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Posts Tagged ‘Joe Ahearne’

After about eight months watching not-quite-all of The Avengers, it’s a shock to get through all of Ultraviolet in less than a week, but here we are: the final episode, Persona Non Grata. This follows on directly from the previous one – the inquisition is holding a member of the opposition prisoner, while Kirsty is being manipulated by the bad guys for reasons which as yet remain slightly obcure.

Pearse is refusing to take his medication until this case is resolved, and decides their priority is to identify their prisoner – as he can’t be photographed or even fingerprinted, this is a little bit tricky. Their only lead is a scar he has retained from his mortal days, suggesting cancer treatment in his past. Nevertheless Pearse puts Mike and Vaughan on the job, and Mike promptly ditches Vaughan on the grounds they can cover more ground individually – he’s intent on his own parallel investigation into Jacob, the recently-turned journalist the opposition are using to handle Kirsty. Almost at once he runs into Vaughan, though: it seems Jacob was also recently investigating hospital cancer wards.

Meanwhile, Philip Quast and Corin Redgrave are getting some cracking scenes together, as the former priest and the former human being debate morality and philosophy – it’s implied that the experience which brought Pearse to his faith was an encounter with the undead, which, their captive suggests, rather suggests they are instruments of the divine will, rather than the abominations Pearse’s general shoot-on-sight principles suggest he thinks they are. ‘We are the source of all religion. We are the afterlife,’ whispers Redgrave; a compellingly creepy performance.

Off in yet another plot thread, Kirsty is essentially being kept in protective custody by Jacob, and being sold a line about Mike being part of the same death squad that killed Jack in episode one (which is basically correct). Inevitably, she discovers the truth of exactly what Jacob has become, before too long, but is clearly susceptible enough to buy his line about how the opposition are victims of propaganda from the Church and other sections of the establishment.

The team is clearly on the point of falling apart: Angie is tormented by the possibility she made a terrible mistake in destroying her husband and daughter, Pearse appears to be very aware of his own mortality and is perhaps even contemplating switching sides (which Vaughan predictably responds to with great hostility), and the enemy are exploiting Mike’s own misgivings and his feelings for Kirsty: she will be released, but only as part of a trade. There is someone in the inquisition’s headquarters whom the opposition would like sprung, very badly.

This isn’t quite the epic conclusion one might be hoping for, but it raises the stakes (sorry) very effectively and includes a lot of things assiduous viewers have probably been hoping for: Frances finds out just what Mike does for a living, for instance. The opposition also get some proper screen-time too, for a change. I’ve seen it suggested that Joe Ahearne initially considered doing a show where some of the main characters were undead, but realised that the budget wouldn’t permit it to be made exclusively at night – hence the existing format, where in the first few episodes the bad guys are mostly off-screen. Here, they get some proper scenes and meaty dialogue, as I’ve suggested.

In the end it largely boils down to the arcs of the four main characters, though (five if you include Kirsty), and this is quite satisfyingly done, without feeling particularly contrived. The plots of the previous episodes are also revealed to be connected to an overall plan to seize control of the world by instigating a nuclear winter and blacking out the sun for months – at least, this is what Pearse surmises, based on what they eventually learn about Redgrave’s character. The actual climax of the series isn’t its strongest or most convincing moment, but it ties nearly everything up quite neatly – there is a loose thread, but it’s not an egregious one.

Which brings us to the question – should we celebrate Ultraviolet as a superbly-effected miniature, or complain about the fact they only made six episodes? (Seven if you count the US pilot, which is supposedly awful.) Given the series was relatively well-reviewed, how come they didn’t do any more?

I seem to recall that in interviews around the turn of the century, Joe Ahearne indicated that the problem was that Ultraviolet was a show with a mainstream budget but only a cult audience (the same old story, sadly). However, more recently he’s said that it was all to do with how the series came together – other people were initially supposed to be writing and directing episodes, but it ended up with him doing the whole series, almost as an auteur. This meant he was fully occupied with filming and editing episodes at the time when the early work on a second series would normally have been done. Ahearne has said he always assumed there would only be six, and that it was a relatively high-concept show that would have struggled to come up with new plots anyway; the production company apparently did invite pitches from other writers on how a continuation might possibly be done, but most of these were very radically different takes on the series (which isn’t to say that Ahearne was unimpressed by them).

