Christmas. Christmas! CHRIIIIIISTMAAAAAAAAAS! It’s almost here! So I’ve grown up, so people tell me I’m too old for an advent calendar, so Santa’s not real*, so what? It’s still a great time of year, but if you’re struggling to find some festive cheer, why not curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a mince pie and watch these, the best Christmas episodes ever shown on TV ever.
*(Oh dear, I hope there aren’t any young kids reading this. Ah, well, Santa’s not real! Deal with it.)
BIG DISCLAIMER: These are the best Christmas episodes that I’ve seen. I’m still working my way through some TV shows, and there are of course many which I’ve never seen, so you may have a personal favourite from one of those shows that isn’t on this list. But don’t be angry, maybe mention it in the comments instead. It would be nice to get some recommendations from everyone reading this. If anyone’s reading this. Is anyone reading this?
While waiting for the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who to begin last Saturday, I did not envy Stephen Moffat. He had a near-impossible task to complete. He had to write an episode that would pay tribute to the show’s past without turning into a boring retrospective, lay down the foundations for the next decade or so of Doctor Who, introduce and establish a new, previously-unknown incarnation of the Doctor, re-introduce an old fan-favourite Doctor, continue the storyline of the current Doctor, quickly and efficiently mix all 3 together through some time-travel trickery, show the much-discussed-but-never-seen Time War even though surely no budget in the universe could do it justice, throw in a few surprises and twists and give Clara something to do. In just over 70 minutes. Oh, and, ideally, he should make all this fairly easy to follow for people who’ve never seen the show before – due to all the hype and the promotion the 50th anniversary received, there was bound to be a potentially-huge new audience tuning in.
Amazingly, he seems to have succeeded. 10 million people tuned into the UK broadcast of the special, and a quick surveying of the online reaction reveals near-universal praise for the episode. This is no easy feat – Who fans on the Internet can be notoriously difficult to please, and they’re usually complaining about how the show’s gone downhill since Moffat took over/Tennant left/Eccleston left/it was resurrected in 2005/Tom Baker left (delete as appropriate).
There were nonetheless a few complaints that I noticed, just the usual ‘this is utter nonsense’, ‘this is too complicated, I have no idea what’s happening’, etc. To the latter, I call bullshit. Unless you were staring at your phone for the first 20 minutes, or talking over everything, I fail to see how you could be lost. My mum, who knows the general gist of the show, tuned in to see what all the fuss was about, and even she seemed to get what was going on. The first few minutes can be a little confusing, due to the episode switching between three different storylines with three different Doctors in three different time periods, but a clever bit of visual shorthand – a fez and a time portal – makes it clear where in the episode’s narrative the characters are.
This is the part where I would normally put a brief plot summary, but since Doctor Who‘s plots often involve a big amount of time travel and messing with the past to change the future – in this episode especially – they’re a right pain in the arse to sum up in text, and they end up sounding far more complicated and convoluted than they appear when we’re actually watching the story unfold.
So let’s talk about John Hurt instead. John Hurt’s in this! John Hurt! He’s playing the ‘don’t call me the Doctor’ Doctor, who’s helping the Time Lords fight a seemingly-endless battle against Daleks that somehow gained access to time-travel tech. He steals the most powerful weapon in the universe, The Moment, a weapon that can go through space and time and lay waste to entire civilisations, planning to destroy both Daleks and Time Lords to end the horrible war. The weapon also has a conscience, so it can judge him and punish him for choosing to use it. This conscience takes the form of Billie Piper as super-powerful Bad Wolf Rose*, who urges the not-Doctor to see what his future selves are like, and what effect his use of the weapon would have, before he goes through with his big decision.
Quietly slipping under the radar with a minimum of fuss, my favourite new comedy of last year, Veep, returned for its second season on Sky Atlantic a month ago. Shamefully, the reason I’m only just writing about it now is because I didn’t even notice it was back.
Focussing on the seemingly-endless problems and arguments the Vice President has to deal with on a daily basis, Veep is a satirical comedy set in and around the West Wing. Power-mad politicians and desperate sycophants surround VP (or ‘Veep’) Selina Meyer, clamouring for her attention or trying to undermine her to make themselves look good. Or sometimes, they do both simultaneously.
It’ll be a familiar story to anyone who’s seen The Thick of It. Both shows were created by the same person, Armando Iannucci. Both shows take a cynical look at the incompetence and egotism present in the corridors of power on either side of the Atlantic. Both shows are populated with characters who are varying degrees of reprehensible – some are just sarcastic and tired, while others are soulless, awful human beings. Both shows revolve around its main cast of spin doctors and government figures trying to please the never-seen man upstairs (the UK Prime Minister and the President of the United States, respectively). Both shows are frequently hilarious and scathingly dark. Both shows are exceptionally well-written, with verbose, flowery dialogue colliding with acidic, barbed profanity all over the script. You will not find more varied and eloquent ways to call someone a fucking idiot anywhere else on television.
