A year on the goggle box – Part One: BBC Drama EDITED

Maybe I watch a bit too much telly – there, said it. Happy now? This isn’t a review of everything I watched in 2007: numerous repeats, Formula One, news programmes, digital channel repeats of The Crystal Maze, Takeshi’s Castle and Gladiators (largely while eating me tea, in defence) and some snooker were all in the mix. But leaving them aside, these are the programmes I watched that are probably worth talking about a bit.

The year started with two one-off specials of note, each from ongoing series: one was a triumph, the other a disastrous misfire. The latter was This Life +10, which seemed to make a point of taking everything that made the original series so engrossing and then carefully leaving it out: the result was an insult to a series that deserves to be remembered as one of the crowning glories of UK TV drama.

More happily, Invasion of the Bane was a highly effective pilot for Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. When the main series arrived in the autumn (and I’ve not watched it all yet) it proved to be first rate telly, with enough excitement to keep the kiddies interested but also some deft writing to keep the occasional older viewer interested… ahem, should there be any… All told, it was probably the best-written kids’ TV series since Press Gang. Elisabeth Sladen in the title role is probably 15 years too old for it really, but we can forgive the wish-fulfillment of the ’70s generation of Who fans who grew up with Sarah Jane in the TARDIS. Probably.

The parent series itself was certainly less consistent: although it was more popular than ever, and those of us who maintained during the dark days of the 1990s that, actually, Doctor Who was really good, can certainly feel vindicated by this, overall this series felt less sure-footed than the two before.

Making Doctor Who good is fairly difficult: making it consistent, given that there is a new set-up nearly every week, is extremely difficult: and while the high points have been higher with each successive season since the revival, the consistency has, for my money, been falling away.

Human Nature and Blink were each as high quality a piece of television drama as you’re ever likely to see, and let’s not lose sight of that. But they were also the only two episodes not based around the vision of Russell T Davies: RTD has done the programme, and British TV generally, an enormous service, but in my opinion his ideas are getting a bit stale. Daleks in Manhattan, for instance, proved an almighty mess: his brief of the titular scenario plus pig-men to writer Helen Raynor gave her a real poisoned chalice, and it’s hardly any surprise the end result had no internal logic or enticing qualities. Other mid-season stories were also a bit lacklustre: 42 was quite enjoyable for its pace and a terrifying performance from David Tennant, but was undeniably thin; The Lazarus Experiment was an uninteresting runaround; Gridlock totally fell apart in its final third and, like the climactic two-part story with the Master suffered from far too much telling and not enough showing – this in particular is a basic mistake an experienced dramatist like RTD should not be making.

On the plus side, I managed to remain totally unspoiled about both the Macra (shame their inclusion was totally pointless, but it was nice for ten seconds) and Derek Jacobi being the Master – the last twenty minutes of Utopia were therefore utterly thrilling, but what a shame such a balls-out cliffhanger was betrayed the following week by a cop-out resolution. Davies originally justified the use of the sonic screwdriver by saying that the Doctor should be challenged by evils he must defeat, but not simply stuck behind a door: this justifies the use of the screwdriver as a convenient device to keep the plot moving, but emphasises how unforgivable it is to use it as a plot device to resolve otherwise brilliant cliffhangers.

With the 2008 series being the last full series until 2010, it looks likely that RTD will move on and allow a new show-runner to take over for the later series: I hope this is the case, as I can’t muster much enthusiasm for the 2008 series (it seems likely Tennant will move on at the same time, and that the 2009 Christmas special will be his last appearance, although he has stated publicly that no decision has been taken, and I’m quite willing to believe him). I also hope the second series of Torchwood, due to start in the new year, rectifies some of the undoubted problems of the first series, notably the fundamentally unlikeable and seemingly inept central characters.

Sticking with the BBC for a while, Stephen Moffat’s Jekyll was enjoyable, but ultimately didn’t quite captivate me. It had an intricate plot, but it still felt a bit shapeless and meandering… The central performances were very good and it was all nicely done, but for some reason I couldn’t quite get excited about each new episode. Perhaps the characters were not given quite enough room to breathe by the plot, which got very stark very quickly; perhaps it wasn’t clear enough what each character wanted; perhaps the constant flicking back and forward along Jackman’s life didn’t do the structure any favours. There are rumours around Moffat becoming the new showrunner on Doctor Who, but as he is starting to get attention from Hollywood, writing a new Tintin film for Spielberg, it now seems that the timing isn’t quite right, which would be a real shame.

The BBC’s other flagship dramas also tended to fall into the “very good, but not great” camp. Robin Hood once again started with two really poor episodes before getting rather good, developing a surprisingly successful plotline around a treasonous conspiracy by the sheriff and also developing the Robin – Marian – Gisborne triangle in interesting ways. Thirteen episodes remains too many, however, for a series that has the same basic cast and setting each week – the breaking into the castle business doesn’t half get repetitive. I hope the BBC wrap it up with a triumphant third series and don’t try to keep it going artificially. I also hope they give the excellent Sam Troughton a bit more to do than provide the light relief!

Life On Mars was once again extremely well-played by all concerned, but I felt massively let down by the ending. We had spent two series with Sam Tyler pursuing his desire to get back to the present day, but when he ultimately rejected life in the present in favour of life on Mars, I was left feeling at best that Sam was a chump, and at worst that I had been well and truly taken for a mug by the writers. I will be interested to see what the sequel series ends up being like – it could be great. Or awful.

Murder drama Five Days went all high-art, and not very successfully: it focused on the effect a disappearance had on the families and police officers involved, without making the resolution of the mystery central to the storyline. Despite some fine performances, the end result was ineffective: the mystery itself was dull and the back stories were made interesting only by an over-use of coincidence and melodrama.

Remaining with BBC drama for a moment, the five Afternoon Play hour-long dramas on BBC One early in the year produced two real gems: “The Real Deal” was an amiable romance starring the always excellent James Lance (an overlooked contender for the Eleventh Doctor?), but even better was “Death Becomes Him” in which the central character’s apparently imminent death seems to have positive implications for his family and friends, all of which unravel when it turns out he has survived after all… I doubt it will ever be repeated or made commercially available, which is a shame, as it was an absolutely top-notch hour of television. I’m baffled as to why writer Paul Smith has not achieved greater success and acclaim when he’s capable of material of this calibre.

[EDIT] A show I totally forgot to include, but which thoroughly deserves a mention, is Jimmy McGovern’s second series of The Street. Truth be told, this is another show where I’ve recorded it all but not got round to watching it yet – except for the first episode, which was classic McGovern. In it, the central character opportunistically adopts the identity of his twin brother when the latter dies suddenly, and pretends that he has in fact died and his brother survived. Although the central premise is implausible, the meat of the piece comes from unpicking the consequences: the central character gets to see his own funeral, hears what people really thought of him, has to adapt to a very different lifestyle, finds out things about his brother he never knew, runs the constant risk of discovery by his grieving wife, children and mother, and begins to appreciate the good aspects of his old life that he had taken for granted. It was a masterclass in TV drama, and while the series may struggle to sustain that quality throughout (the first series was excellent, but some episodes had the edge on others), it remains a tribute to the BBC that it is willing to give McGovern his head in crafting this consistently high calibre series.

Click here for Part Two…

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