Review: Kerblam!

Picture the scene. Jodie Whittaker is standing by a group of uniformed warehouse staff, all of whom are about to succumb to a fatal virus. She is in the process of shouting down an angry executive. Graham is standing six feet away, wrapping a blanket around the delirious, pockmarked supporting character they’ve picked up on their journey through warehouse central. Ryan is fidgeting, and Yaz is doing that thing with her eyes.

But our eyes are on the Doctor. “Look at them!” she’s yelling. “These aren’t machines, they’re people! They can’t function in a state of constant productivity, they need rest! They need interaction! They need time away from the packing spaces! This obsession with productivity has driven them into the ground. That’s why they reached out to me – well, one of ’em did. I knew something was off at Kerblam the moment we arrived – just couldn’t see what it was. So I dug. And now I find you’re turning them into zombies!”

The executive smirks. “One hundred per cent correct, Doctor. And now it’s too late for you to stop me. When the virus enters its final stage they will reach a state of uninterrupted productivity, at the cost of most neural functions. They’ll be able to perform the roles we give them, never stopping, never resting, never tiring. We call it…”

He pauses for emphasis. “Permawork.”

It is a silly thing, written in the shivery, pre-caffeine moments before the dawn on what is shaping up to be a cold and frosty November morning, but I think it’s probably the sort of sequence many of us were expecting in last night’s episode. The news that Doctor Who was off to Amazon had me raising my eyebrows: was this to be another rant at consumer culture, the want-it-now generation, a response to the many rumours about practices and policies behind the closed doors of the retail giant’s gargantuan premises? Certainly you’d be forgiven if you thought it was. The very first thing that happens in this episode – no, belay that, the second, right after the Doctor has fished out a fez from a cardboard box – is the discovery of a printed note, containing the words “Help me”, echoing stories in the broadsheets. But in a way you can’t blame Pete McTighe (this week’s guest writer) for avoiding outright condemnation. BBC Worldwide have to work with Amazon, after all – they stock the Blu-Rays. There are lessons to be learned from Rain Man, which was censored – and sometimes banned outright – on in-flight movie showings after Dustin Hoffman’s character refuses to get on a plane because they’re not flying with Quantas. Guess which airline was happy to screen the movie uncut?

Or perhaps it’s simply that McTighe is a better writer – better at least than Chibnall, who would have gone with the zombies plot, and consequences be damned. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing: if I do I have to reassess the entirety of series 11, and I’m not doing that before coffee. Perhaps if something like this had cropped up in the Moffat era, in which twist-laden stories were the show’s bread and butter, the eye with which we judge would be a little more critical. Nevertheless: as it stood, we got an episode of Doctor Who that surprised me, and in a world where I’m really starting to think I’ve seen everything the show has to offer, that’s TV gold.

At its core, ‘Kerblam!’ is a lighthearted and often humorous take on the daily grind of shift work and the feeling you’re a cog in a machine. It’s something I’m only able to relate to partially – I did my stint in a warehouse over twenty years ago and that was very much on a casual basis – but the jokes about office politics come thick and fast and are largely delivered by white-eyed, passive-aggressive robots who tilt their heads in a manner that ought to make more than a few of us feel uneasy. The outward friendliness that masks what is essentially a master-slave relationship is about as zeitgeisty as it gets, and they remind me of a temporary contract I had with a large insurance company I elect not to name – twenty of us crammed into a small space on the first floor of an anonymous building on the outskirts of a business park – and the woman in charge of our team who came over to me on the final day of the placement when I was chatting to a friend, to politely warn us that we’d been “spotted”. Nearly two decades on I’m still trying to work out exactly what she meant by that – I’d gone to school with this particular supervisor and it was difficult not to feel put out, particularly since the aforementioned friend and I had hit all our targets six weeks running.

The robots in ‘Kerblam!’ do not discriminate, unless there’s a reason. Certainly when they snatch away Kira (Claudia Jessie, recently seen in Vanity Fair) it’s hard not to feel a sense of relief. Kira is one of those irritating types you meet at university, the one who’s had a rubbish childhood and is now graced with flatmates from hell, but who is determined to make the best of her situation by singing badly at open mic evenings. Mercifully Kira does not carry a guitar, but even though she grates you know she’d be perfectly suited to Charlie, the doe-eyed janitor who is the epitome of Hugh Grant-esque social awkwardness whenever he has to be within touching distance. The four travellers watch from the sidelines, and Graham manages to have a brief heart-to-heart with his learning mentor in a darkened store room. “Have you smelt her?” Charlie enquires, eagerly. Walsh doesn’t let the smile slip from his poker face. “Funnily enough,” he replies, “I haven’t.”

That Charlie turns out to be the episode’s villain comes as a shock – as does the death of Kira, disintegrated to atoms when she touches booby-trapped bubble wrap. It’s all part of a series of tests that Charlie’s been running – testing out bombs on unsuspecting workers before enacting his master plan, which is to kill thousands of customers at once in order to destroy the public’s trust in machines. This is the same year that The X-Files did the exact opposite, in a strange, practically wordless episode in which Mulder and Scully are beset by angry drones when Mulder refuses to tip a robotic waiter. It was decently executed, but there was a heavy sense of deja vu that mercifully fails to permeate the confines of this week’s episode – there’s something refreshing about the way McTighe subverts the Angry AI motif, particularly when the unmasked villain turns out to be this story’s Professor Quirrell.

One of the nicest things about ‘Kerblam!’ is the way it manages to find roles for everyone. While Graham is off mopping floors with Charlie, the Doctor and Ryan are busy in the packing room – Ryan’s uncanny dexterity explained away by nods to a previous job, in the episode’s I Have Dyspraxia moment. They also have time to raid an office or two; McTighe sensibly gives us two executive types, one more ostensibly dodgy than the other, but all roads lead to Rome, and both of them turn out to be trustworthy. Meanwhile, Yaz is paired with Lee Mack, who warns her not to touch the antique lamps. Mack plays an older, world-weary version of his Not Going Out persona, and it’s a shame that more isn’t done with him – his early death, too, comes as something of a surprise, although it’s hard not to burst into giggles when Yaz is seen walking down the empty aisles of the warehouse yelling “Dan! Dan! Dan!” like Alan Partridge. But if this is the first week that Team TARDIS feels like a name that actually fits, it’s the guest stars that shine – particularly Julie Hesmondhalgh, brilliantly warm as an out-of-her-depth head of HR who nonetheless feels, at times, like she could secretly be a criminal mastermind, blustering and heartfelt and acting just about everybody else off the screen.

