Doctor Who series 11: the executive summaries (part one)

Shameless plug alert, folks: this is where I talk about The Doctor Who Companion. It’s a fan site that grew out of the not-exactly-defunct* Kasterborous.com (there’s a story there; you can read about about it if you want) and is run by Phil Bates, who is a capital fellow even if we disagree vehemently over whether the show’s currently any good or not. Phil is lovely to work for because he’s always very, very grateful for anything I produce for him, even though a lot of the time the pleasure is largely mine: it’s lovely to find an editor who is willing to let you write about whatever you please and who is willing to publish three-thousand rambling diatribes without ever asking you to cut out a paragraph or two; frankly I marvel at the people who manage to get all the way through them. But it’s a great site (I am unavoidably and unashamedly biased) because we aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions, and we manage to do a bit of everything – although we’ve spent most of the last three months looking in depth at Jodie Whittaker’s inaugural series.

The way The Doctor Who Companion works is this: each episode is reviewed by a different person, which keeps things interesting and fresh and allows for a variety of perspectives. While the user comments are drifting in for each episode, the site’s various writers are also hard at work preparing their three-hundred word summaries of each story for inclusion in that week’s communal write-up, published a few days later. This is great, as it allows you to still say your piece about episodes you particularly loved or hated even if it wasn’t one you got to review, and thus the DWC is a fan site that encompasses a wild variety of differing viewpoints, rather than concentrating solely on the positive or negative.

What I’ve found this year is that mine tended to be more positive than others. It’s no secret that (with one notable exception) I’ve generally enjoyed series 11, certainly more than some of the other writers and more than many of the regulars haunting the DWC comments file. Perhaps I’m not seeing something that other people see very well; perhaps it’s the other way round. Perhaps watching it with children gives things a different sheen; perhaps that’s the sort of smug elitism that I could do without. Or perhaps I’m just going soft in my old age. The truth – inconvenient as this may be – is that I don’t care about Doctor Who as much as I once did, having (d)evolved over the last couple of years into a sort of comfortable post-fandom where I recognise that it’s just a fun little TV show. I’m either the perfect person to be writing about it or the worst possible choice, depending on who you talk to.

Anyway, here are the summaries for series 11, simply because we might as well. If you’ve been reading the reviews I post here, you’ll find a lot of what I say vaguely familiar, because it is a bit of a copy-and-paste. There are no apologies on offer for this: I have a family and we need to keep the house tidy. I don’t want to tip this into TL:DR territory, so we will publish this in two instalments. Here’s the first, encompassing episodes one through five. The rest (including Resolution) will follow in a day or two.

 

The Woman Who Fell To Earth

‘In a way, this episode was cursed from its very inception. When you change everything at once – particularly the sort of changes we’ve seen over the past year or two – you loop a millstone of expectation around the neck of whatever it is you’re creating. It was never going to live up to the hype. The Blade Runner sequel didn’t, and they had a budget that would rival the annual GDP of some East European countries. What chance the BBC?

As first stories go, I’ve seen worse. Oh, there’s no real plot, but that’s not a bad thing. The narrative in post-regeneration episodes always plays second fiddle to the establishment and development of both new Doctor and, where appropriate, new companions: that’s exactly as it should be, and in this instance the new TARDIS crew show great promise. It’s easy to look at this as a box-ticking exercise but they’re real people doing real things, and after years of smugness from Moffat, it really is a breath of fresh air. Most importantly, Whittaker herself is confident, sparky and believable – there are clear echoes of Tennant both in her manic technobabble and heartfelt reassurances to the people whose lives she’s forever transformed.

Not everything works, of course. The social commentary is hopelessly shoehorned and the monster is about as derivative as they come – and you’re left, after the end credits have rolled, with a general sense of ‘meh’. Still, there’s a lot to like. With a pleasingly retro title sequence and refreshingly nonintrusive score, it’s a new direction I think I can get behind – along with a Doctor I’m prepared to follow, if only to see what she’ll do next.’

