The season, that is, for sitting around one one's duff, gorging on food, developing a guilt complex over weight gain in an ever-vain society, resolving to finally sign up for that gym membership you've been saying you'll get, losing heart and sitting down in front of the TV to console yourself with even more mince pies and wine. Luckily there was a fair bit of quality TV on over the holidays this year, making a nice change from the norm. Somewhat eerily, all the best shows had a Doctor Who connection…
The Doctor's second festive outing, complete with seemingly obligatory alien robot Santas. While there were some nice touches throughout, notably the Doctor mourning the loss of Rose and the amazing effects and prosthetics for the arachnid Queen of Racnoss, there was nothing that really made this feel particularly worthwhile or even necessary. Plot-wise, it was a fairly by-the-numbers tale of alien invasion that telegraphed its denouement as soon as it was announced that the Racnoss' base was under the Thames River.
Witnessing the creation of Earth and a highway chase with the TARDIS were notable high-points for the episode, as was the first on-screen mention of the Doctor's home planet, Gallifrey, though the latter was a bit too built up for something that only has any resonance for long-time viewers.
Surprisingly, I didn't want to gouge my eyes out at the presence of Catherine Tate in the role of temporary companion Donna. The character was annoying as can be but was also written to be so, a massive improvement on Tate's own 'comedy' characters from her sketch show. It was even possible to empathise with Donna as her heart was broken by the tragic end to her marriage plans.
Tennant's performance was, as usual, magnificent and he is shaping up to be one of the finest actors to play the eponymous Time Lord with his ability to convey rare emotion in the usually stoic role – just look at his face when he offers to take Donna with him, the man is clearly desperately lonely and it's all there in that one shot.
Overall, The Runaway Bride was a nice diversion after Christmas lunch but not essential viewing on par with last year's effort. The teasers for season three suitably whet the appetite though, with the first glimpse of new TARDIS-mate Martha Jones and some rather nifty looking Rhino Men. The spring debut can't come quick enough.
The 'grown up' spin off from Doctor Who brings its first season to a close in a much more mature manner than it started, somewhat ironically. The first few episodes of the season were incredibly juvenile, equating sex, violence, graphic language and gore with adult entertainment. Thankfully, this seemed to be a transient phase while the writers got the bug of writing for a post-watershed show, and the more flexible standards that allows, out of their collective system. Particularly from the genuinely disturbing 'Countrycide' onwards, the series improved dramatically, actually becoming the mature show it intended to be and throwing some real complications into the lives of its characters.
Tensions between the Torchwood team have been building over the last half of the season and they were brought to boil over the final two episodes, aired back to back on New Year's Eve. A mysterious man named Bilis Manger, detached from time, manipulates the team into opening the space-time rift in Cardiff, leading to the release of the dark god Abaddon. It's a grandiose ending, pitting the team against an incredibly powerful Biblical monster on the surface and against themselves in the subtext. With Abaddon feasting on life itself, Jack's inability to die comes into play with a vengeance, leading to an ending that makes contextual sense but feels somewhat rushed and anti-climactic, further weakened by a cheap and hackneyed 'kiss from a princess' at the end.
Annoyingly, Torchwood failed to answer any of the questions it asked at the start of the series – we still have barely any idea who Jack really is, what happened in the missing two years of his life, how he got back from the 51st Century, how he took control of Torchwood, where the other Torchwoods mentioned in the first episode are, what exactly is up with the Weevils and what more will be seen of Bilis Manger. However, with John Barrowman set to appear in the final three episodes of season three of Doctor Who, it seems his story may finally be explained there, before returning to Cardiff for Torchwood season two where the mysteries unique to that show may finally begin to be answered.
Despite the unanswered questions, the Torchwood finale did have more of an important air to it than The Runaway Bride and did a better job of engaging the viewer in all the characters, benefiting from a regular cast accustomed to their roles rather than a screen full of guest stars there for one episode. If season two can maintain the higher quality set by the second half of season one and not drag out its mysteries too long, it should be well worth the wait until autumn.
See, now this was just nice. Airing on New Year's Day, this familiarised viewers with former Doctor Who companion, the titular Sarah Jane Smith, portrayed by Elizabeth Sladen. Having re-appeared in Who season 2's 'School Reunion' episode, the character has been spun off into her own series which will continue in the spring. The one-hour pilot introduced Sarah Jane's new neighbour, 13 year old Maria who unwittingly discovers Sarah Jane's frequent contacts with the paranormal. From there the two are thrown into the investigation of a sinister new drink called Bubbleshock!, along with Maria's new friend Kelsey.
For a show aimed squarely at a juvenile audience, The Sarah Jane Adventures was remarkably appealing to all ages and I dare say closer in tone to what fans of Classic Who may feel is lacking from the new series. Continuity references for both Doctor Who and Torchwood are abundant if you know what to look for but nothing demands prior knowledge of either show, making this accessible to old fans of the franchise and newcomers alike.
Sladen nails the role of Sarah Jane Smith perfectly, with a haunted sadness apparent throughout the episode. Having never married and with no children, the loneliness of the character following her departure from the Doctor is obvious. Naming her computer 'Mr. Smith' is both funny and saddening, as was her having lost K-9 to monitoring a black hole (though the real world reason for that is a rights issue.) The child actors are surprisingly good, something that always surprises me in shows like these, playing off Sladen well.
The feel of the show is quite light when compared to Who, reminding me somewhat of the old Goosebumps or Are You Afraid Of The Dark? shows – slightly twisted camera angles and bright colours for the most part - but still has enough of an air of danger to entice kids. For one thing, the script thankfully does not shy away from the word 'kill' as many American shows do and some very Lovecraftian monsters in The Bane look set to be recurring villains in the show.
With plenty of Easter eggs for older fans and approachable characters and well-crafted scripting that doesn't speak down to its target audience, The Sarah Jane Adventures looks set to be one of the best kids shows from the BBC in a long, long time.
Billie Piper's first major TV appearance since leaving Doctor Who earlier this year was a sumptuous Victorian affair, based on Phillip Pullman's novel of the same name. My only exposure to Pullman's work is the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, so I really had no idea what to expect with this. What I found was a highly polished mystery adventure dealing with wide ranging themes; from family to inheritance to responsibility to identity, Ruby in the Smoke was an amazingly engaging drama special.
I think for most people watching, the major hurdle was disassociating Billie Piper from Rose Tyler, especially given the refined accent and mannerisms of Ruby in the Smoke's protagonist, Sally Lockhart. Airing two days after Doctor Who may not have helped in that regard. After the initial shock of hearing a plummy English accent coming from 'Rose' has worn off though, it was easy to get swept away by the wonderful performances and Victorian setting and into a world of opium, murder and revenge. Very festive indeed.
Special note must be made here for the amazing musical score by composer Martin Phipps, which is beyond cinematic at times and should certainly be considered for just about every awards ceremony there is. With a cast and crew of this calibre, I can't wait to see the adaptation of Pullman's next book, The Shadow in the North, later this year.
So, a rather satisfying holiday feast as far as TV goes. Some flaws here and there, disappointingly so in Doctor Who's case, but one of the strongest schedules we've had at Christmas for a good while. Now, I'm off to the gym, unless I get distracted by any leftover mince pies on the way…
That’s it for this week. Thoughts? Comments? Hatemail? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org