Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Defence of George Entwistle and the BBC

Strictly speaking, this blog is supposed to review episodes or series of television. However, the relatively newly-appointed Director-General of the BBC, George Entwistle, has just resigned, and in the world of the media news doesn't get much bigger than that. So because of that, and because you won't find a much bigger advocate of the BBC than me, I feel I can't let this go by without sharing my thoughts.

Two scandals plagued Entwistle's short-lived directorship. The first, the Jimmy Savile child sex abuse scandal; the second, Newsnight's wrongful allegation that an ex-Tory MP had sexually abused children in the 1980s. Whilst the latter will be cited as the official reason why Entwhistle resigned, there is no way that the former's significance can be ignored. 

In recent years we've seen the emergence of a very strong hostility (at least from certain areas of the British press) towards the BBC. It's been criticised extremely heavily in that time, and that is now reflected within the organisation by how apologetic it has become. The Jimmy Savile business was important because it gave the press yet another opportunity to attack the BBC. These attacks aren't as legitimate as they seem, but nevertheless they have been spun in such a way that large swathes of the public, at this moment in time at least, have become very hostile towards the BBC, too, thus continuing the trend that has been occurring for several years now.

The BBC: the target of increasing amounts of unwarranted hostility.
But let's set some things straight. Whilst the BBC as an institution is not by any means without its faults in this, the real issue is being overlooked by the press. The story here is not about the BBC. It is about how a perverted paedophile, once thought to be a national treasure, sexually abused hundreds of children. The press should be telling the victims' stories; they should be helping the victims; they should be dragging Savile's name down into the dirt where it belongs. But instead, the focus has been primarily on the BBC. Yes, it was wrong not to air the edition of Newsnight exposing Savile when they had the opportunity, but focusing on that when there are far more important issues - like bringing other paedophiles who may have been involved to justice - is wrong. Naturally, if such instances of child abuse were occurring at the BBC today, the press would be absolutely right to tear into it. But I just can't understand how it can take the actions of the BBC of 40 years ago and use it to vilify the BBC of today. It's poor journalism, and nothing more than an excuse to once again attack an institution that is being increasingly taken for granted.

Even the best of Director Generals would have struggled to handle the enormity of the Savile sex abuse scandal. Unfortunately, all it did for Entwistle was highlight how ineffective a leader he was (though we have to bear in mind that when the issues emerged he'd barely been in his new job a month), and nowhere was this more clear than in his performance in front of the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I tweeted at the time that he looked like a deer in headlights, and I absolutely stand by that. When it comes to defending the BBC, which a Director General must be able to do extraordinarily well in this day and age, he simply wasn't up to scratch - and that shows in many of the other interviews he's done since then.

George Entwistle, Director-General of the BBC, is forced to resign.
And then we come to the issue of Newsnight falsely implicating Lord McAlpine in a separate sex abuse scandal. Newsnight and Steve Messham (who was the one who made the claim against him) were absolutely at fault here, and the BBC were right to offer their "unreserved" apology. But for a Director General to resign over such a mistake? That strikes me as very excessive. I'd argue that if it weren't for the Savile business, and if it weren't for all the vitrol that the BBC has to constantly endure, Entwhistle would still be in a job. The press used Savile's actions to smear the BBC's image as much as possible, and it did a very good job of it, too. News of Newsnight's mistaken allegations was probably just the icing on the cake for them. The only way that the BBC could even hope to amend this image that has been projected on them in the light of these scandals (one which has been accepted by large parts of the public) and begin to restore their reputation was to force a man who didn't actually do anything wrong to resign. And they should never have been put in such a position in the first place. Bear in mind that the BBC is being attacked now for a genuine mistake it has made, and one for which it has apologised profusely. Now compare that to many of the stories we read in tabloids these days. When readers read, for example, the Daily Mail, many of them are acutely aware that many of the articles they are reading are very likely to have been based on nothing more than speculation, and in some cases may even be pure fabrication. And yet this kind of journalism is accepted in our society purely because it has the excuse of being tabloid rubbish. But that is fundamentally wrong. Journalism is journalism, and to allow some areas of the press to get away with lies day-in and day-out whilst the BBC gets crucified for honest mistakes for which it publicly apologises is hypocritical and shameful.

