I think everyone was pegging their hopes on the 14th. It made sense for any number of reasons, not least because you’ve got that sweet spot between the FA Cup Final and Eurovision. Where was the song and dance, the flurry of trumpets, the countdown, the slow reveal? Instead we got a random Tweet that had everyone back and forth across the internet like chickens crossing a road for the five minutes we all spent trying to work out if the official Doctor Who account had been compromised. When it emerged that it hadn’t, the BBC website crashed, and the reactions began in earnest.
It wasn’t a bad decision. There is a thing that happens when you build up the anticipation to a fever pitch: the balloon instantly deflates, the disappointment palpable – “What, them?” It happened with Whittaker; it even happened with Capaldi, although no one remembers. At least this was a bit of a surprise. Dropping us on it the way they did there was no chance to feel let down.
I’ve spent the last twenty-four hours, on and off, trying to get my thoughts in order. And here they are, in a sort of order. You will not agree with all of them. That’s fine. It’s why we have comments.
1. I’d never heard of Ncuti Gatwa. I don’t watch Sex Education, although I gather it’s very well thought of. That’s fine, although it’s going to take a while to get used to writing out his name. “We say the same about you.”
2. All right, yes, he is a bit young. So was Matt Smith. I was completely wrong about him. I was also wrong about Catherine Tate. I’ve learned, over the years, that I can’t understand the inner workings of the BBC writing team any better than you all can. Sometimes things happen behind closed doors in the heady process that is auditioning and we don’t get to know what they are.
3. At least they had auditions. I think Chibnall said he did for Whittaker’s casting but I also think he’d probably made up his mind before they did the read-throughs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with casting a mate because he impressed you at a wedding, provided you know what you’re doing, but the fandom is under this irritating misconception that Doctor Who production needs to be some sort of democracy and that they should get a say about how it’s done, so maybe this will shut them up.
4. I like Jodie Whittaker. I always have. I wrote ‘liked’ in the first sentence and then went back and changed it. Anybody else been doing that? It’s very easy to write her off the moment the casting is announced. At least let her finish her arc in peace. We’ve still got Ace and Tegan, remember?
5. I’ve spent years defending Chris Chibnall, and I’m tired of it. The unfortunate truth is that his dialogue stinks. I don’t have an issue with even the more controversial aspects of those story arcs, but he can’t write a believable conversation, and as far as the other week is concerned I can’t defend a turkey. We were in Liverpool when ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’ was broadcast; I managed to watch it but didn’t have a chance to review it until the following week, by which point I realised I had absolutely nothing interesting to say about it, because there was absolutely nothing interesting about the story. Doctor Who shouldn’t be dull, and I shouldn’t be bored. But here we are.
6. When you think about it, casting a male Person of Colour was the most likely and sequentially logical direction for the BBC to take, and frankly none of you should have been surprised. I wasn’t.
7. Be careful, too, of the “Oh but I wanted Idris Elba” trope. Because most of the time that’s shorthand for “He’s the only really famous black actor I can name”. Idris Elba, versatile as he is, would have been a diabolical choice. (He’s quite good in Sonic The Hedgehog, though.)
8. It doesn’t matter that Gatwa is an unknown, or famous for comedy, or younger than you. From what I can gather, the kids love him. And like it or not, they’re the future of the show. Not you. Not me.
9. Here’s the thing. A healthy degree of skepticism is absolutely fine. Honestly. If you’re examining Gatwa and saying “Hmm, wouldn’t have been my choice”, go ahead. I did the same with Smith. I was wrong – he had me within two minutes of stepping out of the TARDIS – but it’s quite natural to shrink in bafflement when you hear about a casting choice. Doesn’t mean it’s racist, except when it is, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
10. There is a famous meme that does the rounds. I include it here for posterity:
Processed all that? Good, now forget about it entirely. It’s bollocks. Well-intended, but still utter bollocks. Some people never get past that first stage (that’s the one on the top left, for those of you who were wondering). We need to allow for that. I have never been a huge fan of Eccleston, but that’s probably my southern middle class privilege talking, and I own that.
11. Speaking of ownership: the outright criticism of Gatwa’s casting on the grounds of box-ticking is bigotry, and I will defy anyone – anyone – to prove me wrong. It’s offensive. It does him a disservice as an experienced actor (and winner of several awards). It also does a disservice to Russell T Davies, who – if you remember – was billed as the Second Coming (no pun intended) when his return was announced last September. And now you’re giving him a hard time because he’s cast a gay Scot with Rwandan heritage? Piss off.
12. If you’re wondering why point number 11 was so emphatically worded, it’s because (and you’ll love this) most white people are at least a little bit racist. It’s not a nice thing to talk about, and if you bring it up they’ll be down on you like a ton of bricks, with the likes of “I DON’T HAVE A RACIST BONE IN MY BODY”. Well, yes you do. I know you do, because I do. We can’t help it. You react differently to people who look different, at least when you don’t know them. There are preconceptions about diets, about religious beliefs, about lifestyle choices. If your son or daughter brought home a girlfriend / boyfriend of a different race, your reaction wouldn’t be the same as if they’d been white. You’d hopefully get used to them, but there would be an adjustment period. It’s partly societal, partly upbringing: we take on the values our parents had. And if you’re really about to tell me I haven’t got a clue about what you believe and how you feel, think about the last time someone told you an off-colour joke. Think very, very hard.
13. The question of whether people of colour can be racist is too long and complicated to address here, but I will go so far as to say this: all people harbour prejudice. You can call it racism, or something else entirely, but I don’t care what your skin colour is – if you’re a functional member of society, you have it, in some capacity or another. About men, women, those who have children, those who don’t, the rich, the poor, the East, the West. Don’t shy away from it. It’s what makes us human.
14. Let’s assume that you’ve read 11 through 13 and are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. How do we move forward from this? Because from one perspective I’ve just said it’s OK to be racist. It isn’t – but it is OK to accept your limitations. Inherent racism is a shackle from which you will never be truly free, but (and here’s the point) it is vital that you recognise it. Recognising it is the first step in tackling it; ask any addict. Ask yourself: where does this come from? Why am I reacting this way to this bit of news? No, really? Why does supposed box-ticking irritate me so much? Why was I really angry at Whittaker giving the brush-off to Graham’s cancer fears? Is it because it was callous? Or is it because I’m socially conditioned to expect women to be caring and empathetic? How would I have felt if it were Capaldi?
Only you can answer that one. But you do have to be prepared to ask the question. And many people won’t. Because it involves getting to know yourself a little better, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned these last two years of trauma, stagnation and poor mental health, it’s that we don’t like digging in the dirt.
15. Darren Grimes can, in general, go and f**k himself. From what I hear, he’s quite good at it.
I’m writing this in the midst of a gale. The wind is buffeting the hills, saturating the coasts, uprooting trees, downing power lines. None of this is happening outside my window. Outside my window it’s a bit blowy. It’s a bit blowy and all the schools are shut, which is a first world problem. I’m supposed to be on my way to the cafe to work on this book that will never get published, but there is a Danger To Life and in any case the cafe will probably be closed.
Anyway: where did we get to? We imagined a conversation between Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens. Oh, and we did a field report to High Sontaran Command. Today, things get a little weirder. But then so did Flux, so at least it’s consistent. You will find three episode summaries below: we’re missing one for ‘The Vanquishers’, because that’s the episode I reviewed. I may write a precis at some point in the future, purely for the sake of completeness. But probably not.
By the way, if anyone at CBBC wants to hire me, I am available for interviews.
Once, Upon Time
[Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor wakes up and shakes her head. She gazes in awe at the sight around her: a vintage 1980s TARDIS, all gleaming white walls and round things.]
WHITTAKER: Holy mackerel, you’ve had a factory reset.
[Dan enters the room wearing Melanie Bush’s tracksuit.]
DAN / MEL: Ah. Feeling better, are you?
WHITTAKER: No. What happened?
DAN / MEL: You fell off the exercise bike and regenerated. Don’t you remember? Ooh, you’ve gone all Scottish.
WHITTAKER: Eh? No I haven’t, I –
[There is a flicker and she briefly looks like Sylvester McCoy, and then it’s back to the blonde.]
WHITTAKER: Oh, I see. I’ve fallen into my own timestream and I’m reliving events from my past. And you’re Bonnie Langford.
DAN / MEL: Who else would I be?
WHITTAKER: That explains the outfit. I thought it was a Scouse thing for a moment.
DAN / MEL: At least I’m not a talking dog this time.
WHITTAKER: That’s a matter of opinion.
[Bang! There is an explosion and we cut to – ]
INT. POND’S HOUSE
[Whittaker manifests in the lounge with a Wiimote in her hand.]
WHITTAKER: Oh, hang on, I remember this. It’s the one with the cubes. Trust Chibnall to reference his own stories.
[Yaz appears in the doorway wearing a checked shirt and padded jacket; Vinder follows in a miniskirt.]
YAZ: You’re playing video games again.
VINDER: No one calls them video games.
YAZ: They really do. I mean unless you work for a magazine or something. Then they’re just ‘games’. But still.
VINDER: How can one man in a position of responsibility be so clueless about popular culture?
YAZ: Ask the Commons Secretary.
[A Weeping Angel takes the place of the onscreen tennis player, serving a perfect ace that smashes through the screen in the direction of the startled Doctor.]
WHITTAKER: Oh, bug-
[The screen explodes in front of us and we cut to – ]
INT. HALL OF MIRRORS
[A dingy funfair. The Doctor, now wearing a cricket jumper, is exploring in the company of Bel, who is clicking incessantly on a small screen.]
WHITTAKER: Can’t you put down the bloody Tamagotchi?
BEL: I’m talking to someone who may or may not be you.
WHITTAKER: Does this mean if I pat your stomach we’ll wipe out the universe?
BEL: Again, you mean?
[The Doctor stops in front of a mirror, gazing at its garish reflection.]
WHITTAKER: This one makes me look fat.
COLIN BAKER: I resemble that remark.
[Enter Dan, dressed as Adric; a lone Cyberman is limping in behind him.]
DAN: Aw, this really isn’t fair.
[Bang! And we cut to – ]
EXT. THE ARUNDEL CASTLE
[It’s the set of Frozen. The Doctor is dressed as Princess Anna, and is in the middle of a duet with the White Guardian.]