It is kind of a shame, because my feeling is that it’s usually in the second season that a TV show really hits its creative peak, and the prospect of another set of Ultraviolet episodes even better than the first would have been a mouth-watering prospect. (Perhaps they might even have managed to turn Mike into a more engaging character: Jack Davenport was one of the show’s big names at the time, but he’s playing such a hopeless individual that he doesn’t get much to do – the other regulars are all much more interesting characters.) But then again, I suppose one really shouldn’t be greedy about these things. All of the episodes are good, at the very least; some of them are exceptional. Is this the best British horror series of all time? It’s such a tiny genre that the answer wouldn’t mean much either way, especially when you consider that most of these shows are anthologies. Let’s just say that this really is an overlooked gem that transcends its origins as a sort-of knock-off of The X Files and becomes a great show in its own right.

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Ultraviolet‘s fourth episode is entitled Mea Culpa, which would probably qualify as another fridge episode-name – were it not for the fact that there was a movie a few years ago entitled Mea Maxima Culpa, which it shares a few thematic elements with. The thing about this episode is that it really is trying very hard to be a proper serious drama for adults, rather than a campy bit of genre-based fun. This is always true of Ultraviolet, of course, but perhaps on this occasion they go over the top in the whole dour-and-gritty department.

The story opens at a school where a priest attempts to speak to a boy in his early teens named Gary (Robert Stuart). The lad is reluctant to speak to the older man, and when the priest refuses to take no for an answer, stabs him repeatedly with a craft knife. The priest dies of his injuries, Gary goes on the run. For some reason – and the episode really fudges this a bit too much – the inquisition are called in, as such a savage assault on a religious figure might be connected to the opposition’s activities. Even Mike is openly dubious of their getting involved in what looks like a job for the conventional police.

However, inquiries at the school reveal a suspicious degree of heliophobia amongst the boys, and Angie discovers they show a marked aversion to religious artifacts as well. Mike still thinks this might be symptomatic of something like meningitis, with the aversion to religion more closely linked to the dead man in particular. There’s also the question of how all the boys managed to pick up a Code Five infection given there’s no sign any of them have been bitten.

Meanwhile, Gary is in hiding in the local park, where he encounters a man named Colin (Rupert Procter). Here the episode starts heading into what seems to me to be quite dodgy territory: Colin is presented as pretty much the stereotype of the seedy gay man, cruising public lavatories, and so on. Anyway, Colin takes Gary back to his place, but before anything else can occur, Gary is attacked by Colin’s dog and badly injured. Colin dumps Gary at the local hospital and runs for it. Mike, on the other hand, who’s become rather appalled by the draconian measures employed by the team when there’s very little evidence of opposition involvement (all the children have been brought in for testing), has discovered evidence that the priest who was murdered was a paedophile.

(Round about this point, the A-plot is gently paused and we catch up on what’s going on with Kirsty and the journalist she has teamed up with – he has been digging a bit too deeply and got himself turned by the opposition – and Pearse and his mysterious ailment. Angie’s diagnosis is lymphoma, which is not good news for the team’s top man.)

Everything changes when it turns out that Gary indeed has a form of meningitis – but one which has been engineered to carry a version of Code Five infection, rendering the carrier heliophobic, hostile to religious symbols, and highly suggestible (by the opposition, anyway). This same virus is spreading through the school. The spectre of an epidemic of a disease which could render huge swathes of the population vulnerable to control by the opposition qualifies as a nightmare scenario for the team, but where has it come from?

Well, Vaughan and Mike track down Colin, and Vaughan – in a display of barely disguised homophobia – proceeds to beat the information they need out of him, while Mike looks on uncomfortably. Gary, Colin reveals, showed signs of having been groomed before, but not by the priest. All the evidence points to a man named Oliver – a recluse suffering from a genetic condition called xenoderma pigmentosum, which means he can never leave his home during daylight…

Vaughan Rice conducts an interrogation.

In many ways, this episode shares all the strengths of the rest of the series: it’s slick, well-played, and cleverly plotted with an inventive new take on the traditional lore (it turns out the opposition are indeed experimenting with producing mass infections without having to bite everyone individually, but one of their test subjects is refusing to socially distance himself). There are a couple of places where the plotting could be tighter, but this is only a minor concern. My issue with it is really that it just seems to be in rather dubious taste.

I’m not saying that paedophilia – even paedophilia involving the Catholic Church – is something that should be off-limits for drama. But if you’re going to use it as a plot element in a fantasy drama – and, when it comes down to it, Ultraviolet is ultimately a fantasy drama, an entertainment – you need to be justified in doing so. The problem is that the story doesn’t contain a metaphor for child abuse, or anything similar. It just seems to be there because including it makes the series look properly grown-up and dark.

