Thursday, April 29, 2010

Green Piece

Protest or Forget. Those are your two choices. And, let's face it, there's many a Doctor Who story where that'd be all you need. Thankfully, The Beast Below isn't one of them. So I went for a third option: Record & Rewatch.

What would happen? Would everything disintegrate? Would it all fall apart like a lot of other Who stories on second viewing?

No, I'm glad to say. I was as impressed with this the second time around. And although The Eleventh Hour had to handle the additional burden of breaking in a new incarnation and introducing a new companion and, well, new everything, this episode is a much more complicated beast.

A strange future world, part-Bladerunner, part-Eastenders. Creepy carnival faces in fairground fortune-telling booths. Hooded figures with keys. A floating city built around a mysterious 'beast below' and a story constructed around an impossible choice. There's a lot going on in this one.

Added to which, we're still getting to know the new Doctor and companion – and it says something that Moffat can still deliver the sense of wonder and newness of it all, even to seasoned sofa-based time travellers like myself, in the scene where Amy (Karen Gillan) floats in space outside the TARDIS. It's a magical moment, captured in Amy's expression and the intriguing extra touch of a voice-over 'recap'. Can we assume from this that young Amy is keeping a journal? I know I would. The stream of Facebook status updates would be constant when life got that exciting.

The Doctor is full of joie-de-vivre here too, revelling in the beginnings of another new friendship and the opportunity to show off the wonders of the universe to another eager companion. Matt Smith is like Troughton on Duracell, slipping smoothly between Energiser Bunny and the quieter, older, wiser avuncular figure that we know lies underneath that youthful appearance. Watch him in the TARDIS as he tips his head towards Amy, wrings his hands and speaks in soft, slightly gravelly tones. That's Troughton. Any minute he'll be bouncing off the walls like Tigger, but it's rarely over-amped or out-and-out manic. There's a nice measure of control to it, from an actor who knows the value of understatement.

Watching these two play off each other continues to be a real treat. There's a degree of mirroring going on. Moments where, say, Amy hits a quirky note and the Doctor mimics it beautifullly. And when they're separated, Amy becomes the Doctor. Well, I exaggerate, but watch just how incredibly Doctorish she is when confronted with the hole in the road and the KEEP OUT sign. She's more than just your average plucky companion, this girl. It's key to this story, in particular, as we discover later: when she's shown the truth in the voting booth, she immediately recognises the implications for the Doctor – and hits that Forget button and thinks to leave herself a warning message; and more importantly, at the end of it all, she is the one to piece it all together. It demonstrates a great many qualities, not only smarts and initiative, but tremendous courage of conviction when she plants Liz 10's hand on that Abdicate button. And a remarkable understanding of the Doctor, given that she's only been travelling with him such a short while.

But that's the point. She knows the Doctor already. That childhood encounter left an indelible impression on her. She knows all about loneliness. And that quiet revelation about him being the last of his kind is all she needs. It's the missing piece, all she needs to really know what makes the Time Lord tick. (It's also, by the way, a wonderfully understated exchange, when the Doctor tells her – an emotional allusion to his past, it put me in mind of Troughton talking to Victoria of his family in Tomb Of The Cybermen. It seems to be a signal: no more angst-ridden, self-pitying Doctor. Acknowledge the pain, move on. Thank god.) Watching all that dawn on her is a fascinating, brilliant moment and builds a satisfying climax out of what comes down to the press of a button. It's possibly the most satisfying button-press in all of Doctor Who.

It's handled so well, it's only a shame the script felt the need to spell it out further in the subsequent scene between Amy and the Doctor. Still, superfluous bit of dialogue aside, the hug it prompts, in front of that starscape, is perfect.

Perfect is not a word I get to use very often with regard to Doctor Who. So I'd better rein in this rampant positivity, perhaps by switching focus from the Doctor and Amy to other elements of the story.

