Saturday, 27 December 2014

DOCTOR WHO: LAST CHRISTMAS review, 25 December 2014


A clever Christmas present from Steven Moffat.

Season's greetings. (Image: BBC)

I’ve always had a bit of an awkward relationship with my Dad and Christmas Days have sometimes been tense affairs. This year’s, though, was pleasant and quietly memorable. Equipped with his festive whisky and dry ginger, Dad mellowed out and became talkative, warmly reflecting that it seemed like only yesterday when I’d been a little boy. For once, he seemed genuinely pleased with the present I’d bought him, and found his talking Only Fools and Horses ‘Triffic Dad’ Christmas card funny. It doesn’t sound like much, but it means a lot.

Which is largely why I was so impressed that this year’s Doctor Who special got to the heart of what the season of goodwill is really all about. ‘Last Christmas’ is a clever title. Yes, it’s a pun on the classic Wham! song, but, as the Doctor said, the essential point of the yearly present-giving tradition, is that it might be the last time you have quality time with your family and other loved ones, so make the most of it. That’s a deeply mature sentiment that makes Peter Capaldi’s first yuletide voyage in the TARDIS genuinely deserving of the label ‘Christmas Special’. In fact, I think it’s the most sophisticated, honest and moving festive story that the series has done so far. ‘A Christmas Carol’ came pretty close, but ‘Last Christmas’ scores higher because the Doctor and Clara working out their issues, the seasonal angle and some very intelligent (and disturbing) science fiction all worked seamlessly togethernot to mention outlandishly.

‘There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.’

The guest star status of Santa Claus is a case in point. Actor Nick Frost wasn’t joking when he said that he’d be playing a bona fide ‘Sweet Papa Chrimbo’, made up to resemble the one in Miracle on 34th Street. What’s stunningly clever is that the story kept asking just what Father Christmas is: an idea, a fantasy, perhaps – surely nota real person? Such a deliberately self aware approach can sometimes topple over into self indulgence, so for a complex idea like this to work the writing has to be very disciplined, and, once again, Steven Moffat more than delivered.

Before anyone at home could shout ‘You’re ripping off Alien!Professor Albert (Michael Troughton) said as much, and The Thing from Another World was on Shona’s ‘to watch’ list at home, so she’d obviously brought her enthusiasm for the film to the characters’ shared dreamscape. The collision of Victorian Christmas folklore and sci-fi motifs also made for some memorably surreal comedy business, with Santa’s assault force consisting of a tangerine, some bendy springs and toy robots, Saint Nick turning off Rudolf’s Red Nose by remote and a literal North Pole, while the Doctor and co. were threatened by gruesome alien mind parasites. In terms of storytelling and Christmas Day TV spectacle, that really is mind blowing.

The dream world scenario is appropriate to Christmas as there’s a tradition of seasonal fiction using it that ranges from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, right up to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror special a couple of weeks ago. ‘Last Christmas’ is also the Doctor’s It’s a Wonderful Life as, distressingly, he gets to see what would have happened to Clara if he hadn’t gone back for her. Staying in a pleasant cocoon of illusion with your dead lover may be tempting too, but it’s part of the moral of festive stories that you learn from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Future or a kindly angel called Clarence and, as the terrific Samuel Anderson’s Danny Pink says, ‘get the hell on with it.’

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman improve with every story. They’re so natural together now it’s hard to imagine anybody else travelling in the TARDIS, though that day will surely come. Capaldi now appears to be Dr Whody (nice new threads), and watching him prowl around the familiar Doctor Who setting of a scientific base under arctic conditions makes you realise – again – what a classic Doctor he is. Jenna once more showed off her range as an actress, playing a vulnerable, dressing-gowned Wendy to the Time Lord’s amusingly grumpy Grinch. It was particularly satisfying to see the Doctor cheer up at last as he took the reins of Santa's sleigh, revealing that his warmth and simple enjoyment of life are still there.

