Review by Martin Odoni

Thanks to some of his diabolical efforts on the first season of Torchwood, as soon as I read Chris Chibnall’s name on an episode synopsis for Dr Who I tend to shudder. So I suppose I can be thankful that, on reflection, The Hungry Earth isn’t bad. I still doubt I’ll ever want to watch it again after next weekend (which will be required to watch the two-parter in whole), but I’ve certainly seen far worse episodes than this in recent years. I certainly appreciate that it resists the temptation to be silly or whacky.

In a way, this really does feel like a shameless re-tread of the Jon Pertwee era. From his first season we have Silurians rising to the surface of the Earth (Dr Who And The Silurians), and a drilling operation that is trying to penetrate beyond the Earth’s crust (Inferno), and drawn from later on, Welshmen involved in mining is referenced (Professor Jones in The Green Death). So this story certainly wins no points for originality. The fact that this is set in a rural part of Wales could be another deliberate swipe at Russell T. Davies and his futile attempts to make Wales seem like Europe’s answer to Hollywood. But the thing is, we had half an episode set in a country village only a week ago. I hate to revive old complaints, but why can’t we have an episode or two set on another planet?

On the subject of recycling old ideas, this insistence on bringing back one ‘classic’ monster from the past each season is beginning to grate. The Daleks, the Cybermen and possibly the Master are forgivable inclusions as they are all so iconic that the wider public will at least have some idea who they are. But the Macra, the Sontarans (the Rutans got a mention in that story as well), and now the Silurians have all been included too. Who the hell will remember the Silurians if they aren’t fans of OldWho? Add to that loads of pictorial-references to previous incarnations of the Doctor (there was a role-call of early incarnations in The Next Doctor, and then all of the first ten appeared in that flashback sequence in The Eleventh Hour, while the Doctor’s ID card in The Vampires Of Venice was a picture of William Hartnell), plus a superfluous-encounter between his Fifth and Tenth incarnations in the Time Crash vignette, and the series is developing a really problematic dependence on continuity for its themes and ideas. Never mind the pleasing continuity-orgasm for long-termists, there’s a danger of alienating (no pun intended) newcomers to the series by creating so many episodes that require knowledge of the distant past; exactly what happened in the mid-80’s.

The Hungry Earth has some pleasing qualities to it – Meera Syal and Robert Pugh are immensely likeable as Nasreen and Mack respectively, and it’s refreshing to see the Doctor working with Rory rather than Amy for a change, as it reduces the impression that Rory is just a hanger-on who’s only been included so someone can get jealous of the Doctor. Rory may actually develop into a companion in his own right if this change-of-approach continues. The sets are far more impressive than the tour-de-cheapness from Amy’s Choice and there are some exciting moments. And the Silurian outfit is very well designed. So top marks for production.

But on the whole, the episode all feels a bit half-hearted. The chief reason for that is padding. Now, I was watching Dr Who Confidential afterwards (I know, I know, always a mistake, but I was just passing time waiting for the football to start on ITV, okay?) and I was amazed when the editor announced that he had to cut away fifteen minutes or so of surplus material, and it was a real job finding things he could afford to remove. I just can’t believe he said that, because even in its final form, this episode has stacks of inconsequential padding in it. At the start of the episode, Rory and Amy see their future selves waving at them in the far distance. Their future selves do not appear again afterwards, and no further reference to them is made in subsequent scenes. It has nothing to do with the story, and could have been cut away with no loss at all. How about that ludicrous technobabble sequence in the middle of the episode when the Doctor gets everyone to gather as much electronic equipment as they can find so he can deus ex it all into some kind of null-field device (yeah, right…)? Now in a way, I’m glad that nothing came of that bit, because it would’ve been the worst bit of ‘save-the-day-by-plucking-out-of-your-ass-a-previously-unreferenced-ultimate-weapon-that-you-could’ve-used-in-so-many-situations-before-yet-for-no-identifiable-reason-you-never-have-done’ moment since UNIT suddenly remembered that they had a fleet of starships tucked away in the garage to fight off the Sontarans with in The Poison Sky. But at the same time, all of that effort to set up the Doctor’s technomagical device is superfluous because the plot would have developed in exactly the same way if they’d just sat there sulking for five minutes. So why not just cut it out altogether? The Doctor’s lecture about “The-best-you-can-be” was also overlong and sanctimonious, and could easily have been trimmed a bit shorter too.

