Sherlock S03E03: His Last Vow

A garbled mess that has no idea where it’s going or why, His Last Vow is the last nail in Sherlock’s coffin; a fall from grace so precipitous and a crying shame so heartrending that the very idea of reviewing it is almost unbearable to me. Her Ladyship has, however, done appalling things for the good of her readers in the past – watching the first episode of School of Thrones and finishing that ghastly intellectual nonentity Labyrinth being among them – so she shall therefore endeavour to write her review without keeling over, screaming or dying. If the latter does occur, however: ‘To God [her] soul. To Rafe Sadler [her] books.’

His Last Vow gets off to a very promising start as we are introduced to our villain of the piece, news giant and serial blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen, who has been called before a committee to explain why Number 10 has been blessed with his presence more times this year than has been deemed appropriate. Played by an excellent Lars Mikkelsen, he loves to play on what he calls people’s ‘pressure points,’ and has an icy, creepy, unblinking and utterly revolting charisma about him that reminds you somewhat of Tørk Hviid in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. We’re soon apprised of the fact that he has a similar lack in scruples as he blackmails committee chairman Lady Elizabeth Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan) to rule in his favour, using some explicit letters that her husband once wrote to a fifteen-year-old girl as leverage. This leads Lady Smallwood to call at Baker Street and ask Sherlock to act as intermediary between them. A fatal mistake, it seems, as this is where the entire episode starts to collapse around our ears; a string of ridiculous coincidences involving Sherlock’s feigned relapse into his drug habits and his seduction of one of Mary’s bridesmaids leading to another string of ridiculous coincidences involving breaking into Magnussen’s office,  discovering that Magnussen is still in his office at the time of the break-in, smelling Lady Smallwood’s perfume on the air, assuming she’s there to kill him, and discovering that the lady with the gun is in fact Mary, who isn’t an adorable nurse, but an ex-CIA assassin who wants Magnussen dead because he’s threatening to blow the whistle. From then on out, the episode is plot point after ridiculous plot point, piled one on top of the other with all the grace of a university student’s laundry pile (or lack thereof); mercifully interspersed with one or two beautiful scenes and unmercifully overdosed with a huge pile of poorly-written, unrealistic, tiresome and pointless ones. Further pandemonium is then brought about by the fact that this is all held together by the spit and prayers of a line of liaison so fixed on where it wants to end up that it doesn’t care which convoluted, nonsensical and utterly stupid routes it has to adopt in order to get there…or at what cost.

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One of the best things about the first two seasons of Sherlock was the scrupulous, almost medical cleanliness of the way each episode was presented: beautifully stark; impeccably precise; complex, yet minimalistic; an indestructible glass house with a baroque darkness about the people living in it; modern London as much a living, breathing predator to Sherlock as Victorian London is to Holmes. The first two seasons embodied everything that is best in British crime drama: heavy on plot, heavy on character, heavy in an inexplicably addictive and redemptive way. They also embodied everything that was best about the Sherlock-John relationship: the infectious camaraderie; the old-married-couple bickering; the almost-always-unspoken symbiosis of it, delivered with minimal words and much action. All of this complexity was kept so perfectly balanced that it probably wouldn’t have collapsed if plonked down on the end of a pin and left to fend for itself.

Oh, the good old days.

Oh, the good old days.

The problem with His Last Vow is that this characteristic sense of control and balance, indeed all sense of control and balance, seems to have disappeared across the board. The episode and its characters are allowed to run riot, and to create scenes of such havoc that one is often left wondering whether one is watching a TV series, or a particularly tedious piece of contemporary art with the aim of demonstrating the chaos that populates a writer’s head prior to a story’s actually beginning to take logical shape. Everything that this episode tries to bring to the fore – the depth of Sherlock’s affection for John, and for Mary; the depth of John’s love for Mary; Mycroft’s true feelings about his embarrassing little brother; Sherlock’s penchant for self-sacrifice and the limitlessness of his brilliant brain – all of it is done in a painfully obvious, lamentably unsubtle, sometimes out-of-character and incredibly over-the-top way that suggests that the script of this episode was not ready to be written, let alone filmed. The whole miserable business is still at the stage where it belongs nowhere but the inside of Stephen Moffatt’s head, or at the very limit, in a heavily-password-protected file in the depths of his computer where it can embarrass no one but him. All writers have one, so why not use it?

It’s all very well to sit here on high complaining about The Last Vow, but it isn’t entirely fair to do so without suggesting possible solutions. How, then, could the mess have been rectified? By a process of intense de-cluttering.

Step 1: Get rid of Lady Elizabeth Smallwood and her husband’s creepy letters. It’s a way of linking Magnussen to Sherlock that is just too round-about, wastes too much time and disappears so quickly into the general confusion that by the time we meet Lady Smallwood again at the end of the episode, we’ve almost forgotten who she is. Doing this would mean compromising on her excellent blackmail scene with Magnussen, and depriving us of the joy of seeing two fine actors like Mikkelsen and Duncan in the same scene, but you can’t have everything, and everything is something this episode already has too much of. So instead of introducing Magnussen through Lady Smallwood and then moving on, make his blackmail of Mary the premise from the start. Do a scene with him and her in which we don’t know who he is (or why he’s blackmailing her), only that she’s there to kill him. Ensure that she is prevented in some way:  do an ‘emails get sent to the press if I die’ thing if absolutely necessary – though with a man of Magnussen’s reputation it would probably take a lifetime for his henchmen to work out which one of the ten thousand ruinous emails he has waiting should be sent in the first place. Anyway, an opening scene of this kind gives Magnussen a chance to show off his initial creepiness, and Mary a chance to show off her new-found mysteriousness.

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Step 2: Get Mary to ask Sherlock for help. Not only will this be an interesting investigation into their relationship (particularly if she blackmails him to keep him quiet; which seems more in character than simply begging him not to tell); but is also a good way to educate the audience about Magnussen without all that pointless mucking about with drug dens; Janine; breaking into Magnussen’s office, and Sherlock getting shot and hospitalised. Also, if you want to be really smart, don’t let the audience in immediately on what Mary’s being blackmailed for. All we need to know is that she considers it momentous enough to end her and John’s marriage, and that the evidence for whatever it is is being held in the vaults beneath Magnussen’s house.