There’s nothing particularly world changing about this week. It starts with unexplained mysteries, ends with a bomb in a hangar, and mines enough reserves from the sinister robots cliché to last us until 2020. But there are plenty of things we could say about the people I spoke to last night who said that, for the first time this year, they were watching something that “felt like proper Doctor Who“. I’m not really sure where you go from that – whether that’s an unfair assessment, or an indication of a general drop in quality, this episode a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory, rather like Sick Boy’s assessment of The Name Of The Rose. If you’re a regular here you know my feelings on this year and we won’t have that conversation again, at least not for another week or so.

Still, none of that matters for the moment. ‘Kerblam!’ is ridiculous fun in the best sense of the word. Like many stories in the canon it is strongest when it is being deliberately silly – whether it’s the Doctor trying to talk a drone out of an existential crisis, or Ryan, Yaz and Charlie’s video game inspired descent through dispatch, easily the biggest laugh Doctor Who has given us in a long time. It is punchy, aesthetically pleasing television, delivered with the same panache, efficiency and attention to detail as a parcel from Kerblam itself. Just don’t touch the bubble wrap.

Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Have I Got Whos For You (Brexit Edition)

You will notice – or at least you will when it subsequently doesn’t show up – that there is no God Is In The Detail post this week. To be honest I thought it best if I leave this one; it seems disrespectful.

Let’s talk about something else, shall we? We’ve got a stack of episode 5 and 6 memes coming your way soon, but they can wait a bit. We’re getting behind in our coverage of current events; for example, 5th November came and went.

So, for that matter, did National Sandwich Day.

In music, news emerges of the other Spice Girls reunion.

And there’s conspiracy and intrigue over at the BBC when a certain entertainment journalist meets a sticky end.

All of which brings us neatly up to today, when Theresa May unveiled her new Brexit secretary.

Ah, the Brexit secretary. The only significant Civil Service role where the occupants last less time than the Chelsea manager. I have watched today’s events with an unhealthy mixture of amusement and alarm. How did we end up here, with this dog’s breakfast? What was the point at which people lost their minds? Perhaps my spectacles are rose-tinted but I’m sure – in fact I’d stake my reputation on it – that there was a time we were sensible about these things. There was a bit of politeness. We listened to each other, or at least we were sufficiently reserved to give the outward appearance of listening, rather than simply waiting for the other person to finish so we could say our bit.

My grasp of the situation is somewhat limited, but from what I understand, a year or two ago somebody made a controversial decision to shake up a system that a number of people – a large number, or a small-but vocal number, depending on who you talk to – didn’t seem to like very much. There are all sorts of reasons why this might have happened, but the fallout was anger and division and an awful lot of arguing, and now the woman who’s acting as figurehead is getting heaps of abuse even though most of the problem has nothing to do with her.

Some are saying we should have done this years ago: others are saying it’s a bad idea full stop. And there are a few people saying “Told you so” in response to a much larger group of people who are complaining that while they wanted change, they really didn’t expect it to be quite like this.

So that’s where we are, in a nutshell. I think I might go and watch some Doctor Who now, to take my mind off things.

Categories: Have I Got Whos For You | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Demons of the Punjab

“While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again…is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

(Jo Cox, MP)

The last time Doctor Who did a Remembrance episode it culminated in fire, levitating Cybermen and a grotesquely reanimated military hero. Capaldi (then still getting into his stride) saluted a stunt double from the opposite side of a cemetery while Jemma Redgrave slumbered, Cybermen all around the world burned, and in Oxfordshire I nearly threw my wine glass at the TV. It was not a good story. More to the point it was insulting. It felt like a line had been crossed. Four years (and a great deal of very turbulent water under the bridge) later the sting has subsided a little bit, but the memories remain: and if there’s one lesson to be learned from ‘Death In Heaven’ it’s that perhaps some things shouldn’t be touched, or at least not touched by Steven Moffat.

‘Demons of the Punjab’ put a new spin on things. Here, we were told, was a war that put Hindu next to Sikh next to Muslim next to Catholic, only for each one of them to return home to division, with the resulting atrocities a notorious (if seldom discussed) dark mark in twentieth century history. It’s too complicated to blame the whole thing on the British, and Vinay Patel – this week’s writer – neatly sidesteps the issue by leaving the colonial overlords offscreen; consequently the only deaths occur as a result of internal unrest that had presumably been brewing for some time. The point, surely, is that people will happily turn on their neighbour given any excuse or opportunity, and not for the first time this series, the monster is us.

Is this patronising? Perhaps. I was going to write something about how this is a lesson the kids need to learn, even if we don’t – but then I logged into a couple of Facebook groups and remembered exactly why I unsubscribed from their feeds. Here’s something: we never did the Partition of India at school. We studied Celts, Romans, both World Wars and spent quite a lot of time in late Georgian / early Victorian England. But we never touched India. We never touched Cromwell, come to that, and years later I glean most of my knowledge of the Civil War from English Heritage properties. The point is this: surely it’s not a bad thing if you tell such a tale, provided you do so with sensitivity? I mean, I learned something last night – never mind the children.

But stepping back into history is nothing if you don’t put some sort of contemporary spin on it, and this week the time-travelling quartet (I cannot and will not bring myself to refer to them as ‘Team TARDIS’) travel back to 1947 to discover the roots of a story that Yaz’s grandmother refuses to tell. The notion of delving into the past to solve untapped mysteries is one that’s naturally going to appeal to just about everyone (while I’m not about to go into details, it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot this past week) and while it inevitably turns out to be a Pandora’s box, there’s never any question that it was an adventure not worth having. As Yaz notes, “What’s the point in having a mate with a time machine if you can’t go back and see your nan when she was young?”

Still. Doctor Who has become, over the years, an exercise in not dabbling in history. When Hartnell’s incarnation protests, in the sternest of voices, that “You can’t rewrite history – not one line!” it feels like a commandment: as it stands, it’s more like an inevitability. By and large we find that the Doctor’s place in global events is at best incidental and at worst pre-determined – in other words, things happen because they were supposed to happen, not because anyone shifted the narrative. There are notable exceptions – ‘Father’s Day’, for example, which (while being a richly satisfying episode packing a strong emotional punch) is responsible for more misunderstandings about the way Doctor Who generally works than any other episode in the show’s history. Back To The Future posits that your future is whatever you make of it: for the Doctor and their companions, the future is what it is and there’s nothing much you can do to change things.

So before you know it we’re trundling round the Punjab two days before they draw a line in the sand and neighbour makes war upon neighbour. There are resentful siblings and an upcoming wedding to a man that no one recognises – and the woods are littered with alien technology. The twist, of course, is that the titular demons turn out to be nothing of the sort, becoming instead a paradigm for a wiser, older version of humanity, roaming the universe and honouring unobserved deaths as an act of penance. Introducing such a concept so soon after ‘Twice Upon A Time’ is a narrative risk – Big Finish’s monthly range has suffered in the same way – but if anything, the Assassins of Thijar (what do we call them? Thijarians? Anybody know?) are a better fit. Masked, armoured and imposing, appearing from the shadows like a cut-price Predator, they are obvious villains in the same way that the Fisher King was, and the fact that they turn out to be entirely benevolent (if ultimately impassive) is a harsh lesson in judging by appearances.

