The Past Christmas on TV

Once again it was another busy festive period on the tellybox, and here’s what I thought of what I watched.

Doctor Who  Resolution
Doctor Who: ResolutionNow, that’s more like it! After the damp squib of alleged-finale The Battle of [Mashes Hand on Keyboard], this New Year’s Day special does a much better job of putting a capstone on series 11. Despite its status as a separate “special” episode, it’s hard to deny that it’s actually part of the last series (despite what BBC Worldwide would have us believe, with their cash-grab move of leaving the episode out of the series box set, which isn’t even released for another fortnight): Ryan’s dad finally turns up (after being mentioned multiple times during the main series), while the primary storyline does a more subtle and effective job of mirroring series premiere The Woman Who Fell to Earth than Battle of Thingy-Wotsit did by just having a returning villain.

Resolution has a returning villain too, of course: the Daleks! Or, rather, one sole Dalek. Like 2005 episode Dalek, Resolution seeks to make a single Dalek a world-threatening force, and largely does a bang-up job. As has been thoroughly demonstrated by now, current showrunner Chris Chibnall isn’t half the writer that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat are (and he only proves this harder by trying to emulate their styles so often), so Resolution doesn’t have as much freshness or innovation as some Dalek tales from Davies’ and Moffat’s eras. But, saying that, the Dalek ‘riding’ a human via some kind of icky telepathic link is a new idea, which makes for some effective horror moments, especially given the creepy cephalopod-influenced design of the creature. There’s plenty of exciting running about too, making this the most blockbuster-like version of Who we’ve yet seen from Chibnall’s era.

It still wasn’t perfect (as glad as I was to see Ryan’s dad turn up, the lengthy heart-to-heart scenes crippled the pace, and his inevitable redemption was narratively unearned; plus, Yaz continues to get shafted with “generic companion” duties), but overall it was a fun treat for Christmas New Year’s Day. More episodes with this kind of ambition when the series returns in 2020, please!

The ABC Murders
The ABC MurdersOnce upon a time it seemed implausible that anyone would ever try to play Poirot ever again, given how iconically (and thoroughly) David Suchet had embodied the Belgian detective during the 25-year series in which he starred. But I suppose it was inevitable that it would happen someday, and so following Branagh’s go at the end of last year, this year ends with another pretender to the throne: John Malkovich. Where Branagh stuck to tradition, with a flamboyant and fastidious embodiment of the character that seemed in-keeping with how Agatha Christie wrote him, Malkovich and regular TV-Christie scribe Sarah Phelps (she’s written all of the BBC’s new adaptations to date) have gone more revisionist. This Poirot is quiet, unassuming, ageing, almost embarrassed to be butting into the police investigation, especially as they would rather he pushed off, and he lives in a 1930s where fascism is ascendent and foreigners are despised, so he feels compelled to hide his Belgian roots as much as possible. It all feels psychologically plausible (and the mirroring of Brexit Britain is obvious), but it’s also a big set of changes to take in one go, which understandably angered some fans. I confess, I’ve never read a Poirot book, but I was a fan of the Suchet series. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this take on the character as an alternative — it may not be faithful, but it is believable.

The same could be said of the plot. Poirot and/or Christie are best remembered for country house-type murder mysteries, with a bunch of upper-class suspects in a confined location, who Poirot interviews one by one before bringing them all together to explain what happened. This was the format that Branagh used to reassuring effect in his film (and, presumably, will continue to use in his next one, if my memory of its structure serves me right). The ABC Murders doesn’t go that way, however, with Poirot on the hunt for a killer who taunts him via letters. The suspect pool is limited not by confined location, but by how sophisticated the viewer wants to be at guessing — the structure is that of a howcatchem rather than a whodunit, as we witness the murderer going about his deeds while Poirot attempts to find him out. But this is Christie, so there’s a twist in the tail. Look, I’m trying not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet, but everyone I was watching with figured early on that (last spoiler warning!) the guy who was Obviously The Murderer was not the murderer, and so it turned into the usual guessing game of “which recognisable guest star did it?” Well, at least one aspect of this was reassuringly familiar, then.

Watership Down
Watership DownThe BBC and Netflix teamed up for this £30 million CG animated adaption of Richard Adams’ children’s novel, perhaps most (in)famous for its 1978 film adaptation that is said to have traumatised all who saw it (I never have). I guess most of that money went on the all-star cast (seriously, the number of well-known names is mad — far too many to list here, so you can check out this list if you want), because it certainly doesn’t seem to have been spent on the animation. Frankly, much of the series looks like an unfinished animatic; the stuff you sometimes see on animated movies’ DVD release as deleted scenes or work-in-progress versions. And yet, there are occasional flashes of polish: look closely at the rabbits’ fur in many scenes and you’ll see high levels of detail.

Cheap production values are not the be-all-and-end-all, though — such things can be easily overlooked if there’s a good story or characters. But Watership Down’s animation is so poor that it scuppers that, too. Most of the characters are visually indistinguishable, made worse when there are so many of them to get to know, and very little screen time is invested in delineating them. It’s not even something you get used to or work out for yourself — the longer the series went on, the more confusing it became to follow who each rabbit was and what was meant to be happening to them. It’s frustrating and distancing, getting in the way of you caring about the characters or the story, which literally ruins the entire production. We stuck with all four hours of it because of a bloody-minded “we’ve started so we’ll finish” attitude. I’d recommend not even starting it.

Not Going Out  Ding Dong Merrily on Live
Not Going Out LiveNormally I’d fold this into the comedy roundup (see below), but I enjoyed it so much I’m singling it out. As the title implies, this was a live edition of the long-running sitcom. What inspired that, I don’t know, but it paid off with the series’ best episode for years. The storyline didn’t necessitate the live-broadcast format in the same way as 2018’s other live comedy special, Inside No.9, but writer-star Lee Mack built in various sequences to push what was possible live. And, naturally, some things went wrong — golden opportunities for a quick-thinking comic like Mack, who got to throw in plenty of improvisations and fourth-wall breaking. It may not be sophisticated, but it was funny. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I watched it twice within 24 hours.

Comedy roundup
Upstart Crow: A Crow Christmas CarolAlso tickling my funny bone this season were a new Upstart Crow Christmas special, given a prime Christmas Day slot. It riffed off A Christmas Carol, which was unfortunate because I saw rather too many version of that this year (see below for another). I can’t say Crow’s take was particularly special, but I’m fond of the sitcom anyway so another episode is always welcome. The night before that (Christmas Eve, for those not keeping up), BBC One had one-off comedy-drama Click & Collect, with Stephen Merchant as a dad who must travel to the other end of the country to collect that year’s most-wanted toy for his daughter, accompanied by his irritatingly over-friendly neighbour. It’s the kind of fluff that would feel a bit too daft most of the time, but hits the right light-entertainment note at Christmas. A bit more cutting edge was Goodness Gracious Me: 20 Years Innit!, marking the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking British-Asian sketch show with a special that used some of the series’ funniest sketches as examples to discuss what made the show so important. It was a subtly clever way to be both “greatest hits” clip show and retrospective documentary at once. Sadly, the repeat of an overlong old Christmas special that followed wasn’t quite as vintage. And, as I’m rounding things up, there were also seasonal editions of panel shows Mock the Week (the usual clips and outtakes), Have I Got News for You (more compiled clips), and Insert Name Here (actually a new edition! I’m fond of it and was happy to see back on our screens). Several others I’m yet to catch up on (Would I Lie to You, The Imitation Game), though I did see both new episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys. I know I “should” hate it, but the Christmas Day one, at least, made me laugh.

Also watched…
  • Black Mirror Bandersnatch — Was it a film? An episode of TV? Something else? I’m still not 100% sure, but I went with “film” and reviewed it in full here.
  • A Christmas Carol — A filmed version of Simon Callow’s one-man show, and another production that sits on the film/TV divide. They released it in cinemas before it was on TV, though, so I’ll be reviewing it as a film at some point. The only reason I mention it now, then, is because I thought it was very good and wanted to point out it’s still on iPlayer.
  • The Dead Room — Simon Callow reading again, this time in Mark Gatiss’ latest attempt to revive the beloved-by-some “Ghost Story for Christmas” format from the ’70s. It was an effectively creepy little tale while it lasted, but it seemed to stop before the story was over.
  • Mark Kermode’s Christmas Cinema Secrets — A festive edition of the series that entertainingly explains the inner workings of genre. In this case, we learn that pretty much every Christmas movie is basically A Christmas Carol.
  • Les Misérables Episode 1 — OMG there woz no singing!!!! (Proper review in a future post, when more of it has aired.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 3This Christmas, I have mostly been missing A Series of Unfortunate Events season three — the final one! Okay, it only came out yesterday, but I was with family and couldn’t watch it (ugh!) Not that I’d want to rush through it, anyway. By the time you’re reading this I’ll have made a start, and it’ll be reviewed next month. The same is true of Luther season four, which also started yesterday and which I’ll watch sometime later.