Step 3: So Sherlock tells John, of course; or, as in the episode, finds a way for Mary to unwittingly reveal herself. He does this regardless of anything that he’s been threatened with, and John justifiably freaks out. Don’t switch locations halfway through these two occurrences: if anything, it cuts the tension in half instead of augmenting it. The build up to the conclusion that John’s attracted to psychopaths needs to be re-written completely: Sherlock asking him a bunch of questions and making his conclusions for him just doesn’t really cut it, and neither do John’s responses to him. Actually, since our present state of things doesn’t have Sherlock injured, or clueless as to Mary’s past, leave him out of the scene altogether. Make it a matter between John and Mary, and let them draw conclusions together. A bust-up between them would also be more evocative of character than the somewhat heartless ‘we decide if we want you’ scene. The idea of the flash disk key to Mary’s past is good: keep it.

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Step 4: Find some other way of getting Sherlock and John to Magnussen’s house. That entire Christmas scene, smoking scene, drugging the entire bloody Holmes family+Mary and taking a helicopter ride with Mycroft’s laptop in tow is both too much and too far-fetched for words. Of course this poses the problem of how to get their hands on Mycroft’s laptop without his noticing its absence, and how to barter it with Magnussen without Mary finding out about it (one assumes she would want to know something about how her salvation is being brought about, since in our version of events, she’s asked Sherlock for help). Since drugs clearly have to be in this episode somewhere, use them on Mycroft only and preferably at night, so that the contents of his laptop can be copied onto some mega flash disk à la the missile plans in The Great Game; otherwise onto an external hard drive. Totter off to Magnussen’s place; do the big reveal about his vaults being a mind palace, and hold on to the episode’s present ending if we absolutely have to see Sherlock commit another self-sacrifice. Otherwise, get Sherlock and John into the sort of trouble that usually befalls people who walk into psychopaths’ houses (preferably post-mind palace conversation) and do an ‘unknown shooter’ thing (as in A Study in Pink). Police are called, Sherlock and John go home happy, unknown shooter turns out to be Mary, to whom shooting through the bastard’s window had apparently never before occurred.

Step 5: End off with John saying he’s not going to read the flash disk about Mary’s past. Fin.

This version of events does deprive us of another chance to see Sherlock giving up everything for his friends, but after The Reichenbach Fall, even more self-sacrifice seems a bit excessive.

The Last Vow is not entirely shitty. It has some lovely moments, and a couple of truly brilliant ideas (i.e. Magnussen’s non-existent vaults beneath his home). Unfortunately, the way it’s all executed is so tangled, sloppy and headache-inducing that the good doesn’t even come close to redeeming the bad, and this season of Sherlock suffers for it; ending with a whimper rather than a bang.

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Sherlock S03E02: The Sign of Three

Any wedding episode that manages to be totally lacking in corniness without having The Rains of Castamere on its playlist is a jewel, and while The Sign of Three is without doubt the most atypical of all Sherlock episodes in terms of just about everything, it has the distinction not only of being a jewel, but of being a remarkably well-thought-out and impeccably-structured rendering of a fiendishly-complicated plot, and a moving and hilarious bringing-to-light of everything that is good about the Sherlock-John relationship.

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It’s John and Mary’s wedding day, and Sherlock has found the build-up to the event rather distressing, for more reasons than one. Firstly, because of a deep-set fear (that he insists on denying) that John’s being a married man will spell the end of their partnership and will inevitably consign him to the gallows of haunting crime scenes with only a skull to talk to; secondly, because he has to make a speech as best man. His fears on the first count turn out to be groundless, most obviously because John can’t imagine a life without solving crimes, blogging about it and sniggering when Sherlock forgets his pants, but most importantly (and realistically) because John has had the good (and rare) fortune to fall in love with a woman who actually encourages their bromance (Sidebar: Mary is fucking awesome, she like totally sees that they’re both afraid things will change because of her, and likes to make them sneak around together like naughty schoolboys when she’s actually the person who planted the idea of doing the actual sneaking. But anyway.) As to Sherlock’s fears about the best man speech, well, those do turn out to be justified, and it is when confronted with a hall full of loud, half-drunk, oddly-shaped wedding guests and too nervous to be anything but himself, that Sherlock sets the ball rolling across a barrage of memorable cases, anecdotes and other totally sincere praises of the incomparable John Watson that takes an entire episode to navigate, and that soon transforms into one of the most important deductions of Sherlock’s life as it becomes clear that the wedding day is also one ingenious murderer’s personalised version of judgement day.

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Structuring an entire episode around a best man speech, and managing all the inevitable back and forth craziness incumbent upon such a structure, is a huge risk for any production to take: too much, and the audience can’t follow, too little, and the audience falls asleep. In the case of The Sign of Three, the risk pays off beautifully, and a sizeable chunk of the credit for that success goes to writer Stephen Thompson, who, despite his evident prowess and talent from a technical perspective, is also wildly imaginative and unfailingly good at bringing that imagination to the screen; most especially in the devices he employs to help us see what’s going on in Sherlock’s head; some of them classic, some of them entirely new. The most intelligent, and the most entertaining of these, is the lengthy scene involving Sherlock, a lecture hall full of women, Mycroft providing helpful hints from on high, and a surprise appearance by Irene Adler (defrocked), who is promptly told to ‘get out of my head, I’m busy!’ It’s a fantastic metaphor – and it looks good too.

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Whereas last week’s episode was definitely Martin Freeman’s in terms of acting, Sherlock belongs, this week, to Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock is utterly unpredictable in this episode (more so than usual, I mean); acting his charming, high-functioning-sociopathic self one minute, and unabashedly praising his friend with total and complete sincerity the next, to the point of making every person present burst into tears. The language might very well have seemed cringeworthy, and out-out-character in the hands of any other actor, but Cumberbatch delivers such a deadly combination of gravity, coldness, emotion and drama that the considerable amount of gut-spilling he does in the praising of John’s character is beautifully touching, and perhaps most importantly, perfectly believable in a character who prides himself on his own freedom from sentiment. Acting kudos also go to Amanda Abingdon, who is luminous, smart and hilarious as Mary, and to Alistair Petrie, who is tragic and charismatic as John’s ex-commander, Major Sholto.

