26 January 2014

Now that's how you do Daleks! (Review: 'Doctor Who: Lucie Miller/To The Death', 2011)

The Daleks have definitely been the most prolific villains in the history of Doctor Who, with at least 37 appearances in the main run of the show and countless EU encounters with the evil pepper pots. Indeed, the first seriously planned spinoff series would have starred them, but Terry Nation's plans for the US show fell through before it had even gotten to pilot stage.

As a result of their frequent appearances, the Daleks have become susceptible to what TV Tropes calls Villain Decay; sometimes they can be truly hard to beat... and sometimes you just have to shoot one in the eyestalk to blow it up. Generally speaking, one Dalek is a huge threat and a fleet is surprisingly easy to destroy. Even Terry Nation forgot that they're not robots, they're essentially tanks with a mutated Nazi inside.

So, it's good to know, as my Twelve Faces series moves to the era of the Eighth Doctor, that sometimes you can do a brilliant story with them.


If you haven't seen The Night of the Doctor, I strongly suggest you do so now. Note in particular the five names the Doctor gives about 5:36; these are all companions who have featured in the audio adventures starring Paul McGann in Big Finish since 2001.

This story in fact features no less than three of the Big Finish companions (one not named in the five there)... and what happens here is a major reason why the Doctor does what he does in "The Night of the Doctor".


Earth in the late 2190s; former companion Lucie Miller is travelling in Thailand with the Doctor's great grandson Alex Campbell when a deadly plague devastates humanity... and then the Daleks launch their second invasion of Earth. The Doctor will be needed... and in in this case, the battle will be to the death... in some cases literally.

The plot
Most of the opening episode is from the POV of Lucie as she records a space-time distress signal to the Doctor; he doesn't even appear himself until about 40 minutes into the first episode. Lucie relates the plague and the subsequent Dalek takeover, followed by the efforts of a resistance movement led by the Doctor's granddaughter Susan Foreman as they cross the Atlantic in an attempt to destroy a mining project by the Daleks, who want to turn the planet into a giant time machine. It's a superbly bleak opener, followed up by a spot of derring-do in the later bits of the episode. Lucie is not a happy bunny at the late arrival of the Doctor, that's for sure.

In the second episode, we follow the Doctor and his companions as they try to stop the Dalek plan, dealing with the meddling Time Lord known as the Monk, who was allied himself with the Daleks for typically selfish reasons. The climax is truly dramatic; I can't really say too much here, but it makes "Bad Wolf" look tame in overall character impact.

Things get occasionally a bit confusing and the second episode is a bit talky; having listened to previous audios here might have helped.

The regulars
Paul McGann has had a considerable time since the television movie to develop his portrayal of the character and it shows here; his Doctor is commanding (it helps that he's got a great voice) but also a clearly weary man. He also demonstrates a considerable deal of anger at times; his incarnation is now finally getting the plaudits it deserves.

I'm familiar with Lucie Miller from the first series of the New Eighth Doctor adventures when it was broadcast on BBC7 (as was) in 2006/7; in fact it got a radio airing before release. In addition, I have listened to "Max Warp" also featuring her; it contains a rather good parody of Top Gear. Miller is definitely a headstrong and verbally aggressive companion (best line: her desire to introduce the Monk to the big picture by shoving his face into it) who gets a real slurry pit of a story - she ends up losing the sight in one eye and requiring calipers to walk after she gets the plague; that's just in the first episode. This is her final story for BF and it's no spoiler to say it's a spectacular finale. Sherdian Smith, an increasing presence in British television since Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps (she now has two Olivier Awards and a BAFTA), does a superb job and makes this original role her own.

Alex Campbell (played by McGann's RL son Jake) is a bit of a weak link here; he didn't stand out at all to me and I didn't even know he was an ex-companion of the Doctor's.

Tamsin Drew, a former actress and another companion of the Eighth Doctor, spends her time here in what is also her final story as a companion of the Monk - she eventually learns that he has been lying to her about his motives for working with the Daleks. Again, a moment I can't spoil proves rather shocking.

Susan Foreman, played by Carole Ann Ford, is of course of the first ever companions, who was left on Earth by her grandfather in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" after she fell in love with David Campbell (now deceased). Ford plays a far more mature version of the original, rather irritating Susan (well for one thing, it's been almost fifty years since her TV role) and does it well - she's a commanding presence, although there are stronger performances in this.