    Next month… look away, if you can: it’s the final series of Unfortunate Events!

  • The Past Month on TV #40

    In the fast-moving world of television nowadays (where whole seasons appear at once, daft uber-fans burn through them in a single sitting, and the conversation around them is over in a weekend), it’s easy to forget that the latest instalment of Netflix’s ever-shrinking Marvel offering — season three of Daredevil — came out within the last month. (Well, month-and-a-bit — this column’s a week later than usual.) Anyway, that’s where I’ll begin.

    And there’s plenty more to cover after that, including a bunch of new Doctor Whos, the Inside No. 9 live Halloween special, the unusual finale of Upstart Crow, the latest Derren Brown special, and sundry episodes of other series too. So, as the Bard himself might say, without much further ado…

    Daredevil  Season 3
    Daredevil season 3For the 11th season of Marvel Cinematic Universe TV shows on Netflix, we make a long-awaited return to the hero who started it all: the Man Without Fear… the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen… Matt Murdock, Attorney at Law… Daredevil.

    And “return” is a good word to describe this season, which sees Daredevil’s nemesis, crime boss Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, negotiate a semi-release from prison in exchange for informing to the FBI. While Daredevil’s second season veered off into more fantastical storylines from the character’s comic book adventures, which continued into team-up miniseries The Defenders, season three returns to the street-level, almost-real-world, grittily-toned world of organised crime of the show’s first season. It makes sense: season two didn’t go down that well (I loved it, personally, but it clearly wasn’t for everyone), and it seems The Defenders was pretty much a flop, but Daredevil’s first season remains one of the most popular instalments of the Marvel/Netflix collaboration. Returning to its playbook seems to have panned out, because season three has been getting strong notices across the board.

    There are a lot of reasons for that, I think. Some are obvious: the show has always received acclaim for its superbly choreographed and filmed action sequences, and season three doesn’t drop the ball. Indeed, to mix metaphors, it raises the bar again, with an 11-minute single-take prison escape that is all kinds of impressive — and was done 100% for real, no hidden cuts (you can read more about that here). That may be the standout one this season (although there’s a four-way fight in the finale that’s a doozy), but there are numerous stunning sequences throughout all 13 episodes. They really put effort into making the action inventive and original, and that effort is appreciated. I guess if action sequences do nothing for you then it doesn’t matter either way, but seeing it be so well-executed is better than samey action-for-the-sake-of-action.

    Back in blackThere’s a lot more to this season than that, though. New showrunner Erik Oleson has crafted a narrative for his 13 episodes that is better formed than most Marvel Netflix shows — heck, than most streaming series fullstop. It doesn’t seem to drag things out or go round in circles just to fill its episode count, but has a clear sense of pace and purpose. Okay, it’s still a streaming series — it still feels it can afford to devote entire episodes to things a network show might dash through in one sequence — but often that works to add depth. Spending a whole episode on Matt’s convalescence at the start of the season might seem indulgent, but it’s also important to his mindset for the rest of the season, which makes a big point of his morality, his religion, and his relationship with God — always a key aspect of the character, and foregrounded here without becoming objectionable to those of us with a less Catholicly inclined view of the world. The structural accomplishment really pays off in the final few episodes, too, with an array of surprising and game-changing twists and developments. My notes for later episodes were full of things like “shocking climax” and “oooh, twist!” and “ohhh shit!” At times Fisk feels genuinely unbeatable and you actually wonder how the heroes can win this one.

    The return to gritty street-level criminal enterprises is more than just an aesthetic move, too. Well, that’s partly the joy of it — it makes for a refreshing change after multiple seasons of magic and mysticism if you watch all the Marvel/Netflix shows, after that side of the MCU even invaded the theoretically-grounded worlds of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, never mind Iron Fist. But it also allows Oleson to bring more genuine depth to his characters. He’s spoken about being driven by psychological realism — what would these characters really want and need, and therefore do? That might sound like Writing 101, but I think it’s easy for writers of comic book material to fall back on comic book tropes.

    Hitting the BullseyeA good example of this is FBI Agent Benjamin Poindexter, who will turn out to be the villain Bullseye. Sorry if you think that’s a spoiler, but one of his first scenes shows off his mind-blowing marksmanship, so you ought to guess, really. In the comics, Bullseye has no backstory — he’s just a psychopathic killer — which is the kind of shit you can get away with if you’re being cartoonish. In the interests of psychological realism, however, Oleson wanted to give him one, to explore his origins, and they were basically free to do what they liked. They even spoke to psychiatrists and the like to make it genuinely realistic. I guess some may think this is unnecessary detail for what is still fundamentally a superhero-action show, but it has its rewards. It’s the same with giving the season a thematic weight to consider. According to Oleson, that was “fear” — how we’re all constrained by our fears and can’t be free until we face and overcome them. This applies to every character, hero and villain alike. Well, it’s a particularly pertinent choice for Daredevil, considering his sobriquet of “the man without fear”.

    If I have one complaint about the season, it’s the lack of crossover with other Marvel Netflix shows — not just for the sake of fan service, but for genuine reasons of in-universe plausibility. Oleson has said crossovers aren’t his style, because he’s focused on his characters and not shoehorning in others for the sake of it, but that adherence to the realism of the characters is why it’s silly that certain others don’t turn up. The most glaringly obvious omission is Frank Castle, aka the Punisher — who, in this iteration of the Marvel Universe, started out as a Daredevil supporting character (as one of the main threats in season two). The real-world reason he doesn’t pop up is probably that he’s got his own show now, so I guess scheduling didn’t work out. But (as this Collider article points out) it makes no sense that Castle wouldn’t turn up to help Karen, especially as the danger to her life is literally headline-making news. As that article summarises, “Frank Castle’s absence doesn’t ruin the season, not even close, but it’s a burden an otherwise Who WOULDN'T come to her rescue? I mean seriously...well-told story shouldn’t have to bear, and one that could have been easily remedied.” With Punisher season two on the way it’s possible this apparent plot hole could still be explained and/or retconned (whether they’ll bother is another matter, although Karen was a major character in Punisher season one so they ought to at least reference it), but it’s a shame it went unexplained in Daredevil itself.

    Still, that’s the only major complaint I have about this whole season. Many are seeing it as a return to form — as I said, I loved season two, so for me it’s just Daredevil continuing to be excellent, just in a different way. Normally this would absolutely bode well for a fourth season, but with Iron Fist being cancelled (presumably due to ratings) and Luke Cage also canned (over bizarre creative differences, despite the season being half written), it seems like Marvel and Netflix don’t get along so well at the minute (might be something to do with that forthcoming Disney streaming service…) I really hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, because in my opinion Daredevil is still one of the best things to come out of the whole MCU, on the small or big screen.

    Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 3-7
    Doctor Who - RosaI let this post slip a week, so there are five episodes of Doctor Who to look back over. First up, the new team’s first historical adventure, Rosa (whew, it feels like more than a month since this aired!) I wrote last month about how there seemed to be a conscious effort to take Who back to its roots; to do things in a way perhaps not seen since the William Hartnell era of the mid-’60s. Rosa continues this. Back then, historical adventures didn’t have alien threats for the Doctor & co to battle, instead taking a genuine(ish) trip into the past. Rosa does give them a time-travelling criminal to battle, but he’s a relatively slight element in how things play out: he’s trying to alter history by nudging it out of place with small acts, so the TARDIS Team have to nudge it back. Mainly, the episode exists to be a timely commentary on racism. Co-written by acclaimed author Malorie Blackman, it was mostly a success… though, like episodes one and two, it saw the villain less being defeated, more just teleporting away.

    Arachnids in the UK was more of a typical Doctor Who romp, as the supporting cast’s hometown of Sheffield was threatened by giant spiders, Trump-ish businessmen, and some dodgy thematic plotting (why is the villain bad for shooting an animal that was going to slowly die of asphyxiation otherwise?) Also, the villain is allowed to wander off at the end, like in episodes, one, two, and three. Continuing this less-revolutionary seam was The Tsuranga Conundrum, which saw the TARDIS Team trapped on a medical ship being torn apart by a metal-eating little critter. Strong design elements (the set looked great, as did the CGI monster) did little to hide some round-the-houses plotting and a cast too big to get enough adequate screen time. Also, it ended with the monster being set free into space, similarly to episodes one, two, three, and four. Was this a deliberate pattern?