‘Last Christmas’ wasn’t perfect. To start with, I just know that for some people accepting Santa as a guest star in Doctor Who is a big ask. Bearing that in mind, it didn’t help that Paul Wilmhurst’s direction dragged in a couple of crucial places, particularly the pre-titles sequence, which seemed to go on forever – yes, we get the point, IT’S FATHER CHRISTMAS! and the scene where Shona (Faye Marsay) threw some shapes across the infirmary floor. She’s a brilliant comic actress and stole every scene in Fresh Meat and Pride, but the amount of screen time Faye’s routine was given shows that there’s a very fine line between funny and silly. Everywhere else Wilmhurst was on top form, notably in all the scenes with the brilliantly named Dream Crabs, and the heart-breaking meeting between the Doctor and the older Clara (and how long must that make-up have taken?).

When the title of the special was announced, I was half expecting a duet between Peter Capaldi and George Michael on the Wham! classic to close the story. While that would have been a brain-scrambling, fourth wall-demolishing show stopper, what we got instead was just as good.

And full marks for a TARDIS showered with snow in the title sequence!

‘Happy Easter.’

Thursday, 18 December 2014



Being out of work in London, The Sweeney at 40, reaching my quarter century, a villain, the return of (my) Dr. Who and a vintage year for writing... 2014 had it all.

BFI Southbank, Thursday 7 August: Who's my friend?

It’s that time of the year again when, with the daylight going at 4 o’clock, it being so cold you don’t want to be outside and the end of the year approaching, you start thinking about the last twelve months in front of a twinkling Christmas tree. I haven’t done one of these ‘reviews of the year’ before, but 2014’s been such a significant year for me that I ought it might be worth putting down my thoughts about it.

Benefits Street
It began as the last fourteen months had: getting up, spending the morning doing work searches in Blackfen library, going back home to work on my and my friend Mike’s latest book The Callan File in the afternoon, watching Channel 4 news in the evening, watching something diverting then going to bed. I really can’t believe how the government expect unemployed people in London to survive on £70 a week Job Seekers’ Allowance when you have to cover food, heating, electricity and travel. The only socialising I did – unless there was something on at the BFI I could get a complimentary ticket for – was going over to my mate Sayer’s for dinner on Saturdays.

I did learn one important lesson: you can survive with very little. It may be a sign of these straitened times, but as long as you’ve got enough for beans on toast and your electric meter, that’s all you need. Friends reading this will know of my dedication to Doctor Who and classic television in general; the fact is, my DVD/Blu-ray collection is now half the size it once was, simply because I’ve sold so much of it to make ends meet. It was something I thought I never do, but once you take that step, you realise it’s an asset you have to use.    

On the plus side, I did get a helluva lot of The Callan File written.

You’re nicked!
This has been a classic year for the BFI’s coverage of television, thanks largely to the unstinting efforts of TV curator Dick Fiddy; their brilliant Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season is still going on, so go along if you can. My BFI year got off to a great start in January with an event celebrating 40 years of everyone’s favourite 1970s cop show The Sweeney. Myself and Mike were involved in the organisation, choosing clips and writing viewing notes, as well as assisting in getting the band back together (probably, sadly, for one last time): producer Ted Childs, director Tom Clegg and, much to our surprise and delight, Sgt. George Carter himself, Dennis Waterman. We also asked along cameraman John Keeling, a hitherto unknown member of the Euston Films story who we’d met during research for The Callan File. We even sold around twenty copies of Sweeney! The Official Companion, which isn’t bad for a book two years into its second edition.

Many Happy Returns
Things picked up financially in April – I was back freelancing as a graphic designer at the place I’d last worked at, and God bless them for the opportunity – just in time for my 50th birthday. People had been so generous when I did manage to go out, buying me drinks and sometimes meals, that I was determined to say ‘thank you’ with a decent party and complimentary drinks, which I did at the pleasant Walkers of Whitehall bar on the day itself, Saturday 24 May. This is going to sound like false modesty, but I really had no idea so many people would turn up, including friends I was at school with (Debs, Adam, and Sayer), friends who’d come all the way from Ireland (Mark and Linda) and friends I hadn’t seen for over ten years (Jacqui and Dave). It was a special night.

