Roll up! Roll up! Get your reviews here! Nice and fresh, straight off the rack! Only the best, mind you. None of that speculative dross about ulterior motives or disguised identities. You won’t find no wild theories ‘ere, madam. Here at BoM we like to keep it simple. Classic and timeless, that’s my way of working. Got me this far. [Sighs, looks around messy office, rubs unkempt chin] However far that is.
Look. Writing episode reviews is just no fun anymore. Either you’re doing it to get paid, in which case you find yourself forced to skirt the company line – which usually means reining in your contempt in order to stay in the BBC’s good books (and, more importantly, on their preview list) – or you’re like me, and you’re not getting paid and no one reads it. It’s a single opinion in a fandom that has never been more opinionated or vocal. And never mind what you write: because your opinion doesn’t have the weight of an established publication behind it, it is generally assumed (although seldom acknowledged) that you are a failed writer and that your opinion is bupkis, unless you happen to write something that by some miracle of literary synergy happens to tie in with what other people happen to be thinking. And how can you do that, when their thoughts are so frequently muddled?
Take this evening. I find myself this moment – this very moment – engaged in conversation with a woman I’m going to refer to as Melissa, although this is not her real name. We’re talking about the Swarm, the mysterious partial-faced man who emerges from an interstellar prison early in the episode, looking a little like Arnold Vosloo in The Mummy and sounding rather like a spiky-faced Lord Voldemort. The Swarm clearly has a history with everyone’s second-favourite Time Lord, which is more interesting (just) than the fact he can apparently disintegrate people by touching them. “But who is he?!?” Melissa wants to know. “And how does he know the Doctor?”
“I would assume that’s the overarching mystery,” I tell her, to which Melissa replies “This episode ended with a lot of unanswered questions”.
“Well, yeah,” is my answer. “At the risk of mansplaining, that’s entirely deliberate. It’s a single story and we haven’t got a clue what’s going on yet.”
“I know. It’s gonna drive me nuts.”
Perhaps the biggest mystery here is why Melissa is watching Doctor Who in the first place, but I can’t help thinking I’m being rather snide even thinking this, and so I don’t tell her. I just nod politely and duck out of the conversation. The thing is, I have a degree of sympathy with Melissa, and others like her, because I’m relatively seasoned at this – and certainly not new to the idea of overarching mystery and multiple threads – and I’m still trying to get my head around what I just watched. Was it good? Was it smoke and mirrors? Was it all spectacle and no substance? Yes, yes, and yes. And also no. In that order.
‘The Halloween Apocalypse’ is what happens when you have a brainstorming session that lasts until about three minutes before script deadline, which gives you barely enough time to get a Starbucks refill before the script has to be on the producer’s desk. It’s got that panicked eleventh hour homework vibe that comes when something was seemingly written in an awful hurry because the inbox was filling up with reminder emails. Actually coming up with something that works is out of the question: instead, you turn in the ideas sheet and plonk a little bit of filler at the beginning and the end, a sort of introductory paragraph and half-baked conclusion. There’s even a sheepish post-it attached – in the form of a Tweet on the official account – reading “Will this do?”.
This is hyperbole, but you get the idea. The general feeling is that of being overwhelmed. From the very outset we’re torpedoed with characters and monsters and more locations than your average David Attenborough documentary, usually accompanied by large white text captions (oh, it’s the Arctic Circle? Great. That’d explain the snow). There are old enemies with new faces, appearing from the woodwork without explanation, and unfamiliar figures appear to be several chapters ahead of both the Doctor and everyone who’s watching. There is a bombardment of ideas and themes and expository dialogue, all wrapped up in technobabble that’s frequently hard to hear above Segun Akinola’s thudding score, although that might just be our TV. It’s like the bit in Cat In The Hat when the cat is balancing the contents of the house’s toy chest on his paws (along with a rake and a goldfish) while bouncing up and down on a ball, and we all know how that ended. Just before the final credits roll the universe blows up, and it’s almost a relief.