    TARDIS TeamEpisode six and seven say “no”. Well, a bit — the actual villain did survive the first. I still hope they’re going somewhere with this, because otherwise it’s very sloppy. Anyway, episode six itself, Demons of the Punjab, was one of the highlights of the season. Like Rosa, it sees the Doctor and co going into history and facing up to the real issues of the day, with the aliens popping in to add some spice rather than properly drive the story — like Rosa, you can imagine a not-that-different version of this episode without them. Preventing the Doctor from interfering and being ultra-heroic is certainly a change of pace from the “heroic god” version of the character we’ve had since the 2005 revival, but it’s not an unheard of vision — again, it harks back to the Hartnell era.

    Finally for now, Kerblam! is the first-ever Who story with an exclamation mark in the title. Truly groundbreaking, this season is. I also thought it was the most successful sci-fi episode of the season thus far, feeling like the kind of excitement-filled runaround that would’ve fit in the Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, or Capaldi eras. Its satirisation of Amazon was quite fun, the design work was once again superb, and there was even a budget-busting action sequence. And the villain didn’t escape to live another day! Although, did they really deserve to die? Even when an episode succeeds this season, it still leaves you with questions…

    Inside No. 9  Dead Line
    Inside No. 9: Dead LineI’ve never watched Inside No. 9 before, though I’ve always meant to get round to it. For those equally in the dark, it’s a comedy-horror anthology series from writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, aka half of the League of Gentlemen, with each half-hour episode a self-contained tale. The reason I’ve jumped in here was because this was a live Halloween special. For some reason I’m always intrigued by live TV drama (I even watched episodes of Eastenders and Coronation Street just because they were going out live), and Inside No. 9’s standalone nature made just dropping in feasible. Anyway, the episode itself was a typically playful endeavour — many fans switched off halfway through, genuinely duped by one of the episode’s tricks. The episode also managed to genuinely integrate the fact it was live, roping in a news broadcast from another channel and having one of the characters tweet. That means it played better live than it would, say, on iPlayer (where it’s still available), though it’s still worth a watch as an effective piece of drama — the way it played with the form of live TV was the best bit, but alongside that it snuck in an interestingly-constructed narrative. You can also view it as a half-hour homage to infamous BBC drama Ghostwatch, which is no bad thing. (That also reminds me I’ve still not got round to watching Ghostwatch…)

    Upstart Crow  Series 3 Episode 6
    Go On and I Will FollowI always wondered if this day would come. As many (though I would guess not all) viewers must know, Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died in childhood. Not exactly traditional material for a multi-camera sitcom, so I wondered if the series would just never go there; equally, it’s by Ben Elton, co-writer of the famously tragic final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, a work of unequivocal genius. And so in the final episode of this series, Go On and I Will Follow, Upstart Crow does go there… eventually, in the final moments of an episode that’s mostly fluff about theatre awards. It makes for a somewhat bizarre ending. Hamnet was never much of a character in the show, so while his passing’s effect on the characters is obvious, it has little meaning to us viewers. Then there’s the dedication to him at the end, which just reads like a spoof. The only bit that truly worked for me was the final lines: read in solemn voiceover, a passage by Shakespeare himself about grief. Perhaps that’s fitting. Perhaps if the whole episode had been about it in some way, then it would’ve worked — it’s part of why that Blackadder finale is so effective: the whole episode is about going “over the top”, or trying to avoid it, and so the unity of plot and theme and character and historical fact builds to an emotional gut punch of an ending. But rather than do that, Hamnet’s untimely end is just one scene tacked onto the end of some achingly obvious satire about something inherently vacuous. Well, maybe that was Elton’s point, but I don’t think the contrast was sharply enough drawn if so. Without that consistency across the whole episode, the ending just feels… odd. Ah well, at least we know there’s definitely a Christmas special to look forward to.

    Also watched…
  • Batman: The Animated Series Heart of Ice, Deep Freeze, Cold Comfort / Batman Beyond Meltdown — Watched these specific episodes to accompany my viewing of the film Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. Heart of Ice may be one of the show’s best episodes, but the other two suggest it was in serious decline by the end. Meltdown is pretty good, though.
  • Children in Need 2018 — I used to watch the BBC’s annual charity telethon religiously, but I’ve lapsed in the last few years. I unintentionally caught some of it this year, which just confirmed it’s continued downhill. What I saw was mostly either trailers for forthcoming (BBC) shows or pop singers just singing — where have all the original sketches and specials gone? There were still a couple, and they were the highlights.
  • Derren Brown: Sacrifice — Derren’s third Netflix “Original” is the first that’s actually new. In it, he tries to programme an anti-immigrant American to stand between an illegal immigrant and a gun-wielding biker. It’s not his best special (it feels like a recombination of previous techniques to an ending that’s only new in its specifics), but it’s not a bad one either. I imagine if you’ve not seen what he can do before, it’d be more impressive. Assuming you believe it, that is; which you should, because what would be the point if it was fake?
  • The Great Model Railway Challenge Series 1 Episodes 3-6 — Reader, I did end up watching the rest of the series. My review of the first two pretty much covers it all. It’s not a hobby I’d ever take up (I was never much good at arts & crafts or building model kits or any of that kind of stuff), but for some reason I’ve always liked miniature things (love a model village) and the creations here are often very impressive.
  • Great News Season 1 — This newsroom sitcom limped to two seasons on network TV in the US, but recently made its way to UK shores as a Netflix “Original” — but only after it had already been cancelled in the US. That’s a shame, because once it settles into its stride its often pretty funny, and one of those “save our show, Netflix” campaigns might’ve been warranted. Oh well, at least I’ve got season two to look forward to.
  • Mars Season 1 Episode 1 — There’s been a spate of dramas about mankind’s first mission to Mars in recent years, but this was one of the most high-profile: produced by Ron Howard, it mixes documentary footage with the drama to show the present-day reality behind what we’re seeing in the fiction. Unfortunately, the fiction part is bloody awful, at least on the basis of this first episode. I’ve had the series on Blu-ray for years and finally started watching it because season two was beginning, but I’m not sure I’ll even make it on to episode two.
  • What Do Artists Do All Day? Peter Jackson — Despite the general-sounding title, this is a straight-up behind-the-scenes about the making of They Shall Not Grow Old. Well worth a look if you’re interested in how they did it. (They Shall Not Grow Old was also on TV this month, of course. My review is here.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Little Drummer GirlThis month, I have mostly been missing The Little Drummer Girl, the BBC’s new John le Carré adaptation from the makers of The Night Manager, their last (and very successful) John le Carré adaptation. As regular readers may know, I have a proclivity for saving series like this up and watching them back-to-back over about a week once they’re done — truly, I am of the Netflix generation. Dammit. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it, so expect me to get right on it and review it next month.

    And speaking of Netflix, I’ve still not got round to the new Sabrina or the much-discussed and recommended Haunting of Hill House. Whether I’ll be able to make time for those once Christmas TV ramps up, who can say. Oh God, and I’ve just remembered there’s still Killing Eve on iPlayer, too. Eesh.

    Next month… the final few episodes of Doctor Who, and an Arrowverse crossover or two.

  • The Past Month on TV #39

    Travel through time and space, into dreams and memories, and along miniature railways in this month’s TV review…

    Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 1-2
    Doctor Who series 11The 37th season of Doctor Who begins with the show’s biggest soft-reboot since at least 2010; arguably, since 2005; arguably, ever. With a new showrunner comes a new broom, and so we have a new Doctor, a new TARDIS, a new set of companions — sorry, they’re “friends” now — new locations, new monsters, and a new style (thanks to a raft of behind-the-scenes changes, including a new effects company, swish new cameras and lenses, and a new aspect ratio). It’s the perfect jumping-on point… and it worked, with the premiere achieving the show’s highest ratings for a decade; or longer, depending how you count it.

    Oh, and the Doctor’s a woman now, too. “It’ll kill the show,” cried a vocal minority. Hahaha, nope!

    But what of Jodie Whittaker, anyway? As with any new Doctor, I feel she needs a little time to find her feet — something that lies in the writing as much as the performance. There are some lines which would seem more at home in the mouths of David Tennant or Matt Smith, which Whittaker gamely tackles but don’t quite feel natural. But at other times the material and her performance click in perfect synchronicity, and we can see the promise that lies within. Hopefully as the writers become more familiar with her mannerisms, what works and what doesn’t for this particular incarnation, then it’ll all become smoother. There’s no reason to doubt she’s up to the task.

    Some question the new man in charge of running the show, though. Chris Chibnall’s TV record is… patchy. For every Broadchurch series one there’s a Broadchurch series two; for every Broadchurch series three there’s a Torchwood series one; and so on. He acquits himself decently with this opening pair of episodes. The first, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, may owe an obvious debt to Predator with its alien-hunter storyline, but Who has always liberally borrowed from other places and made the material its own.

