The Demon Headmaster

With a new CBBC series continuing to introduce a whole new generation to Britain’s greatest authoritarian creep (he trumps Jacob Rees-Mogg by having the decency to be fictional), now feels as good a time as any to look back over one of its greatest ever programmes, The Demon Headmaster, series by series. Don’t look into his eyes…

Series 1 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster and The Prime Minister’s Brain)

The original, but not for me. Coming to the show late, I watched the first series as a repeat. Maybe this is why I think of it now (at least the first half) as the weakest story. The Demon Headmaster’s schemes grow more extravagant as time goes on, and his day job comes across in retrospect as rather small fry. Behold this sinister man, using his hypnotic powers to… teach children about the Solar System. When he tries to hypnotise the nation through a garish, gungy game show, the main threat seems to be that the country will wake up knowing more about ants.

The second three episodes give us our first steps into full-on supervillain territory, with the Headmaster brainwashing children to help him get access to 10 Downing Street and hypnotise the PM. Worries about new technology start to appear when children are subliminally influenced by cool new computer game Octopus Dare, leading to a battle with robots and a supercomputer that fills an entire tower block. By the end of this repeated series one, The Demon Headmaster had become the show I recognised from the first series I had watched…

Series 2 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Strikes Again)

My original. The scariest series and the best. It’s an episode longer than the others as well – more chance for slow, creeping fear to build.

We know Dinah and the SPLAT crew now, and they’re a happily functioning unit after some angst early in series one (Lloyd and Harvey take time to accept their adopted sister). But now, creepy former prefect Rose from series one gets stuck into the group and turns them against one another again. It’s agony for us watching, and I catch myself shouting, ‘She’s clearly manipulating you, you idiots! My God, you’re as gullible as every adult character who appears the entire run of this programme!’ every time I come back to it. Simon’s relationship with his distant father is bleak too, with things tense between them even before his dad is hypnotised – and it’s never resolved. Things are taking a darker turn across the board.

After dipping his toe in the water in The Prime Minister’s Brain, the Headmaster’s a full-blown evil genius now, successfully hypnotising parents as well as children, and using his fancy new biogenetic research centre to interfere with evolution itself, playing with life and death as he pleases (appropriate with Lloyd spending most of the series in a coma, perhaps the easiest acting job in the history of CBBC).

That leads us onto the further edge series two has: monsters! Not just the giant creeper, silently inching its way towards you, or the Headmaster’s Dinah-lizard hybrid Eve, but the giant wasp that nearly kills Lloyd. I’m scared of normal-sized wasps, and I now realise all these years later that this is why. It’s wisely barely shown, and the endless distant buzzing combines with Richard Hartley’s radiophonic score and the atmosphere of night shoots and tunnel scenes to make some of the most terrifying kids’ TV ever. The darkest series, literally and figuratively – the impression it leaves doesn’t go away.

Series 3 (adapted from The Demon Headmaster Takes Over)

Oh joy of joys, a children’s programme that comes back with everyone’s voice suddenly broken! This is the one I recorded on my own VHS (my brother recorded series two, and to watch it was a rare privilege). Because of that, this was my favourite for a long time. Looking back, it’s a beautiful late-nineties curio, all artificial intelligence and the world wide web, with our heroes saving the day from a cyber café. Chat rooms and cool new webspeak, crystallised on screen for us to gawp at in delight. They should have called this one The Demon Headmaster Gets Dial-Up.

In some ways, it’s a step back from the last series. We’ve seen adults hypnotised before, along with a distant father-son relationship. The Headmaster isn’t really the Headmaster either, but a clone of the original trying to piece together who he used to be – Terrence Hardiman is menacing as ever, but I remember my instinctive confusion at the time: is this one the real deal?

He’s boosted, on the other hand, by a new villain in hologrammatic artificial intelligence system Hyperbrain (an eerie, otherworldly performance by Alphonsia Emmanuel, realised with visuals that blew my 7 year-old mind). Amoral rather than immoral, which makes her even more frightening, and a perfect foil for the Headmaster. Like The Prime Minister’s Brain, the scariest element here comes from paranoia about technology, when Hyperbrain drains adults’ minds and leaves them zombified, white contact lenses and all – still nasty and compelling 21 years later. Even if her getting beaten by the internet being full of nonsense does tax the mind now.

Series 4 (adapted from Total Control)

And what of the new series? It’s a worthy sequel, upping the suburban paranoia, adding a more overt political message and building on how the old series handled the psychological impact of hypnotism. Now it’s a truly frightening experience, and we feel the characters fear as they have momentary flashbacks to when they were more themselves. Nods to the past are perfectly judged too, and the first three series are honoured even as the concepts are updated. So far, I’m loving every minute of it. The parents are all still idiots though.

The new series of The Demon Headmaster is available to watch on BBC iPlayer here.


Peter Fleming in Space

Hi everyone. This week, to mark 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing, Peter Fleming has written for me about the ways space travel influenced his work in the golden age of British children’s TV. You’re clear for lift off, Peter!

Hello there, my friends! Over! [crackle] (Ha ha ha! My little joke. I’m very much on the ground – practically in the gutter, in fact!)

