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Friday, 3 January 2014

Matt on the Box: This Week's TV Highlights: Doctor Who, Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey, Death Comes to Pemberley, The Thirteenth Tale and Two Doors Down

Welcome to this final Matt on the Box instalment of 2013 where I look back at the major shows that played in the funny week between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve.

Starting with three programmes from Christmas Day we find the show that got the biggest peak audience on December 25th in Doctor Who. Obviously a lot of those viewers turned in due to the intrigue of seeing how Matt Smith's Doctor would turn into the version played by Peter Capaldi. But before all that the show had a Christmas-themed episode to get through and, not wanting to disappoint, invented a town called Christmas. But this town, which The Doctor vowed to defend, was on the planet of Trenzalore and as we know that planet contains the grave of The Doctor. After being force-fed a ton of Whovian mythology we learnt that Smith's Doctor couldn't regenerate due to several previous episodes. However, as all of us knew Capaldi would eventually arrive on screen, there was no sense of danger that The Doctor could die forever. Luckily his companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) convinced the unseen Time Lords to give The Doctor a new lease of life which he used to battle The Daleks one last time. One of the ways I felt this episode fell down was by not really devoting enough time to the regeneration. When compared to Tennant's departure, where he got to encounter all of his former allies, Smith's exit was fairly poor. All we really got a brief glimpse of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) before Capaldi appeared complaining about the colour of his kidneys. Another issue I had was the structure of the episode, which bounced between serious Who saga and some comedy bits in which Clara presented The Doctor as her date for Christmas dinner with her family. Ultimately the episode really didn't have any bite to it and felt fairly episodic despite featuring a menagerie of The Doctor's former enemies. I've personally been a fan of Smith's Doctor throughout his run and did feel a little disappointed by this swansong. But at the same time I have confidence that Capaldi will carve a new identity for The Doctor away from young men who are secretly in love with their companions. I just hope that Stephen Moffat stops drowning in The Doctor's backstory and instead gets back to the roots of the show namely a intelligent alien in a police box battling scary monsters.

Period drama was also the order of the day throughout Christmas with two shows battling it out for supremacy on Christmas day itself. Firstly we had Call the Midwife, which saw our favourite nurses and nuns band together to deal with an unexploded bomb. Predictably, during the mass evacuation in the town, a heavily pregnant woman is ready to give birth. But it is her husband, who is still suffering from flashbacks of what he did in the war, who is the real problem and presented the 'issue story' of this festive instalment. Elsewhere the former Sister Bernadette (Laura Main) is preparing for her small wedding to the affable Dr Turner (Stephen McGann) but she has decided not to invite any of her Nonnatus House colleagues to the event. A Christmas special featuring tuberculosis, shell shock and a bomb blast doesn't exactly instil pride in most but somehow the team behind Call the Midwife pulled it off. Heidi Thomas has created a group of likeable characters all of whom share tremendous chemistry. The picturesque squalor of Poplar was perfectly utilised in this episode while the theme of evacuation had a 'we're all in this together' sort of a vibe. I personally feel that Laura Main is the star of Call the Midwife and I love how Thomas is exploring her character's storylines now she's ditched the habit and found her man. Though it can't ever be called original, Call the Midwife was a traditional piece of period drama that was never too taxing on a turkey-stuffed viewer like myself. Though I could probably do without Miranda Hart just generally overall I can't say that I didn't enjoy this Call the Midwife special.

Much has already been written on this site about the Christmas Special of Downton Abbey and while I don't wish to retread any old ground I thought I'd just throw some of my own thoughts in about the show as a whole. Firstly the much-promoted appearances of Paul Giamatti and Shirley MacLaine as Cora's brother and mother were fairly uneventful. The two were seemingly sidelined with a silly story in which MacLaine's Martha was pursued by a money-grabbing lord while his daughter attempted to get closer to Giamatti's Harold. Though both attempted to rise above the material they were given I didn't feel they added much to the festivities as a whole. Talking of festivities there wasn't a hint of Christmas in this special and instead we ended with the servants trekking off to the seaside to end their stay at the Crawley's London residence. One of my biggest grievances was all of the little in-jokes relating to the family sparing the future Edward VIII from a public scandal. Julian Fellowes seemingly thought he was being ever so clever by making references to The Prince of Wales ending up with a suitable European princess. On the positive side I was completely captivated by one of the only continuing storylines that of Edith's decision to give up her baby to a Swiss family. Edith (Laura Carmicheal) was still considering the possibility that her lost love was somewhere in Germany and ultimately decided to bring the baby back to the UK to live with one of the farmers on the Downton estate. Though there's lots to like about Downton Abbey, namely in the artistic direction and overall style of the piece, this Christmas special pointed out the glaring flaws in the format namely that there are far too many characters to get me interested in more than one particular storyline. I hope that Julian Fellowes presents a more focused series five that once again centres around the Crawley family trying to cope with the way that the 20th century is changing their way of life.

