It has been a couple of days since my last diary. This is NOT because I have been hiding behind the sofa. NOT AT ALL. I am NOT scared of werewolves. It is just that my cuddly zebra, Mr Stripy, ACCIDENTALLY fell down there and I have been getting him out. THAT IS ALL.
Here is Daddy Richard's review of episode two: "Tooth and Claw".
That was awesome.
In the few weeks before the series returned, there were rumours circulating that the creative team had given serious thought to swapping "New Earth" and "Tooth and Claw" in the running order, so impressed were they with the way that the second episode had turned out. For several reasons, I'm rather glad that they were clever enough to leave them in the order that they did.
Firstly, this was very much a "boys" episode – Kung-FU monks and soldiers and a werewolf for heavens sake! – and if anything was going to grab the FA Cup semi-final audience before they switched off it was that pre-title sequence. Last year, people were perhaps a little harsh about the direction of Keith Boak, but it was obviously a step up when Euros Lynn took the reins for "The End of the World" and "The Unquiet Dead". I don't know what he's been taking in the intervening year but someone seriously needs to give this guy a James Bond film to play with as his talents have gone stratospheric.
(And not just with wire-fighting monks and ramping the pre-title-sequence: other beautiful moments included the shot down the TARDIS central column to the Doctor and Rose enjoying their flight to 1979, oops 1879; the Doctor and the wolf separated by only the library door; the beautifully composed push-pull on Queen in the observatory, holding her cross with the telescope framed behind her; and the beautiful final "come to Scotland" shot of the TARDIS dematerialising from the highland moor.)
Secondly, there's the almost magical way that the Doctor Who production office can give the media just the right story to keep them plugging the series. As season opener for the most talked about series of the year last years and this, "New Earth" was bound to get a lot of the papers' previews. But a lot of those reviews came in the form of "well, this week's is pretty run of the mill, but next week's will blow your mind". Two plugs for the price of one.
And then the werewolf itself – and its above movie quality CGI rendering – managed to attract a lot of media coverage, carrying the series into another week of coverage and keeping up the public awareness. It was a unique hook that was pretty obviously stronger than any one individual thing in "New Earth", even the return of Lady Cassandra. Ironically, it was used in much the same way as the string of "monsters" (the Forrest of Cheam, the Mox of Balhoon, the Face of Boe, and all the rest) had been used last year to carry over the initial publicity rush from "Rose" to "The End of the World". (Of course, that was before Christopher Eccleston provided his own media hyperdrive.)
And thirdly, it's the question of ratings. Last week, "New Earth" pulled in a very respectable eight million viewers, and the BBC were delighted enough that it was making the news bulletins and Ceefax. In spite of this there was much griping from "the fans" that the series had gone off the boil and both the Mail and the Sun were running with "Doctor Who doomed" scenarios on the slightly ludicrous premise that the series hadn't achieved as many viewers as it had on Christmas Day. But the real test for an ongoing series is not just how many viewers it gets on the night, it is how many viewers it draws back the following week.
This week the viewing figures went up. Up by almost a million on the overnights.
Now pre-publicity about the werewolf might account for some of that, the carry over audience from the football might account for some of that, but clearly the majority of it is down to the fact that people who watched "New Earth" liked it enough to come back.
If "Tooth and Claw" had been first, then it would easily have overshadowed "New Earth"; this way around it's much harder for the knockers to do "New Earth" down; clearly it got a lot of things right.
So what about the actual story?
I think it was Jane Austen who first said, it is a fact universally acknowledged that a Doctor Who story in possession of the very best plot is in need of a base under siege. The remote Scottish retreat of Torchwood House, only one blocked railway line away from Balmoral, was perfect: all gloomy panelled corridors, period library, chains in the wine cellar and mad, deceased Laird McLeish's observatory in the roof.
Anyone familiar with Chekhov's Gun will have been immediately wondering "how is the Doctor going to use that big telescope?", but the resolution still didn't disappoint thanks to the clever twist of the Doctor solving not just the immediate problem but also deducing the existence of the trap-within-a-trap reason for there being a great big telescope up there in the first place.
Stir in the bit of historically true fluff about Prince Albert's obsession with getting the Koh-i-noor Diamond just right for extra flavour.
For the third adventure running it is the Doctor who solves the problem. He does do that ninth Doctor thing of bringing out the best in people around him, even if it costs them their lives: in this case Sir Robert gets to redeem his treason by taking on the werewolf with a sabre. But for the first time we get to see David Tennant be the Doctor for the whole episode with no post-regenerative trauma or body swap possession to distract. And wasn't he really rather marvellous? Just take the delight on seeing a real werewolf in full transformation, and again later when he and Rose take a moment to celebrate this in spite of their predicament. Or the strength when throwing on his glasses and declaring the library to be the best arsenal in the world. And the light moments too – "och aye" "no, don't do that" – played off well, coming naturally and unforced.
And, of course, there is Queen Victoria. Alex, who has just read Roy Jenkin's biography of Gladstone, was so cheered when she turned out to be a proper cow at the end. And of course, she sets up the Torchwood Institute. Explicitly, Torchwood House is a trap for a shape-changing alien set up by Prince Albert; and the Torchwood Institute is a trap for another shape-changing alien set up by Queen Vic.
Torchwood being rather more out in the open than last years Bad Wolf (nice nod to that as well, by the way) works better, I think, because we know this year where it is pointing and can add to – and play off – our expectations.
The Queen was played (by Pauline Collins) with charm and dignity, icy wit and a good about of steel. "The correct form of address is 'Your Majesty'," was brilliant. Pulling the trigger was even better. Yes, this was a Queen Empress who you believed could take down an assassin if she had to. People forget, I suspect, that Queen Victoria was no figurehead and considered herself absolute ruler of a quarter of the planet. That makes her a much less cuddly figure than last years "celebrity from history" Charles Dickens, no matter how much "we are not amused" larking about Rose and the Doctor thought they could get up to.
Oh, and did I mention the stunning werewolf? It is said that the Mill wanted to do better than the werewolf Professor Lupin from "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban". Do I really need to say that they succeeded? But also worth a mention is the pre-transformation wolf, doing the exposition thing to Rose, but such well written dialogue it was in no way clunky and, gosh, the villain actually has a cunning plan that makes a kind of sense. Lure the Queen to isolated castle. Bite her and possess her. Take over world. It's like Ghost Light, only somehow plausible. The Empire of the Wolf sounds terrific, it's almost a shame it died stillborn.
I hardly like to mention it, but there's a breed of Doctor Who fan (if I can use the word) who have had it in for Russell T Davies almost from before the word go. Never mind the fact that he is a genius, he didn't bring back Paul McGann / the Frock Coat / the Loom of Rassilon's Mouse etc. (delete according to taste.) Eager to fall on any plot hole, or any fall in the ratings, as proof that he has "Ruined Doctor Who For Everyone ™" with his "Gay Agenda ™" and "Soap Opera ™" scripts.
Just six words: Don't you think they're completely nuts?
This was Doctor Who right at the top of its game. Again, I'm reminded of the New Adventures where the series felt like a series of, not-so-much peaks and troughs but more peaks with only slightly less high averages in between. This was a peak.
Next week: Sarah Jane Smith. And company.