Entwhistle's resignation perfectly typifies how apologetic the BBC has become. If the BBC were not the subject of so many attacks (primarily from the right-wing media), whilst it would have apologised for the Newsnight/McAlpine business and wished for a better handling of the Savile scandal, it would not have pressured its own Director-General to resign. But that is not the case. And because of how things stand in terms of the relationship between the BBC and the public/press, a man who could have done a lot of good for the corporation was forced to fall on his sword. This should not have happened, and it is our responsibility to no longer tolerate the baseless, unwarranted attacks on the BBC that have become the norm, and to stop taking for granted what is, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest broadcaster in the world.

George Entwhistle: The 15th Director-General of the BBC.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Merlin - The Disir - A Review

So about a month ago I started university and as a result simply haven't had the time to update this blog, even though I have been watching a lot of TV (probably a lot more than I should considering how much reading I have to do). But we can't be having any of that, so let's talk a bit about Merlin.

Series 5 so far has been a bit hit and miss. We had two bad (and, worse, boring) episodes in the form of the opening two parter, Arthur's Bane, and then we had an improvement in the form of the following two, The Death Song of Uther Pendragon and Another's Sorrow. Tonight's episode, The Disir, thankfully tipped this series' scales in the right direction.

The first four series (well, three and a half) were very much the precursor to Arthur's reign as King of Camelot. All the major events that happened - the placing of Excalibur in the lake, then in the stone, etc - built up to the moment where Arthur stepped into the role he was born to fulfill. However, the fact that he now is king has meant that this series has been forced to mould itself into a different shape and adopt a new overarching theme. Now the issue that presses most strongly upon each episode - even more so than it did before - is that of magic. It no longer feels as if the question is if Merlin's secret will be revealed, it is more a question of when. And nowhere was that more tangible than in tonight's episode.

The highlight of The Disir came in a real monumental, landmark scene for Merlin. Background information: three soothsayers give Arthur a choice - either accept the Old Religion, or continue repressing it and bring about the end of Camelot as a result. Faced with such an impossible choice, Arthur struggles to decide what course of action to take. And what follows are two absolutely incredible character-defining moments that come in a simple exchange of words.

Arthur: Perhaps my father was wrong. Perhaps the Old Ways aren't as evil as we thought. So what should we do? Accept magic or let Mordred die?

Merlin: There can be no place for magic in Camelot.

Those small pieces of dialogue say more about those two characters than previous whole series have. The fact that Arthur doubts his father's convictions about magic shows just how different he is from his him. We already know that he is a more lenient and just king, but the fact that he's willing to entirely reconsider values that he has grown up with and are at his very core for Camelot's safety demonstrates a wisdom, an openness and even a kind of altruism on Arthur's part. To me, it even highlights that despite Merlin's ongoing concerns that Arthur may not become the great king he is destined to be, actually he's already more of that king than he's given credit for. And as for Merlin's line... Well, the magic (haha) of the scene isn't so much Merlin's dismissal of the Old Ways, it's more Colin Morgan's acting in the moments before he does. It's a stunning performance. Don't forget, Arthur's suggestion of giving magic a chance is exactly what Merlin has hoped to hear for years; in fact it's pretty much the only thing his character has ever wanted. And as he hears it, in Colin's performance you see the hope and the relief that maybe, just maybe, the painful silence he's been forced to keep for so long may have been worth it. He has tears in his eyes and for a while he can't even look at Arthur. And then he says "There can be no place for magic in Camelot." If he'd said that straightaway that line would have been meaningless. But to see how much it meant to Merlin to hear Arthur's words, and for him to then stoically dismiss them anyway - that, in a nutshell, encapsulates the altruism that lies at the very heart of his character. There are no swordfights in that scene; there are no incantations, there are no dragons and there are no dangers. There are just two men talking, and it's one of the finest scenes Merlin has ever done.

"What would you do in my place?" Bradley James's Arthur contemplates accepting magic.

Colin Morgan's Merlin tells him he cannot.
Having already lauded Colin Morgan's performance in that scene, I can't not mention it in the final scene of the episodes, where Merlin deals with the fact that the counsel he has given Arthur has led to Mordred's life being saved, thus seemingly confirming the king's impending fated death. It's a very well-shot scene. In Merlin's eyes you see all the hope from the earlier scene gone, replaced instead by the unmitigated horror at the mistake he has made. But it's the directorial aspect of the scene that was most impressive, in particular the effectiveness of the way it was framed. I jut love how it shows the concerned Merlin watching over Arthur from a distance. Just as the dialogue from the earlier scene was indicative of the characters of Merlin and Arthur, likewise this scene - simply by the way it was framed - managed to encapsulate the relationship between the two. Job well done, Ashley Way. Job well done.

