Reviewlet: Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal

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Going Postal is Sky One’s third Terry Pratchett adaptation. The first, Hogfather, seemed a bit of an odd choice, jumping into the middle of the Discworld series with a story about belief featuring an anthropomorphic Death as a hero, and though impressively put together it was a tough place to start for someone new to Pratchett. The second, The Colour of Magic, was rather more logically based on the first two books in the series, but they’re not my favourite of his.

Going Postal is a later Discworld book and features Moist von Lipwig, a con artist offered a choice between death and cake. Wait, not cake, I meant sorting out the Ankh-Morpork post office, fallen into disuse with the advent of The Clacks, an optical telegraph system. The Clacks exemplify the technological aspects that have steadily been introduced to the Discworld universe alongside its more magical origins, making it a more accessible analogue for our world, and the self-contained and comparatively straightforward plot of plucky underdog triumphing over corporate greed kept my non-Pratchett-reading wife interested where she’d wandered off during the previous two serials.

The production is lavish, with great attention to detail in the sets topped off by judicious use of CGI; apparently two million envelopes were addressed by hand to dress the Post Office, and even a minor location like a pin shop is transformed into an emporium to delight the most ardent pointy-fastening enthusiast. The performances are very good as well, Richard Coyle’s Lipwig holding things together (though I still can’t help but think of him as Jeff from Coupling) well supported by Ian Bonar and Andrew Sachs as Stanley and Groat in the Post Office, Charles Dance lends considerably more gravitas than a Culture ship name to Venitari, Claire Foy is a suitably threatening Miss Dearheart, but David Suchet slightly steals the show with a scenery-chewing anti-Poirot performance as Reacher Gilt, the villain of the piece. There’s a particularly lovely cameo from Sir Pterry himself right at the end as well. All in all an excellent way to spend a Bank Holiday, even for a newcomer to Pratchett.

Posted by Zoso at 5:43 pm

Bonekickers is no Survivor

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Alas, poor Bonekickers; I knew it, Horatio. A programme of infinite jest, how abhorred in my imagination it is! Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your crowbarring of Excalibur into wildly inappropriate historical settings?

Well, a quarter of it, in the form of Julie Graham, is in Survivors, which kicked off on Sunday for a bit of light-hearted post-apocalyptic fun. I’m not sure if it’s just the taint of Bonekickers, but I don’t think it’s a good sign if you’re willing the focal character of the first episode to die of the plague and being terribly disappointed when she doesn’t. Graham was clearly channelling Bonekickers at one point as, pulling up to a hospital and finding the automatic doors at the entrance jammed and unpowered, she used her archaeological imagination to figure out that rather than going to find another door (hospitals are notorious for only having one entrance, aren’t they?), the best course of action would be to ram through the automatic doors in her car.

Still, on the whole it wasn’t too bad, 99.9% of the population died off over the course of the episode, and our titular survivors conveniently all met up in about ten minutes at the end. We didn’t get to see as much of the others, so have fairly broad-brush introductions so far (doctor, sociopath, playboy etc.), with any luck they’ll come to the fore from tonight on and we can banish the spirit of Bonekickers into some ancient crypt for a couple of thousand year. Then set fire to it.

Posted by Zoso at 10:17 am

Doctor Who’s on First

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The BBC Archive has just released a collection of documents and images from around the time of the creation of Doctor Who. They’re really rather interesting, if you like that kind of thing; the original concept and background notes, a Radio Times preview and audience reactions (“a police box with flashing beacon travelling through interstellar space – what claptrap!”). Also, from 1962 and 63, two reports looking at the whole idea of science fiction drama on the BBC.

It reminded me of a couple of other recent posts about “gaming archaeology” for Origin Systems and MUD; like the BBC, some things may have been lost over time, but others are being preserved for the future. So long as the Bonekickers team don’t turn up and set fire to everything.

Posted by Zoso at 2:16 pm

Waiting on Warhammer

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So the European Warhammer Online beta didn’t quite go entirely to plan, as covered in far more detail elsewhere (particularly Book of Grudges, doing a splendid job with news and updates, plus cute skunks). It’s a bit of shame, I’d rather hoped to have a bit of a potter around on Sunday afternoon, but such is life.

