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TV review: Scrublands, Boat Story, and Doctor Who

01 December 2023

BBC/©2023 Scrublands Holdings Pty Ltd, Stan Entertainment Pty Led, Nine Network Australia Pty Led/Sarah Enticknap

Jay Ryan plays Fr Byron Swift in Scrublands (BBC4, 18 November)

Jay Ryan plays Fr Byron Swift in Scrublands (BBC4, 18 November)

MOST of the clergy, from time to time, feel pretty fed up with one or more members of their congregations; few, though, tend to shoot out the brains of five of them, just before the start of Sunday worship. Yet, this was the scenario that opened Scrublands (BBC4, 18 November), set in the depressed Australian outback. Twelve months later, a journalist is sent from the city to write a colour piece about how the community is coping with the aftermath of the atrocity.

The plot follows well-worn genre patterns, and much of the dialogue was cliché-ridden: could Fr Byron possibly have been not a murdering paedophile, but a saint? Perhaps the massacre bears moral construction quite different from the obvious? Perhaps the kindly local patriarch masterminds deep-seated wickedness? Of course, the journalist is a far better criminal investigator than the police; of course, he’ll end up snogging the gorgeous local bookseller; of course, the real truth is being suppressed at the highest political and military levels.

And yet, despite all the clichés, this is really rather good. The characters and storytelling are compelling, and the austere, empty landscape is beautifully conveyed. It is another example of Australian TV’s current excellence.

Boat Story (BBC1, Sundays) could not try harder to escape from genre stereotypes. Let’s mix horrific violence with farcical comedy! Let’s undercut contemporary realism with knowing silent-movie-era scene cards! Let’s pull back from the action and have the cast comment on the action to the camera! But thereby it adopts the worst characteristics of newer, highly unreliable, tropes. Such gymnastics are inspired by Killing Eve, but, without Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s genius, they are incredibly hard to pull off. Here, I found the combination of violence and stylised jokiness offensive and unwatchable.

Sixty years after first forcing all sensitive children to hide behind their sofas, the seemingly inextinguishable Doctor Who has been launched upon its latest series (BBC1, Saturday). This jubilee-plus-ten edition reassembled a stellar cast of favourite incarnations of the Doctor and his companion — by now a kind of secular version of our national acceptance of the hereditary principle. It was without the Daleks, however, who, I suppose, fall foul of current health-and-safety or endangered-species legislation.

Over the years, the brand has strayed irritatingly into realms of cod-metaphysical and cosmological scientific speculation, overburdening its basic mission to deliver scary family entertainment. But this episode was firmly back on track, exploiting the basic contrast between the superhero Time Lord and ordinary, everyday suburban British life. There is still the odd knowing sub-text: no doubt many Church Times readers clocked both the pietà tableau, and how the self-sacrifical heroine’s name, Donna Noble, channels dona nobis (pacem).

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