In July, something happened which started my re-evaluation of living in London. At the end of 2013, I had to get a lodger as the mortgage company made it clear that after a year out of work, if I didn’t start making payments again they would repossess the house. Fair enough: they’d been more than understanding. Unfortunately, despite getting convincing work and previous-landlord references, the guy I ended up with – underneath his cheeky chappie, cor-blimey exterior – was a nasty, violent piece of work. It all came to a head when, with him three weeks in arrears and with no sign of any money forthcoming, I told him to get out. Cue my M&S bolognese melt flying all over the living room and a black eye.

As I came round on the sofa, I wondered how things had come to the point where I’d allowed someone I’d normally cross the street to avoid into my house to abuse my hospitality. This feeling was compounded in October at the subsequent court case, which I brought against my lodger for Actual Bodily Harm. Despite photographs of my swollen eye, a doctor’s letter about the injury and me being ‘a credible witness’ (the magistrate’s words, not mine), the lodger got off because he persuaded his then-girlfriend – who was in the house, but not in the room, when the attack happened – to testify as a defence witness and lie.

English settlement
I woke up the day after the trial and decided that I just couldn’t do London anymore. If you’re young and don’t care London’s great, and if you’re middle-aged and well off London’s great, but if you’re neither of those then it’s a bloody struggle. I came to the conclusion that the only thing keeping me in the capital was the house – I could design or write anywhere – so why stay? For about five years I’d been thinking about moving back to my home county of East Anglia anyway. I’d tried living in Norwich for three months in 2010 and I’d picked up work from a standing start in six weeks; compare that with not one single reply to a work or job application in London over eighteen months between 2012 and 2014, and the decision to go starts to look like a no-brainer. A pleasantly alcoholic afternoon with my friend Ruth during the summer at a pub in Beccles, a small market town in Suffolk, when she told me about the thriving creative scene and general sense of community there, convinced me that that’s what I now wanted: somewhere my friends were a walk away, family are ten minutes by train and the pubs are within staggering distance. For this 50-year old man, that will do very nicely.

Just goes to show: a punch in the face really can knock some sense into you.   
Hello Sweetie
I fell back in love with Doctor Who this year. My oldest amour has been on the wane a bit in recent years; in general the stories remained good, but a succession of ever-younger Doctors was starting to resemble the line-up of One Direction. As a result, my interest in the character began to drift.
Peter Capaldi’s sardonic grump, however, is cut from the same commanding cloth as the Fab Four: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and, to my delight, I recognise the Doctor again. Perhaps inspired by Capaldi’s idiosyncratic – and, frankly, risky – casting, the writers in his first year have really delivered the goods. Not everyone thinks so: I’ve never known a series of Doctor Who to have divided my friends so much, but – ha! ha! – the viewing figures are on the up. 

One of the best days of my life was attending the premier of ‘Deep Breath’, Capaldi’s first story, at the BFI in August. That sounds a bit over the top, but the combination of my revitalised enthusiasm, Woodstock-style bonding/queuing overnight for tickets and meeting with the (very friendly) man himself is the best Doctor Who experience I’ve had for years, and that includes all the jamboree of the 50th anniversary. Things were turned up to eleven when I was commissioned to write two articles for the Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2015; I’ve been buying the official magazine, under all its various titles, since it started in 1979 and I’ve always wanted to write for it. Now I’ve done it. It seems dreams can come true.
Paperback writer
If I shuffled off this mortal coil tomorrow I’d be happy. That not meant to be fatalistic; I think it’s a good thing to be able to say at 50 that you’ve done all the things you wanted to do when you were starting out in life, and, with the prospective move back to East Anglia, 2014 feels like the end of one stage of my life and the beginning of the next. One other thing I’m particularly happy with is that the amount of writing I’m doing now, largely on this blog, is back to what it was when I was a teenager: it’s part of the daily routine again. 

On a professional level, The Callan File has been a joy to do. There’s never been a book on Edward Woodward’s spy series before, so everything me and Mike have discovered about Callan is new and exclusive. Add to that the many enjoyable hours we’ve spent interviewing getting on for sixty people, and I think it’s the best experience I’ve ever had writing and, consequently, the best thing we’ve done. You can decide for yourself next year.        

Hi ho, Silver Lining
So, I’m this far in without a map. All things considered, it’s a good place to be.

Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year!  XXX