On the plus side, I got to catch up with a few other things, so some brief reviewlets:

UFO: Enemy Unknown was my main gaming diversion, having just picked it up via Steam, still a wonderful game. No server problems or anything either, though the “fifteen year rule” is possibly a slightly extreme extension of the “three month rule”. I briefly fired up XCom: Apocalypse, but where the gameplay of UFO is somehow engraved in my brain I couldn’t quite remember what all the Apocalypse buttons did, so I’ll leave that until I can be bothered to dig out the PDF of the manual (or possibly the original paper manual, if I still have it in my Pile O’ Manuals).

Doctor Who: Logopolis, recorded from a SciFi Doctor Who weekend a while back. What in the name of buggery sod was that all about? Block Transfer Computation, mumbling weirdos holding back entropy to save the universe, a vital component being a replica of an earth computer circa 1981? Baffling, though enjoyably Doctor-Who-y.

Runaways by Brian K. Vaughn. I still have a big list of comics from the past ten years to catch up on, and somewhere around the top is “everything by Brian K. Vaughn”. Finally got around to the first volume of Runaways, and it was great. The story of a group of teenagers who discover their parents are supervillains, I’d been slightly hesitant about picking it up in case it was a bit Marvel: The Hollyoaks Years, and I really wasn’t sure I’d warm to the characters at first, but a few issues in I was hooked. Really effective ending as well, I’m looking forward to borrowing the second volume to see where they take it.

Posted by Zoso at 12:38 pm

Bonekickers: Week 6

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A brief digression back to week five to start with, being on holiday at the time and only just catching up; I thought the World War I plot generally worked, apart from the Genius Plan of nudging Germany and France towards peace by finding the remains of Joan of Arc (apparently because they’d been smuggled away from the English by a German monk). Maybe my appreciation of the political situation in 1917 is somewhat lacking, but that seemed a bit like suggesting the real driving force behind the armistice between Italy and the Allies in 1943 was a crack team of bakers who’d been parachuted in to make a load of Garibaldi biscuits as a symbol of the historic links between the nations. Hmm, I have an idea for an episode for series two… I like to think the episode started off with a half-sane plot, but the writer was ordered to crowbar in a reference to a Special Sword, and eventually managed to tone down the initial suggestion of Winston Churchill standing atop a tank, hurtling into battle at 4mph waving Excalibur before leaping off and having a swordfight with Kaiser Wilhelm II, into the Joan of Arc idea.

So on to the finale, and we discover, sure enough, that the Special Sword oh-so-subtly crammed into each of the preceding episodes is, of course, Excalibur, forged from a meteorite in (mumble) BC, passing down through history, but only into the hands of people involved in previous episodes of Bonekickers. Handy, that. There’s also Staggering Revelation II, from the end of episode five, that Magwilde and Viv are sisters, that the audience cares about less than going “ooh, look, it’s that one from Press Gang” when Dexter Fletcher turns up. Then we get a bunch of tedious waffle on Tennyson, Magwilde’s mothers notes, some secret society called The Disciples of Good Use whose primary purpose appears to be to stand around wearing white masks for no good reason and definitely *not* being the Masons or the Illuminati or anyone else who might sue (or send white masked assassins) and a general chase around sub-3-2-1 riddles to find Excalibur, which of course is in a lake. The episode finally picks up pace for the inevitable confrontation between Our Heroes and The Pointless Society, the absolute highlight of the entire series being ‘Dolly’ Parton advancing on knife-wielding cultists shouting a bunch of dates at them (this may seem like a really stupid idea, but it is of course a well-established technique from Fisher’s Guide To Non-Physical Violence) before yelling “don’t mess with me, I’m an archaeologist!” and hitting someone with a torch. Excalibur is plucked from the depths, seized by Chief Bad Guy, and, like every other historical artefact the team have come within a three mile radius of, destroyed when he swings at the team and misses. With the sword shattered, he promptly hops into the lake, and it’s home for tea and biscuits again.