Alaya is amusing in that we have a SIlurian with what sounds like a Welsh accent. She is also annoying in that she confirms one of my fears for this episode, which is that the Silurians are being simplified into yet another species of militarised fanatics, like so many races in NuWho. In their first two stories in Dr Who, the Silurians were paranoid and resentful of humans for taking their world from them, but also enlightened enough that they could be reasoned with. From what we see of Alaya and from the snippets in the trailer, their personalities are now going to be little different from those of the Daleks; aggressive, militant, manipulative and blinkered. And deliberately dissecting innocent people when they’re still awake adds a degree of pointless cruelty to them that is difficult to reconcile with their previous behaviour. Better to leave the Silurians out, as all this is going to achieve is to tarnish the jewel. I recognise that Alaya is a member of a different tribe, possibly even a different sub-species, but even so, if you’re going to change the Silurians’ nature, at least make it into something that isn’t just a rehash of the Sycorax et al.

Did you notice that Matt Smith can’t pronounce Alaya’s name correctly? The interrogation scene is interesting, while also containing a subtle violation of the fourth wall, post-modern style. When the Doctor describes last-of-the-species as being “old hat”, he is making reference to the terrible overuse of the concept of the last survivor of a dead world in science-fiction. Given that this is what the Doctor was reduced to in the Eccleston season, this is perhaps yet another swipe at RTD. Therefore, perhaps not a good thing? While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of these now-routine swipes, it’s another thing that’s happening so often it’s getting boring.

Performances are generally okay here. Matt Smith copes with the ‘DT’s-hand-me-downs’ feel of the script well – he gets some sanctimonious shouting to do again, but it doesn’t seem to confuse him so much this time around – Arthur Darvill seems to thrive on Rory being a bit more assertive than usual, and the guests are all on form. Karen Gillan is a bit annoying again though. She’s clearly been told once too often by Steven Moffat that her “sassy Scottishness is sexy”. It certainly is, but her smug face-pulling and overconfident prancing gait early on really aggravate. She doesn’t get much to do after falling through the hole in the ground except pull her trick with the eyes a few times. It’s a great trick and I’ve commented on it a lot already, but I really think the series is in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg there. Again, there’s no need to do a zoom-in on her pouty eyes every episode, it’s getting old fast.

Not a great first half of a two-parter then – it’s worrying that it’s been padded so much already and there’s still another episode of it to come – but it passes the time well enough. 6/10 again.

Review by Martin Odoni

Well, all things are relative, but this was certainly a whole lot better than the crummy fare from the last two weeks. A ‘trapped-in-a-world-made-from-your-own-dreams’ story isn’t exactly original, but the ‘guess-which-one-is-real-and-guess-right-or-you-die’ tangent is an interesting new twist on it. The Dream Lord was a new-ish variation on the legends of the Sandman too. Perhaps he’s another of those Dr Who villains who’s just a bit too much of a smart*ss to be especially engaging, but he isn’t one-dimensional either. I’m sure all of us were waiting for the most predictable revelation in history, which thankfully never happened i.e. he would turn out to be the Master. That suspicion was heightened by the Doctor saying that the Dream Lord was the only person in the universe who hated him that much. Glad to avoid that one though, it really would have been a return to the worst aspect of the Peter Davison era. And I suppose it’s convincing to say that, at least partly, the Doctor hates himself, he destroyed his own world after all. But if the Dream Lord is a reflection of the Doctor’s dark side, could this possibly be the birth of…? Nah, I won’t bother saying it, I’m sure you’ve all guessed who I mean. And yes, that ending suggests we will be seeing the Dream Lord again, so it could well be… *ahem*.

The two worlds that the TARDIS crew have to choose between are in fact a great deal less interesting than the choice itself.

To address the village first, the pensioners pursuing them across the countryside are a great deal less fearsome and a good deal more laughable than intended; the effect with their mouths is a bit leery perhaps, but anyone who’s watched the Sliders episode The Breeder will have seen an almost identical effect of a tentacle appearing from someone’s mouth. And I’m sorry, it’s just not frightening to see our heroes being chased by someone on a Zimmer frame. In 1999, a Dr Who parody for Comic Relief called The Curse Of Fatal Death saw a decrepit Master chasing after the Doctor on a Zimmer frame croaking, “Wait for me! Wait for me!” That was not scary, but then the whole thing was a send-up, it wasn’t meant to be scary. Doing the same thing here as a real attempt at terror suggests that Simon Nye either didn’t see The Curse Of Fatal Death or just didn’t realise it was meant to be a joke.

As for the cold star scenario, it’s a weird idea, and probably impossible, but I suppose we can forgive that, seeing it’s part of a dream-world. But it might have been a nice concept to explore a bit further. Missed opportunity perhaps? The Doctor’s dismissal of the whole idea at the end appears to close the door on that. Oh well. But there’s nothing else to that scenario, given the TARDIS is dead there. Nowhere to go and nothing to do but get cold and make rather silly remarks about Peruvian musicians. Stuck-in-a-lift plots can be interesting, but only as a platform for developing relationships between characters. There isn’t really much of that going on.