Children have always been fascinated by outer space. I wonder if there’s ever been a child who hasn’t gazed up at the myriad stars of the firmament, and wondered. Naturally, this was perfect subject matter for children’s television, and throughout the sixties and seventies my team and I stretched our imaginations and our creative ambition with the programmes we made.

This was a time of more generous budgets, don’t forget – nowadays, you couldn’t train an entire production team as astronauts and blast them off into space. And you wouldn’t be able to take animals with you anymore either, thanks to the unforgettably bloody filming of Cows in Space in 1968! On that front, I can only apologise to my peers for spoiling the fun for everyone else.

The space race was a real driving force for us in the early sixties, and we tried explaining it to children in our own Race to Space series in 1963. Every week, they tuned in to watch a team of upstanding British astronauts helmed by Captain Steven Stardust – played by teen heartthrob Mickey Steele. (We were very lucky to get Mickey when we did, as within two years he’d become a much bigger name and branched out into narcotics.)

Under Stardust’s leadership, the crew eventually made it to Mercury, in spite of underhand tactics from their rivals: brash American astronauts and seedy Russian space spies, all played by Harry Secombe. We thought Harry was very good, but his broad performances ultimately brought the programme down to Earth, when management on the sixth floor received a number of complaints from the government. It turned out NASA had found the programme very insulting, and our Prime Minister bowed to the President’s wishes that production cease. A real lack of backbone, I thought – thank God those days are over!

At the other end of the decade, as the moon landing approached, we felt inspired once again, and produced 1969’s Our Friends on the Moon. This depicted a family of strange little creatures popping out of the craters they lived in on the lunar surface, their alien voices realised by an actor speaking the dialogue into a musical instrument (an ocarina, I think). Sadly, it didn’t last long, thanks to a dispute with Oliver Postgate regarding a similar programme he created at the same time. Merely an unfortunate coincidence, but nonetheless, Our Friends on the Moon was unceremoniously scrapped, following a particularly lively discussion that culminated in my kicking a Clanger’s face off.

After the moon landing, I decided to make programmes showing how, in the future, space travel would become much more routine. That was the inspiration behind Neil the Rocket Driver (1972; every week a delivery astronaut transports space stationery to a different lunar office building), Space Wardens (1974; a team of space traffic wardens gives speeding tickets to daring astronauts and prevents their adventures, teaching children to drive responsibly), and of course Mars Town (1976; our way of giving an exciting outer space twist to local government and  council bureaucracy – ironically brought down itself by BBC bureaucracy, and dismal viewing figures).

Those are all still remembered by viewers now, and often credited with the wider public falling out of love with space travel over the course of the decade. Apologies once again, my friends! In spite of that, I still often find myself gazing up at the stars each night (hard not to when there’s no roof over your head!), and I wonder what life might be out there, gazing back at us. I wonder too what lives we may build out there for ourselves in the future, thanks in no small part to the hundreds of thousands of people who worked on that Apollo 11 mission, back in 1969. To say nothing of the crew! Yes, this weekend, I too shall spare a thought for those three brave men, whose names will live on in history: Michael Collins, and whatever the other two were called.

Best wishes,


Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the following times and places:

  • Weds 24th July: Comedy Balloon, Manchester (tickets don’t exist)
  • Tues 30th July: XS Malarkey, Manchester (tickets available here)
  • 1st – 25th August (not 12th): Heroes @ Dragonfly, Edinburgh Fringe (tickets available here)
Neil has moved to the MESA. Ulli Lotzmann has captured a frame from the 16mm film showing Neil as he takes 5903. No other Apollo photograph has been reproduced as often as this portrait of Buzz. Neil is, of course, visible in reflection on Buzz’s visor. Buzz has his left arm raised and is probably reading the checklist sewn on the wrist cover of his glove.

Peter Fleming on Jon Pertwee

Hi everyone. Today marks the centenary of Doctor Who, Worzel Gummidge, The Navy Lark actor and all round eccentric legend Jon Pertwee. For the occasion, children’s TV pioneer Peter Fleming has kindly written to me about his own experiences with Jon (he stresses not in the capacity of stalker).

Hello there, my friends!

My first experience with the legendary Jon Pertwee was when I timidly approached the famous ‘man of a thousand voices’ in late 1968 to give life to the characters of an animated series I’d been commissioned to make. The money we had to offer was pitiful, so it wasn’t much surprise that Jon had to turn us down. As it was, The Many-Headed Millicent never came to fruition, and Jon was to become unavailable within months, when he was cast as none other than TV’s Dr Who!

That might have been the end of our association, were it not for a chance encounter in January 1970, when, in quite a distracted state of mind and something of a rush, I mistook Jon’s car for my own sprightly yellow roadster and drove it off a pier, not realising my error till quite some time after I’d fled the scene. Jon understandably wasn’t best pleased, and thought I must be pursuing some vendetta following Millicent’s premature decapitation. Naturally, I was determined to set the record straight, but he was now making every possible effort to avoid me. It seemed to me the only sensible thing to do was put just as much effort into following him around in order to apologise.