Best not include Liz 10, because the idea of a streetwise kick-ass gun-toting monarch is inspired and to then go and cast Sophie Okonedo in the role, well, again you're veering dangerously close to perfection. “I'm the bloody Queen, mate. Basically, I rule.” Hilarious. I could query her lineage, since she talks about her family and then refers to the Doctor's escapades with Elizabeths I and II (as well as Henry XII). And as far as I know she can't be descended from both. But what the heck, she gets some good jokes out of it and to be honest my biggest grumble would be simply that she's not in it nearly enough and she spends some of that time behind a mask. We need more Liz 10! Her subjects demand it.

Inspired casting extends to the minor role of Hawthorne, especially since I remember Terrence Hardiman as Reinhardt from Secret Army. Okay, he turned out to be one of the more decent (Luftwaffe) officers, but you see the guy, you think Nazi. So to have him sitting there behind the scenes, playing Big Brother and watching proceedings on his monitors is a terrific way to steer our suspicions in the wrong direction. But I'm meant to be finding stuff to complain about so, erm, yeah, it's a shame he doesn't get to do much.

I loved the Starship UK concept. The image alone gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling because it reminded me of Uluru City in my Big Finish audio, Dreamtime. (Inspired by those Okie Cities of James Blish.) Add to that the impossibility of its travelling through space without an engine and I'm thinking we're facing a scenario along similar lines: a 'ship' powered by belief alone. And, as it turns out, the stability of Starship UK's existence is maintained by a (false) belief, just in a very different sense. Doesn't rule out there being an Uluru City out there in the Who universe somewhere. But, damn and blast, that's just another reason to love this episode.

The truth is, the only real problems, flaws, omissions or questions – and what you call them will largely depend on how easily they are explained or remedied and/or how forgiving you are – are to be found in the scenario itself, of a starfaring city mounted on the back of a starwhale and a police state enforced by the carnival-booth Smilers. I think that when you structure such an involved setup around the need for that very specific kind of resolution, there are bound to be a few missing nuts and bolts.

The vomiting starwhale scene was great (“This isn't going to be big on dignity!”), for example, but I did wonder how they were chucked up into an overspill pipe and not hurled into space. Also, there was a breathable atmosphere in the starwhale's mouth and yet there were clear gaps between its teeth, open to space. We have to assume an atmospheric bubble that encloses the city also includes the whale and presumably Terran air is at least not toxic to it – under normal circumstances we can assume it 'swims' through a vacuum and can at least go without any kind of air for extended periods, possibly doesn't breathe at all. And it's not too great a stretch to assume that ejected material gets funnelled up its whale-ish spout rather than out through the mouth.

The Smilers were wonderfully creepy – just as creepy when grinning as when they revolved around and frowned. They're an oddity, for sure, not your first choice as the trappings of a police state, but a totalitarian regime in Doctor Who needs exactly this kind of quirkiness. You have to pity poor Timmy who gets the full demonic glare from a Smiler (and dropped into 'hell') just for underperforming in class and riding an elevator. Makes me wonder if there's a fourth face reserved for the genuinely unruly kids. (A pickier, rational part of me did want to know the mechanics behind the materialisation of that third face.) We do see some children down in the dungeons of the Tower later and it emerges that the Beast likes kids. We don't see many, but it's reasonable to suppose that most Starship UK kids are well-behaved and kids eventually grow up. Ah, but at what age do they get sent back up top, are they forced to press a Forget button or are they fed to the whale once they become palatably old enough?

For me these were by no means fatal flaws, so I'm going to call them questions. Easily answered ones too. A tightening of a screw here and there and the whole thing stands up fine.

No, I think if there is a 'problem' with the story it's that because it's a complex scenario squeezed into a 45-minute episode it's obliged to explain a fair amount and it hits the brakes somewhat in the Tower scene in order to allow for slightly too much expository dialogue. To be honest, I don't know how you'd avoid that and it is redeemed by that conclusion and some outstanding moments from the Doctor (“Nobody human has anything to say to me today!”) and Amy (“If you were that old, and that kind, and the last of your kind...”)