The problems with Bonekickers really start with the main characters, the right team can carry off daft plots, but Magwilde in particular must be one of the least sympathetic lead characters of recent history, with emotions ranging from Quite Cross to A Bit Crotchety. Still, underneath that gruff, angry shell there was a heart of… angry gruffness. Were we really supposed to be rooting for her, or just hoping each week for some catastrophic misfortune? Viv and Ben barely got anything to do past being The Naive One Asking Questions and The Sensible One, the attempt at sexual tension between Ben and Magwilde was laughable, the amazing revelation of Viv being Madwilde’s sister was dull and pointless, only ‘Dolly’ Parton showed a few glimpses of character. Plot-wise… well, the less said the better, really, and that’s before trying to tie Excalibur into everything as a series arc. Still, the utter absurdity kept me watching, if only to find out quite how bad it could get. If it does make it back for a second series, I really hope they scale things back, focus on (some new and watchable) characters more, and less on finding (and setting fire to) AMAZING HISTORY and being pursued by a SECRET CULT for it on a weekly basis. Either that, or just abandon any pretence at even a nodding relation to reality and go with Boudica and Joan of Arc having a lightsabre fight in a lost nuclear submarine in Atlantis.

Posted by Zoso at 11:21 am

Bonekickers: Week 4

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So, week four and… well… it… they… I… I… I don’t think I can do this any more. The CGI Death Snake of Death, the simmering sexual tension (lacking only simmeringness, sexuality or tension: “grrr I am quite cross and jealous!”), the most desperate attempt yet at crowbarring Bath into being the pivot of the future of civilisation, the blatant infodumps (“When you were running around in loincloths going ‘ugh’ our civilisation had invented the electric lightbulb, the cheese and ham panini and interdimensional spaceflight! And you know all this anyway because we’re both archaeologists (and you gave the same bloody speech yourself ten minutes ago) but the audience might’ve forgotten!), the monumentally irritating child genius codebreaker…

On holiday for next week’s episode, but seeing as it involves a tank I feel compelled to Sky+ it. And then having made it through five weeks, it’ll be mandatory to see how they tie together the recurring plot themes in what, on current form, promises to be the most ludicrous denouement in the history of ever. Oh boy…

Posted by Zoso at 8:53 am

Bonekickers: Week 3

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So week two was a bit of an improvement on week one. The whole George Washington/Maroons/ancestor-of-”don’t call me Obama”-presidential-candidate business was arrant nonsense, but turning up late 18th century stuff wasn’t quite so loopy as popping down the second hand bookshop for a 14th century text, and gun toting racists were at least vaguely plausible as Villain of the Week as opposed to nutters in Knights Templar t-shirts beheading people down the local shopping centre. Could Plot Insanity be directly proportional to the elapsed time since the Mystery of the Week?

Based on last night, yes. Back to Roman times, and the insan-o-meter is off the scale. Earthquake uncovers New Old Stuff at the local swimming pool, and poor old Baby Archaeologist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Viv) follows in the footsteps of on-screen sister Martha as Doctor Who Assistant, helpfully piping up with “What’s going on?” whenever we need a chunk of exposition, “Who are you talking about?” when the rest of the team are being irritatingly smug over some smugly irritating bet, and calls Boudica “Boadicea” just to wedge in the change in pronunciation, in case viewers thought this week was all about a different Iceni warrior queen. Inexplicably she failed to be dragged off by Daleks or Silurians while shouting “Doctor, Doctor, I’ve been captured!”, maybe next week. Exciting Illegal Archaeology follows, as our team cock a snook at some busybody from the council who wants to keep people away under the feeble pretence that the area is terribly unsafe. What could possibly go wrong? If you said (a), “nothing”, EH EH! If you said (b), “the tunnels collapse and kill our protagonists”, EH EH!, no such mercies. If you said (c), “half the team toddle off to the labs while the other half stick around, get trapped by a cave-in and end up in a desperate race against time”, BING BING BING BING, we have a winner!

The half of the team anyone might possibly care about, Baby and Posh (Hugh Bonneville at least hams it up something rotten as dirty old man “Dolly” Parton, and lecherously points out that at least the audience can use their archaeological imagination when Viv’s around) head off for some Strontium Dog dating, which I think involves phoning up Johnny Alpha and asking if he bumped into Boudica at all during his time travelling escapades, leaving Scary and The Other One to get inevitably trapped. At this point, if we’re following the formula, the Bad Guys should turn up, mortal peril in the present trying to cover up or co-opt the past. Who will it be this week? Perhaps an ultra-nationalist political party, who use Boudica as their figurehead and can’t stand the thought of her having had a fling with some filthy eyetie? The deadly assassins of the Watling Street Chamber of Commerce, who stand to lose £1.34 in ice cream revenue from tourists hunting for Boudica’s true place of burial? No, we’re bravely breaking the formula this week, which is a bit of a relief, and the biggest present-day danger to the team is the head of department wanting someone to give a bit of a speech to some VIPs, AIEEE, THE PERIL! Well, that and an elaborate series of Roman traps involving fuel-air explosive based incendiary anti-personnel mines and the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, I think, I was slightly confused after we’d cruised gently past the straits of Historical Liberties and into the choppy waters of What The Fuck?