The Daleks
Superb; they are ruthless, twisted and for most of this, brutally effective - they kill a lot of people and their plan is truly worthy of them. It takes an awful lot to stop them - and the Doctor will feel it for the rest of his current life. Nicholas Briggs does a great job with voicing them (he also wrote and directed this story), but one can't help thinking thinking the Dalek Time Controller is some ersatz Davros.

The Monk
Another character from the First Doctor's era (he only appears in two stories, one of which, "The Daleks' Master Plan" is incomplete in the archives), this renegade Time Lord is happy to do a deal with the Daleks for his personal reward - and in this case, he realises too late just what he has done. When the Doctor learns how much he caused the situation in the first place, he is justified in ordering him out of his site. Graeme Garden, one of the Goodies (a famous former British comedy trio, although a bit less known than the Pythons), does an excellent job as a manipulator; I can see how he got two former Doctor companions (Lucie and Tamsin) to travel with him.

Sound design
So good as usual, it's not really worth covering this in any more depth.
A superb drama from Big Finish; while it does slacken a bit in the second half, the strengths of this far outweigh the weaknesses - Nicholas Briggs has shown he is good for far more than monster voices.


24 January 2014

Don't mind me, I'm just here for Peter Capaldi (Review: 'The Musketeers' 1.1, "Friends and Enemies")

Actually, that's not quite true. While the presence of the Twelfth Doctor in this (and it was rather interesting that I also watched Peter Davison guest in Death in Paradise tonight as well) was definitely something that brought me to this, the chances were that I'd be here anyway, whether I'd read the Dumas novel or not.

(I have; where do you think Marie Athos in Wing Commander: From the Ashes got her name from?)

So, let us go back to Paris in 1630, where three Musketeers and a bloke named D'Artagnan work together to fight for their drippy King against the machinations of his First Minister.

First impressions; this seems to be very much from the same stable as Merlin, Atlantis et. al, except this differs in a number of regards:
  • It's an in-house production, not from Kudos or Shine.
  • This is a Sunday 9pm hour-long (i.e. 58 minutes or so run time) with ten episodes, not a 13x45' one for Saturday evening,
  • While there is very little blood, there is some scenes of a sexual nature (nothing explicit) and some themes a bit too adult for a Doctor Who audience.

However, the general style; a rollicking swash-buckling adventure adapted from a classic work of literature, with added jokes, remains strongly present.

Speaking of jokes; the show isn't one to take itself too seriously; there are one-liners a plenty and a general wit about the work. The bit about the badger intestines is a particular gem and the four leads (ironically for a novel called The Three Musketeers, the group goes to four very quickly) are clearly playing it with a degree of humour in their performances; Porthos comes across as a bit of a Dave Lister sort of character and if Craig Charles was a) younger and b) not committed to Corrie, you could see him in this role.

This opener, an "everyone meets everyone" sort of episode that sees the Musketeers framed for murder-robbery (including of d'Artagnan's dad) wheels out a number of the tropes of the action-adventure genre and some associated with it; including the old one involving getting a lover out of a room before someone else finds out. These get their own twists though - a pistol kicked under the bed ends up being a Chekhov's gun in the literal sense and the old "semi-undressed woman distracts a guard" shtick gets a comic twist when the guard starts negotiating the fee for sex.

Capaldi is a major draw here - even before his casting as the Doctor (he learned he'd got the gig, which will limit his role in a second season if this gets renewed, on set in the Czech Republic when his agent called with the words "Hello, Doctor"), he was a big enough name to attract attention - playing the goatee-packing Cardinal Richelieu, a RL historical figure of some note in French history, but far better known for his presence in this novel. We've yet to see his Doctor in full, but his performance here is likely to be very different from that. He resists the temptation to ham it up and uses an English accent - but frequently steals scenes.

Those of you who have read the novel (or novels, there's five) will be able to get extra layers of enjoyment out of it; the characters are very well realised here - Maimie McMoy's Milady being a notable vamp who really needs to see her dressmaker to get proper shoulder coverage... and has a rather interesting bit in a confessional booth.

(Best scene involving one of those - For Your Eyes Only).

Drawbacks? The 60-minute slot is a bit long for my personal taste and was a bit padded at times (as I suspect were some of the costumes... it looked cold out there). I'd also say this isn't the best theme Murray Gold has ever done, but it might be a grower.


A series with a degree of promise; a great cast (not just Capaldi), strong source material and as always for the BBC, superb millinery. But can it sustain that?

Also at the moment, it's better than the other series I watch based on a Dumas novel... come on Amanda Clarke, get on with your Revenge already!


