Review by Martin Odoni

Let’s start at the beginning shall we? They could hardly have made Matt Smith’s double more obvious, during the moment when the ‘Ganger Doctor is grabbing the original Doctor by the lapels, without dying his hair bright ginger. The back of the double’s head is almost completely different from Smith’s. For heaven’s sake, BBC Wales, try a bit harder will you?

To the episode itself, hmm hmm. I was extremely impressed with it on first viewing, and indeed on subsequent sittings it still has points going for it. But I have to say that the flaws in it become a lot more noticeable too. In particular, The Almost People displays an occasional tendency to throw in a sudden plot-twist, as if to say, “Hah! Bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?” No, we certainly weren’t, chiefly because one or two of the twists stop the story making any sense.

The main one is the revelation that the Doctor and his duplicate swapped places. It shames Amy for her prejudices in a delicious manner, but it also suddenly makes the prior behaviour of the other ‘Gangers very difficult to fathom. They invite what they think is the Doctor’s ‘Ganger to join them. They weren’t there when the Doctor’s duplicate first showed up, so the only way they could realise he might have been a ‘Ganger is if they could in some way ‘sense’ something about him, almost on a genetic level. But if it then turns out that he isn’t the ‘Ganger after all, but the original, well where did they get the idea from? And how do they manage to make exactly the same mistake Amy was making all along? And how can the original Doctor sense the torment of the Flesh more keenly than the ‘Ganger can?

I know he’s never going to challenge the leader-board on Mastermind, but this episode really does Rory no favours at all. It’s nice to see him getting a pro-active role for the first time in a long while, but in the event, the activities he gets make him look like a love-sick cretin. How much of a fool does he have to be to go along with everything Jennifer’s ‘Ganger tells him? Providing muscle to help turn the wheel is one thing, but does it really never cross his mind to ask why she needs him to place his hand on the palm-reader? Not realising how easy it would be for the Flesh to emulate a burn is also pretty thick. I’m sorry, like I say, Rory’s no intellectual heavyweight, but he’s not that stupid.

Some of the guest-acting is, again, terrible. Sarah Smart in particular, who was dodgy enough in the first episode, is just awful when playing Jennifer’s ‘Ganger. The face she pulls before she attacks Buzzer looks so over-the-top it’s embarrassing, while the moment when she snaps her fingers, points, and tells the Doctor to “Join the Revolution” is so corny and stagey I winced. Her whole ‘descent-into-revenge-driven-psycho’ arc is not at all believable. Raquel Cassidy is again wooden as both incarnations of Cleaves, although her performance is mitigated somewhat by how inconsistently her role is characterised in the script. She was a cold-blooded murderer at the end of the previous episode, ruthlessly gunning down one of the ‘Gangers for no reason at all bar her own paranoia. This detail seems to be totally overlooked and forgotten in episode 2, as she and her ‘Ganger almost take on the role of reluctant warriors trying to keep the conflict from getting any further out of hand. But then the original still instructs Buzzer to attack (what she thinks is) the Doctor’s ‘Ganger, and the duplicate still invites the Doctor to change sides with talk of “you’re one of us”. Indeed, the script can never make up its mind whether Cleaves is supposed to be sympathetic or cynical. The male guests are also uninspired – Marshall Lancaster is a complete plank as Buzzer – except again Mark Bonnar is quite impressive when he has fatherly moments to act out.

The regulars on the other hand produce perhaps their best work of the year to date. Matt Smith is tremendous in a dual role that calls on him to portray many characteristics. The torment of the Doctor’s ‘Ganger as it struggles with past-regenerations interfering with his present form is superb. Look closely at his eyes while he’s at the throat of the original, and the anguish and terror will make you flinch, right up there with the very best eye-work that Karen Gillan has done. Smith does the quirky, wittering eccentricity of the Doctor with his usual aplomb, and it makes appearing alongside himself very engaging where it might easily have been irritating. He also shows great hurt and resentment at Amy’s apparent rejection of the ‘Ganger, and desperation and anger in the scene when he nearly attacks her; a moment disturbingly reminiscent of the Sixth Doctor trying to throttle Peri. At the end, when ordering Rory to stand away from Amy, his authority is both fierce and sinister. Time and again, Karen Gillan once more shows her great talent for portraying fear, but reveals equal skill for playing a stubborn bigot. Arthur Darvill maintains his usual fine standard, especially in the scene when he confronts Jennifer’s ‘Ganger about tricking him, though by now he may be forgiven if he feels his efforts are wasted on scripts that give him so little reward.

This episode really is swimming in superfluous backward references. “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” from Jon Pertwee. “Would you like a jelly baby?” from Tom Baker (that scene is very reminiscent of Peter Davison’s debut in Castrovalva, when the Fifth Doctor went around impersonating his earlier selves). “No let it go, we’ve-we’ve moved on!!!” he screams in a noticeable parody of David Tennant. “Where’s my Daddy?” asks Adam, loudly echoing, “Are you my mummy?” The Doctor is “John Smith”. The TARDIS is “reliable” and “sexy” once more. Yes, I share the continuity thrill other long-time viewers get, but I still don’t think it’s a good idea for the series to play that card so strongly. The more continuity-dependent the series becomes, the more danger there is of it alienating people who have never seen older stories. (Should just mention that at a lot of moments in this episode, Matt Smith really does look like Peter Davison at his dazed best. Keep an eye out for them.)

