Who would have believed, back in 2003 when the revival of Doctor Who was announced, that ten years on not only would the series still be ongoing, but news of the lead actor’s recasting would be presented in a live TV programme?
As we rapidly approach the end of this series, I’ve created an index page for all my Ten Things About… posts. And here are this week’s rambling musings about Neil Gaiman’s episode – which, far from being a nightmare, felt more like a bad dream brought on by a surfeit of cheese.
1. The Mechanical Turk
Did the concept of a ‘magical’ chess-playing automaton sound familiar to you? The Mechanical Turk, a life-size dummy built to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Just like the equivalent on Hedgewick’s World, the Turk was controlled by a human inside, whose presence was hidden away:
…if the back doors of the cabinet were open at the same time one could see through the machine. The other side of the cabinet did not house machinery; instead it contained a red cushion and some removable parts, as well as brass structures. This area was also designed to provide a clear line of vision through the machine.
For a more recent parallel, Big Finish’s 2011 audio drama The Silver Turk by Marc Platt features a similar machine which the Doctor identifies as a Cyberman. Continue reading Ten Things About Who: Nightmare in Silver
Writing a review for Merrily We Roll Along in reverse (to match the narrative technique of the musical) earlier today was fun, even if I don’t think it really came off as well as it did in my head on the way home last night.
It was fun to try, though. Every so often, it’s useful to impose a strange limit on yourself as a way of shaking up how you write.
As an example, back in 2008 I reviewed the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who, Partners in Crime. The episode saw Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, previously seen in Christmas special The Runaway Bride, rejoin the Doctor. A seemingly throwaway line about bees disappearing (a sci-fi spin on a real world problem) would turn out to have a greater significance nearer the end of the series. At the time, though, it spurred me to write the review using only 25 letters of the alphabet. And yes, that did mean that mention of Bernard Cribbins by name was out…
Originally published on The Stage’s website, it’s reproduced here in full.
It’s a measure of just how long Casualty has been part of the TV landscape when, upon looking into the background of a character who left the series last night, you realise that he was first introduced into the show nearly 15 years previously.
Nick Jordan (Michael French) first turned up in the emergency department of Holby City hospital in November 1998, although his first appearances in two episodes of Casualty were a means of transitioning audiences to the new spin-off series, Holby City, which launched in January 1999 with Jordan as one of the series regulars. In retrospect, French’s Casualty appearances should probably be viewed as cameos from a Holby City character that just happened to occur before the series proper had started.
Over the last 14 years, characters from one series have occasionally popped up in the other – the sight of Holby City’s Connie Beauchamp (Amanda Mealing) striding purposefully through the emergency department in 2007 was a particular thrill. But it wasn’t until Jordan, who left Holby City in 2000 but had returned for occasional guest appearances, joined the ED in 2008 that a series regular from one series moved permanently to the other.
In truth, these occasional times when a character moves between these series are often the only clue that the BBC’s two long-running medical dramas are even set in the same hospital. Since its creation Holby City has been filmed at Elstree, some distance from Casualty’s then home base of Bristol (short-lived police spin-off Holby Blue further muddied the waters by being shot in Surrey). Recently, of course, production of Casualty moved across the Severn Bridge to Cardiff – making Holby City General the only hospital in the UK where taking the lift involves paying a toll…
It always mystified me that the move was always portrayed as fulfilling the BBC’s desire to move drama out into the “nations and regions” – i.e., anywhere that wasn’t London. Surely it would have made more sense to relocate Holby City if that were truly the case? As it is, Holby on a Saturday night has a tendency to look increasingly Welsh, while during the week it takes on a more Hetfordshire-esque hue.
Not that it really matters: Holby has, in the years since Casualty launched, stopped being a specific place set in a fictional part of Western England, and morphed into an ‘everytown’ which could quite easily represent any medium-to-large city anywhere in the UK.
