Friday 26 January 2024

Television Heaven update

Here are all my Television Heaven articles and reviews since the last quarter of 2023 up to January 2024. Gradually picking up the pace as I slowly get back in the swing of the writing thing. We have modern and vintage telly from across the decades, beginning with the charming teen superhero series Ms. Marvel within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps the best show on television right now, never mind that it's aimed at five-year-olds: Bluey. A surprise release late last year of the pre-Python comedy series The Complete and Utter History of Britain. More up-to-date is the comedy-drama that's swept the awards lately, Only Murders in the Building. For Hallowe'en I took a look back at the Steven Moffat's take on Stevenson's classic, BBC serial Jekyll. Most recently, I polished off my teaspoons and revisited a gem from my childhood, T-Bag. And finally, I brought my overview of 21st century Doctor Who right up to date.

Tuesday 2 January 2024

WHO REVIEW: 2023 Christmas Special - The Church on Ruby Road

Doctor Who
returns with its first Christmas special since 2017, also serving as a second relaunch of the programme following the sixtieth anniversary specials. While The Church on Ruby Road has a more magical, fantastical feel than most of Doctor Who previously, and the show has been modernised since Russell T. Davies first revived the programme in 2005, it still feels very much like his recognisable style of Doctor Who.

Ncuti Gatwa finally gets to have the role of the Doctor to himself in his first full episode, and he absolutely owns the role. Of everything in the episode, it's his Doctor that stands out as a new and exciting element. I can't say I'd ever expected to see the Doctor dancing with abandon in a club, but it fits Gatwa's version of the character, one who simply throws himself into every experience. It tells us that this is a brand new Doctor, unlike any we've seen before. (William Hartnell did go to a club back in 1966 in The War Machines, but he wasn't twirling around in his vest.) The new Doctor is charming, passionate, sexy, and full of the joy of exploration and discovery. As with “Rose” all those years ago, though, we learn about the Doctor through an ordinary girl, with the Time Lord kept at a distance for much of the episode until the plot cranks up a notch (the pacing is, admittedly, a little sluggish for the much of the runtime, with a great deal of time spent on Ruby's introduction and the Doctor's flitting about on the sidelines).

Millie Gibson (Coronation Street) is excellent as Ruby Sunday, our new companion. She's immediately a very likeable character, someone we're happy to spend time around on Christmas. Her character might have come across as a somewhat generic “plucky assistant” were it not for the additional detail of her status as an orphan and foundling, which itself could have been twee had it not been written and performed with such realism and nuance. A baby left outside a church on Christmas Eve is fairytale stuff, and while this fits with festive setting and the magical nature of the adventure, it wouldn't have worked if Ruby's life wasn't so mundane and believable. Not that this translates as dull: her adopted life is clearly busy and very happy, but it's not the fantastical story her origins might suggest, and her tears when she learns there's no trace of her birth mother speaks volumes as to a deeper sadness she's hiding.

For all the claim that he was now over his baggage following The Giggle, the Doctor is also barely hiding a deep loneliness and isolation that comes out when he reflects on his origins. Davies continues to make a virtue of Chris Chibnall's new mythology of the Timeless Child, with the Doctor confiding in Ruby that he, too, was adopted after having been found, an important link between them that is bound to be explored further in the upcoming series. As both of them are searching for more truth about their origins, it's Ruby who we'll no doubt learn more about, with the identity of her mother and the reason she was abandoned surely to provide an ongoing mystery for the upcoming season. All of this secondary, though, to the immediately tangible chemistry shared by Gatwa and Gibson when they're on screen together, and it's this that makes the episode work.