The ending is not too clever. Cleaves again has a fundamental personality change and turns into a hardcore pacifist again to scupper Jennifer-‘Ganger’s plans. Exactly how Jennifer-‘Ganger turns into the giant animal isn’t very clear; if she’s able to do that, why didn’t she just do so hours earlier? The TARDIS’ energy ‘just happens’ to be exactly what is needed to make the ‘Gangers become real people, and the Doctor ‘just happens’ to have a cure for blood-clots on the brain tucked away in the TARDIS console? Handy. (Not that the blood clot really has any significant role to play in the story.)

Re-set button city. Give me a break…

But the story is not a write-off by any means. It has many good and valid things to say about the twin follies of prejudice and paranoia, as well as their causes and how inseparable they are. And the startling ending has more than a tinge of clever irony to it, given that Amy, who has spent most of the episode giving one of the Doctors the cold shoulder for supposedly being a ‘Ganger, turns out herself to be a ‘Ganger. When exactly did Amy become duplicated? Where is the original and when did she become cut off from Rory and the Doctor? Might it even have been before she met the Doctor? (It must have been before meeting the Silence as that was when she first saw the Eye-patch lady.) The ominous, bleak tones of the season are again sustained and enhanced by the gloomy, cold visuals, and the chilling atmosphere of danger and unsure perceptions started in The Doctor’s Wife has been carried over. The setting of a castle for a factory is very neat for adding to the ‘haunted house’ scenario, and there is a consistent undercurrent of foreboding. In short, even if it’s not all that intelligent, it remains genuinely dark and scary, and it always resists the option to be wilfully silly. Its most powerful redeeming feature is that it tries to be a drama, and largely succeeds in doing so. A flawed drama, perhaps, but exciting and never a farce.

The episode also gets fresh points for demonstrating this season’s willingness to break formula. In previous seasons of NuWho, the story arc, such as it is, has usually been made up of a long string of repeated references thrown into most episodes, none of which have ever actually developed or explored the idea at its heart in any detail. Furthermore, the string has only ever culminated at the end of the season. In this case, the string of hints has culminated at the midway point of the season instead, which is another breath of fresh air.

In the end unfortunately, a little like The Doctor’s Wife, the episode is far too deeply flawed for me to rate it higher than a 6 out of 10, even though I can’t deny that I would have liked to. The two-parter averages out at a respectable 7.

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A decent return to form to open the mid-season two-parter, after Neil Gaiman’s brave-but-clumsy attempt at psycho-surrealism. Although it had a few moments that caused me to roll my eyes, the prevailing attitude in this old-skool base-under-siege storyline was thankfully not silliness. To its credit, the current season has had the courage to stick to its guns and continue its dark vein, and with The Rebel Flesh, we have a tale that focuses on the themes of paranoia, terror, prejudice and arrogance. It doesn’t handle any of them with ground-breaking sophistication or depth, but it resists most of the opportunities to lodge the tongue in the cheek, and so sudden ill-timed moments of twee ‘humour’ are in a tiny minority here.

The only one that really jarred was the Doctor’s bloody awful pretence of doing a northern accent. It was ill-timed, served no purpose other than to slow down the storyline at a critical moment, and stands at stark odds with the Tenth Doctor’s equally tiresome “Don’t-do-that-no-seriously-don’t-do-that!” stance when his companions tried to mimic other accents. This is a shame, as it completely ruined a well-developed moment of friction and confrontation between the humans and their doppelgangers.

The scenario is not madly interesting in itself. Duplicate people wanting their freedom, and even to replace the originals, has been a staple of sci-fi and horror for so long it amounts to a cliché. Even the considerable effort that the script goes to to make the ‘Gangers sympathetic victims rather than insidious monsters is hardly new. But it all happens in such a well-cooked atmosphere of unease and mutual suspicion that it seems not to matter very much.

Jennifer introduces an angle that had genuinely not occurred to me until this point, which is that a threat to Amy and Rory’s marriage might come from the opposite direction to the ones that have emerged to this point. Up until now, Rory has been the one feeling threatened, inadequate, fighting a torrid but successful battle to keep the heart of the girl of his dreams, whose head had been turned more than once. Now Rory is the one who finds a new object of affection in the shape of a vulnerable girl who takes an immediate shine to him. Although Amy makes commendable efforts not to become jealous when she sees him comforting Jennifer, she is still visibly shaken and hurt by the sight. That Rory quickly becomes very protective toward the replicate-Jennifer, and even taking enormous risks to help her, suggests that his head has now been turned as well.

None of this is to say that Jennifer is an interesting character. On the contrary, she is the kind of dreary, helpless-female-Dr-Who-character that Jo Grant and Peri Brown used to epitomise in different ways; confused by everything around her, sporadically inassertive, all wrapped up in whiny self-pity, and always in need of help and comfort from the big male. Given her greater drive and authority, I’d argue the duplicate Jennifer is more interesting and worthy of greater respect.

The duplicates might show evidence of sharing the memories of the originals, but it’s noticeable that they don’t necessarily share all the same personality traits. As  I say, Jennifer’s duplicate is more assertive and aggressive, more authoritative. Cleaves’ duplicate appears more peaceable and less bigoted or arrogant than the original. Buzzer’s duplicate seems less clumsy but more emotionally vulnerable. With this in mind, while the ‘Gangers can fairly claim they have a right to life, their claim to being the people they are duplicated from is not true. Biologically and genetically they may make such a claim, but philosophically they are different people.

This episode reverses the trend of The Doctor’s Wife, in that the performances from the regulars are largely excellent, whereas the guest actors are a bit too soap-ish and folksy. Sarah Smart, who seems to have a resemblance to Janet Ellis, starts poorly, but improves without ever rising to real heights. Raquel Cassidy is a bit too self-consciously stony-hearted as Cleaves, perhaps underlining that the character isn’t anything very meaty (the stereotype of the arrogant, reckless, “no-one-may-question-me” corporate-scientist-leader), and Marshall Lancaster seems unsure about how to play Buzzer, as his sneezing fits appear to be the only characteristic to get hold of. Mark Bonnar is predictably good as Jimmy, but then he also has a stronger role to play i.e. his characters are the ones who find a bond of common ground.