A concerned Merlin watches over the King.

The episode, admittedly, didn't do much to address one of my biggest concerns about this series so far, which is about what has happened to Gwen since becoming queen. Although she clearly still cares a great deal about Arthur, when it comes to everybody else in Camelot she now simply comes across as cold, uncaring and distant. I'll concede that this series hasn't had much time to focus on her yet (though this should be no excuse) so I'm hoping that next week's episode, which looks rather Gwen and Morgana centric, will resolve this problem. But that's for another blog post. As for this one, I'll simply finish by reaffirming what I've already said: The Disir was a bloody good bit of telly. Definitely one of Merlin's better episodes, and it did a great job of setting things up nicely for the episodes that will follow.

Thoughts/comments about this episode (or even this series) of Merlin? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Downton Abbey - Episode 3 - A Review

Oh, Downton Abbey knows how to tug at the heartstrings, doesn’t it? Tonight’s episode – the third of this third series – focused primarily on three plot strands. The first, the ‘wedding’ of Lady Edith and Sir Anthony Strallan. The second, Mrs Hughes’s increasingly poorly-kept secret illness. And the third, the pressing need for Downton to be sold. And unsurprisingly, two of those plots will undoubtedly have had people up and down the country reaching for their tissue boxes.
Episode 3 of Downton Abbey Series 3.
In last week’s Downton blog, I talked about how Edith had finally transformed into a character we could all like, and how I was happily looking forward to seeing her and Sir Anthony saunter off into the sunset together. Of course, I should have known better then that things were too good to be true, as was proven tonight when Sir Anthony left her at the altar. In many ways, Edith is quite a tragic character; as the middle daughter, she’s always been portrayed as having been denied the same amount of attention that her elder and younger sister have taken for granted. She’s been through her fair share of emotional pain throughout the series, too: first when Patrick was deemed to have sunk on the Titanic, then when Mary sabotaged her chances of happiness with Sir Anthony the first time around, and again when the man claiming to be an amnesia-ridden Patrick left Downton once and for all. When you consider how slighted she’s been for her whole life, it’s unsurprising why she was initially so unlikeable. A pattern that has emerged throughout the series is that she tends to become more likeable when she has a sense of purpose in her life – when she feels she’s needed. That was most obvious during the war; whilst it was on, she found herself something to do, got on with it, and became a much better, changed person for it. The prospect of finally marrying Sir Anthony had the potential to finalise that positive change in her character. Marrying him would not only have satisfied her on an emotional level, but on a societal one, too; she would finally no longer have been the unwanted middle daughter, but instead a well-to-do married woman with a strong, assertive place in the community. Unfortunately, however, being left at the altar and publicly humiliated by Sir Anthony as she was in tonight’s episode – thereby instantaneously crushing all her hopes and ambitions – will almost certainly see a return to the bitter, jealous Edith of previous series. Whereas the events that transpired in the church had the potential to ice the cake of positive change in her life, it ultimately did nothing but further add to the mounting pile of devastating disappointments in it instead. We see at the end, where she can’t even stand to be in the presence of her two sisters – the embodiments of everything she wants but can never quite seem to have – that that is seemingly confirmed to be true. Although Cora tells her, “Being tested only makes you stronger,” I simply can’t see that being true for Edith. However, in that scene where she weeps by her mother in her bedroom, although we see the bitter side of her re-emerge, we can’t quite dislike her. And the reason why we can’t dislike her is that we pity her. Having been invested in her hope for a happy ending, we as an audience are also crushingly disappointed when it is snatched away from her. But more so, we pity her because we know how far she’s developed as a character over the course of the past two and a half series, and somehow know deep down that this devastating blow might just be what undoes all of that goodness within her. That being said, I can’t quite see Julian Fellowes ending the series – whenever he does decide to do that – without giving her a happy ending of some sorts. Whether that might be with Sir Anthony (I suspect it may be) or someone else, I don’t know, but I do hope she gets one.