Making a gaggle of goblins the enemy for the special is in keeping with RTD's more fantasy-based direction for the series, picking up on hints dropped in The Giggle that all manner of things will be finding their way into the universe. The idea of goblins being behind accidents, nudging their prey into sequences of coincidence to bind them and season them, is a fascinating one, that at once feels straight out of folklore and part of Doctor Who's peculiar, time-bending universe. The goblin plot is very much a combination of classic fantasy films, with elements of Labyrinth and Gremlins (itself a Christmas favourite), although the Goblin King, in this version, is less David Bowie and more Jabba the Hutt. The goblins themselves are a stunning creation, a horde of creatures rendered with CGI and physical performances where required, while the King himself is a huge, physical puppet with real presence, a truly loathsome creature. The goblins' ship is a thing of beauty, straight out of the highest fantasy but no more ridiculous than physics-defying spaceships. For all the Doctor enthusiastically refers to this as a new kind of science, Ruby's right when she calls it magic, and perhaps at this stage, there's really no difference.

Then we come to the most controversial element of the special: the Goblin Song. The inclusion of a festive song goes back to Davies's earliest Christmas specials, but then they were background rather than central to the action. Christina Rotondo provides the gorgeous voice of the wonderfully-named Janis Goblin, singing the gruesome song of baby-eating with goblins excitedly dancing around her. It's a show-stopper, and easily the most Labyrinth-like part of the episode (although the lyrics are a bit more Mighty Boosh). It also fits with the goblins own brand of magic, where story and rhythm seem to be the driving force. So it makes perfect sense that the Doctor, having learned the language of the goblins' science, launches into a song-and-dance number himself to fight them. Frankly, when you've actors who can sing and move like Gatwa and Gibson, you want to make the most of them, but it works with the kind of story Davies is telling this time round.

The supporting cast is largely strong. Michelle Greenridge (Afterlife, It's a Sin) is very good as Ruby' adoptive mother Carla, but the stand-out is Angela Winter (EastEnders, Death in Paradise) as Cherry, Ruby's bloody-minded, bedridden, wonderfully flirtatious grandmother. It's clear that they make Ruby's life a happy one, with Carla, foster mother extraordinaire, the rock on which the family is anchored.

All this shifts when the newest foster child, baby Lulubelle, is rescued from the goblins and Ruby is taken instead, written out of time as the creatures use the web of coincidence to go back and snatch her away as a baby. The episode shifts from Labyrinth-cross-Gremlins to It's a Wonderful Life, as Ruby's absence entirely alters the dynamic of the Sunday family's lives. The effect is immediate, with even the colouring in the scene shifting as their home becomes less vibrant and comforting. We don't see much of Cherry in this scene, but she's clearly deteriorating. It's Carla, though, who's most visibly changed, having shifted from foster mum to 33 to the reluctant carer for “five or six,” all her happiness and enthusiasm lost. Greenridge really is excellent in this scene, showing a complete change in her character who is just as forthright and outspoken, but now embittered and aggressive.

Of course, the Doctor goes back in time and puts it right, dealing with the goblins in a rather brutal fashion (he's lucky he doesn't kill the baby with his actions – or are the rules of storytelling and coincidence such that he knows his aim will be true?) Again, the pacing is odd here, with the story slowing down considerably, and while there's an emotional heft to these scenes in Ruby's past, it feels like an epilogue, rather than the climax to the story.

Some inclusions in the episode don't entirely work. Anita Dobson (EastEnders) gives a broad if entertaining performance as outspoken neighbour Mrs Flood, but her character is so obviously written as “the big mysterious guest star” that it's awkward overall. Already everyone is talking about who she's going to turn out to be, and how she knows what a TARDIS is. The best answer is that she's just a busybody who's seen Time Lords comes and go in London over the decades – it's not as if the Doctor or any of the other renegades have ever been subtle in their travels. Davina McCall's inclusion is an oddity. While Davies has spoken about her series Long Lost Family as being a partial inspiration for the episode, her involvement as a fictionalised version of herself is clunky, and her acting ability is way behind everyone else in the production. Equally clunky is the scene with Barney Wilkinson as a policeman, which is clearly there because Gatwa was kept out of the main events for too long. It's a rather sweet scene, though, and worth including.