So began the saga of my chasing Jon as he went about his business while he sped away with increasing terror in his eyes over several years. He tried hiding and disguising himself, allowing his hair to become more and more bouffant as his time on Doctor Who progressed, but I could always spot him! Similarly, I would always learn his filming schedule and get to places ahead of him, often in disguise myself, so I could leap out and beg for his forgiveness, but I never could get a word in before he used his famous martial arts on me.

One notable incident, when I charged towards him dressed first as a milkman then a cleaning lady over the course of an afternoon, actually ended up cathartically channelled into 1973’s The Green Death, and provided a welcome bit of comic relief to the episode. (Incidentally, the filming of that particular Doctor Who story in south Wales was disrupted when he discovered I’d concealed myself in his convertible caravan a few weeks before he drove it out to the location!)

As this pattern of events continued, it would often give Jon ideas for chase sequences that he fed back to his own production office – for instance an occasion where I pursued him through the countryside by car, helicopter, motor boat and finally hovercraft, which was later copied note for note in 1974’s Planet of the Spiders. I was delighted to have inadvertently inspired so many gripping TV moments for Jon’s fans – and I enjoyed watching them myself, as I considered myself a true fan of the programme when he was at the helm. There were times in the early seventies when I was a little the worse for wear, but I always found comfort watching his heroism as our friend the Doctor, in that cosy era of the series.

In fact, my determination to tune in every single week during this time, coupled with the above encounters, led some to suppose I had developed some form of obsession with Jon – but that really wasn’t the case! Did worry me that such talk might get back to him, which made me even keener to set the record straight, but once he’d left Doctor Who I wasn’t able to find him anywhere. Found out recently that he actually spent the next few years hiding out as a scarecrow just to get rid of me, although he was eventually able to monetise this – happy to help, Jon!

Nonetheless, I still miss his presence on the screen, and in the wider world with his many generous public appearances – as I’m sure many of us do. Like lots of our shared child viewers at the time, I always felt somehow more… secure watching his Doctor Who. While he was there, with Katy Manning, Nicholas Courtney, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks to help him, the programme blossomed beautifully into real appointment viewing for me. One of television’s great families, with one of its greatest ever showmen at its heart.

Best wishes,


The Jon Pertwee Files, presented by Sean Pertwee, is available to listen to now on BBC Sounds.

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed around the country at the following times and places:

  • Fri 12th July: 2Northdown, King’s Cross (tickets available here)
  • Fri 19th July: The Southern Belle, Brighton (tickets not available yet)
  • Weds 24th July: Comedy Balloon, Manchester (tickets don’t exist)
  • Tues 30th July: XS Malarkey, Manchester (tickets available here)
  • 1st – 25th August (not 12th): Heroes @ Dragonfly, Edinburgh Fringe (tickets available here)


Peter Fleming on Toys

Hi everyone. I’m away this week, so have given writing duties over to Peter Fleming. He has very kindly written some of his thoughts on toys and his experiences playing and working with them as one of the pioneers of British children’s TV. Thanks, Peter!

Hello there, my young friends!

Well, well, well, toys, toys, toys. Is there anything that has brought so much joy to children as toys? The answer is a qualified yes – but only in the case of those children who had access to BBC Children’s television programmes. As such, foreign children and the children of parents who avoided paying the licence fee had to make do with just toys.

I had the opposite problem, and was lucky that the children’s home where I grew up did have television, as there were frankly no toys to be had in the entire building! Instead, the very earliest children’s television fuelled my imagination, and I fashioned my own toys out of whatever I could find. Rags, milk bottles, handfuls of dust – you name it, I came up with a character and a story for it! These ended up inspiring programmes I made during my own career. The rag I played with grew into Charlie, the Ragged Ghost (1965). My favourite handful of dust, which I kept in the corner below my bed, safe from the cleaners ever reaching it, went on to become The Ghost Made of Dust (1966). And who could forget Julie, the Bottle-Shaped Ghost (1975)?

Another thing I tried to do was fashion programmes set within whole worlds of toys to fire up the imaginations of the next generation down who might be going without them. Tilly’s Toy Factory (1967) showed a young girl making all the strangest toys she could think of, helped by the elderly toymakers and woodcarvers who lived in the factory she visited every week. We never named these craftsmen or explained their circumstances in order to keep a sense of mystery, and more importantly, to encourage children to be nicer to strangers, an area where we felt society was consistently failing. Entirely because of that point (although I was later told only partially because of that), the series lasted only a few weeks.

Following that, The Museum of Fun (1968) touched on similar themes with young Johnny’s regular visits to be shown round an ancient toy museum by Miss Harker. As an educational element, the toys were often host to the spirit of whatever child had played with them back in history, and would describe the old world around them. Later, of course, Miss Harker herself was revealed to be a large, Edwardian puppet, come to life! I now look back on the programme as a wonderful combination of my duel interest in toys and ghosts, and it was fondly remembered by audiences too, eventually topping Channel 4’s The 100 Most Inadvertently Sinister Kids’ TV Shows of All Time in 2003.