I’m not sure this is enough, and there are other ways in which the episode doesn’t really distinguish itself in handling its subject matter: Colin, in particular, is a homophobic stereotype, and I don’t think the episode does anything like enough to clarify that not all gay men are paedophiles. The scene where Colin is beaten into helping the team is uncomfortable to watch – it really does add to the impression that the team are not terribly nice people. On the other hand, this may have been intentional: the suggestion seems to be that what they’ve all been through has left them damaged and callous. What new-recruit Mike’s excuse is, is another matter: Jack Davenport is always reasonably watchable, but Mike often comes across as glum and a bit moody. He certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying the new job, referring to Pearse as the witchfinder-general and openly questioning his judgement. He’s even upset when he’s let off after accidentally shooting someone he thought was one of the opposition – Vaughan Rice, on the other hand, is more worried by the fact that Mike put two bullets into the guy and still managed to miss the heart.

As I said, this is a strong episode in lots of ways, sharing all the series’ usual virtues. But the nature of the story and the tone of it both leave me uneasy, despite all of that. It feels exploitative of real-world issues in a way that the previous episode wasn’t – and quite crassly exploitative, too. Worth watching, nevertheless, if only because the ongoing story elements do move on somewhat in the course of it – but I do think it’s problematic in many ways.

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The third episode of Ultraviolet is entitled Sub Judice, which is essentially a fridge title only serving to maintain the gimmick of Latin episode names: sometimes these sort-of allude to the plot, but this one doesn’t. I mention this at the start as it is one of the few complaints I can make about it.

It opens with a solicitor in her thirties (Emer Gillespie) entering an underground car park and being attacked by a couple of low-lives; not entirely surprisingly, she faints. Entirely surprisingly, though, her two assailants are set upon and brutally murdered – by an immensely strong and swift killer who somehow isn’t picked up by the car park’s CCTV system. Who you gonna call?

The inquisition are soon on the case (although not before Pearse can confide to Angie March that he’s not been feeling 100% recently, a plot point which the show will return to), with their objective being to discover the connection between the solicitor, Marion, and the opposition: why would they want to save her? Is she working on an important case they have an interest in? Nothing seems particularly significant. What about her background?

It seems that Marion’s husband committed suicide some years earlier, apparently unable to accept the fact the couple could not have children. A colleague who showed signs of romantic interest in her eighteen months later was killed in a hit-and-run, and the driver never found. It all seems rather sad, but not in any way sinister – until, at the end of an interview with Pearse (the fact he is implied to be a priest may be significant) she faints again. A search of her home and a medical exam reveals that she is pregnant – but the embryo does not register on the ultrasound scanner.

The ‘pregnancy’, if that’s what it is, is apparently the product of sperm which Marion’s husband had frozen before his death. The team check out the IVF clinic involved – no doubt wondering if the ‘V’ stands for something different on this occasion – and initially find nothing to raise the alarm. Examining the late husband’s frozen semen, however, reveals something very unusual: the sperm show up on video, indicating they are normal, but spontaneously combust when exposed to sunlight. No wonder Marion seems to be having such a difficult pregnancy: it appears that she’s carrying more than she bargained for (the technical term is dhampyr). Thus ensues a cracking scene where Pearse and Angie discuss their options, including the possibility of a termination (the irony of a Catholic priest ordering one is not lost on Angie). ‘It’s not human,’ Pearse says. ‘It’s half human,’ Angie replies. ‘I believe that’s what I said,’ comes the response. Philip Quast is consistently impressive in this series, bringing a kind of understated gravitas to what could have been just a stock part; the fact he gets most of the best lines helps, too.

That said, this episode is really Susannah Harker’s chance to shine, and she really grabs it. (A fun connection: one of her ancestors was a Joseph Harker, a friend of Bram Stoker, and thus presumably the person that Jonathan Harker is named after in that well-known novel by Stoker.) All the ongoing plot threads concerning Mike and his relationships with Kirsty and Frances are got out of the way nice and early on, with Mike himself sort of shoved into the background along with Vaughan: rather subtly, the episode focuses primarily on Angie and her history, and her relationship with Marion.