"Being tested only makes you stronger." Edith is comforted by her mother.
The other tissue-grabbing facet of tonight’s episode came both in the form of the news of Mrs Hughes’s possible illness spreading to Mr Carson and Cora, and Mrs Hughes going to discover whether or not she actually is ill or not. Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes are very much two peas in the same pod; both of a similar age, they share similar ideals about their roles as servants, believing pride, stoicism and a job well done being what must be striven toward. They are partners, and it’s hard to imagine one being at Downton without the other. As amusing as it was to see Carson try to deal with Mrs Hughes’s illness in his stiff upper lip fashion, though, it was also incredibly touching, because as a man whose emotions are never on show, him doing his best to keep Mrs Hughes off her feet and informing his ladyship of her condition is as caring and emotional as we’ll ever likely see him to be. And you can’t help but want to give him a big hug for it. Similarly, Mrs Hughes’s reaction to the kindness Cora extends to her is equally touching, because it reminds us that there are times when jobs and social positions don’t matter – sometimes it’s simply about helping a fellow human when they’re most in need.
"We can be sure of one thing. I won't be cured by standing here."
I won’t lie, when Mrs Hughes was on her way to the doctor’s at the end of the episode, my heart was thumping like a good ‘un. I absolutely loved that line she said whilst standing across the road before going in:

“We can be sure of one thing. I won’t be cured by standing here.”

I absolutely love that line, simply because it’s such a Mrs Hughes thing to say. And I’ll admit, I was on the edge of my seat, all the way through until Mrs Patmore told Mr Carson that she didn’t have cancer. However, I can’t help but worry. It probably is a case of me being paranoid and overthinking it, but I’m slightly concerned that Mrs Patmore may just have agreed to tell him that it was cancer so that he wouldn’t worry about her, when in fact she secretly does have it. Like I said, I may be overthinking it and I very much hope I’m wrong, but that would certainly be an interesting plot development indeed. 
Matthew and Robert.

My problem with the remaining plot strand – that of Matthew not wanting to read Reggie Swire’s letter to him, and Mary reading it to him anyway and confirming its veracity – is that it feels a bit rushed. It felt like the kind of thing that would have been stretched out over a couple of episodes in previous series, and having it wrapped up in a single episode tonight made it feel a little too neat and contrived. However, despite that, it will be interesting to see what things are like next week, with Matthew becoming Lord Grantham’s equal as co-master of Downton (Carson’s reaction to that alone looks set to make next week’s episode worth viewing). And at the end of the day, I’d much rather a plot line be rushed along a little if it means it’s prevented from becoming overly drawn out and rather boring, like the Anna and Bates storyline has become.

Lord Grantham ponders Downton's fate.

The two masters of Downton.
Overall, Episode 3 failed to bring this series of Downton Abbey up to the same standard as previous series, but it was entertaining nevertheless, and you can’t ask for much more on a Sunday evening.

And, of course, do let me know your opinions on this episode/series of Downton, because I'd love to know!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Doctor Who - The Angels Take Manhattan - A Review

The finale of the first part of Doctor Who’s seventh series just finished and I think I’m in a bit of a state of shock. It was an episode written by a writer I don’t particularly like, bidding farewell to a companion I don’t particularly like. By all accounts, I was prepared not to like The Angels Take Manhattan. And yet for forty five minutes I sat in front of my TV, laughing one minute and almost close to tears the next. It was absolutely fantastic.

The Doctor and Amy in Times Square, in Doctor Who's breathtaking Series 7 finale.

The Angels Take Manhattan being Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill’s last episode, it’s both unsurprising and fitting that Amy and Rory were the highlight of it. What made Amy in particular so great in this episode was that she was portrayed in the way that she should have been portrayed all along: with emotion. It’s as though, in her final hour on the show, Steven Moffat finally got her right. For a long time I never really felt she deserved Rory (his assertion in Asylum of the Daleks that he loved her more than she loved him hit the nail bang on the head, I thought), but in this episode she proved that she did, and she also proved that she is no longer the cold, emotionless being she started out as. The scene on the roof of Winter Quay perfectly illustrates that point. I thought that all the emotion in that scene would stem from whether or not Amy would be able to bring herself to push Rory to his death; and, in fairness, that in itself would have been an incredibly moving scene. What I didn’t see coming, however, was Amy climbing up to jump with him. That moment was her admission that she wouldn’t be able to live without him, and it’s moments like that that showcase Doctor Who at its best.