Matt Smith is much better here than in his misfortunate detour into emo-ham in The Doctor’s Wife. His acting as the ‘Ganger Doctor seemed exceptionally sinister without being in any way different from the Doctor’s usual behaviour, which is a neat trick if you can do it. Karen Gillan does what she does best (facial acting to die for), and Arthur Darvill once again shows his real versatility, varying between the clumsy, inassertive follower and a protective, confident near-rebel, without any impression of inconsistency.

It’s an interesting rather than thrilling cliffhanger, but it’s certainly engaging enough to demand the audience keep watching. But at the same time, I do get the worrying impression that most of the plot-life has already been used up, and so there’s a real danger that part two will be yet another let-down. I hope not of course, but I fear there’ll be a lot of treading-of-water in part 2.

Promising, if not madly deep or original, and full of dark atmosphere and refreshingly little silliness.  I’ll give it an 8 out of 10, though not by much.

by Martin Odoni

Before I begin properly, I’m going to admit with unashamed cheeriness that I’m a lifelong Liverpool supporter, and so my motivation for writing this essay is hardly impartial. But after a week of the predictable, insecure, insufferable, jeering gloats from across Greater Manchester, I feel a polite retort is overdue.

To those of you who don’t understand what I’m talking about, it’s that game played on grass, with a round ball roughly the size of a human head. And you can’t use your hands to control it. You with me, yeah? Good. More specifically, on May 14th 2011, the game of Professional Association Football in England supposedly reached a major turning point in its history. From 1973 to 1992, Liverpool Football Club had a period of unprecedented domination of the English game. During that spell they were the Champions eleven times (bringing their grand total of Championships in its then-one hundred year history to, putatively, eighteen), the FA Cup four times (bringing their total at the time to five), the League Cup four times, the UEFA Cup twice, and the greatest prize of all, the European Champions’ Cup, four times. This era established Liverpool as by far the most successful club in English football, at the time.

But heading into the mid-1990’s, Liverpool’s team went into a steep decline, and success became much more sporadic, at exactly the time that one of its most hated rivals, Manchester United Football Club (less than forty miles away) rose to pre-eminence. From 1993 to 2011, Manchester United won the Championship twelve times, bringing the club’s grand total of Championships in its even longer history to nineteen. It has also won the FA Cup eleven times (Liverpool’s modern total is seven), the League Cup three times, (again, Liverpool’s present total has reached seven), the European Champions’ Cup three times (Liverpool have won it five times in all), one European Cup Winners’ Cup (Liverpool never won that, but they have won the UEFA Cup three times, which United have never won at all), and one World Club Championship (again, Liverpool have never won that, although it’s highly debatable whether it’s really an important trophy).

All-in-all, the gap between the two clubs’ success rates has narrowed away completely over the last twenty years, and with United now holding more Championships of England, they have claim to be the most successful club in League football.

Having given them a week to get the utterly predictable insufferable taunts out of their insecure little central nervous systems, I now have some bad news for United fans. Their heroes have not surpassed Liverpool’s total number of League titles yet. I strongly suspect they will do so next year, as the current standard of competition against them is pretty low, but nonetheless they haven’t done it yet. They have merely drawn level. This is because the Championship Liverpool won in 1990 was not the club’s eighteenth, as is generally believed. It was in fact, the club’s nineteenth Championship.

To explain; –

Most football fans in England are aware of how the history of Liverpool Football Club began. In 1878, Merseyside’s oldest surviving professional football club was founded as St. Domingo’s FC, named after its local parish in the Liverpool district of Everton. A year later, sure enough, the club was renamed Everton Football Club. After playing its home games at Priory Road for the first five years of its existence, Everton eventually re-settled at a large ground on Anfield Road, on the south-east corner of Stanley Park, in 1884. The ground was let to the club by a landowner called John Orrell.

The President of the board at Everton Football Club was a local merchant by the name of John Houlding. (He was sometimes nicknamed locally as ‘King John Of Everton’, which seems an amazing irony in hindsight.) Houlding eventually purchased Anfield from Orrell for £6,000, and, somewhat perversely, in effect started renting the ground out to himself on behalf of the club. This meant that Everton was now renting the ground from its own chairman, and so a disproportionate share of the club’s gate receipts was being allocated to Houlding rather than to the club as a whole. Worse, Houlding kept increasing the rent at the start of each season. By 1889, the club was paying double what it had been paying when it first moved to Anfield just five years earlier. The rest of the board, unsurprisingly, were very unhappy about this. They were also getting concerned about Houlding’s insistence on selling and promoting ales from his own brewery at the ground; many on the board were Methodists and objected to what they called ‘intemperance’.

Over the next several years, the rift behind the scenes at Everton became more entrenched and bitter. In 1892, matters came to a head when most of the staff at the club, including all the players and most of the board-members, broke away. They moved across Stanley Park to a new ground called Goodison Park, and set up shop there, and it has been Everton’s home ever since. This left Houlding and his handful of remaining colleagues with an empty stadium. Houlding’s response was simply to build a new team to play at Anfield. This team played under the new banner of Liverpool Football Club.

That, at least, is the official story, and it’s accurate as far as it goes. But what it leads people to assume is that Everton is the original club established in 1878 (as is even proclaimed on Everton’s own club badge), and that Liverpool is the newer club established in 1892. It makes sense. The team playing at Anfield before the split was called Everton, the team playing at Goodison after the split was called Everton, and was composed of almost exactly the same players and staff.