Veep is, in many ways, then, an American version of The Thick of It. But it’s also its own beast, with its own characters, issues and things to say. It’s far from being just a carbon copy of The Thick of It with a few names changed. The American political system offers plenty of targets for mockery and satire, possibly even more than the British one, and the crises the Veep and her staff face often have far bigger consequences than the ones that faced Malcolm Tucker and co. For example, the second season so far has played out during the resolution and fallout from an overseas hostage crisis.
The characters’ lives outside the office are also given more of a look-in: plots based around Selina’s daughter and divorce, Gary’s girlfriend and Amy’s family problems allow us to get a deeper insight into the characters (as well as, of course, providing plenty of triggers for more bickering banter). This stops the characters from becoming one-dimensional joke-machines and feel more like actual people. Flawed, horrible people, but still people, who we often can’t help but sympathise with.
With less than a month to go until Doctor Who‘s big 50th Anniversary Special, the advertising and build-up to the big day has really kicked off. There was that’50 years’ trailerwhich was shown after Atlantis a week ago, with another trailer – this one with footage of the special – and a rumoured mini-episode still to come.
All of this extra attention on the show could attract new fans who, overwhelmed with episodes, may be unsure of where to start watching, or even understand what it’s about. Well, basically it’s a sci-fi show about a time-travelling alien, and each episode could be set in any time, place or genre. You could start with the Ninth Doctor’s first episode, ‘Rose’, and go from there, but be prepared for some very inconsistent quality (in the first series there’s a really good World War 2 two-parter, but there’s also farting aliens. So…). Or you could start slightly later with the Eleventh Doctor’s first episode, ‘The Eleventh Hour’. You would catch up faster, and there’s a lot of good episodes there, but there’s also a long story arc involving one character which isn’t quite as good as it could have been.
There we go, done. Boom, sorted. Off you go.Have fun!
The rest of this blog post is for those who may have once been fans but gave up watching, having had enough of the increasingly, and rather unnecessarily, complicated storylines that made up much of Series 6. For those who watched the finale, in which all of time happened at once, with Winston Churchill riding on a mammoth, the leader of the Silence being quickly defeated somehow and River Song killing/marrying the doctor at the same time, though he’d actually faked his death, despite repeatedly being told that he really, actually, honestly, seriously was going to die, really this time, and oh for God’s sake.
After watching that, I can’t really blame people for throwing their hands up in the air and going ‘I give up! I quit! Fuck this show, no more!’ But it’s gotten better, honest. The overarching storyline has gotten simpler and, in Doctor Who logic, actually makes some sense. None of the episodes (though, of course, this is very subjective), have been awful, and a few come close to being classics. A lot of them have been fun, standalone adventures, instead of head-hurting, nonsensical, overstuffed crap like ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’*. And if you have been away from the show for a while and start watching the special, you might be a little confused.
*(For any Doctor Who newbies still reading this, yes, there really was an episode called ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’. And no, no they didn’t kill Hitler. I know, what a waste. And yes, that Winston Churchill on a mammoth thing really does happen, but don’t let that put you off. Also, why are you still reading this? There’s spoilers everywhere, go! Go!)
So, here’s a quick, spoiler-free summary of every episode in series seven. In all, there’s only about 5 or 6 episodes that you absolutely should watch. They aren’t necessarily the best ones, but they are the most story-heavy. The rest of the series is also a rather good, a fun mix of adventure, horror, noir, Victorian silliness and dinosaurs.
I’ll try to keep this short, but no promises, alright?
If you’re interested in the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who but haven’t watched the show for a couple of years and are thinking of jumping back in before the special airs on November 23rd, this is the guide for you. Here’s a mostly-spoiler-free summary of each episode of series seven, with the story-crucial MUST WATCH episodes clearly marked, and the fun standalone episodes briefly reviewed so you can pick and choose which ones to watch depending on whether they sound good to you.
The Doctor has become a miserable recluse after the events of ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, staying above the clouds over Victorian London. Vastra, Jenny and Strax keep those who want to meet him at bay, but one girl gets through (by saying something which is supposed to seem clever, but is really massively coincidental). The girl is troubled by something lurking in a frozen pond and asks the Doctor for help. The Doctor recognises her voice, but can’t quite place where it’s from. Together, they fight baddies Sir Ian McKellen and Richard E. Grant in a fun Christmas Special.