There's a good message in there too. It's not just Save The Whale. It strikes me that the starwhale is a metaphor for the Earth: if only we'd quit exploiting the life out of her, she'll provide for us plentifully. That's a very green message, but it's fitting because I'm left green with envy at the writing talent.

Which, sorry, is more of that rampant positivity, I know. The lead-in to the next episode (Churchill and the shadow of a Dalek on the wall!) further fuelled my excitement. At the time of writing, I've already seen that episode once. We'll have to see what a second viewing does to this insanely spiralling enthusiasm of mine...

Ooh, cliffhanger.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rose By Any Other Name?

Spearhead From Space was always one of my favourite regeneration stories. It's interesting that the last time Doctor Who was re-launched onto our screens – with Rose - it chose to borrow from that story wholesale. This time, in The Eleventh Hour, the references are more subtle (there's a hospital that, if it's not actually the one featured in Spearhead, calls it instantly to mind) but they're a very welcome touch for the introduction of a Doctor who, as well as being new and – since it's apparently an essential ingredient of any modern Doctor – a bit hyper, harkens back to the more old-school avuncular figure. It's a remarkable quality for any actor as young as Matt Smith to bring to the role, but it's immediately evident and thrown into focus by the wonderful early scenes in The Eleventh Hour where he first comes crashing into Amelia Pond's life. And ours.

A new Doctor for a new era, so the BBC announcer said before the show started. And this is more than just another regeneration story, after all. New Doctor plus new producer at the helm. New companion, new TARDIS, new logo, new music... you get the drift. But how different can it possibly be?

The answer, as it turns out: not very – and more than enough.

This is Steven Moffat's Rose. A New New Beginning, if you will. Nobody knows this Doctor so Moffat comes up with this ingenious idea of introducing him to Amy as a little girl so that for her he has always been the (raggedy) Doctor, who even manages to become a fairytale figure to people in Amy's life by virtue of her childhood games, cartoons, dolls etc. (She even got her friend/sort-of-boyfriend Rory to dress up as him.) Ever since he left her that night, sitting on her suitcase in the garden, waiting for him to return.

Heart-strings are well and truly plucked there, but we are spared the repeated biffings over the head with the Rusty emo-mallet – CRY NOW! - to which we grew accustomed. It's a genuinely beautiful, measured moment that immediately conveys the impression this strange fish-custard-eating loon has left on this little girl. An impression we get to carry with us as we jump forward to the future to rejoin Amy as a young woman.

Of course it's an ingenious idea. We know that from The Girl In The Fireplace. But it works so well here, we can forgive a little self-plagiarism. And in record time we've effectively seen the building blocks of a Doctor-companion relationship founded on a conflicting blend of hero-worship, betrayed trust and anger stored up over years of psychiatric treatment. Anger which boils over in a single outburst, right into the Doctor's face: “Why did you say five minutes?!” And although I'd already grown to like Karen Gillan as Amy by this point (she has, to my mind, an immediate SallySparrowlike companion appeal), it's this moment where she really arrives as a companion to watch.

While Amy is (in subsequent adventures) rapidly proving herself as quick-witted and clever a match for the Doctor as Madame De Pompadour, The Eleventh Hour is not as clever as Girl In The Fireplace. As the initial mystery of the hidden monster unfolds, the sense of fairytale spirals away into the loopier shenanigans of an alien hunt for an escaped convict. This emerging scenario has more in common with Smith & Jones than Rose. I seem to recall I quite enjoyed that one at the time, although it's one of those that faded on a rewatch. Whereas a second watch of The Eleventh Hour left me just as impressed. Frankly, even if this one had trotted out the Judoon again and relocated a hospital to the lunar surface I'm not sure I would have minded.