WHITTAKER / GUARDIAN:
All this story’s been a series of doors out of place And some changes in the TARDIS crew And some dogs turned up and kidnapped the whole human race And the Angels nicked the phone box and now we’re all screwed
But I think Yeah I think I finally get it Though I think it fell short of its ambition –
Love is the only mission! Love is the only mission! Love is the only –
[Something explodes offscreen, and the two of them are buried in a landslide. Roll credits.]
Time allowed: 6 episodes. (A period of extra time will be allocated in the event that plot strands do not fully resolve themselves.)
Please answer all questions on a separate sheet. Use the black ink of an Andulasian octopus, or crayon.
There is no penalty for spelling or grammatical errors, but we will dock a ton of marks if you dare use the phrase ‘Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey’.
Tanya is a Weeping Angel. She has been working with the Division for six months. List the pros and cons of trying to engage with Tanya on a Zoom call. (7 marks)
Determine, to the nearest parameter, the probability that Bel is the Doctor’s mother. Calculate the ratio of disgruntlement within the fandom. (8 marks)
The Flame Angel and Scribble Angel are two new derivatives that have recently been launched by the Creativity Department. Design a new type of Angel to complement them. Your drawing should include a comprehensive nomenclature, suggestions for marketing, and size notes for B&M. (12 marks)
Examine the comparative influences of either: a) George Romero, or b) Peppa Pig upon this story. (6 marks)
Boris is giving a speech at a conference. He loses his place for 36 seconds. Given that an unobserved Angel travels a distance of five and a half metres a second, what is the furthest distance an Angel could be standing away from Boris in order to zap him before he finds the right piece of paper? (3 marks)
Count the number of times the Doctor called the Angels ‘Weeping Angels’ in the last episode. Discuss whether this was awkward and clumsy or just mildly irritating. (10 marks)
List some of the reasons vicars never come out well in Doctor Who stories. (4 marks)
Using your knowledge of space-time and temporal ripples, determine Ruth’s exact place within the Doctor’s timeline. Prove your hypothesis. You will find a TARDIS under your seat. (60 marks)
Bonus question: Given that God is infinite, and that the universe is also infinite, would you like a toasted te– THIS QUESTION HAS BEEN REMOVED FOR BREACH OF COPYRIGHT.
SPEC SCRIPT: THE DUMPING GROUND, SERIES 9, EPISODE 1
INT. ASHDENE RIDGE – JODIE’S BEDROOM. DAY
[We’re in a functional-but-brightly-coloured bedroom at the local children’s home. JODIE, a sullen blonde teenager in a t-shirt and jeans, is standing in front of a mirror, holding up a variety of outfits to her chest.]
JODIE: No… not this one… nope… oh, it’s no good. I’m never gonna find an outfit that works.
[Enter JO, Jodie’s African roommate.]
JO: Still looking?
JODIE: Still looking. Ooh. What about this one?
[She holds up a pair of incredibly baggy trousers, hung by a set of braces.]
JO: You have got to be kidding. You look like Mork from Ork.
[Jodie sticks out her tongue, and leaves.]
JO: Oh. Mike wants to see you!
INT. LOUNGE. DAY
[Jodie passes by MONK and SACHA, two boys of about 12 or 13, both ensconced in a video game.]
JODIE: God. Don’t you two ever do anything except sit in front of that thing?
MONK: We’re grounded. Ever since the incident with the toaster.
SACHA: Which was your fault.
MONK: You were the one who switched it on! During an official visit!
SACHA: How was I supposed to know it’d explode?
[Enter MIKE, the long-suffering lead carer. An anxious-looking MAY-LI follows in his wake.]
MIKE: Jodie? Can we see you in the office, please?
[Jodie sighs, and follows May-Li.]
SACHA: Can we go out, Mike?
MIKE: Absolutely not. You two aren’t going anywhere until all the vice-president’s missing limbs are accounted for. Oh, and your room could do with tidying, while you’re at it.
MONK: We’re building something.
MIKE: I know what you’re building. Look, I’ve told you both. You’ll never get Sebastian to fit inside a Dalek case. He’s got no opposable thumbs, and he’s a Doberman.
[As he leaves, Sacha holds up a laser screwdriver and points it at the screen, whereupon Monk’s character explodes.]
MONK: Sach! You’re such a cheat!
INT. OFFICE. DAY
[Jodie slumps sulkily into a chair. Mike sits opposite; May-Li perches in a corner.]
MIKE: Now. You’re not in trouble. We just want to know what happened.
MAY-LI: What were you thinking, running off like that?
JODIE: [shrugs] Don’t know. Got bored.
MIKE: Do you mean bored like when Rani gets bored? ‘Cos we all know how that goes.
MAY-LI: Actually, where is Rani?
MIKE: Out in the workshop. Scraping up bits of rabbit.
MAY-LI: Jesus, that’s the third this week! Where’s she getting them?
MIKE: She mentioned something about Teletubbies. Can we, you know, focus?
MAY-LI: Right, yeah, sorry.
JODIE: I just wanted to see my mum.
MIKE [sighing]: Your mum. Listen, we told you. She’s a bad influence.
MAY-LI: All that stuff she made you do! Those… outings with the Division! All the stealing, the breaking stuff!
JODIE: She’s still my mum! Not my real mum, but the nearest I’ve got!
MIKE [exchanging a glance with May-Li]: We know that. But she’s proved again that she’s not able to look after you. You’ll have to come back here until she can show us she can be a responsible guardian.
[Close-up on Jodie’s face as we cut to a garish Nick Sharatt animation: Jodie smashing some windows in the company of TECTEUN, who wears a wide-brimmed hat and an evil expression. All of a sudden her sneer vanishes as a gigantic crack blisters its way down the screen and the universe is pulled in half; Tecteun is wrenched into a black hole, away from a screaming Jodie.]
JODIE: So what? You’re gonna wipe my memories again? Send me back to the academy like a good girl?
MIKE: Well… not quite. There’s been a bit of a development.
MAY-LI: Jodie… we found your mum. Your real mum.
JODIE: My – my wha…?
MIKE: She made contact with us about a week ago. Just turned up out of the blue. She never stopped looking.
[The doorbell rings.]
MAY-LI: That’s her now.
INT. HALL. DAY
[Jodie walks up the corridor, heart pounding, as the bell rings again. She turns to look at Mike and May-Li.]
You remember this, don’t you? The silliness that comes between stories; those miniature reviews knocked off in cafes and spare moments that evolved, gradually, into skits and songs and random observations. Pack ’em up, parcel ’em off and lo and behold, the editor at The Doctor Who Companion rolls his eyes and pastes them into this week’s communal writeup.
It didn’t start out this way. There was a time when I was trying to do this properly, to give decent opinions that reflected how I actually felt about an episode, all neatly packaged into condensed three-paragraph summaries. Somewhere along the line, I got bored. Or just fed up. Or a combination of both. It’s not easy, being one of the few DWC writers who actually enjoys the show at the moment. You feel like you do in primary school when they ask the class to vote for an end-of-term video, and you stick your hand up for The Famous Five while everyone else votes for Labyrinth. It’s not that you’re wrong, you’re just a minority.
This time around, I elected not to actually share my opinion of the stories, at least not with any transparency. Oh, certain things slip through. You can feel the scorn, particularly when it was something I really didn’t like. But there are advantages to hiding behind a metaphor: you can just tell people that you’re having a laugh, and to take everything with a grain or two of salt. Besides, it’s far more fun being a little creative. “Are we poor?” my children sometimes ask me. “No,” I tell them. “We’re bohemian.”
These are quite long, so I’ve elected to give you the first two today and the rest in a future installment. There are links to the communal write-ups on the DWC website, if you wanted to read something more sensible, or something that affiliates with your own views. But before we do that, we need to drop in on Matt Strevens’ office.
The Halloween Apocalypse
“Right, Chris. What sort of state are we in for the new series?”
“Matt! Matt, I was thinking. Do you think you could ever make a Zygon sexy?”
“I – I don’t – “
“I mean they’re sort of very distinct, aren’t they? They have a peculiar shape. It’s a bit phallic. But I’m just remembering Coneheads, that Saturday Night Live sketch with Dan Aykroyd, and I was wondering, if you got a Zygon to lounge in just the right way – “
“Chris – “
“I’m just remembering the Katy Manning photoshoot, and – “
“Chris! Can we focus?”
“Fine, yes, sorry, yep. Series 13, then.”
“Series 13. What are we planning?”
“Right. I thought in episode one we’d blow up the universe.”
“Okay, so high stakes. Like it. I presume you mean some sort of threat that overshadows the whole series and that the Doctor deals with at the last minute?”
“No, we actually blow it up.”
“…Right, and then?”
“Don’t know. Something.”
“It’s kind of a narrative cul-de-sac, isn’t it?”
“Only a little bit. And besides, we introduce a bunch of other stories and characters first. I’ve got scenes in the Arctic, scenes in Victorian London, scenes in a desolate alien prison that looks like the edge of hell – “
“Where are we planning on filming that?”
“Swindon. Then we’ll bring in all these new people and have them dig tunnels and stuff. And there’s this woman who knows the Doctor but they haven’t met yet.”
“That’s kind of been done to death, Chris.”
“Yes, but she gets touched by an Angel. And then there’s this fella, Dan. He works as a formula one driver.”
“That sounds prohibitively expensive.”
“All right, he works in a food bank.”
“And he’s kidnapped by a six-foot dog. From the North.”
“Yorkshire or Lancashire?”
“Is there a difference?”
“I – never mind. Are you going to explain who all these people are and what they’re doing?”
“No! That’s the brilliant part. We just leave the audience to figure it out.”
“And then fill in the blanks later.”
“If I remember, yeah. The thing is, they’re always complaining I’m too heavy-handed and obvious. This’ll really fox ’em.”
“The thing is, Chris, you’re not exactly good with dialogue.”
“I know! That’s the joy of it! We throw enough ideas at people, they won’t even care. Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle. How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”
“Chris! Sit down. This really isn’t the time for a soft-shoe. And my office isn’t big enough.”
“Anyway. You need to have some dialogue. How are you going to cover for your complete inability to string a sentence together?”
“We turn up Akinola and blame it on poor post-production.”
“I’ll have to smooth things over with the sound editors, but all right.”
“Meanwhile I’ve got this big bad villain who escapes from his cell and dissolves people.”
“Please tell me he doesn’t snap his fingers.”
“No, but I had this idea about a PELVIC THRUST OF ANNIHILATION, and – “
“Right. I’ll redraft. So there’s a bit of a chase and there’s the bit where Dan discovers the TARDIS and Yaz and the Doctor have a bit of banter.”
