Doctor Who, Mummy on the Orient Express, BBC1

I’ll admit it. I was worried there for a while.

I feared that Series Eight would be when Doctor Who finally lost its magic for me.  But after a shaky start, Capaldi’s Doctor has finally come into his own in this genuinely thrilling episode.

It’s not that this series has been terrible. Time Heist was good fun. And Listen was whirring along quite nicely, sticking to the trend of Doctor Who being at its best with a low budget and a cracking script, though the resolution really let things down.  So, while the first few episodes have been alright, they have lacked that certain something that distinguishes good from great.

That all changed with ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ which, naff title aside, was a classy, well-paced piece of work.  A rich old lady on a luxury train is killed just 66 seconds after encountering a creepy Egyptian mummy.  However, she was the only one who could see him.  A hallucination produced by her oxygen-deprived brain, perhaps?  Well, the train is actually a space ship and this is Doctor Who, so my money would be on no.

First praise has to go to writer Jaime Mathieson, who has done a superb job helming his first episode.  (I can’t help but feel relieved this was a Moffat-free zone.) Putting a time limit on events can seem a cheap way of creating tension, but here it worked really well, with how different people reacted to their final countdown giving neat little insights into their character.  The whole episode was well structured, and the resolution was both clever and just a little bit affecting.  I especially enjoyed the Doctor’s conversation with Clara on the beach, and the Captain’s shock at learning that his best waiter was, in fact, a hologram.

The performances were uniformly excellent, with GUS proving to be the most effective villain we’ve encountered for a while.  Frank Skinner also pops up as an engineer who knows more than he’s telling.  Some have criticised his acting, but I honestly thought he was fine.  Though, I’ll admit, I was relieved when he declined to take a trip on the TARDIS.  Capaldi has been solid all series, but was on particularly cracking form here, and seemed to relish the opportunity to finally take centre stage.

The production values were excellent.  I loved the Bioshock-esque 1920s feel and the attention to detail.  The costumes were also great, particularly Clara’s stunning black and gold beaded dress.  The Doctor’s outfit was beautifully balanced: genuinely smart evening suit teamed with an anachronistic and slightly silly neck tie.  Also thought the jelly babies in a cigarette case was a lovely touch.

Issues? Well… Clara is still annoying.  Seriously, woman, are you staying or going?  And, fundamentally, I just don’t know how we’re supposed to feel about her.  I assume we’re meant to sympathise at the human cost of being a Companion.  But to be honest, I’m finding all that to be just a little bit tedious.  I want all of time and space, and thrills, and (yeah) a bit of whimsy.  Instead I’ve got a Guardian-reading schoolmarm telling snide jokes and stopping to give a lecture every 15 minutes.  She started off as plot device, and for me, that is precisely how she’s stayed.    Just a few episodes ago, Clara was willing to annihilate her very existence to save the Doctor.  But we’re now meant to believe that she – for, as far as I can tell, no real reason – is angry enough with the Doctor to contemplate leaving for good?  It just doesn’t ring true.

I can cope with wonky sets and wonkier science, but I need characters I care about.  Preferably flawed, likable and occasionally brilliant.   But, most of all, they have to be capable of growth, and I don’t think Clara is.  Every companion I’ve met has been forced to grow up by their time on the TARDIS.  Rose fell in love, and then lost it.  Martha matured enough to walk away from a situation that could only cause her pain.  Donna saved the universe and paid a terrible price.  The Ponds love for each other was tested, and found to be true.  But has Clara grown at all?  She has met the Doctor as a child.  She has told Danny she loves him.  She has seen a T-Rex in the Thames, and an alien hatch from the Moon.  But, for all her fine speeches, I’m not convinced that Clara has changed at all.  Which, for me, is a problem.   And it could also be the reason that, rumour has it, this is to be her final series.

However, whatever my reservations about Clara, they were nowhere near enough to detract from what was real return to form for the Doctor.  With my faith restored, and Mathieson penning next week’s episode as well, I will most definitely be tuning in again.

PS.  Frank Skinner as the almost-companion made me wonder…

As a child of the 90s, all the Companions I’ve seen have been female (Rory only stayed for Amy, so he doesn’t count).  How do how do you think a male Companion would get on?  Has it worked in the past?  What would the dynamic be?  And am I on the money about Clara, or just writing nonsense?  Do let me know your thoughts!

