The week in TV: Doctor Who; Outlander; Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint and more

Peter Capaldi’s excellent run as the 12th Doctor reached its penultimate episode, while Highland time-travel romp Outlander is much better than it should be

Doctor Who (BBC1) | iPlayer
Outlander (More 4) | All 4
The Art of Japanese Life/Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint (BBC4) | iPlayer
Melvyn Bragg on TV: The Box that Changed the World (BBC2) | iPlayer

I appreciate I’m on to something of a loser even writing about Doctor Who, series 10 of which drew to an almost-close last night. Serious Whovians will be maddened by my lazy ignorance of some nigglingly narcoleptic plot-point back from the original season 23 (1986, since you ask, as I had to); the rest of you left to make one of Paxo’s more piss-and-vinegar faces… “thought it was just a sci-fi thing, for kids?”

And technically it is, but so much more too, especially since the 2005 rebirth. It’s certainly been the most adult programme on BBC1 on a Saturday night since mid-April, in that evening’s otherwise treading of the (insultingly thin, it turns out) line between the asinine and the patronising, and been resolutely neither. Instead, it has asked us to use our imaginations, explored high-concept unanswerables, nagged at our intelligences and surprised us in that same way asked, and expected, of all the very best children.

Last night’s was the penultimate outing for both showrunner Steven Moffat and for Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor, excepting only a Christmas wrap-up in which the Doctor will regenerate and that the BBC will surely milk for months of pre-publicity as regards the identity, ethnicity, gender, age and general political and social acceptability of the 13th.

Capaldi has been a very grownup doctor throughout, and never more so than this year. Genuinely credible in his anguished love for, and frustrations with, the human race, and getting in some splendidly witty metaphysical one-liners along the way, he is now my Doctor. Pearl Mackie, as Bill, has been a revelation, a young actor undaunted and unabashed to trade Capaldi blow by blow for nuance and talent.

The plots have been, by and large, tremendous. The Frank Cottrell-Boyce episode, Smile, about emojibots on Earth’s first colony, was stand-out; the mad-monks trilogy genuinely, Orwellianly, unsettling; even the lowish point, the creaky-wood gothic house thing, was leavened by the impending return of the beguiling Missy. Last week’s opening venture to the grim reprogramming wards of the colony ship channelled true horrors, of Hitchcock, and of Saw, and many points between. Of all the monsters on all the worlds, few remain more potent than a bad human nurse (in a roomful of agonised patients who can only hit a button yelling “pain, pain” and “kill me”), who turns out to be “treating” them only by smilingly turning the volume down to a fat zero.

Last night’s second part saw Moffat, not without a little genius, quietly pull the strands together enough to settle many questions while leaving much to tantalise: stylishly realised and, dare I say, genuinely affecting. Who among us did not cheer Missy’s reluctant conversion to the side of kind, nor punch the air as a Doctor, shockingly, refused, for the first time, to regenerate, shaking his fists against the dying of the light? We should all be genuinely sorry to see him, and this series, go.

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heugan in Outlander.
‘Greater credibility than The Da Vinci Code’: Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heugan in Outlander. Photograph: Sony

Outlander finally made its deserved terrestrial appearance, after three long years on Amazon Prime in which it has established itself as a truly superior piece of time-travelling hokum, and done spectacular things along the way for the Scottish tourist board. Written by an American, Diana Gabaldon, it is significantly better than the last piece of fictional Stateside hokum to have its denouement in Scotland. Despite featuring time travel, this still attains significantly greater credibility than The Da Vinci Code.

It also features a Jacobite parallel history arguably as true as any of the kitsch Prince-Chairlie myths grown up in my homeland. And it has sex, and swords, and shirtless clansmen, and an old-fashioned, Buchanesque Highland lilt to the 1940s, and a heroine, in the shape of Irish actor Caitriona Balfe, who bestrides both eras with a certain proto-feminism and, rarely for time travel, gets to put her modern nursing knowledge to use in the aul’ days. It is much better and subtler than it all sounds, and possesses its own internal logic, and sadly Scotland again looks forward to a summer of coaches disgorging American tourists bound for beautifully remote cairns with a skirl in their step, their trews authentically bulging with herring-bannocks and porridge.

I’m rather peeved not to have netted significantly more of BBC4’s Japanese season, and must catch up on most of it. Dr James Fox has been a sharp and dapper companion throughout, and in his latest venture to find The Art of Japanese Life inside the Japanese home he wisely didn’t let himself grow content with the many slow, delightful disciplines on show, the flower-arrangement and symbolic bento boxes and just-so calligraphy hangings inside “zenimalist” perfect homes. He wondered, as had I with increasingly panicked fury, where all the bloody stuff went.

‘Sharp and dapper’: Dr James Fox at Ryoan-ji temple, Kyoto in The Art of Japanese Life.
‘Sharp and dapper’: Dr James Fox at Ryoan-ji temple, Kyoto in The Art of Japanese Life. Photograph: Adam Scourfield/BBC

Turns out most Japanese people don’t live like that after all, no more than the estates of Hastings are wall-to-wall ruched Laura Ashley or the misbegotten parts of Malmö all showroom Ikea. Most young Tokyo workers live in one room, their clothes and CDs and magazines and dirty plates splaying unbalanced from shelves and hangers: shambolic, disorganised and humanly disgraceful. I cheered. A true delight followed. Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint told, wonderfully, the tale of a young woodcutter yearning, simply, to understand the representation of life through the drawing of lines. After being hit by lightning, losing all his money to his grandson’s debts, losing everything in a house fire, he somehow picked himself up in his 70s and 80s to create The Great Wave, Red Fuji and some sublime dragons. No less impressive were the tales of the disciples, American and Japanese, who had made it essentially their lives to rescue and catalogue every Hokusai: and thus we are vouchsafed wonders.

TV does do this kind of thing rather well: gets art across visually while clever people are allowed to speak, if only to the extent that most of us now can better tell a Hockney from a Caravaggio from a Hokusai. It was a point only begun to be made by Melvyn Bragg on last night’s TV: The Box that Changed the World, a two-hour Bafta session filled with talking heads and endless clips.

That was the problem: when you have to cram in everything from Tiananmen to the moon to Fawlty Towers, plus art and soap and war and social commentary and science, from David Attenborough to Jade Goody, there was precious little time for the heads to talk. Great clips, indeed, but also good heads – Anthony Horowitz, Ken Loach, Lyse Doucet, John Lloyd, Abi Morgan, David Olusoga – but it was literally impossible for them in the time to do justice to the multifarious ways in which that box has succeeded, socially, in giving us back “a smell of ourselves”. Immensely watchable, and some huge points raised, but surely this deserved to developed as a series – not least because, as was pointed out along the way, we don’t know the scale of the TV revolution because we’re still living in it.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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