UK TV

Review: Doctor Who – 2×9 – The Satan Pit

The Satan Pit

Well, after the Impossible Planet, The Satan Pit was a bit of a disappointment. All that suspenseful creepy set-up, just to have most of the second part consumed by running up and down corridors, scrambling around ventilator shafts and a fortuitous appearance by the TARDIS to save the day? It all felt a bit of a waste. Where was the cunning plan by the Doctor to overcome the enemy? Where were the buckets of evil nastiness that had proved so unsettling the previous week? Where did Billie Piper’s acting talent go? It’s a bigger mystery than the Devil himself.

Basic plot: Rose and the miners escape the planet in a rocket; the Doctor throws himself down a hole, breaks a couple of jars and then rescues the people in the rocket using the TARDIS.

It could have been so much more, given the production team had Satan to work with as a villain, yet it became so conventional. Even the Ood seemed less menacing and more plasticky than last week.

It wasn’t awful, there was never a cringe-worthy moment and the Beast was a fantastic piece of CGI. But it could all have amounted to so much more, given half a chance.

And what was up with David Tennant? You’re not in the theatre again, love. You don’t have to shout every line to the back of the auditorium. You don’t have to compensate for lack of interesting dialogue by bellowing. In short, you are not Brian Blessed.

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Series 2 of The Sandbaggers
DVD and Blu-Ray reviews

Review: The Sandbaggers – Series 2


There’s much debate in connoisseurs’ circles about which of the various contenders is the best British spy show. It’s relatively easy to dismiss glossy and shallow shows like Spooks and older fare like The Cold Warrior. Serials such as Smiley’s People and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy put in considerable competition, although may be too lacking in action for some. Most arguments eventually narrow down to two shows: Callan and The Sandbaggers.

While Callan has the slight edge in terms of dialogue, characters and generally downbeat atmosphere, The Sandbaggers has both greater realism and more intricate plotting that probably give it the eventual crown.

The Sandbaggers, which was broadcast in the late 70s and early 80s, was largely the work of one man Ian Mackintosh. Well known for his work on navy drama Warship, Mackintosh crafted a show that tried to depict the true world of spies and the decisions that lead up to their use.

‘The Sandbaggers’ of the show’s title are members of a special operations directorate of MI6. General purpose agents, they can be called in to help out with miscellaneous problems, whether that be bodyguard duty, helping a defector to escape from his home country in a ‘bust out’ or even assassination. The Sandbaggers may not be James Bonds, but they wind up in as many dangerous situations and frequently end up the worse for them.

Throughout the three series of The Sandbaggers, the directorate is headed by former Sandbagger Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden), director of operations. Burnside is a hawkish, ruthless man, moulded by the sharp end of espionage, whose one care in all the world is the proper performance of his job and the safety of his Sandbaggers. There is literally nothing Burnside wouldn’t do if the job demanded it of him or if he thought it was the right thing to do to win the day or support his Sandbaggers.

Unlike more action-packed shows, most of The Sandbaggers’ scripts revolve around Burnside attempts to cajole the mandarins of Whitehall, his superiors in MI6 – including the services’ heads, C and his deputy – and his opposite numbers in allied countries into doing his bidding. More often that not, each story revolves around Burnside being stymied by political lack of will, the timidity of others or, equally commonly, the far greater humanity and common sense of those he needs to persuade. Equally commonly, Burnside’s circumventing of the rules or some quick thinking by the lead Sandbagger, Willy Caine (Ray Lonnen), save the day, although usually not without some cost – either to Burnside’s career prospects or in human life.

Season two opens a year after the end of the first season. That saw Burnside commit one of the most supremely ruthless and jaw-droppingly calculated and self-sacrificing acts ever seen on British television. The repercussions from it are still being felt a year on, with Caine no longer trusting Burnside and Burnside even more destructive – and self-destructive – than before.

In “At All Costs”, Burnside breaks Foreign Office rules and travels to East Germany to rescue his most junior Sandbagger, who has been injured during a bust out. Desperate to avoid another loss, Burnside finds himself forced to make a difficult choice. As usual, the outcome isn’t good, but is the best that could be hoped for.