DWC write-up

The Ghost Monument

‘In the grand scheme of things, I suspect The Ghost Monument will be remembered in much the same way as The Bells of Saint JohnThe Lazarus Experiment, or Delta and the Bannermen. It is staggeringly average. There was nothing about it I loved; similarly, there was comparatively little I didn’t like, and certainly nothing that made me want to throw things at the TV. It jumps straight in: last week’s cliffhanger is resolved quite literally at the speed of light, the Doctor and her companions rescued from the vacuum of space faster than you can say ‘Bowl of petunias’ by two of this week’s guest stars. We have Epzo, hostile, treacherous and harbouring Freudian resentment since the day he fell out of a tree, and Angstrom – tortured, pragmatic, and conveniently lesbian.

It all looks very pretty, but it’s generally a bit of a misfire. There is needless shoehorning (including a pointless Call of Duty set piece) which may be crowd-pleasing but which only serves to undermine some of the very good character work going on, particularly with Graham and Yaz. Oh, and having Whittaker bring us up to speed by reading a scientist’s log book somewhat lessens the horror: it’s clear what they’re trying to do, but talking scarves really aren’t much of a threat, and besides, the sense of isolation was already done and dusted the moment the killer robots turned up.

It’s now apparent that Chibnall’s promise that these would be no series arc this year may have been a misdirection, as indicated by both the re-emergence of the Stenza and Whittaker’s apparent shock at being told about ‘the timeless child’, which may or may not have been the Doctor but probably is, in the same manner that Series 9’s Hybrid may or may not have been the Doctor but probably was. It’s too soon to know where we’re going with this, but it keeps the press hot and the fan theories bubbling, so everybody wins. There was a brief window when the comparative novelty of an overarching narrative was just about enough for the show to escape with its dignity intact: such an approach had worn out its welcome by the end of Series 5 and by the time the Doctor was stomping across Gallifrey in Hell Bent I was just about ready to throw in the towel and get on board that shuttle with Rassilon. Things may improve this year but there’s no point in sacrificing narrative for the sake of fulfilling a grand design, and if that’s really what’s about to happen again then the audience may be in for a long and tedious few weeks. Still, at least we’ve got the TARDIS back.’

DWC write-up

Rosa

‘It’s a curious thing, the butterfly effect. By and large, Doctor Who doesn’t do subtle, and even when it has a go they have to hit us over the head with the methodology. Still, it’s an effective way of doing things. A shift change here, a broken window there, and before anyone realises what’s happening years of progress are out of the window and segregation and institutional racism are alive and well in 2018.

We didn’t go there, quite, but you might be forgiven for finding the results a bit heavy handed. Has Doctor Who shifted once more into sledgehammer and nut territory? How else would you do it? There is no nice way to tell this story to its intended audience without talking about the way things are now, and no way to do so with the intended audience (kids) unless you are fairly transparent about it, and for all Malorie Blackman’s good intentions, while there are white people in charge, this is always going to come across as virtue signalling.

Was Rosa a stone that Doctor Who ought to have left unturned? Perhaps not. But make no mistake: it’s a throwback that is set to alienate a part of the fanbase as much for its style as for its content. This is as close to a straight historical as we’ve had in years, and that’s going to upset people. There are no monsters in the cupboard: merely an unpleasant man who could just as easily have stepped out of the house down the road as he could have warped in from the 49th Century. There is not a whiff of culture shock about Krasko and that makes him dangerously close to home – and it is this, I am convinced, that is likely to fuel much of the inevitable resentment that we’re seeing online from people who “aren’t racist, but”. The fact is, he’s much of a muchness: greater sins are committed by the people of Montgomery, and Krasko is bland and unrecognisable because he doesn’t need to be anything else. He’s not the villain. The villain is us, and all of us.’

DWC write-up

Arachnids in the UK

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

This was a great episode, until its last 10 minutes. It’s frightening – the spiders are convincing, and the build-up to their reveal is decently handled, thanks to Sallie Aprahamian’s competent (if not exactly imaginative) direction. The leads acquit themselves well – Graham’s soft-eyed sightings of Grace are among this week’s quieter highlights, and Whittaker excels at just about everything, whether it’s striding through hotel corridors or trying not to eat Hakim’s dodgy pakora. The supporting characters are (for a change) interesting and engaging; Tanya Fear, in particular, excels as a scientist who is there solely to provide scientific exposition, but doing so with such flair that for once all the technobabble is actually fun to watch.