For one thing, the loss of that initial fairytale sensibility is reflective of Amy's own change of attitude – she's grown up, she no longer needs fairytales – so she claims – and that strikes me as something of a nice touch. But that aside, I think the difference comes down to something simpler than that.

What a difference a Doctor makes. And companion. And writer.

It's been a while, but I don't think by the Smith & Jones stage that Tennant's Doctor had become quite the intensely unlikeable character he developed into and the full extent of Martha's woodenness hadn't yet become clear. (It was her first story, after all.) But Smith & Gillan beat Smith & Jones hands down. I love the interplay between them. They're both highly charismatic and sharp and animated and fresh and funny.

Smith is the first Doctor I've properly *liked* since Davison's. Wow, now I've typed that I have to stop and think, that can't be true, can it? Hmm, let's see. My reasons for disliking the intervening Doctors are many and varied – Colin Baker a generally unpleasant, misjudged character; McCoy rubbish; McGann too short-lived an appearance in a disastrously bad story; Eccleston “Fantastic!” performance but earned the label Doctor Do Little; Tennant “Brilliant!” performance but a character so far up himself he lost all sympathy/empathy with me somewhere in mid-reign. But yes, so far, I like Smith's Doctor. A bold new concept known as 'subtlety' has crept into proceedings and it's also there in his interpretation of the role. Just as it's there in Gillan's take on the companion.

And I really really really hope this pairing doesn't turn into the (now standard) romantic schtick that was already beginning to feel like a time loop by the time Martha showed up to make (largely lifeless) eyes at her Doctor. The dialogue zings between them and will continue to do so even if (gasp!) their relationship remains this platonic best-friends uncle-niece dynamic they currently have going on.

As long as the writing's as top-notch as it is here. Moffat has the 'gift of the gab', for sure. The dialogue sparkles brilliantly throughout. Plot-wise he retains much of what we've seen from Rusty's Who – not least the frenetic pace and energy. And there are the inevitable (?) plot holes and/or questions that niggle when the episode is over and done. Eleventh Hour examples would involve, perhaps, wondering about a race (the Atraxi) who can scan for non-terrestrial technology but couldn't scan for a non-terrestrial criminal they've been holding prisoner for who knows how long. Or just wondering about the mentality of a species liberal enough to impose a prison sentence on said convict but sufficiently Republican, shall we say, to wipe out an entire world just because the fugitive won't come out with his hands up.

The Atraxi themselves are an oddity in that they call to mind the big bloated eye of the Nestenes (more from the old Target novelisation covers than the TV series) - a good thing - but also make me think of 'the eyeballs in the sky' from The Perishers - a somewhat less fortunate connection to make.

But what are a few bits of peel that get stuck in the teeth when the overall fruitcake recipe is so good? There were, in any case, bigger gripes for me. One would be the use of the Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead get-out clause. Although it made for a good moment, I'd really hoped we wouldn't see that argument – I'm the Doctor, look at all the things I've done, you can't defeat me so run – deployed again. Any alien with half a brain cell could break that circular chain of logic by zapping the Doctor with whatever ray they had to hand at that point. In a way, it makes a bit more sense here, since the Atraxi are, presumably, a reasoning species and have no actual reason to kill the Doctor, but the shadows in Library struck me as more elemental and had bugger all reason not to consume the Doctor in piranha-like darkness.

Then there was the heavily-flagged 'this year's cryptic foreshadowing of the season arc' bit. “The Universe is cracked. The Pandoric will open. Silence will fall. And one day we might not feel the need to trot out this tired and formulaic device.” Could happen. Sure, the fissures in time and space are intriguing, but do we really need these prophesies every year? Oh well, you have to hand it to Moffat for coming up with an inventive way to retain another quintessential feature of Rusty's Who – cracks in every story.