Best of all, Uncle Kenneth’s Doll’s House (1969-71) depicted a little girl who was sick of her boring, stuffy parents, and wished she could live in her peculiar uncle’s doll’s house instead – only for the wish to come true! Surrounded by now life-size wooden and fabric dolls, and trapped in an existence that ran like clockwork, she was at first frightened by their mechanical movement and muffled voices, but soon grew to enjoy the lifestyle, eventually becoming a doll herself in the final episode. I intended it as a way to make my daughter less scared of her own doll’s house, but if anything it had the opposite effect. Trouble was, the programme was so successful that I had to ignore her feelings and keep going! If only I’d realised the effect that would have a few years later, I might have thought again!

Nowadays, I find my boyhood yearning for toys to play with still comes to the surface. As I float about on my little raft, rags and empty milk bottle drift past and bring back fond memories, and I come up with new ideas from other bits and pieces I find too! Who knows, perhaps one day audiences might find themselves enjoying The Voyage of the Shopping Trolley, or Phillip, the Talking Stick, or Come Back, Sophie, Please Come Back! All those have been inspired in just the last couple of weeks by things I’ve sailed by or caught myself shouting out in my sleep – so you see, there’s still a whole world of possibility!

Best wishes,



Not Just Any Questions

Question Time has been criticised this week, but Fiona Bruce has generally been praised since taking the chair as having thoroughly refreshed the programme. However, executives had been discussing other adjustments to the format beyond a mere change of host, which have now been leaked. It was widely agreed that many of the changes discussed would have improved the programme and the standard of our public discourse, but would be prohibitively expensive. Let’s take a look at what was suggested:

  • Pointless-style scoring system: the panellist who receives the biggest round of applause in any round is given a dangerous forfeit to carry out before the next question can be asked.
  • Audience mic strapped to a dog – questions asked according to interest level of the questioner’s scent.
  • All no-deal advocates required to make their arguments in Old English.
  • Any clear dodge of a question requires panellist to wrestle Strong Phillip, a fully greased 250-pound Evesham man with no time for your bullshit.
  • JD Wetherspoon Chairman Tim Martin required to keep all six pints of Shipyard he secretly drinks throughout recording on the table from now on, providing visual confirmation of how pissed he is.
  • Each question separated from the next by live music introduced by Jools Holland.
  • Instead of members of the public applying to be in the audience, participation to be made a form of community service, reducing prison numbers and the crime rate in general.
  • As debate progresses, audience regularly votes to put one of their own up for eviction – last remaining audience member awarded two votes at the next General Election (N.B. Not compatible with above suggestion.)
  • All panellists required to stay together for 24 hours after recording to visit Blackpool Pleasure Beach – highlights of the trip to be edited into a podcast available exclusively on BBC Sounds.
  • Make a list of any regular panellists to have been praised by a far-right terrorist’s manifesto – don’t ask her on again.
  • Make a list of any regular panellists accused of concealing evidence of criminal activity by leading Brexit campaigners or donors – don’t ask her on again.
  • Thermostat trigger – whenever any discussion becomes too heated, footage immediately shown to panel and audience of the Sun, as reminder of its eventual expansion and the futility of discussion.
  • Copy format from Radio 4’s Any Questions and Any Answers, moving opportunity for the public to respond out of the panel debate and into a separate programme – never broadcast this programme.


Peter Fleming at Christmas

Season’s greetings, everybody! I’m away for Christmas, so have left writing duties this week to Peter Fleming, a children’s television legend, and a pioneer in the early days of Christmas TV. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

Well, here we are again. Christmas! A special time of year, and a sentimental one for me, as I spent many Decembers in my career enjoying a change of pace from the programmes I normally produced. Each year, the Children’s department would charge me with the task of producing a special yuletide serial, broadcast over four weeks. They were occasionally enjoyed by the viewers, and always stayed within the budget, and it was for the latter of those reasons that I was so often approached.

Nonetheless, I was proud of my team’s creativity on the serials. Over the years, we came up with about as many different portrayals of Father Christmas as you could think of – and exactly as many as we could think of. 1969’s The Elves Who Ran the Workshop, for instance, presented him as a bumbling maniac who had no idea what he was doing (and it was broadly deemed upsetting by parents as a result). A year previously, The Stolen Stockings had showed a tougher, more streetwise Father Christmas, in our gripping seasonal spin-off of Z Cars (again, this was broadly considered unacceptable).

All these are missing from the archives now, of course, and I think the greatest loss of all is Mother Christmas (1974), a very forward-looking programme for its time, which would go to show that society’s progress hasn’t only been reflected on telly this century! Fortunately, that one was remade a few years ago by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for BBC4, and was widely applauded. Although I must say, I don’t remember her taking her clothes off so much in our version.

Yes, the seasonal serials were a great fixture of my calendar. But that isn’t to say I didn’t put on Christmas specials of the programmes I made the rest of the year round, often to greater acclaim than normal! Audiences commented that the Christmas episode of Carol’s Carol Singers (1964-65), for instance, had been the only one where the programme really made any sense.

Before that, Professor Zany’s Mad Laboratory (1962) had used a chemistry set and the periodic table to create a scientific nativity scene! The three wise men came bearing gold, francium and mercury, as I recall. All great fun, but the mercury vapours were more potent than we expected, and ended up sending our lead actor Brian Tranchell as loopy as the Professor himself! Meanwhile, an inaccurate measurement on my part caused a generation of children to believe that the baby Jesus had exploded shortly after birth, taking an ox and half a shepherd with him.