Mark Tonderai's direction is excellent, and the effects are uniformly impressive (you can see where that Disney money is going). While the pacing issues do impact it, there's plenty of incident and excitement, and yes, while it's often silly, it's Doctor Who on Christmas Day – silliness is the point. Altogether, it's a very fun introduction to our new Doctor-companion team. Based on this, they're going to be a lot of fun to watch together, which is the single most important thing to get right in this show. 


  • Controversial theory to piss everyone off: Lulubelle is the Timeless Child and will one day grow up to be the Doctor. She was a little black girl in her first incarnation, after all, and the Doctor did say he loved the name.
  • Good to see the trans representation continuing, with Mary Malone playing Ruby's mate Trudy.
  • The episode was the third most-watched programme on Christmas Day according to the overnights, and the most-watched drama.
  • A tenner says we meet a younger Cherry in the upcoming sixties episode and she's after the Doctor.
  • The other goblins in the goblin band are apparently called Pixie Not, Bryan Fairy and Gob Dylan.
  • The mavity thing is still going. While I suspect it'll be dealt with at some point in the upcoming series, it'd be funnier if they just called it that from now on and never commented on.
  • The Doctor talks of his "long, hot summer" with Houdini. The Thirteenth Doctor had mentioned a "wet weekend" with Houdini, but as far as I recall, the Doctor's earliest reference on screen to having met Houdini was the Third Doctor in Planet of the Spiders. So it was the Pertwee Doctor who shagged Houdini.
  • This isn't Davina McCall's first appearance on Doctor Who. She provided the voice over for the futuristic Big Brother in "Bad Wolf." Given that absolutely everyone knows what Big Brother is, and Long Lost Family has run for over ten years yet I, and no one I know, had heard of it till now, shows how far her public image has faded. RTD's first run was aggressively on-the-minute, while now he seems to be lagging behind pop culture.
Maketh the Man: We've heard already that the Doctor will be wearing a new outfit in every episode, but he actually gets through three-and-a-half in this one alone, beginning with the brown checked jacket and trousers with orange jumper from the initial promo shots, followed by an orange vest and a kilt (with and without black leather jacket), and for most of the episode, the signature look of a long brown leather coat, orange-and-striped top and blue trousers, with a final change of top at the end. Looks like this main colours will be brown and orange, but everything gets a turn here.

Saturday 23 December 2023

Doctor Who: The Christmas Specials

Available now is my overview of all thirteen Christmas specials from 2005 to 2017, featuring the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, each one rated for story strength and Christmassy-ness. A nice bit of nostalgic festive rewatching before Doctor Who returns to the Christmas Day schedules with the Fifteenth Doctor.

Read it now at Television Heaven.

Tuesday 12 December 2023

WHO REVIEW: 60th Anniversary Special 3 - "The Giggle"

The third of 2023's Doctor Who specials was always set to be a huge event. The official end of the programme's sixtieth anniversary specials, the return of a villain unseen on screen since its earliest days, the end of David Tennant's second turn as the star of the show, and the introduction of Ncuti Gatwa as the latest incarnation of the Doctor. It's a loud, colourful, gleefully expensive production, it's carefully designed to say “this is the big one.” It's also particularly difficult to review without spoiling the major events, so I'll approach it in two sections, saving the big revelations for the end.

The Giggle is a weird, packed, proudly camp episode, full of striking imagery and some excellent performances. Showrunner Russell T. Davies stakes out his revised vision for the series, giving us the first glimpses of the style of the new Doctor Who. It's worth, once you've watched the episode itself, playing it again with the in-vision commentary available on iPlayer, in which Davies, Tennant and producer Phil Collinson discuss the making of the special, with Davies in particular revealing his own creative process, early draft ideas and concepts that never made it to screen. Davies is vocal about his decision to embrace the more fantastic side of Doctor Who, with the upcoming Christmas special and subsequent season steering away from the science fiction side of things for the most part. It's not that this is new for Doctor Who, which has been firmly on the fantasy side of sci-fi since it began ( the two are really sides of the same genre, and not as different as people tend to think), but it's a statement of intent for the style and content of the adventures we'll see.