Echoes of that scene atop Winter Quay were definitely present in Amy and Rory’s final scene in the graveyard, too. In it, Rory makes the mistake of going to look at his own grave, and then ends up being zapped back in time by a rogue survivor Angel. That final scene works wonderfully well because not only do you have that heartbreaking admission from Amy that a Life Without Rory is a Life Not Worth Living, but you also have a kind of wonderful, neat symmetry that brings Amy’s journey full circle. The motif of Amy’s Choice – choosing between Rory and the Doctor – is one that has been brewing for three series now; in last week’s blog I talked about how rewarding it was for Amy to have chosen Rory, but at the same time I really got the feeling that that choice would have repercussions for her, and that it would definitely play some sort of role in her departure. And I guess I was right. In those moments where Amy stares at the Angel that took husband, she is confronted by the choice she has been faced with all along for the final time – except this time it’s much, much more extreme. Whereas before she could bring Rory along during her life with the Doctor, and could have the Doctor drop in from time to time during her life with Rory, this time she has no choice but to choose one over the other. And the fact that she chooses Rory in an instant, without even blinking (haha), without even a guarantee that she’ll be able to find him if the Angel takes her, proves how much she loves him, and shows the side to Amy that was missing all along.

"Raggedy Man, goodbye." Amy bids farewell to the Doctor.

Making that scene even more heartbreaking than it already is, though, is the Doctor and River’s presence (brought to life by the always-fabulous Matt Smith and Alex Kingston). As Amy prepares to let the Angel take her, she calls out to River and says,

“Melody… You look after him. And you be a good girl and you look after him.”

I don’t even know how I held it together at that point! Because there we see Amy talking to River as a mother would talk to her daughter, and we’re reminded of how dangerous travelling with the Doctor can be; it is, after all, because of him that Amy never got the chance to be a proper mother to her child. And so, in that line, we see one of the only moments in her life where she really gets to be River’s mother – and then we realise that it’s the moment she says goodbye to her. Furthermore, it’s very interesting (and, of course, sad) to look at what the Doctor says, and in particular this line:

“You are creating a fixed time. I will never be able to see you again.”

Hmm. “I will never be able to see you again.” When you think about it, it’s a bit of a selfish thing to say. He doesn’t want her to stay for her own sake, he wants her to stay for his. But of course, we don’t think any less of him for that. On the contrary, we can’t help but feel for him there. It’s a very real thing to say, and it makes perfect sense after his admission in The Power of Three about how much she means to him. In fact, what makes the scene so incredibly sad is not just Amy’s goodbye, but seeing what the goodbye is doing to the Doctor. We see him cry and even break down, and we see him plead with her and beg her not to go.

“Amy, please, just come back into the TARDIS. Come on, Pond, please.”

If you have a heart, that scene is tough to watch. And to top it all off, there’s a great big orchestral rendition of an evolved Amy’s Theme, too, representing how as a character she has grown and moved on. At risk of repeating myself, it’s simply heartbreaking – there’s no other word for it.

The Doctor and River make a sad scene even sadder.
But it’s not all doom and gloom – in fact, for most of the episode I was smiling like a goon. River Song has been my favourite minor character pretty much since Silence in the Library, so obviously I was delighted at having her back. Steven Moffat noted in an interview before the episode went out that this was not an episode about her, it was merely an episode that featured her. And frankly, as much as I love River, that’s the way it should stay. The price you pay for having a character with such a complex timeline is having storylines that are overly complicated; unfortunately last year, where the series arc basically revolved around her, the stories got bogged down in timey-wimey complications and it just wasn’t very good at all. River works best as a recurring guest; that’s what she was in The Angels Take Manhattan, and that’s why her appearance was so good. As always, her interactions with the Doctor were pure gold. As much as I loved the Doctor slicking his hair and checking his breath was okay before seeing her, the moment that really got me “aww”ing was the one where he gave up some of his regenerative energy just to heal her broken wrist. I’ve got to admit, the shallow Doctor/River fangirl part of me died a little bit at that. (And then she slapped him! How fantastic!) I’m just glad that her final scene hinted strongly at her return in future episodes, though. Of all the characters he writes, Moffat writes River best - she’s just a joy to watch.

The grief of a Time Lord.

