ‘Doctor Who’ on Christmas Day. More than two hours of series starring former ‘Doctor Who’ companions on ‘New Year’s Day’. You could be forgiven for thinking that Sydney Newman’s creation had taken over Xmas 2006 entirely.

‘The Runaway Bride’ was, absence of Billie Piper aside, business-as-usual for ‘Doctor Who’ 21st Century Style. It had a decent plot, a cracking pace, an emotionally charged script and nothing much for anyone other than a raving curmudgeon to complain about. There was an astonishing chase sequence, a pyrotechnic finale, one of the best monsters ever seen on TV and some cheery Xmas snow. Lovely.

Catherine Tate, she of the not-very-funny-comedy-sketch-show, did extraordinarily well opposite David Tennant’s well-established and rapidly darkening Doctor. What was surprising was that she was actually better at the ‘serious’ bits (i.e. the emotion, the drama) than the comedy. Like Adam Sandler (who despite being a SNL graduate is spectacularly unfunny when trying to be so but excellent when required to be sweet and subtle) she seems to have become stuck in the wrong niche. Give the lady a detective show. Or make her the new partner to ‘Jonathan Creek’ perhaps?

The senior ‘Doctor Who’ spin-off ‘Torchwood’ has been an inconsistent series, varying from the insipid to the inspired and back again with the flick of a writer’s credit. The lack of the hand of a showrunner as accomplished as Russell T Davies seems noticeable on this series, although that may just be an illusion.

Of the four episodes of the show not yet reviewed here at da Shelf the earliest was the outstanding ‘Out of Time’. Emotionally literate, wonderfully scripted (by playwright Catherine Tregenna) and played (especially by guest performer Louise Delamere and regular Burn Gorman) the script not only managed to avoid spoiling the whole thing by having a ‘twist’ it was also smart enough to play within the darker margins of human behaviour within the character of its leading man. Is Captain Jack’s assisting John Ellis’s suicide a selfless act or a selfish one? A moment of compassion or a dubious Freudian transference of his own wish to die to another person?

‘Combat’ remains witty, entertaining and solidly plotted but is ultimately damaged by its own concept of ‘Fight Club plus Weevils’; presumably someone took a look at (scriptwriter) Noel Clarke’s feature ‘Kidulthood’ and handed him a tailor-made pitch about alienation, violence and social decay. Unfortunately, having done the ‘real’ version of this story before being asked to the allegorical version, even Clarke’s skills as a scriptwriter can’t quite lift the episode above its roots in ‘Fight Club’ and it ends up feeling a lot like the obligatory ‘leading characters fight in a cage’ episode of most US genre shows. Give Clarke credit for his use of the regulars though, especially the more complex Owen who emerges from this script.

Catherine Tregenna’s second script for the series was the penultimate episode of the season ‘Captain Jack Harkness’. With a title like that you’d expect to find out more about the series lead, but it was not to be. Instead this was really about the man whose name Jack stole when living in the 40s (for the first time? The chronology of Jack’s life is obscure). Another emotional script, one that provoked Barrowman’s best-ever performance as Jack, this mixed a ‘Sapphire and Steel’ atmosphere with a kind of crusading liberalism to create one of the best episodes of the season. Mind you, I love 40s music and clothes, so this was always likely to appeal to me. Histrionic scenes at the Torchwood hub (how many times can members of this series’ regular cast shoot each other? Really?) don’t live up to the rest of the episode though and also lead into the series finale.

At points ‘End of Days’ feels like a guileless pastiche of a ‘Buffy’ end of season episode, with its CGI monster and sinister old man villain who (while unquestionably brilliantly played by Murray Melvin, who was in ‘A Taste of Honey’ for crying out loud) seems massively indebted to Joel Grey’s character from the fifth season of ‘Buffy’.

The conclusion of the episode, and the series, is well set up though, and the solution to the problem follows naturally out of something we’ve known about Jack for three months, but it doesn’t quite come off. Possibly because the writing feels mechanical. Possibly because the heightened, hysterical emotional pitch this series is often played at makes it hard to go ‘up’ without becoming ridiculous. Gunfights, screaming and quick forgiveness don’t really fit together but in ‘Torchwood’ they border on indivisible. These people must have the emotional resilience of the identikit, plot-sensation crafted non-characters of ‘EastEnders’. The best moment of this episode is Jack’s reaction to the sound of the TARDIS materialising off-camera; that’s not to say there aren’t other excellent moments, but that one is jaw-droppingly good. Bet the Doctor has really come back for his old hand though, not for our Jack. He’s that kind of man.

‘The Sarah Jane Adventures: Invasion of the Bane’ was co-written by Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts (whose ‘Doctor Who’ episode ‘The Shakespeare Code’ is pretty much my most anticipated piece of television ever) and draws on the previous work of both men. ‘Bubbleshock’ the addictive fizzy drink which forms the basis of the episode’s invasion plan appeared fifteen years ago in Roberts’ novel ‘The Highest Science’, while other aspects of the episode recall Davies’s own ‘Dark Season.’ It’s light, frothy and funny with excellent juvenile leads (especially Tamsin Paige, who is going to be a star) and a sensitive turn from Elisabeth Sladen. Profound irritation with some elements of teen culture snakes through the script as a bilious little seam. Which is an interesting thing to do in a kids show. Samantha Bond plays a scheming, nasty villainess and there are some kick-ass effects and a worthwhile moral.

The series definitely needs more K9 though. I know it’s licensing that prevents him from appearing more, but you’d hope this kind of thing could be sorted out. (In my view, the dog’s creators’ hubristic notions of an animated K9 TV show could be put aside so that the character can appear onscreen in a series which is actually being made.)

If you bisected the Russell T Davies version of ‘Doctor Who’ into two roughly equal halves you’d pretty much have ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ and ‘Torchwood’. The beauty of ‘Doctor Who’ as a format is that it can, more or less, be both ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ or ‘Torchwood’. Me, I’m delighted to have all three on television. Long may they continue.

And as this is our final ‘Torchwood’ review, and because I like doing such things, here’s my list of the series’ episodes in order of preference.

Out of Time
Everything Changes
They Keep Killing Suzie
Small Worlds
The Ghost Machine
Captain Jack Harkness
End of Days
Greeks Bearing Gifts
Day One
Random Shoes

Self-indulgent, yeah? Well it is still Christmas. Just.

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