But there are some interesting developments character-wise once the dreams are over. Rory seems to be turning into a more positive individual, although I still see little to distinguish him from Mickey at the corresponding stage of his own arc. Amy realising where her heart lies is a positive step, and I guess it says worthy things about the difference between love and a crush that she chooses Rory over the Doctor.

Production values are a bit cheap here. Maybe the CGI effects for the alien stalk-things cost too much. That would explain why almost nothing else seemed to cost anything at all; even the TARDIS set spends half the episode without any lighting. Pregnant Amy looks like, well, a red-headed actress with a large balloon stuffed up her T-shirt; they should’ve worked a bit harder on that. And Rory’s head-tail – not large enough to be a pony-tail – really does look badly 70’s. About the most expensive physical object on display was therefore the Doctor’s Noel Edmonds sweater. And does it really need pointing out that that’s money wasted?

On the other hand, some of the music in this episode, especially the surreal, twisting chords as the action transitions between the two worlds, is very effective. Again, it’s the music that doesn’t go bananas that is best. Murray Gold appears to be learning. And the bird-song effect became surprisingly ominous. Good episode for sound then, just not for visuals.

To sum up, it’s a worthy episode that has its depths, and it has the benefit of genuinely being something that hasn’t been tried before in this particular way. But a lot of the inner details don’t work too well on close inspection, and it’s as shabbily-produced as NuWho has ever been. 6 out of 10.

by Martin Odoni

There’s an air of desperation around the political heartlands of Britain, isn’t there? The Conservatives are panicking about losing the coalition they need with the Liberal Democrats, Labour are about to lose their leader over forming a coalition of their own, the SNP seem to be falling over themselves to sound like they’re an important presence in British politics and not a foaming-at-the-mouth pressure group, and the Liberal Democrats themselves are looking increasingly pressured, dizzy and confused as they try to comprehend the different offers they have received.

The Tories, understandably, are feeling a bit cheated at the moment. At the General Election, they got the most seats in Parliament, they got the most votes by more than two million, and have spent nearly four days in painstaking negotiations with the Lib-Dems to form a pact of some kind, In that light, it seems incredibly wrong, undemocratic and unfair if the outcome of this week’s dramas is a badly-beaten Labour Party retaining power in the Tories’ stead.

Yes, it would be deeply immoral if this happens, and it would damage the credibility of British Democracy. The counter-argument that proponents of a Lib-Lab coalition offer – many more people voted against the Tories than for them, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats collectively received far more votes – is disingenuous and dangerous. After all, the combination of parties is entirely arbitrary, and it further undermines the results of almost every General Election in British history, including all three terms of the last Labour Government. After all, when is the last time any party got more than half the votes in an Election? By the negative reasoning the Lib-Lab proponents are using here, that is the minimum requirement for a mandate.

Unfortunately, moral arguments from the Conservatives sound awfully hollow, especially on the matter of electoral fairness. Is it morally-right that the Liberal-Democrats keep getting over twenty per cent of the vote at General Elections, if they keep getting under ten per cent of the seats? Whenever anyone raises such an objection, the Tories will always be the first to say, “The rules are the rules.” They will then follow that up with their eternal, tired mantra about how First-Past-The-Post rules are the ones that provide strong Government (like, for instance, right now? Like in 1974?), which, even if that were true, isn’t answering the question, which was about fairness and morality.

Now let’s not make any bones about this, there is nothing in our unwritten constitution that says that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet must be taken, in whole or in part, from the largest party in the House of Commons. I agree that the rules should say that, but the simple fact is they don’t. Therefore the Lib-Dems and Labour are violating no rules if they try and form a working Government together in the event that the Tories cannot do so.

Does this mean a Lib-Lab coalition would have moral legitimacy? No, because it has no recognisable mandate, bar one that has been arrived at via a very arbitrary calculation, But would it have legitimacy within the electoral system? Yes, because the system has nothing to preclude it.

Here’s the thing. When the outcome of the rules suits the two big parties, and especially the Tories, the rules are what counts. When the moral outcome suits the two big parties, it’s suddenly wrong to stick to the rules and apparently everyone should follow their consciences. In other words, the attitude of the Tories is every bit as arbitrary as the attempts to justify a Lib-Lab pact, and undemocratic though it may be, they are getting exactly the quandary they deserve.

The irony in all this is that the Tories’ objections, carried to their fullest logical extent, are in fact an argument for the very policy that they are digging in their heels over (obstructing their chances of a pact with the Liberal Democrats) – electoral reform. Because of narrow self-interest, the Conservative Party has for years beyond counting opposed almost any changes to the British electoral system. If they feel it’s wrong that it’s possible for a Government to be formed without the largest party being represented – and it is – well why is it they and their predecessors have never done anything about it, despite having by far the longest record of governing Britain through the Twentieth Century? Eighteen years just for the Thatcher/Major Government saw next-to-nothing in terms of meaningful electoral reform. It seems that the Tories have only just noticed that there are serious weaknesses and flaws in this tired Victorian system we are still lumbered with, in spite of people yelling at the tops of their lungs about it for decades.