Both shows are now in year-round production so that, even though they are still formally produced in series batches, the occasional breaks in transmission hardly feel like inter-series breaks at all. So it’s often the changes in cast that mark the end of eras on the show, and Michael French’s departure is such a milestone. Having his character leave to work with Anton Meyer, his former Holby City boss, was a nice touch, I thought.
It seems that the Casualty team have got the returning character bug: as revealed in a teaser at the end of Saturday’s show, a locum brought in to replace Nick Jordan is former nurse Martin “Ash” Ashford, played by Patrick Robinson, last seen in 1996.
Production has changed since Robinson was last on the series: overlit studios designed for multi-camera work are things of the past, as is the 4:3 aspect ratio and standard definition. More noticeably, even back in the mid-1990s it was rare for Casualty to have more than one black regular: now, it will have (with the return of Ash) six. The best news that this doesn’t feel like any quota-filling, but a better, wider appreciation of colour-blind casting. I told a friend recently about how when I heard Daniel Anthony (The Sarah Jane Adventures) was joining Casualty as a nurse, it would mean the departure of Michael Obiora in the sort of ‘one out, one in’ rule that seemed to exist in Casualty’s early years. How glad I am that I was utterly wrong.
Imagine if your television developed a weird fault. Whatever channel you tuned to next would be the only one it would ever receive again. Which one would you choose?
I’d find the temptation to stick with one of the more mainstream channels, such as BBC1 or ITV1, hard to resist. I might try and select a channel with a bit of culture in it – BBC2 would serve well in that regard (and would satisfy my QI cravings) or BBC4 (ditto, Only Connect).
But honestly, I think the channel with the widest range of enjoyable programmes at the moment is CBBC, the Corporation’s channel for children. It regularly produces output that is lively, engaging, challenging and fun.
A case in point is a series which finished this week. Wolfblood is a new take on the werewolf genre created by Debbie Moon. Young Maddy is a 14-year-old girl from a reclusive family ‘pack’ of wolfbloods (the series rejects the term ‘werewolf’). Her parents lock themselves away every full moon rather than risk roaming in the woods – partly to ensure the safety of the locals, but mostly to ensure that their family secret is not discovered.
In contrast, Maddy (Aimee Kelly) – who at the start of the series is not quite old enough to experience her ‘time of the month’ – is constantly tempted to share the burden of her secret with her friends, especially when the new foster kid at school, Rhydian (Bobby Lockwood), also turns out to be a wolfblood. And when he discovers that he has a family who live wild rather than Maddy’s domesticated parents, further conflicts arise.
Every drama thrives on friction, and there is plenty here. Intrinsic to the school setting are the usual kids-versus-teachers, geeks-versus-fashionistas setups. But the best conflicts for us as viewers are those that build up between friends and family. Maddy’s best friend Shannon (Louisa Connolly-Burnham) has been convinced for years that there are werewolves on the local moors. Maddy’s need to keep her family secret while also wanting Shannon to know that her theories are correct forms one of the biggest drivers to the whole series. And the more serious side to Shannon’s obsession isn’t shied away from – in one episode, she reveals that her parents are sending her to counselling because of her determined belief in supernatural beasts. In a couple of lines, we see that the series has at its heart a heroine who, by keeping a secret she knows she must not divulge, is risking her best friend’s mental health.
Wolfblood finished its first 13-part series on Monday, and CBBC celebrated by repeating the first 12 episodes back-to-back in the run up to the final episode’s premiere. It’s still on iPlayer for the next couple of days: download it now and savour it at leisure. There are a couple of dodgy moments (I recommend watching the being-a-wolfblood-makes-you-an-awesome-streetdancer episode through your fingers), but a second series has received a well-deserved commission.
And so it’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for. Oh, no, wait, that was another Doctor Who moment. Anyway, here are my weekly ten points about the last of this current batch of Doctor Who episodes.
1. Blink twice
Conceptually, this episode felt far more of a sequel to Blink than The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone did. It’s the third in a trilogy that, in essence, returns to the roots of the first: scary statues that send their victims back in time, rather than snapping their necks and speaking through them (cf. “Bob” in Time of Angels).