Still, being trapped underground at least gave our protagonists a chance to talk about their relationship. This seemed to entirely be based around the angle of a Christmas tree, most specifically it having been at “40 degrees”. If you didn’t see the episode and are thinking “that makes bugger all sense”, don’t worry, context really didn’t help. I think it was some attempt at capturing the essence of the slightly up-tight, in control, strait-laced chap versus the crazy maverick woman (surely the first such couple in on-screen history) who’s so out there her Christmas tree was at 40 degrees. Yes, 40 degrees. In case you didn’t catch it the first time, they keep banging on about 40 degrees, sounding like an advert for Ariel washing powder (it shifts stubborn stains, even at 40 degrees!) By the time they’re onto the gaping chasm of musical differences (one liked George Michael, the other one liked Queen; my god, I’m surprised they hadn’t killed each other with guns long before) I was desperately hoping we’d return to the previous formula, and the Bath chapter of a Roman re-enactment society would turn up, terrified the team are uncovering proof that their reproduction armour is ever so slightly anachronistic and ready to KILL to protect their secret. But no. There’s GAS! and EXPLOSIONS! and THE PETRIFIED CORPSE OF BOUDICA only MORE EXPLOSIONS AND STUFF SO IT ALL BLOWS UP and GAS, and Baby and Posh sprinting back from the labs armed with some Latin gibberish from a camgirl that sounded suspiciously like a Ted Rogers riddle from 3-2-1, only it didn’t lead to Dusty Bin but to a secret entrance to a shrine from whence the other two emerge, having managed to set fire to the most amazing archaeological find in history for the second time in three weeks, and it’s home in time for perhaps the most toe-curlingly awful speech of the whole episode, banging on about 40 BLOODY DEGREES again. Oy vey.

I fear there’s a limit to how far you can stretch stories about Amazing World-Changing Discoveries Contradicting All Previously Accepted Historical Fact. As a one-off, in a film, you can just about get away with it, but on a weekly basis? Next time out, Napoleon didn’t die on St Helena, he returned from exile AGAIN! and led a successful invasion of Britain, making it as far as Bath before being defeated by a coalition of forces led by Trotsky, Churchill and the Ogrons! So on Time Team they find a few fragments of stuff and vague traces of a couple of walls, and an artist comes up with a bit of a sketch of how the villa/manor house/village might have looked with varying degrees of artistic license; at least he doesn’t go “yes, and that bloke I’ve drawn there was called Geoff, and his favourite colour was green, and he owned three chickens called Neville, Cedric and Brian, and by the way he’s actually KING ARTHUR working UNDERCOVER with ROBIN HOOD to take down the SHERIFF OF NOTTINGHAM who was really VLAD THE IMPALER on HOLIDAY!”

Speaking of King Arthur, I’m not even *thinking* about the Mysterious Sword turning up in every episode of Bonekickers. If it’s anything less than Excalibur, which one of the team then wields in a battle against Darth Vader in the finale, I’ll be terribly disappointed.

Posted by Zoso at 9:54 am

Bonekickers: Week 2

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Sorry, no recap this week. Last night’s episode, as a drama, was an improvement on week one, but unfortunately that meant as a crazed work of ludicrous insanity it was a bit of a failure. Plenty of zany happenings, doubtlessly unrealistic archaeology and vastly unlikely coincidences, but mostly to the point of dramatic license rather than brain-popping incredulity (though that might only be in comparison to the first episode, and surely at some point they’re going to run out of hidden chambers that have remained undiscovered in mumble-hundred years… but not next week, according to the trailers). I’m hoping next week is a return to form and features undead Roman ninjas battling South American Libertadores in the Bath branch of WH Smiths.

