Welcome back to a look back at a week in TV that saw the return of two of the nation’s most popular shows.
On BBC One, Doctor Who made its triumphant return to Saturday nights with an episode that was chocked full of content. In fact I would contend that The Magician’s Apprentice was in fact hampered by the fact that writer and show runner Steven Moffat included far too much in the episode’s first fifteen minutes. What I didn’t have a problem with at all was a pre-credit sequence that involved a young lad trying to navigate himself around the frankly frightening hand mines; hands that appear from the Earth and suck their victims from the floor below. I personally think that a whole episode could’ve been based around these hand mines but instead they were simply the catalyst for the rest of the story. It was soon revealed that The Doctor had the chance to save the young boy only to learn that he was Davros, the creator of The Daleks and the Time Lord’s sworn enemy. With The Doctor hiding out the focus soon switched to Clara and her attempts to help UNIT solve the problem of all the world’s planes coming to a standstill. Again I feel that this plane plot could’ve easily been the centre of an entire episode but this time it was used to reintroduce the not-so-dead Missy. With all these pieces in place, the rest of the episode saw Clara reluctantly team up with Missy after she revealed that The Doctor was to do die the very next day. Inevitably, after a comic sequence in the 1100s, The Doctor came face-to-face with Davros who subsequently destroyed both of his companions as well as his beloved Tardis.
Whilst I wouldn’t class myself as a Doctor Who fan I still enjoy the show as it’s a programme primarily aimed at a younger audience that never insults its target demographic. For a drama that gained its reputation for making kids hide behind the sofa there were a fair share of dark moments some of which I find a little scary. The episode’s final third was particularly horrific as The Doctor’s world crumbled around him whilst The Daleks’ planet blossomed once again. Although I found Moffat’s script to be overly expositional at times I felt he more than compensated for this with a lot of compelling moments that helped to establish character. One thing I wasn’t pleased about was the fact that he made no attempt to explain the return of Missy and instead obviously realised that Michelle Gomez was too good to lose forever. Despite the sloppy way in which she was brought back, Missy is the ball of energy that the episode needed and I think she brought more life to the show than Clara ever has. Speaking of Clara, this week’s announcement that Jenna Coleman will be leaving the show means that the companion’s time with The Doctor is on limited supply. However I’m not that bothered as I’ve never really rated Coleman’s work even if I do think she’s improved since being paired with Capaldi. Capaldi himself continued to cement his place as one of the better incarnations of The Doctor as he brilliantly combined the light and shade of the episode. I found Capaldi particularly powerful in the episode’s latter scenes as he confronted Davros and realised just what he had to do to save the day. As well as combining great action and a tremendous lead turn I did enjoy how this episode tipped its cap to the show’s history and specifically a line from an old episode featuring Tom Baker. The biggest endorsement I can give this episode is that I immediately wanted to watch the next instalment and was disappointed that I had to wait a whole week to discover the fate of The Doctor, Clara and Missy.
The same cannot be said for ITV’s big returning show of the week, Downton Abbey, whose opening episode of series five took me a couple of goes to get through. I was initially quite a fan of Downton Abbey and rather enjoyed the first couple of series in a sort of guilty pleasure type way. But I think that it was a show that got caught up in its own hype and therefore the quality has dipped somewhat over the past couple of series. In particular I feel that writer and creator Julian Fellowes has been on autopilot for the past year and is already looking beyond the manor to his next drama. However first Fellowes has to find a successful denouement to the drama that for some reason has become one of ITV’s biggest hits. Part of the reason I found this episode so hard to get through was the fact that it was ninety minutes long and as a result a lot of the storylines had to be strung out. It seemed to me as if it was ITV who wanted Fellowes to write a story to fit the timeslot rather than the other way around and I don’t think this is ever a good idea. The extended time slot meant that there were far too many scenes devoted to the fate of Isobel’s beloved hospital as well as to the blackmail of Lady Mary by a Liverpudlian chamber maid. Neither of these plots were particularly strong and I don’t really have that much of a desire to see them play out over the next seven episodes. Thankfully what was going on downstairs helped boost the episode namely the upcoming nuptials between Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Although I didn’t particularly believe the courtship, the story in which the middle-aged couple were nervous about the physical side of their marriage was the closest thing that Downton got to a realistic story. The scenes in which cook Mrs. Patmore tried to broach the subject with Carson were perfectly constructed and the final resolution between the pair was rather sweet-natured.