THE BELLS OF SAINT JOHN – MUST WATCH
The Doctor is jolted into action when the phone on the TARDIS rings. Clara is on the other end of the line, a girl who looks just like the Clara in Victorian London, and sounds like the soufflé girl in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’. But that’s impossible, isn’t it? Who is this Impossible Girl? Meanwhile, something weird is in the Wi-Fi, and the Doctor has to sort it out. Back to being happy and bouncy, rather than glum and Scrooge-y, he indulges his inner action hero to save the day yet again.
What happens when a stylish, gripping suspense-thriller crashes into an awkward British office comedy? You get The Wrong Mans, the BBC’s newest sitcom starring Mathew Baynton and James Corden. Sam (Baynton) works for the local council, and seems slightly scared and bewildered just by everyday life in general, so when he becomes entangled in a huge, increasingly convoluted web of mystery and violence, he adopts a permanent wide-eyed look of complete terror. Phil (Corden) is an unpopular co-worker who relishes the chance to live out his fantasies and go on a mission to save a beautiful woman from evil kidnappers.
The trouble begins when Sam witnesses a car accident while walking to work. After hyperventilating into a paper bag for a bit (which he does so often it’s practically a hobby), he calls the emergency services. After the road is clear and the driver’s on his way to hospital, Sam finds a phone ringing in the snow. He answers it, and we’re off! You see, the man on the other end of the line has taken someone’s wife hostage and unless her husband turns up at 5pm that afternoon with a lot of money, she’s going to be killed. The kidnapper doesn’t know that he’s talking to the wrong man.
Sam has other problems to deal with, like looming deadlines, being late to work, a co-worker mocking him and a boss who recently became an ex-girlfriend. These problems get forced onto the back burner as he tries to find the man from the car accident – he must be the owner of the phone in the snow, surely? And, surely, that man will know what to do, he can sort things out and make everything okay, right? Right?
With the kidnapper warning him not to call the police, Sam confides in the mail room worker, Phil, who could not be more enthusiastic about the horrible situation Sam finds himself in. Where Sam sees a stressful hassle, Phil sees an opportunity to do something extraordinary. Where Sam would rather give the phone to someone else and let them deal with it, Phil insists they take matters into their own hands and negotiate with the kidnappers face-to-face. Of course, as the series progresses and the odd couple realise they’ve landed in some pretty deep shit, Phil becomes less gung-ho about the whole thing, borrowing Sam’s paper bag as panic sets in.
Some people react to the sight of James Corden like vampires do to sunlight, but I quite like him. His loud, brash confidence works well when playing Phil, and he can also do smaller, subtle moments of comedy that made me burst out laughing. And if you do find him irksome, well, in this show at least, his character is supposed to be a bit annoying at first.
Baynton, meanwhile, is the best thing about The Wrong Mans. He’s gawky, awkward and exceedingly polite even when confronted with some very nasty characters. As I mentioned earlier, he also has this wonderful deer-in-headlights look that is hilarious.
Or perhaps I just like him because while watching The Wrong Mans I often thought, ‘Yeah that’s probably how I’d react too.’
It also helps that the supporting cast is packed full of familiar faces. Hey, that’s Jamie from The Thick of It as a menacing copper! Hey, isn’t that Dawn French? Hey, the kidnapper looks so familiar, oh, what is he from?
I did have some reservations at first. Some of the jokes in the first episode fell flat, or felt a bit forced – e.g, the hospital bed mix-up. And would Sam really wait that long to call the police after picking up the phone? But, after a little suspension of disbelief, I thoroughly enjoyed the first four episodes (There’s two more, one this Tuesday, and one next week). Positive reception from critics and viewers, as well as high ratings, make a second series very likely, which is great news.
The Wrong Mans is also surprisingly gripping at times. There’s a tricky balance between comedy and drama that the show has to make, and it usually does it quite well. After a lot of silly jokes and awkward cringe comedy, there’ll be a sudden shock, a twist, a ‘What?!’ moment, and the episode will lurch back into action-thriller mode. Every episode also ends at the best possible moment, leaving us desperate to find out what happens next. It’s really good fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all ends. How much worse can it get? Will Sam ever regain his dignity after episode 4? How many more twists and turns can there be?
The BBC have clearly sunk quite a bit of money into it. Before the first episode aired, adverts were everywhere and media hype was high. It also has the all-star cast and stylish cinematography of a big-budget action movie, but with British comedians instead of Tom Cruise. It’s well worth a watch.