    TARDIS TeamIndeed, even as it’s open-armed and newbie-friendly, Chibnall’s era already seems as Who-literate as you’d expect from such a long-time fan (somewhat (in)famously, as a teenager in the ’80s Chibnall appeared on TV criticising the then production team). His sense of what Who should be is at once indebted to the modern era (in particular the years of Russell T Davies, who I suspect may’ve been something of a mentor to Chibnall at one point) and also seeks to reintegrate elements long absent. For example, there’s the expanded TARDIS team, which calls to mind that of the series’ very first group of travellers; though whereas 1963 gave us a teenage girl and two middle-aged teachers, 2018 offers two teenagers and one middle-aged bloke. Such are the changing times. And for dedicated Whovians, the plot of episode two, The Ghost Monument, also had an air of early Hartnell serials, with its episodic trek across a danger-filled alien world. It was a brisk, entertaining 50 minutes, but stop and think about it too much and the cracks begin to show (read Andrew Ellard’s tweetnotes to see how it could’ve been polished up, for example).

    Still, two episodes into a new era is no point at which to make generalisations about it (despite what some people have been trying). This is a reasonably promising start, though: there’s a good cast in place, and a clear sense of purpose — this feels like a production team making the version of the show they want on screen, not one rushing headlong to get out anything so long as it meets the broadcast deadline (something that afflicted both RTD’s and Steven Moffat’s eras at times). Only the weeks ahead can really tell how consistently they’ve achieved this. Personally, I’m more excited for each new episode to come around than I have been for some time.

    Maniac
    ManiacNetflix continue to blur the line between movies and TV with this limited series starring Oscar winner Emma Stone and Oscar nominee Jonah Hill, co-created and directed by Cary “director of the next Bond film” Fukunaga. Well, I mean, it’s a line that other TV producers have blurred plenty in the past — movie stars on TV is far from a new thing at this point, and there’s no doubting this is a TV series rather than a movie (it’s 6½ hours long, for one thing) — but, still. And they bend the rules of TV, too, with individual episodes running everywhere from 26 to 47 minutes. (Does that matter when Netflix’s release-it-all-at-once strategy means you choose how much to watch at any one time? Maybe not. But if you’re the kind to still watch one episode at a time, a word to the wise: I recommend double-billing the ultra-short should-be-one-episode pair of episodes 7 and 8.)

    Anyway, Hill stars as the paranoid and delusional son of a business magnate who enrols in a drug trial, where he meets Stone’s addict in search of a fix. The trial is a new method for treating past trauma, something both of them have plenty of; and when the AI that’s a vital part of the procedure malfunctions, the pair find themselves in each other’s dreams and fantasies. It’s kind of like Inception made by someone with a kookier imagination than Christopher Nolan.

    In fact, an even better point of reference would be X-Men-adjacent TV series Legion: it has the same preoccupation with mental health, with mysterious possibly helpful / possibly evil institutions, with can’t-trust-reality trippiness, with retro-futuristic design… It’s certainly a heavily stylised series, which is half the charm. The other half is all the dreamworld stuff, which takes a few episodes to rock up but is worth the wait. And the other half — because this is the kind of show that would definitely have three halves — is the chemistry between Stone and Hill, which is unexpected but palpable.

    Kooky chemistryA significant amount of the series’ offbeat likability is down to idiosyncratic direction by Fukunaga, I suspect — the way he’s shepherded the visual creation of this world, the leftfield performance choices across the cast, and so on — but Emma Stone is definitely the MVP. While the aforementioned chemistry between her and Hill is important, and a lot of the rest of the cast get to excel at being quirky and funny, it’s Stone who really brings heart and emotion to the piece, making it more than just a zany fantasy.

    Maniac throws you in at the deep end, with a first instalment that’s densely packed with information and alternate-world building, which it races past and through, sometimes with two or three things going on at once, making it feel a bit like hard work. But, really, that’s all incidental detail. Once you settle into it, an inventive and kooky journey awaits. How much it all adds up to is debatable — though, for the characters, it definitely reaches a worthwhile place — but it’s the kind of trip where the journey’s worth at least as much as the destination.

    The Great Model Railway Challenge  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
    The Great Model Railway Challenge
    Long-time readers of this column with exceptionally good memories may remember that I once watched two episodes of Shed of the Year merely because one episode featured a Doctor Who-themed shed and another featured a cinema-themed shed (I’m still jealous of the latter, and you should be too — see photos at the aforementioned link). Well, here we have another show that wouldn’t normally be up my street… but episode one was all cinema-themed builds, and episode two featured a Doctor Who-themed build.

    As for the programme itself, well, the format follows the template established by Bake Off and since copied ad infinitum for almost every hobby TV producers can think of: a pair of affable, pun-delivering hosts; a mixed-gender pair of expert judges; well-practiced amateur contestants, who compete in a series of tasks and challenges over a period of three days — in this case, to build model railways. It comes across as being as nerdy a hobby as you’d think (and with one team choosing to do the Who themed setup, it’s like nerd²), but I don’t mean that as a criticism — the stuff they produce is, at its best, astonishing and a lot of fun. I think I’m going to end up watching the rest of the series.

    Also watched…
  • Upstart Crow Series 3 Episode 4 — It’s funny how this era of catchup TV can lead to both binge-watching and spreading stuff thinner than intended (or is that just me?) Anyway, the sole episode of Upstart Crow continued the quality run I commented on last month, this time with an amusing episode-long riff on Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Would I Lie To You? Series 12 Episode 1 — The best panel show on TV is back and as on form as ever, particularly with the ever-unguessable Bob Mortimer popping in for the first episode. A treat.

    The Not-So-Immortal Iron Fist
    Colleen the Iron FistHaving just last month written about how improved Iron Fist was and how I was actually looking forward to season three, Netflix went and cancelled it last weekend. That’s the first of their Marvel shows they’ve outright cancelled (it doesn’t look like The Defenders is coming back, but that was technically always a one-off miniseries anyway). There are lots of options for Iron Fist’s future, however: could be they’re planning to team up some of the characters into a new show; could be it moves to Disney’s forthcoming streaming service, which is set to have other MCU-related series. I figure the latter is unlikely — it’s tarnished goods now — but it would seem a shame to not pay off the second season’s cliffhangers/teases somewhere, somehow.

    Things to Catch Up On
    InformerThis month, I have mostly been missing Informer, BBC One’s new thriller. Well, it only started on Tuesday, so that’s fair enough, right? I guess I’ll save it up and see how it goes down — I’ve managed to avoid wasting time on a few initially-promising-but-ultimately-poorly-received series with this method; though, equally, it led to Radio Times spoiling Bodyguard for me, so you take your chances… And as the lack of review may’ve told you, I’ve yet to start Killing Eve. With a bunch of stuff popping onto Netflix over the coming weeks (see below), it’ll be lucky to make next month’s column either.

    Next month… after a 2½-year wait (which has included seven seasons of other Marvel/Netflix shows), it’s finally time to give the Devil his due — that being, a third season.

    Plus! Netflix’s spooky Riverdale spinoff, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and more new Who.

  • The Past Month on TV #38

    There are three major series for me to review this month, thanks to the UK’s highest-rated drama launch for a decade, Bodyguard; the debut season of Amazon’s heavily-promoted version of Jack Ryan; and a second season for the runt of the Marvel/Netflix litter, Iron Fist. Plus, shorter reviews of other stuff. All spoiler-free, of course.

    So, without further ado…

    Bodyguard  Series 1
    Bodyguard series 1
    A massive hit for BBC One from writer Jed “Line of Duty” Mercurio, Bodyguard follows copper David Budd (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) as he’s assigned to protect Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), who’s trying to push through a tough new anti-terrorism act. As multiple terrorist attacks begin to take place, and Montague cosies up to the intelligence services, the series quickly morphs into a conspiracy thriller, with Budd struggling to know who can be trusted as he hunts for the truth about what’s going on and why.

    Like Line of Duty, Mercurio excels at Big drama: this is a busy, fast-moving story that churns through plot. Not much here of the gradual, slow, “it’s really more about these characters as people” stuff we usually get from British drama. That’s not to say there isn’t fine character work, mind: Budd, in particular, is a complex and nuanced hero, who starts out calm and capable and is revealed to be… well, something else; so much so that you begin to wonder if he’s an unreliable narrator… The other thing Mercurio is great at is set pieces. In Line of Duty they’re often lengthy, jargon-filled police interviews, although he’s pulled off a couple of big action ones too. Bodyguard kind of merges the two, in that they’re talky but also usually involve bombs and guns. The series is bookended by them: episode one boldly devotes its opening 20 minutes to what initially seems like a prologue (unsurprisingly, it has more relevance later), and a massive chunk of the middle of the finale is taken up with another.