It makes perfect sense, then, to bring back the Toymaker as the big, returning villain for the special. Previously he appeared as the eponymous antagonist of the 1966 serial The Celestial Toymaker where he was played by Michael Gough (Batman Returns, The Avengers) and defeated by William Hartnell's original Doctor. The modern Toymaker is played by Neil Patrick Harris, a superstar coup for the show. Best known for How I Met Your Mother, A Series of Unfortunate Events or, for older viewers, as the lead character in Doogie Howser, MD, Harris previously worked with Davies in his seminal Channel 4 drama It's a Sin. Harris gives a magnetic performance that shifts from absurd and over-the-top to deeply sinister with ease.

The Toymaker is one of the few purely fantasy-based beings in Doctor Who, a godlike entity who obeys no rules other than those of the game. He can bend time, space and matter to his will with the slightest thought, and only his adherence to game rules prevents him from being completely unstoppable. His inclusion harks back to the programme's early days, an obvious move for an anniversary story, albeit a more obscure one than most of the villains and monsters who were retooled for the modern era. Three of the four episodes of The Celestial Toymaker are missing from the archives, and the remaining episode reveals as story that is frankly rather dull. (The upcoming animated remake may add some more life into it.)

There's also the distinct issue for a modern audience that the Toymaker's original appearance was racially problematic, with the Caucasian Gough dressed up in archaic Chinese Mandarin robes and putting on a stereotypical cod-Asian inscrutable character. Even the word “celestial” was questionable, meaning cosmic or heavenly in one sense, but also an old-fashioned and insulting word for the Chinese in another. (It's not the only such problem with the serial, which is the only one in Doctor Who's history to contain the N-word.)

Still, the basic concept of the Toymaker is one with huge potential as a villain, and so it was always possible to bring him back, shorn of the celestial baggage. Davies, of course, is fully aware of the issue, and is clever enough to, if not excuse it, then at least accept that it's there and deal with it. Harris's version puts on outrageous German and French accents as part of his manic performance (his rather proper English accent during the final confrontation being just as false, of course) and even makes a lazily racist comment to Charlie de Melo's (Coronation Street) character Charles Banerjee. There's no logical reason that a cosmic entity should appear as a white male human, with a tan verging on the Oompa-Loompa and given to offensive remarks and impersonations of other peoples. There's also no reason why not; it's simply another of the Toymaker's perverse games, presumably designed to antagonise his opponents. By the time it's done, the Doctor is even able to embrace the celestial epithet without the baggage.

Together, Davies and Harris transform the Toymaker into a truly frightening and entertaining villain, a puppetmaster on a grand scale who delivers a mixture of absurdity and surreal nightmare imagery. Whether it's Donna trapped in a room fighting dummies or his ludicrously over-the-top entrance to UNIT's new Avenger's Tower-inspired HQ, the Toymaker's scenes and his realm stick in the mind long after viewing. None of this is entirely original: killer puppets and creepy toyshops have a long history in horror, and the Toymaker's dance number to the Spice Girls is derivative of the Davies's own Last of the Time Lords. That was the Master dancing to the Scissor Sisters, back in 2007; combined with the Doctor's offer to play across the stars with the Toymaker, it comes across as part of a greatest hits package. (The Master must be turning in his tooth.) It would probably have stood out less if the scene hadn't been referenced as recently as last year's The Power of the Doctor (which, for the Doctor, was seemingly only a matter of days ago).