As noted, this is all done with tremendous, and very creditable subtlety: Harker underplays it very effectively. But the subtext is still there if you look for it: the episode is about motherhood, in all sorts of different ways – the fierce desire for a child which Marion feels, Angie’s own residual guilt for destroying one of her own children after she was turned by the opposition, but above all the conflict between Angie’s empathy for Marion and her duties as a member of the inquisition. This is only exacerbated by the lack of emotional intelligence shown by any of the male leads – Rice and Colefield are basically just crass young blokes and Pearse has his higher calling. Vaughan Rice seems very sure that the opposition are completely devoid of normal emotions and sympathies, and that the experiment in progress is a means to some further end – but the episode actually seems to suggest otherwise, with Marion’s late husband, when he finally appears, showing signs of genuine distress at her situation. I don’t remember the show giving many other hints that the inquisition’s insistence that the opposition is purely and simply malevolent is anything but justified, but they’re certainly present here.

This initially looks like another police procedural episode, but rapidly takes a sharp turn into the realms of obstetric horror: the big question in this genre always being, what’s cooking? There’s almost a touch of Rosemary’s Baby to Marion’s situation, with her clinic, her opposition-sponsored midwife, the inquisition, and a well-meaning abortion clinic volunteer all attempting to manipulate her, and Emer Gillespie does a fine job of making her sympathetic but not too passive – but as a guest character, she inevitably doesn’t have quite the same prominence as Angie. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the episode has a genuine touch of tragedy to it, and Gillespie plays a key part in creating that feel. As obstetric horror stories go, this one is admirably underplayed and lacking in both tackiness and schlock. It doesn’t seem to have a particular axe to grind – it would be weird for it to come down unequivocally on either side of the fence, given the subject matter – except to suggest that women should have the right to choose for themselves. It’s a slightly simplistic message, but put across well and subtly.

I was thinking about all the post-X Files genre TV shows which came along in the mid to late 90s, specifically the British ones (the American and Canadian lists are even more extensive): apart from Ultraviolet, I’ve already mentioned Invasion: Earth and The Last Train (though that’s really the product of a different tradition). I suppose you could also mention the ITV adaptation of Oktober and the serial The Uninvited, plus The Vanishing Man, too. Apart from most of The Last Train, I don’t honestly remember most of the others as being much cop – but this episode of Ultraviolet is a top-class piece of intelligent and effective horror, with a serious subtext to it. Better than I remembered, and I remembered it being really, really good.

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The line between episodic and serialised TV has become very blurred this century, but they used to be two quite distinct forms. It was in the late 90s that ongoing plot elements began to appear on a routine basis even in programmes which ostensibly did stories-of-the-week. Bearing all this in mind, the question of whether Ultraviolet is a serial or not becomes a somewhat moot one. It’s really in a sort of netherworld between the two – it does build towards a climax in the final episode, but on the other hand, the second episode (In Nomine Patris, written and directed like all the others by Joe Ahearne) feels very much like an exercise in establishing the format for an ongoing series.

It opens with a woman named Danni Ashford (Jane Slavin) visiting her mother, who is deeply in the grip of Alzheimers’, while an associate (Christopher Villiers) waits outside in an expensive car. It looks like she has a big decision to make, and her companion – a smooth, handsome type – makes a big deal about not pushing her into it. They drive off, and the heavily-tinted windows of the car give us a big clue as to what may be going on here. Sure enough, the car is involved in a road rage incident after the man nearly runs a couple of bikers off the road: furiously, one of them attacks the vehicle with a wrench, damaging the window and allowing sunlight into the interior. The man begins to combust as the sun’s rays strike him, and he desperately drives away, running over his attacker’s companion as he does so…

Meanwhile, Vaughan Rice has been completing Mike’s induction into the inquisition – Mike is less than amused when the computerised firing range presents an image of Kirsty as a possible target, but Vaughan makes the point that their enemies are ruthless when it comes to exploiting any weak spots or vulnerabilities. Mike is clearly conflicted about the idea of cutting all ties with her (perhaps a bit too obviously conflicted, this plot element is laid on with a trowel), but before they can resolve the issue they are off on a job: news of the driver of a blacked-out car spontaneously combusting is right up their street, after all.

The evidence suggests their quarry is Lester Hammond, playboy son of tycoon Gideon Hammond (Trevor Bowen). The senior Hammond has recently specialised in constructing unusual bits of architecture – bunkers and basements with no windows, ventilation or plumbing – which is also rather suggestive. Pearse’s directive is to follow the money and find out what the opposition is up to, and the trail leads to a clinic researching into various blood disorders (which it’s suggested the opposition view rather in the same way that humans regard things like fowl pest and foot-and-mouth disease: they contaminate the food supply).