“And then we blow up the universe.”
“Precisely, Matt. Precisely.”
“I assume we keep this a closely-guarded secret so people’s jaws drop when it happens?”
“No, not at all. I’m planning on telling everyone in all the interviews.”
“Won’t they be disappointed?”
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
“You’ve obviously never met Lance Armstrong. Fine, I think we’re done here.”
From: First Corporal Erskib, Location Scout for 14th Noble Batallion of the Outer Southwest Fringes of the Great and Indomitable Sontaran Empire
To: Brigadier General Prazan, Central Command
Subject: Field Report
I trust this report finds you well and in rude health, and that the war against the Rutans is going swimmingly. I am sure you have awaited this write-up of what the Sontaran Press have already dubbed ‘Wokgate’ with interest and anticipation, and I am hopeful that my thorough investigation of things will shed some light onto exactly what happened during the latest failed conquest of strategic withdrawal from the planet known as Earth.
Before we go any further, I feel I must apologise for the incident with the cat. I honestly didn’t know it would explode. Had I been aware of this, I would certainly not have inserted the probe until you yourself had moved from splattering distance. No words have actually been said about the matter, but I am of sufficiently sound mind to determine that it was this unfortunate upset that has led to my recent demotion and subsequent reassignment to this backwater hellhole. No matter: I have learned my lesson. Res fiunt, as we say on Sontar – or, as the Judoon might have put it, ‘Ko Blo Ro So Fo Jo No-No’.
Investigating incidents on Earth is, you are aware, fraught with complications. Chief amongst them is the fact that we have been here before, on multiple occasions, and that it has never ended well. There are rumours that one deserter may still be living here in a time period we have yet to identify. We do not know precisely where he is, but there is a trail of confectionary bills. However, on this occasion, the mess was not difficult to spot: Commander Riksaw, for reasons of his own choosing, opted to begin his establishment of Operation: Outpost Earth in 19th Century Europe, supposedly because he had developed an affinity for the local wildlife. We have a word for people like that on Sontar, but sadly the inbuilt censorship filter will not allow me to use it in this missive.
It was all going swimmingly until the irritating human known as the Doctor blundered onto the scene. She used to be a girl, and now she’s a boy. I simply can’t understand how it all works and why things can’t stay as they are. One woman – sorry, one man on his own should not have been able to penetrate our defences, let alone muster enough firepower to blow them up. Where on earth did they get enough dynamite? How did they move it? My investigation has revealed that there was some help at hand: two humans, one of whom has the unenviable job of performing puncture repairs to the skins of wounded humans. Surveillance footage from the black box recording has revealed she has some spunk about her: sadly the human military general that accompanied her was about as interesting as a freshly-plastered wall, and about as two-dimensional.
I have seen the footage of the battle in a Crimean field, and this at least was a glorious day for the might of Sontar. Sadly our excursions some years later seem to have gone rather awry, owing to the antics of a rogue native who managed to knock out half a platoon with a cooking implement. This is the price you get for landing in Merseyside. We should have gone to Tijuana; at least that has a beach. I would also raise questions, Brigadier General, as to how half a dozen troops can empty their magazines from ten feet away without landing a single shot on target. The onboard ship’s computer – a sentient model I have named Angela – recommended a piece of Earth culture entitled Star Wars. After watching this piece of drivel I know more and understand even less.
Up the border security on the secret military encampments – we’re a clone army; surely they can spare a few people to watch the perimeter
Mandatory shooting range exercises to be introduced daily for all troops
Can we please, please get the scientists to do something about the probic vent? Honestly, it’s embarrassing. I can’t even stand at a urinal without having to crane my neck every couple of seconds.
Signing off now, Brigadier General. While I wait for the dropship I am examining a little more of Earth culture, particularly its cuisine. I have learned of a local creature known as a poodle. I hear they’re delicious.
We spent New Year’s Day in the Usk Valley. Emily’s family try and have a seasonal get-together every year, although last December, like most of the country, we were hunched over a Zoom window, watching out-of-sync Muppet films and screwing up our eyes to see what presents people were showing off. This year the meet was back on, and there was no backing out, so at half past six I turned off my phone and made a point of avoiding social media until we’d got home the next evening.
The upshot of this little slice of family life is that this is not going to be a straight review. I really don’t have the inclination or the energy to deal with people who tell me I’ve got it wrong. And that’s how it’ll go. Because I watched yesterday evening, thought “Yeah, that was all right” and then immediately hopped onto Twitter where I was categorically informed that no, it was not all right, it was a pile of horse shit. “I would rather sell my own family into slavery,” wrote one disgruntled Twitter user, “than watch that inexorable heap of bollocks again. We should burn down the BBC with Chris Chinballs still inside it.” I may be making that up. You decide.
Instead, this is a list of notes: things I spotted, things that jumped out, musings from the rest of the family. We haven’t done one of those in a while, although BuzzFeed does them all the time. It is my vain hope that this one will be faintly interesting, or at least a little less obvious than throwing in GIFs and the words “WOOO! THE COPS CAN’T HANDLE HER!” (something they did during their recent Matrix write-up). The eldest and I spent a weekend last October at a songwriter’s workshop hosted by Martyn Joseph; the key takeaway, at least for me, was “Don’t add to the noise”. So I’m trying very hard not to.
Here we go, then…
02:33 – I used to have that edition of Monopoly. I think everybody did, but ours was just as battered as the one Adjani Salmon has plonked on the table. My mother always used it as a prop in one of the stories she’d repeat ad nauseum, one that made her look both a little smug and also borderline anti-Semitic (which is ironic, given that we’re Jewish by birth). The only mystery bigger than why Nick is dropping it off at a lock-up at ten to midnight on New Year’s Eve is how Sarah could possibly think that cardigan could work. Seriously, it’s a disaster. It’s like being in a 1970s MFI showroom.
09:42 – The opening credits roll. “Oh,” says Emily. “That was a short one.”
The realisation that this is going to be Groundhog Day territory hits my family when the TARDIS crew show up in the basement, miraculously alive. Quoth Thomas: “Oh. It’s going to be one of those episodes, is it?”
As everyone else takes this in, I’m reflecting. The last time Doctor Who did a loop story, the loop itself was the big reveal. ‘Heaven Sent’ works precisely because we didn’t know, until not long before the end, what the Doctor had rediscovered and then forgotten over and over. It strikes me that the reaction of the fandom to new stories and Doctors is its own particularly toxic loop. I’m also musing on the prospect of this particular loop going on for four billion years. Neither thought is comforting.
14:09 – It’s official. I’ve Googled, and can find absolutely no reference to a product called ‘Beef N Beans’. Either they printed thousands of labels on these tins, or they’re so low-end market the internet doesn’t want to know. I’m not sure I want to know. Maybe it’s a dark web thing. That’s somehow more appealing than the prospect that Chibnall made this up in his own head.
15:58 – Dan is arguing with the Dalek. Emily shouts “God! Where’s he been the last few years? Why doesn’t he watch Doctor Who?”
She is shifting a little bit in the armchair to get comfortable. I think the sling is chafing. Emily is wearing a sling because she fell over at Warwick Castle three days before Christmas. It’s her left arm, and it’s only a hairline fracture, so it could have been worse, but she’s in perpetual discomfort. I think she might have been put off ice skating. I tell her that the average age of people with skating limb fractures is 33, so she’s in good company.
“Sorry to hear about your fall,” said her mother, when she found out – to which Emily replied “It wasn’t a fall, IT WAS A SPORTING INJURY!”
16:30 – This time around, the clock reads 23:53. “Ah! Look at that,” I say.
“What?” says Daniel.
“When they restarted before, it was eight minutes to midnight. Now it’s only seven. I think the loops are going to get progressively shorter.”
Sure enough, Whittaker soon confirms this, everyone is faintly impressed at my insight and I nod and smile and don’t let on that I read it in Den of Geek several days ago.
21:09 – I have to say, Aisling Bea is killing this episode. I’ve never been so invested in a supporting character. I want her to come out of this intact. I don’t care about Nick, who is nice enough in a vaguely stalkerish sense but could probably make a heroic sacrifice at the end of the story in order to save everyone else. That would be very Doctor Who. But Sarah is wonderful. I want her in the TARDIS, complaining about the lack of seating in the console room and bombarding Cybermen with sarcastic banter until their heads explode.
34:56 – How many deaths is that? Three? Four? This is basically Chibnall doing a Shatner, isn’t it? Because in Generations, Kirk got to die twice, and then die again in The Return, and then come back to gallivant around the universe with Spock in the fanwank trilogy they threw out in the late 1990s. We’ve seen the Doctor get shot by Daleks before, but it’s never been fatal before now: if a thing is worth doing, it seems, it is worth doing multiple times.
As a side note, it’s curious how the Daleks have a brilliant aim when a target is still but are absolutely shit when someone’s on the move. Don’t they have tracking of some sort?
40:47 – Oh God. The Doctor’s doing her big speech. I can feel the rest of the family inwardly cringing. The problem with moments like this is that Chibnall can’t write them and Whittaker can’t deliver them. She’s a perfectly good actress and a good Doctor, and I like her a lot, but she can’t pull this off simply because the confines of the character she’s created don’t allow for it. It’s like watching an awkward supply teacher reading out a task description left by a far more capable teacher. Please don’t use the word ‘humans’, Jodie. Please don’t – ah, shit.
44:30 – A tear rolls down Mandip Gill’s cheek as John Bishop points out the thing that everyone else has already figured out. We kind of saw this coming but I imagine all the people who shipped her and the Doctor are feeling somewhat vindicated. Apparently they dropped in that term during an interview with Jodie Whittaker recently and she had to admit she didn’t know what it means. I didn’t either. I only put it in here so it’ll show up in the search results.
50:03 – I read on the internet, after the fact, that people were bothered by the ‘fact’ that Dan and Nick get to do the heroic self-sacrifice thing this week while the women stand around being selfish and / or useless. Is that what was happening? Because I honestly don’t know how I feel about that reading, and get the feeling that as a man I probably have an unconscious bias, so I’m not sure I should weigh in. I’d be interested in what female viewers think.
55:00 – This is almost done and we have yet to see the mysterious cameo they mentioned. Somehow I’m wondering whether the elusive Jeff will turn out to be Jeff from ‘The Eleventh Hour’. That’d be a random thing to do. No, wait, there’s a guy filming the fireworks on his mobile. He’s – hang on, who is that? Is that the chap from ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’? The one on the crane who was being targeted because Tim Shaw drew his name out of a hat? And what was his name, anyway? I squint during the credits and find out it was Karl, which I’d completely forgotten. I’d say it’s nice to see him, except there seems to be absolutely no reason for him to be here except to generate a bit of SEO interest. Which is a cynical outlook, but I don’t think I’m wrong.