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A huge improvement from last week across the board, The Sign of Three does nevertheless leave one wishing that something more would have happened, or at least that things might have been a bit less predictable. It’s a problem that also popped up in The Empty Hearse, but The Sign of Three is simply too much fun for me to throw my toys out of the cot about it. And there’s always next week; which, considering the story on which it is based, will more than make up for these rather glaring deficiencies in plot.

Sherlock S03E01: The Empty Hearse (Review)

Her Ladyship takes time off from her wanderings in the dark corridors of fan fiction to watch the premier episode of Sherlock season 3 and to reason from what she sees.

A singularly-strange and enjoyable little episode that feels a lot more like the product of the hugely-hyperactive and oft OTT pen of Steven Moffat than the darkly-intelligent work of its actual writer, Mark Gatiss, The Empty Hearse is big on chemistry, hugely entertaining and very promising of more awesomeness to come; yet falls a little flat in terms of plot, and of the mishandling of a few subtle but entirely basic Sherlock character traits that doesn’t quite seem pardonable in a show run by a pair of Holmes junkies.

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The Empty Hearse has a lot of fun ridiculing the many fan theories (both plausible and preposterous) that have popped up since the deeply-moving rooftop scene in The Reichenbach Fall that had most of us crying and screaming into our pillows for days after it was shown. None, however, is quite so much fun as the one we are introduced to first, in the episode’s engaging and utterly-badass opening sequence that brings us everything from the strategically-placed cyclist, to the bungee-rope-not-bungee-rope in Sherlock’s coat, to the Sherlock mask on Moriarty’s corpse; as well as a range of other awesomeness of which we shall not speak (except Sherlock crashing through the mortuary window and sticking his tongue down Molly’s throat. That part was too much fun not to mention). After the opening sequence, the show loses no time in informing us that Sherlock has been fully exonerated, post-mortem, of the charges trumped up by Moriarty, has spent the past two years dismantling the criminal genius’ network, and has been recalled to London from the depths of a Serbian torture chamber by his brother Mycroft, who wants him to investigate an imminent terrorist threat to the city. This, of course, means being reunited with John, who is newly-engaged, still grieving the loss of his best friend to the point of not having contacted Mrs Hudson for two years, and will probably be none too pleased that Sherlock has knowingly allowed him to go through hell. John’s reaction to the discovery that Sherlock is alive constitutes the main crux of the episode, and it is, most unfortunately, a double-edged sword of a focal point.

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First up, John. Martin Freeman’s acting is beautifully, movingly and vividly realistic. In John’s day-to-day existence he dons the grin-and-bear-it mask that so many bereaved people wear every day of their lives no matter how much it hurts. In his quieter moments of remembrance with his fiancée Mary (Amanda Abbingdon), and in the touchingly-garbled and emotional conversation that he has with Mrs Hudson when he finally works up the courage to visit 221B after Sherlock’s death, he starts to let us in more and more as to what he’s been thinking and feeling in coming to terms with the ‘aloneness’ of a world without Sherlock. It’s in his interaction with Sherlock himself, of course, that all hell truly breaks loose, and the naturally-volcanic chemistry between Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a whole lot of highly-emotional, heartrending and side-splitting scenes together, as John alternates between listening to Sherlock trying (and failing) to explain himself in an acceptable manner; and attempting to murder Sherlock in a variety of ways for what he has done.

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It is Sherlock’s half of the equation, regrettably, that just doesn’t feel right, and the problem lies in the script’s characterisation of him. Yes, we all know that Sherlock is a sociopath and has a near-autistic inability to understand or consider the feelings of others; and this may very well lead us to make the same conclusions, in terms of his character, that Gatiss has made in the script, i.e. Sherlock believes that John will be ‘delighted’ to discover that he is alive; doesn’t display anything that could reasonably be called remorse; is quite at a loss to understand why his friend doesn’t forgive him immediately; and is willing to resort to the most callous (if typical) of theatrics to bring John’s true feelings about him to the fore.

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‘If his theatrics are typical, then what’s the problem?’ The answer to that question is in the Reichenbach Fall itself. The pathos of that scene; the incredible emotion and tragedy of it; Sherlock’s willingness to destroy both himself and his reputation for the good of his friends; the fact that we see him crying towards the end of it; the usually stunted nature of his emotions transformed in the face of death, even though the great detective almost certainly knows, at that point, that he will not die: the idea of those emotions being simulated is, to Her Ladyship at least, absolutely unthinkable. Watching it, you’re really seized with the idea of separation being just as painful for Sherlock as it is for John (even if it isn’t, John not being about to die), and as a viewer, you’re granted a rare opportunity of seeing that, unburied beneath all Sherlock’s usual bullshit. I’m not saying that I wanted Sherlock to break down and be an emotional wreck for most of The Empty Hearse. Emotion is not something he does easily or lightly: but just one, tiny particle of a millisecond of acknowledgment of how hard it must have been for him to know that for two years, his friend was just a text away from being spared complete misery and heartache, would have rendered the Sherlock we see in this episode just a little more human, and would have ensured that the Reichenbach Fall itself, arguably the greatest scene ever between Sherlock and John, was not so shamelessly trivialised.
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The original short story on which this episode is based, The Empty House, succeeds marvellously at this particular aspect of Holmes’ character, even though he is faced with an entirely forgiving Watson who does nothing more alarming that faint at the sight of him. The short story manages to preserve both Holmes’ character, and the uncharacteristic expression of the depth of his regard for Watson. Let’s look at a quote:

“I had only one confidant – my brother Mycroft. I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true. Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret (…) I came over at once to London, called in my own person at Baker Street, threw Mrs Hudson into violent hysterics, and found that Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.”