As usual, the episode takes great pains to be downbeat and naturalistic – there’s a reasonable twist towards the end, about the real identity of the man they’re hunting, but most of it you could watch with the sound turned down and not suspect this was much more than a routine police procedural show. I really like the way Ultraviolet generally eschews the flashy and the camp, not least because it just gives extra oomph to those moments when they do arrive. The set-piece with Hammond beginning to burn up in the car is very neatly done, and there are a couple of other pleasingly grisly touches: Slavin’s character ends up with a nasty hand-shaped burn on her arm as a result of the same scene, while the crushed vertebrae of a paraplegic turned by the opposition are visible when they send her to take out Mike.

Almost in passing, lots of interesting and flavourful world-building is going on here: Mike’s friend Frances indicates the inquisition is officially operating as part of the anti-terrorism squad (which sort of makes sense, although it may be another cover). Pearse suggests the opposition were responsible for the Great Fire of London, apparently an attempt to stop the spread of the plague. It’s confirmed that the opposition don’t register on cameras or phones, which just leads me to wonder – what about motion sensors? Pressure pads? (Some interesting possibilities here.) One twist on the usual lore is that the opposition can’t regenerate damage or injuries leaving Hammond permanently disfigured and in constant agony. On the other hand, being turned restores a paralysed young woman’s ability to walk, which does suggest some kind of regenerative ability, and Angie has already indicated this is one of their powers (presumably it’s just UV exposure that does irreparable damage to them). It’s indicated again that the dissolution of one of the bad guys is basically like a small bomb going off (so get ready to run after staking one of them).

What one of the opposition looks like after forgetting his sun block.

Beyond all this, though, the episode does have a theme, and one which works well with the conceit of keeping the actual monsters off-screen and in the shadows most of the time. We see them more through their effect on the people around them – Gideon Hammond, though outwardly successful, has lived his whole life in the shadow of the thing which has dominated him, while Lester has clearly done a number of Danni Ashford. With (it’s implied) a family history of dementia, it’s entirely reasonable that she would look for a way to dodge the ageing process and its effects. Nevertheless, it’s made quite clear that there is nothing benevolent about the agenda or methods of the opposition – the question, of course, is whether this justifies the methods the inquisition adopt, or the cost to its members: they intimidate witnesses into silence, cover up mysterious deaths and other activity, and Rice indicates that none of them have any friends outside the unit – the risk to them is just too great. It’s a hard and cold life being a slayer, it would seem.

I think this is a strong episode, but I can see why Ultraviolet ended up as a cult gem rather than a mainstream hit: it’s mostly a detective thriller, but people who’d enjoyed something like Between the Lines would probably have issues with the whole concept of the show. On the other hand, its determination to keep things real and grounded may have meant it seemed rather dull to many members of the fantasy and horror fan tribe. It may be pitching to a small constituency, but it’s still a very effective piece of TV.

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I believe that at some point near the start of this rather unusual, unexpected year, I talked about getting to the point where I’d seen all the classic SF and fantasy TV series of the 20th century (this was on the occasion of finally viewing the whole of Sapphire and Steel). Well, if nothing else, 2020 has given me the opportunity to learn that – for instance – there were in fact many episodes of The Avengers I hadn’t actually watched, and remember that there were quite a few other shows, some of them relatively obscure, around as well (Star Cops obviously leaps to mind).

Star Cops usually gets cited as the last proper BBC science-fiction show of the 20th century (this overlooks Invasion: Earth, from 1998), with ITV’s last effort of the century probably 1999’s The Last Train – but by the mid 80s, there was a fourth channel in town, the sensibly-named Channel 4. For me, Channel 4 will always be the place where I first saw repeats of Danger Man, The Avengers and The Prisoner, but by 1998 it was making its own cult dramas, specifically in the form of Joe Ahearne’s Ultraviolet.

The first episode, Habeas Corpus, opens in central London, with a shabby, nervous man sitting on a bridge watching the sun go down. A car pulls up nearby, sinisterly (at least, as sinisterly as a piece of parking can be). Meanwhile, detective Mike Colefield (Jack Davenport) – a slightly infelicitous choice of name, surely, it always puts me in mind of the Tubular Bells dude – is busy at the stag night for his partner, Jack (Stephen Moyer). He starts getting phone calls from the nervous man, demanding to meet – it seems he is an informant of Jack’s – and eventually agrees, just to get the man to shut up.