Yet, it's hard to find fault with that, when it's so much fun and especially considering that it's the big anniversary celebration. Of course there's going to be a bit of a greatest hits feel to things. Various characters refer directly to previous adventures, with the Toymaker getting under the Doctor's skin for his failings while simultaneously providing a handy catch-up for those who stopped watching when Tennant left the first time round, and the Doctor himself listing a seemingly arbitrary collection of elements from the full sixty years of this silliness. There are familiar faces too, of course, fewer than we might have expected given the occasion. Jemma Redgrave (Howard's End, Holby City) returns once more as UNIT head Kate Stewart, given far better material to work with than she's had since her introductory story (2012's The Power of Three). More surprising is the inclusion of Bonnie Langford (Just William, EastEnders) as Mel, former companion to the Sixth and Seventh Doctors (Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, respectively). Although her involvement in next year's series had already been announced, and she'd had a brief cameo in The Power of the Doctor, her appearance here was a lovely surprise. She didn't get much to do, but at least she didn't have to scream in key.

On reflection, it's funny how the sixtieth anniversary story tied into the dawn of television, while the BBC Centenary Special was the one that brought back a troop of old Doctors and companions. John Logie Baird's invention of the earliest television is the perfect subject for a Doctor Who story, with the genuinely sinister puppet Stooky Bill being just as unsettling in real life as he was here. John MacKay (Casualty, The Hollow Crown) gives a charming performance as the Baird, reprising his role from Davies's biographical drama Nolly. It was while researching that series that Davies first learned of Stooky Bill, which became the initial basis for this special.

It has to be said, though, that the various elements of this episode don't quite cohere. The idea of a creepy puppet insinuating itself into television works, the godlike puppeteer works, the disturbing concept of humanity being turned into a living comments section works. However, once the Toymaker meets the Doctor, the other elements virtually disappear, given only the briefest of mentions. All of this could tie together beautifully, but not enough time is spent on the earlier ideas to make them fit with the rest of the story. It's perhaps a result of the script starting as Stooky Bill's story, before Davies decided the puppet needed a puppeteer as the main villain, something which immediately suggests using the Toymaker. The grand villain's inclusion eclipses the rest, but it still hangs on there as a relic of an earlier draft. Still, cramming a story with too many ideas is not the worst sin, nor is it one unique to Davies (if anything, he's the showrunner whose work suffers from this the least).

All this leads to the most anticipated part of the episode: the regeneration. This is where it gets really spoiler-y, so if you've managed to avoid details so far and still want to watch it, I'd advise against reading further. 

Sunday 10 December 2023

REVIEW: The Marvels

Getting to the cinema is a challenge these days, but I finally got the chance to see The Marvels, a movie I had really been looking forward to. I was aware, of course, of the poor reception of the film, but based on the trailer I was honestly expecting a good time.

I wasn't wrong. The Marvels is, quite simply, great fun. It's not a groundbreaking or genre-defining instalment, and it's certainly not going to reinvent the Marvel Cinematic Universe, something which, if we're honest, is probably needed at this point. Moviegoers who are tired of the MCU or comicbook movies in general are not going to won round by this, but those who are simply looking for an entertaining adventure are in for a treat.

This movie was always going to have a hard time of it, purely because of the depressingly inevitable backlash from the more misogynistic side of fandom. Much like the She-Hulk series or 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, the actual quality of the film is completely irrelevant to such people. They were downvoting it on ratings sites as soon as it was announced, insisting that their problem wasn't the gender balance, but the writing and acting - before anyone had even seen it. For all the damage these quarters do to a movie's reputation before it even arrives, there's little point engaging with them.

However, women have to work twice as hard to get half as far in this world, and unless a film of this type is a phenomenal work of art, it will be largely written off if the cast if more female than male (or contains multiple people of colour, varied sexualities or gender expression - anything to which the label "woke" can be attached derisively). The Marvels is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable superhero romp, easily as good as the majority of the MCU. 

The story is fairly by-the-numbers, with a maniacal villain perpetrating terrible cosmic crimes, who must be stopped at all costs. Some handy technobabble causes the three characters with light-based powers to become entangled, shifting places with each other when they use their abilities. The plot is primarily there to generate some exciting visuals and provide a reason for the three leads to be brought together so that they can bounce off each other, and this is where the film triumphs.