The truth however is not nearly as straightforward as that. What’s not entirely clear is exactly which club did set up shop at Goodison Park in 1892, and which one resumed activities at Anfield. Which one was the new club, and which was the original? As I say, at first glance it appears very obvious, but look closely at the details of what happened, and suddenly the picture changes.

What needs to be kept in mind was that John Houlding was the President of the club before the split. And the split occurred in protest against him, so, as stands to reason, he was one of the few who didn’t leave. The breakaway group, despite being far greater in number and having the players on its side, did not ever have control of the club, Houlding himself had that. Realising that the split was imminent and that there was little he could to prevent it, Houlding even went as far, in March 1892, as to make his ownership of Everton official in law, registering the name Everton Football Club & Athletic Grounds Ltd with the Board Of Trade. At that point, he had assumed the breakaway group would be forced to get a new name, and possibly even have to join the Lancashire League for their first season, while Houlding’s own faction would, as the de facto club, retain membership of the Football League.

When the ‘rebel Evertonians’ did move to Goodison Park a few weeks later, in order to sell tickets legally to the public for their games, they had to set up a formal new company, with a new board and officials, and register with the Board Of Trade. Yes, they expected to retain the name of the club they had just left, but so did Houlding’s faction back at Anfield. For some weeks, it was very uncertain which club was Everton, and which was going to have to find a new name.

The Football Association eventually intervened. Correctly judging that the status of Everton Football Club was achieved on the field of play, they ruled that the club that had the players on its side should retain the name, and also should retain the position they had earned in the Football League. Therefore, although it was the newer company, the breakaway faction took up the heritage and name of Everton Football Club, and also were allowed to continue playing in the Football League. But just because they held the old name and privileges, it didn’t mean the Goodison Park organisation was the same club. Even retaining the same players wasn’t enough for that.

Houlding was understandably disappointed to lose that part of the argument, but decided to press ahead with creating his new team. In the summer that year, he applied to the Board Of Trade, not to establish a new club, but to change the licensed name of the club he already had. The new name he gave it was Liverpool Football Club & Athletic Grounds Ltd. In law therefore, Liverpool FC was not born in 1892, it was simply rebranded, and the old brand it had possessed since 1879 was passed to a new club that had just started trading on the other side of Stanley Park. Liverpool was accepted into the Lancashire League that year, as it began the job of working its way towards re-entering the Football League. Meanwhile, the newly-established Everton Football Club, now in residence at Goodison Park, took up football at a national level.

The added complication in all this is that Merseyside saw its first Football League Championship in 1891, when Everton won the title. This was fully a year before the split at the club became permanent. The position of the Football League and the Football Association ever since has always been that the Everton Football Club who now play their home games at Goodison Park is the club that won that Championship. But that club didn’t exist back then; they weren’t registered as a company until a year later. The Everton team that won the Championship were playing at Anfield Road, and more importantly, they won it while playing under the administration of John Houlding. He never relinquished control of the club established at Anfield. There was never a time during his ownership of Anfield that there wasn’t a football club there. Most of the board might have left, and the team might have moved with them, but the club remained where it was, and it retained the license that Houlding had registered beforehand. The breakaway faction, within the law, had recognisably set up a new club instead. Houlding’s faction was the club that the Everton team had been playing for when they won the Championship (and had ‘King John’ had his way, his club would even have retained its identity as Everton – unthinkable though that may seem today).

So the question this raises is, which of the modern clubs, Everton or Liverpool, holds that original title for 1891? The team was undoubtedly Everton. But the club was what became Liverpool. And so, although it’s never done so, even in Houlding’s own time, Liverpool Football Club has a very strong claim over the 1891 title. And the thing is, that title is not usually counted when assessing Liverpool’s record of success. When counting it as well, Liverpool Football Club’s revised total of Championships is not eighteen, but nineteen. And so that means that last week, Manchester United merely caught up with Liverpool, they did not overtake them.

But I’m not being vindictive when I say that (well, not very). That United have taken less than twenty years to wipe out the enormous gulf there had been in Liverpool’s favour is some achievement, and, even with the advantage it has always had in resources, even during Liverpool’s heyday, Manchester United deserves enormous congratulation for that. And I say again, I have little doubt that United will move ahead for real very soon, as the only teams in the Premier League who can challenge them are Chelsea (too old and tired), Arsenal (too soft), and Manchester City (too raw). But it is worth setting the record straight.

Oh, and don’t forget the small matter of eight European trophies…

Review by Martin Odoni

Well. Given how twee the title sounds, this episode was incredibly dark at times. The premise was completely bananas of course, in fact one of the more fairy-tale-like episodes in feel and tone since the production changeover, and it still had its share of too-pleased-with-itself dialogue. But in any case, it was dark, dark, dark! We should expect no different from Neil Gaiman, the man who gave us the Sandman comic series. But, given his impressive CV, should we have expected something better? Despite enjoying the episode, I’d have to say the answer to that is yes.

It’s by no means a terrible episode. It’s frequently chilling, imaginative and thought-provoking. But it’s also drearily sentimental, continuity-dependent (albeit in a subtle manner), pseudo-scientific in a very “there’s-no-difference-between-technobabble-and-real-science” kind of way, clumsily-articulated, and sporadically silly. In other words, it’s custom-built NuWho. And just like last year’s misfire by RIchard Curtis, it seems an odd description to apply to it, given that we’re talking about a script by a world-class guest-writer. Shouldn’t formula be the first thing that gets abandoned in those circumstances?