Caine is tired of being a Sandbagger and wants to resign in “Enough of Ghosts”. But Burnside gives him one last mission, after the permanent secretary to the Foreign Office – his former father-in-law, confidante and occasional enemy – is abducted by suspected terrorists. All is not as it seems however and Caine finds he may be too good to leave the directorate, no matter how much he thinks he wants to.

Caine finds his skills called upon unexpectedly during “Decision by Committee”, when the plane home from his latest mission is hijacked. The real intrigue, however, comes from Burnside’s attempts to get government approval for the SAS to storm the plane, even though it’s on foreign soil.

“A Question of Loyalty” sees Sandbagger 2 Mike try to ‘bust out’ a defector, only for the operation to go wrong. Did Mike make a fatal mistake like the station chief reports or was the station chief at fault? And will the inept Deputy C believe the Sandbagger or the fellow diplomat? Nothing works out quite as expected and Deputy C ends up with more layers than his previous antics would suggest.

“It Couldn’t Happen Here” raises the spectre of conspiracies in the JFK Assassination, years before it had become de rigeur. More importantly, it asks the question “Could MI6 follow the CIA or FBI and assassinate a member of the government – even if they knew him to be a spy?” It’s an eye-opening episode with neither Burnside, who favours the disposal of the spy, nor C, who strictly forbids such an act of treason, ever shown to be in the right – both can see the disadvantages to their beliefs as well as the advantages. The eventual conclusion is typical Sandbaggers and typically unsettling.

The last episode “Operation Kingmaker” follows Burnside’s attempts to thwart the rise to the position of C of a personal enemy. To do that, he has to do the unthinkable – try to get the deputy C promoted, despite his obvious inadequacy for the role. While in no way as explosive as the season one’s conclusion, “Operation Kingmaker” sees something unbelievable happen, with Burnside being outfoxed by others even more adept in the ways of intrigue than himself.

Acting quality is somewhat varied in the episodes, with Marsden and his fellow civil servants giving fine performances; Lonnen is likeable enough but lacks the gravitas to be totally convincing as an ex-paratrooper turned spy. The other Sandbaggers, including a young Michael Cashman, are moderately uninspiring, as are most of the guest cast, although there are particularly fine turns by the likes of Wolf Kahler among others. However, there are no performances that actually drag the show down.

Compared to modern shows like 24, The Sandbaggers is slow-moving and visually unchallenging. It has no incidental music whatsoever. Much of the screen-time is taken up with statically shot arguments between talking heads in brightly lit 70s offices. The rest of the time is spent with silent, meandering walks by Marsden through London and film work in whatever part of the YTV area is being used as the country of the week.

Yet for all that, The Sandbaggers remains as enthralling and disturbing as it was 25 years ago. There’s little daring-do, few bullets fired and people die brutally and with disturbing regularity, often because of decisions taken hundreds of miles away from them. It’s not the escapist fare most people are used to, but it’s essential viewing for anyone who wants to see a spy show whose only problem was a lack of budget.

PICTURE AND SOUND QUALITY

Picture quality is poor, with no attempts having been made to remaster the show. Sound quality is fair to good.

EXTRAS

Unlike the equivalent Region 1 release, there are no extras on this two-DVD set.

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UK TV

Review: Doctor Who – 2×8 – The Impossible Planet

The Impossible Planet

Well that was rather good, wasn’t it? It’s been a long time since we’ve had a proper horror story on Who* and they really pulled out all the stops this time to give us a 12A version of Event Horizon. In fact, it was all rather unsettling, almost as unsettling as going to the BBC’s Doctor Who site right now with the sound on your computer turned on. Go on, I dare you.

Back to the plot.

The Doctor and Rose land on a really alien, far away planet that (yes, yes!) looks very much like a quarry. Actually, they land in a mining colony. Good old mining colonies. What would Doctor Who do without them? Or quarries for that matter.

It’s an old planet, with writing on the walls so archaic the TARDIS can’t translate it. The planet is in geostationary orbit round a black hole, which, as the Doctor points out to make sure everyone gets the episode title, is impossible. They also find the Ood, who are some odd slave-creatures with tentacles for mouths and who like to communicate telepathically.

So far, so creepy. But we then skulk around in the dark for 45 minutes, having the heebie-jeebies put into us, as it becomes apparent that there’s something rather scary and demonic buried below the surface of the planet – something that’s already having a rather scary effect on the Ood, as well as the inhabitants of the mining colony.