Posted by Zoso at 8:44 am

Reviewlet: Bonekickers

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The new BBC1 drama Bonekickers was supposed to be Time Team (or possibly CSI) meets Indiana Jones. They lied. Bonekickers is speed archaeology WITH DIGGERS meets The Da Vinci Code (which isn’t a good thing, just ask Stephen Fry).

Totally spoilery spoilers follow, don’t carry on if you’ve got it recorded or are intending to catch it on iPlayer, but if you missed the first episode here’s a quick recap:

So Time Team is already fairly “sexed up” (possibly not quite the right description for a programme featuring Tony Robinson and Phil Harding, though there’s doubtless a fanfic site devoted to it) as archaeology goes, but even so spending three days and turning up a series of low walls and a couple of fragments of pottery isn’t going to work for a drama, so Bonekickers kicks off (if you’ll forgive the lack of a pun) with “I’ve DUG a HOLE and found DAMASCENE STEEL SWORDS and BONES and SARACEN COINS and STUFF”, they’ve uncovered the site of a battle between Saracens (not the rugby team) and Knights Templars… in BATH! (The city in Somerset, not some jacuzzi, though the latter would have made about as much sense.) “But that’s unpossible!” exclaim our team. “You’re not kidding!” exclaim the audience. I’ll gloss over the character introductions (Scary Archaeologist, Posh Archaeologist, Baby Archaeologist and Other Archaeologist), as the writers did the same, and get straight onto the hunk of wood they pull out of the ground. “I’ve run some tests and it’s a hunk of wood from the Holy Land dating back to 34CE of the sort that, ooh, say, the Romans might have used to make crosses for crucifixion and by the way it’s got some blood soaked into it”. “It looks in pretty decent nick for something 2000 years old that’s spent 700 years buried near Bath” says absolutely nobody as the team chuck it around for giggles.

Then! We get to the Da Vinci Code bit, where a modern-day Fundamentalist Nutter has built an army of modern-day Knights Templar Nutters (is “army” the right word if there’s two of them?) to wage holy war and drive other religions out of England. He’d quite like a big ol’ cross to rally the faithful to his cause. Cue some rushing around of Knights Templar Nutters With Swords trying to get hold of the hunk o’ wood and find the rest of the cross (which wasn’t at the original dig site), inexplicable acquisitions of 14th century texts (one seemed to be in a second hand bookshop where the “14th Century Monk Books” section was helpfully next to the Len Deightons and Jeffrey Archers, our heroes found a second that Mr Nutter had bought by the devilishly cunning method of wandering up to a receptionist and saying “Univesity of Wessex, we’re here to ransack your bosses office”).

Anyway, I lose track of the exact chronology for some mysterious reason, but at various points the programme morphs into That Bit From A Police Drama Where The Detective Needs 48 Hours (“Dammit, Scary Archaeologist, the builders want to get on and build and someone else is buying the land and stuff” “Give me 48 hours, chief!” “Dammit, the DA’s got my ass in a sling over this!”), and Highlander (Knights Templar Nutter swings a sword at a random heretic, the head flying neatly off in one clean sweep, not sure if it was a monofilament sword or he’d carefully selected a victim with no spine and a neck made of tissue paper), and then we build up to the dramatic climax.

First, we discover that the Saracens in the original battle weren’t Saracens at all, but English mercenaries hired by a bunch of Random Monk Types to wipe out the Knights Templars, and they covered their tracks by leaving Saracen weapons and coins around the place, a plan so devilishly cunning nobody even batted an eyelid, as we’re told every five minutes there’s no record of a battle in the area (“Hey medieval peasant #2, a bunch of dead Knights Templars and some Saracen stuff scattered around, shall we pass word of this on through local legend and stuff?” “Nah, medieval peasant #1, not worth mentioning to the others back at the village, and we definitely won’t bother taking any of this stuff”). It’s a good job there happened to be a survivor of this battle who fortuitously turned out to be a 14th century blogger who wrote everything down, though obviously nobody had read it since (probably hadn’t finished everything by Len Deighton, so hadn’t got onto the next shelf). The Random Monk Types had taken the cross to… some old Abbey! LET’S GO!, everyone piles in the Range Rover, while elsewhere a Knights Templar Nutter just *happens* to find the clue pointing to that Abbey at the same time.