The story idea is a good one, but the execution is wobbly. For a start, the idea of the TARDIS actually possessing an immortal soul of some kind is an unwanted revisit to the messianic/sorcery buggerations of the RT Davies era. For another thing, the technobabble, used as a substitute for an explanation of how the TARDIS was transferred into Idris, is some of the most appalling, meaningless waffle that the series has ever been guilty of, worse even than the Doctor’s pseudo-mathematical gibberish to Adric when trying to repair the chameleon circuit in Logopolis. (And on that occasion, at least the babble wasn’t something that the plot was dependent on.)

The continuity references are not exactly hammered over our heads, and crucially the audience probably doesn’t need to recognise them to understand the story. But even so there are quite a few in there. Mentions of different control rooms aboard the TARDIS (firmly established by the Fourth Doctor during his times with Sarah Jane and Leela), and actual portrayals of older control rooms (the walls of a 70’s-style TARDIS surrounding the Doctor’s makeshift console, as well as a brief return to the control room of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors) might have been confusing to younger viewers, while a not-altogether-necessary appearance by an Ood, and witterings about getting rid of the swimming pool (another link back to the Fourth Doctor’s time, as well as Matt Smith’s debut) seem a little forced as well. Also referencing Smith’s debut is another mention of fish fingers.

Performances are notably better from the guests than the regulars. Suranne Jones is absolutely excellent, her performance as Idris suspiciously reminiscent of (the almost-identically-named) Sidriss from Knightmare. She also has very similar eyes. But original or not, the confused, alarming eccentricities of the character are portrayed with exactly the kind of nervous energy needed. Michael Sheen as the House, sounding and acting much like the Justice Computer in the Red Dwarf episode Justice, manages to be both sinister and threatening, yet uncertain of himself and feckless, a difficult trick. Auntie and Uncle are half-amusing bit-parts, competently performed. By contrast, this is one of Matt Smith’s worst performances so far. Very stagey, over-excited, much too loud over and over, and shedding gratuitous tears aplenty at the end. With his repeated compulsion early on to declare that, “That’s impossible!!!!” it really does feel like the episode was written for David Tennant, and Smith appears to give in to that. Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan do rather better, largely because Rory and Amy aren’t given much opportunity to be silly, seeing all the really scary stuff in the story happens to them, but even so, they do get a bit stagey and ‘lay-it-on-with-a-trowel’ sentimental in the later stages as well.

Rory really is being reduced to the Arthur Dent of the series. His main role seems to have become standing around and letting bad things happen to him, so that Amy has something to burst into tears about. The proactive, assertive version who had been emerging recently didn’t last. Although he did well with his, “Killing us quickly wouldn’t be any fun” line. Pity about the follow-up PE teacher reference. Silly and ill-timed.

Indeed, ill-timed silliness gets in the way quite a bit, which is another same-old-story. “Look at that! What could possibly go wrong?” *A PIECE OF THE MACHINE FALLS OFF WITH A PATHETIC CLUUNKING NOISE* is an ancient joke that could’ve been written in HG Wells’ time. It’s also silly. “Actually… I feel fine…” *DROPS DEAD* is a joke from the Palaeolithic era of comedy, painfully similar to Sir Talbot Buxomley’s death in Blackadder The Third. Even if it wasn’t familiar, it’s silly. “I think you call me… sexy,” irritates. Because it’s silly. The Doctor and Idris bickering like a married couple as they try to build a new TARDIS could have been lifted from a number of the Doctor’s conversations with River Song, or even from Mr & Mrs Smith. And again, it’s just silly. Standing around applauding the worthy opponent is silly. “I’ve got mail!!!” Silly, silly, SILLY!

STOP I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-IIIIITTTTTTTTT!!!!!

When is the modern series going to learn to stop ruining the drama of a story with badly-timed set-piece gags or self-conscious quips? Some stories do not need, or benefit from, being zany or whacky, and this was one of them.

And so much sorcery-babble is needed to carry the plot; the makeshift console powered by a kiss from Idris, and able to keep her and the Doctor breathing in space, despite the mini-TARDIS lacking a couple of walls. Telepathic security systems. The soul of the TARDIS just ‘phases’ back into the console, and the House is invisibly ‘dispersed’. Magic re-set button time again.

The plot resolution is not well-written at all in fact. At a crucial stage of the story, we have a familiar moment of the villain stopping to talk to the Doctor when he’s perfectly placed just to kill him. “Why should it matter to me where you die?” Why should you stop to ask that question at all? Why not just kill him and speculate about the options some other time? No? You want to carry on talking to him. To learn… what? Um, not much it seems. “Enough!” thunders the House. “That is enough!” Oh, so you don’t want to talk to the Doctor after all? Well why don’t you silence him by killing him then? Nope, you’re going to carry on talking to him anyway. O-… kaaaay… But I thought you just said that was enough?

This is followed by one of those verbose, unnatural info-dump speeches by the Doctor for the benefit of the audience. Very clumsy.

But it’s by no means all bad news. The darker, scarier edge introduced this season is maintained, in fact enhanced, with the sequences when Amy and Rory are trapped by time anomalies in the TARDIS corridors being unusually brutal and chilling for 6:30 on a Saturday night – all the more so, given all they’re doing for the most part is the timeless exercise of “running down corridors that all look the same”. (By the way, aren’t the hexagonal corridors of the TARDIS very reminiscent of the interior of the Liberator in Blake’s 7?) The mind-warping tricks the House plays on them are very surreal and unsettling, The Game Of Rassilon from The Five Doctors, only done right. The ‘Kill Amy’ graffiti on the walls is startling, and the sequences are filmed with real skill and flair. In style and impact, the story has strong tones of the no-holds-barred approach to horror that the series had back when Bob Holmes was script editor.