Which reminded me of this speech from Scream 3:
Because true trilogies are all about going back to the beginning and discovering something that wasn’t true from the get go. Godfather, Jedi, all revealed something that we thought was true that wasn’t true.
So if it is a trilogy you are dealing with, here are some super trilogy rules: 1. You got a killer who’s going to be super human. Stabbing him won’t work. Shooting him won’t work. Basically in the third one you gotta cryogenically freeze his head, decapitate him, or blow him up. 2. Anyone including the main character can die. This means you Syd. I’m sorry. It’s the final chapter. It could be fucking ‘Reservoir Dogs’ by the time this thing is through. Number 3. The past will come back to bite you in the ass. Whatever you think you know about the past, forget it.
2. Again, with the opening narration
Of the five episodes in this run, four have featured a voiceover either before or just after the opening credits (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship being an exception). It’s almost like it was planned. I suspect it’s more because it’s a convenient way to get some exposition out of the way – something that these “epic” stories just don’t have time for when crammed into a 45-minute running time.
I don’t mind it too much here, as it’s both a pastiche of the detective movie genre, and also a sign that the Doctor is reading aloud.
I really liked this week’s episode of Doctor Who. The conclusion to the main threat was ever more perfunctory than usual, mind, but that didn’t overly detract from the beauty of the character studies involved. But on with this week’s Ten Things…
1. Kate Stewart
When I saw the new head of UNIT’s full name listed in the latest Doctor Who Magazine, I knew that there would be a link to the organisation’s most famous member, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.
And here she is: the daughter of the man himself. And, in a fan-pleasing touch, it’s a character that has already previously appeared in Doctor Who, having appeared in Gary Russell’s novel The Scales of Injustice, which featured the Third Doctor, the Brigadier and Liz Shaw.
Jemma Redgrave is a worthy addition to the Doctor Who roll call, I think. I hope we see her again.
Of course the mysterious cubes would have several Twitter accounts set up within minutes. Even the “Essex Lion” had at least two. But I do long for the day when the positives about social media can be referenced, rather than being the butt of cheap jibes.
Still, at least Doctor Who is referencing social media correctly. It’s light years on from when, in Utopia, Jack and Martha’s sharing of anecdotes about the Doctor is wrongly chastised as “blogging”.
Over on TV Today on The Stage website, I’ve taken the opportunity to write about Doctor Who Magazine’s latest special edition, covering the final series of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Due to Elisabeth Sladen’s death, production was halted at a critical point in the series’ history: the production team were asking all sort of questions about where the show would go in its following year. Circumstances would mean they would never get round to answering those questions – but that gives TV historians a unique opportunity…
First and most importantly, there is the joy. Joy at a children’s drama series that has shown that – in a genre where primary colours and slapstick tend to dominate – imagination, wonder and emotional truth still have their place. Joy at a series which spun off from Doctor Who with such confidence that it hasn’t felt the need to constantly reinvent itself (yes, Torchwood, I’m looking at you). Joy at a show that knows that, while it is squarely aimed at children aged 6 to 12, the audience doesn’t mind that their heroes are older kids led by a woman in her sixties.
Over on TV Today, I’ve penned some inadequate words about the loss of Elisabeth Sladen, and in particular the character of Sarah Jane Smith. A full Stage obituary will be published soon, and that will include more details about her long theatre career as well as her record-breaking role as Sarah Jane Smith, which she played from 1973 onwards, in Doctor Who, K9 and Company and The Sarah Jane Adventures.
I had the privilege of meeting Elisabeth a few times, starting at The Stage New Year party in 2008 and several CBBC events after that. Even though she never got my name quite right (at one point I did consider changing my name to ‘Steve’, as it would be easier than contradicting her), she was always full of smiles and greeted everyone with genuine warmth.
Lis, it was a pleasure and a privilege to have known you. My thoughts are with Brian and Sadie at this time.