Overall, the episode had a lot going for it. The use of the Melody Malone book to frame the whole thing was particularly effective, and tied in nicely to the theme of spoilers and not peeking ahead that is synonymous with River’s character. (The fact that Rory got zapped by the Angel at the end is perhaps the strongest proof that you shouldn’t peek ahead – after all, if he hadn’t looked at his own grave (even though he didn’t know it was his own grave) he wouldn’t have been zapped in the first place. So there you go!) And of course, having New York as a backdrop gave the episode a real epic feel. Filming in Central Park gave it an ambiance that a soggy park in Cardiff would never have been able to give, and, as ever, Times Square never fails to look visually stunning. My only complaint is that there weren’t quite enough shots of New York to whet my appetite; as stunning as Times Square is, it will never be done justice if its total screen time amounts to just a few seconds. But even that is just a minor complaint. The only other real gripe I have is that the Weeping Angels have still never quite been used as effectively as they were in Blink, although I suppose cheapening them slightly is worth having the Statue of Liberty as an angel. Yeah, I can live with that.

Central Park gives The Angels Take Manhattan that unmistakeable New York feel.
It’s almost hard to believe that there’ll be no more Doctor Who now until Christmas. Five episodes is not enough, and I really, really disagree with this whole idea of splitting the series into two – it just doesn’t work. That being said, though, because Series 7 was much stronger than Series 6, it just about got away with it. I still wouldn’t call myself a Moffat fan by any stretch of the word, but I’ve got to admit that he knocked the ball out of the park tonight. If every episode in this era of the show could be as strong as The Angels Take Manhattan, I’d be a very, very happy Doctor Who fan indeed.

But the real question is, what did you think of the episode? Let me know!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Downton Abbey - A Review of Series 3 So Far

Downton Abbey, now two episodes into its third series, feels like a completely different show this year, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. The first two series were very much bound together by the cloud of war; the first series was the calm before the storm, and the second series showed that storm in full swing, reminding us that in times of great crisis petty things such as class divides really don’t matter very much at all. The characters, throughout those two series, often alluded to a great sense of change pervading the air; World War I is typically seen to represent a loss of innocence across society, and it is that loss which arguably kickstarts that societal change. Series 3 of Downton, contrary to building up to and foreshadowing that change, shows it in action. Set in the Roaring 20s, there's new 20s hair, new 20s suits ("Oh, you two are dressed for a barbecue!") and, tonally, it feels world apart from the show that began with the sinking of the Titanic, setting in motion a fateful chain of events.

Worlds Apart - Downton Abbey is a very different show these days.
The change in time seems to have manifested itself via a reshuffling of the cast. Sybil and Branson no longer feature particularly heavily, the nature of Anna and Mr Bates’ storyline has inevitably led to them being somewhat sidelined, and the introduction of such characters as Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson (whose appearance is, admittedly, limited to just two episodes) and Matt Milne’s towering but loveable Alfred really does give Downton a very different feel this year. A cast reshuffle can often be good for a show, but only if done right, and I’m not sure that Julian Fellowes has quite hit the nail on the head. Sybil and Branson’s slow-burning but powerful romance built to a steady climax throughout the first two series, and it was so effective that I’d probably cite is as my favourite storyline of the show so far. Their presence was a real highlight of the first episode of this third series, but their absence in both the Christmas special and tonight’s episode were very keenly felt indeed. Similarly, the latter half of Series 2 saw Anna and Mr Bates’s contributions to each episode relegated to worriedly whispering in corners of the servants’ quarters, highlighting a failure on Fellowes’ part to “show, not tell”. I was hoping that this series would rectify that, but so far it looks as if the only change to their storyline is the location of their consternation-filled talks; instead of Downton, they’re now in prison. (It's also worth mentioning that Daisy, having gotten over her infatuation with Thomas and her storyline with William having drawn to a close, noticeably seems to serve no purpose anymore, and instead spends most of her screen time either seeing things that she shouldn't or complaining.) And whilst the banter between Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson and Maggie Smith’s Violet was supposed to be one of the key draws of this series, one can’t help but feel that, actually, it’s not that good. Some of it is amusing, yes, an obvious example of which is Violet’s quip that, “When I’m with [Martha], I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.” “But isn’t she American?” “Exactly.” Mildly entertaining, yes, but I’m afraid the exchanges don’t rival the verbal jousting between Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton in preceding series. One of my favourite pieces of dialogue ever will always be this:

Violet: You are quite wonderful, the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal.
Isobel: I take that as a compliment.
Violet: I must have said it wrong.

Disappointing - Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson.

Watching Episode 2 this evening seemed to confirm growing fears in my mind that the plot to this series of Downton is, so far, rather weak. The will-they-won’t-they excitement of the Matthew/Mary relationship has been tempered by their marriage, and the consequences of Lord Grantham’s dodgy investments fails to reach the emotional heights of the last series, where the characters’ primary concern was not the financial upkeep of Downton Abbey, but whether or not their friends and families would ever return to them from the war.