23 January 2014

Review Series - 'Doctor Who' Season 16, The Key to Time

This is a series of mini-reviews of the 26 episodes of the sixteenth season of Doctor Who, aka "The Key to Time" season. There is a certain sadness tinged with this box set; it arrived on the day that the death of Mary Tamm (Romana I) was announced.

The Ribos Operation
Part One
I'd really forgotten just how haughty Romana could be. She's great in this episode. In fact, everyone is. Some slightly wobbly sets (not literally, but metaphorically), but Robert Holmes's script is superb, creating a rich universe.
Part Two
This should be called "The Ribos Job" – it's rather like an episode of Leverage that the Doctor and Romana have walked into. Very funny at points and with a rather good cliff hanger, although not quite as good as the previous episode.
Part Three
Some rather silly costumes in this story, but there's some great characters – Paul Seed (now better known as a TV director of some note) is hamming it up big time as the Graff Vynda-K. Good to see the tracer being used in the plot and also K-9 turning up after two episodes. In fact, I'd forgotten he was there.
Part Four
A highly enjoyable ending – poor Binro. There are some superb jokes – the Hackney Wick one stands out as a Londoner and the Graff completely losing it at the end is well played. That Freytus battle sounds worthy of a Big Finish story of its own.
I can really see why this was so popular back in 1978. It's good, clean fun for the whole family. The 'monster' may be rubbish (and ineffective), but it's a tiny part of a great plot.

The Pirate Planet
Part One
This is a little bit silly. Don't get me wrong – the Captain is superbly hammy, but Baker's not on form and the stuff with the locals is generally not engaging. The set looks cheaper here than the last one as well.
Part Two
This story is looking more and more over-rated. The film/video thing is distracting and a lot of the characters are not that great. Romana continues to shine though.
Part Three
Much better. Baker has improved, the guest cast are getting less annoying and the plot is starting to come to fruition. The battle between K9 and the Polyphase Avitron is as good as it really could be – I like the way he presents the dead creature to the Doctor.
Part Four
A satisfying conclusion with some great scenes, but the 'science' is weird even by this show's standards. Xanxia brought just as much ham to the party as the Captain.
An enjoyable story, although by no means a classic due to some weak supporting characters.

The Stones of Blood
Part One
An intriguing opener, boosted by the decision to shoot the exteriors on OB video. I'm starting to see why Mary Tamm left after one season – some of her material is a bit weak at time. Professor Rumford is a memorable supporting character, although the 1970s fashion really hasn't aged well. The cliffhanger isn't all that good.
Part Two
Another above average episode, in which the Ogri have a good presence (most of their activity is off-screen, for the obvious reasons that the tech wasn't up to it and you can't do that to someone's skull on most TV shows). Romana and Rumford are again good, although it seems that certain bits got lost in the edit – it's not the smoothest of episodes.
Part Three
A great one this, with Baker on fine form, a couple of pretty nasty deaths and the Megara not as bad as I seem to remember them. Mind you, evil laughing is so cliché.
Part Four
Another superb episode, with the trial scenes in particular standing out – it play a lot like something out of Hitchhiker's. Appearance of the Megara aside, there is little to complain about in this episode and everyone is very good.
An excellent dramatic tale with strong lashings of horror – a perfect 100th story and definitely a classic of mid-Tom Baker.

The Androids of Tara
Part One
The Doctor and Romana spend most of this episode apart and demonstrate that the whole here is really more than the sum of its parts – while their lines are good, they're not as good as the two of them together (I see Romana left the parking brake on). This one sets up the plot of the four-parter and while it has some good moments, it's nothing special. The Taran Wood Beast is dire and deserves its bad reputation.
Part Two

A good affair in a well-developed world with some good humour, combined with suitable ham from the main villain of the piece. It's all very stagey and non-naturalistic. While this isn't bad, it's not stellar either.
Part Three
The Count is superbly hammy and the Doctor gets some good scenes, but the separation of the Doctor and Romana for most of this episode does hurt this. It's good, but not brilliant. These Taran bowmen can't  shoot straight to save their lives – if the planet ever got invaded, one fears the worst.
Part Four
A dragged out climax – the sword fight in particular is a bit too long and not exactly up to the standards of some I've seen. The Count's sense of fair play and his departure are good, but this feels a bit insubstantial.
While not bad, this tale is really lacking something – like a real sense of threat or a decent alien. A light fluffy work that you can watch and quickly forget.