The stand-out star here is Iman Vellani, returning as Kamala Khan after her breakout series Ms. Marvel. It must be mind-boggling for Vellani, to have been propelled from fan to superstar in such a short time, but she undoubtedly deserves it. Her performance as Kamala is heartfelt, adorable, relatable and resolute. Seeing Kamala encounter her hero Captain Marvel is a blockbuster-scale version of one of us meeting the our favourite movie star, and Kamala's joy, mixed with fear of disappointing her hero, is brilliantly portrayed by Vellani. As the story progresses, she matures, stepping up as a hero while never losing her idealism.

She provides a great contrast to Brie Larson's Carol Danvers, who has been operating as Captain Marvel for thirty years at this point, in-universe. Thankfully, the film doesn't go down a "never meet your heroes" route of dragging Danvers down, but she is weighed down by responsibility and the mistakes she's made. The script is brave enough to show us that the first thing Danvers did was foul up massively, causing a chain reaction of events that devastated the Kree homeworld, while still maintaining her as a hero it's right to look up to. Larson's performance as Danvers has received some flack since her first appearance in Captain Marvel, but I don't get it. She's a powerful leading lady, and dominates events even as she is generous to her co-stars. 

This gives Teyonah Parris the tough job of being the third member of the team, neither the main lead nor the up-and-coming youngster. She does an amazing job in a tricky position, making Monica Rambeau the most down-to-earth and pragmatic member of the trio, but also the one we might look up to the most. With even less experience in using her powers than Kamala, Monica has the steepest learning curve of all, while grappling with far more complicated feelings for her Aunt Carol than Kamala's fannish worship. Having given a strong performance in WandaVision, Parris really steps up here and makes Monica a central figure of the film.

The supporting cast are all very good as well, with Samuel L. Jackson putting in a reliably entertaining and worldweary performance as Nick Fury (rather more engaging than the theoretically richer material in Secret Invasion). The script is wise enough to remember that Kamala's family are central to her story, and while it takes a bit of contrivance to keep the Khans in the middle of the action, it keeps things on a human level even when the weirder space stuff starts happening.

The weakest member of the cast is, surprisingly, Zawe Ashton as villainous Dar-Benn. She's not bad, by any means, but puts in an arch and hammy performance that, while fun, seems ill-judged for a character who has a genuine and understandable grievance with Danvers. It's one occasion when making the villain cartoonish was the wrong move for the story. It makes her treatment of the Skrulls too simplistically evil, when something cleverer could have been done. Still, it's good to see the Skrulls being used in a positive way in the story again, unlike the mixed messages of Secret Invasion which too heavily linked refugees with terrorists. A dignified performance by Gary Lewis, under a mountain of make-up, as the Skrull leader helps.

In spite of there being some serious themes here, the film is joyfully silly and over-the-top. Some critics have had problems with the film's tonal shifts, and it's a fair point, but I feel that these jumps are all part of the frenetic journey of the story. Suddenly stepping across genres into an impromptu Bollywood-esque musical number, or hingeing the climactic act on alien cats is a delirious way of keeping the story fresh and surprising. It does, however, need a stronger villain to ground the threat that drives the plot.

There are other elements that I loved. The effects are spectacular, combined with some absolutely stunning fight choreography (the best since Daredevil, I'd say), making the film into a visual feast. It's also consistently funny in a low-key, unforced way, more Spider-Man than Guardians of the Galaxy. In the comics, Monica was Captain Marvel before Carol got a chance, and has had various names including Photon, Spectrum and Pulsar, making Kamala's continual workshopping of her superhero identity a fun running gag. There are some fun cameos by other MCU stars, some expected, some not. Park Seo-Joon, who I understand is a big deal in Korea, stood out as the charismatic Prince of Aladna, and deserved more screentime.

While it's never going to top the polls of MCU movies, The Marvels is simply tremendously entertaining, and I can see it becoming a film that I will rewatch often simply because of how much fun it is. And, you know, it's a comicbook movie - isn't that really the point?

Extra spoiler-y bits after the cut