However, despite those flaws, the episode also established and built upon several plot strands which I’ve found really rather moving and effecting. Lady Edith’s relationship with Sir Anthony Strallan has arguably been longer in the making than that of Sybil and Branson, and there’s much more uncertainty in the will-they-won’t-they aspect of their relationship than there was in Matthew and Mary’s. But more interesting than whatever the conclusion of their story will be (which, by the looks of the trailer for next week’s episode, looks rather promising) is the fact that, as an audience, we seem to be rather rooting for Edith to get her happy ending. In Series 1, Edith was jealous, manipulative and, on the whole, thoroughly unlikeable. But over the course of the show, we as an audience have come to sympathise with her and really understand her situation, to the extent that we now share her hopes of a happily ever after. And that kind of character turnaround – from wholly unlikeable to downright loveable – always impresses me.

Lady Edith Crawley - a perfect example of how character development should be done.

But what affected me most about Episode 2, what really really got to me, was Mrs Hughes’s story. Since the first episode I have absolutely adored Phyllis Logan’s portrayal of Mrs Hughes. She manages to give a character who, on paper, might seem a little cold, a heart of pure gold. In many ways she’s always been a bit of a tragic character – forever stoic, and unwilling to let her personal feelings get in the way of her duties at Downton – but perhaps that’s part of her charm. Either way, she’s a character I really, really love, and one who is a part of the very heart and soul of the household she serves. And so naturally the revelation that Mrs Hughes has breast cancer really got to me. The fact that on screen it is revealed so suddenly and so out of the blue is an accurate reflection of her character, never wanting her personal problems to get in the way of what must be done. But that bluntness certainly helped add weight to the blow. Literally as soon as Mrs Patmore told Mrs Hughes that she could indeed feel a lump, I let out an, “Oh no,” and brought my hands to my mouth, instantly hoping that the character Julian Fellowes’ has told us will die in this series won’t be her. Now, although I do get quite emotional at times when it comes to TV, my reaction struck me as different to any reaction I’ve ever had to TV before – and not just because of how much I love dear old Mrs Hughes. Unfortunately, it’s because, once again, art is imitating life, and all too suddenly it was as though this plot strand was striking a little too close to home. You see, I recently found out that someone I greatly admire – someone who’s given me a lot of advice, guidance and support over the years – has breast cancer, just like Mrs Hughes. And just like Mrs Hughes, she, too, appears to be trying to keep her news as quiet as possible. I’ve been thinking a lot about her cancer over the past few days (the big realisation it made me come to is for another blog and another time), and to see it presented on screen like this… Well, I’ve never been able to really, truly relate to a fictional story before, but I can safely say I have now. So this is one plot strand that is going to have me completely engaged and involved for the whole series, without a shadow of a doubt.

Heartbreaking - Phyllis Logan as the stoic, loveable and brave Mrs Hughes.

Overall, I guess you could say the first two episodes of this series of Downton Abbey haven’t showcased the series at its best. But I’m not giving up hope yet, because it still has those moments where it just sings, and I don’t want to miss a single one.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Doctor Who - The Power of Three - A Review

For me, Doctor Who has always been about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and extraordinary things happening in ordinary places. But the dawn of Steven Moffat’s era seemed to largely herald an end to that vision of the show. If you look at the episodes from Series 5 onwards, you can just about count on one hand the ones that are set in modern day Earth. And I think that a lot of the poor characterisation that is synonymous with this era of the show is linked to the fact that its ties to the modern day have been next to non-existent in recent times. What I liked so much about The Power of Three, though, was that it brought the show back to the Extraordinary Things Happening In Ordinary Places mantra that worked so well for it in the past. For arguably the first time in the Moffat era, this modern, social media-driven world was presented well and accurately. And for the first time in the Moffat era we were given a decent insight into what the consequences of travelling with the Doctor really are (whereas it took Moffat three series to deal with this hugely significant issue, Russell T Davies had explored it by the end of the fourth episode of his first series). And, credit where it’s due, this episode really worked.