    David Budd and Julia MontagueSome have criticised the series for being OTT, implausible, or having too many plot holes. Well, individual mileage will vary on that. It’s not a slice-of-life drama, after all — the larger-scaled storytelling is a genre thing, not an inherent flaw. It’s no more implausible than hundreds of other thriller TV series and movies, just perhaps not the kind we make much in the UK anymore. I’m always wary of accusations of plot holes — it’s a term that gets thrown around too liberally nowadays by, frankly, people who either don’t know what they’re on about or have a failure of imagination (“we didn’t see that happen on screen so how can it have happened” is, genuinely, the root of one prominent complaint about Bodyguard’s finale).

    Still, I think the series’ main aim was to be an exciting guessing game — it’s a whodunnit, really, with a multitude of suspects and motivations. As that, I thought it was a success; and, based on the ratings and chatter, it looks like the public at large agreed. No second series has been commissioned (and, anyway, Mercurio is busy on the next Line of Duty until sometime next year), but I’d be surprised if we don’t see more.

    (If you’re outside the UK, it was announced last week that Netflix have snapped up the international rights, where it will be available from October 24th.)

    Jack Ryan  Season 1
    Jack Ryan season 1The latest reboot of Tom Clancy’s CIA hero sees him get the TV treatment, which is perhaps the best place for a hero who is more about solving problems with his mind than his gun, and a storytelling style that cuts between lots of concurrent plots before later revealing how they interrelate. That’s something this season has done rather well, incidentally — it’s an original story, taking Clancy’s characters but not directly adapting any of his novels, but they committed to trying to emulate his “mosaic storytelling style”. I’ve never read any Clancy, so I’m not an expert on this, but they seem to have evoked it well. (Considering there are multiple Ryan novels that haven’t been adapted, it seems a shame to abandon them entirely. Maybe in a future season.)

    The actual plot concerns — what else — Middle Eastern terrorism. On the bright side, it devotes as much time to the villains as to the heroes, painting a more detail picture than just “some foreign-looking people want to blow us up”. I don’t know if it has anything deep or new to say about terrorists and those who hunt them (we’ve had ten seasons of 24, seven of Homeland, and goodness knows how many other shows on this theme since 9/11 — it’s well worn), but it’s still effective as an intelligent thriller, bolstered by having a desk-jockey analyst as a hero rather than a trigger-happy soldier. Nonetheless, episodes are packed with incident, tension, and excitement. It’s not quite “a thinking man’s thriller” because I don’t think it ultimately has enough to say about things, but it is a lot more measured and realistic than your usual action-thriller fare, while still creating exciting (but also plausible) sequences.

    Naturally, the season takes the form of “an 8-hour movie” (to be precise, it’s actually 6.6 hours long), because that’s what’s popular with prestige TV nowadays, but it also works on an episodic level. Put another way, it’s in parts that build to a whole, rather than a whole sliced up because it has to be. That’s not to say the series isn’t heavily serialised, mind (for example, there’s a random murder in episode two that doesn’t seem to relate to anything else, but then pays off at the end of episode four), but this is only a problem if you dislike non-episodic storytelling. I tend to agree that some shows take this too far, seeming to go nowhere on an episodic level because everything’s designed to be “one long story”, but Jack Ryan is one of those serialised shows that strikes a healthy balance between the two — it is one long story, but each episode conveys a solid amount of plot.

    Field analystAn advantage the show has in this regard is its short length: with just eight episodes, the plot moves at a fair lick. It gets better as it goes on, too, as the various plot lines and characters begin to build and resonate with one another. Indeed, it’s something very rare, possibly unheard of, in direct-to-streaming series: one where I wished the season was a couple of episodes longer. Not that it’s rushed per se, but one or two subplots might’ve been even better with just a little more room to breathe; the main stories might’ve been even better with just a beat or two more in them. But in an era where streaming/prestige series are gaining a reputation for being bloated and not having enough story to fill their running time, maybe it’s better to leave people wanting more.

    And I certainly do want more — season two’s already in production, and I’m looking forward to it. Although I enjoyed this season a lot, I do hope the next one takes us somewhere a little more original (and therefore interesting) than Islamic terrorists. I mean, how about those Russians and the tech espionage shit they’re pulling nowadays? Now that sounds Clancy-esque.

    Iron Fist  Season 2
    Iron Fist season 2The first season of Iron Fist attracted a lot of criticism, and, thankfully, the people behind the Marvel/Netflix series have listened. This second season doesn’t suddenly revamp the show into the best thing on TV or something, but it is a big improvement. They were hamstrung to an extent — as new showrunner M. Raven Metzner has said in interviews, you can’t reboot something like this: it has to keep to the continuity of what happened in season one, and in The Defenders, and in the other Marvel/Netflix series, and go from there — but they’ve made a fair fist of it, (there’s a good piece about what changes they made here), and by the end of the season the show is in a much better place.

    It starts a little iffily, mind. I mean, the hero is a rich, privileged white guy with anger issues who appropriated another culture for his own ends, while the villains are the Asian guy who wants back his birthright that the hero took, and a businesswoman who wants her due from the company she helped build. If I was confident the show was going somewhere with that it’d be one thing, but it also feels like it can’t’ve been deliberate (considering the heroes also include a Japanese-American woman investigating her heritage and, later in the season, a black female cop), but it’s a definite reading of episode one. I began to worry it was going to accidentally pan out like some kind of Men’s Rights / White Supremacist show. Well, it’s not that bad, thank goodness — the season does make some nods towards tackling these issues (there’s a scene in episode six where Davos specifically calls Danny out on his privilege meaning he values nothing), but I’m not sure it truly engages with it, more hopes that if it’s acknowledged and sort of moved on from (I won’t say too much because of spoilers!) then we’ll let it slide.

    So, even with that, a lot of things are improved over season one. Most things, even. But the show is at its best whenever its title character is off screen. Every member of the supporting cast and their relationships to each other is more interesting than Danny. At best he’s a bit nothingy, at worst an irritant. In fairness, I also suspect the show knows this, given its focus on Colleen — look how she shares the marketing. She makes a better lead character than Danny — her conflictedness about being a vigilante is certainly a richer seam than his privileged certainty, and Jessica Henwick excels in some properly kickass fight scenes, too. Among the supporting cast, Ward and Joy Meacham get some interesting material as well, again developing from what they went through in season one. Where back then it was just Plot Stuff to provide a story and twists, here there’s a genuine attempt to explore what the psychological fallout of that might look like. Plus, there’s a lot less stuff about the running of Rand Enterprises, something I called out the first season for ballsing up.

    VillainsIronically, while the MCU movies became renowned for their poor villains, that’s the area the Netflix series have always excelled in. This season the star turn comes from Alice Eve as a version of Daredevil villain Typhoid Mary, who (spoilers if you don’t know the character!) has dissociative identity disorder (DID), aka multiple personality disorder — so she can be both sweet, timid, kind Mary, and hard, stern, violent Walker. It’s the kind of role that’s a gift for any actor, of course, and Eve is fantastic. Similarly, Danny’s childhood friend Davos gets to combine many of the traits I’ve described in other characters: motivated by past events; complex relationships to other characters (not only Danny, but, as the end of season one teased, Joy). He’s the kind of villain whose goal is almost relatable; where you almost side with him over the hero.

    Across all of the characters and storylines, I think the season wants to be about addiction, but it doesn’t execute it as a throughline particularly well. Early on we see Danny being a little bit out of control with the fist; then, many episodes later, he explains he was addicted to it; in between, there’s a subplot about Ward being in NA and struggling to stay on the wagon. These two plot threads should be mirroring each other, not tag-teaming — and in a way that sometimes leaves the theme untouched for an episode or two, at that. It’s a shame, really, because if they’d managed that kind of cohesion in what the show was “about”, it may have been able to lay claim to being a genuinely very good show, rather than just a marked improvement on season one. Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked a lot of it, and I do think it’s a big improvement; but you can see signs that maybe it could’ve been something even better. But hey, even if it can’t offer depth, at least it can offer thrills. And really, it’s a superhero show — good vs. evil punch-ups are the order of the day.

    Marvel’s Netflix shows have often faced accusations of being too long, of not having enough story to fill their 13 episodes. That’s a problem of story, not episode count, as The Defenders proved by not having enough plot to fill eight episodes. Nonetheless, Iron Fist now only has ten episodes, and it seems to have helped. The plot moves so fast that by halfway it feels like it must be nearing its end, but instead of going in circles, it has some more twists and tricks up its sleeve. And to complete the indication that the show is making an effort to head in new directions, the finale devotes about half its running time to wrapping up the main plotDaughters of the Dragon (via a whole load of fighting, natch) and then the second half to what happens after — not just the necessary “wind down” type aftermath stuff, but also a fair chunk of time into establishing where things will go in season three. Netflix hasn’t commissioned that yet, but I hope they do because I’m actually looking forward to it. Wonders will never cease.