Needless to say this week is mostly about Yaz, and it’s curious that Patel doesn’t give her a great deal to do. There’s a lot of staring with those wide eyes (no one does the “Did I leave the iron on?” look quite like Mandip Gill) but for the most part she heeds the Doctor’s advice about leaving history unchanged with the sort of steadfast obedience we haven’t seen since the eighties. This is, above all, a story about reacting – the consequences of being in a situation you can’t change, a sort of virtual reality history lesson that is likely not to sit well with some people. “All we can strive to be,” notes Graham, in a lump-inducing moment with Prem that is by far this week’s high point, “is good men”. Graham, indeed, is the one to watch this week – moving from childlike fascination to helpless abandonment with the precision of an actor at the top of his game. Elsewhere, Ryan spends most of his screen time kicking up the dust, while the Doctor officiates at the wedding (in a speech that’s likely to outlive Tumblr itself, never mind do the rounds on it). But even if they’re only chewing up the scenery, at least they do it with a certain panache. The supporting characters, too, acquit themselves well, although Amita Suman rather lets the side down, giving a performance as wooden as the huts that sprinkle the roads.

As with the first Lord of the Rings movie, the real star is the scenery. The Doctor and her companions stride through the fields and lanes of rural Punjab (actually Granada), given a warm, almost sepia-tinted glow by Sam Heasman’s exemplary cinematography. The forest sparkles in the low sun of afternoon, and the camera lingers over the poppies that bloom in the fields. The cavernous interior of the Thijar spacecraft is bland and fundamentally pointless, somehow, and yet again the TARDIS barely gets a look-in (did they only have that set for half an hour, or something?), but both are forgivable offences when everything else looks so pretty.

Doctor Who seems to be transitioning lately. This is not just a tonal shift; there’s an entirely new blueprint on the table in Chris Chibnall’s office. The stories are less complicated, the dynamic has subtly (all right, not so subtly) altered, and the average age for the audience the show is apparently trying to reach seems to have dropped by about fifteen years. The result has been an uptake in new viewers – and a resurgence from older ones who had become disillusioned – but there has been fallout.  Some people, from what I read, are clearly not happy with things. There is a growing concern among various pockets of fandom, old and new alike, that this is somehow “not Doctor Who“, although that archetype is in itself so head-scratchingly abstract it’s hard to know just how to break it down.

Question: has anybody actually asked the kids what they think about all this? Or are we too busy complaining that it’s not the show we know and love? What do we do about the fact that for years Doctor Who was a messy hybrid of itself, endeavouring to be smug and grown-up and sophisticated at precisely the same time as it needed to be accessible and viewer-friendly, and not really managing either? Is there really a point at which we can no longer call this programme by its allocated name, because if the Trigger’s Broom principle applies then surely that ship sailed long ago? Isn’t it better to say that for some of us, Doctor Who is moving on, and that we have outgrown it?

I genuinely don’t know any more. But I do know that last night’s story felt important, somehow – worthy without being dull, tastefully scored and elegantly photographed and (by and large) decently performed. It’s not a Doctor Who I easily recognise but that does not make it wrong. Series 11 is shaping up to be a long and occasionally difficult rebirth: the labour pangs of something that is still not quite ready. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps that’s what it needs to be at the moment in order to survive: perhaps the previous format has run its course and this new path is the only way to avoid stagnant repetition, which inevitably results in devolution. This is an experiment – one that is perhaps doomed to failure, but things were not working as they were, and something had to give. “When it works,” Tim Burton says of his own approach to filmmaking and direction, “it’s fun. When it doesn’t, at least I tried something.”

Russell T Davies closed 2007 with ‘Voyage of the Damned’. It contains a coda in which the obnoxious stockbroker vanishes into the distance while the Doctor glowers at him. The life lesson that follows (delivered by Clive Swift, far less grumpy on screen than he reportedly was on set) is clumsy, but necessary. Last night’s closing scene – in which Yaz met with her aged grandmother in a Sheffield tower block – was clumsy, but necessary. Perhaps there’s a more subtle way of delivering these messages; perhaps it is beyond the abilities of the current writing team to do so. Perhaps this is the series we deserve, rather than the one that we need: perhaps it is the other way round.

Or perhaps it is both. We’re in a world where subtlety has all but vanished from the face of the earth, and everything is delivered in stark black and white because that’s the only language that people speak. We were told – in no uncertain terms – that people are superstitious and fickle, and that monsters appear without warning at the drawing of a line in the sand, but that ultimately we were stronger when we learned to work together. Is this acceptable for a Sunday evening’s light entertainment? Is it right that Doctor Who wields its moral baton with such unerring transparency? That’s another post. But either way, I can’t help thinking that Jo Cox would have approved.

Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

God is in the detail (11-05)

It’s a complicated business, having a baby. There you are, flat out on the hospital bed, squeezing an object the size of a melon out through a hole the size of….yes, well, let’s leave out the specifics, shall we? I’m sure many of you know are familar with the process, and I know I am; I’ve watched it four times, although my wife was doing most of the pushing.

Anyway, if you’re on a hospital bed – as poor Yoss was, in last week’s ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’, you won’t have much time for pattern spotting. And thus it’s possible that the likes of Yoss allowed the whole of episode 5 to pass without being made aware of a single VERY IMPORTANT DETAIL. Which is a shame, because there were tons of them this week – so many I’ve had to skimp on the text a bit, and allow the pictures to speak for themselves. All those gleaming white corridors are full of secrets; a number of them concern screens. We like screens. Screens only look like gibberish – the sort of thing that’s roughed in the BBC’s graphics department during post-production – and to the uninitiated reader that’s exactly what they are. It’s a good thing you and I can read between the lines, isn’t it?

We begin with a star chart. Let’s cut to the chase: there is, along the zip-like curve stretching from left to right, a singular point which serves as the start and end for a clearly mapped trajectory. Using a particularly select (and far too complicated to explain) set of criteria I have thus determined that the asteroid field is in fact a set of waypoints that produces the following:

In other words, LTA is (gestures) that way.

But what is LTA? Local Traffic Authority? Licensed Travel Agency? The Lawn Tennis Association? It’s none of the above, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. No, LTA in fact stands for Lost Time Accident. Superficially this refers to any accident that prevents an employee from returning to work the next day. Of course, in Doctor Who it means something completely different: it is any episode in which the characters find themselves displaced in time, or finding that time has passed without them. The arrow is pointing to the right, suggesting that this concept will feature in a future installment: could we be set for a fiery, Moffat-inspired series finale? Perhaps one that features, I don’t know, monsters that displace people in time? Monsters made…from STONE? (And yes, I know what Chibnall said. Rule one: Chibnall lies.)