55:15 – The TARDIS has had a refit! It’s…I literally can’t tell the difference.
57:50 – And we’re done. Nick and Sarah cop off in a taxi while the TARDIS flies overhead. The credits roll and then there are pirates, and oh look, it’s the Sea Devils. Well, there’s a bit of excitement. Although we really need Jon Pertwee, opening his eyes wide and muttering about galactic yo-yos. That wouldn’t have been a bad way to finish.
Still. It strikes me that we’ve just watched a compromise episode, on just about all fronts. When you’re filming in a pandemic, there need to be concessions, and for a one-set, one-gimmick self-contained oddity this one just about clung together. It felt like they could have done more with the story, but perhaps as a bit of lighthearted silliness, it wasn’t quite the trainwreck it could have been. Plus the Jodie-haters got to see her blasted multiple times, and her supporters got to see her cheat death. Just this once, Rose, everybody wins.
It was a Wednesday, they were in London, and the quiet hum of the TARDIS engines was just about to be undercut by the sound of a ringing phone.
Clara made it to the console first. It was a game they played, on those rare occasions when someone called. Her relationship with the Doctor had begun with a phone call – come to think of it, so had his relationship with her, although it was a different phone and different planet. At least she thought it was a different planet; in truth Clara only half-remembered it, and it hadn’t actually happened yet. These things were complicated. He had been younger then, a quite different man in every literal sense of the word.
Now he was old and grey and often grumpy. There were days they saved the universe, and then there were days she felt like a glorified public relations officer. All too often, the days matched.
She lifted the receiver, ignoring the Doctor’s glare. “Hello?”
Clara blinked. “One second.” Handed him the phone. “It’s you.”
Frowning, the Doctor held out his hand. “Who is it?”
“No, I mean you’re – oh, just take it.”
The Doctor lifted the receiver to his ear, and then his eyes widened to an incredulous stare. “How did you get this number? Well, yes, I mean I know it’s mine, but – no, you’re not supposed to be able to call me! It breaks every rule in the – black hole? What black – never mind, don’t tell me, it’ll come out in the wash. Her? That was Clara. You know, Clara. You really don’t remem- how long’s it been?”
He paced back and forth next to the console, free hand darting over his temples. Now it was clawing at his hair. Making a yak-yak gesture, during which he rolled his eyes at Clara. She was goggling, although mostly at the phone cord, which was in serious danger of getting twisted around his neck.
“You want me to go where? Oh, them. Right. But why?…seriously?”
Concluding the call, the Doctor dropped the receiver in its cradle, with a little more force than Clara thought was probably necessary. “God, what an insufferable idiot.”
“That was you.”
“Yes, well, I’m my own worst critic. How’s your Swedish?”
* * *
At the precise moment the door to the Stockholm studio burst open, Benny Andersson had been trying to do three things. First, he’d been trying to identify the strange vworp, vworp noise he’d just heard outside. Second, he’d been wondering whether it might be something he could sample and use as an introduction to a song he was working on (an as-yet untitled ditty about a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by sentient snails). And third, his sense of recall was performing a desperate catfish through the rubbish bag that was his subconscious in an attempt to work out precisely where he’d heard it before.
His thought processes were interrupted by the arrival of a silver-haired man who looked to be in his mid-to-late fifties, wearing a purple blazer over a tieless white shirt buttoned to the collar, and the sort of expression that meant business. Benny wasn’t sure whether it was the hey-let’s-do-another-musical sort of business, or the accountants-with-folders sort. The second was not something he savoured. But this man didn’t look much like an accountant; he looked like the world’s dourest conjuror.
“Hello, you two,” said the newcomer. “How’s business?”
It had taken Benny two-and-a-bit paragraphs to remember he was not alone in the room. He glanced over at Bjorn, who had been in the middle of constructing a Lego model of the Big Bang Theory set. Bjorn built Lego sets whenever he was blocked. He also liked to pound a toilet brush against the rail of the balcony while singing the Lithuanian national anthem. This was a closely-guarded secret: there was always the possibility of paparazzi intrusion, but so far they’d been lucky.
Benny regarded the stranger with astonishment. “Who are you, and how did you get past security?”
The man was carrying a notebook; he opened it to a specific page and made a tally mark with a ball point pen. “And that’s…thirty-seven marks for opener number five,” he said. “That’s almost as popular as ‘Halt, you’re an enemy of the Daleks’.”
Benny was reaching for the phone on his desk when the stranger held up a single finger. Just wait. “Melbourne,” he said. “March 5th, 1977. You were trapped in your hotel room and curtain was half past eight. The incident with the mutant sponges.” The stranger leaned over the desk and offered a cheery, if slightly sinister grin. “Do you remember?”
Benny’s jaw dropped like a plummeting lift. He was too transfixed to glance over at Bjorn, but suspected he’d experienced the same reaction.
“Doctor?” said the astonished Benny, after a moment.
“In the flesh. How’ve you been?”
“My god! That must have been…forty years ago!”
“Well, your maths is still good,” the Doctor mused. “Must be all the fish.”
“You’ve aged,” said Bjorn. “In fact your face is completely different. And you’ve got more…Welsh.”
The Doctor was affronted. “Scottish!”
“Right, right,” said Bjorn, trying his best to look abashed. “I always get those two muddled.”
“I like the jacket, though,” said Benny. “I never really cared much for those pinstripes.”
“So you remember?”
“How could we forget? We still talk about that night. We even did a song about it. The title track on our last album.”
The Doctor regarded him curiously. “I thought The Visitors was about Russian dissidents?”
“Well, you know. You have to code these things,” said Bjorn. “No one would have believed the truth.”
“So what brings you here?” said Benny. “So late in the day?”
“Yeah, do you need money?” This was Bjorn. “Only most of ours is tied up in investments, and – ”
“I need you to make another album,” said the Doctor, simply.
Benny and Bjorn’s jaws dropped almost as far as they had when the Time Lord had announced his identity. The Doctor heard something click in Benny’s face, and winced; he’d feel that in the morning.
It was Bjorn who recovered first. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I need you to record a new album. You and the girls. Well, women. Shouldn’t really call them girls. Clara’s always lecturing me about that.”
“My friend. She’s gone out sightseeing, but she’d love to meet you both.”
“A new album?” Benny was rubbing his jaw. “Now? After all this – but why?”
“We left that behind a long time ago,” said Bjorn. “There’s a lot of water under that bridge.”
“There’s a lot of water under every bridge. That’s the purpose of bridges. They let the water move. Give you a sense of where it’s going, where it’s been. Bridges are brilliant for offering perspective.” The Doctor was walking around the room, gesticulating with his hands in the manner of an animated lecturer. “Unfortunately they only get you so far. Sometimes you just have to walk off the bridge and go down to the water.”
He was facing them now “Because it’s never too late to start again.”
“But still…why? Why now?”
“Because I’ve a feeling that in a few years, people are going to really need it. Specifically me. But also everyone else. You disbanded, what, thirty-five years ago? What have you done since?”
“We wrote an award-winning musical about chess and had cameos in Mamma Mia,” replied Bjorn, somewhat frostily.
“Yes, well. I mean apart from that. Besides, there’s another record inside you both. Well, all right, the four of you. You need the four of you, otherwise you’d just be ‘BB’.”
Benny regarded him with interest. Then he sighed. “They’ll never agree to it.”
“Then convince them. You’re good at the emotional stuff. And I refuse to believe – ” And now he was once more pacing the room, rummaging through cabinets, leafing through piles of papers, examining DATs – “that you’re not still writing.”
“We-ell…” Benny drew out the syllables like smoke rings. “We did have that one about the computer.”
“Don’t Shut Me Down?” Bjorn scoffed. “That’s going nowhere. The tune’s not bad, but the lyrics are terrible.”
“Our lyrics were always terrible. In any case, we could tweak it. Make it about something different.”
“Good. Good start.” The Doctor – who was now sitting in a chair opposite Bjorn’s desk – clapped his hands, then put his feet up on the table. “What else?”
Bjorn tried to ignore the lack of social grace. “There’s one about a cat witnessing an argument between an alcoholic woman and her husband.”
“Make it a dog. Dogs have compassion. Cats don’t care at all. Plus their claws are annoying.” The Doctor was well into his stride now. “Keep ’em coming.”
“We were playing around with Irish music; that yielded…possibilities. And there’s one called Keep An Eye On Dan – ”
“Dan? Who’s Dan?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“Well, find out.” He jumped up. “I’m not asking for a tour or anything. Just one more album. Go out smiling.”
Despite himself, Benny was smiling now. “You know what?” he said to Bjorn. “I really think we should.”
“All right,” said Bjorn, meaning it. “Let’s.”
The Doctor grinned. “Trust me, people will love it. Well, probably. The ones that matter.”
“We’d better get to work,” Benny said to Bjorn. “Find those lead sheets we did a while back.”
“Oh. There’s one more thing.” The Doctor was already on his way out, but he’d now turned back, Columbo-style, and was fishing a piece of paper out of his jacket. “When you’re done, send a copy to this chap. With a note that says this.”
Nothing about this made any sense to Benny, but that had been the pattern for this afternoon. And as the Doctor hurried out and then hurried back in again with a young, starry-eyed brunette on his arm, Benny sat down at the keyboard and began to play, wondering if this could possibly go anywhere at all.
* * *
Some time later, and in drastically different circumstances, the Doctor stood in the middle of a quaint pastoral scene on a ship where time ran at different speeds depending on where you parked.
It was appropriate, really, given that the passage of his own life was so difficult to measure. How long had it been? Chronologically, a few millennia. Maybe. He didn’t know when Mondas had started its drift. For him, it had been just over a thousand, most of it languishing outside Missy’s makeshift jail, scribbling lecture notes and occasionally assisting the Templars. That was assuming you didn’t count the several billion he had spent punching a wall. He never knew whether he should.
The Doctor stared out at the field and considered its random promises. Before him lay a pleasant rural backdrop, hedge-lined fields rolling away to pastured common land, bordered by forests thick with oak and ash and beech. Somewhere in the lower decks, aided in no uncertain terms by their convenient proximity to an event horizon, the Cybermen were evolving and rebuilding at an unprecedented rate, and it was inevitable that they would make a repeat appearance – almost certainly in a sleeker costume and carrying a far nastier gun. The Doctor had found he could do many things over the centuries, but even he couldn’t stop the passage of time – time, the enemy of us all.