In contemporary English: ‘I was scared that you’d do something stupid if you knew I was alive. I knew what you must have been going through, I missed you like hell, and I’m sorry.’ The short story preserves Holmes’ charming narcissism and high opinion of himself, while still presenting us with a touching apology and a sincere admission of guilt. Will somebody please explain to me why this could not be done convincingly in The Empty Hearse? True, Victorian men were much more vocal about their affections for their friends than contemporary ones, but the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock could easily have portrayed emotions parallel with those of the Conan-Doylian Holmes even without saying a word, and this could have been achieved with just a tad more attention to detail and subtlety in the script. I find it very hard to believe that a writing and production team working with an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch’s calibre could not find some way of doing this properly.

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But now I’m acting as though the entire episode was ruined by this one thing; and that is very far from the truth. Most of the scenes between John and Sherlock are an absolute joy to watch, thanks to the aforementioned Freeman-Cumberbatch chemistry, and as the original storyline of the terrorist plot on London becomes more and more submerged in the interaction between their characters, we find that we don’t mind very much at all. There is a wonderful scene involving Sherlock, John, a bomb and a railway cart (V for Vendetta?) that makes for phenomenal viewing thanks to its powerful acting (I don’t ship Sherlock and John as a couple, but I must confess to harbouring sentiments distinctly of the ‘just kiss him, already!’ persuasion while watching it). A pleasant surprise is the instant and seemingly-mutual respect that springs up between Sherlock, and John’s fiancée Mary, which should provide us with plenty of interesting interactions in future episodes; particularly in terms of the way it will no doubt develop when the time actually comes for John and Mary to get married. An unpleasant surprise is the recourse to terrible jokes and clichés for no apparent reason (what exactly was the point of making such a terrific fuss about Sherlock getting his coat back, à la Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood: Children of Earth?). But, ultimately, The Empty Hearse is well-acted enough, and entertaining enough, to keep us wanting more, and to make us give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt thanks to the awesomeness of their previous material. Her Ladyship shall return next week, to find out if the game is afoot, or over.

The Game of Thrones Emmy’s

In celebration of tonight’s Emmy Awards, Her Ladyship invents an awards show showcasing the best (and some of the worst) of Game of Thrones season 3.

Best episode: The Rains of Castamere

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The closest thing to perfection that this show has ever seen, The Rains of Castamere’s flawless structure permits it to glide effortlessly, beautifully and appropriately from one scene to another with not a word, a note, a cry, a sword or a split-second out of place. The build-up to the Red Wedding is such a masterpiece of classical suspense that right up until the moment that the first blow is struck, we’re left thinking ‘maybe this isn’t going to happen,’ and the show’s producers show a talent for idiot-proofing their work that rivals that of Peter Jackson; every last aspect of why the Red Wedding takes place and why it is wrong conveyed to us on an incredibly subtle, emotional and artistic level without it ever being shoved down our throats.

Worst episode: Valar Dohaeris

A stinking pile of dragon poo-poo from start to finish, Valar Dohaeris is probably the worst episode in the series’ history and is a horrible gamble for a premier episode in that it makes you think that Game of Thrones has finally succumbed to the ‘money over art’ philosophy that has besmirched so many other excellent shows. Badly-written to the point of compromising characterisation, badly-acted as a result of being badly-written, and with the most pathetic excuse for a climax that could possibly be countenanced, it is only saved from being confined to the black cells below the Castle of Mediocrity by the stunning scene between Tywin and Tyrion that is probably one of the most heart-breaking and anger-inducing of the entire saga.

Best actor: Nikolaj Coster Waldau

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In his portrayal of Jaime’s psychological breakdown and transformation after the loss of his hand, Coster Waldau is mercilessly raw, shattering, excruciatingly emotional and vivid to the point of ruthlessness. His glorious command of facial expression and ability to make agony throb and spill and burn right out of his eyes weds seamlessly to a volcanic natural charisma and an evocative speaking voice that pulls you so deeply into the moment with Jaime that it seems to slice right through you. He also proves himself to be an absolute master of comedy in his more light-hearted banter with best friend/worst enemy Brienne, and does an exquisite job of turning our entire perception of the character completely on its head, just as GRRM intended.

Best actress: Maisie Williams

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Each time we think that the divine Miss Williams couldn’t possibly get any better, she knocks us all off our chairs and kicks the shit out of us for our presumption. She has reached the point in her performance where her fist seems to be closed right around Arya’s heart, so that she can feel every nuance, every ounce of pain and where it comes from, and then bring that crashing out into a face that can be numb, practical and intolerant of feelings one moment and then display an anguish so profound and so personal that it makes us want to turn away from her. Above all, Williams has captured Arya’s darkness; that love and near-worship of Death and revenge that makes her wake up every morning and go to sleep every night; that vicious, adult ruthlessness that makes us love her, but that also disturbs the more subtle of us for its brutality. But somehow, at the same time, we never lose sight of the fact that Arya is a child trying to find her family again, and has so much love inside her that she doesn’t know what to do with it. Her performance post-Red Wedding in Mhysa is a masterpiece of shock, suppressed emotion, deep, insurmountable anger and boundless talent for the taking of life that improves each time she seems to become more and more dead in her own estimation. An absolute genius of an acting prodigy who outstrips many actors twice her age.

Best supporting actor: Charles Dance

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In last season’s touching and now-iconic interaction with Arya Stark, we saw the softer, more human side of Tywin: a tiny pinprick of light in a dark and ruthless mess. This season, the great Tywin Lannister once again reasserts himself as one of the most terrifying, brilliant, hateful and inexplicably-endearing characters on a show that is already full to the brim with inexplicably-endearing characters. Dance is a towering presence and an effortlessly-kingly figure and plays the many facets of Tywin’s complex character up against one another with a near-carnivorous prowess; notably in his interactions with Tyrion, which range from disastrously-hurtful to grudgingly-respectful; and in his utter disrespect for any kind of emotion that is nevertheless contradicted by his own deep love for his family name. A masterpiece interpretation of one of the most fiendishly-difficult characters ever written.