    Upstart Crow  Series 3 Episodes 1-3
    Upstart Crow series 3Ben Elton’s Shakespearean sitcom commences its third run as funny as ever, if not more so — I’ve always enjoyed it, but it feels particularly on point this series. I guess its on-the-nose satire of modern life by transposing it to Elizabethan society (e.g. Will’s woeful carriage journeys between London and Stratford are an unsubtle riff on the problems with British railways) won’t find favour with everyone, mainly because it seems a little easy and there’s a monologue about it pretty much every episode, but I still find that stuff amusing. When Elton applies the same strategy to other aspects of modern life, it’s similarly as rewarding/obvious, depending on your predilections. But there’s also a solid vein of mining Shakespeare’s own works for humour, the best one so far this series being an extended bit about how all of Will’s friends think Hamlet is a comedy due to its farcical plot. There’s also a running subplot about Will’s nemesis, Robert Greene, trying to discredit him by making people think he doesn’t write his own plays, which nicely pillories those ridiculous theories, and includes a guest appearance by Ben Miller doing an amusing riff on Mark Rylance.

    Reported Missing  Series 2 Episode 1
    Not normally my kind of programme, this — a fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows police as they search for missing persons — but the ‘plot’ description for the first case piqued my interest. A dad reports his five-year-old son missing after having not seen him for two years due to a custody dispute with the mother. When the police track her down, she says the boy doesn’t exist and she doesn’t even know the man who made the report. Who is telling the truth? What’s really going on? It plays out like a low-key thriller. If you have access to iPlayer (the episode is here), it only takes up the first half of the episode and I’d say is worth half-an-hour of your time.

    Also watched…
  • Daniel Sloss: Live Shows — A pair of live stand-up shows, recorded at different times and places, that Netflix have lumped together as a ‘series’. The first, Dark, is a masterpiece; it lives up to its name though, so avoid if pitch black humour isn’t your thing. The second, Jigsaw, isn’t quite as exceptional, but is still excellent. A definite cut above most other stand-up specials I’ve watched.
  • Hang Ups Series 1 Episodes 4-6 — I was praiseful of Hang Ups last month, but if anything it improved as it went on, with the finale a riotous farce.
  • The Imitation Game Series 1 Episodes 1-3 — ITV’s impression-based panel show is a bit odd (everyone’s busy pretending it’s improvised when much of it is clearly scripted) and dependant on the skills of the guests (some of these so-called impressionists should find a new job), but it’s pleasantly diverting. Plus it gave us this skit of Andy Murray singing I’m So Excited, which is spot on.
  • Magic for Humans Season 1 Episodes 4-6 — Like Hang Ups, there’s even better stuff here than in the first half of the season (which I also wrote about last month). Episode four, Seeing is Believing, is not only a fun magic show but also kinda profound.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Killing EveThis month, I have mostly been missing Killing Eve, BBC America’s critically-acclaimed, Emmy-nominated thriller about an MI5 officer hunting for an assassin. It aired in the US back in April, and it feels like ever since I’ve been hearing praise for it flowing across the Atlantic. It finally made its way to this side of the pond this month (for an organisation with “BBC” in their name, BBC America productions do take their time getting over here). As I’ve only just (as in “as of last night”) finished making my way through 24 episodes of Jack Ryan, Iron Fist, and Bodyguard back-to-back, maybe that’ll be up next.

    Although likely to get in the way is Maniac, Netflix’s miniseries starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone that looks inherently interesting (based on the trailer — like Inception made by someone with a wilder imagination than Christopher Nolan) and is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, aka the recently-announced director of Bond 25. I’ve never seen anything he’s done, despite almost all of it being on my “to watch” list, so it’s about time I started. Expect reviews of both of those next month, then, alongside the return of a certain time traveller…

    Next month… Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor!

  • The Past Christmas on TV

    Ah, Christmas — it could be called “the season of TV” here in the UK. (Apparently Christmas Day telly is Not A Thing in most/all of the rest of the world. What do they do, actually interact with their family?! Madness.) Consequently, although it’s only two weeks since my last TV overview, my list of stuff watched that could go in this post included 26 different programmes. That’s all those one-off specials for you. From that long, long list, here are the ones I felt like writing about…

    Doctor Who  Twice Upon a Time
    Doctor Who: Twice Upon a TimeAnother year, another divisive Doctor Who Christmas special. It’s the third time that the Christmas Day spectacular has to serve double duty by writing out the programme’s lead actor, and it follows the format set out by David Tennant’s swan-song The End of Time and Matt Smith’s finale The Time of the Doctor by being a very inward-looking fan-focused edition. I’m not sure that’s the right tack to take on Christmas, quite frankly, when the show’s playing to a wider audience of more casual viewers than normal. Former showrunner Russell T Davies and immensely popular leading man Tennant had earnt that kind of indulgence by the time they exited, and the series was pretty much the biggest thing on British TV at the time, so most of those so-called “casual viewers” were actually regular watchers of the show anyway. I’m not convinced exiting showrunner Steven Moffat and departing Doctor Peter Capaldi are quite in the same position.

    Oh, but what does it matter? Capaldi’s been brilliant, and is brilliant here again. It was great to see Pearl Mackie back as the wonderful Bill, even if her return felt like a massive fudge about. How you felt about Clara’s cameo really depends on your opinion of Clara (I wasn’t surprised she cropped up; I also wasn’t bothered). David Bradley was absolutely spectacular as a recreation of the First Doctor, originally played by William Hartnell, who Bradley managed to evoke without doing a flat impression or a disrespectful re-envisioning. I’d love him to pop up again in the future, but that would make this a bit less special. The actual plot was a bit of nothing, though it led to a lovely conclusion on the battlefields of World War One — oh, and how good was Mark Gatiss in an almost thankless little role as a WW1 soldier? His reaction to the news that there would be a World War Two was heartbreakingly understated.

    And so, after Capaldi’s overwritten exit speech, we come to Jodie Whittaker’s debut as the Thirteenth Doctor. “Oh, brilliant,” was all she could say before she was kicked out of a crashing TARDIS — just as Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi all were immediately post-regeneration. We’ll have to wait until the autumn to get a proper handle on her interpretation of the role. Under the guidance of a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, hopefully it’ll be worth the wait.

    The Miniaturist
    The MiniaturistThe BBC’s two-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s 2014 bestseller promised to be a supernatural treat, though in that respect the trailers were somewhat misleading. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, it’s about a girl who marries a wealthy merchant, but finds his strict and secretive household is not all she’d hoped. He buys her a dolls house as a wedding gift and she commissions a miniaturist to produce items for it, but she soon starts to receive things she didn’t order — things which suggest the miniaturist somehow knows people’s secrets, and can possibly see the future… In actuality, The Miniaturist is more of a period drama, albeit one with lashings of Gothic that were right up my street. It was beautifully made, with a fantastic eye on the costumes and locations, and cinematography that evoked painting of the era. There were strong performances too, particularly from Anya Taylor-Joy (yes, her out of The VVitch and Split), once again brilliant as the initially delicate but increasingly confident lead, and Romola Garai as the merchant’s overbearing sister.

    There were some striking revelations and twists along the way (even if we guessed a few of them), but where the narrative really struggled was as it moved towards its conclusion. Weirdly divided into ‘halves’ running 90 and 60 minutes respectively (did they accidentally make it half-an-hour too long, or half-an-hour too short?), the second episode felt like it was merely playing out the obvious repercussions from the first episode’s cliffhangers and reveals. The answers about the titular character were particularly underwhelming. Thematically, there was something there about being the master of your own destiny, but if that’s what they wanted to convey then I didn’t think it was played out as effectively as it should’ve been. A real mixed bag, then: I loved the overall style and many individual elements, but a disappointing second half failed to stick the landing.

    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A follow-up to last year’s magnificent Peter Pan Goes Wrong (see the “also watched” section), this sees the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to redeem themselves by gatecrashing the BBC’s new production of A Christmas Carol. Cue a parade of slapstick, farce, puns, tomfoolery, and general merriment. Last year’s production was adapted from an already successful stage show, while this is a brand-new production, which perhaps explains why it doesn’t feel as meticulously fine-tuned as Peter Pan. It’s still funny (though, as the Twitter reaction proved, this style of comedy isn’t to everyone’s taste), but it didn’t surpass last year’s instant Christmas classic.