Range Rover pulls up in a village, “Hello country bumpkin villager type, we’re looking for the church” “That big church looking thing with a whacking great steeple RIGHT THERE?” “Why yes! Don’t suppose there’s any secret hidden vaults under it, HA HA HA HA HA!” “Ha ha ha ha no, definitely no secret vaults around here, but if you like churches why don’t you look in this dovecot” “It’s designed to hold SIX HUNDRED AND SIXTY SIX DOVES!!1!!1! And look! A well, that somebody has covered up with a couple of small pebbles! No wonder nobody bothered to look at in in the past seven hundred years!” Two of our heroes descend into a MASSIVE CATHEDRAL SIZED VAULT, which is chock full of crosses. “Hmm, the Templars can’t have known which was the One True Cross, so they brought them back wholesale”. A torch (battery operated) stops working. Our heroes follow the approved procedure for such a situation (not, as you may think, shouting “has anyone got another torch?”, but tearing off a random piece of clothing, wrapping it around a twig and setting fire to it. You can tell it’s standard procedure, as the clothing is obviously pre-soaked in petrol, the way it instantly bursts into life as a nice torch (flaming).) But oh no! The Knights Templar Nutters have arrived! Chief Fundamentalist Nutter abseils into the vault looking like nothing so much as Batman (or BatFundamentalistNutter, as the case may be), a struggle ensues, and in a turn of events that nobody could possibly have foreseen the flaming torch vaguely brushes a cross which, also being soaked in petrol, instantly bursts into a raging inferno. Meanwhile, Highlander Knight Templar Nutter is descending on a rope, Scary Archaeologist is halfway up an adjacent rope trying to escape, and the two engage in a bizarre-o swinging rope sword fight type thing while BatFundamentalistNutter chases Baby Archaeologist around the burning crosses. Baby Archaeologist stumbles, she’s lying there helpless, BatFundamentalistNutter raises his sword… and… Baby Archaeologist sings “Jerusalem” at him. This is obviously a foolish thing to do, she should have shouted “MATTRESS!” to make him put a paper bag over his head (you stand in the tea chest and sing Jerusalem to get him to take it off again), but it bought just enough time for someone else to shove the nutter into a pile of burning crosses, whereupon he, like everything else, instantly burst into flames. Guess that’s what comes of wearing a cheap polyester suit and using petrol instead of hair gel. Second Knight Templar Nutter gets an attack of conscience (I *think* what swayed him was Other Archaeologist telling him that the original Knights Templar used doves to tax peasants, so it might not have been at attack of conscience so much as beaten into submission by a barrage of non sequiturs), cuts the rope of Highlander Knight Templar Nutter who plunges into the blazing inferno, the archaeologists leg it and they all go down the pub. The end.

Posted by Zoso at 12:18 pm

Reviewlet: Doctor Who – The Commentaries

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Commentary tracks over films or television programmes are hit-and-miss things; sometimes fascinating insights into the writing, filming and/or acting process, sometimes lengthy awkward pauses interspersed with “uh… yeah… it was really cold that day”. I don’t often get around to them on DVDs, but the ever-splendid BBC offer Doctor Who commentaries as podcasts, and I can quite happily listen to them while wandering around doing other stuff. Very occasionally they don’t work too well without the accompanying visuals (“ah, now *that’s* very significant later!”), but so long as you can remember the episode reasonably well they’re mostly just fine in isolation.

There are a good mix of people involved in the podcast: writers (including the sporktastic James Moran), actors (David Tenant, Catherine Tate, the lovely Freema Agyeman), members of the production team, regular monsters (the actors who regularly play monsters, that is, not the monsters themselves; you couldn’t let a Sontaran loose in the commentary booth). I guess it’s still generally the preserve of somewhat-more-dedicated-than-is-normal (or healthy, for that matter) Doctor Who fans, but the latest commentary, for The Forest of the Dead, is well worth a listen. It’s Steven Moffat, David Tennant and Russell T Davies, not long after the announcement that Moffat is to take over from Davies as lead writer and executive producer for the fifth series, and there’s a lot of excellent banter between the three, with an occasional digression to talk about the episode.

Posted by Zoso at 10:01 am
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