The Power of Kroll

Part One
A very 1970s looking serial, especially the hair and the poor model shots (water doesn't scale!), with a strong 'Empire' influence. The Swampies let the side down badly, but it's nice to see John Leeson in front of the camera for a change. Tom Baker is on fine form.
Part Two
We see Robert Holmes in full flavour in here – it's a largely talky episode, but the talking is superb with the overall style reminding me, perhaps wrongly, of Heart of Darkness (although that never had a giant squid). When we get to the action, however, the acting is bad and the special effects worse.
Part Three
Thawn is a great villain (especially his 'tache) and while Baker sends much of his episode tied up, he continues to demonstrate some of the classic quick-fire wit of the Fourth Doctor. However, when they're not on screen, things get a bit worse – the Swampies aren't interesting and Rohm-Dutt has outstayed his welcome, so gets eaten by Kroll.
Part Four
A strong script here is let down by bad acting and more dodgy effects, especially when the two combine i.e. Kroll attacks people. It does remind me considerably of the perception of 1970s Doctor Who in the popular mind. While there is some good stuff here, it's just above average.
My average is 7/10, but I've got knock this down a point for some really bad effects work. Anthony Read should have taken a proper look at a script involving a town-sized squid and asked Holmes to do a major rewrite. It's a good attempt at something impossible on the budget. Finally, full credit to the late Philip Madoc as Fenner; he does a great job here.

The Armageddon Factor
Part One
For the relative cheapness of this tale (a "oh, no the money's run out" situation combined with industrial action), this first part is mostly pretty strong. While it's a somewhat sanitised for the audience view of nuclear war, compared with something like Threads, the Marshal's continued boasting of imminent victory as his planet is being destroyed reminds me strongly of the sort of thing that dictators about to lose a war spout. Shame about the cliffhanger.
Part Two
Merak is massively wet and while Astra isn't that bad, she fortunately spends much of this episode unconscious, when she's dragged off by a man in a black painted Santa mask. The Doctor sparkles in his scenes with the Marshal and Mary Tamm is also good, but K9 is a complete idiot when he ends on a conveyor belt. The space battle, relayed via a radar screen and Major Shapp's commentary, is a very good part (these "bombers on the screens" things can work better than even a good SFX sequence when done right).
Cliffhanger stinks though.
Part Three
A lot of plot development, but some bits go on too long and we still have 75 minutes to go... The Shadow is menacing but it is clear the budget isn't there - especially the mind control devices... K9 gets something really useful to do.
Part Four
An episode with further story development and Lalla Ward getting to show off her possessed acting (although she can be as good as the late Lis Sladen) - we get some good lines and a good cliffhanger, even if K9 is being a bit dumb at times. Negative points for the cave set - the floor is clearly too flat.
Part Five
Mary Tamm (whose low-cut dress is distracting through much of this story) gets tortured in what some fans have attributed as an alternative cause for Romana's regeneration, we get a Sarf London Time Lord turn up who isn't that bad and the Shadow makes his move. The cliffhanger isn't bad either, but the sixth part might end up being a bit rushed.
Part Six
Not over-paced, but at times rather overacted; the Shadow in particular. The climax (and the production) is a bit too low key, betraying a clear lack of budget. This said, it's fairly enjoyable and there's some decent performance going on here; the final denouement is totally consistent with the Doctor's character.

The best of a bad situation regards to the budget; but to be honest, while this isn't bad, it could have been done much better with some proper planning. Notably this is the final aired six-parter; "Shada" of course never being completed.


04 January 2014

A long farewell ('Doctor Who' Season 30 Specials, 2008-10)

With David Tennant's announcement coming as early as it did, we had a considerable period that might be termed 'lame duck'... if we were being uncomplimentary. There was a period of over a year in that we knew Tennant was on his way out... and just shy of that we knew that Matt Smith was going to replace him. His departure was certainly hyped and well covered - he made 75 appearances in three weeks over Christmas/New Year 2010 when you count all the repeats; not to mentioning featuring in the BBC1 Christmas idents in character.

Doctor Who in 2009 consisted of precisely three special episodes (five if you count, which most people do, the ones broadcast on 25 December 2008 and 1 January 2010). While initially thought by the media to be due to Tennant's RSC commitment, the decision to do the specials was in fact made before that in 2007 (as per correspondence in Russell T Davies' A Writer's Tale) - Phil Collinson had already left with RTD and Julie Gardner both deciding to go in 2009. A break would give the new production team, to be headed by Steven Moffat, much more time to prepare for the 2010 run.

So, the Tenth Doctor would appear, without regular companions (but 'guest' ones) in stand alone stories that were heading towards his prophesied end, when someone male would knock four times.