Next we’ll take a look at the conveniently small bomb stored in the anti-matter drive.

It looks like a simple rejig from the designs department, mildly steampunk in appearance. Doesn’t it? But there was a reason they made it look this way – and once annotated, we uncover a wealth of information.

And you thought it was just a prop.

Let’s move on to the set itself now. For the most part the scenery was relatively minimalist – a lot of gleaming white corridors and hospital waiting rooms – but there were some intriguing moments in some of the labs. Take this shot, for example, of Eve and Ronan.

(It’s telling that Suzanne Packer’s character was so bland I couldn’t remember her name. I had to Google it. Is there any chance of having interesting supporting characters who aren’t there for comic relief?)

Anyway: the scenery here is loaded with symbolism and foreshadowing – throwbacks, imagery and clues about what is to come. Observe:

I mean, the Guardians really are due a revival, and they can be anyone they want, as long as they get the outfits right. Can we have Liam Neeson?

Screens again. There is a crucial wall panel displayed about a third of the way in, when Durkas (had to look that one up as well) is searching for information on his sister.

There are two things we need to be looking at. In the first instance, you’ll notice the three circular patterns in the centre of the image, each of which contains four dots, followed by a further dot at the bottom: a reference to twelve of the thirteen canonical Doctors, plus the War Doctor at the bottom. Which twelve, I hear you ask? That would be Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker, Davison, Baker, McCoy, McGann, Eccleston, Smith, Capaldi and Whittaker. And no, I didn’t deliberately type out their names to help with search rankings. Honest guv.

Those of you who recite these names in your prayers before bedtime will have noticed immediately that one of them is missing. To answer the question of exactly where David Tennant is, it is necessary first to look at the top of the image, and then superimpose something on top of it.

So now you know.

Last but not least, another screen.

This is a deceptively confusing image, because despite having many apparent layers, we’re only looking at one thing – and that’s the grid on the right. Starting from the very top and then moving to the right and then down, in rows, I’ve made a note of the highlighted squares and their correlating numbers, assuming that the first, unoccupied square in the grid corresponds to one. The sequence runs like this:

At first glance it looks like a lottery draw that got hideously out of control, but this is, in point of fact, a very deliberate and cleverly coded message. In order to unscramble it we have to glance back through story lists, whereupon we can ascribe each number as follows:

2 – The Daleks
3 – The Edge of Destruction
15 – The Space Museum
25 – The Gunfighters
31 – The Highlanders
34 – The Macra Terror
37 – The Tomb of the Cybermen
40 – The Enemy of the World
44 – The Dominators
52 – The Silurians
54 – Inferno
61 – The Curse of Peladon
62 – The Sea Devils
67 – Frontier in Space
69 – The Green Death
70 – The Time Warrior
79 – Revenge of the Cybermen
83 – The Android Invasion

Finally, if you take the fifth line of dialogue from each script, and arrange them in (just about) chronological order, this is what happens.

“There’s been a forest fire. Everything’s sort of white and ashen.”
“Well, let me look at it.”
“Well, upon my soul, yes. Yes. Now isn’t that extraordinary? Yes, we were wearing those cloaks and things, weren’t we? Well, I must say, it’s going to save us a lot of bother changing. Yes. Now, lets see where we are, shall we?”
“Where do we all meet up with Seth?”
“Oh, it’s cold and damp.”
“That’s right.”
“What, these?”
“Oh, stop fussing, you two. Come on. ”
“I decided otherwise, Probationer Toba.”
“Come on, Bessie, be more co-operative. All mimsy were the borogroves, And the mome raths – ”
“Excuse me, Sir Keith?”
“Hepesh, you have already had your say in the Grand Council. The question has been discussed and decided.”
“We’re abandoning ship! We’re abandoning ship! Our position is – ”
“You can keep it. Spit and polish, cocktail parties and all those passengers?”
“It were a shame, that was.”
“Sour wine! Stinking meat! Sour wine. Is this how I am served?”
“Can’t stand the stuff, thanks all the same. So we could be anytime, anywhere?”
“Doctor?”

 

And I think we all know what that means, don’t we?

That’s all we have time for this week. Join me next time, when we’ll be looking at cranberries, and why they’re purple. Santé!

Categories: God is in the Detail | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Back in the dim and distant past, in the days when I actually had time to re-read things instead of going through them once and then consigning them to the charity shop pile, there was a well-thumbed volume on our study bookshelf called Action Movies. By an author whose name now escapes me, it took it upon itself to list, assess and score as many adrenaline-pumping gung ho films as it possibly could within a couple of hundred pages, giving them brief, irreverent write-ups. The best got five-gun ratings. The worst received the author’s withering contempt, which I’m sure had the likes of Michael Bay weeping into their satin-lined pillowcases.

Not that I suspect this author would have had it in for Bay; he prized quality of chase sequences over quality of writing and it is for this reason, perhaps, that his assessment of The Last Crusade sticks with me long after the book has found a new home. He’s not interested in the Ford / Connery dynamic, the fact that the narrative comes full circle, the religious themes or the fact that the film literally concludes with everyone riding off into the sunset – he’s more put out that it’s simply not quite as exciting as the first two. Ranking it three (Raiders and Temple both got five, of course) he notes that “This must be what an average Indiana Jones movie must feel like”. I still wonder, sometimes, what he’d have made of Crystal Skull.

We’re five episodes into the new Doctor Who series and it seems that fatigue is beginning to set in. Oh, I’m not talking about the show. I’m talking about the audience. There is a genuine sense of discomfort on social media at the moment, a sea of discontented viewers who are unimpressed when the story is average and formulaic rather than important and worthy – and that’s just the Radio Times, who were uncharacteristically scathing in yesterday’s write-up. Elsewhere, I’m seeing remarks from online acquaintances (and a few people I go out of my way to avoid speaking to) who are in a state of distress about a story that didn’t really do an awful lot, said far less, and yet somehow emerged relatively unscathed.

‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ begins in an interstellar junkyard, jumps almost immediately to a hospital ship and then promptly stays there, allocating forty-seven minutes of its fifty-minute running time to a set of pristine white corridors and a couple of bedrooms. Nor, too, do the Doctor and companions have any real time to recover from the accident that put them there: no sooner have they regained consciousness than an unexplained object is tearing its way through space, eating through the ship’s hull and then the mechanical systems with the appetite (not to mention diet) of Ted Hughes’ Iron Man and the ferocity of Gnasher from the Beano. Before we know it, the ship is drifting helplessly through space, bereft of its clinical lead and left in the hands of two women with apparent confidence issues, hurtling towards a planet that’s quite anxious to blast it into smithereens because there’s a monster lurking in the vents.