Best supporting actress:  Lena Headey

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Headey has always been fabulous at portraying Cersei’s complexity and fucked-up-ness, but in this season she has added the constant threat of her character’s future follies to the mix, with dazzling results. She is a sweepingly power-hungry woman who finds her power being taken from her inch by inch by Tywin’s return to the capital, and lashes out against it with her characteristic spite, but with a touching and oddly heart-breaking desperation in her murmured plea ‘Father, don’t make me do it, please,’ when her usual screaming fails to make Tywin change his mind about marrying her to Loras Tyrell. On top of this vulnerability, her behaviour towards Tyrion has become even more despicable and her moments of triumphant glee even more unbearable to watch, but we never quite lose sight of the fact that despite her limited intelligence, low cunning and unimaginative cruelty, Cersei is still a highly bred and beautiful woman who would have a talent for diffusing tricky situations if she would only take the time to stop creating them. Headey juggles all this prodigiously, and while she makes us hate Cersei most of the time, she still succeeds in making us feel sorry for her every now and then; the mark of a truly great actress.

Best partnership: Jaime and Brienne

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Arguably possessing the greatest chemistry on the show, Nikolaj Coster Waldau and Gwendoline Christie are a casting director’s wet dream, and are brilliant at exploring Jaime and Brienne’s development and similarities by virtue of their togetherness. This partnership has absolutely everything: the shared love of fighting, the shared sense of honour, the shared depth of the love that exists between sister souls, comrades in arms and people who have been through hell together; all expressed in ways that are polar opposites and yet extremely similar. There’s constant, hilarious bickering to conceal identification and depth of feeling, there’s grudging respect that only reveals itself when that respect risks being violated by a third party and there is, of course, that unspoken, powerful knowledge that the one needs the other more than anything that bleeds out through every word they exchange and every action they take.

Worst partnership: Jon and Ygritte

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After a promising start in season 2, this partnership descends into utter, unconvincing chaos from the word go, though the chemistry does recover slightly in the second half of the series. From an acting perspective, the most significant reason for this decline is that Rose Leslie blows Kit Harington out of the water in terms of acting ability, which causes all sorts of mischief, the worst being the painful scene where Ygritte, broken-hearted and in tears, shoots Jon multiple times for his treason while he wails pathetically on about how much he loves her. From a writing perspective, Jon and Ygritte suffer by virtue of poor adaptation of their relationship’s nature in the books; a relationship exemplified by the beautiful line: we look up at the same stars and see such different things.’ The show’s writers do make an effort to bring up the cultural differences between Jon and Ygritte, but these differences are regrettably not represented as being a serious enough obstacle to their relationship to make us understand how their love for each other transcends those cultural differences.

Best unexpected interaction: Arya and Melisandre

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‘I see a darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes. Blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you will shut forever. We will meet again.’

The moment when Melisandre looks into Arya’s eyes and murmurs ‘I see a darkness in you,’  in her gloriously-accented voice never fails to turn the viewer’s blood to ice for the way it points both to Arya’s future as a killer, and particularly as a killer post-A Dance with Dragons. The volcanic charisma of both Maisie Williams and Carice Van Houten adds to this and succeeds in making it one of the most bone-chilling moments this season.

Best ‘oh fuck, this is not happening’ moment: Gendry is taken from Arya

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No one, not book fans, not series fans, saw this one coming for two seconds together, so from the moment Arya shouts ‘What are you doing? Let go of him!’, this scene goes down in history as one of the cruellest breakings-up of an onscreen partnership ever; the worst part, without doubt, being the way that Arya turns away from threatening Melisandre to observe Gendry being carted away without having had a chance to say goodbye to him. It’s a horrifying compounding of Arya’s loneliness, and the look on Maisie Williams’ face at the scene’s closure reminds us, once again, how young Arya is, how much she has come to depend on Gendry, and how her burden is made harder every day by the way that she loses the people she cares about.

Best ‘oh shit, oh shit, ha ha’ moment: Tywin and Joffrey

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Tywin puts an end to Joffrey’s posturing and bullshitting about ‘many important matters requiring a King’s attention’ by doing nothing more threatening that climbing the stairs in front of the Iron Throne. Jack Gleeson is fantastic in this scene, making it perfectly clear that the only word passing through Joffrey’s head in that moment is ‘shit shit shit shit’, and Charles Dance is just as fantastic, his natural screen presence and icy-cold yet fiery Tywin showing the little creep precisely who’s boss, and entertaining us immensely at the same time.

Best dressed male character: Petyr Baelish

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Award is given by virtue of this stunning cloth of gold and light blue ensemble that possesses the double virtue of being a dazzling article of clothing and making Aidan Gillan look even more gorgeous than he already is.

Best dressed female character: Sansa Stark

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Sansa sports a variety of beautiful costumes this season that compliment her extraordinary height and evoke her romantic nature, but none is quite so lovely as her wedding dress, which is rendered all the more exquisite by the deep crimson of her wedding cloak.

Most over-used character: Robb Stark

As mentioned previously on this blog, Richard Madden seems to have devoted the past two seasons of Game of Thrones to completely destroying the impressive and understated kingliness of presence that he so successfully brought to life in season 1, and season 3 is no exception to this rule. Most of the time he just hangs around trying to be tough, vulnerable or sexy, but does not manage to be any of these three things despite a number of scenes that had excellent potential. To add insult to injury, the excess of screen time afforded his character only compounds the poor man’s predicament and makes things worse than ever. A crying shame and a disgrace!

Most under-used character: Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion’s importance to the progression of the saga does not diminish at any point in A Storm of Swords, so the considerable reduction in screen time this season does nothing if not baffle. The development of Tyrion’s character after losing the Handship and his descent into constant worry, bitterness and depression, particularly after his wedding, is one of the saddest, most moving and most annoying things in the books, and is also extremely important in understanding his character post-Purple Wedding. Glancing over all of this and constantly shoving it into a corner, as was done in season 3, is not only an action of questionable intelligence in terms of character and story development; it is also a scandalous under-use of a phenomenally-gifted and powerful actor.

Best totally badass moment: Daenerys feeds her dragons in front of the Yunkish envoy.