The informant has taken cover in an amusement arcade, but just before Mike arrives a man who emerged from the sinister car at sunset shoots and kills him. Mike gives chase, but loses his quarry when he heads into a tube station – our first inkling that this may be more than just a conventional cop thriller comes when Mike is unable to locate the killer using the station’s CCTV system: he simply doesn’t register on the screen, having previously not shown up in a mirror…

The next day, Jack’s wedding is thrown into chaos when the groom fails to appear, and a full investigation into his appearance uncovers evidence that he was actually on the take. Mike initially refuses to believe it, but soon realises that something very odd is going on – the informant was shot and killed at point blank range, but once again the security cameras show nobody near him at the time. The involvement in the case of two detectives supposedly from CIB (the anti-corruption unit), Angela March (Susannah Harker) and Vaughan Rice (Idris Elba), also doesn’t ring true somehow. Mike launches his own personal investigation and discovers that March and Rice are not police – she is a former academic, he is ex-army – and their ruthless methods and secretiveness make him suspicious. Jack himself reappears, insisting they are members of a death squad looking to kill him, asking for Mike’s help in learning more about them.

After witnessing Rice and his men in action, Mike acquires some of their gear – guns with weird sights firing wooden bullets, and gas grenades loaded with a garlic-derivative – and discovers they are based out of a church and led by a priest named Pearse (Philip Quast). But what could a Vatican-led team be doing using wooden projectiles and garlic against killers who avoid the sunlight and don’t show up in mirrors…?

The team check out the ‘prison’ where dormant Code Fives are kept in storage.

It nearly goes without saying that Ultraviolet is a product of its era, part of the boom in ‘quality’ genre entertainment which followed the massive success of The X Files (the same as Invasion: Earth, really). A lot of these programmes really weren’t terribly good, and I was slightly worried about revisiting this one – I remember Ultraviolet as being brilliant, but then at the time my life-long affection for Hammer horror movies had been joined by a fascination with Vampire: The Masquerade and its associated games and I was a sucker (no pun intended) for anything in this particular vein (ditto).

Happily, Ultraviolet is very nearly as classy and enjoyable as I remember it being at the time – it doesn’t look quite as slick and cinematic as I recalled, but the only thing which feels a little dated about this opening episode is the incidental music, which is just a bit too on-the-nose. The great thing about it is that it’s in no hurry whatsoever to get to its genre elements, or overplay them when they appear, and it steers clear of most of the classic trappings of the genre. The v-word itself is carefully never used on-screen – the latter-day inquisition’s targets are referred to by the euphemism ‘Code 5’, or possibly ‘Code V’ for those with a classical education – and the show takes a reasonably sceptical attitude to some of the lore. We don’t get to see the effect that daylight has on them this week, but a length of wood through the heart results in a spectacular dissolution. As far as the efficacy of holy symbols against them goes, Angie March suggests this may be psychosomatic – but on the other hand, Jack (who has been turned by the opposition) suggests that there are some places they can’t easily infiltrate (the implication may be that he’s talking about holy ground), while Mike finds himself incapable of entering a church while suffering from the after-effects of being bitten.

These days, possibly the main point of interest in this show is that it features one of the first lead performances from Idris Elba – much more famous these days, of course, for advertising the seasonal output of satellite TV networks – while Jack Davenport (well-known at the time for This Life) has also gone on to have a pretty decent Hollywood career too. Odd to see them both looking so young here, but that’s the eerie preservative effect of archive TV, I suppose. It’s clear from the start that this is kind of a high-concept show – as the Exposition Man, Philip Quast gets most of the best dialogue – and everyone at this point is still suggesting character in small ways rather than actually getting much to work with. The slowest element of the episode concerns Mike’s relationship with Jack’s fiancee (Colette Brown), whom he clearly has a bit of a thing for: it skirts the borders of soap-opera melodrama, and doesn’t add much to the episode. However, it does set up some of the continuing threads that will run through the series, and isn’t in itself enough to spoil what’s a notably confident and effective introduction to the series.

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I started properly reviewing old Doctor Who stories again partly because I hadn’t really done so for a long time, but also because I wanted to do something celebratory about the series in this anniversary year. That this has entailed my watching a large amount of Doctor Who is by no stretch of the imagination a burden, of course, even if for various reasons the quantity of material I’ve been able to watch from the sixth, seventh, and eighth Doctors has been rather limited.