My one other gripe has more to do with a trait of modern Who than this particular episode. Back when I reviewed Rose for my blog, I headed up the post 'We Have No Time To Stand And Scare'. It was a comment on pace. Despite The Eleventh Hour's rapid gallop, I don't think Moffat is afraid to slow things down here and there, because it's the quieter pauses that really serve to heighten and intensify moments of action, not to mention fuel suspense. But there is a tendency among CGI monsters to do basically not much more than 'stand and scare'. Fair enough, Prisoner Zero doesn't wish to reveal itself, but Prisoner Zero is by no means the only offender in the CGI-monster line-up who basically does diddly beyond standing there and roaring or otherwise trying to look ferocious. There is, as a rule, very little interaction between CGI monsters and the environment and/or other characters. Here, there could have been more since they'd gone to the trouble of making it a shapeshifter, hence you do have an actor – and his dog – who can at least attack the Doctor or something. Instead, we're treated to seeing Olivia Colman as a (very welcome) guest star and yet left with the feeling that, actually, she didn't really do much. Admittedly any kind of fight arrangement would have been a challenge, what with her having a kid attached to each hand...

But actions speak louder than words. They also speak louder than opening your gob and flashing your fangs. No matter how frightening your dental work.

A proactive Doctor, especially one who bounds around with the energy of modern Who, ideally needs a more proactive enemy. At least on the proactive Doctor side of things, by removing the sonic screwdriver from the equation Moffat makes a clear attempt to oblige this incarnation to resolve the Prisoner Zero situation with a spot of hasty improvisation. That's an effort worthy of applause and leaves a satisfying impression that the Doctor has had to work things out rather than wave a magic wand. Which compensates for the get-out clause he uses to drive off the Atraxi.

And even that does give us the scene of this new Doctor stepping through the scanner images of his former selves, which for my money is a simple, ingenious way of acknowledging the series' past while confirming the arrival of this 'new Doctor for a new era'.

So, all in all, on my second viewing, my immediate enthusiasm for The Eleventh Hour remains intact. Five years on from Rose, there must be kids out there for whom this is the beginning and I hope they're (at least) as excited as I am. I like the new titles, by the way, but am 'not enamoured with' the new arrangement of the theme. Whereas, as far as the show's content is concerned, I wasn't a great fan of Rusty's track record, but so far I'm enjoying the Moffat remix.

Rose by any other name would smell as sweet? If that name happens to be The Eleventh Hour - or Amy Pond - then I'd venture to say much, much better.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Homicide: LOTS

There's an episode of Homicide: Life On The Street where a junkie CI devours Ding Dongs in search of a sugar rush to tide him over until his next fix. It was kind of like that for me after The Wire, I needed something to fuel my addiction once it was over. A friend put me onto The Shield, which I'm currently following on rental and am pretty well hooked. At the same time, I'd just completed my Homicide DVD collection so it seemed the obvious time to revive that habit.

Mostly it was a rewatch and the show was a huge favourite of mine, so in that sense the streets of Baltimore were fairly safe territory for a revisit. But even with favourites you never know for sure how these things are going to stand up and there was also the undiscovered country of Season 7, which I'd never seen because Channel 4 didn't take the option, the bastards, at the time. In the years since, I'd heard it wasn't a patch on preceding seasons and was always caught between wondering if I'd been spared disappointment and curiosity about what I might have missed. Given a choice, I'd rather a great show ended before its time than watch it swirl with a dying gurgle down a creative plug hole. That said, I have trouble resisting curiosity.

So, the verdict.

Technically seven seasons, organised into six for the sake of the DVD box sets and leading to some confusion over numbering if you happened to have bought any of the older US releases. The UK DVDs must be remasters. They're much sharper – the episodes on my US discs seem fuzzy and bleached of colour by comparison. For the purposes of this blog, I'll refer to them by their box set titles – hence, Series One to Series Six, with Series Six actually being the (for me) previously unseen Season 7. And if that is confusing, just buy the DVDs and that'll clear things right up. You won't be sorry either.