The moment the Pting attacks is unfortunate for the cast but thankfully kicks things up a gear, because in its first fifteen minutes ‘Tsuranga’ is a godawful mess. The leads totter and stumble around the gleaming interior trying to make sense of things, meeting characters with no apparent pizzazz and learning snippets of information about a war that nobody cares about. Meanwhile Whittaker is lurching along the ship’s many corridors (specifically, the same corridor shot six times from different angles) hacking the systems and generally behaving like the know-it-all brats you often see in Holby City in an attempt to get them to reverse thrusters so she can get back to the junkyard. It’s not a bad thing to have a Doctor who – suddenly deprived of her TARDIS and still recovering from a life-threatening injury – is driven, maniacal and not a little selfish, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun to watch.

Thankfully once we get our first glimpse of the carnivorous Stitch tribute the crisis is in place and things start moving along. The Pting is small but deadly, with an insatiable appetite and no apparent motive for its path of destruction, so the Doctor sets about finding one while a conveniently situated war hero is tasked with flying the ship, even though it will probably kill her (and ultimately does). Eve Cicero – named for the Roman statesman, although that’s where it ends – is played by a suitably dry Suzanne Packer, and is ably assisted by her brother Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith, whom Daniel recognised from The Four O’Clock Club) and android Ronan (a sadly underused David Shields). Ronan is by far the most interesting character this week, and it’s a shame that we don’t get time to plumb his hidden depths – because if you’re doing a cute version of Alien, surely the robot’s going to turn out to be dodgy?

One potential pitfall behind a larger TARDIS crew in this day and age is the problem of how you keep them all busy, so while the Doctor’s orgasming over perfunctory anti-matter drives (this from a woman who keeps a black hole on her ship’s engine deck) and lying to planetary defence systems, Ryan and Graham are off delivering a baby. Said baby is the unwanted child of Yoss (Jack Shalloo), who is granted far more screen time than his character deserves and is there largely to up the threat level and help flesh out Ryan’s family relations, or lack thereof. That 67th century male pregnancies only last a week and end in involuntary caesarean (I was going to ask how else you’d get it out, but let’s not go there) is quickly cast aside as Yoss lies in the birthing chamber while Ryan is suitably reassuring and Graham conveniently plugs Call The Midwife. The concept of medical professionals who learn something from their patients is a narrative depth that both Holby and Casualty plumb on an almost weekly basis, but this idea of putting Graham and Ryan into difficult situations to get them to bond is swiftly getting old, and is inevitably going to conclude with Graham’s death just as Ryan calls him ‘Grandad’ for the first time. I was going to ask why we couldn’t just skip to that chapter now, but Bradley Walsh is still the best thing in the show right now and it would be nice to make the most of his screen time – but sometimes the road up the Green Mile is oh, so long.

Four years ago, in ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, we had the Doctor stuck on a spaceship with a monster that was over-exposed. The single biggest problem with ‘Tsuranga’ – besides the narrative favouring of Ed Sheeran over David the Android – is the fact that an expensive and interesting creature is granted not nearly enough time in front of the camera, with its appearances largely confined to the reveal and the moment it’s flushed, Alien-like, from the ship’s airlock with exactly the level of clinical detachment that the Doctor ought to have observed when she was facing off against the mutated spiders last week. I know I tend to applaud whenever the Doctor Who team learn the value of restraint, but it does seem a shame to create something that’s given less screen time than baby Avocado. Still, that’s five for five adversaries the Doctor has singularly failed to kill. Perhaps they’re halfway through a series arc, or perhaps this is Chibnall’s brave new world – but God help us if it is, because these damp squib finales are starting to get a little tedious, even if they do manage to throw in a pop at the hipsters.

All that said, there’s nothing really wrong with any of it. What happens in ‘Tsuranga’ (a word I’ve had to self-correct five times this morning; why can’t they come up with titles I can spell?!?) is nothing earth-shattering or groundbreaking – but failing to set hearts alight is hardly a capital offence, and if we’re in a place where Doctor Who is only worth watching when it says something then we have officially moved into interesting times and I might have to find myself another show for my Sunday evenings. Ultimately this is innocuous, harmless fun, exactly the way Doctor Who should be. It is like the Pting itself: short and reasonably interesting and ultimately discarded until the next time it rolls around. This week was filler material: a pleasant way to pass an hour, nothing more, nothing less. It seems almost churlish to complain about that.

Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

God is in the detail (11-04)

Right: after that brief hiatus while I rambled around the Yorkshire moors (we may come back to that another time) it’s back to business as usual this week with our regular instalment of VERY IMPORTANT CLUES AND SIGNS.

What do we mean by this, precisely, dear uninitiated reader? Yes, you. The one who just joined the Facebook group this week and randomly clicked the link button because you thought you might get spoiler information. Well, you’ve come to the right place. Because we’ve been all through ‘Arachnids in the UK’ and combed it with the same meticulous dedication – not to mention the same grizzled expression – adopted by my wife when she’s delousing our children’s hair. As I’ve demonstrated in here on countless occasions, absolutely NOTHING in this show is an accident – and absolutely everything can mean something VITALLY SIGNIFICANT that we’re going to come back to later in the series. It’s simply a matter of sorting the wheat from the chaff – an unseemly task at the best of times, so it’s lucky you’ve got me to do that for you. Buckle up, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride through Conspiracy Central, so I hope no one’s just eaten.

(As an aside, Emily suggested on Sunday evening that they should do an episode of Doctor Who with giant head lice. Who’s up for Rob Brydon as a cantankerous exterminator?)

We start at the beginning, or near enough.

This, you’ll remember, is the charming scene that sees the Doctor drop off her companions in one of the nicer parts of Sheffield, just before Yaz invites her up for a little something. At the moment I grabbed this frame, Whittaker is just about to slope forlornly off into the TARDIS, presumably to nab a custard cream and have a good cry into her Joanna Trollope. But look very carefully at the exact position they’ve left the camera. The partial obscuring of the door sign isn’t an accident – oh no indeed. It’s been left that way deliberately so that the visible letters form a particular set of words – at least they do once you’ve rearranged them, which is what I did. They spell:

MEDIATE SCAR STANCE

ABLE CENTURION PLYS LOOPHOLE

This ought to serve as a CLEAR AND TRANSPARENT INDICATION of two incredibly exciting crossover events: one involving Harry Potter, and one involving Legends of Tomorrow, specifically Arthur Darvill’s time travelling anti-hero Rip Hunter. Whether or not he’ll actually be dressed in the centurion outfit Rory wore is still very much on the table, but my guess is they’ll put it in as an Easter Egg. That’s what I’d do.

Fruit is next.