This is not the case with the ninth Doctor. If any one era of the series contains within it a reasonable variety of stories but also lends itself to consumption within the space of a few weeks, it is that of Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation. But here we hit a bit of a problem – as I said, I’m trying to be positive and celebratory about Doctor Who, and the danger when writing about the ninth Doctor is to forget about that.

This is not because Christopher Eccleston is a weaker Doctor or his stories are somehow inferior, but for quite the opposite reason: this season, as a whole, is almost incandescently good. I’ve commented in the past on the succession of brilliant stories in, for example, Tom Baker’s third season, but to a modern viewer these are inevitably coloured by the technical limitations of TV drama 35 years ago. The Eccleston stories were made recently enough for this not to be an issue. You could transmit the 2005 season as new, right now, and it would seem as fresh and impressive as it did when it first appeared.

And so one inevitably wonders why they don’t – or, to put it another way, why the most recent seasons feel like so insubstantial and disappointing. The danger with writing about pretty much any Christopher Eccleston episode is that will inevitably turn into a false-flag hatchet job on the show as it exists under the curatorship of Steven Moffat. I like Steven Moffat, honestly, but I am still routinely baffled by how someone of his obvious talents and understanding of the show can think that getting rid of two-part stories is a good idea, and that episodes like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Rings of Akhaten somehow fully exploit the potential of Doctor Who. Yet I don’t want to spend my time bashing the current show any more than I just have.

So I will try and avoid that and concentrate instead on talking about how good the Eccleston season is. I suppose one must ask just how Rusty Davies and his crew managed to produce something which at the time was a hit on a stupendous scale. And the answer must be that, firstly, they set out to produce something which was both iconic Doctor Who and yet totally accessible to a new audience, and, secondly, they were terrified of failing. This last is not to be underestimated as a factor in the success of many things: the first season of any new Doctor is largely made before the new incumbent is secure in the affections of the public, and this may explain the urgency and energy most new Doctors show in their debut year before settling down into something a little more relaxed and confident.

Of course, the debut year is all we got (and all, I suspect, we will ever have) of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. Watching these episodes again has really made me certain that Eccleston is grossly overlooked when people – especially fans – consider the revived series. He gives a brilliant performance week after week in this season, and yet the response to the news he had declined to appear in the anniversary story was essentially a grunt and a shrug from fandom.

I think that encapsulates fandom’s Eccleston problem quite nicely. Nowadays we are used to having Doctors who not only love playing the part, but are card-carrying fans in their own right. David Tennant is one of us, so is Peter Capaldi, and Matt Smith – though obviously a member of the lost generation – has given plenty of interviews about how much he loves Tomb of the Cybermen. Eccleston, on the other hand, is obviously a Doctor Who who wasn’t especially bothered about Doctor Who; it was a job, and one where he apparently didn’t like the prevailing culture, so he was quite happy to walk away from it when the opportunity arose. His indifference to the show has resulted in much of fandom seemingly being indifferent to his contribution to the series.

This is hugely unfair. Simply in terms of the acting performance, Christopher Eccleston is a better Doctor than Matt Smith and a serious challenger to David Tennant as the best of the 21st century bunch. It may help that he has better scripts to work with, of course. Anyway – I’m supposed to be reviewing a particular episode, not overviewing the whole season, so which one? When it comes to good stories one is really spoilt for choice.

dalek

I’m going to be a little obvious and go for Dalek, by Robert Shearman, simply because this was the episode that really and finally sold me on the revived series. To be perfectly honest I was initially a little nonplussed by the style of some of the earlier episodes, and could imagine myself being absolutely appalled by Aliens of London and World War Three had I stumbled across them unsuspecting. But Dalek was the one that made me relax and convinced me that this really was going to be something special.

The TARDIS lands in a bunker beneath Utah in the distant space year of 2012. The installation is owned by IT billionaire Henry Van Staten, who uses it to house his collection of extraterrestrial artifacts – some technological, some organic, and one living. On coming across the Doctor, he hits upon the clever idea of using him to try and persuade his live specimen to co-operate – little suspecting he is just enabling the continuation of the greatest conflict in the history of the Universe…

One should probably acknowledge Dalek‘s origin in the audio story Jubilee, a clever piece about how monsters both real and fictional are neutered through overfamiliarity. Dalek isn’t trying anything so complex in either its plot or its theme: it’s primarily about making the Daleks scary for a new generation. (Here is the bit where I would naturally bang on again about how awful Asylum of the Daleks is, which supposedly has the same intention, is by comparison, but I am restraining myself.)