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Peaky Blinders, S1, BBC2

With series two starting this week, and having missed it first time round, I decided to catch up on series one of Peaky Blinders.  This was a good plan!

Cillian Murphy heads up the cast as Tommy, second son of the Shelby clan; small time gangsters from Birmingham.  Just returned from WWI, Tommy and his brothers are trying to settle back into their lives when a shipment of heavy artillery is ‘misplaced’.  Chief Inspector Campbell is sent over from Northern Ireland to trace and reclaim the guns before the IRA can get their hands on them, but Tommy has other ideas…

First things first; the writing is superb. With the possible exception of Ada- who seems to exist only to be annoying, get pregnant, and then be annoying some more- everybody convinces as a genuine, complex character.  Almost all of them are flawed somehow, with their own motives, and each responding to situations in a convincing way.   The script made the most of its time and place as the men struggled to shake off the horrors of war and return to their former lives, and the women they left behind try to readjust to a world where they are no longer in control.  The Troubles impact on the lives of these English gangsters, and there are powerful gypsy and Italian families also vying for control.  In lesser hands, it could all have been a bit too much, but here you just get a sense of a complex, shifting world where moral absolutism doesn’t really apply.

Ideas of morality and loyalty run through the whole story.  Is Tommy taking control for selfish reasons, or for the good of the family?  Does the end justify the means, as Campbell seems to feel?  Is it right to follow your heart if it may destroy everyone around you?  Should you be loyal to causes, or to people?  It’s all fascinating stuff, and all played out so brilliantly here.  It’s got an epic quality but operates at a human level at the same time.  Even the supporting characters feel fully realised.  You get the feeling they all go about their lives when you aren’t looking.   It doesn’t hurt that the performances are uniformly excellent.  Cillian Murphy as a lot of work to do, playing this damaged, ambitious and clever man, but he makes it looks easy.  I liked that the women get a look-in too, with Helen McCrory doing a great job as Poll: ‘You know the words.  The baby will be a bastard and you’ll be a whore.  But there’s no word for the man who doesn’t come back.’

The whole thing looks fantastic as well; all dark, satanic mills and squalor.   Almost the only bit of grass you see is at the cemetery.  You can almost forgive the Blinders for their law-breaking ways in an environment so harsh and unforgiving.  The period details are excellent, with actual sawdust on the pub floor and pints being served from a bucket in the snug.  I also loved Grace leading a sing-song with the punters, at least ‘til the Blinders walk in…

The use of music was particularly clever.  Grace declares that her singing ‘…made the men cry and stop fighting’, and you can almost believe it.   Annabelle Wallis does a wonderful job with the songs; including a beautiful rendition of what I think was ’Carrickfergus’, and a heartbreaking version of ‘Black Velvet Band’.  This could easily have been cheesy, or just badly done, but it really works.  I think this is partly because of the quality and emotional resonance of the singing, but also because it is incredibly stripped back, with no accompanying music or fancy editing.  It feels very raw and real; a powerful contrast with Tommy’s emotional restraint.  It also works strangely well with the programmes’ modern soundtrack; I recognised  Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ and various White Stripes tunes.  This looks set to continue next series, with Johnny Lee Hooker’s ‘Bang Bang Bang Bang’ accompanying the season two trailer.  It gives the whole programme a distinctive edge, setting it apart from other historical dramas, and yet it never feels like a gimmick or a distraction.  All of the music seems to have been really well thought out, and even the modern stuff never jars.  On the contrary, it seems always to contribute to the meaning and power of a scene.

Any criticisms at all? Well, the accents were occasionally a bit wonky, often sounding more Scouse than Brummie to my ear; and Sam Neill’s Northern Irish accent didn’t quite convince.  However, the overall quality of the show more than made up for any such slips.  And given that series two is only days away, it would seem that the BBC didn’t mind that much either.

What did you think?  Did the accents put you off?  Did you enjoy the soundtrack, or find it irritating?  Any ideas if Grace or Campbell will make it to series two?  Have I missed anything of note? Let me know below!

PS Given that I box-setted this on iPlayer (cheers, Beeb!), do you think watching a show this way impacts your understanding or enjoyment? Do you love to binge, or do you prefer a weekly dose?