Another element of the episode that I didn’t particularly like was the fact that one of the drama’s longest-running storylines, involving the murder of the rapist Mr Green, had a rather damp conclusion. After being charged with his murder, Anna was cleared of the crime in a scene that was simply the backdrop for a party in which the Crawley family joined their servants downstairs. I do feel that Downton has gone on too long and I think that its international success has more than a little to do with this. I don’t think that Fellowes had any intention of it running this long and I’m glad that Downton is coming to an end with this year’s Christmas Special. There were already some hints about how the show is going to end as the Crawleys realised that there way of life was quickly dying. With the staff in the Abbey having to downsize and Violet getting rid of some members of her household there are some suggestions that Downton will be sold at the end of the series. After watching this first episode I have no real desire to continue tuning in for the next seven episodes however I may watch the finale instalment just to see how Fellowes ends things. As for the cast I do feel that a few of them are phoning it in at this stage with Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern being some of the biggest culprits. Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton can do no wrong in my eyes and the bickering between their two characters has become one of the series’ best-loved elements. But this episode to me belonged to Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan whose performances as Carson and Mrs Hughes were absolutely spot on. Ultimately, whilst I’m glad that Downton has been as successful as it has, I do think it should’ve ended a series ago and I get the impression it will go out with a whimper rather than a bang.
Whilst the Downton Abbey opener didn’t need to be as nearly as long as it was I do think ITV’s other drama premiere of the week could’ve done with a little bit more time to tell its tale. The series in question is supernatural religious thriller Midwinter of the Spirit, a drama that suffered from a frantic pace and an over-abundance of plot. Based on the novel by Phil Rickman, Midwinter of the Spirit stars Anna Maxwell Martin as Rev Merrily Watkins; a vicar and trainee exorcist who moves to a rural parish along with her teenage daughter. Part of the reason for Merrily’s move is to replace the current eccentric Cannon Dodds who is seen as rather an embarrassment to the church based on his archaic views. During the first episode Merrily had more than enough to deal with including a dying man whose evil spirit had been unleashed on the world as well as a Satan-worshipping lecturer whose death was more than a little bit suspicious. Alongside Merrily’s work as a vicar come exorcist come police advisor, she also had to contend with the relationship with her teenage daughter; a youngster who had problems of her own. One thing I can definitely say about Midwinter of the Spirit is that it’s an original concept for a drama and its particularly refreshing to see it on ITV. The drama’s best moments came from its eerier scenes with the moment in which the evil Denzil Joy passes away being a particular highlight. However these were almost undone by writer Stephen Volk’s need to introduce us to a cavalcade of characters and storylines that needed more time to develop than they were given. Part of the reason for this is that ITV have only allotted Midwinter of the Spirit three episodes and I think that had another instalment been added to the series then the characters would’ve had more time to breathe. The rushed nature of the episode also meant that skilled actors such as David Threlfall and Siobhan Finneran were only on screen for a couple of minutes before their characters disappeared. However at least Midwinter of the Spirit had a reliable hand at the wheel in Anna Maxwell Martin who at least managed to turn Merrily into somebody we wanted to root for. However, I do feel that Midwinter of the Spirit was too full of story for me to truly settle into it and as a result I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this parish any time soon. .
Alongside the returns of The Crawley family and Doctor Who another national treasure arrived back on our screens this week in the form of Gareth Malone. Since getting the Military Wives together back in 2011, Malone has become one of the nation’s favourite faces even though his subsequent TV ventures haven’t been exactly stellar. I personally was never a fan of Sing While You Work and while I admire his work on the Children in Need single I think he came off as overly abrasive on the televised creation of the song. This week he returned with The Naked Choir, which wasn’t a series about naturists but rather about groups that sang without a backing track. Rather than Malone putting together any choirs, this time the work had already been done for him and instead he was pitting the nation’s best a Capella groups up against each other. This first episode focused on four groups from the south as they prepared for a competition which would see one of them eliminated. For a programme that was focused around Malone, he did very little aside from providing the voiceover and giving tips to the groups. For the most part this was all about getting to know the four groups and garnering personal information that would make us care about them. I think the segments featuring the group members were initially successful but became repetitive over time and by the time we got to the closing concert I’d already lost interest in most of them. That being said I felt all four did an admirable job when it came down to it and I did feel for the all-female barbershop group who were eliminated seemingly because they couldn’t adapt their sound. Although I enjoyed the singing, I felt as a whole The Naked Choir was something and nothing and seemed to be jumping on the bandwagon that had been created by the success of Pitch Perfect. Malone certainly was surplus to requirements here but at the same time if he hadn’t been involved I don’t think the programme would’ve made it to the screen at all. Ultimately The Naked Choir was a rather forgettable venture and one that won’t light the world on fire in the way that some of Malone’s previous series have done.
Next time: Strictly Come Dancing, The Kennedys and Danger Mouse