Away from my own programmes, I had other festive adventures around Television Centre, including one incident behind the scenes on Blue Peter. I’d often asked Biddy Baxter when I passed her in the corridor if I could have a badge, to which she’d always replied, “Who are you?” – our little running joke! Determined to get one, I posed as a member of the Salvation Army Band for their 1972 Christmas episode, and tried creeping near enough the crew member who was holding them. Alas, Petra sensed something was amiss and chased me out of the studio – but I did manage to come away with the programme’s Advent crown, and a brand new tuba!

That Advent crown enjoyed pride of place in my living room every Christmas from that year on –until I moved out for reasons of financial prudency and an eviction notice. Nowadays, I spend my Christmases at community shelters as they open up for the winter. Much barer surroundings, and a far cry, it turns out, from the whimsy of The Yuletide Vagabonds (1966), which the I was commissioned to make as a counterweight to the senseless negativity of Cathy Come Home. The company is delightful, though, and the main reason I attend. I certainly never accept the food, as that’s really meant for the homeless people who come to visit, and I couldn’t describe myself as that – I’m simply between homes, although admittedly I haven’t found a home to move into just yet, or in the past five years.

In spite of that, I always make an effort to keep up the yuletide spirit, and it was while eating my Christmas dinner a few years ago, on that occasion a particularly delicious-looking photograph of a real Christmas dinner in a discarded newspaper, that I had an idea. Soaking the rest of the paper in a nearby puddle created a pale, grey sludge, which I duly applied around my mouth. Adding to that a red anorak I’d borrowed from a charity shop transformed me into a veritable Father Christmas!

Within minutes, I was climbing on rooftops and down people’s chimneys to give them good wishes, and in the years since, this practice of mine has been met with a fascinating range of responses. Who knows? You might soon be hearing Saint Nick shouting, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” from the top of your own house – or possibly, “Help! Help! Help!” if I’ve ascended during one of my blackouts. It’s a new tradition that’s given me much joy of late. Another new portrayal of Father Christmas from me to you, and a chance to keep the magic of Christmastime alive another year.

Have a fabulous festive season, my friends!

Best wishes,



Doctor Who: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

Well, it had mostly been a good ride, hadn’t it? Like the equally drearily-titled The Tsuranga Conundrum, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has elements that make for interesting drama, and, like that episode, wastes pretty much all of them. The result is an inexcusably drab fifty minutes, and the most disappointing note for a series of Doctor Who to end on so far this century – a shame after a series full of so many brilliant moments.

Chris Chibnall was clear there would be a less pronounced arc to this season, which is no inherently bad thing – as long as there’s some progression for the characters along the way. It’s what we rightly demand of Doctor Who now. For pretty much the first time this year, characters arrive at cross-purposes, yet it doesn’t pay off. Graham openly resolves to kill Tim Shaw (Samuel Oatley), Ryan and the Doctor implore him not to, and then he finds he can’t bring himself to do it. It feels incredibly by the numbers, no twists or turns to complicate proceedings or motivations, and nothing happening under the surface. Graham full-on states his intention – there’s nothing for the Doctor or anyone else to detect. Where’s the drama in any of this?

All the story does is bring Ryan and Graham closer together, finding them some closure for the loss of Grace (something that had been examined more interestingly last week). What’s here for the other characters? What is the group’s relationship at the end of this series? Each individual has some relationship with the Doctor, and Graham and Ryan have their own bond. But how do Yaz and Graham relate to one another? What makes hers and Ryan’s relationship interesting? And how do they all feel about the Doctor as a phenomenon separate from themselves? Each week, a character has had their time in the spotlight, but as the series ends, this group’s dynamic as whole remains ill-defined.

Another trick a finale can pull is to bring back a previous villain – sure enough, Tim Shaw returns. And it’s a good performance from Samuel Oatley, but the characterisation feels inconsistent. After references to the Stenza’s legacy in The Ghost Monument, we might have expected to see Tim Shaw in the context of his society, even as an outcast – perhaps also to have seen the Stenza at the height of their powers. A terrifying army. Instead, we see Tim Shaw changed quite arbitrarily to a false god, a shouting megalomaniac with a super weapon. After seeing him as a lone, privileged hunter in episode one, denied the glory within his grasp, we could see him twisted by greed and entitlement here. But this could be any identikit sci-fi villain – and it isn’t interesting. Most frustratingly, it could be.

We see an attempt to question the Doctor’s culpability for Tim Shaw’s crimes, the price of her mercy when dispatching him at the start of the series – but it isn’t built upon. Compare to Journey’s End (2008), when Davros asks the Doctor how many have died in his name. We have seen those deaths, we see them again, we can feel their weight. We could feel the weight of the genocides that have been committed here too. But they are wrapped up in a cold, high-concept sci-fi mystery. The Ux, aliens that can create and destroy worlds, make practically anything happen, at the will of a god of their choosing, are a fascinating concept. But the way Andinio (Phyllis Logan) and Delph (Percelle Ascott) are written, they simply don’t feel like people.