It would likely be a bloodbath.
He’d worry about that later. Right now, he had a point to prove.
Nardole was still sitting outside the farmhouse, face hunched over the laptop, peering at it over the the rim of his glasses. Occasionally he would prod at one of the keys, almost with hesitancy, like a child discovering at the corpse of a woodland animal they’re not sure is dead. The Doctor wondered if he was actually dealing with the Cyber threat or playing Roblox.
He cleared his throat as he approached, and Nardole looked up. “Ah. There you are, sir.”
“How’s it going?”
“There’s still some lag on the payload delivery, but I think we can compensate. Hope we can, anyway. Otherwise it’ll be short and not very sweet.” The Doctor coughed. Nardole looked at him quizzically: the Doctor interpreted it (correctly) as his what-in-the-love-of-heaven-is-he-gonna-ask-me-now look.
“The, um. The thing. There was a thing I asked you to look after. Some time ago. Had it sent to you. Only I don’t know about it until now, which is when I’ll ask you to give it to me.”
Nardole’s eyes were momentarily blank. Then somewhere inside his head a penny dropped: if you listened carefully, you could almost hear the clang. “Oh, that!” he said. “Yeah, been carrying that around with me for months. Bit random, though. Can’t think why you’d want it.”
He fished into his jacket pocket and produced a small flat cardboard sleeve, not quite square. “Had a note attached, said ‘Keep it with you and don’t tell me.’” The Doctor took the sleeve, staring at the cover artwork: the dark brown of space, a star poking over the edge of an unidentifiable planet.
He found himself nodding in approval, which prompted Nardole to say “I take it that this is somehow important?”
“Depends on your perspective.” The Doctor was reading the back of the case. “Either way, thank you. Particularly for keeping it secret.”
“All part of the service.” Nardole resumed tapping at his laptop. “I mean it’s probably pushed something important out of my head, but never mind.”
The Doctor grinned as he walked away. “Have a look down the back of the sofa. Things have a habit of turning up.”
“Back of the sofa,” Nardole muttered to himself, but there was humour in it.
* * *
The Masters – both of them – were leaning against a stile, watching a cow.
“Do you ever wonder,” the bearded one was saying, “about the Matrix?”
“The one on Gallifrey?” said Missy.
“No, that terrible science fiction film.” The Master shifted his stance; the wood was itching. “I saw it, back when I was running for Prime Minister. And it struck me that if you’re going to have some sort of rogue AI conquer the world, you really don’t want to use humans for a battery source.”
“They’re impetuous. They don’t listen. That’s the whole point of the film; people are never happy with what’s given to them. Whereas if they’d used a cow – ”
“There’d have been no rebellion.” Missy finished the thought. “The cow wakes up immersed in liquid, it’s a bit confused, they plug it back in, it’s none the wiser. It just eats grass all day, perfectly content.”
“Plus,” said the Master, “cows are big. You’d need far fewer of them, which makes administration much easier.”
“Yeah. They could call it the Mootrix.”
“Good title,” offered the Master. He turned his attention to the Doctor, whose boots made soft prints in the evening grass. “Oh, it’s you. Whatever it is, you can lift it yourself.”
“Actually, no.” The Doctor scratched the side of his nose. “I came back to check something. The conversation we had earlier.
“That?” the Master sneered. “Why are we revisiting that?”
“Something you said. I asked you about the odds of beating the Cybermen.”
“What’d you say?” The Doctor stood, arms folded, biding his time. “I mean your exact words.”
The Master eyed him contemptuously. “I said it was about as likely as an ABBA reunion.”
“Yeah.” The Doctor fished into his pocket, and then placed the CD into the Master’s outstretched hand. The Master rolled it over. “So? Some kind of bootl – wait.” He was examining the date. “Why didn’t I know about this?”
“They reformed.” The Doctor wore the merest hint of a smile. “New album. Nearly forty years after the last one. Even managed a tour, of sorts.”
“Did they do that song about the gorilla?” Missy was leaning over the Master’s left arm, reading the track list. “I always liked that one.”
The Master glowered at her. “Not helping.” And then, turning back to the Doctor: “This is fake.”
“I’ll think you’ll find it isn’t,” said the Doctor.
“Then why didn’t I know about it?”
“Oh, well, you’re a busy man. Slash woman,” the Doctor added, acknowledging Missy. “You can’t be on top of every temporal anomaly.”
The Master thought this through for a moment, internal cogs whirring in a blaze of tempestuous logic, and then he pointed at the Doctor with an angry finger. “You cheated!”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” the Doctor smirked. “Either way, I get to win this one.”
The Master threw the CD to the ground, and then stomped off. The Doctor dropped to a low squat to pick it up, brushing away the flecks of dirt. “Litterbug.”
“So what was that?” asked Missy, who’d decided that if her counterpart wanted a sulk, he was on his own. “Other than a bit of metaphorical tackle waving.”
The Doctor’s eyebrows shot up. “You can talk.”
“I can, actually,” said Missy, hand on her hip. “But in all seriousness, you did that by contacting your earlier self, right? How’d you even manage it?”
“It’s the black hole,” said the Doctor. “Bends time. Means the phone works. Kind of.”
“And you rang…you.”
“An earlier me. Got him to pop over to Stockholm. Called in a few favours.”
“Then why in God’s name didn’t you get him to help here?” Missy was incandescent with disbelief. “Bring the TARDIS over? Trigger a meltdown? Be a lifeboat? Anything?”
“Because he never did,” the Doctor explained. “Or rather, I never did. I’d have remembered. We can’t cross the timeline, Missy. You know that.”
“So what was the point, then?”
“I don’t know. Fun, maybe? It’s been sorely lacking round here these past few weeks. Maybe there’s nothing actually wrong with spreading a little joy, even if things are rubbish and we’re all about to die horribly. And besides…”
He moved just a little closer, and dropped his voice to that low, measured tone he adopted when he wanted to be serious. “I wanted to show him that even when you’re certain of the outcome, the universe has a way of surprising you. And that people change, even though they don’t always want to.”
For a moment, Missy said nothing. Then she glared at the Doctor. “You think you know me.” And with that, she turned on her heel and stomped off in the direction the Master had taken, in the futile hope that the Doctor hadn’t seen her lip trembling.
He watched her go. Wondered if he could have handled the conversation better, and decided that it didn’t matter. It isn’t about how much water you put on the seeds you plant, he realised. They grow when they’re ready. And sometimes you don’t get to see.
A snatch of remembered melody drifted into his head. Can you hear the drums, Fernando…?
The Doctor walked back across the field. Perhaps Bill was awake.
My family and I are big fans of The Goes Wrong Show. A TV spinoff from long-running West End hit The Play That Goes Wrong, each week sees the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society tackle a new work, ‘live’ on the Beeb, only to be hindered by missized sets, exploding props and actors who don’t seem to understand the concept of stage directions. It’s rip-roaring family entertainment, ridiculous and physics-defying and occasionally very touching, but it’s the opening episode of series 2 I wanted to discuss: tired of the group’s continual failings, the bombastic Robert (Matt Berry meets Brian Blessed) stages a successful coup and then directs a period drama called ‘Summer Once Again’, insisting on perfection throughout. When the opening scene inevitably falls apart, Robert stops the action and asks for a reset: this happens over and over and by the time we actually finish it, most of the show’s running time has already elapsed and the actors have no choice but to frantically hurry through the rest of the play. Scenery flies in and out in an instant, dialogue is rushed or omitted entirely, and seasons change in a flurry of falling leaves and fake snow until the curtain falls on the breathless and deeply unhappy troupe.
The last time we saw the Doctor, things didn’t look good – but sometimes, particularly when your back’s against the wall, you have to cut a corner or two. ‘The Vanquishers’ has a lot of loose ends to tie up, and it manages by cheating, as well as a certain amount of economisation. After an abrupt and somewhat disappointing conclusion to last week’s cliffhanger (the Doctor evades certain death at the hands of Swarm by diving out of the way), we’re back at invasion central: Yaz and Dan and Jericho are cornered by marauding Sontarans, Kate Stewart’s left UNIT in the hands of the Grand Serpent and the Doomsday Clock has ticked another second closer to the heat death of the universe. So much to resolve, and so little time.
The only solution to such a conundrum, of course, would be if the Doctor could be in three places at once. And this week, for the express purposes of plot, that’s exactly where she is: split assunder between three different locales, phasing in and out as per the story’s needs, usually at the most inconvenient of moments. It plays rather like the Star Trek: TNG finale, ‘All Good Things…’, in which Picard has to navigate both his past and (imagined) future in order to deal with a spatial anomaly and get Q off his back. So while Doctor the first is gallivanting round a Sontaran base with Karvanista and Bel, Doctor the second is reunited with Yaz and Dan, where they deal with the threat of alien invasion and the imminent destruction of the universe by bribing a Sontaran with chocolate. It’s quite as ridiculous as it sounds: there is no reason for its presence other than the fact that it’s funny (to varying degrees; Moffat really handled this stuff rather better) and the sight of a wide-eyed Dan Starkey goggling over a bar of Dairy Milk is destined to be memed to death, which was presumably exactly what Chibnall wanted. There are probably worse ways to be mark your place in Doctor Who’s history. If you’re going down, at least go down fighting.
Meanwhile, Doctor the third is stuck at Division Centre, with a disinterested Ood and a couple of psychopathic killers for company. At least we assume they’re psychopathic. To be honest my entire assessment of Swarm and Azure is built on assumptions. They’re merciless guardians of entropy from a period we glimpsed only in flashback and only when there were dozens of other stories going on at the same time. Chibnall gives us enough to join the dots – just – but at the risk of mixing metaphors, the picture that results isn’t so much a bucket and spade as it is a Rorschach inkblot, or the fuzzy scribble that hounded Rose in ‘Fear Her’. Oh, there’s an enjoyable conversation between Azure and the Doctor – Whittaker at her most intense, sparring with a smirking villainess who thinks that all life is futile and deserves to be snuffed out (as I recall Judge Death aspired to a similar philosophy, though he at least had more impressive teeth). But this is a meagre banquet, a scrap of development here and there, a sliver of empathy amidst the gloating. Both Azure and her brother retire from this mortal coil (disintegrated by the demigod they have supposedly resurrected) no further fleshed out than the bronzed skeletal bodies they’ve inhabited since episode one: all sneer, no substance. We don’t really know what they’re up to, or why, and we don’t particularly care either.