But also, the Conservatives only appear to notice the flaws in the system that are inconvenient to themselves. It’s unfair that the largest party can be deprived of a role in Government, but it’s still fine that smaller parties can be so badly under-represented in Parliament? No, David Cameron, no, William Hague, no, George Osborne. Either both of these phenomena are acceptable, or neither of them are. Either the rules must always take precedence over common morality, or they must never do so. You can’t pick-and-choose which standard should apply, and when.

Damaging the credibility of British Democracy is therefore not that bad a thing to do; the flaws in the system are so glaring that it requires a grotesque act of doublethink to refer to it as a ‘democracy’ at all – it’s effectively twin-oligarchy – and the damage might be the catalyst for a proper reform program to begin.

We now see that it is in everybody’s interests, including even the Tories themselves, to reform and to modernise the way Parliaments are elected in this country. But it has to include real and fundamental reforms, with all the absurdities and inequities demonstrated by this General Election being addressed, and not just the ones that the Tories do not like.

 

POSTSCRIPT:

Accusations being thrown at the Lib-Labs this morning in the right-wing media that they are selling out to suit their own narrow interest are not fair. The Liberal Democrats have spent days trying to hammer out an agreement with the Tories – negotiations dutifully assisted by the outgoing Labour Government – and the offer that the Conservatives have placed on the table does sound stingey on this very issue of electoral reform; a referendum on the Alternative Vote is about as slight and superficial as a policy on such reforms can be. And in fairness to Labour, they are acting on the public rejection of Gordon Brown; Brown has announced his resignation. This still wouldn’t establish measurable legitimacy for a Lib-Lab coalition, but it’s an improvement.

Oh Flying Spaghetti Monster, this episode was really annoying! I’m afraid that, after a terrific start, we’re in another of those mid-season slumps.

I can’t really find much to say about Vampires, although I’ll do my best.

The Doctor’s reasons for dragging Rory along on a date with Amy seem a little stupid – if it’s a date, why does he go with them? I mean, three’s a crowd, right? The current BBC love of crowbarring modern English colloquialisms and language structure into drama-pieces set centuries ago and in other countries is here in spades (especially in the scene with that guy who checked the Doctor’s papers), while Rosanna is just another of those slightly over-intense-but-civilised villainesses who enjoy wearing low-cut dresses/figure-hugging tops. The series keeps coming up with ladies like that, just ask Dervla Kirwan and Sarah Lancashire. And the concept of vampire fish is… well, it’s just plain silly. Why not call them piranhas instead of vampires, and then avoid all contact with Hammer Horror parodies? It’s not like the series is especially good at them is it?

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are both at their absolute worst here, irritating like a tropical skin disease. Rory meanwhile is just a personality-clone of Mickey Smith, as he had been in Rose; a stereotype feckless, hanger-on boyfriend. Like Mickey before him, Rory has been made to look so tedious and cowardly that the audience comes to think it’s perfectly fine that Amy has decided to run off on her wedding night and have adventures and a night of getting jiggy with a strange man. No doubt, also like Mickey, Rory will gradually transform into a dynamic, tough super-hero figure as he journeys in the TARDIS. No original ideas, please, we’re British. The rest of the cast are largely in “we-know-this-is-rubbish-please-forgive-our-self-conscious-embarrassment” plank mode.

One major headache with watching NuWho that has carried on into this season is smugness. The rebooted series has always been – even back in the Eccleston season before the popular mania had started up – much too pleased with itself, with a suffocating air of, “We’re brilliant all the time, and if you don’t agree you’re just watching us wrong, or you’re too hetero to have a sense of humour!” This smugness has generally gotten worse year on year, and if anything, it’s worse than ever this year, even in the really good episodes early on. With all the silly quips and “Oh-gosh-aren’t-we-funny?!?” stagey delivery of lines, The Vampires Of Venice is possibly the worst episode of Dr Who I have ever seen for having too high an opinion of itself, all the more aggravating in that the usual answer is, “No, you’re not funny, you’re a bunch of smug tossers.”

The plot itself is another of those aimless runarounds, while the resolution just made me go, “Uh?” I mean… what exactly happened? The Doctor messes around with a bit of clockwork gear and then… the storm turns off? Uh?