While Vic Mackey of The Shield will grab you by the collar – if you're lucky – and slam you against the wall, the detectives of the Baltimore PD Homicide division will very likely command your attention in a quieter, more civilised fashion. Don't get me wrong, it's plenty gritty and hard-hitting, but it doesn't punch you in the face. It's subtler than that. It works, in fact, more like a session in the interview room – the Box – where what often begins as a casual conversation, just talking, develops into an intense, electrifying confrontation that proves that, sometimes, all you need for bloody good drama is a room, great writing and a few good actors.

It creeps up on you and you can't really pinpoint the moment when you were hooked. The roots of The Wire are very much in evidence and even if it doesn't have the same multi-layered complexity, it has more layers than any other cop show of its era. David Simon's fingerprints are all over it and its origins in his journalistic work, the book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, are what lend the show its edge of realism. That and the shaky camera-work, which – although I'm being facetious there – is really effective in appointing us as an observer, whether it's sitting us in on those sessions in the Box or signing us up for a ridealong in one of the Baltimore PD's Cavaliers.

It's a network show, so it's more governed by certain rules than The Wire. In that respect, it's more in a similar bracket to ER, setting the standard (at the time) in its genre. Much as patients come and go in Cook County General, here it's the victims and their families we encounter through the eyes of an ensemble cast. For obvious reasons, the victims aren't saying much so, as the series often reminds us, it falls to the detectives to speak for the dead. There are few cases complex enough to task the great Sherlock Holmes. Criminal genius is rare. The reality is a bit more like Columbo in that they usually know whodunnit and the challenge lies in proving it, often with dogged old-fashioned police plod-work. It lacks the slick, Hollywood polish of the CGI, sorry, CSI series, but in Homicide, character is king and the biggest gimmick on display is the simple procedural act of turning red names to black on the all-important Board.

Given the nature of the business, there's no real room for the more blatantly soapish elements of ER – suggesting that detectives have less time for life outside their jobs than doctors and nurses – but I'll leave the respective professions to debate that one. But there is a focus, amid all the crime-solving, on the chemistry of partnerships – by which I mean between partnered detectives. Some pairings work better than others and the divorce rate is high, but the standout teams, the ones who shine most for me, would have to be the old married couple, Munch and Bolander, the buddy-buddy double act of Lewis and Kellerman and, of course, the ever-fascinating love story of Bayliss and Pembleton.

Indeed, in a series so dependent on character and chemistry, the main problem is one of staff turnover. Over the course of the series, there are too many off-screen departures which then have to be explained away, sometimes unconvincingly. At least the mighty Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), such a formidable and often ferocious presence on the squad, has his proper exit – even if, inevitably, he leaves a hole that, try as it might, Series Six can't fill. Actually, I don't think it tries – which is probably the more sensible option.

But I'm getting slightly ahead of myself. Plainly there just isn't going to be room here to cite every good episode or even provide a decent season by season overview. Some series are just too darned good for their own good and I wouldn't want to get arrested for criminal overuse of the words 'brilliant' or 'great'. But a journey like this does at least warrant a brief tour through the highlights – and, in the interests of balance, the occasional lowlights. Just take my word for it, I've severely limited myself on the former category.


Series One. Mostly characterised by the Adena Watson investigation, the first case handed to new boy Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). The murder of a young girl, her name will remain in red on the Board and her ghost will haunt you almost as much as it haunts Bayliss. The hard news – some cases never get solved – establishes the show's credentials and warns us we'd better get used to outcomes that are often far from neat or satisfying. We get mood and humour and a pure character piece in the third episode, Night Of The Dead Living, and we get put through the emotional wringer right along with the suspect in the Box in Three Men And Adena.