At least it looks pretty. You might accuse Doctor Who of being top heavy when it comes to CGI, but it seems churlish to complain when we’re being granted the spectacular vistas we’d arguably been denied during the scaled down stories we witnessed in series 11 and 12. Dalek fleets explode in dazzling panorama. Sontaran fleets loom over Rio de Janeiro and Paris (we know it’s Paris, of course, because you can see the bloody Eiffel Tower). And the Doctor wanders through a black and white flashback of her own childhood, as the mysterious floating house drifts in and out of existence with a wave of Swarm’s gloved hand – he and Azure providing the only pigmentation in an otherwise drab monochrome, like the girl in Schindler’s List, or the video for ‘Wonderwall’. Ironic, seeing as they themselves are so utterly bereft of colour.
The discussion we had last week – concerning past lives and forgotten history – becomes a McGuffin of sorts for the Doctor, or perhaps an obstacle. There simply isn’t time to actually delve that far, not when there are so many other plot strands to resolve. Tecteun is given only the most cursory of mentions; this has now become about stopping the Flux. Learning about the past, we are assured, is a distraction, and when the whole thing is dangled quite literally in front of the Doctor’s nose in the shape of a fob watch she wisely elects to hide it in the dimensionless depths of the TARDIS, safe from herself and future showrunners, “unless I really ask for it”. The implication, surely, is that we’re moving on, at the very least until New Year’s Day, although I suspect that fans will not let it rest that easy.
But while Swarm destroys and rebuilds the floating house, you can’t help but feel mildly disappointed that the Doctor never enters it. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mystery; nor are we necessarily done with this story arc, the question of what’s behind that rotting wooden door merely postponed, rather than shoved back into Pandora’s box right before it’s thrown into the sun. There’s no reason we couldn’t go back – all the same, having come this far, why couldn’t we have ventured a little farther? Seen the experiments in the cabinets; cast our eyes over a series of bizarre objects; glimpsed a dozen unknown figures who may or may not have been prior incarnations, like the screen in Morbius’s lab? (Question: is it Division? Or The Division? Because the definite article seems to have gone walkabout this year, and it’s not down the back of the sofa, because I’ve looked.)
Whittaker herself is affable and watchable, whether she’s giggling on a torture rack or flirting with herself (often in the same scene). Time and again she’s shown herself to be an expert at the frivolous remark – “What this ship really needs,” she mutters, faced with someone else she doesn’t know, “is lanyards” – but while she possesses Tennant’s facetious light-heartedness we don’t really delve much beyond that, save a couple of brooding remarks and (god save us) an actual tear during a final not-quite conversation with Yaz. There is none of the fire that lit her during ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ – it’s mostly down to the script, but you wish she’d reacted to the genocide of the Lupari with a little more emotion. Even a dual appearance as the personification of Time, dour-mouthed and serious and sporting a different coat, is largely wasted.
The companions have their own journeys this week: Dan’s takes him to the TARDIS (by way of the museum we saw him exploring in episode one); Vinder and Bel wander straight into each other’s arms, electing to wander the cosmos with Karvanista. It’s all a bit Guardians of the Galaxy, without the tree – although Bel still hasn’t had that baby, and it’s been in there for years, so who knows what she’s actually growing? As for Karvanista, the bushy sidekick is given the nearest thing we get to character development, angrily declaring his backstory with the Doctor off limits (reliving the memory, it turns out, will literally kill him) but giving us hints that the pair were closer than we’d realised. “There was a time I’d do anything for you,” he glowers from the neon haze of a Sontaran prison cell. “But you left me.”
It is Jericho who is granted a hero’s death, bowing out in a literal blaze of glory after proving rather too trigger-happy defending Claire from an oncoming Sontaran patrol. It was inevitable: Kevin McNally does a good line in indignant pomp, and you find yourself nodding and smiling as he introduces himself as ‘Scourge of Scoundrels’, before noting – just before he’s incinerated by the blast – that it would have been a brilliant title for his autobiography. My children were upset, but that’s all part of the fun. It’s not proper Doctor Who unless you lose a supporting character you actually like. (No, Adric doesn’t count.)
And yet it feels rushed. This, you sense, is what happens when you film an ambitious storyline in the height of a pandemic. There is enough material here to fill a series of ten episodes, possibly more if they stretched out the camerawork. Instead we’re plagued with enough jump cuts to make the cafe scene in Bohemian Rhapsody look like a Ken Loach film. I’m not asking for pages of dialogue. I’m just asking for the chance to pause for breath. Because when McNally died on that ship you really feel he ought to have had a little more time. When Bel and Vinder collapsed into that embrace, they needed another minute or two – enough time, at least, for Vinder to process the fact that he was going to be a father. And if the not-quite relationship between Dan and Diane deserved a little more closure than a bit of mumbling about restaurant bookings – or if nothing else a little more than a single wistful stare. Flux manages, at the very least, to give a decent send-off to the Grand Serpent, who is fittingly exiled (by Vinder and Kate) to an isolated rock in deep space, where he can have the rule of authority he always craved, in complete solitude. Be careful what you wish for.
There is a sense of frustration about it, because Flux feels like the series Chibnall always wanted to make: grandiose, world-changing and with a sense of finality, a set of water cooler moments to rival Tennant diving through the hatch of an open spacecraft, Eccleston’s defiant “I’m coming to get you,”, or Capaldi’s four billion year wall punch. Certainly there have been scenes and segments that we’ll be talking about for some time: the Angel freeze-up at the end of part four, the heist on Atropos, the literal destruction of the entire cosmos at the end of the first instalment. Even the Sontaran in the corner shop, although not every word said about it will be praiseworthy.
But it’s hard not to feel a little cheated, just as the programme itself cheats in order to (more or less) finish its narrative on time. There is nothing untoward about the bending of physics or the narrative trick used to get the Doctor back into the universe in order to save it, except that it feels rushed, hastily implemented, skirted around in order to Get The Story Done. And it is for this reason that ‘The Vanquishers’ epitomises, on many levels, everything that’s been both good and bad about this year. It’s fun and bold and often exciting; these are all good things, and to be treasured, because we don’t have enough good things these days. But it’s like wolfing a McDonalds on your way back to the train station – you feel like you’ve experienced something hot and mildly satisfying, but you can’t really tell what it was. There is a sense of things being unfinished, of time being wasted, of opportunity squandered. For all its good qualities, it is hard not to view Flux as a breakneck scramble for the finish line, an ensemble of confused players rushing through the final act before the credits roll, yanked up at speed with the same indecipherable intensity as the drama that preceded them.
I imagine there are a number of very disgruntled Doctor Who fans ranting and raving on social media at the moment. Not that this is in any way new. The internet is pockmarked with zits of anger and boils of rage – all directed at a show these people profess to love – and it is impossible to travel very far, wherever you happen to be going, without running into pustules of self-righteous indignation, seemingly desperate to be lanced or popped. Getting angry at Doctor Who is very fashionable. I should know; I’ve done it myself.
But this week’s anger is liable to take a specific form, and comes as we learn, more or less unambiguously, that two particular fan theories from the last couple of years have basically fallen at the wayside. The first (and by far most popular) is that the Master’s revelation halfway through ‘The Timeless Children’ was an outright falsehood. For a number of people (I’m not going to say ‘many’, because I suspect they’re probably just a particularly vocal minority) the prospect that Gallifrey’s public enemy number one was lying through his teeth was a far more appealing one than the likelihood that Chibnall genuinely wanted to see this through to the bitter end, even if it meant rewriting history. “The Master lies,” we’re told, over and over. “You can’t trust him”.
Well, no. You can’t. As far as unreliable narrators go, he’s up there with Keyser Soze. But…really? Is that something you’d honestly see Chibnall doing? Inserting new Doctors – including the first person of colour to land the role, if you don’t count Lenny Henry – only to turn round and say “Sorry, folks, this doesn’t count”? Or “We said there were loads of Doctors, but we were only pulling your leg”? Not only is it the sort of negligent trolling I don’t think even he’s capable of, it discards everything we’ve seen over the last three years; it also severely undermines the BBC’s (admirable) diversity agenda, and hence it isn’t the sort of trick he’s about to pull. I mean, Davies might. But that’s entirely up to him.
The other theory that has now failed to bear fruit is an expanded version of this: that Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor inhabits a parallel universe, and is most likely herself a parallel Doctor. Hence everything that’s happened over the past few years, from angry Ptings to mysterious to TARDISes buried near lighthouses, has been a series of adventures chronicled by another set of adventurers. You know, a different Doctor. Not ours. Not the real one. And thus the timeline may be restored without prejudice and everybody’s happy (and by ‘everybody’, I mean that small-but-vocal contingent I previously mentioned). Capaldi regenerates into someone else and series 11-13 were only a dream, an imagined memory, half-human on its mother’s side. Isn’t it brilliant when you can strike the stories you hate from the continuity?
But as we saw in ‘Survivors of The Flux’, the Doctor really is the Timeless Child, and this really is our universe – something that’s not just a passing observation but a major plot point. The moment comes at the midway point in what is essentially a fifty-minute infodump. After a visually striking (if pedestrian) opening scene where the Doctor walks through a field of Angels, she then spends the rest of the episode confined to a single room where a middle-aged woman dressed like a post-apocalyptic Amelia Earhart fiddles with a set of controls and sneers at her. There is an Ood in the corner, who is there for no reason other than the fact that Chibnall clearly wanted an Ood, and whose reasoning the Doctor is able to affect in thirty seconds flat. She gets it on side by explaining that the universe it’s about to blow up contains other Ood, and that killing them is murder. How the Ood was unable to reach this conclusion on its own is left unexplained, but we should probably be used to that by now.
That the mysterious woman turns out to be Tecteun, the Doctor’s long lost mother, turns out to be no great shock. Nor are we surprised when she tempts Whittaker with a set of restored memories, presumably detailing all the times she was stomping across the universe doing Division’s dirty work. Nor do we care when the Doctor turns the offer down flat. Even the cliffhanger, in which Swarm and Azure pop up out of nowhere just in time to disintegrate Tecteun out of existence, is something you could see coming a mile off. The net result of this is that a series of uninteresting twists are heaped together in an attempt to make the whole more than the sum of its parts, in which respect it fails miserably. This is a wobbly tower of nothingness: reveals are dumped on top of reveals until they cease to have any impact, a layer cake where every layer is jam.