The ending is another matter. I don’t know. I spoke last week about how this was to all intents and purposes a kid’s programme, and have written reams elsewhere explaining why this is and how we must accept it and move on – but I do wonder if kids are the audience for this. Was it really necessary to have Robertson brandish his dead bodyguard’s firearm with an evil cackle like some 1990s supervillain? Even if it was, did we really need him to monologue, while the Doctor glowers about mercy, wearing a ridiculous spray gun kit on her back like some Blue Peter Ghostbuster? We were fine last week, because that was a story that was actively about social justice, but in something clearly designed to be a horror narrative (aired three days before Halloween) it feels like Chibnall’s trying to win a bet or something. I’m not adhering for stylistic unity, but moments like this just don’t fit.

It’s appropriate, in its own way. The last time the Doctor dealt with spiders we had 20 minutes of Hinchcliffe-inspired jump scares, followed by 20 further minutes of tedious social commentary, along with the revelation that the moon was an egg. I’m not so cross about that, but I do object to them shoehorning an abortion debate into what was, until that moment, a satisfying and frightening story. Arachnids doesn’t suffer from quite the same structural issues, but its climax, in which a leering Robertson declares that guns are what will make America great again – within 24 hours, as I write this, of another mass shooting – is undoubtedly hot property, but something that frankly could have done with a bit less piety and a little more subtlety. That Robertson escapes unharmed (and without so much as a by-your-leave by any character except Graham) is a sure sign that we will be coming back to him later, and if we’re counting possible story arcs in a year that we’re not supposed to be having them, I make that four for four.

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

DWC write-up

The Tsuranga Conundrum

‘For its first 15 minutes, The Tsuranga Conundrum is a godawful mess. The leads totter and stumble around a gleaming spacecraft trying to make sense of things, motiveless and directionless, meeting characters with no apparent pizzazz and learning snippets of information about a war that sounds about as interesting as all the food pictures that clog my Instagram feed. Meanwhile Whittaker is lurching along the ship’s many corridors (specifically, the same corridor shot six times from different angles) hacking the systems and generally behaving like the know-it-all brats you often see in Holby City who think they run the hospital. It’s not a bad thing to have a Doctor who – suddenly deprived of her TARDIS and still recovering from a life-threatening injury – is driven, maniacal, and not a little selfish, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun to watch.

Thankfully once we get our first glimpse of the carnivorous Pting – gnawing its way through the ship’s hull and mechanical systems with the appetite (not to mention diet) of Ted Hughes’ Iron Man and the ferocity of Gnasher from the Beano – the crisis is in place and things start moving along. The Pting is small but deadly, with an insatiable appetite and no apparent motive for its path of destruction, so the Doctor sets about finding one while a conveniently situated war hero is tasked with flying the ship, even though it will probably kill her (and ultimately does). She’s assisted by an android who is by far the most interesting character this week, and it’s a shame that we don’t get time to plumb Ronan’s hidden depths – because if you’re doing a cute version of Alien, surely the robot’s going to turn out to be dodgy?

It collapses in yet another damp squib of a finale, the Pting flushed into space while Graham drops in a convenient plug for Call The Midwife – but all that said, there’s nothing really wrong with any of it. The monster-of-the-week gets less screen time than Baby Avocado, but clearly that set was an expensive build and they’d already spent enough money on the spiders. What happens in Tsuranga is nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking – but failing to set hearts alight is hardly a capital offence, and if we’re in a place where Doctor Who is only worth watching when it says something then we have officially moved into interesting times and I might have to find myself another show for my Sunday evenings. Ultimately this is innocuous, harmless filler material: a pleasant way to pass an hour, nothing more, nothing less. It seems almost churlish to complain about that.’

DWC write-up

* I had a look at Kasterborous.com this morning and it seems to have transitioned into one of those dreadful ‘news’ sites featuring articles in bad English that have either been written by someone who barely speaks it, or the result of a Babelfish hack job on existing copy. Still ascertaining which, although that could take me some time…

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