The plot may be disjointed and poorly-connected, but as a scenario, it is one of the more sophisticated ideas we’ve seen in some time, at least psychologically. Entertainment for the House only ever takes the form of ‘it’s-nothing-personal’ cruelty, hence the fear and torment Amy and Rory experience being little different to the agonies of Auntie and Uncle. The notion of people being assembled from the body parts of dismembered Time-Lords is enough to make the audience’s skin crawl – yes, that’s definitely an endorsement. And the TARDIS being given an outlet for its persona has considerable charm. It might have been more interesting if the story had kept us guessing a little longer before revealing to us who Idris really is.

The actual personality of Idris makes for easily one of the most interesting and sympathetic guests the series has had in years; quirky, jumpy, almost multiple personalities constantly catching each other by surprise with jumbled, confused words of wisdom. “Biting’s… like kissing, only there’s a winner” is a nice line, quirky and slightly macabre rather than whacky. “Are all people like this… so much bigger on the inside?” is one of the best self-referencing ironies Doctor Who has managed in a long while.

The Doctor’s decision to send Amy and Rory back to the TARDIS on a wild goose chase says a lot about his superiority complex. He clearly feels as keenly as ever that humans are beneath the business of Time-Lords. How arrogant he remains.

Some of the sets and effects are outstanding. The griminess, the broken landscape, the wreckage, and the overpowering, dark gloominess of the environment all really contribute to the sinister, doom-laden atmosphere. Also, fairness to Murray Gold, his music score was generally less over-cooked than usual, but I still think he would have been better-advised to keep the music quieter and more sombre for longer.

The Doctor’s Wife is therefore one of those episodes where, when it’s good, it’s very good, but when it’s not, it’s very much not. It is perhaps the most original and imaginative episode of the current season, and as chilling as any of them. The potential in it is there for all to see. However, the suffocating sentimentality of the ending does it no favours, the clumsy methods of conveying information are jarring, the occasional silliness undermines the main strengths on offer i.e. the dark atmosphere and an intriguing guest character, and the plot is incoherent and advanced mainly by contrivance. These are all weaknesses that it is very difficult to see past, and that is why ultimately the episode promises more than it delivers. Given who wrote it, it has to be seen as a disappointment, albeit a worthy one.

Bottom line, 6 out of 10. I wouldn’t say yet that we’re in another slump as we head into mid-season, but the standard is gradually and recognisably declining.

Review by Martin Odoni

Okay, fair’s fair. Given I feared this would be a shabby retread of Pirates Of The Caribbean, this wasn’t too similar at all. It was still not quite up to the standard of last week’s fare, but the series has at least managed to keep itself in the same kind of street, in sharp contrast with the same stage a year ago (the childish nonsense of Victory Of The Daleks).

Having said that, there still was a substantial amount that was lifted from Walt Disney. Amy was shamelessly dressed up as Elizabeth-Swann-as-Pirate-King, and the opening shot of the pirates in the jollyboat was an exact clone of a shot in The Curse Of The Black Pearl, just before the pirates’ closing battle with the Royal Navy. Also, the son who idolises his mariner-father and then finds great trouble accepting the reality of him being a pirate, is almost a carbon-copy lift from Will Turner’s early story.

There are other details that feel a bit too familiar for comfort, but borrowed from elsewhere. The siren is an exotic, beautiful apparition that sings hollering, echoey songs across the sky, which gives it a more-than-passing resemblance to Abigail – Kathryn Jenkins – in A Christmas Carol. The Medic-as-hologram is a very similar idea to the bald, griping character from Star Trek. (No I don’t mean Picard.) And even the idea of the siren gathering up injured people because of its simple-minded AI innocence does have a faint echo of the androids trying to repair their ship in The Girl In The Fireplace.

One or two details perhaps could do with clearing up too. In particular, how exactly do reflective surfaces constitute a gateway between dimensions? How is the siren able to sense injuries suffered by people in another dimension? Why does a black spot appear on people’s hands when they suffer a wound? Especially if it doesn’t appear on them when they get ill, but the siren still collects them?

So it’s an episode with stolen ideas and plot-holes, but even so, it’s good stuff. Avoiding the cliché of making a pirate story all about hunting for buried treasure was a good move (although treasure did still play a small but key role in the plot), and the discovery that the siren was benign all along was a nice twist, even though I did have my suspicions quite early on that everyone had been wrongly prejudging it.

Apart from the aforementioned resemblance Toby had to Orlando Bloom’s naive William, the characterisation turned out not to be derived from Pirates Of The Caribbean much at all, with Henry Avery quite an interesting, if under-explored, personality. He appeared exhausted with his life as a pirate, and torn by, on the one hand, the demands of his own avarice, and on the other, concerns for his estranged family. The story really could, and perhaps should, have given him more to do than just blunder around following the Doctor most of the time. The nasty moment when he learned that his insistence on retaining the crown may have cost him his son was quite affecting, but this only underlines the point.

The dilemma of taking Rory off the life-support and then racing to resuscitate him was also good stuff. I don’t think any of us were in the slightest doubt really that we were going to hear the sound of him coughing water out of his lungs soon enough, but the director did a clever job of keeping us on tenterhooks a good five seconds after it seemed possible for him to wake up, so it did get scary for just the briefest of brief instances. Really wish Murray Gold hadn’t insisted on punctuating the moment Rory woke up with that ridiculous, over-the-top chord of music though. When will he learn to stop beating us over the head with “destruction-of-the-Death-Star” tunes during moments that would be better served by a soft, sigh-of-relief sound?