These specials naturally benefited from having a lot more attention focussed on them by a team who was not having to plan a full season; there is not really a poor one among them, although some are weaker than others. From "The Waters of Mars", my Gallifrey Base reviews are available for me to draw on.

The Next Doctor (Christmas 2008, 60 minutes)
The Doctor arrives in London in Christmas 1851... where he bumps into another Doctor!

Starring well known British actor David Morrissey as an apparent future incarnation of the Doctor (Smith's casting not yet being announced), this episode has a lot of very good moments, but frankly the giant Cyberman stomping through London is going a bit far. Also has a great villain in the form of Dervla Kirwan, at the time known for her Marks & Spencers adverts[1].

Planet of the Dead (Easter 2009, 60 minutes)
A bus ride takes the Doctor and a glamorous jewel thief to an alien world.

The 200th Doctor Who story and the first to be made in high-definition, this also saw filming in Dubai, a cause of minor controversy due to the emirate's LGBT rights record. A good story, although not the best of the specials.

The damage to the bus featured in this wasn't actually intentional - it got hit by a crane in Turkey en route to Dubai for filming and after discussion, this was incorporated into the script.

The Waters of Mars (15 November 2009, 60 minutes)
Mars 2059. The first human base on the planet goes up in a mysterious explosion... and the Doctor is about to find out what caused it.

The 2010 Hugo winner, this is one of the best stories in the show's history - I rated it 10/10 at the time; it was a crowning moment of what had been a very good day for me[2]. Showing just what the Doctor can be like without a human restraint on him, this sees Tennant at the height of his powers - and contains a superb monster in the form of the flood.

This was in fact intended as a Christmas special initially, with some references remaining in the finished product - a planned transmission on the following weekend on 21 November, the negative 50th anniversary of the story's setting i.e. the anniversary one wasn't possible (possibly because of Strictly Come Dancing?), so it was moved to the previous Sunday - as such it is the only episode of the show that is not a Christmas special aired on a Sunday.

Dreamland (November 2009, animated for CBBC, initally Red Button service with 1x12 minute and 5x7 minutes, subsequently broadcast in an edited together 45-minute version)
In 1958 America, the Doctor stumbles on an alien artefact and has to rescue an extraterrestrial couple from threats both domestic and alien.

Featuring the voices of Georgia Moffett and David Warner (the latter in his first TV appearance in the show - he would later appear in live-action in "Cold War"), this CG-animated tale is one that I enjoyed, but I can't really remember much of. One to watch again perhaps; it does have some good jokes in it including a reference to Alien[3].

The End of Time (Two parts, first 60 minutes Christmas 2009, second 70 minutes New Year's Day 2009[4])
The Master has been resurrected, the Doctor is nearing the end of his life... as both try to stay alive, someone else is approaching and someone will knock four times.

An epic season finale, although it does take a little while to get going. Tennant is superb, John Simm is even crazier than usual and anything featuring Timothy Dalton (a really underrated Bond) is generally going to be enjoyable. The final twenty minute farewell tour is a bit of an indulgence, although one the production team were entitled to have and the final regeneration scene is excellent[5].

This is a particularly good episode for saliva - spray can be seen coming from Timothy Dalton's mouth in his speech at the end of Part One when watched in HD and the final scene sees Matt Smith spitting over the console[6].

The usual large number of names were linked with the role (my personal belief is that it would be Patterson Joseph) and a number of people auditioned. Moffat stated his desire for a Doctor in his 30s or 40s... but the third man to audition was so good that he promptly went against his initial plan.

Matt Smith's announcement came on 3 January 2009 in a special Sunday afternoon edition of Doctor Who Confidential on BBC1; the actual reveal done in a really clever way... near the end of the programme, he appeared talking among the interviewees - then the caption "Matt Smith - The Eleventh Doctor" appeared. People had to promptly look him up - more than one paper did a "Doctor Who?" headline.

The Eleventh Doctor - Fezzy Logic

Bow ties, fezzes, fish fingers... this Doctor is nothing if not eccentric and definitely not entirely aware of human social conventions. While physically young, he acts very much like an old man... as indeed this Time Lord now is. Again, not a good idea to get him cross.

Matthew Robert Smith (1982-) better known as Matt Smith, grew up in Northampton and was a promising young footballer with hopes of turning professional when a back injury put paid to that - he supports Blackburn Rovers[7]. At the suggestion of his drama teacher, he went into acting - and it was clear that he was one to watch from a young age. He got his first professional role before he finished his degree in drama and creative writing at the University of East Anglia - they allowed him to do his final year by post without attending lectures. His early theatre roles were very well received - in 2008 he was awarded "best newcomer" by the Evening Standard for his role in The Face.