And it works. Even for a new viewer, by the end of the episode you know everything you need to about the Daleks, even though only a single one of the creatures appears in the story: their psychology, their intelligence, how formidable they are in combat (subsequent stories have downplayed some of the innovations like the force-field and the rotating design). Like the rest of the season, it’s deeply informed by the history and mythos of the series but in no way beholden to or sentimental about it.

The other main job of the episode is to fill in a wodge of backstory about the Time War and the destruction of Gallifrey, most of which comes from that remarkable early scene between the Doctor and the crippled Dalek. On the whole I think the Time War works rather well as a narrative device, making a virtue of the gap between the two versions of the programme and actually giving the Doctor a bit of a character arc (and an accessible one at that). Eccleston is obviously magnificent in this scene, but so is Nick Briggs as the Dalek, managing to give that familiar rasp an urgency and pathos it has seldom had before.

Bits and piece about the Time War had been seeded into earlier episodes but this is the one where it all snaps into place and the ground rules of the modern series are established. Of course, you’re not really thinking about that at the time as the story of the Dalek’s escape and the Doctor’s increasingly desperate attempts to contain or destroy it understandably takes up your attention. That the story concludes with a cannon-toting Doctor intent on cold-bloodedly killing a Dalek which is only searching for freedom sums up everything that is innovative about the new series.

And, like many brilliant things, the danger when reviewing Dalek is that you just end up making a list of things which are good about it. As usual, it all boils down to the script, the acting, and the direction – and if we’re talking about Robert Shearman, Christopher Eccleston, and Joe Ahearne, we’re discussing three people who all knocked the ball out of the Doctor Who park their first time around, only to leave in very short order, unlikely ever to return. And, to return to my earlier point, that really is an immense shame. But it shouldn’t detract from an appreciation of just how good they were.

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The Obligatory When’s It Set Discussion

‘When’s It Set’ issues are a bit less common in the 21st century series, though quite why this should be I’m not sure. Anyway, Dalek is one of those stories giving an on-screen date of 2012, which seems simple enough.

Inevitably, though, the plot point of Van Staten believing his Dalek to be unique – and not knowing its name – is a bit problematic given the events of other stories. One can just about accept that even a man of his resources could have overlooked military records of previous Dalek incursions on Earth – I’m thinking here of Remembrance of the Daleks, set nearly 50 years earlier, and Day of the Daleks, very roughly 40 – given that he doesn’t know what the creature is called. However, his bunker must be very well-insulated indeed for him not to have noticed the swarm of Daleks over London during the Battle of Canary Wharf (occurring in 2007) and especially the Dalek Empire laying claim to the whole planet two years later.

Obviously what’s happening here is an actual example of time being rewritten (something we hear a lot about but hardly ever see on-screen): events as seen in Dalek have since been overwritten by something new as a result of the two stories mentioned. One wonders why the Daleks didn’t spring Van Staten’s prisoner in 2009, given it was emitting a distress signal – assuming they didn’t, in the revised timeline, the only major alteration to the storyline would be that Van Staten would know his pet’s real name at the start of the story.

Dalek’s spatio-temporal quirks don’t quite end there, for we also have the scene in which the Dalek reports that it can’t detect any trace of Dalek activity via the radio telescopes of 2012 Earth. One assumes they would be capable, which leads us to the question of why this should be. Certainly in the timeline of the 20th century show, there are Daleks native to the early-21st century – given they invade Earth in the mid-22nd and their origin is implied to be at least a thousand years previously, there have to be. So the Dalek should be able to listen in on the activities of its ancestors, should there be any in range.

Possibly the Dalek means it can’t detect any activity by its contemporaries, though I’m not completely sold on this. The alternatives are that the 21st-century native Daleks are operating beyond the effective range of human detectors (a comforting thought) or, more intriguingly, the entire history of the Daleks has somehow been removed from the timeline by the Daleks’ participation in the Time War.

This makes a certain kind of sense – the most obvious tactic in any kind of temporal conflict is surely to try and stop your opponent being born, and so placing your history out of harm’s way is an obvious defensive response (particularly so in the Daleks’ case, given the Time Lords made at least one attempt in this direction before the War even started). Quite how one would do this I leave as an exercise for the interested reader, of course. Doctor Who sometimes talks about the manipulation of history as a concept, but seldom really uses the idea. Dalek is one of the rare stories which – in the context of the rest of the series – gives us some inklings as to how this actually works.

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