It’s as if Chibnall sat down to write this week’s episode having woken up in a panic in the realisation that he had ninety-four minutes of screen time left and enough unexplained material to fill about six hours. The only answer is to dump it all into a single speech and leave the audience to fill in the gaps. Which I wouldn’t mind, had it been even slightly entertaining – but most of the exposition is as dry as a desert. “Colossal,” beams Tecteun when the Doctor asks about the extent of Division’s influence. “Across space and time, its influence is unparalleled. Its reach is unlimited. All from the shadows. It achieves its aim beyond our wildest dreams.” It reads like a BBC press release. Barbara Flynn does the best she can with the dog’s breakfast she’s given, but when your job is primarily to tell everyone what’s been going on, how much life can you really inject?
There were good things. Craig Parkinson oozes venom (quite literally) as the treacherous Prentis, a sliver of white in his hair and a snake living on his back. His rise to the top of UNIT might almost be Machiavellian were it not for the fact that we’ve seen him before, in a very different setting, and it is clear that this is probably the same man, either immortal or carrying a TARDIS (or a working vortex manipulator). He manages to off anyone who gets in his way, with the notable exception of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, who lights up the screen in what is the episode’s single best scene, before vanishing into the darkness as UNIT is defunded and her house is blown up. It’s all good fun until you realise that Chibnall’s effectively turned a Brexit gag into a significant plot point, but Jemma Redgrave is always fun to watch, so perhaps it’s churlish to complain.
Then there’s the companions, who mercifully have a bit more to do this week, having spent the last three years backpacking round the world in search of artifacts that might help them predict the year of the coming apocalypse (spoiler: it’s 2021); Around The World In Eighty Days with touches of Indiana Jones. They even get their own montage, hiking to Nepal (presumably Wales), red dotted lines charting their progress as the music swells in the background. All this is before they realise that what they were searching for was right under their noses the whole time, which really is a bit Wizard of Oz. Still, it’s nice to see more of Kevin McNally, who slides into the role of temporary sidekick with aplomb, sparking well with Bishop and Gill, whether he’s running from an obviously-placed stick of dynamite or shoving a corpse over the edge of a boat. The scene with the farquhar is likely to split the fandom. Personally, I was chuckling.
Four years ago Emily and I were watching series three of Twin Peaks. It was twenty-five years in coming and in retrospect I wonder whether the sense of anticipation led us to overlook some of its shortcomings. For every wonderful, crowd-pleasing moment (when Kyle MacLachlan looks to camera with a reassuring smile and declares “I am the FBI”, it’s difficult not to cheer) there are moments of unfulfilled promise: James Hurley’s half-visited storyline; the scenes with Ed and Norma and Nadine that basically come out of nowhere…it’s a mess. A god-awful glorious mess, but still a mess.
And the reason it works, despite being a mess, is that we’re dealing with pre-conceived characters we knew well. Lynch knew he’d told us all he really wanted to about these people, when we lived their lives and visited their homes in the early 1990s. All that remains is to drop in a coda (in the case of Audrey Horne, an interrupted cadenza). We don’t need to see any more of Ed and Norma, because we know their story and they deserve the happy ending they’re given. This isn’t the case with Flux, where Chibnall slingshots around a host of new and vaguely-connected characters in different times and places, offers the flimsiest of sketches and the barest character development the running time allows, and then ties them all together at the eleventh hour with string so old and frayed it could snap at any minute. There’s still at least one episode to go (possibly more, if he elects to draw this out into the specials) but it’s become apparent that this year’s Big Event is a story where plot is directing character, rather than the other way round: where they decided to wipe out the universe and stick in a bunch of half-formed people to see how it would affect them. Which is par for the course in Doctor Who, at least some of the time – but when it’s been hyped up so much, and when it’s all the new content we’re getting, you can’t help wishing they’d managed something a little more substantial.
Early June, 2007. Emily and I are coiled on the sofa, watching Carey Mulligan stumble through the cracked remains of an old building – “You live,” says Finlay Robertson, erroneously assuming that the mansion in which they’ve gathered is her permanent residence, “in Scooby Doo’s house”. There is a fizz of background noise on DVD, as a bespectacled man from a film shot forty years ago mutters a warning. In the shadows, statues lurk. Until you turn your back. Until you blink. And then…
Well, then you get to go back in time a few decades and live out the rest of your life in the village where you grew up, before meeting yourself as a young child. Which isn’t such a bad way to go, really. We could think of worse. Drowning, electrocution, live burial. Over-exposure to the theme from Barney. And this is why the Angels only really worked in one story, where the novelty was enough and where the stakes were raised by the Doctor’s warning about what would happen if they managed to get hold of a TARDIS. When all is said and done, that’s the extent of their appeal. Everything else – the neck-snapping in the wreck of the Byzantium, the makeshift factory farm at Winter Quay – is merely commentary.
Having actually got hold of a TARDIS in last week’s finale, the Angels elect not to switch off the sun (something the Tenth Doctor had feared), but instead dump the battered old police box in 1960s rural England so they can pick up a stray. Because it turns out that not all Angels are wrong ‘uns, if we can really say that any of them were. Some of them have tired of their work with the Division and have gone on the lam, where they can hide out on Earth, ensconced within the mind of a young woman who –
Sorry, wait a minute. Back up. Slowly. Stand clear; this vehicle is reversing. Say that again. They do what? Angels have jobs? With the Division? How does that even work? How do you arrange a performance review for a direct report when you can’t make eye contact with them? Is remote working an option given that every time you arrange a Zoom meeting they accidentally pop out of the monitor? What about salary? Do they zip back in time to deposit their pay packets into hundred-year-old accounts and then live off the compound interest? What happens at the Christmas party when it’s time to form the conga line? These are all serious questions, and I think we should be told.
But unanswered questions are par for the course this series. And there are loose ends a-plenty this week, and most of them concern the Doctor. In the sort of bait-and-switch that Chibnall has made one of his staples, she turns out to be the target the Angels were looking for all along, ending the story on the mother of all cliffhangers, frozen like a Medusa victim as Yaz and Dan look on helplessly from sixty-six years ago and twelve feet away. Quite why the Angels weren’t able to do this earlier in the story is anyone’s guess, but we may assume that it’s because the image of Jodie Whittaker turning to stone in a graveyard stuffed full of statues looks ridiculously cool, so perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it. And while it’ll be undone in a heartbeat, there is something captivating and utterly chilling about that final image. Bet B&M are lining up the figure rights as we speak.
‘Village of the Angels’ is the sort of haunted village horror story that 70s Who managed brilliantly, only with the pacing cranked up to eleven and the pathos at a big fat zero. I know we’re supposed to care about poor Peggy, who vanishes from the home of her irritable great-uncle and his long-suffering wife (played proficiently, if with a certain shallowness, by Vincent Brimble and Jemma Churchill), only to be discovered by a displaced Yaz and Dan wandering around Medderton in 1901. But it’s difficult to care too much when she radiates the same level of glacial calmness displayed by one of the Midwich children in Village of the Damned. There’s something freakish about her. She barely even breaks a sweat when her hapless great-uncle crumbles into rubble (I was going to say she barely even blinks, but let’s not go there). Instead she merely stares at the spectacle, and then notes “He was never kind to me”. We should have seen it coming: an earlier scene has her seated at the table in a seemingly abandoned farmhouse, chickens pecking at the butter and the gramophone still running, lit from behind in a serene halo, like a divine child. You might even say an angel.
Perhaps surprisingly for a base-under-siege tale, visual flair is a cornerstone of the episode’s construction, Robin Whenary’s cinematography working in a delicious tandem with Jamie Magnus Stone’s tight direction, emphasising angles and corners and the feeling of being under constant surveillance. The troubled Claire grows a pair of wings in a mirror, delicately foreshadowing the story’s finale, before facing off against the Doctor on the other side of a windswept beach (in quite unsuitable footwear), the sky a turbulent maelstrom. Closeups are abundant, and the stony denizens scream out of the darkness with a lustre and ferocity we haven’t seen in some time. It doesn’t all work: the Scribble Angel and Fire Angel are supposed to breathe new blood into old enemies, but there is a certain silliness about them, a gimmick that serves little purpose beyond a brief visual cue. Perhaps I was just thinking about ‘Fear Her’.
Still, the best scenes in ‘Village’ occur in that poorly-defended house, the doors rattling as unseen fists pound and blank-eyed faces loom at the window like a dozen extras from a Romero film. It’s terrific stuff, and it almost seems a shame when we have to leave it behind for 1901, in which Dan and Yaz have a bit of a wander and a chat and do not a lot else. Maxine Alderton managed to keep everyone busy during ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’, but she struggles here to find substantial roles for the Doctor’s companions, beyond having Yaz yell out “No!” at opportune moments, something Mandip Gill admittedly does rather well. Faring better is Thaddea Graham (Bel), saving the life of an ungrateful refugee on another decimated planet before hopping off into the stars, reappearing for a cannily placed credits scene. She’s tremendous fun to watch, and whatever the murky truth behind this inexplicably lengthy pregnancy, the romance between her and Vinder is genuinely touching, and you really do hope they manage to survive the universe’s implausibly lengthy destruction.
It’s wobbly and a bit uneven in places, but as a whole it works. For every magical reforming picture or jarring snatch of audio (Brimble’s scream when he is first zapped by the Angel is particularly unnecessary) there is a feast of dimly lit churchyards and frantic, elegantly composed set pieces. Guest performances, too, are largely sound – Kevin McNally and Annabel Scholey excel as stuffy academic and frightened woman out of time respectively – and there is a cohesiveness to the story that survives beyond the oddities; a mesh bag, crammed full of rocks, a few rough edges poking through the holes, but essentially intact. Chibnall’s run on Doctor Who hasn’t been without its problems, and the jury is still out on whether Flux is going to pan out as successfully as we’ve been promised – but this week he made the Angels scary again. That, in itself, is something of a triumph.
God Is In The Detail is taking a break this week. I’m sorry, I simply don’t have the energy. Events have worn me out. Sometimes you need to put things down, rather than going through the motions for the sake of completion. This week is one of those. Besides, I don’t think many people actually read it these days. There are so many outlandish fan theories doing the rounds that it just falls between the cracks, another victim of Poe’s law, dropping into the filter alongside all the crackpot ideas about grandparents and necklaces.