The episode also looked superb. Given the first half hour was set almost exclusively on a deck of an early-modern galleon, the visuals avoided feeling samey or monotonous, and some of the effects for the siren were a cut above the usual standard, especially when it turned bright red. The sets were very authentic, even if the sickbay aboard the spacecraft was a bit bereft.

Didn’t really need the crude reference to “alien bogeys”, that really did belong alongside the repetitive and puerile flatulent aliens gags from Aliens Of London.

Performances were fine. Karen Gillan seems largely to have dropped the cocky strutting routine from last season, to her eternal credit, Arthur Darvill was a bit of a fifth wheel at times, but what he had to do he did well, and Matt Smith was at his impressive best again. I don’t wish to repeat myself, but his careful, restrained, softly-spoken delivery of most of his lines is such a breath of fresh air after five years of David Tennant’s forced yelling and weeping. The guest cast were generally okay. Hugh Bonneville’s performance veered between worthy gravitas and wooden boredom. Can’t really blame him there. When he had something to do other than chase after the Doctor he was very good, at all other times he didn’t really get much opportunity. Lily Cole did about the best she could with a voiceless part, but it’s hard to say she was really acting. Oscar Lloyd impressed for his age as Toby, while the rest of the pirates were just bit-parts, again not much the actors could do with what they were given.

COMPLICATED THEORY TIME: The quandary about Amy’s possible pregnancy is, I suspect, another lift from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Early in the second season of Hitch Hiker on radio, Arthur and Ford are stranded on Prehistoric Earth and encounter a rescue ship from the far future that keeps vanishing and reappearing in front of their eyes. They soon realise they are in a time paradox in which they have to send an SOS into the future to summon the ship. Until they do so, the ship will keep vanishing. In the same way, my suspicion here is that Amy is potentially pregnant, but only if certain events in the TARDIS crew’s future come to pass, and due to time-travel, those events will affect Amy’s recent past. If she becomes pregnant for real, things will carry on as we generally see them, but if the course of events alters, Amy will enter an alternative reality. This is where the lady with the eye-patch enters the equation; I think she is an intern at an asylum, and in this alternative reality, Amy is a patient there. Amy will have memories of events aboard the TARDIS that suddenly haven’t happened, and her ravings about it lead to a diagnosis of madness and she is committed.

Yes, that’s an awful lot of information to work out from so few hints, but speculation-for-its-own-sake is fun.

Bottom line. It’s flawed, not got much originality, and lacks depth, but at the same time it’s fun, beautifully-shot, and has a nice plot that thankfully doesn’t involve an army of aliens trying to take over the world. It’s nice to get a simple mystery story that doesn’t require a bloody/inexplicable/contrived resolution every once in a while. I also appreciate that, while not taking itself too seriously, it again resists the temptation to be silly.

Not great, but far from bad. 7/10. Generally an impressively strong start to the new season, and signs are it’s holding up better than last year too. Here’s hoping that’s not an illusion.

by Martin Odoni

So here we are then, ladies and gentlemen, we are living in a post-Osama bin Laden world. I can’t say I’m impressed with how this new world seems so far, but nonetheless, he was shot on May the 2nd 2011, and so of course, the world is put to rights.

Sometimes, just sometimes, assassination can be acceptable. In times of war, it can be justified or at least mitigated in certain conditions. And let it be remembered that bin Laden declared war on the USA in the 1990’s, so his supporters (what few there are) can hardly protest against his death on the basis of it being an act-of-war. (Not that I see much sign of them doing so.) But does that all mean that this particular assassination is acceptable?

When an assassination is attempted, it must, not just can, must, be mitigated by the conditions. And when I say that, I mean it can’t be done simply "because it’s a war". That’s just a sweeping, one-size-fits-all standard of measurement. The exact circumstances it’s done in are all-important, and in the case of bin Laden, I’m sorry but the circumstances just do not cut it.

For one thing, in strategic terms it really wasn’t necessary to kill him. He was just a sick old man, one who had long ceased to be of any practical importance. This is not being said in the hope of winning sympathy for him, but merely to point out what an empty achievement it was on the part of the USA in managing to take him down. Finding him took some doing, especially given the suspicious inactivity of the Pakistani security forces, granted. But once the Americans found him, killing him was no great task, and it will make no positive difference in the war (such as it is).

But another question is the actual morality and intention of the raid in which he died. The official story put forward by the White House surrounding the attack has changed almost beyond recognition in the days since, and the more subsequent corrections that come through, the more suspicious it starts to sound. Yes, ‘fog-of-war’ confusion can lead to many discrepancies, but not some of the ones we are getting here, particularly the glaring variances with what bin Laden’s daughter recalls. These corrections are, in their own right, making the death of bin Laden sound a far less reasonable outcome. In particular, the admission that he was not armed when the Americans cornered him.

The inevitable question this provokes is, “Were they always planning to kill him summarily?” Or to put it another way, was the whole operation meant from the outset to be an assassination? If the Americans did deliberately kill bin Laden without even trying to capture him, it puts the morals of the operation in a far less courageous light than the likes of Barack Obama and David Cameron have so far tried to paint it.

The inconsistencies seem more conscious than ‘fog-of-war’ denials would seem to suggest, especially in light of the attempts made at the outset to justify the outcome. The statements made on Monday went to some lengths to insist that bin Laden "resisted" capture, leading many to assume that he forced the soldiers to gun him down. But it turns out that he wasn’t armed, in which case, what form did this resistance take? (In fact, that’s a question that would have needed a full and definitive answer even if he had been armed.) What exactly was bin Laden doing to resist? Thumbing his nose and sticking his tongue out? Making insulting hip movements in the direction of the soldiers? Turning and running in the other direction? Just shaking his head when he was told to put his hands up? Resisting arrest can mean just about anything upwards of these actions, and they would hardly call for a bullet through the brain-case in response. In spite of all the revisions to their account, this detail still goes unexplained.