Ah well. I’ll be kind and give it 4/10, although I’m not sure why, as I didn’t enjoy it any more than last week’s cock-up, and I gave that a 3.

by Martin Odoni

The UK has a Hung Parliament then, for the first time in three and a half decades. In spite of all the nightmarish horrors the Conservatives and The Daily Mail were predicting for us, two days on from the result the Earth’s crust has not yet opened up, fire and lightning have not tumbled from the sky, which has remained firmly placed above our heads and not fallen around our ears, and dinosaurs have not been released from their would-be place of suspended animation to once more dominate the world.

Nonetheless, there is a serious deadlock at Westminster now, and with there being something of a vacuum at the top of Government, there is a danger of fresh economic turmoil if it carries on for long, as businesses wait to learn what market conditions will be like in the weeks ahead. As I type, it’s late on Sunday evening, and the Conservative Party are presently in the middle of pained negotiations with the Liberal Democrats over forming a coalition Government.

The Tories clearly won the Election in its widest sense. They got plenty more votes than anyone else, as well as most seats in the House Of Commons. But sadly for them, thanks to the geographic distribution of the votes around the country, they didn’t get enough seats to form a majority; without taking more than half the seats in the Commons (three hundred and twenty-six or more), the largest Party can still form a Government, but not a very strong or stable one, and without any guarantee of getting any of its legislation through.

(Government isn’t all about legislation of course; much of it is done in offices in Whitehall without debate or scrutiny by MP’s at all, but it becomes a very limited and punchless Government on major issues, especially those that involve changes to the Law.)

So a reliable working Government will require a multi-Party coalition large enough to get past the three hundred and twenty-six seat mark. With the Tories already on three hundred and six (probably three hundred and seven when the one outstanding constituency is sorted out – a safe Tory seat), a successful deal of some description with the Liberal Democrats, who have fifty-seven seats, would form a comfortable majority, more than enough to get legislation through Parliament with something to spare.

But there is a problem with that solution, one that may well be insurmountable. Quite simply, the Tories and the Lib-Dems are not natural allies. In fact, ideaologically they are almost completely at loggerheads on many of the issues that they feel most strongly about.

Most particularly, the Tories are determined to slash public spending by around six billion pounds, starting within the next couple of months. The Lib-Dems are quite firmly opposed to beginning cuts until 2011. Marginally less urgently, but no less importantly, the Lib-Dems are absolutely staunch in their desire for sweeping reform to the electoral system, to the organisation of Parliament, and to the ways expenses are claimed by MP’s and parties are funded. Although the Tories can’t really argue much against the funding and expenses reforms in the current climate of scandal, they are unlikely to give any ground on electoral reform. The dismally-obsolete First-Past-The-Post system (structurally still much the same as it has been since The Great Reform Act of 1832) has allowed the Conservative Party to form a number of strong Governments over the last century, often getting well over sixty per cent of the seats in the Commons with less than forty per cent of the popular vote. (Compare that with the Lib-Dems frequently getting over twenty per cent of the vote, but never more than ten per cent of the seats.) Under a more proportional system, the Tories would probably never be able to gain a majority in the House Of Commons again, at least not without a radical alteration in their general outlook and conduct.

(Conservatives often argue against proportional electoral systems because they have a history of producing weaker Governments, often even coalitions. This may well be true, but it’s nothing that cannot be sorted by a simple change of attitude. And while weak Government may not be a good thing, neither is Government with a narrow perspective. In any case, do not be fooled; their real reason for objecting to reform is almost entirely self-interest.)

There does appear to be a cautious respect between the two party leaders. Nick Clegg and David Cameron do have things in common, including a number of mutual friends. And Cameron appears to be a good deal more open-minded about the idea of electoral reform than many of his colleagues, in the past stating that he wants an end to the ‘Punch-And-Judy’ tribal politics that First-Past-The-Post encourages.

But the key word in that is ‘many’. Far too many of his colleagues are not open to the idea of reform at all. They’re terrified of it, both for the Party reasons highlighted above, and for individual reasons. One of the sad consequences of the geographical divisions in the First-Past-The-Post system is the phenomenon of the ‘safe seat’ i.e. a constituency where the incumbent MP has such an enormous share of the votes cast that any vote against him or her is a futile gesture, practically a vote wasted (hence the growing use of the phrase, “My vote is worthless”). It has more than a faint echo of the ‘Rotten Borough’ phenomenon of pre-1832 Elections. For a lot of MP’s, especially in the two big Parties, they essentially have a job for life by being in a safe seat. However, proportional systems would not limit the impact of a vote to the constituency it is cast in, unlike the present system, and so in a sense, the safe seat would become a thing of the past, and a number of once-complacent MP’s could suddenly find they’re out of a job. (This is why a fair number of Labour MP’s are none-too-keen on the idea either.)