There are eight items of fruit in that bowl: five lemons and three limes. The use of bananas in the Whoniverse is, of course, common knowledge, whether it’s the Tenth Doctor waving one at the clockwork robots, Matt Smith whipping away River’s gun and replacing it with something equally phallic, or John Hurt eating several bananas on the trot in Krapp’s Last Tape. Lemons are somewhat harder to place, although one notes that the Tenth Doctor knows of a planet with highly evolved, humanoid lemons, perhaps in the manner of this chap.

However, the limes are a little less abstract. They pertain to three specific objects:

  • Miss Lime from ‘Zagreus’
  • The Limehouse in ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’
  • Lime Grove Studios

From this we can unambiguously conclude that a future series of Doctor Who will be featuring a special LIVE EPISODE filmed on the housing estate formerly occupied by Lime Grove, directed by Waris Hussein. The episode will feature Charley Pollard, coming face to mask with Magnus Greel. We know this from looking at the chair, which is positioned so that the slats mask the notes G-F-A-C-E on the piano. As I said: there is no such thing as coincidence.

(As an aside, have you seen Waris Hussein lately? He looks incredible. Somewhere in an Ealing attic there is a portrait covered in wrinkles.)

We’ll be back with more important observations, right after a visit to the bathroom.

You will note the three bottles of bath cream sat at the top of the screen. You will also note the mobile phone that is parallel with the third. In order to unpack this it is necessary to take a brief dive into history: namely 1973, the year the mobile phone was first unveiled to an unsuspecting world by Motorola’s Martin Cooper. Also of note: the left bottle is silvery-white, the second is darker. The third is the first in the sequence to escape the drab world of monochrome, assuming a tasteful blue appearance.

Thus we have one silver-haired Doctor, one with darker hair, and the first to appear in colour – and they’re grouped together in 1973, as denoted by the phone. The same year that ‘The Three Doctors’ was broadcast – although it began its initial transmission just before Christmas 1972. Coincidence? Of course not. You know me too well by now, surely?

But there’s more. You will also note that the cobweb-encrusted hand in the lower left portion of the shot is wearing a wedding ring: an object of great significance to the Doctor, as you’ll recall from the closing scenes of ‘Twice Upon A Time’. It’s a ring that signifies River Song. And if you count subsequent Doctors from those fingers, moving from the left (so as to make the whole thing clockwise) and starting with the Fourth, you’ll note that the ring finger is married (pun semi-intended) with Colin Baker, who travelled with River in The Eye of the Storm (in which they encountered Daniel Defoe) and World Enough and Time. Both were released on Christmas Day 2016, marking forty four years since ‘The Three Doctors’ – a number which CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY refers to the Type 44 TARDIS that the Doctor encounters in Harvest of Time. That’s the Third Doctor, folks, in case you were having trouble keeping up. You know, the one marked by the phone? Is it finally time for Sean Bean to step into the shoes of his father for another River Song series?

I mean, you read it here first, and we’ll keep you all updated as and when we have further news – but Christmas has even more significance for us today, and in order to understand why we really must move on and look at this map. I love a map. They’re layered with detail, and this one is no exception.

This is, as far as I can see, an actual map of Sheffield, because it tallies with the motorway junctions – more on that in a moment. In the episode, the Doctor grabs a thick black marker and swiftly draws an intricate fractal pattern that centres the action on a posh hotel that’s actually just outside Newport. Myself, I’d rather get the highlighters out. Because a curious thing happens when you join the dots using the right colours.

Still not with me? How about we do a little colouring in? (Please excuse the blots in this next one; my hand slipped.)

Viewed in this way, the seemingly random pattern of dots CLEARLY becomes a red-finned rocket-fish hybrid, blasting off for parts unknown – specifically to the North West, indicating that the TARDIS will be landing in Scotland next year. Could we be about to see a sequel to ‘The Eaters of Light’ that ties in with the star whale from ‘The Beast Below’? Watch this space, folks. Oh, and pardon the pun.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed something else: the blue line that protrudes from the ‘eye’ in the middle of the rocket-fish-whale-hybrid. The line is angled in the direction of junction 34 at the nearby M1, just north-west of Sheffield. Right next to this junction is a large green space (and golf club) named Concord Park, which neatly calls to mind ‘Time Flight’, in which Fifth Doctor Peter Davison travelled on Concorde – not to mention the rocket’s OBVIOUS AND ENTIRELY DELIBERATE resemblance to Mr Spoon’s rocket from Button Moon – a programme to which Davison voiced the theme music.

However, Davison is only the link here, and not the end product: we must examine his life within the context of Christmas, as I mentioned above. And Davison’s 1984 Christmas was one of particular upheaval, because it saw the arrival of his daughter, Georgia Moffett – who went on to marry David Tennant, and who was born (you guessed it) on December 25th.

Anyone want to guess how old David Tennant actually was when he made his debut in ‘Parting of the Ways’? That’s right, folks. Thirty-four. I swear, sometimes I surprise even myself.

Categories: God is in the Detail | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition, part 2)

In between scribbling episode write-ups and wacky conspiracy theory parodies I’m still churning out the memes, and if we don’t keep on top of them we’ll probably land ourselves in hot water further down the line. So you may expect posts every fortnight or so. Hey, at least they don’t take long to read.

This week’s edition centres on deleted dialogue – first, a bit of timely social commentary from ‘Rosa’.

In addition to the Banksy reference, ‘Rosa’ was of course notorious for the moment Team TARDIS get thrown out of a restaurant after it’s revealed that certain skin colours are unwelcome. Ryan gets a great little piece of dialogue that was originally attributed to Muhammed Ali – although an early workprint of the first Star Wars film reveals that Malorie Blackman may in fact have been borrowing from George Lucas.

Finally, a couple of leaked cutting room floor moments from ‘Arachnids in the UK’. Shame they cut them, really.

While outside –

Enjoy your Halloween.

Categories: Have I Got Whos For You | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Arachnids in the UK

It’s 1988. I’m in the last year of primary school and I have a dream that gets inside my head, more or less permanently. It takes place in one of those alt-universe scenarios in which the school has been converted into a wildlife reserve, and what passed for a stationery cupboard and ICT suite thirty years ago has been designated ‘The Tarantula Room’. As the dream begins I’m walking out of that room into the main hall, which has been made over as a snow scene, where there is a tarantula the size of a park bench sitting near the piano. Back in the main enclosure, I come across two glass cases: one is filled with babies, the other is seemingly empty. As I approach, a colossal, black-and-orange arachnid is climbing into view, filling the entire cage. It’s smaller than the one in the hall, but it terrifies me, and I scream and I run for the doors – and find them locked.