So we’re snoring loudly as Razdal mo Eraz craps on about many an army having broken against Yunkai’s walls, when Daenerys takes a piece of meat from a jar next to her and throws it into the air. The resulting lightning-fast catfight and cacophony of shrieks as all three of the dragons go after it mid-flight scares the pants off poor Razdal mo Eraz and makes us whoop in delight, even more so when Daenerys hardly spares them a glance and remarks ‘Good. My Unsullied need practice. I was told to blood them early.’

Best fight scene: Sandor Clegane versus Beric Dondarrion

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It’s the psychological issues behind this already-great fight scene that make it so infinitely superior to other fight scenes this season: it’s Sandor’s fear of fire brought to the fore when facing a man with a burning sword; it’s his insane courage and willingness to keep fighting in spite of that, and it’s Arya on the side-lines screaming ‘Kill him!’ with a chilling savagery that doesn’t belong in someone so young, pinning all her hopes on justice finally being done on this one encounter, and trying to kill Sandor herself when it fails.

Best monologue: Cersei tells Margaery the story of House Reyne of Castamere.

Seething with innuendo and suppressed violence, this monologue is a blood-chilling and gorgeously-written warning in the very best tradition of Tywin Lannister that fucking with the Lannisters causes nothing but trouble. Lena Headey’s Cersei is icy cold, regal and very, very frightening; the cruelty in her voice rendered all the more awful by the blinding courtesy of her facial expressions.

Best one-liner: ‘Then you’ll be fucking your own bride with a wooden cock.’

Tyrion explains to Joffrey that there will be no bedding ceremony in language that the little shit understands. Thrilling not only because of the irate tension (and the look on Joffrey’s face) that it creates, but also in terms of the depth of Tyrion’s respect for the downtrodden (Sansa, in this case)

Best adaptation of a great scene

It is tempting to give this award to the bath scene or the Sack of Astapor, but nothing, regrettably, beats the horrifying butchery of the Red Wedding. It’s a masterpiece of psychological horror: raw, unglorified, no slow motion and no pretty music, and traps you right inside it with a magnetic X-factor that makes you stay right to the end despite it’s being almost impossible to watch; not, as we observed in our review of the episode, because of the blood and gore, which we’re more than used to, but because of the way that the Starks’ love for each other and instinct to protect each other even in the face of certain death emerges in the most poignant, heartrending and horribly upsetting ways.

Worst adaptation of a great scene

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I’ve raved about this before, but seriously, how could they? The cave scene is GRRM’s magum opus of sex scenes. It makes A Song of Ice and Fire’s fat pink masts, Myrish swamps and variations thereupon worth it. It’s a coming-together of two people from different worlds, it’s Jon realising that vowing to remain celibate was probably the stupidest thing that someone with his capacity for love could have done, and it never fails to make you feel like your pants are molesting you. The TV adaptation is utterly boring and yawnable. A large part of this is the chemistry problem between Jon and Ygritte in the first half of season 3 (which miraculously and inexplicably recovers after this mediocrity takes place), the other half is…I don’t really know what. This scene is supposed to be an explosion. What it’s become is something like a sneeze.

Best throwback to season 2: Jaqen’s leitmotif.

A beautifully-evoked leitmotif that takes place after Arya and Sandor’s encounter with the Frey soldiers in the woods. Arya bends down to earth to pick up the iron coin given to her by Jaqen at the end of season 2; her hands drenched in blood and her eyes still numb with the shock of the kill. As she contemplates the face that decorates the coin’s surface, her eyes suddenly come alive as she murmurs the words ‘Valar Morghulis,’ and Jaqen’s exotic and chilling leitmotif seems to fill her up with his essence and memory. Absolutely gorgeous, and very, very thrilling.

Her Ladyship ends there to pray to the old gods and the new that Game of Thrones wins in its nominated categories tonight.

Great ‘Game of Thrones’ Character Anthems Every Fan Should Know.

Her Ladyship tries listening to A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones on the way to work, and comes out on the other side with a very short playlist.

Arya Stark – O Death (Jen Titus)

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An abandonment of life and religion for a surer deity than the old gods or the new, this song is a primal and freezingly euphoric hymn that deserts all hope in life and justice, and lingers almost lovingly on the grave with a fearlessness and acceptance that is Arya’s alone…and perhaps the Faceless Men’s. It’s the soundworld of what happens in her head when she whispers her names into the dark, and what rings through her mind when she hisses to Lord Beric that Death is her one true god.

But what is this that I can’t see

With ice cold hands taking hold of me?

When God is gone

And the devil takes hold

Who’ll have mercy on your soul?

 

Sandor Clegane – Break (Three Days Grace)

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The lyrics ‘tonight I start the fire’ assume a very different kind of meaning when put into Sandor’s context. This is the song of a person trapped by themselves, the roughness of enduring this so difficult that it sinks into their very voice. But while this song also expresses Sandor’s desire to escape himself and take control of his own fears, it clings to its own identity and to brutal reality with a searing lack of idealism, for all its mention of ‘higher places.’

Tonight, I start the fire

Tonight, I break away

Break away from everybody

Break away from everything

If you can’t stand the way this place is

Take yourself to higher places.

Daenerys Targaryen – Radioactive (Imagine Dragons)

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The preposterous auspiciousness of the band’s name aside, this song is the sound of waking up from darkness to something that could turn to a blinding light, or to an apocalypse, particularly if we consider Daenerys after she emerges alive from the pyre. It’s the blood that she knows she will spill, and the blood she doesn’t want to spill; it’s the certainty of what she must do and why, and everything that makes it hard to do; it’s Meereen, it’s Drogon, it’s the bones of a child, it’s an ancient madness she fears and that she knows lurks in her blood.

I’m waking up to ash and dust

I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust

I’m breathing in the chemicals

I’m breaking in, shaping up,

Then checking out of the prison bus

This is it, the apocalypse.