The difficulty for Cameron is not just that he has a lot of backbenchers who are terrified of electoral reform. He has lost a lot of their goodwill in recent months, in no small part because he did not win the Election. Given that back around February the Tories appeared to have the Election almost in the bag, and were expecting a comfortable majority of around fifty seats, a Hung Parliament constitutes a great advantage frittered away in short order. Add to this Cameron’s almost cronyist devotion to an intellectual lightweight like the unpopular George Osborne, poised to become Chancellor of the Exchequer (second most-powerful position in Government no less) in a Cameron administration, and the derision and bafflement felt by the great bulk of the Party becomes very easy to understand. Hostility and unrest on the Conservative backbenches are substantial, and so, at exactly the time when he will most need their trust and co-operation, Cameron may instead face a full-scale revolt from within the Party – probably led by London Mayor Boris Johnson – if he makes concessions to the Lib-Dems on electoral reform.

Worse yet, this trouble works both ways. Even if Nick Clegg likes the terms of a deal offered by the Tories, he cannot just agree to it, as the Party rules of the Liberal Democrats do not allow him to do so. Any deals with outside bodies or official changes to Party policy have to get approval from the majority of its members. In other words, he has the same problem as Cameron; he has to get it past his own backbenchers, with the added obstacle that the requirement is official and not just psychological. Can Clegg get adequate support for the deal? Possibly, but it would have to be a far better offer than Cameron can probably afford to make. And the Lib-Dem backbenchers will feel very uneasy about mixing blood with the Tories, both for historical reasons and for reasons of policy, especially the proposed scale of spending cuts, anti-European attitudes, and the almost-brutal attitude to welfare.

My suspicion is that there will not be a deal. There may be a brief non-aggression pact of sorts, enough in the short term to keep the markets from panicking, maybe even to get the Opening-of-Parliament Bill through the Commons at the end of May. But a long-term deal or coalition to keep the new Government from collapsing looks unworkable. Even if one is agreed, it will almost certainly break down very quickly.

The alternative could be a deal between the Lib-Dems and the outgoing remnants of the Labour Government. Certainly the two Parties have more common ground than exists between the Lib-Dems and the Tories, not least that Labour is more receptive to the idea of political reform. Also, Labour shares the Lib-Dem belief that spending cuts should be delayed until 2011.

The main difficulty with this solution is not so much about policy, but with political inexpediency. The Lib-Dems recognise that it simply will not look good or democratic to by-pass the Party that got the most votes at the election in order to keep in power a second-placed Party that lost over ninety seats, including a man who is, fairly or not, one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers in modern history.

There are personal difficulties too. Gordon Brown, quite simply, is hated by most of the Liberal Democrats. Again, it may be difficult for Clegg, whose own relationship with the outgoing Prime Minister is nothing to write home about, to convince his backbenchers to agree a deal as long as it involves keeping Brown in office. A change of Labour leader would probably resolve that however, although that might lead to more questions about validity; putting into office a rejected Prime Minister looks bad enough. Putting into office a new leader that nobody in the Electorate had an inkling would be about to take over could arguably look even worse.

Also, there is a practical difficulty; even with a successful deal in place, the coalition would only have three hundred and fifteen seats – only about eight more than the Tories on their own – eleven short of a majority Government. Smaller Parties that have a presence in Parliament and might be able to reinforce the coalition include the Scottish National Party with six seats, The Social Democratic Labour Party with three seats, and the Green Party with just the one seat. All of these have significant common ground with Labour and/or the Lib-Dems. Further, the Republican Party from Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, have five seats but for nationalist reasons they almost never take them up, which will reduce potential opposition by five. The remaining question then is, with perhaps as many as five different Parties trying to work together, would such a coalition of so many differing interests really be stable enough to govern for long? Well, probably not. It would certainly be strong enough to get the Lib-Dems’ desired electoral reforms through; all the smaller Parties share the Liberal wish for reform as it would strengthen their own voices as much as the Lib-Dems’ themselves, so a Reform Bill would have little difficulty getting passage (although there might be a danger of some Labour backbenchers resisting it for the same reasons as the Tories). But after that, what?

So if coalitions in both directions fail, the Lib-Dems would have to sit back and leave it to the largest Party to form a minority Government. The Conservatives would have to try and govern without sufficient numbers in the Commons to guarantee the passage of any legislation. Governments like that rarely last even as long as a coalition.

For all the three mainstream Parties, the deadlock is a fascinating but agonising dilemma.

The Labour Party might still have a role to play, but only by taking power without a mandate – discrediting Parliament and British democracy – and then only if Gordon Brown relinquishes the leadership, something he appears reluctant to do after having waited so long to receive it.