Let’s do something fun instead. We’ll have a bit of ABBA, shall we? ABBA are great. My love affair with them began in the early 1980s when we had a couple of their albums (at least one of which was a compilation) on vinyl. There was a record player in the bottom of the wardrobe, and whenever I heard the heavy, almost claustrophobic bass that opens ‘The Name of the Game’ I was convinced that they were hiding in the back somewhere behind the coats. (I was four; I think that’s a reasonable excuse.)
Fast forward – literally – a few years, to the video we bought from Smiths and which I watched nigh on every Saturday for about a year, wherein I learned about the joys of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Eagle’ and the unremitting sobfest that is ‘The Winner Takes It All’. I tended to stop when it started talking about ‘One Of Us’. For one thing I didn’t care for Agnetha’s perm. For another it was getting uncomfortable to read, the band walking away into the sunset during the final fade for ‘Under Attack’. Was it my first brush with divorce? Probably. You could feel the pain and the hurt in those lyrics – “I don’t wanna talk,” Agnetha sang as she stood looking out at a river with the wind blowing in her face like someone researching their family tree in Who Do You Think You Are? “‘Cos it makes me feel sad.” And by the end of the record, it made me feel sad too. Every single time it came on the radio. Job done, I suppose.
Comebacks and reunions are always ripe for scrutiny – can they still pull it off, after all this time? – and it was inevitable that for every cheering Mamma Mia fan there’d be at least a couple more wondering why they’d done it. And yes, the new album is occasionally patchy and has some pretty terrible lyrics. That’s vintage ABBA. Seriously, go and listen to ‘Two For The Price Of One’. Or ‘What About Livingstone’. Or ‘Dum Dum Diddle’, if you can stomach it. Or ‘On And On And On’. I could go on (and on). They’re Swedish, for pity’s sake; give them a bit of credit for writing stuff we can at least understand, even if there is at least one moment every album that make you cringe. On Voyage it comes in the form of ‘Little Things’. “Little things,” sings Frida (or is it Agnetha? Seriously I can’t tell these days) playfully. “Like your naughty eyes / You’d consider bringing me a breakfast tray but there’s a price…”. Ouch. Still, at least she’s not too old for sex.
Anyway. I took a bunch of ABBA lyrics and stuck them into Doctor Who stills, because…well, it was fun. And because Voyage, for all its quirks and oddities, is a bundle of infectious joy, and god knows we need more joy in this crazy, broken world. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I spent years feeling sad that they ended their original run on what was both a career high and a personal low – The Visitors was great, but the (apocryphal) image of Agnetha sitting in the darkened studio creaking out the final vocals to ‘The Day Before You Came’, as the rest of them all sit not speaking to each other, is just a little too much to bear. And for years that was it. I used to have a thing: for years, whenever anyone used to post a ridiculous (and frequently problematic) pipe dream, I’d say “That’s about as likely as an ABBA reunion.”
And it’s a shame I can’t use that one anymore, but it’s a price worth paying.
I’ve just noticed something rather unfortunate. The problem with reviewing a series of single over-arching stories like this is that the reviews are rather difficult to title. You can’t do it without mentioning the ‘Flux’ thing, which leaves you with various syntax difficulties. I’m using a colon and an em dash as well as that strangely placed comma and I don’t really like it very much. And it came up in my thought process because this very week Rockstar Studios released Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, which is nigh-on impossible to say, let alone write down. There are far too many ‘the’s, for one thing. Oh, and as it turns out the GTA remaster was dreadful, largely because they mashed up the controls, ruined the Switch port, locked up the PC launcher, turned all the character models into Roblox knock-offs and took out the fog. Hence Metacritic’s average rating is (at time of writing) a whopping 0.6, which is both unprecedented and awkward.
I suspect that there were a lot of angry people on Twitter last night, both gamers and otherwise. For example, a fair few of us are trying to work out what on earth Chris Chibnall meant when he had one of his characters mutter “No one calls them video games” during the middle of a clumsy plug-that-wasn’t-a-plug-but-kind-of-was for The Edge Of Reality. Yeah, we do. I mean not all the time; ‘games’ is a perfectly appropriate shorthand. But if we’re talking to people who aren’t gamers (which does happen, honestly), we call them video games, just like we call him ‘the Doctor’ if we’re talking to people who watch the show, and ‘Doctor Who’ if we’re talking to people who don’t. Everyone does that, right? Right? I am right about this, aren’t I?
To be clear, I get that Yaz wasn’t playing The Edge of Reality. I also don’t think that having a Weeping Angel invade your video game like that could be seen as anything other than a nod, given the timing. Even if it wasn’t (and it almost certainly wasn’t). This is the problem when you immerse yourself too deeply in Doctor Who lore; you start seeing the patterns everywhere. For example, why does Vintner’s love interest (you know, the one who isn’t Yaz) talk about him ‘looking different’ when she’s chatting to her Tamagotchi-that’s-actually-a-foetus? Why else, unless he’s got some kind of regenerative ability? Which would presumably make him the Doctor’s father, of course. Or he isn’t and it’s simply another ridiculous fan theory, the way that people misinterpreted Dan’s “Had a mate with one of these” from episode one and turned it from a simple joke into obvious foreshadowing for a prior encounter that he’s keeping very secret, in all likelihood from the rest of us. Which is…oh, I don’t know, minimally plausible, even though it suggests to me that most of these people simply don’t understand British humour, or indeed humour full stop.
In fairness, we did find out this evening that Dan’s hung around with the Doctor before. It’s just he was a dog. And of course it’s not really him at all; there’s a projection thing going on. The Doctor figures this out just after she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror that makes her look several thousand years younger, and perhaps a little taller. She’s in the middle of a ramraid on the planet Time, which is one of the Division’s illicit projects, and one that temporal terrorist Swarm is in the process of exposing. It leads to a standoff in which Jodie Whittaker is reading out the Fugitive Doctor’s lines in her own voice, which basically means she cranks up the intensity just a notch and shifts her body language. It does, at least, put paid to the season 6b theory, more or less. Probably less.
Still, it’s nice to see Jo Martin back for another stint – even though we mostly get snatches of her, the camera cross-fading between her and Whittaker like a crap version of Keanu Reeves’ scramble suit in A Scanner Darkly. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) the impact is lessened by the fact that the mirror scene occurs in the midst of a giddying series of time-jumping fragments, as characters dip in and out of conversations they haven’t had yet or might never have, experiencing memories of each other and stories that some of them would rather forget. Yaz gets bored in a patrol car and smashes a Nintendo Switch (these are two separate events, just in case you’re worried about where your tax money is going). Dan has a coffee with his not-quite girlfriend, reminiscing moodily about getting dumped. And Vinder is exploring a murky past and a disastrous career move when he stuck to his principles and tried to expose – we presume unsuccessfully – the slippery Grand Serpent (Line of Duty alumnus Craig Parkinson, as corrupt in an interstellar penthouse as he was in AC-12). As for the Doctor, she’s darting around between timelines, swapping identities at random and trying desperately to get the gang back together before the universe implodes around her.
You will have gathered, even if you haven’t looked at the Twitter feeds, that this is love-it-or-hate-it TV. There are compelling arguments for both. It’s nonsensical from the get-go. That’s what happens if you tease out a largely metaphysical cliffhanger resolution for an episode’s entire runtime (bar a couple of frustrating minutes at the end when Vinder lands on his home planet, which looks like Constantinople after it’s been sacked, and the only emotional reaction he can muster is a slight pout – the sort you’d do when Greggs has run out of cheese and onion bakes). This is a story that isn’t a story, framed by the meandering poetic voiceovers from a woman who spends most of her time giggling at emojis. The exploits of Bel (Thaddea Graham) may be a distraction from the main narrative, such as it is, but at least she’s fun to watch, when she’s not pushing buttons on that wretched screen.
Still, you wonder. What would Moffat have made of this? Because that’s clearly the line that Flux is taking: the multi-stranded time-hopping magnum opus that the previous showrunner knocked off almost effortlessly. It’s all there, more or less – the characters with hidden backstories, the revisited scenes that shed new light on old moments, the connections that don’t become apparent until the final reel. The Doctor floats in a vortex with three white gods and then has a conversation with someone who may or may not be a Guardian. A few minutes later we’re watching a full-fledged TARDIS invasion. Moffat, you sense, would have been a little more restrained, a little more structured, and I’d probably have been bored. Chibnall knows his number is up, and wants to go out with a bang. You can almost picture him in the BBC bar, knocking back a few drinks with Matt Strevens. “I know it’s all over the place,” he says. “And people will probably hate it. But hey, at least they’ll remember it.”
I’ll tell you why I’m thinking about Moffat. There’s a scene halfway through where Bel is fighting off Cybermen. “Love is not a mission,” says the last one as it lies motionless on the floor, having asked Bel what she’s doing in this neck of the woods. “Love is an emotion. Emotions are not missions.” Bel barely skips a beat before she puts another blast through his cranium, noting “Love is the only mission, idiot”. It’s utter garbage, and it’s exactly the sort of utter garbage Moffat would have written had he still been in charge. We ignore revelations like this at our peril: people rail against Chibnall’s dialogue, and with some justification, but let’s not forget where we were and, more importantly, what it was actually like. Doctor Who fans spend most of their waking hours looking back at the hill they just climbed or peering at the one that’s just over the horizon, and it is always assumed that the hill they’re currently occupying is the most arduous of the lot. Never does it occur to them that it’s all a matter of perspective.
And it is perhaps for this reason, more than any other, that I adored last night’s installment. Because it was all over the place. You couldn’t work out what was real and what wasn’t. We jumped in and out of Liverpool and in and out of time in a whirlwind of cameos and flashbacks and flash-forwards and confused half-explanations. Daleks – awful CGI Daleks – swum into view in a scene that practically screamed “Contractual obligation” (and yes, I know that’s a myth, but really, that’s the sort of cameo that gives the myth its potency). Characters and motivations vanished up the creek faster than a spinach-infused Popeye off to rescue his girlfriend. It was audacious. It was ridiculous. It didn’t make sense. And I enjoyed every mad second of it. Sometimes, madness makes for TV gold. It’s not a hard and fast rule (see ‘It Takes You Away’), but some of the best Doctor Who stories are the ones that are thinking outside the box. On that basis alone, ‘Once Upon Time’ is an outrageous masterpiece – preposterous and absurd, but captivating from slow-motion teaser to high-octane conclusion. Bravo, we say, sir. Bravo.
Now: if you’ll excuse me, I really fancy a Marmite sandwich.