His first TV role was as Jim Taylor in two adaptations of Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart novels (the other two have not been adapted), where he had sex with Billie Piper's titular character, but he came to prominence as a Labour researcher in Party Animals. Further roles followed in Secret Diary of a Call Girl (where he had sex with Billie Piper), cop drama Moses Jones for BBC2[8] and Womb, alongside Bond girl Eva Green[9], although his scene in In Bruges ended up getting cut from the final film. He auditioned for the part of John Watson in Sherlock, but was deemed more like the titular character... as that was taken by Benedict Cumberbatch, it was suggested that he go for something more like that.

While playing the Time Lord, Smith appeared in two TV movies for the BBC, Christopher and His Kind (where the BBC vetoed a nude scene) and drama about the 1948 Olympics Bert and Dickie, the latter produced as a tie-in for another Olympics in London.

His first appearance post-filming was in a production of the musical American Psycho that received mixed reviews, while the Ryan Gosling-directed How to Catch A Monster (filmed before "The Time of the Doctor" and for which he had to shave his hair, hence the wig in the Christmas special) is due for release this year.

Ironically enough, he was and still is listed as "Matt Smith (XI)" on IMDB.

The 2009 specials together averaged 10.8 million viewers; "The Next Doctor" reached 13.1 million and the final rating for "The End of Time, Part Two" at 12.57 million actually topped the week (with the total combining BBC1 and BBC HD). It was clear that the show was still very popular, but it now faced the difficult task of a complete change in the people at the top, in front of and behind the camera.

It was time for some fish fingers... and custard?!

[1]"This is not just a Christmas pudding..." Kirwan's sultry voiceovers apparently involved thinking dirty thoughts about her husband. Her husband is Rupert Penry-Jones, a man of many TV appearances (Spooks, Whitechapel etc.) that frequently involve him removing his shirt
[2]Among other things, I had managed to triumph in The Triple Zero Crisis at AJJE Games and gotten my first air-to-air kill in Battlefield 2.
[3]Of course, the show would later feature Mr. Chestburster himself, John Hurt...
[4]This aired as "The End of Time Part One" and "The End of Time Part Two", although in fact the first episode was initially going to be titled "The Final Days of Planet Earth", until RTD came to dislike it.
[5]The Tenth Doctor's final line "I don't want to go" was filmed four times, with each take upping the emotion in Tennant's voice. The third take was the one used.
[6]This latter part raised some eyebrows at the time - Smith later stated it was a natural reaction to the dust in the air from the regeneration scene; Davies cast the deciding vote to keep it in.
[7]A team perhaps best remembered for winning the 1994-95 Premier League title on the last day when West Ham held Manchester United to a 1-1 draw. The final season with 22 clubs in the top flight, it also saw United player Eric Cantona (who later became an actor himself) get an eight month ban and 120 hours of community service for karate-kicking a Crystal Palace supporter. Cantona's career (and United's fortunes) recovered quickly.
[8]This aired after his casting as the Doctor was announced and certainly got a bigger audience because of it - I explicitly watched it for Smith.
[9]Who is appearing with Piper in Penny Dreadful. Small world, isn't it?

02 January 2014

The Blonde Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Grand Review: 'Homeland' Season 3)

Three episodes into this third run of the tales of TV's favourite bipolar analyst, I actually said on Gallifrey Base, I wanted this show cancelled. More specifically I said "Kill It. Kill It With Fire". An episode later, I'd changed my opinion. Eight episodes after that, I'm starting to think that my first view might have been right.

This review naturally contains HUGE spoilers.

At the end of Season 2, the CIA blew up. Well, a large assembly hall in the compound, but still 212 people died. Saul (as I kind of predicted) ended up acting head of the CIA by virtue of dead man's shoes. Nicholas Brody, framed for the attack, legged it across the Canadian border with assistance from Carrie, who as we learn later on is pregnant - naturally he's the father. Ironically, Clare Danes spends this run pretending to be pregnant... and last season was actually pregnant (it's noticeable in some shots).

Two months have passed and the remaining Brody Bunch (h/t Gallifrey Base) have the associated problems when your primary breadwinner is apparently the biggest traitor to the US since Benedict Arnold. Jessica doesn't do much, but Dana (after an off-screen suicide attempt) ends up in a young person's mental institution, later runs off with a wholly unsuitable guy she met there, changes her last name and finally ends up working as a maid in a motel. A good part of this stuff occurs in the first half of this twelve-episode run and is largely inconsequential to the rest of it.