Too long we’re kept asking what ‘object’ Paltraki’s (Mark Addy) crew have stolen, what the true nature of the Ux’s power is. And when the revelation comes that these objects are shrunken planets, whole worlds wiped out in the name of the Ux’s false religion, it should feel like an enormous moment – but it doesn’t. There’s no moment of guilt for the Ux as they realise their gullibility has killed billions. No misplaced guilt for the Doctor, whose mercy let this situation arise.  If the parties concerned are given no moment to feel the drama of their story, why should we? In what could be such a huge story, why do the stakes feel so bizarrely low, the drama so distant?

In what seems a telling metaphor for this all, the titular battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has already happened. A grand title like that might, dare I say it, suggest that we would see the drama of a battle. In fact, it has been and gone, and we can feel very little of the aftermath when we only meet one character to have experienced it – and he has conveniently lost his memory of select information. Mark Addy, in that respect, is terribly wasted as Paltraki. Aside from a patchy memory and a basic assumption of competence, I could tell you nothing of the character he’s playing. A function of plot is not a person.

Doctor Who is unquestionably made by a team of immensely talented, hard-working and devoted people, and it feels churlish to attack the fruits of their labours, especially when it means ending this run of write-ups on such a sour note. The programme has had plenty of failures throughout its history, after all, including in recent years, and this finale only feels worse than those for being an uninteresting failure. So instead, I’ll finish by looking at all the things I’ve enjoyed so much about this series, which on balance has been fantastic.

Firstly, Jodie Whittaker and the other three leads have been excellent. Their relationships with each other aren’t all equally engrossing, and that has a chance to improve in 2020, but as individuals, their performances are engaging, sympathetic, and, not a given in Doctor Who, utterly loveable. Look at the wealth of new talent brought onto the writing team too, and the benefit their new perspectives have given the programme, especially with this year’s trips into the past. Those gave us real, human drama about challenging subjects from history, showing how relevant they can still prove today. For my money, the three stand-out episodes of the series.

I hope all the guest writers return, and, alongside Chris Chibnall, continue to build our characters. I want to see them come into opposition more. I want to see them feel real jeopardy more. I want to see their families more. I want to see Sheffield more too. As a location, it’s lent a fresh sense of reality to proceedings after the fanciful tendencies of the last few years, and was a big part of this series’ sheer confidence early on.

The same is true for Segun Akinola’s music, the programme’s secret weapon throughout this series, and another breath of fresh air – to say nothing of how enthralling the cinematography has been. To see in such big changes for such a successful franchise, and do it with such a winning sense of boldness, is no mean feat. And for that, in spite of a couple of weak scripts, this first series under Chris Chibnall’s leadership is to be celebrated. It’s not to be underestimated how tough it is to get people excited about something that’s been on for 13 years, and the phenomenal ratings Doctor Who achieved this year is testament to its new team’s success.

And so, for one day only, on to 2019!


Doctor Who: It Takes You Away

From guttural horror to a moving consideration of grief, via high-concept sci-fi, all wrapped up by one of the most bizarre climaxes Doctor Who has done in years, It Takes You Away continues to add colour to this series as we approach the finale. Over its fifty minutes, it feels unpredictable in structure, even uncertain what genre it wanted to be – yet somehow it holds together. It’s a roller coaster in the way Doctor Who occasionally is – and luckily this is one of those occasions when it works.

Unrelenting dread is the order of the day as we arrive at a cold, isolated setting, and feel an overwhelming sense of the unknown. The threat doesn’t feel fully defined – which we realise was deliberate upon the reveal that our ‘monster’ was nothing more than a pair of speakers, à la Father Ted. But until this point, we’re made to feel as unsure in our grasp of the menace as possible, and Hanne’s (Eleanor Wallwork) blindness is used to increase this. She wouldn’t be able to see it were she fully sighted, but she is the only one who can tell us about it, convincing us that there will be something to see.

On this point, there is something unsavoury about how blindness is treated here – simply as a way of generating mystery. And there are no consequences for Erik (Christian Rubeck) having abandoned his terrified, bereaved, blind daughter alone in the woods, with a monster of his own fabrication and with no form of communication. It’s simply skipped over. Meanwhile, the Doctor uses Hanne’s blindness to her own advantage too when writing a message to Ryan, keeping yet more secrets from her. It’s a callous move that we might have grudgingly accepted from Peter Capaldi circa 2014, but it leaves a sour taste here.

Regardless, the mystery itself is intriguing, and reels us in at a perfect pace. When a sudden shift takes our journey into the anti-zone, we feel ready for a new stage of the adventure. And more unknowns come to unsettle us. Ribbons feels like a stock sci-fi character, but Kevin Eldon brings him deliciously to life, and it isn’t hard to start painting pictures of his life in our minds, with all his creeping nastiness. Again, he doesn’t feel fully explained, and nor do the flesh-eating moths, and nor does this entire space – but enough is given to us not to feel short-changed as we’re left to fill the blanks with our own imaginations. It’s all the scarier for it.

