Life in plastic, it's fantastic

Doctor Who, BBC1, Sat,

Faking It Special, Channel 4, Sun

Colditz, ITV1, Sun,

First impressions? Too early to say, but I’ll say it anyway: Christopher Eccleston is, (by an intergalactic mile), the most engaging Doctor Who there has been to date - witty, warm-hearted, slyly mysterious and intensely energetic. His on-screen presence is bigger than that of all his predecessors combined - with the single exception, of course, of Tom Baker. Eccleston radiates charisma - even his absence has a presence of its own.

Add to this Russell T Davies’s seamless script in the opening episode - among the slickest, funniest and most knowing Doctor Who scripts there have ever been. The Timelord’s return was a timely hit from its opening signature tune (were you hiding behind the sofa?) to the pay-off scene, when Rose (the Doc’s new sidekick, beautifully played by Billie Piper with just the right amount of awe) decided to kiss goodbye to her boyfriend and to her shopaholic mum and throw in her lot with this strangely attractive and magnetic alien who had come to save the world - and, as we learned, not a moment too soon.

The threat to the planet came in the guise of the Autons and the Nestene consciousness - "Living Plastic" - a force for evil whose secret headquarters lay beneath the Thames embankment, in a cauldron of molten plastic, red-hot and bubbling. In pools of light along Oxford Street’s shop-fronts plastic mannequins twitched and contorted, jerking their limbs, smashing out of their glassy confines to stroll amok among screaming shoppers. Only the Doctor’s tiny phial of "anti-plastic" could quell the invasion. Which it did - but not before the gallant Rose had saved the Doctor from near destruction, thereby proving herself to be worthy of a billet in the TARDIS.

As there are 12 further episodes remaining, you knew for sure the Doc would prevail. He and Rose will doubtless chance their luck, coming close each week, but always escaping. Along the way there may be surprises, trips to the extraterrestrial funfair of the writers’ imaginations, but no suspense. Suspense has never been Doctor Who’s forte. Instead it’s concerned with quelling our fears, not stoking them up. When good confronts evil (more often than not dressed up in Bacofoil, dripping slime and sounding hoarse) - it routinely defeats it. Now over 40 years after its first transmission, Doctor Who is long past its scare-by-date. Entertainment, faith in humanity’s basic decency, plus a weakness for wryly-amusing implausible plots are its stock in trade. A welcome return.

Implausibility reared its head on the Faking It Special. Here we were asked to believe that Kevin "a brainy physicist from Edinburgh" (a tautology twice over), could be transformed into a hairier, handsomer version of Paul Daniels in just four weeks. Easy peasy? Think again. For, on the cards (so to speak) at the end of this hot-house schooling, Kevin would actually meet, converse with and then perform for the said Mr Daniels, while trying to con him into believing he’d been a magician while still in the womb. The problems were two-fold: first, Kevin had never handled a deck except when losing at Happy Families, and, second - a steeper hill to climb - he was shy to the point of endearing coyness.

When Faking It works, it’s because the odds are stacked sky-high, and because you actually care that the novice comes through with dignity intact. Here Kevin the physicist who could barely riffle a deck, had less chance of fooling the shrewd Paul Daniels than of conning Doctor Who into believing that he was Billie Piper’s sister. But this was to reckon without the enthusiasm and absolute commitment of mentor Nigel, a young up-and-coming magician who took our rookie beneath his supremely accomplished wing. You liked Nigel at once; you liked his wife, you loved his kids. They made Kevin blossom. So when, by the end, and against competition from three long-serving suave magicians, Kevin fooled a panel of experts, Daniels among them, it was a moment to cheer and cry.

Colditz, too, may be an occasion for cheering or weeping. This two-part drama (concludes this evening) kicked off last night set in the Second World War, with innocent Lizzie blitzed in London, her lover Jack banged up in Colditz and Jack’s mate McGrade, an escapee on the prowl to find poor Liz and supposedly reassure her that Jack is safe. But Lizzie, given McGrade’s diabolical intention to seduce her and steal her from Jack, is more in peril than Private Ryan. The drama veered between schlock romance and a clever pastiche of The Great Escape. You knew it was cardboard but somehow chewy enough to digest. Tonight comes the pain.

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