Brody gets shot while crossing from Colombia to Venezuela. He ends up in a dingy half-finished (but still inhabited) apartment building in Caracas, where he ends up hooked on the heroin used as a painkiller. In fact, he doesn't even turn up until episode three (where his attempt to hide with an imam merely ends up with said imam calling the police and a number of deaths; a reminder, as if it were needed for most people, that most Muslims hate terrorism) and disappears again for a while. While Damien Lewis is clearly a brave man for willing to go bald for a role and spends much of it clearly trying for another Emmy (he lost last year to Jeff Daniels from The Newsroom), it's abundantly clear through much of this run that his arc is heading for a conclusion.

Meanwhile, the CIA decide to launch a batch of reprisal attacks against Iranian linked targets, with six simultaneous strikes involving drones and snipers. Quinn is involved in one of these and in the process manages to shoot dead a kid, something that doesn't really come back on a guy that later on shoots Carrie in the arm.

Naturally, the US Congress decides to investigate the '12/12 bombings' and the CIA, its very existence in jeopardy, has to try to obfuscate just how much trust they placed in Brody (they don't know he helped kill Vice-President Walden and it appears they won't ever know... it was put down as a heart attack). In the process, Saul Berenson pretty much throws Carrie (who remains convinced that Brody was framed) under the metaphorical bus without naming her explicitly live on television and in the process is nasty to a financial analyst just because she wears a headscarf.

(My general response to comments about headscarves is that the Queen wears one too - and she's the head of the Church of England)

Carrie tries to go to the press with her side of the story... and her meeting is rudely interrupted by two cops with a warrant to have her put into detention because she's crazy. Her treatment this season made me wonder whether it would be kinder just to throw the poor woman into a tank of slurry.

At this precise point i.e. episode three, things have gotten so dull, pointless and depressing that I declared my desire for flames to consume this show.

A group of shady lawyers manage to get Carrie out of the place and reveal who they're really working for - Iran, who were behind the CIA bombing, retaliating for Israel bombing their nuclear sites (the first mention of that one in a while). Carrie reluctantly agrees to provide them with information if she gets a face-to-face meet with the Iranian spy, deputy Revolutionary Guards chief Majid Javadi, at the head of this... then goes to Saul and the grand plot twist is revealed.

The whole three episodes - her trashing on TV, the sectioning (although that went on a bit longer than planned, something Carrie was not happy about) and Saul's seeming abandonment of her, were a ruse lifted straight from John Le Carré; specifically The Spy Who Came In The Cold, which involves Alec Lemas doing some porridge (that's jail time to my US readers) to get close to East German intelligence.

Javadi arrives in the US and after he brutally murders his ex-wife and daughter (living in the US after fleeing Iran in 1979) is captured by the CIA... who also have to cover up the murders. Javadi has been embezzling money from the Revolutionary Guards and Saul persuades him to become a high-level CIA asset in Iran, where he can steer their policy to a more peaceful one. Javadi, a man whose relative lack of loyalty to anything is demonstrated by the fact he worked for the Shah's secret police before he worked for the Ayatollah's lot is allowed to head back to Iran. Now we're into some proper cloak-and-dagger stuff.

The writers said they had no convincing reason for Brody to return to the US... but were telling a load of fibs (TV writers frequently do these days, which isn't entirely sporting). Saul suddenly turns up in Caracas where the dragon-chasing Brody is and takes him back to the US, where he is given cold turkey... and a shot at redemption. He is to go to Iran, claim asylum as the actual CIA bomber and get close enough to IRGC chief Danesh Akbari to kill him... so Javadi can take his place.

In the meantime, Saul et al follow a lead for the actual Langley bomber and results in the CIA (to avoid blowing Javadi) allowing his employers to kill him - when Carrie tries to stop this, Quinn shoots her in the arm. She is not happy about this - well, most people wouldn't be when they'd been shot.

During this point, Saul learns that he won't be made permanent chief - a nasty manipulative Senator called Andrew Lockhart will get the gig indeed... the CIA has a long history of putting non-intelligence people in the top spot. Lockhart is persuaded to delay his confirmation, but only by so long and soon starts to cause serious problems for the mission. Saul gets his partial own back when he 'accidentally' locks him in a conference room, definitely the funniest bit in the entire run.