When we arrive into the Solitract universe, we’re struck by a sense of the uncanny – it’s subtle at first, and it takes a moment to hit home that, in this mirror world, the picture has been reversed (Erik’s Slayer t-shirt is the real clue). But what summons up real dread is Sharon D Clarke’s performance as Grace. We’ve seen her so little, but we know this version of her is wrong. So little seems changed, and yet she is colder; deader. It feeds our suspicions and our fears brilliantly, but that same strategy also makes Hanne’s family more distant to us. Trine (Lisa Stokke) is a copy, just like Grace, while Erik has done nothing to invoke our sympathy, and we are shown precious little of Hanne’s relationship with either of them. Only experiencing them at this crisis point, we don’t gain an understanding of who they normally are.

But the approach serves its purpose, and all through Grace and Graham’s conversations we’re desperate for him to admit what we can already see clearly. Yet we also feel his own desperation to believe he has found his wife, and we feel his pain when he must choose between this seductive fiction and a bleaker reality. But he gains strength from his love for Ryan, and this is at last reciprocated when Ryan calls him Grandad for the first time, having had to address his own mistrust of the men in his life during his experiences with Hanne. It’s a very satisfying development for both those characters as the series nears its end.

Finding new hope in a place of isolation is the theme of the episode then, and it’s quintessentially Doctor Who that this is examined not just by meeting ghosts of lost loved ones, but in a climactic conversation with a talking frog. Opinion on this scene is inevitably split, but personally I loved it. After so many twists and turns in the episode, this felt like another welcome one, and on just the right side of lunacy.

Celebrating Grace’s spirit further through a symbol she loved, the frog also lends a sense of the child-like that suits Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor well, with all the wonderment she has brought to the role (as well as tying in with the bedtime story from her grandmother where she first heard of the Solitract). This final conversation could be seen as a romantic relationship ending, like Grace and Graham, but with its roots in the Doctor’s childhood, it feels just as much like saying goodbye to an imaginary friend. There was something strangely touching about that little frog.

How fantastic that, after the fresh ground that’s already been struck this year (especially with trips into history), we can enjoy such original sci-fi ideas so late on too. It Takes You Away adds yet more much-needed variety to a very strong second half of the series, and serves our central characters well too. The arcs of their development feel clear, and we have gradually come to feel, without many ‘big moments’ for them, that we know the TARDIS team perfectly. One or two misgivings on the tone aside, this was another fantastic instalment to their first season.



Doctor Who: The Witchfinders

Another trip into the past, another successful episode. In The Witchfinders, we have a further instalment in this year’s Doctor Who where traditional storytelling offers a chance to reflect on contemporary issues. Investigating an unknown menace, fighting larger-than-life villains and their useful idiots – two tropes nearly as old as the programme itself are on show here, but infused once again with a threat that has become a running theme this series, the terror of a human mob. The greatest inhumanity can spring from humanity itself; very of the moment.

In Rosa, we feared a society gripped by racism. In Demons of the Pubjab, we saw young men whipped up into nationalistic fervour. Here, we see paranoia and manipulation turn communities upon their own women. It feels appropriate that the first female Doctor should break her own policy of non-interference for the first time in order to intervene in a witch trial, and that she should ultimately face such a trial herself.

For the first time this series, drama is generated by the Doctor’s gender. Interestingly, her treatment continues a grand tradition of the Doctor being ignored, belittled and threatened by the authorities, fighting to be listened to, to be permitted to save the day. Yet this is the first time such a thing specifically happens because of her identity. King James (Alan Cumming) is happy to trust an outsider, bestowing Graham with the role of Witchfinder General – he just isn’t happy to trust a woman. A traditional piece of storytelling is enabled by our ongoing contemporary conversation on gender.

As in Rosa then, Graham, the white man of the group, is an ally thrown into a reluctant position of privilege, an egalitarian mistaken for a ruler. A well-known Doctor Who format turned on its head by the changed gender dynamic, in turn allowing more for a companion to do.  Yaz also gets a more pro-active role, her police officer background coming to inform her character better, as she instinctively heads into the community to find answers. Ryan gets a more comic turn for this episode, although the running joke of his unwanted attention from King James does, on reflection, smell a bit of ‘gay panic’ – not the best judged comedy this series has done.

By now, our team feels fully formed and we’re sure that we know them. So, as with Kerblam! last week, we can enjoy a fantastic guest cast too. Alan Cumming in particular shines as King James, theatrical flamboyance met with perfect, calculated control. Every tick and every glimmer of the eyes feeds into this masterful performance of a man fixated and warped by personal loss. Siobhan Finerran is brilliant as Becka Savage too, an embodiment of individualism against community. Her self-preservation comes at the expense of all the women around her, and her shame is finally exposed when those she has sacrificed group together against her.

And so we come to the monsters themselves. After our last two trips into history, where the drama was distinctly human, it feels almost disappointing to return to a story that explains away a mythical threat as alien activity. But the reveal of the Morac as our witches holds together better than similar pivots that spring to mind from previous stories, like The Stones of Blood (1978) or The Curse of the Black Spot (2011).

Crucially, this fits tonally, and it also successfully treads a fine line, giving a story about witch trials the witches we’d expect to see, but also emphasising that those tried as witches remain victims. The witches we see are terrifying, but they are reanimated bodies of innocent people, unjustly treated by those around them, and at the mercy of a malign, outside. In a story that is embarrassingly Doctor Who’s first in 35 years to be both written and directed by women (the last one was excellent too), it’s an aspect that feels brilliantly judged, and depressingly apt.