Thrown into this maelstrom is the saintly and unsuspecting Dan Lewis (John Bishop), who doesn’t like soup – although he’s right, no one does – and who is first seen leading a tour party through a Liverpool museum, just before he’s thrown out by a one-handed love interest. I don’t know if we were supposed to notice the arm. Something about the camera angle seemed to make it just a little more obvious than it needed to be. Perhaps I’m just jumpy about these things. Dan works in a food bank, although his own cupboards are empty – we are mercifully spared a ponderous lecture about poverty, although there’s presumably time for that in a future episode. Besides, he’s only been in his kitchen five minutes when a six-foot dog busts through the wall
and introduces himself as Barf and drops the unsuspecting Scouser into a booby-trapped cage, legging it halfway across the galaxy before you can say ‘down the banks’. Cue the Doctor and Yaz, who only succeed in shrinking his house.
It’s nice to see Yaz again. She’s almost experienced what we might call character development, having cultivated a snippy co-dependence on the Doctor, as well as a competent grasp of technology. I’m still not sure they spark, quite, but the early scenes in which they banter back and forth are at least an improvement on the stilted final moments of ‘Revolution of the Daleks’, although we don’t have long before the two of them are on an alien spacecraft unlocking doors and dodging lasers. As it turns out the supposed abduction wasn’t an abduction at all, but a rather heavy-handed rescue attempt. Earth – nay, the entire universe – is at risk from a cosmic obliteration that is wiping out stars and planets with all the ferocity of a drugged-up Thanos. We’re supposed to be horrified, but the team either didn’t know or didn’t care that Flux is another name for diarrhea. It’s difficult not to snigger when Karvanista describes it as “a hurricane, ripping through the structure of this universe”.
The problem isn’t that Chibnall can’t write. It’s that he can’t really write dialogue. There’s no real feel for the ebb and flow of a conversation, something Davies – for all his flaws – grasped very well. When Davros confronted the Tenth Doctor on board the Crucible, you could feel the electricity, even behind the ham. Chibnall has his lead antagonist stomp across a floodlit quarry towards a terrified soldier. “I waited,” he says, when she asks him what he’s been doing. “I planned. And now…I’m going to execute”, as if it were some ghastly payoff, instead of something you’d read in bad fan fiction. Elsewhere, Dan has an awkward encounter with a man on his doorstep clutching a beer can and a box of eggs. “You’re not even dressed up!” he exclaims, to which the visitor responds “Neither are you”. It simply doesn’t work. Moffat could be similarly pointless at times, but at least he was able to be funny about it.
And ultimately that’s how ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’ plays out: an explosion of ideas and concepts purposely designed to masquerade some absolutely terrible scriptwriting. And I don’t mean ‘terrible’ in terms of story structure; it’s clear that this is carrying on the Timeless Child arc, a narrative I didn’t personally object to, despite the fact that people have been arguing about it for a year and a half. Just as the Doctor isn’t afraid to use a mallet to fix the TARDIS, Chibnall isn’t afraid to use a sledgehammer to crack a gigantic misogynistic nut, and I don’t hold that against him, even if I’ve had to spend eighteen months explaining time and again that no, he didn’t screw with the continuity, the continuity has spent fifty-five years screwing with itself. Things are more interesting and less defined, and I like it that way. There is a long game being played out with these threads and characters and mini-stories, and while I don’t hold out much hope that the rest of Flux is going to tie them up the way the BBC have promised, a few loopholes never hurt anyone. They didn’t ruin Revenge of the Sith; they probably won’t ruin Doctor Who either.
But I can’t help thinking that we can do better than this – less clumsy, less prosaic, less…well, dull, for want of a better word. Can’t we have this story, but with a better, slightly more sophisticated use of Whittaker’s talent? Because this is a kid’s show, but that doesn’t mean it has to be clunky and obvious. We get enough of that on Nova Jones. Would it be too much to ask for the BBC’s flagship programme to display a little more panache? Take the long way round, spice up the banter, give the social commentary a little more window dressing? I’ve been saying for years that Doctor Who has always been basically rubbish, and that once you acknowledge this – even if you choose not to air such views publicly – then you enjoy it a lot more. I made my peace with that a long time ago. I just wish it didn’t have to be so transparently rubbish. If this is the bar they’ve set, then roll on armageddon.