That was three decades back and since then I can’t look at a tarantula without breaking into a sweat. Actually I don’t look at them at all. I leave the room during the first five minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I haven’t even bothered with Arachnophobia. Years ago I visited the cinema with a few friends; they ran the trailer for Eight Legged Freaks and I watched the whole thing from behind my hands, along with one other similarly afflicted member of our party who is now a respected children’s author. I just about made it through Return of the King, although I still haven’t quite forgiven Emily for running a hand up my arm when Shelob came out.

Still. Spiders are OK. Spiders are useful and clever and always welcome in our house. Spiders I can handle. Except. Except when…look, when I was four, my parents took me to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. It was all going well until we got to the giant tortoises. Tortoises are supposed to be something you can pick up and hold, which can have devastating consequences if you’re partially sighted and mistake them for a pasty or something. Coming face to face with one that’s as tall as you are was a bit of a shock. It’s a great shame because the Galapagos tortoises are dignified and wrinkled and command our respect. You’re not supposed to run away screaming, although the tortoise probably couldn’t do much if you did. It calls to mind the Eddie Izzard routine about the Attack of the Giant Land Snails. “They’re coming!….They’re still coming!”

This is basically the three-paragraph method of explaining that last night’s Doctor Who was, in many ways, a bit of a difficult one. But we got through it, largely because the kids came and sat on the sofa, giving my whitened knuckles a reassuring squeeze with one hand while using the other one to run their fingers up my arm. I am considering a will rewrite.

What happened in ‘Arachnids in the UK’? Well, the long-awaited “She’s in charge” scene finally reared its ugly head, although it flows nicely when it does. The Doctor is competent in a crisis and flustered by social niceties. Ryan’s into Stormzy. We get to meet Yaz’s family, who are disappointingly ordinary. Graham is seeing ghosts. And on the site of an abandoned coal mine, Donald Trump is building a hotel populated by giant spiders. These are house spiders, grown to a colossal size thanks to a combination of genetic experimentation and toxic fumes from the landfill that is sitting beneath the hotel’s foundations. It’s like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, except no one jumps on a skateboard.

There’s a scene at the beginning of the episode that is possibly its strongest moment. You’ll have seen it several times already because it’s the one the BBC used as their preview clip. It’s the bit where the Doctor lands in Sheffield, half an hour after she left, and releases her companions back into the wild, only for a guilt-stricken Yaz to ask her back for tea. It is a simple scene, with an obvious punch line, but it is absolutely endearing – not since the Duty of Care scene in ‘Under The Lake’ has the Doctor been quite so lovable – and nothing else ‘Arachnids’ throws at us quite matches it. Lesson learned? Hold back your strongest material, especially when people are going to watch you anyway.

Four stories in and the staples of Chibnall’s writing style – at least the ones he’s adopted for his tenure in charge – are starting to arrange themselves into patterns. There is the obligatory lesbian character. There is the moment Graham is refreshingly practical. There is the bit where Ryan flirts with Yaz. Some of it is good; some of it isn’t. The gay thing is, at least, dealt with with more subtlety than it was under Moffat, who insisted that it wasn’t a big deal that Bill was gay and then rammed it home just about every week, doing everything except giving her a badge to wear. Chibnall’s approach is to drop it in for a random character and then move on, and perhaps this is the best way forward. Perhaps the only way to meld this into the show’s philosophy is to do it in every episode until we stop realising it’s there. “How often does the train go past?” / “So often you won’t even notice it.”

The ending is another matter. I don’t know. I spoke last week about how this was to all intents and purposes a kid’s programme, and have written reams elsewhere explaining why this is and how we must accept it and move on – but I do wonder if kids are the audience for this. Don’t they know already that guns kill people? Wouldn’t we be better aiming something at the NRA? We can see from the outset that Robertson is an irredeemable bastard – cowardly, selfish, and ready to believe his own hype. He is Trump (or at least the left-wing media’s embodiment of Trump) in all but name – indeed, that particular elephant is dealt with halfway through the episode when it is revealed Trump is a business rival whom Robertson hates, leaving Chibnall free to poke jibes at the current President without fear of Cease and Desist notices from the White House legal team.

When you’re writing for the screen they go on and on about ‘show, don’t tell’ – but was it really necessary to have Robertson brandish his dead bodyguard’s firearm with an evil cackle like some 1990s supervillain? Even if it was, did we really need him to monologue, while the Doctor glowers about mercy, wearing a ridiculous spray gun kit on her back like some Blue Peter Ghostbuster? We were fine last week, because that was a story that was actively about social justice, but in something clearly designed to be a horror narrative (aired three days before Halloween) it feels like Chibnall’s trying to win a bet or something. I’m not adhering for stylistic unity, but moments like this just don’t fit.

It’s appropriate, in its own way. The last time the Doctor dealt with spiders we had twenty minutes of Hinchcliffe-inspired jump scares, followed by twenty further minutes of tedious social commentary, along with the revelation that the moon was an egg. I’m not so cross about that, but I do object to them shoehorning an abortion debate into what was, until that moment, a satisfying and frightening story. ‘Arachnids’ doesn’t suffer from quite the same structural issues, but its climax, in which a leering Robertson declares that guns are what will make America great again – within twenty-four hours of another mass shooting – is undoubtedly hot property, but something that frankly could have done with a bit less piety and a little more subtlety. That Robertson escapes unharmed (and without so much as a by-your-leave by any character except Graham) is a sure sign that we will be coming back to him later, and if we’re counting possible story arcs in a year that we’re not supposed to be having them, I make that four for four.

This was a great episode, until its last ten minutes. It’s frightening – the spiders are convincing, and the build-up to their reveal is decently handled, thanks to Sallie Aprahamian’s competent (if not exactly imaginative) direction. The leads acquit themselves well – Graham’s soft-eyed sightings of Grace are among this week’s quieter highlights, and Whittaker excels at just about everything, whether it’s striding through hotel corridors or trying not to eat Hakim’s dodgy pakora. The supporting characters are (for a change) interesting and engaging; Tanya Fear, in particular, excels as a scientist who is there solely to provide scientific exposition, but doing so with such flair that for once all the technobabble is actually fun to watch.

Does all that make up for things? Perhaps it does; perhaps this week the whole is greater than the sum. But there’s a sanctimonious tone to the conclusion of this story that taints it: the idea that all life is sacred, however many appendages you have. Has the Doctor never heard of pest control? Is she going after Rentokill next? When Robertson pulls the gun and announces that this is a ‘mercy killing’, you almost find yourself agreeing with him – and that, I’m convinced, is not how we’re supposed to be feeling. It all climaxes in a damp squib of a finale, the Doctor and her new friends (we’re not supposed to say ‘companions’ anymore, are we?) travelling off to new adventures in a sequence that’s supposed to be heartwarming, but simply isn’t. And as much as I’d like to put these moments out of my mind and concentrate on the good stuff, it’s scenes like this that linger like a bad smell. Perhaps it’s overstating the point, but how unfortunate that ‘Arachnids’ should end its life the same way the mother spider ended hers – on its back, disorientated and confused, with all its legs wriggling in the air.

Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition)

I’m currently in Yorkshire, sampling the heady delights of rolling hills, ruined abbeys and the local chips – so you’ll have to wait a bit for more serious content. And yes, if you hadn’t noticed, the video reviews have been sadly absent. The first one took far longer to do than I thought it would and frankly I think there are other things I could be doing with my time. So I’m ditching it. Maybe another year, but not this one.

Have a few images to keep you going. We start with the obvious.

And yes, in answer to your question, I am working on a video version of this, but we need to wait for the unscored upload for ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ first. Otherwise it’s going to be all over the place.

Speaking of all over the place, the DW location scouts have been all over the place in their search for exotic filming spots. They found one off the coast of South Africa that stood in for the planet known only as Desolation, but there was still something rather familiar about some of the scenery.

Not to mention this.

You draw far too much attention to yourself, Ms. Whittaker.

Categories: Have I Got Whos For You | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Rosa

First and foremost: this is missing the chart. I am writing it on a Huawei mobile in the middle of a Yorkshire hostel. The kids are playing table football and Lara Croft Go, thankfully not at the same time. Emily – who is just opening the Merlot – has offered me the loan of her tablet, but I’m sure I can cope with this.

Doctor Who was screened in the hostel lounge over hastily concocted sandwiches and a bit of fiddling with the remote (volume down working, volume up not). We were joined by a woman and her two primary school age daughters, both wearing onesies. It was a first time for both of them – “We’ve only ever seen bits of it”, one of them explained, while the other did somersaults off the back of the chair as Rosa was escorted off the bus.

How might you react if this were your first ever episode of Doctor Who? It must happen. People tune in like that all the time, and the “How should I introduce my wife / child / friend / vet to the show?” question is one that comes up an awful lot in my groups. Curiously the most popular answer is ‘Blink’, which is surely a dreadful choice, given that it’s so atypical? Wouldn’t you be better off with ‘The Pilot’? ‘Smith and Jones’? ‘Spearhead’? Preferably something that gets in, does what it needs to do and gets out again with a reasonable body count? That said I did hear about one chap who was indoctrinated with ‘Blink’: it supposedly terrified him. He owns a sculptures yard.

Rosa Parks doesn’t work with sculptures. She’s a seamstress, putting in long hours adjusting the suits of rich white people before catching the bus home. She will eventually make history by refusing to give up her seat, which ultimately sparks the civil rights movement.

Except it may not. Because history is under threat from a sneering time traveller who is so inconsequential I’ve already forgotten his name. Deciding that this was the moment it all started to go wrong for mankind, he elects to nudge the course of history by way of the butterfly effect: a shift change here, a broken window there, and before anyone realises what’s happening years of progress are out of the window and segregation and institutional racism are alive and well in 2018.

I know what you’re thinking, but we’re not going there tonight. The Doctor didn’t, exactly. There were nods to the present: Ryan and Yas, in this week’s notch on the will-they-won’t-they bedpost, find themselves unexpectedly bonding while hiding outside a seedy motel room that doesn’t welcome coloured folks. “It’s not like Rosa Parks wipes out racism from the world forever,” Ryan laments. “Otherwise how come I get stopped by police way more than my white mates?”

Has Doctor Who shifted into sledgehammer and nut territory? It wouldn’t be the first time. But how else would you do it? There is no nice way to tell this story to its intended audience without talking about the way things are now, and no way to do so with the intended audience (kids, but we’ll get to that) unless you are fairly transparent about it. Yesterday evening I watched Alfonso Ribeiro on Strictly Come Dancing. This evening I was reminded of the episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Will and Carlton get arrested by a few obviously racist police officers. It’s heavy handed and preachy, as the show often was, with enough Very Special episodes to rival the likes of Blossom, or even Diff’rent Strokes.

And yet we love it. I love it! Why is this? Is it because they were funny? Was the acting better? Or is it simply more effective when it doesn’t come across as white guilt virtue signalling? Was this a stone that Doctor Who ought to have left unturned? A line that shouldn’t be crossed?

Perhaps not. Make no mistake: ‘Rosa’ is a throwback that is set to alienate a part of the fanbase as much for its style as for its content. This is as close to a straight historical as we’ve had in years, and that’s going to upset people. There are no monsters in the cupboard: merely an unpleasant man who could just as easily have stepped out of the house down the road as he could have warped in from the forty-ninth century. There is not a whiff of culture shock about Krasko (see, I remembered eventually) and that makes him dangerously close to home – and it is this, I am convinced, that is likely to fuel much of the inevitable resentment that we’re going to see online from people who “aren’t racist, but”. It’s already playing out in The Daily Star (I am not linking on principle). The fact is he’s much of a muchness: greater sins are committed by the people of Montgomery, and Krasko is bland and unrecognisable because he doesn’t need to be anything else. He’s not the villain. The villain is us, and all of us.

It plays like an episode of Quantum Leap. We’re in predestination turf again, the Doctor and her companions racing against the clock to try and readjust the timeline so that history runs its course – or perhaps adjust it the way it was always meant to be, with their presence a necessity rather than a potentially dangerous intervention. The specifics don’t really matter: it is perhaps the first time we see them working as a team and it is fun in a way that Hartnell’s crew was and Davison’s crew could never manage. If Whittaker doesn’t quite convince this week – it’s unfair to keep making this comparison but these are lines, you can’t help thinking, that would have sat better with Tennant – the other characters do, whether it’s Graham parking up with a fishing rod or the sound of Ryan’s jaw hitting the carpet when he meets Dr King. If it’s a bit Scooby Doo in places that’s not a bad thing. At least they’re all out doing something.

Listen. This is a kid’s show. You may not like hearing that, but it is. When I’d finished rolling my eyes at the closing video montage, as the TARDIS sailed out of Alabama and off to wherever the Doctor is needed next (Sheffield again, by the looks of the teaser) it was left to Emily to point out the one thing I’d missed. “Kids probably enjoyed it,” she said. “It told the story and it was a good episode for them -” and she indicated the boys, who were looking at the screen thoughtfully. “And, you know, I think black children needed to hear it. Especially right now.”

This would have been a very good Sarah Jane adventure. It is a good Doctor Who. It is by turns meandering and madcap, but one thing that is working beautifully this series – for all its worthiness and lackluster writing – is the way it allows the characters to breathe. They behave as you would expect them to behave, considering what they’ve been through. And it does seem to be a lot. There are thirteen other time / space destinations sitting between last week and this one, a gap presumably filled with the books, along with an awful lot of headcanon.

Still: it works. I do wonder what those two girls made of it. Perhaps I’ll find them and ask them. But first, I need a refill. Enjoy your week, folks. I’m going to look at rocks.

Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: