Saturday, 1 September 2012

TV PREVIEW: Doctor Who, Dallas, Mrs Biggs.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 1 September 2012.

Today, BBC1, 7:20pm

Wednesday, Five, 9pm

Wednesday, STV, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

TV's annual summer drought finally comes to an end with the return of two beloved hardy perennials, most notable of which is DOCTOR WHO. Now in its seventh series since its revival, it shows no sign of flagging under the auspices of ingenious show-runner Steven Moffat and – mark my considered words – one of the best actors to ever fill the Doctor's boots, Matt Smith.

If, like me, you felt the last series was bogged down somewhat by the convoluted Amy/Rory/River Song arc, then you'll be pleased to note that we've been promised a new series of self-contained “blockbusters”, presumably epitomised by Moffat's tremendous kick-starter, Asylum of the Daleks, in which the titular war-tanks come across as more unnerving and menacing than at any time since Rob Shearman's celebrated Dalek in 2005.

You'll doubtless have read that this adventure features more physical Dalek models – including several from Doctor Who's entire half-century existence – than ever before, making it something of a dark celebration of their iconic status. But that doesn't obscure a cracking yarn in which the Doctor, Amy and Rory are unwillingly press-ganged by their arch nemesis into “saving” a danger-strewn planet of insane Skarosians.

Full of sepulchral, claustrophobic corridors straight out of a classic '60s/'70s episode, it's an atmospheric setting swathed in rust, dust and cobwebs: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Whom. The compact storyline also throws up a couple of genuine shocks that I can't reveal for obvious reasons, but suffice to say they provide intriguing implications for the future of the series.

Scattering fine-tuned moments of wit and poignancy throughout – as well as a surreal detour resembling The Shining by way of Sapphire & Steele – it is, in typical Doctor Who style, a gripping, twisty horror romp fit for all the family. Visually, it's as impressive as usual, feeling richer and more cinematic than anything else on British TV. My only complaint is that – after redeeming herself last year – Karen Gillan as Amy is back to her semi-dislikeable, irritating ways, although that's thankfully offset by the charm and comic timing of the peerless Smith and Arthur Darvill as Rory. I'll miss the latter when he leaves along with Gillan later this year.

Fun of a somewhat different hue is triggered by the return of DALLAS, the glossy mega-soap which, save for a couple of late-'90s TV movies, hasn't graced our screens since the original series ended in 1991. Like Doctor Who before it, the writers have wisely foregone a reboot in favour of a continuation of the established saga of the Ewing clan, albeit with a new generation pushed to the fore.

And whaddya know, J.R's son John Ross has grown up to be as much of a smirking, Machiavellian reptile as his father, with sibling rival Christopher proving as benign as his adoptive dad, Bobby. So expect more Cane and Abel histrionics which threaten to TEAR THE FAMILY APART, while the old guard – represented by the likes of Larry Hagman and the astonishingly ageless Patrick Duffy – pull the strings and fret on the sidelines.

Cleverly, it manages to harness everything we loved about Dallas in the first place – that campy bombast and glowering melodrama – whilst never tipping over into outright self-parody. The younger cast may be typical US TV blandroids, but the rodent-like Josh Henderson shows potential as the villainous John Ross, and it's great to see Hagman – whose unruly eyebrows deliver a startling performance of their own – back in the saddle.

This sleek, ridiculous, incident-packed revival may well prove as addictive as the original in its prime. Channel Five – who are hardly known for showing hit dramas – have chosen wisely here.

And ITV, for all its faults, are undeniably skilled at presenting crime-based factual dramas which – despite boasting an innate sense of prurient interest – can never be accused of sensationalising or romanticising their subjects. So it is with MRS BIGGS, a handsomely-mounted five-part drama focusing on the wife of the notorious Great Train Robber.

Written by ITV's head of factual drama Jeff Pope, whose credits include Pierrepoint and See No Evil: The Moors Murders, it shows how the life of this innocent, bright, middle-class girl was rocked forever by her charming rogue of a husband. Although Ronnie is presented as a habitual petty criminal struggling to quash his urges for the sake of the woman he loves, Pope certainly doesn't make any excuses for his actions. And Charmian Biggs, although portrayed sympathetically, is often exasperatingly naïve in her devotion.

Sheridan Smith and Daniel Mays make for captivating, nuanced leads, ably supported by the likes of Jay Simpson as coolly sinister criminal mastermind, Bruce Reynolds. Framed as a tumultuous love story, it's a sensitive and revealing take on familiar territory, and far more thoughtful than the romping likes of Phil Collins vehicle Buster, which essentially treated the whole affair as a bit of a caper.

Mired in fag smoke and jazz, it also presents a convincing depiction of Britain's brown Formica '50s and early '60s, and shows a life of crime for what it is: an interminable mug's game. 

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