Series Two. Too. Many. Outstanding. Episodes. Begins the tradition of the big multi-part season opener, with a 3-parter as Pembleton lands a big serial-killer case, laced with questions of faith and religion. Crosetti – first of the off-screen casualties – turns up as a floater in the episode of the same name and you really feel for Lewis as he refuses to believe his partner's death was suicide. Last Of The Watermen gives us a break from Baltimore and the chance for Kay Howerd (Melissa Leo) to really shine. Every Mother's Son, so bloody good it gave me shivers to watch – again. And a major major 3-parter in the middle, City That Bleeds, Dead End and End Game, with a shock beginning and a gripping journey all the way through to an ending that provokes uncomfortable questions about the squad of detectives we think we know. And the season closer, The Gas Man, although an oddity, puts us on a ridealong with the criminal for a change and hands Pembleton an unexpected slice of real vulnerability.

Series Three. An opening 2-parter, Fire, which brings in Kellerman (Reed Diamond) and treats us to an insight into the world of arson. Heartbeat, for me the first real misfire, delves into the world of Edgar Allen Poe and feels a bit out of place. Full Moon is a much better attempt at off-beat and slightly surreal, as is The Hat. And The Thrill Of The Kill is powerfully haunting with its killer's-eye view. In the midst of those we have Sniper, a 2-parter all the more chilling for the fact there's no real explanation for the shooter's motives and later there's another doubler, Justice, featuring Bruce Campbell and a beautifully handled look at the two sides of the justice – or injustice, depending on how you look at it – coin. Followed by Stakeout, a masterclass character piece letting us see the interplay between different pairings of the squad's detectives. Also notable are The Damage Done, which introduces drug lord, Luther Mahoney – watch out for him again – and Work Related which is the series' first dip into the standard convention of a real season cliffhanger, but trust me it is an out of the blue shocker. At least, it was the first time and it still sent me cold this time around.

Series Four. What do we have here? An opening 2-parter in the shape of Hostage. New to me, since there was a shooting incident at a school at the time which prevented this from being shown. And in typical Homicide fashion, this is too damned real. As a result on the rewatch it feels quite late in the season when the brilliant Michelle Forbes arrives on the scene as Dr Julianna Cox in ME, Myself and I – and she really puts her stamp on he role, offering us another perspective on death that goes hand in hand with the detectives' POV but isn't always the smoothest of relationships. Her relationship with Kellerman is more like Mutually Assured Destruction than romance. And when, in the superb Heart Of A Saturday Night, she shows up in a victim support group to talk about the death of her father, well, if you don't shed a tear you probably belong on her slab. Much of this season is characterised by the drug war and the investigation into the Luther Mahoney organisation, probably the closest we ever get to a story arc. A corruption investigation sets Kellerman on his self-destructive path at a time when, ideally, he'd be there at the forefront of the Mahoney case, but he's right there at its conclusion in Deception. (Apparently it was the network's insistence that Mahoney gets his just deserts it was the network's insistence and the series, and especially the character Kellerman, has to deal with the consequences.) Other recurring themes here are Pembleton's struggle with the aftermath of that Series Three ending and Bayliss' struggle with his history as an abused child and his sexuality. The Documentary is a bit too clever for its own good, making the mistake of featuring footage where we know in-story camera jockey Brodie wasn't anywhere around. The season closes off with Partners & Other Strangers where, with echoes of Crosetti, Beau Felton turns up as another off-screen departed, this time minus a face. (Yeah, ewww.) After a terrific, tense 2-parter, Giardello's announcement of the impending rotation and possible end of the Homicide unit as we know it feels like a last-minute attempt at a season cliffhanger, even if it almost certainly had me shouting, “Noooooo!” at the time. But it brings back Megan Russert for a spell and introduces two detectives we'll be seeing more of next season.