 

Catelyn Stark – The Other Side (Evanescence)

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The Other Side is what shoots through Catelyn’s head when presented with the bones of her husband. It expresses the longing of a person who has lost someone, but can’t go to them because of what they’ll leave behind. In Catelyn’s case, it’s family, duty, honour. Once Ned dies, Catelyn lives for her children, and then for fewer of her children when she believes that Bran and Rickon are also gone, until she’s clinging to the thought of Sansa, Arya and Robb; all that loss and pain seeming to turn her heart colder and colder as it armours itself.

Counting the days to meet you on the other side

I will always be waiting

Until the day that I see you on the other side

Come and take me home.

Jaime Lannister – Numb (Linkin Park)

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Wildly appropriate if considered in the context of Cersei rather than Tywin, this is a sung, if unspoken cry from the deepest depths of the Jaime of A Feast for Crows, still keenly conscious of a lifetime of being one half of a whole, but starting to get a bit tired of his other half’s bullshit. Being a whole by yourself, and no one else, when you’ve spent most of your life only being a half, is a terrifying transition to make. Still more dreadful is when you’re forced into that solitude by a change that the other person cannot accept; when they persist in clinging almost ferociously to a ‘you’ that no longer exists.

Can’t you see that you’re smothering me?

Holding too tightly

Afraid to lose control

Cause everything that you thought I would be

Is falling apart right in front of you.

 

Sansa Stark – Blinding (Florence + the Machine)

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This song is Sansa after Ned Stark’s execution; a lifetime of utopian dreaming shattering so powerfully that she feels it ‘in the hollows of [her] eyelids.’ Still worse, it’s the horrifying realisation that the person who comprises the very fabric of that dreaming state is a monster. At the same time, however, it’s also an optimistic compulsion to grow up; a deeply-entrenched knowledge that dreams are not the real world, something that Sansa will push away from herself time and time again because dreams are the only way she knows how to seek refuge. As she gets older, however, she does return to it more and more often, until she becomes Alayne Stone and the lines start to blur – her identity a dream and a lie, but the world realer to her than she has ever seen it.

No more dreaming of the dead

As if death itself was undone

No more calling like a crow

For a boy, for a body in the garden

No more dreaming like a girl, so in love, so in love

No more dreaming like a girl, so in love, so in love

No more dreaming like a girl

So in love with the wrong world.

 

Tyrion Lannister – Winter in my Heart (Vast)

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The musical manifestation of the aftermath of Shae’s betrayal and ‘where do whores go?’, Winter in my Heart is the Tyrion of late A Feast For Crows and most of A Dance With Dragons; breathing, but not quite alive, heartbreak (Shae) and guilt (Tysha, not to mention Tywin) hollowing him out and making him a broken thing. The continual, haunting repetition of the words ‘but I try,’ however, are the result of a lifetime of being torn down, and of an exceptionally strong spirit that cannot; will not; refuses; to accept it.

I need a summer but the summer’s come and gone

I need a summer but it’s winter in my heart

It’s all the same fucked-up game you played with me

I need to hold you, but you’re never coming back.

 

Tywin Lannister – Running Up That Hill (Placebo)

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Always present in this song is a soft and silent, barely perceptible heartbeat, and for Tywin, its name is Joanna. We don’t know an awful lot about Tywin’s beloved wife beyond the fact that she wore the pants in the Tower of the Hand and that he is incapable of forgiving Tyrion for being born. But the fact that Tywin never speaks of her if he can help it, not to mention the glorious, horrifying dialogue between him and Tyrion in episode one of season three, suggests a whispered fragility at the heart of his soul that he would never admit to in a million years. This whisper of Tywin’s love for Joanna is reflected in every syllable of this song, and the sheer vehemence with which he treats Tyrion in accusing him of killing his own mother to come into the world leaves us in no doubt that if Tywin could change places with Joanna and let her live, he would do it in a heartbeat, for all this constant blathering about staying alive to protect his blood.

And if I only could

Make a deal with God

And get him to swap our places

Be running up that road

Be running up that hill

With no problem.

Game of Thrones Season 3: 6 great scenes that are no less great for being small.

This season of Game of Thrones gave us more great moments than any one of its predecessors; but in the midst of being overwhelmed by the grandeur and cruelty of the Red Wedding, the bath scene or the Sack of Astapor, it is often easy to forget the smaller stuff. Let’s take a look at some awesome moments that took up less screen time, but caused no less pumping of blood and crying of tears.

6.    ‘I cannot tell you how touched I am by your concern for my welfare.’

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In this glorious tête-à-tête that always leaves my fellow Sansa fans and fellow Sansa/Littlefinger shippers whooping and screaming in delight, Sansa lies beautifully and perfectly that she no longer wishes to accompany Littlefinger to the Vale because she’d feel terrible if anything happened to him. Not only do we feel prodigiously proud of little Sansa for her first and entirely instinctive recourse to the Game in order to get what she wants; we are also fearfully conscious of the clipped anger in Littlefinger’s voice and the dangerous look of betrayal in his eyes that she, in her still-lamentable innocence, doesn’t seem to notice at all. The scene positively boils over with sexual tension, and is a superb, if mildly creepy precursor to Sansa’s ‘education’ at the Eyrie, an episode that represents some of the most important development and suppression of her character that one finds in the entire saga.

5.    ‘It’s a rare enough thing. A man who lives up to his reputation.’

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I’ve already written an entire post about this scene, so I will not repeat myself, but leaving it out would be simply criminal. In this brilliantly-acted exchange, we are granted the double satisfaction of seeing Lord Tywin actually having to make an effort to ram a point home and of Lady Olenna being defeated despite her sharp wits and equally sharp tongue. The chemistry between the two characters is volcanic, tense and sparkling with intellectual pleasure on both sides, and makes one think that if Tywin had not been so deeply in love with his dead wife, these two would have been a perfect match.

4.   ‘I won’t ever hurt you.’