I really, really liked this one. There were some genuinely frightening moments that should hopefully still have younger viewers traumatised. Direction, set design, effects, dialogue, plotting: all were first rate. And for the first time since the show came back last year, there was some decent, atmospheric incidental music that didn’t make you cringe in despair.

Billie Piper finally relocated her acting talent this episode and turned in a fine performance. David Tennant** was on good action hero form, but it was also nice to see the Doctor getting to be all scientific for the first time in 20-odd years, de-stigmatising maths for school kids everywhere and thus bumping up the UK’s future GDP by a couple of points. The cliffhanger was a little drawn out, but the impending coming of the Beast from the pit was a fantastic ending all the same.

All in all, it seems, much like last year, that it’s not till around episode eight that the production team really manage to get their groove back. But when they do, they really can turn in some fine tele. Unlike last year, though, which had about two episodes that I would voluntarily watch again (maybe only one, actually), there’s four from this season that I’d happily watch again, so clearly they’re improving as well.

One last thing: it seems that if you want to someone to do the voice of Satan and you want it done right, you need to hire Gabriel Woolf. Last heard on Doctor Who as the voice of Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars (Sutekh/Set/Satan – you see?), a performance that scared the bejesus out the nation and Mary Whitehouse back in 1975, the delightful 73-year-old made a triumphantly scary return as the voice of the Beast. I think he needs to start voicing his own greetings card range. He’d make a fortune.

PS: Not sure what long-term Who fans are going to make of a third explanation for Satan on the show***, but frankly who cares?

Footnotes to avoid my relentless parenthetic text

*Tooth and Claw was of the horror genre but not especially horrifying, unless you find the idea of a man turning into a wolf horrifying. Which it isn’t.

David Tennant as Casanova** Sigh. Here you go.

*** Fourth if you count The Awakening

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US TV

Season finales: Numb3rs and Medium

It’s the last of the finale guides for this year (unless I missed a show) and so it’s time to deal with everything that didn’t fit into any neat categories.

Numb3rs

Numb3rs

After a pretty insipid season that lost most of the things that made the first season so good, we have… a pretty insipid finale that veers into even worse territory. Don’t fret since there’s no real cliffhanger, other than the possibility that we won’t bother tuning in next year.

Tension factor: 2/10.

Mediumfinale

Medium‘s had a pretty dull season, too, this year, lacking the sparky dialogue and situations that gave it such a good start. The finale does at least give us a good ending to the season, thanks to an alternative universe episode in which Allison burns her arm on an oven grate and winds up married to David James Elliott from JAG. It has some nice moments and is more of a paean to married life than a finale, but it was still nicely heart-warming. No tension whatsoever to affect the nerves once we get into alternative universe territory, although the opening suggests that something more drastic is going to happen. The episode, however, is more the visual equivalent of a mug of Ovaltine than a thrill ride at Thorpe Park. On the other hand, it did feature Peter Wingfield as a baddie with no dialogue. Since you just don’t get Peter Wingfield in to sit there and say nothing, this suggests he might be back in a recurring role next year, which is probably enough to make most people tense.

Tension: 1/10-7/10

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US TV

Season finales: Scrubs and House

In the penultimate of my series of finale guides this week, I’m having a look at two medical dramas: House and Scrubs (no, I won’t be covering Grey’s Anatomy: it’s pants).

House's finale

House

With no real story arcs to clear up, House could have just ended with business as usual. Instead, the season has a cracking and indeed shocking conclusion. There’s enough misdirection in it to make it hard for all but the most jaded to spot what’s going on. There’s also no pat resolution, making it a tense summer for the House fan. Although we can guess that the regular character in jeopardy will survive through to the next season, there’s a possibility that things won’t return to the status quo: indeed, the episode went through most of the possible changes that could occur, so you’ll be able to spend the wait working out which is the most likely.

Tension factor: 8/10

Scrubsfinale

Scrubs

This season’s been a bit rubbish, so it’s no surprise that the finale should be rubbish. Resorting to one pregnancy: that’s a bit tired, but reasonably acceptable. Resorting to two pregnancies: that’s starting to suggest desperation. But three pregnancies? Just how few ideas do you have to have left to try that? No real tension here, given that we’ve had no build up to these bolts from the blue, so don’t fret too much.

Tension factor: 2/10