Moving away from Christmas day, but sticking with period drama, we have Death Comes to Pemberley. The adaptation of PD James' Pride and Prejudice sequel saw us reunited with dashing Mr Darcy (Matthew Rhys) and his new wife Elizabeth (Anna Maxwell Martin). The drama was chosen by the BBC to fill up three hours on this odd final week of December and I felt it more than suited the lazy evenings where most of us are off work. The story concerned a murder that occurs on Darcy's Pemberley estate, one which brings our hero face to face with his nemesis, the caddish Wickham (Matthew Goode). Wickham is accused of murdering his friend Captain Denny who is found shot in the woods following an alleged altercation between the pair. The drama then went on to explore the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth, which may not have been built on as solid ground as Austen lovers may have thought. I personally enjoyed the combination of the murder mystery story and the more romantic plot involving Darcy's sister (Eleanor Tomlinson) and her two potential suitors. Though she's technically too old to play the role of Elizabeth, I still found Anna Maxwell Martin to nail the character of the former Bennett sister who is now a little wiser but still is quite idealistic. She worked well opposite Matthew Rhys' Darcy and the two really portrayed a passionate yet volatile couple who were still very much in love. The stunning shots of the Derbyshire scenery really made everything great to look at while a great supporting cast, which included Trevor Eve, Joanna Scanlan and Rebecca Front, made even the smaller scenes feel important. Though I don't think it would've worked elsewhere in the year, Death Comes to Pemberley was an uncomplicated drama that was nice to look at, told an easy-to-follow story and was bolstered by some fine performances.

If you wanted something a little bit darker from your festive drama then The Thirteenth Tale would've been right up your alley.  The spooky drama focused on biographer Margaret Lea (Olivia Coleman) who was tasked with recounting the life story of novelist Vida Winter (Vanessa Redgrave). It appears as if Vida isn't the most honest narrator in the world and has told several interviewers differing versions of her upbringing. But, as she is now dying of terminal cancer, it appears as if Vida is willing to give Margaret the truth about her life, but on her own terms. Vida tells Margaret about her childhood growing up in the dilapidated Angelfield country house in which she and her twin often run amuck. As the story goes on, Margaret starts to believe in Vida's ghost stories and the biographical tale begins to mirror Margaret's own life. As an alternative to the rich costume drama that played over the Christmas period, The Thirteenth Tale was a perfect tonic. Director James Kent led the camera over the eerie Yorkshire moors which created a haunting backdrop for the drama. The Angelfield house became a character itself as its barren corridors had a negative effect on anybody who spent time there. With two actresses of the calibre of Coleman and Redgrave I already knew that the performances would be great and I wasn't disappointed. Coleman played Margaret as a typical everywoman who found herself swept away by a fantastical tale. Meanwhile, Redgrave was allowed to chew the scenery as the enigmatic yet damaged novelist. If I had a criticism it would be the anticlimactic nature of the twists in the tale that I didn't find satisfying given what had come before. Christopher Hampton had done such a good job of building up tension that the final revelation was a little disappointing. That being said, I still found a lot to like about The Thirteenth Tale which was a haunting and well-acted drama that has stayed with me for the last few days.

Finally, as we headed towards the New Year, the BBC presented us with one-off comedy Two Doors Down which dealt with a number of Scottish neighbours celebrating Hogmanay. The comedy's central couple are Eric and Beth (Alex Norton and Arabella Weir) who are dealing with the stresses of having to host the annual party. Their guests including their gay son and his partner (Kevin Guthrie and Greg McHugh), a couple of social climbers (Doon Mackichan and Jonathan Watson) and Beth's flirty sister Caroline (Daniela Nardini). Meanwhile, the couple's teenage neighbour Sophie (Sharon Rooney), is looking forward to seeing in the New Year with her friend Ashley (Jasmin Riggins) only for a couple of boys to get in the way. Of everything that aired over Christmas, Two Doors Down was the programme I knew the least about but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. For a programme that started life on radio, Two Doors Down had a number of satisfying visual gags that had me laughing out loud. Simon Carlyle's script was full of observational comedy and I feel that most of the audience would see themselves in one of the characters, even if they don't want to admit it. Despite some of his characters being painted with a broad brush, Carlyle never let Two Doors Down slip into cliché and I found that rather refreshing. The only problem I had with the show was the story involving Sophie and the youngsters as it didn't feel as fleshed out as the other plots. I also felt that the brilliant Sharon Rooney deserved to be in the show a lot more, but that's just a personal opinion. However, I have to say that Two Doors Down was a pleasant surprise and was a comedy that made me laugh out loud several times, something many of 2013's comedies have failed to do.

On a personal note, I'd like to thank everybody for reading my articles over the last year and hope you'll keep reading in 2014.

To read more of my TV thoughts follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites



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