With a cleaned-up Brody now ready for action, he and a CIA team head for Iraq to be covertly inserted into Iran... where things start going a bit Pete Tong MBE. The insertion party manages to set off a landmine and bring down the Iraqi army, but Brody manages to get across the border into Iran with a buddy. They got picked up by the Iranian troops... then Javadi puts a bullet in the buddy's head, demonstrating that he is one ruthless human being.

Brody is taken to Tehran, where a now brunette Carrie, packing a Swiss passport, passes him (through Mossad, who are brought into the op when one of their operatives is caught sleeping with Saul's wife) a poison needle, but he is unable to get close enough to Akbari to jab him. Instead, Brody appears on Iranian television and denounces America... making the CIA think he's turned and order a hit on him. Carrie, who is still loyal to her man (and correct) stops the killing. Brody, in a turn of events I saw the end of coming, lets it be known to Akbari that he has some information for him only.

They have a meeting, he tells Akbari that Javadi is a CIA agent... and before Akbari can tell anyone else, Brody launches a lethal Attack of Opportunity with a heavy glass ashtray. As this scene began, I was thinking "OK, what's he going to use to kill him with" and that wasn't my personal guess.

Brody legs it, but the Revolutionary Guards aren't stupid and figure out that he's the killer, with Javadi assigned to lead the manhunt.

The CIA at this point, to secure Javadi's position (the guy can't exactly start by failing to find his boss' killer), demonstrate an unpleasant streak of Realpolitik, by helping him capture Nicholas Brody - but Javadi intervenes with his men to leave our female spy at liberty. Brody is tried, sentenced to death and publicly hanged from a crane as Carrie watches, powerless to intervene (again, this is something out of a Le Carré) as the former Marine chokes to death. It became pretty obvious by this point that Brody was going to die; his narrative arc had reached a point of conclusion and he'd achieved some form of redemption, even if he wasn't explicitly looking for it. Not mentioned is how embarrassing this whole episode would be for Iran... with Brody going from national hero to hanged traitor in a few days

Four months later, with Saul now ex-CIA, Iran caves in and Carrie (who would have been justified in leaving the whole agency), about to give birth, accepts a job as Station Chief in Istanbul. As the final episode ends, she adds an extra star to the CIA memorial wall (now with 132 new ones, but not one for Brody as Lockhart doesn't want to honour him) using marker pen to commemorate her baby daddy.

Roll credits.


While this continued to be an enjoyable series, the decision to renew it for a fourth season when it had reached some form of narrative conclusion was not one particularly welcomed by my fellow posters at Gallifrey Base. The writers will need to pull something spectacular out of the hat to avoid a low-ratings cancellation after Season 4... but they might just do it.


01 January 2014

James Bond: Casino Royale (2006)

Daniel Craig's debut as 007 had a lot riding on it - if he hadn't delivered, the franchise would be in serious danger. He delivers from his very first scene - demonstrating swagger, cool and a strong degree of vulnerability. I particularly like a couple of moments in the Venice climax, where he just crouches behind the pillar and waits for the bad guys to use up their ammo.

He's not the only great performer in a movie with barely a bad one (maybe Caterina Munro doesn't quite deliver). Eva Green delivers a top-drawer performance, made even better by the fact she is not acting in her native French (I'm looking forward to seeing her in Penny Dreadful later this year) and Mads Mikkelsen exudes an air of quiet menace - I was surprised to see someone from Game of Thrones turn up in it, but the inhabitants of Westeros come from everywhere. Seeing Jeffrey Wright in Boardwalk Empire recently makes me appreciate him even more.

The plot is strong, the action mostly superb and the lack of use of the Bond theme until the end works very much in this film's favour. Plus there are a surprising number of funny lines for a Bond perceived as humourless.

Weaknesses? The poker game is too long (did we need the digitalis bit?), the car chase not long enough and the movie loses something around the two-hour mark, but perhaps this is familiarity breeding contempt.


Justified contender for the title of best Bond.


Plans for 2014

May I begin by wishing my readers a very happy 2014.

What I plan to do this year.

Current Affairs
  • The European Parliament Elections
  • The US mid-terms.
  • Whatever else comes up.
Further series
  • Finish off my Doctor Who series.
  • After D-Day: A look at the first month after Operation Overlord.
  • 1989 - 25 years on: Remembering the revolutions of 1989-91 and seeing where the countries in question are now.
  • Finish my review of Homeland Season 3... I plan to do the 4th as well.
  • One or two film reviews - possibly the Marvel ones  due for release this year.
  • The Bridge season 2 and one more Scandi drama, probably 1864.
  • Doctor Who, naturally.
  • Some discussions on games that I've played.  
As always, plans are subject to change.