    The League of Gentlemen  20th Anniversary Specials
    The League of Gentlemen“Oh God, I’d forgotten,” says one character early in the first instalment for almost 15 years of BBC Two’s pitch-black comedy series. He’s been confronted with some other returning characters, but I have to say that the sentiment kind of sums up my reaction to a lot of this revival, in two ways: firstly because I had to keep rummaging in my memory to make connections back to a series I haven’t watched for a decade and a half, and secondly because the hilarious grotesquery of the League came crashing back. Revivals of once-great comedies can be a mistake — they’re often little more than an exercise in nostalgia; and this one is certainly aimed at fans, as the vast majority of it continues or riffs off stuff from before — but, in spite of that, it still felt fresh and edgy, not like a gang of middle-aged men reliving past glories (the other thing that goes wrong with revivals). So it was all really rather good, and it’s gone down very well too. Officially it’s a 20th anniversary special rather than a fourth series, but might we see more? I think it would be welcomed.

    Comedy roundup
    300 Years of French and SaundersSo much comedy, so much of it a passable time-killer that I have little else to say about. The highlight was probably 300 Years of French and Saunders, an excellent celebration of the comedy double act, reminding us of many of their greatest hits alongside a few nice additions. It made me want a whole highlights series repeating all their many hilarious film spoofs. Shakespearean satire Upstart Crow offered a neat riff on one of the better-remembered storylines from modern Christmas classic Love Actually, which it executed with surprising subtly (or, at least, I had to point out the references to my fellow viewers, which was followed by half-an-hour of scouring through Richard Curtis’ film for the relevant scenes). I enjoyed the pilot for Tim Vine Travels Through Time back in September, so was delighted to see a Christmas special in the schedules. It’s good clean silly fun. The same can’t quite be said of Mrs. Brown’s Boys. I only ever watch it at Christmas if I’m around other people who are, but I always laugh more than I feel I should. Other than that, I also chuckled (to one degree or another) through festive editions of Gogglebox, Have I Got News For You, Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, QI, and Travel Man, plus the annual Big Fat Quiz of the Year, one-off Miranda Does Christmas, and a Romesh Ranganathan standup special.

    Black Mirror  White Christmas
    Black Mirror: White ChristmasBlack Mirror series four was released last Friday, but I haven’t even watched series three yet. Well, I did only watch series two just before series three came out, so I guess I’m catching up at a set speed. One of the obstacles (kind of) was this, the show’s only Christmas special — you can’t watch a Christmassy Christmas special any time other than Christmas, can you? Of course, I could’ve watched it last Christmas, but shh. Originally airing at Christmas 2014 (so I’m only three years behind), the feature-length edition introduces us to a couple of blokes isolated somewhere on Christmas Day telling each other a trio of technology-inspired tales that (surprise!) turn out to be connected after all. It nails Black Mirror’s best-known qualities: future technology that’s incredibly plausible due to being just slightly more advanced than our own, the way it considers how such marvellous innovations would actually be used and affect us as human beings, and particularly how it might go horribly, horribly wrong. Merry Christmas!

    Also watched…
  • The Dresser — This adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s superb play, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins, was actually on over two years ago, we just finally got round to watching it now. Should I have counted it as a film, perhaps?
  • The Galaxy Britain Built — The centrepiece of BBC Four’s Star Wars Night, a new documentary on the British designers and craftsmen who contributed so much to the look and feel of a galaxy far, far away — and continue to do so today, in fact. You’re welcome, geekdom.
  • The Highway Rat — I normally devote a bit more time to discussing these animated specials (previous ones include The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Revolting Rhymes, all brilliant), but I was a bit underwhelmed by this year’s offering. The actual animation was as beautiful as ever, but the story and writing left something to be desired. Hey-ho.
  • Peter Pan Goes Wrong — Sadly this highlight of last Christmas wasn’t repeated this year, but my parents still had it recorded so I got to see it again. Last year’s review is here.
  • Snow Bears — This was an odd one. The BBC are normally so good at nature documentaries, yet this took a bunch of different bits of footage and mixed them up into a fictionalised narrative, and did it so obviously that they had to put a disclaimer at the start. Some cute stuff with bear cubs, mind.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Little WomenI may’ve watched 26 different programmes, but there’s still an awful lot I’ve missed. Like the BBC’s new three-part adaptation of Little Women — I’ve never read it or watched another version, so here’s my chance to get cultured. Less worthy but no less lovely, there’ve been a couple of Great British Bake Off specials featuring contestants from the BBC years even though it’s now on Channel 4. Gasp, indeed. And despite that long list up above, there’s still a handful of comedy specials I’ve got to catch up on, like Not Going Out, Would I Lie to You?, and even some not featuring Lee Mack. There’s bound to be something else I’ve forgotten — I’ll have to go through the Radio Times, again…

    Next month… New Year, new shows!

  • The Past Month on TV #25

    Doctors, spin doctors, Dwarfers, and Shakespeare in this month’s comedy-filled TV review. Though we start with an oh-so-serious drama…

    Doctor Foster  Series 2
    Doctor Foster series 2Everyone was a bit surprised when they announced a second series of Doctor Foster. The first was such a finite unit, why risk ruining it? Promises of a type of story that hadn’t been told before also amped up expectations. In the end I find it hard to say if the series disappointed or not because it was kind of out there. Not “out there” like Twin Peaks is “out there”, but the machinations of the various characters went beyond what I imagine most normal people would do in real life. There were some good building blocks though, especially related to how the bitter divorcees handled — or failed to handle — their teenage son, Tom, and the emotional problems he was clearly beginning to develop. His storyline was played off as a subplot, but it was largely more interesting than the sex-obsessed revenge games the adults were playing. So it kind of amused me when the final episode shoved in a montage to emphasise what had been going wrong with Tom, as if to say “look, the kid’s mental health has been deteriorating all along and you missed it!” Well, his parents certainly missed it, but I think us viewers found it pretty bloody obvious. Ironically, this series ended on more of a cliffhanger than the first did, but a third run is only a possibility rather than a definite. At least it serves as its own kind of ending, albeit much bleaker than the first series’. But maybe that’s what these characters, and this show, deserves.

    Red Dwarf XII  Episodes 1-3
    Red Dwarf XIII still think of Red Dwarf as a programme that’s popped back for a bit of a revival, but I guess at this point it counts as just an ongoing show: since Dave brought it back in 2009 they’ve produced four series, half as many as the entire original run on the BBC. Give it another five or six years and they may equal, or perhaps even surpass, that number. It’s been a long time since I actually watched any of those old episodes that made the show’s name, so I can’t offer an opinion on whether the new runs are of the same quality — some say they are, some say they aren’t. Personally, I still think it’s funny overall, and (as I often say) that’s really all you need from a comedy. That said, one thing Dwarf has always done, and continues to do, is draw from actual science and science-fiction concepts to drive its plots and many of its gags. That makes it a proper sci-fi-comedy, rather than just a regular sitcom that happens to be set on a spaceship. Hurrah for that.

    Upstart Crow  Series 2 Episodes 1-4
    Upstart Crow series 2Talking of funny sitcoms, this series of Upstart Crow has been hilarious. Okay, I could do without Harry Enfield turning up as Shakespeare’s dad — almost every scene featuring him sees the humour take a turn towards the puerility of the toilet — but the rest of it is often pretty clever, riffing on Shakespearean plots and trivia. There was even a screenwriting joke in one episode that I guess would pass most people by. It also has a nice line in almost anachronistic humour, where characters comment on a fact of the day that is actually a commentary on modern life. It’s not subtle, and perhaps writer Ben Elton returns to that comedy well too often, but it’s always funny. And as I often say…

    The Thick of It  The Specials
    The Thick of It specialsIt’s funny coming to The Thick of It for the first time now. It was so cutting-edge when it aired, and yet politics has got so much barmier since — these specials debuted a whole decade ago now, when the idea that Trump might be President was the kind of thing no one but sitcom gag writers thought about. That’s not to say the show’s lost any of its bite, just that it’s not as timely as it once was. These two hour-long specials, The Rise of the Nutters and Spinners and Losers (plus 15-minute bonus episode Opposition Extra, which follows some characters from Rise of the Nutters during the events of Spinners and Losers), set their satirical sights on the transition of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. Don’t worry if you don’t remember that — there’s no reading up required, because The Thick of It is a fiction loosely inspired by real political events, rather than a straight riff on reality. It’s every inch the 21st century’s answer to Yes Minister in that respect. Although there’s an ensemble cast, all of whom are very amusing, the unmistakable star is Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker. With a regime change in the offing, Tucker risks being thrown out as part of the old guard, and so is on the back foot trying to manipulate things to his advantage. After three seasons of Capaldi as the Doctor, witnessing him here use his brain to run rings around other people to get the result he desires now feels like watching a somewhat evil — and much swearier — version of everyone’s favourite Time Lord.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 1-3 — Still not as good as it used to be, but I’ve reached the final season now so may as well finish it off.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 8 Episodes 4-8 — One minute the Radio Times is all “it’s obvious who’s going to be in the final”; the next, Liam’s out in the quarters.
  • Peaky Blinders Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — Looks like I may catch up on this in time for the forthcoming fourth series. That wasn’t necessarily my plan when I started series one back in March, but here we are. More comments next month when I’ve finished the series.
  • Vixen Seasons 1-2 — er, kinda. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The GiftedThis month, I have mostly been missing The Gifted, the new TV show set definitively in the X-Men universe — unlike the last one, Legion, which apparently wasn’t. As you might infer from that use of “apparently”, I still haven’t got round to Legion either. I also haven’t seen the other new Marvel Comics-related show, Inhumans, which is part of the MCU. After the terrible reviews it’s received, I’m not sure I’ll bother.