Series Five. Blood Ties is a real whammy of a 3-parter which at times – like the big-screen action at the airport – feels more like CSI:Miami and Georgia Rae Mahoney, along with the revelation that Mahoney had a sister, feels like a creation that belongs in another series. Still, that said, she does make for a compelling story thread that runs throughout this season. Kellerman disintegrates, which is a shame for the character, but at the same time it's a great depiction of a cop steadily being cornered by one moment's split decision. In amongst it all, we have The Subway, another ohmygod episode, with Vincent D'Onofrio wedged between a tube train and a platform. Ouch doesn't begin to cover it. All Is Bright confronts the AIDS issue through the eyes of new detective Laura Ballard – and the Ballard and Gharty pairing is another noteworthy partnership, their brand of old-young, guy-woman just-friends dynamic works really well. Only a shame they don't make more of Ballard as a rival in the detective stakes to the great Frank Pembleton. Mercy is outstanding and Alfre Woodard is more than a match for Pembleton. And Finnegan's Wake has a star turn by Charles Durning, a relic of the 'good old days' of policing. Inevitably it's Fallen Heroes, the 2-part season closer that makes the biggest mark, in part because of Kathryn Bigelow's hard-hitting direction and Mekhi Phifer's last appearance as Junior Bunk, but also because of the ultimate tying up of the Mahoney case and all its consequences. And as you'd expect from Homicide, it's the loose threads that serve to make it all so damned frustratingly perfect.

Series Six. All change, all new. That's what it feels like. Guess it doesn't help that they redecorated the office. But in a show that depends on the ensemble cast and how you relate to key characters, the changes in staff are a lot to cope with. Of the old faces, Lewis and Munch are a welcome presence, post-near-mortem Bayliss is going a bit too out there with his Buddhism. Of the relatively new, Ballard and Gharty are the best and feel like part of the old family. And in the total newbies, Giancarlo Esposito as Mike Giardello brings some interesting father-son – and departmental – conflict to proceedings, but Michele Michael, brings a touch of glamour in much the same way a varnished piece of wood might. Except the wood would likely be less annoying and self-important. Ballard and Falsone's illicit romance feels more soapish than any of the other personal relationships the show explored previously. Luckily there are highlights that prove the series can still pull something remarkable out of the bag: chief among them, episodes like Lines Of Fire, another one with Kathryn Bigelow at the helm – coincidence? I think not – and the masterfully crafted closing episode. The coda is so perfectly judged it feels like, despite the intervening shortcomings of this last season, this is where the story had always been headed.

The flaws aren't exclusive to that last season, but they are weighted there. As a rule of thumb any episode involving the Intelligence community tends to be less successful, but there aren't many of those and there's generally more than one case up in the air and/or other goings on to maintain the interest. The least satisfying episodes for me were the Law & Order crossovers which became an annual feature from Series Three onwards. The episodes belong in there for completeness sake but, despite their tacking on a 'Previously on...' recap at the beginning – leave you feeling, unsurprisingly perhaps, like you've watched half a story. And the show's use of the trademark 'stutter' edit is variable: more often than not its very effective in driving home a dramatic point, but it's sometimes misjudged and intrudes on the moment as a clumsy bit of artifice.

Still, measured against the series' strengths, those flaws don't amount to a hill of beans. Murder laced with drama laced with real life, served up by actors, directors, writers and production crew who maybe aren't A-list, but they're first-class. And humour by the baggie load. The laughs, like the rest of it, have bite – not just in the uber-cynical tirades of John Munch (Richard Belzer) – but in the kind of incidents that are funny in a way that only real life can be. You know this stuff happened on the street or in the squad room somewhere, if not actually in Baltimore.

Like the electrolyte neuron magnetic test scanner used to detect a suspect's lies – better than a polygraph, a simple photocopier. The scene in Series One's Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is duplicated – and, I think, refined – for later use in The Wire, but it's still funny here. As a side-benefit, there's also the chance to play a game of spot the guy – or girl – who was [insert character name here] in The Wire. But don't worry, if you haven't seen The Wire yet, the game works just as well the other way around.

So, okay, this is not the pure heroin of The Wire but forget the sugary cake-bar substitutes, this is good well-cut product. These drugs do work.