P.S. Speaking of stylish things the BBC have spent a lot of money on (yes, that’s a very tenuous link, but I really want to mention this), have you seen this? In anticipation of Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary special next month, the BBC have made a special trailer celebrating the show and its history. All eleven doctors (though some are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them), plenty of monsters and a couple of companions pop up during the minute-long trailer, which also includes a creepily-realistic colour version of the first Doctor, William Hartnell. There’s no footage of the actual special, which may sound like a bad thing, but, frankly, after watching this I don’t really care. Have a look!
Three episodes in, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is a disappointment. Setting a show in the aftermath of a a superhero-versus-aliens battle and focusing on the people who have to clean up the mess is a great idea. Looking at the reaction of everyday civilians to aliens and gods fighting in the streets, that’s fantastic. Unfortunately, there’s some rather big problems that’s stopping the show from being as good as it could be.
The biggest problem is the cast of characters. I don’t really care much about any of them. The S.H.I.E.L.D. plane could get smashed up by an angry Hulk* mid-flight, with Agent Coulson being the only survivor, and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Well, maybe I’d miss Fitz a little, I’ve liked him a bit since noticing that he named his little search robots after the seven dwarves from Snow White.
*(OK, slightly redundant -is there any other kind of Hulk?)
But, as a whole, the team isn’t very interesting, and that’s an issue when the first half of the episode is them trading quips and exposition with each other. If we don’t care about them, then half of every episode is just boring, talky build-up to the actual mission, rather than being any fun to watch.
There’s Skye, a ‘hacktivist’ who has a mysterious back-story (that’s one) and might be a double agent, but maybe not really. There’s Fitz and Simmons, two scientists who talk over each other with pseudo-scientific gobbledygook (though, to be fair, this was only a problem in the pilot, since then they haven’t done that as much) and walk a very thin line between annoyingly-quirky and endearingly-quirky. Which side they fall on changes on a scene-by-scene basis.
There’s that guy whose name I can’t remember, a top field agent with a mysterious back-story (that’s two) who acts as a lone wolf who doesn’t like working in a team. So, you would think, forcing him into a team would be interesting and exciting as sparks fly between him and his reluctant teammates. It’s not. Maybe because he doesn’t have any chemistry with any of his team. Or maybe it’s because he seems to have exactly one facial expression, which he used during the ‘big reveal’ of his tragic upbringing (talking about his brother beating him, while looking like he was thinking about what to have for lunch) and during a tense undercover mission (where he looked slightly confused, and like he was wondering what to have for lunch). It’s, well, it’s not great.
There’s also Melinda May, a legendary field agent who decided to stay out of combat after an incident in her mysterious back-story (that’s three). She’s reluctantly returning to field work, but hasn’t been given a lot to do so far.
The one shining light in this fairly bland crew is Agent Coulson, coming back from the dead and generally being as cool and clever as he was in the Marvel movies. He thinks he’s returned after a quick resuscitation and some rest in Tahiti (It’s a magical place, apparently*), but the real circumstances of his return have been hidden from him. So, in other words, he has a mysterious back-story (that’s four!). Coulson’s great, but he alone can’t carry the whole show.
*Incidentally, if Tahiti’s Tourism Board don’t jump on this free publicity and change their slogan to ‘It’s a magical place!’, they’re missing a golden opportunity. An offhand mention on a TV show can do wonders for tourism. Belize was used as shorthand for murder on Breaking Bad but the tourism board still managed to use that to their advantage.
Gosh, this has been really negative so far. And on my first blog post, too. There’s still plenty to like about Agents. Like I said, Coulson is great, Fitz is okay and the other characters…well, there’s plenty of time for them to improve. The show’s been given a full 22-episode order, so by the end of the season finale this could be a great, fun hour of television. The show has clearly had a lot of money spent on it, so the special effects are fantastic and the action scenes are well-done, if a little cheesy. The Marvel universe allows for some really silly/cool stuff, like the scene in the last episode where an element that can control gravity went nuts, forcing Coulson to confront the scientist responsible for it on the floor, then the ceiling, then on the walls. More of that please. The Nick Fury cameo in the second episode was also a treat, a television version of the post-credits stinger used so often in the Marvel movies. Also, as of the end of the last episode, Coulson has accidentally created a supervillain that can mess with gravity, which could be AWESOME in future episodes.
So, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has problems. There’s frequent dull patches and characters who we know so little about it’s difficult to care, especially when one of them can’t act (looking at you, Mr Lone Wolf). But there’s potential. A lot of potential. A few months from now, when the characters have developed more and the writers have noticed the reviews and the feedback and started fixing things, this could be wonderful. At the moment, I give it five more episodes, then I’m done watching.
P.S. Jesus, that’s a lot of text. If you’ve read this far, congratulations! The other posts won’t be this long, I promise. Well, probably. Maybe. Possibly…
2014 EDIT As it turns out, I lied. They will be this long.