    Next month… strangerer things.

  • The Past Month on TV #4

    It’s the moments we’ve all been waiting for, as David Tennant returns to Doctor Who and Game of Thrones returns to our screens. Spoiler-free reviews of both (and more) follow…

    Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Adventures Volume 1

    One of Doctor Who’s most popular eras is revived this week, as David Tennant returns to the headline role for the first time since 2013 for a debut series of Big Finish audio dramas. By his side is Catherine Tate’s Donna — what initially sounded like terrible casting but turned out to be a fantastic Doctor/companion pairing. (I know not everyone’s convinced by her even now, but you can’t win ’em all.) Given Tennant’s enduring popularity as the 10th Doctor, it’s no surprise his return to the role has brought Big Finish more attention than ever — their website even went down for a few hours on Monday, unable to cope with the rush of fans downloading the new stories. (And yes, I’m kinda bending the rules by reviewing audio drama in a TV column… but, a) these are designed to recreate a TV series in audio form, and b) it’s my column and I can review what I like.) So do they live up to expectations? Thankfully, yes. Setting out to emulate the era they’re from, they follow the model set out by the first three episodes of every Russell T Davies-helmed season of NuWho: a present day one, a future one, and a past one.

    The first is Technophobia by Matt Fitton, which is set in our recent past (and therefore Donna’s near-future) when the new M-Pad tablet computer seems to be causing the populace to forget how to use technology. Tennant and Tate hit the ground running — it’s a cliché, but it really does sound like they’ve never been away. Their sprightly performances contain little of the stilted “I’m reading this script aloud for the first time” acting that sometimes plagues audio drama. Fitton captures the style and tone of their single TV season to a tee — if they’d done a second year together, you can well believe this as its first episode. Even Howard Carter’s incidental music is a mostly-fitting substitute for Murray Gold’s iconic work.

    The middle tale is sci-fi adventure Time Reaver by Jenny T. Colgan, a best-selling romantic novelist who’s turned her hand to multiple Who projects (including a 10th Doctor and Donna novel published last week to tie-in with these dramas). For me, this was the weak link of the trilogy, though it’s by no means bad. There are some fantastic ideas, but at times their inspirations show through too clearly, and the execution is sometimes lacking. This was Colgan’s first audio drama, and dare I say it shows. Sequences like an action-packed barroom brawl are a little too ambitious to convey in an audio-only medium, and the dialogue is regularly forced to describe what’s going on. On the bright side, Mr Carter offers more magnificent sound design — the noises made by cephalopod villain Gully are immensely evocative.

    The final episode is the group’s historical outing, Death and the Queen by James Goss, and it may be the best of the lot. Our intrepid duo find themselves in the kingdom of Goritania in 1780, when it comes under siege from a destructive cloud that contains Death himself. Goss mixes comedy with peril in just the right quantities to create a story that is an entertaining romp but also manages to expose different facets of the Doctor and Donna’s relationship. If Fitton has bottled the essence of RTD, here Goss evokes Steven Moffat, with a time-jumping opening ten minutes that you can well imagine on TV, but which also work perfectly in audio. Things slow a bit later on, with the dialogue sometimes going in circles — a fault of all three of these plays, actually. They could’ve benefited from a trim to fit within the TV series’ 45-minute slot, rather than allowing the freedom of not having to conform to a schedule let them to slide to 55-ish.

    That’s only a niggle, though, and one that pales beside the excitement of having Tennant and Tate back in the TARDIS. This is a run of adventures that largely evoke the pair’s time on TV without being a needless carbon copy of it, meaning they work as both a marvellous hit of nostalgia and exciting new adventures in their own right.

    All three stories are currently available exclusively from the Big Finish website, going on general release from 1st September. They can be purchased individually (either as a CD+download or download-only), or as part of a limited edition box set (CD+download) that comes with a 78-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and an hour-long introduction to other Big Finish works, all encased in a book with exclusive photography and articles.

    Eurovision Song Contest: Stockholm 2016
    Ah, love a bit of Eurovision, even if the songs weren’t as good this year. Ok, you might say they never are, but there’s often one or two half-decent ones (I still listen to Conchita Wurst’s Rise Like a Phoenix sometimes, mainly because it’s the best Bond theme released in the last decade). Even then, the winner wasn’t the best of that middling bunch, though it probably had the best message. In fact, the best song of the night was the Swedish hosts’ half-time number, Eurovision-spoofing Love Love Peace Peace (watch it here). The much-heralded new voting system worked like a charm… at least for audience tension purposes. Poor Australia with that last-minute lose… though as they shouldn’t really have been there in the first place, it’s hard to feel too bad for them.

    Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 1-4)
    Good luck to you if you’re not watching Game of Thrones but still trying to avoid spoilers this year, with the huge and widely-covered news that [REDACTED] was [REDACTED], or that [REDACTED] killed [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] were [REDACTED] for the first time since [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] was [REDACTED] but [REDACTED] the [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] of [REDACTED] in the process — even if more people seemed interested in discussing her [REDACTED]s.

    Trying not to add to the tumult of spoilers (just in case), I thought that The Red Woman was the now-standard GoT season opener (a mix of recapping/establishing where everyone is, and just beginning to shuffle those players around the board for their next moves) done as well as it’s ever been. Home was where the season really kicked into gear, though — quicker than some other years have managed, that’s for sure. One particular moment was much discussed, understandably, but events elsewhere — both in Westeros and Essos — would’ve been enough to excite interest without it. Oathbreaker engaged more with its flashbacks than its ‘present day’ actions, though another episode-ending scene at Castle Black reiterated the series’ warts-and-all vision of the world. Finally, Book of the Stranger was an immensely satisfying hour — the kind of thing Thrones allows us all too rarely, considering how often its heroes are crushed. Apparently the writers have said this is the year the series’ female characters finally begin to really ‘fight back’, and it would seem this episode is where it begins.

    Upstart Crow (Series 1 Episodes 1-2)
    I can’t remember the last time I saw a new multi-camera sitcom that wasn’t either, a) a bit meta (like Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys), or b) a revival (like Red Dwarf X). I don’t know if that says more about the current TV landscape or the kind of things I watch, but either way it surprised me when that was the form Upstart Crow took. It’s just one element that gives it the feel of Blackadder, which I don’t mean as a criticism. Even if it feels a little dated in its execution, there are plenty of laughs — some easy, some clever — and, really, what more do you want from a comedy than to laugh? It may not be up to Blackadder’s highest highs (yet — there’s still time; you never know), but I’d wager it stands fair comparison to the classic’s comparatively-lesser instalments… which I mean to be a less critical assessment than it sounds.

    Also watched…
  • The British Academy Television Awards 2016Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky’s barnstorming defence-of-the-BBC acceptance speech set the tone for the evening, which consequently was one of the best BAFTA ceremonies ever. The BBC broadcast had to cut some of his speech, no doubt out of fear of the government, but the full text can be read here.
  • The Flash Season 2 Episodes 15-19 / Arrow Season 4 Episodes 15-18 / DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Season 1 Episodes 6-9 — this is all getting a bit much now… and next year they’re probably adding Supergirl to the mix, as it’s moving to The CW too. I may have to give up on one or two of them at that point, I think.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 6 Episode 10-Season 7 Episode 7 — the much-maligned seventh season really is not good. I just want it to be over so I can switch to being excited for the Netflix revival.
  • Person of Interest Season 4 Episodes 16-22 — with the cancelled-after-filming final season underway in the US now, one of the showrunners was talking about how the series will nonetheless come to an ending, because they’ve tried to conclude every season with a suitable stopping point. I really, really hope they’ve done something different with season five, though, because the cliffhanger endings of seasons three and four would actually have been terrible places to end forever.

    Things to Catch Up On
    This month, I have mostly been missing the second run of The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s all-star adaptation of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays… though as I still haven’t got round to watching the first run from 2012, that’s no real surprise. In fact, Upstart Crow aside, I’ve not yet watched any of their still-running Shakespeare Festival, other highlights (so I’ve heard) of which have included the Shakespeare Live from the RSC celebration and spoof documentary Cunk on Shakespeare. There’s also Russell T Davies’ new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is on Monday 30th.

    Next month… as was just announced yesterday, AMC’s Preacher adaptation comes to the UK via Amazon.