Furthermore, if an assassination is truly justified in the minds of the Allies, why have they so far not used the word to describe what happened? Why do they insist on calling it ‘a raid’? Why have they bothered trying to dress up bin Laden’s final moments like those of the proverbial wounded tiger? It looks to me worryingly like Obama knew that what he had ordered was all pretty unnecessary, and it leads to uncomfortable questions; for instance, whether the precise timing of the attack might have been a stunt to get Donald Trump and the Birther movement off his back for a few days. Maybe not, as I don’t suppose it needed bin Laden’s death to achieve that. But it still bears asking.

Whatever the motive, if it was premeditated, the slaying of bin Laden is not vindicated by the circumstances. Assassination can only be defended when the consequences of not doing it are clearly going to be worse than the act itself, and unless the Americans had some solid information about bin Laden being up to something truly horrific (which they would surely have revealed by now with considerable staged indignation if they had), that is simply not the case here. Therefore, the only justification for his death is if it were not the original aim, but he would have taken the lives of the soldiers who had him cornered if they had not killed him. This doesn’t appear to apply either if he wasn’t armed (even allowing for three of his colleagues being armed).

This therefore appears very much like a familiar, ugly story of arbitrary/summary justice, justice of a type the USA has long since become far too comfortable with meting out. It is a nation that behaves in other countries where it has no authority with considerably less respect for the law and due process than it ever would in its own backyard, even though in its own backyard it actually does have authority. The Americans have made clear that they acted without the involvement of the Pakistani security forces. They have understandable reasons for that, but it was still a unilateral action inside someone else’s territory. Summary execution committed inside someone else’s jurisdiction, followed by what appears to be a flimsy attempt to cover up the real background of what happened.

This business, in short, stinks.

The Laugh Of Triumph

May 2, 2011

by Martin Odoni

I do often get irritated when I hear would-be intellectuals trying to prove their point by quoting George Orwell, as though the only qualification required for an idea to be true is that a man with an out-of-control tea fetish, who died over sixty years ago, agreed with it – or at least that a quote of his can be dressed up to make it look as though he agreed with it. Orwell was, by all means, a remarkable and thought-provoking writer, but he would be the first to insist that he was neither omniscient, nor infallible, nor the final word on every subject. Ironically, that’s one statement he might have made that I would not hesitate to quote.

But today one of the most disturbing and notorious quotes from perhaps his most famous work seems irresistible. Osama bin Laden, the most excessively famous terrorist the world has ever known, was pronounced dead today by the US President, at around 4:30am UK time. The reaction to it in parts of his nation was entirely predictable, but that has made it no less nauseating. Wild celebrations, cries of triumph, dancing in Times Square, songs of self-congratulation  by crowds gathered on Capitol Hill, joy unconfined, a parade of laughing two-fingered salutes, speeches shamelessly confusing revenge with justice, assassination and arbitrary punishment with courage and civilisation.   

There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy.

Is this really what the USA has allowed itself to be reduced to? In the name of democracy and freedom, its people sing, dance and drink to the death of a single man in advanced middle-age with a renal disorder. Whatever blood coats his hands, that is all the US forces have achieved, and yet we have scenes sickly reminiscent of the Palestinian celebrations on the 11th of September 2001, when the Twin Towers fell. You can draw distinctions, but the bottom line is it is still a laugh of triumph over death.

It is hard to say what is most horrifying; the almost barbaric triumphalism, or the naivety. There is a general acceptance that the war against Islamic Militancy is far from over, but the notion that today’s developments are even particularly significant is quite foolish. Symbolically it has some meaning, but only in a negative way; bin Laden now has the status of a martyr, a status that is only enhanced by American rejoicing. And strategically, it is nothing. Bin Laden’s time of prominence ended in 2001 with the destruction of his base at Tora Borah. Since that time, he has been a yesterday’s-man, his threat absolutely minimal. His death makes no positive difference at all, and serves no purpose beyond satisfying the USA’s seemingly endless appetite for revenge, its unquenchable thirst for showing its capacity for stamping its will on the rest of the world. Even that might be just barely tolerable, except 9/11 was not even bin Laden’s doing. It was the work of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, even if bin Laden endorsed it and provided money for it.

But even if there were a practical use for this ‘victory’, it makes the US reaction no less crude or barbaric. Triumphing over an enemy, no matter how much he deserved his fate (which he probably did), and celebrating like their favourite team has just scored a ninety-nine yard touchdown demonstrates the very same tribal, jingoistic hatred that the USA claims to be struggling against. The same medieval outlook, the militant ideal that war-war is better than jaw-jaw, as though Times Square has been occupied by a thousand rebirths of Henry V. Is this really what it was all about, is this really what the USA has come to? "We beat you! We win, we’re better than you!" That it takes a war to make the USA feel so good about itself speaks volumes for a deep sickness in its culture.

I would say it is fair to feel satisfaction that bin Laden has been brought to some semblance of justice – a very violent, arbitrarily-enforced justice for sure but at last he has been taken to task after some fashion – but triumph? Joy? Elation? This was not an FA Cup Final. This was not the Super Bowl, or the Ryder Cup, or the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Punching the air and singing, "It’s all gone quiet over there…" should be reserved for occasions like that, not as a way to greet the news of bloody death.

Sometimes war is necessary, but it is always abhorrent, and it should only be celebrated when it is definitely over. And it should never be celebrated for its only certain bounty – death.