The Conservatives should form a Government, and must be feeling the pressure to do so quickly; political uncertainty quickly leads to economic uncertainty. But in order to form a Government that they can be confident will be effective, the Conservatives must agree electoral reforms that would sacrifice their chances of winning a majority in any future election, while also flirting with the enormous risk of internal rebellions, leadership struggles, and possibly even a total breakdown of the Party.

And then the Lib-Dems perhaps face the most difficult dilemma of all. Nick Clegg is truly in an unenviable position as he tries to choose between three possible courses of action, all of which will involve a terrible gamble; –

If he sides with Labour, the coalition won’t form an overall majority, plus the LibDems will be tainted with the accusation of restoring a discredited and rejected Prime Minister to Downing Street.

If he sides with the Tories, he will have to support policies that are entirely incompatible with his own manifesto pledges, especially vis a vis Europe and electoral reform.

(Either way, he will implicate the Lib-Dems thoroughly in what happens during this term, and this new Government will have to put through a lot of very unpopular policies because of the economic recession. And as the coalition Government is unlikely to be stable, a new Election will probably be just around the corner, so those policies will still be fresh in the minds of the Electorate. Further, his own policies may not get enough time to be pushed through Parliament, given that the three-month summer recess is imminent.)

The third option is to sit it out and wait for the Tories’ minority Government to fall of its own accord, which, again, will be soon. The problem then is that if the result of the second Election is more decisive, the Lib-Dems’ opportunity to push the reform agenda will be missed altogether. And the result could indeed be more decisive, when we consider that the recent Election has left the coffers of both the Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties pretty much empty. They are in no position to fight another campaign very quickly, whereas the Conservatives have almost limitless funds to draw on (as usual) and considerable sympathy from a loud and shameless right-wing media (also as usual). The chances of the Tories winning a full majority in a second Election might be high.

This might be offset if Gordon Brown relinquishes Labour leadership; the Council Election results this week were resoundingly won by Labour, suggesting that their poor showing in the General Election was a rejection of Brown more than of the Party as a whole, and so with a different leader in charge, they should do better in a second General Election. But either way, the Liberal Democrats cannot rely on the outcome being another Hung Parliament second time around. No, if Clegg truly wants to get a Reform Bill, he must push it through Parliament now, which means that waiting for a Tory minority to fall is not a safe option.

What a decision. What a dilemma. The UK is truly on rare, almost unprecedented ground, and given that it is a time of financial crisis, it may be ground the British cannot afford to stay on for very long. It is fascinating to watch, and the opportunity for far-reaching reforms to the landscape of British politics is a poignant one that only arrives once in a generation. There is a danger that it will not happen, that Clegg might be convinced to back down and accept a less sweetened deal. Expect many accusations of treachery to be hurled his way if that happens – although on that score, while I will feel disappointed and let down in that event, I will understand the decision; time is short with the economic problems so urgent, and having choices like these placed on his shoulders when negotiating with rivals who are in an equal and opposite position, must be a terrible burden indeed.

Whatever the outcome of the immediate deadlock proves to be, there is one certainty that everyone must keep in mind; the political turmoil won’t be over simply when the new Government is formed. Nor will they be over even if the electoral reforms are successfully carried through. Not by a long shot.

Review by Martin Odoni

Dr Who, throughout its very long, and occasionally glorious, history has suffered from a sad illness. It’s a pervasive illness, quite virulent and a really difficult one to kick. The series appeared to contract this sad plague in the late 1960’s, and it has been debilitated by it for much of its subsequent existence, continuing to the present day. And one has to consider that, should the disease never be cured, it might be best to end the programme’s life soon, to spare it the ongoing agony.

This disease is sometimes called, ‘Part 3 Syndrome’. It’s the phenomenon of a story that lasts around one hundred minutes, but which in practise only really has enough plot to fill out around seventy-five minutes. To this end, the mid-to-late stages of the story, which back in the old days of twenty-five minute episodes would more or less constitute episode three of a four-parter, would usually be reduced to a runaround of almost zero plot-progression, and much treading-of-water.

Nowadays we’re in the second era of fifty-minute episodes (the first one being the first Colin Baker season), and when a story lasts around one hour and forty minutes, the Part 3 Syndrome will usually infest the first half of part two. And for certain, the new era of the series has seen a number of two-parters that have had a very promising first half, but then hit the rocks with a crash of timbers afterwards.

Take as examples; –

1. The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit – an excellent study in part one of the nature of slavery, asking whether it becomes acceptable when the slaves are happy to be manipulated, a theme then totally and inexplicably abandoned in favour of a lazy ‘kill-all-the-kooky-aliens’ resolution in part two;

2. Human Nature and The Family Of Blood – fascinating speculations on how the mind of a Time-Lord might function in the body of a human being, followed in the second part by about twenty minutes of the central characters running around and shrieking a lot, and an unforgivable technobabble resolution right out of the fag-end of the Jon Pertwee era;

3. Daleks In Manhattan and Evolution Of The Daleks – Interesting, darkly atmospheric first half to set up what proved to be one of the silliest and most contrived second halves of a story in the history of Dr Who.