Doctor Who: Kerblam!

Not for the first time, I’ve tuned into Doctor Who having just made a criticism of the previous week, only to have the concern addressed head-on by that evening’s episode. Just so, last week, I expressed concern that the Doctor had seldom felt a leader so far thie year. In Kerblam!, she feels in full charge of the situation, the leader of her pack for the first time in the series. Kerblam! is fantastically old-school in its format, and this serves all our characters the best they’ve been served all year.

Following the familiar pattern of a distress call received, a mystery uncovered, a problem resolved, Kerblam! uses this shape  to its advantage. That I was struck by how quickly things were moving shows that the series has been missing the odd episode like this. We know the rhythm of this story, how it should proceed, so not a single line is wasted – every moment feeds into character, everyone has their part to play in the episode, and it’s all done with economy and pace.

The Doctor is here as we’ve always known her to be, at once the outsider and the moral authority in a world where all’s not well. Ruffling feathers, sticking her nose in and righting a terrible wrong – all the while encouraging everyone she meets to be who they know themselves capable of being. And her companions all have such moments where they capitalise on their skills, or challenge themselves, and come into their own. Ryan hurling himself down the conveyors with Yaz, whose own experience as a police officer finally arises without a sense of being shoehorned in – their characters are reinforced by their every line.

Man of the people Graham, at first providing comic relief, quickly provides some of the greatest in-roads for the plot. As with The Woman Who Fell to Earth and Rosa, and his reliance on bus drivers for information, here with Charlie (Leo Flanagan), he learns vital information about the infrastructure and the workings of Kerblam! working in maintenance. Another line of work often forgotten, even looked down upon, yet essential. And he does so with the characteristic warmth Bradley Walsh brings to the part every week. What an asset he is to the series.

None of this focus on the leads hampers the guest cast either, and as the TARDIS team split up they each meet new characters we come to know and care about at once. We love Dan (Lee Mack) and want him to be reunited with his daughter – it’s a terrible moment when he’s suddenly killed. Similar can be said for Kira (Claudia Jessie), whose death, like Grace’s in episode one, feels a terrible cruelty to inflict simply for the sake of motivating another character. (Even if, on this occasion, that is a calculated cruelty within the story itself, inflicted by the Kerblam! system onto Charlie, it leaves a sour taste.)

They’re all character types we know: the hard-working family man, the young, burgeoning office couple. The familiarity helps us care faster. But there are some subversions too – Julie Hesmondhalgh gives a fantastic turn as futuristic HR manager Judy, a character we expect to be cold, perhaps even a villain, who turns out to be caring, determined and incorruptible. Likewise, Slade (Callum Dixon) turns from nasty boss to secretive investigator, a goodie after all, although that pivot feels sudden, and works against the episode’s conclusion. One character less well-served by the necessary twists and turns of a whodunit, then – although the final reveal of Charlie as our killer strikes the right balance of surprising and satisfying.

Where the episode falls a little there is in finding consistency in its moral outlook. It’s refreshing to have an episode where the villain is someone whose politics we sympathise with. Charlie’s crimes stem from political idealism, a desire to see more people in work, after their abandonment by an automated society that now views a 10% human workforce as generous. It calls Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) to mind, where the whole of human history is nearly unwound by environmentalists who want to give the species a fresh start. The Doctor sympathises there, less so here. While last year’s Oxygen was decidedly anti-capitalist, now she goes to great lengths to stress that the system is not to blame, merely abuses of it.

Charlie’s violence is stopped, and Judy gives her assurances that the workforce will become majority-human. Which is all very well, but what of the abuses we’ve already seen? Slade might have turned out good, but earlier on we’ve seen him bullying Kira. We’ve seen the work is tedious for many, and keeps Dan perpetually separated from his family. All the while, the superbly creepy teammates ensure efficiency is at a high and joy at a low. And even good-hearted Judy admits that she can’t keep track of every single worker’s welfare. Yet the Doctor simply moves on at the end, content with a job well done.

I don’t hold the episode’s viewpoint against it, simply the elements it doesn’t quite reconcile. And that didn’t detract from how much I enjoyed the adventure. Kerblam! was one of the highlights of the series so far for me, a fantastic story of a kind it felt we hadn’t seen for some time. An alien menace that unsettles us by being creepy instead of brutal, jokes that were properly funny, a sense of colour in the world we were shown.

There was something of the McCoy era to it – a sci-fi satire of our society, from structural inequality to pop culture, where a sense of eerie decline prompts the Doctor to fix an as-yet unknown problem. A less garish The Happiness Patrol (1988), or a less youth-theatre Paradise Towers (1987). Even a messenger arriving in the TARDIS was straight out of 1988/89’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (and what a fantastically efficient piece of world-building the Kerblam! man is – we instantly get it). I loved the episode for that. What sat less well was that we’re used to seeing such a world fundamentally changing for the better at the end. At the end of Kerblam!, we have a sense that a couple of cracks remain.