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An awkward but adorable scene between Tyrion and Sansa on their wedding morning in which Tyrion tries, multiple times, to talk to his bride-to-be without getting a stone wall of courtesy in response; his smart mouth transforming some of his loveliest statements into total disasters (‘you won’t be a prisoner after today, you’ll be my wife…I suppose that’s a different kind of prison.’). But eventually, after trying everything from ‘you do look glorious’ to ‘I just wanted to say that I know how you feel,’ it is this lovely line, ‘I won’t ever hurt you,’ that hits home, and the expression on Sansa’s face when he says it defies description. The most beautiful thing, of course, is the smile Tyrion manages to get out of her on the subject of wine; and if we didn’t know what a catastrophe the rest of the day was going to be, one would almost say Sansa was marrying someone she loves.

3.    ‘Goodbye, Ser Jaime.’

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An entire relationship expressed in three words, Brienne’s first use of Jaime’s name when addressing him directly is a moving recognition of a sister soul as both characters realise what we’ve known all along: that despite their differences and their bickering, they’re cut from the same cloth. The exchange of this knowledge is almost entirely silent and based in intense facial expression and command of voice that is all the more moving for the absence of pretence and bullshit, as well as a kind of honesty and emotional vulnerability that is terrifying, beautiful and awkward to watch in two characters so accustomed to armouring themselves; Brienne in silence, Jaime in sarcasm.

2.    ‘Could you bring back a man without a head? Not six times. Just once.’

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Maisie Williams acts the shit out of her adult co-stars in this searing reminder that for all her blood-stained brilliance and ruthlessness, Arya is an eleven-year-old girl who misses her father. The Hound’s winning his trial against Lord Beric has had the equivalent of convincing her, in a matter of seconds, that justice no longer exists, and she’s reminded once again of her own smallness and her inability to do much about it. The numbness and the depression that this causes in her character is a landmark moment second only to the Red Wedding, and Williams plays this brilliantly in the exhausted emotionlessness of Arya’s face. The steadiness of her voice, however, and her persistent courage in the scene, show us that while she may be numb, she isn’t broken; a stunning tribute to Arya’s emotional and psychological strength.

1.   ‘And everything that’s happened since then, all this horror that’s come to my family, was all because I couldn’t love a motherless child.’

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Catelyn opens up to Talisa about her cruel treatment of Jon Snow in the best scene ever written for the character and Michelle Fairley’s finest moment in all three seasons. In Fairley’s beautifully expressive face and voice we see the iron sense of honour that makes Cat who she is, and the deep, black guilt she feels at being unable to give to Jon the love that she has given so freely to all her children. This goes against her naturally caring and maternal nature, revealing how intolerable Jon’s existence is to her in spite of how guilty she feels about it. Cat is a character that is synonymous with loss and survival, with grief and bitterness, and to see them converge into one, powerful scene is breath-taking.

You’re a Doctor of what, exactly?

The person who plays the Doctor has to be many things. They have to bestride the narrow world like a colossus (or the narrow worlds, if you like); know how the sadness of being the last of one’s race sits in a face; give the impression of being deeply and heartbreakingly human without ever really being one of us at all; but also explode with the joy of life, of laughter and of never growing up.

Her Ladyship adds her voice to the casting question of the moment: who should be the 12th Doctor?

Jim Parsons

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We know he’s a comic genius thanks to his work on The Big Bang Theory, and his popularity in that role is a big drawback (or advantage, depending on your philosophy); BUT if we consider the previous, preciously-scarce and utterly glorious forays of other comedians into drama (Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine; Martin Freeman in Sherlock or Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society) we come to the conclusion that a truly great actor can act anything brilliantly, even if it’s outside his chosen line of work. Conclusion: the divine Mr. Parsons would probably be as brilliant at drama as he is at comedy, particularly if we consider the huge amount of work that he does on characterisation, and the ability to do all of these things with equal brilliance is essential in the role of the Doctor.

Damian Lewis

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A brilliant thespian at the top of his game, Lewis has a lot more to recommend him than the colour of his hair. Having spent loads of time delving into the darkest regions of the soul from his earliest (and exquisite) work in The Forsyte Saga, he’s also proved from his work in the much-underwatched and equally-underappreciated Life that he’s really good at portraying eccentricity following extended trauma, something that the Doctor knows plenty about in spite of his innate craziness. The combination of these two things would be absolutely deadly were he ever to be cast in this role.

Russell Tovey

Artwork by itsjuststayingalive on tumblr.

Artwork by itsjuststayingalive on tumblr.

The favourite of former showrunner Russell T. Davies, this is an exquisite and much underappreciated young actor who deserves an enormously big break: he can be adorable, heartbreaking and outrageously funny (Little Dorrit), as well as tragic, despondent and somewhat psychopathic (Sherlock).

Emilia Fox

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There’s something ageless and magnetic about Emilia Fox that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s a quality that’s impossible to teach to someone, and it’s characterised every Doctor since the First. On top of this, she’s an extremely psychological actress with flawless control and equilibrium, knowing when to fly off the handle, when to be calm, and how, qualities that are kind of useful when playing someone who’s 909.

John Lithgow

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Having spent years mastering both the light (3rd Rock from the Sun) and the darkness (Dexter) and drawing such an extraordinary line between them that you can hardly believe Dick Solomon and Arthur Mitchell are played by the same person, combining them would probably be a breeze and would make for one of the most alluring, impossibly magnetic Doctors ever cast.

Benedict Cumberbatch

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Whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid, and Benedict has proved most unpleasant in stating quite candidly that he is not interested in this role at all. A pity, as his astounding versatility, distinctive looks and devastating charisma make him perfect for it.

Stephen Fry

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A master of comedy and hearbreakingly good at drama on the rare occasions that he turns himself to acting the rough stuff; Fry is a tornado of schoolboy cheek, intelligence, hard experience and effortless charisma AND there’s six foot four of him.

Andy Serkis

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A chameleon with a hundred faces, Serkis is an undisputed master of the beautiful things that human beings can do with face and voice; the implication of these qualities being that he could easily rival David Tennant in passion and intensity if he put his mind to it.

Rooney Mara

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An actress of great emotional maturity with an interesting unearthly quality about her, her exquisite work on the otherwise-dreadful The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shows a psychological readiness for portraying the Doctor’s loneliness and darkness; her ability to play a character like Lisbeth Salander at such a young age suggesting that playing the naughtier, more playful side of his personality might very well be child’s play for her.