The highlight of the episode was, by country miles, the scene in which the Doctor and Amy sit by the Thames, watching the city by night. It sort of addressed a motif that has been touched upon before; just as Amy’s choice in Series 5 was between the ordinary (Rory) and the extraordinary (the Doctor), so was it again in this episode – should she and Rory choose the ordinary life, with friends and jobs and houses and anniversaries, or the extraordinary life with the Doctor? To an extent, it’s a decision that all companions have had to make. With Rose, there was never any question that she would choose life with the Doctor. The same goes for Donna. But the consequences of that decision were tragic for both characters – because of that decision, their on-screen stories had to end tragically, with them being involuntarily separated from the Doctor. Admittedly, Martha did stop travelling of her own accord, but that was more because being around a man who would never love her back was no good for her, and because of what travelling with him had done to her family. So what’s interesting about this story is that, for once, we’ve got two companions that are genuinely torn between two lives, and who are very close to choosing the other life. That’s not really a path that’s been explored in New Who before, but at the same time I think it’s a very real, and very human, response to their situation. Travelling through space and time is one thing, but at the end of the day, home is where the heart is. The fact that Amy is behaving in such a human manner is a giant leap for her character, an absolutely giant one - not least because the Amy of Series 5 would have chosen the extraordinary life in a heartbeat. What we’ve got here is evidence of an actual, proper character journey. And it’s so rewarding that it almost makes up for all the years where she was nothing more than an emotionless shell.

"You're thinking of stopping, aren't you?" The Doctor and Amy watch London by night.

The other highlight of that scene is the speech that the Doctor gives to Amy. We’ve heard him state before that the human life is “the one adventure [he] could never have.” We’ve seen him in episodes like The Lodger actually show us that he could never live a normal life. And whilst it’s not difficult to understand why he can’t live a life like that, we’ve never actually heard him stand up and articulate in his own words exactly why not.

“I’m not running away. But this is one corner of one country in one continent on one planet that’s a corner of a galaxy that’s a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond, and there is so much – so much – to see, Amy. Because it goes so fast. I’m not running away from things, I am running to them before they flare and fade for ever. And it’s all right. Our lives won’t run the same. They can’t. One day – soon, maybe – you’ll stop. I’ve known for a while.”

As I said, we may have seen him be unable to cope with living life in the slow lane (and in the right order) and we may think we understand why, but hearing him explain why not to us is absolutely monumental. It allows us right into the Doctor’s head (just look at that second sentence – it’s so long and fast that it’s like his thoughts about this are almost too strong to be put into words), and that isn’t something that happens an awful lot on this show. Normally, everything we see is seen through the companion’s eyes, which is why the few times where we get to see things through the Doctor’s are so special.

Now, there’s no way I could end this review without mentioning Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart. I don’t venture onto Doctor Who sites as often as I used to, so I had no idea prior to the episode that there was so much speculation about who her character would be. And my Who senses are clearly waning, because even when she told the Doctor her name I still didn’t figure out who she was. Therefore the revelation that she was the Brigadier’s daughter was a real surprise for me, and an absolutely lovely one at that. One of the main reasons why her character worked (apart from Jemma Redgrave’s wonderful performance) was that she wasn’t written with the intention of being a female replica of the Brig. He was such a vital part of the show’s history that it would almost have been insulting to try and simply replace him with a character designed to be exactly like him. Instead, Kate is a strong, independent, likeable character in her own right (and take note, Moffat, that she didn’t have to be “feisty” like Sally/Amy/Clara/etc to be so); she’s not trying to be the Brigadier (hence why she dropped the ‘Lethbridge’ from her surname), but she is carrying on his good work. And overall I think that her character was one helluva tribute to both the character of the Brigadier and to Nicholas Courtney himself. I’m just really, really hoping we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in future – New Who’s UNIT needs a character like her.

Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart, a wonderful character and an even more wonderful tribute to the Brigadier.

So, overall, no major gripes with The Power of Three. It won’t ever be one of the great Doctor Who stories, but it was a really enjoyable, strong episode nevertheless and it followed on nicely from last week’s similarly enjoyable A Town Called Mercy. The Ponds’ grand finale is next week, and as long as the Weeping Angels are as good as they were in Blink (and not as poor as they were in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone), it looks set to be a great episode. I mean, it’s set in New York and has got the fabulous River Song in it – what more could you want? Lovely jubbly.

(Also, just saying, this episode contained some of the best cameos in the show’s history. Professor Brian Cox, Lord Sugar and Sophie Raworth. Forget the Doctor, Amy and Rory – I think they’re the power of three that the title alludes to!)