All of this clinical pre-amble finally brings me round to Flesh And Stone, which it pains me to say, is Steven Moffat’s first dud with the pen since taking over the reins of production. Sorry to use a stale modern Americanism, but after the superb The Time Of Angels, this one really does suck big hairy ones.

It is slightly different from the usual Part 3 Syndrome though, because in fact, the early stages of the episode are fairly good. Not up to the standard of The Time Of Angels, but it keeps things moving with a similar level of tension and terror. The artificial-gravity resolution to the cliffhanger from the previous week seems a little contrived, and the Doctor’s decision to shoot out the lights seems completely unnecessary to pull it off anyway, but it’s nothing to feel cheated over.

But then, as we’re nearing the seventy-minute mark of the whole story, the ideas start running low and the plot starts to tread water. Part of the problem is that the re-appearance of the Crack In Time almost leads Moffat himself to lose interest in the immediate plot (an attitude embodied by the Doctor’s own words at that point) in order to start information-dumping about why the Crack keeps popping up everywhere.

There’s a lengthy spell when Amy just sits in the woods with her eyes closed, while the Doctor and River stand around in the ship’s control room exchanging acid remarks. Apart from the disappearances of the soldiers – which have little to do with the plot of this story and only really involve the series arc – not a lot is really happening. The death of Bishop Octavian is quite a strong moment, well-performed by both Iain Glen and Matt Smith, and the scenario that Amy is stuck in – having to stave off creatures that can only be defeated by eyesight, at precisely the time when she is forced to keep her eyes closed – should be really fascinating. Instead, the intrigue of it is completely wasted by, firstly, the announcement that the Angels are suddenly only interested in the temporal energy escaping from the Crack In Time, and secondly, by the ‘irreparable’ teleport suddenly turning out not to be irreparable after all. (And I know we can probably think up some reasonable explanations if we want to play the game, but why is there a teleport on the flight deck anyway?)

Then of course comes the resolution, and I’m sorry, but this is a re-set button moment right up there for classic hideousness alongside Last Of The Time-Lords and Journey’s End. Okay, the artificial gravity running out of power I can buy, more or less, but all the Angels just happen to fall into the Time Crack, wiping them out, and also wiping out the Time Crack? There ‘just happens’ to be exactly the right number of Angels to fill up the Crack, without any of them being left over, but also without leaving any trace of the Crack? The two problems simply offset each other precisely, and the Doctor has saved the day without really doing anything. (This is to say nothing of why exactly the Crack sealed itself at all. Since when did pushing something through a crack cause it to seal up? Because Steven Moffat says it does? We really are drifting onto the most dismally-familiar territory here aren’t we…?)

NO! NO, STEVEN MOFFAT, A THOUSAND TIMES, NO! That is a resolution of such laziness and much-too-tidy-and-convenient contrivance that even Russell T. Davies might have hesitated to use it. Even Barry Letts would have screamed at his writers to try harder than that.

Adding to this sense of treading water is the fact that, at this point, over five minutes are still left in a story that has clearly run out of legs. So we switch over to a comic-relief scene that is totally irrelevant to the plot.

Here, the series finds a bullet lodged in its own foot, by the decision to sex-up the relationship between Amy and the Doctor after all. What was I saying only last week about sexual tensions in the TARDIS getting in the way too much over the last five years? And what happens? Amy decides on the night before she marries another man that she’s so desperate for a session between the sheets that she drags the Doctor into her bedroom and comes within about five millimetres of raping him!

I could be kind of course; maybe Moffat was just trying to tease us with a gentle reminder of how god-awful the mushy sentimentalism and crude, mis-timed humour of the RTD era was, and so perhaps normal service will resume next week. But that whole scene absolutely reeks of Doctor-&-Rose hangover, and could have been lifted from anything from a 1970’s bedroom-farce to a Confessions Of… movie. OUCH!

On the plus side, the episode continued to look very good, and Murray Gold’s music was again commendably more restrained than usual. Performances were still good too, bar David Atkins as Angel-Bob, who really did sound like he was doing exactly what he clearly was doing; reading out loud. And that chuckle from River just before teleporting back to the prison ship was painfully forced.

Uuugghhh… ropey stuff, all-in-all, and the worst episode of the new season so far by a distance, and indeed Moffat’s worst episode of all to this point. To the squeeeeee-ers who get angry when anyone dares to suggest that any episode of NuWho is not the square root of perfection, I can only apologise, but I can give it a mere 3/10. Sorry. The two-parter as a whole gets 6.