Reviews

Review: Demons of the Punjab

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

(Jo Cox, MP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Tsuranga Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Arachnids in the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Rosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Ghost Monument

A little over four years ago, we saw the Doctor get pretty close to performing actual surgery. It happened when a group of military types decided to insert him into a Dalek. As written it sounds a little kinky (which was entirely deliberate on my part) – as it stands, there was miniaturisation technology, a cast of entirely forgettable military types and a bit where the Doctor appeared inside an eighties music video, as well as a seemingly abandoned plot strand involving the likely parentage of a soldier named Journey Blue.

If it seems strange that you’ve just been regaled with the plot for ‘Into The Dalek’ it’s largely because I basically had to remind myself. It’s the sort of episode that is so staggeringly average I can barely remember anything about it. My interest level for that week is a single flat line, like a close-up of a heart monitor in a medical drama. It was about as by-the-numbers as they come, with a couple of amusingly callous remarks from the (then) new Doctor the only thing that stands out in my memory. There was absolutely nothing that would make you want to experience it again; neither was there anything that made me want to throw things at the TV. It is the Whovian equivalent of Northampton: an inconsequential place you drive through in order to get to Sherwood Forest.

I’ve devoted two paragraphs to this because it strikes me that in years to come, ‘The Ghost Monument’ will be remembered in much the same way. In the tradition of ‘The Bells of Saint John’, ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ or ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ (insert your own), it is staggeringly average. 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’, as two ships jump out of hyperspace looking for a planet that’s no longer there. It’s been knocked out of orbit, leading to a crash landing that is arguably the only really memorable set piece in the entire story.

The planet itself is the final waypoint for an intergalactic space race – think Cannonball Run, without the jokes – hosted by none other than Art Malik, appearing like a Grand Vizier in a tent that, at least from the outside, looks rather like the one where Sylvester McCoy once fought clowns and gods. There is none of that here, of course: this is all about getting enough cash to escape from poverty and ethnic cleansing, and you can bet that somewhere in a ramshackle tenement slum on some dystopian colony there is a middle-aged couple watching the whole thing on TV. The race has been narrowed down to two final contestants: Epzo, hostile, treacherous and harbouring Freudian resentment since the day he fell out of a tree, and Angstrom – tortured, pragmatic and conveniently lesbian. Both would kill each other given the chance, but violence results in instant disqualification, so in this week’s morality play the two must learn to put aside their differences if they’re going to get out alive.

Only the Doctor smells a rat. If this was once a thriving planet, she reasons, then where are all the people? It’s not long before we find out, although having Whittaker read the confession from 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.

You know, there was a time when you could get away with a quick remark about firearms and then that would be the end of it, but ‘The Ghost Monument’ makes it clear that ship has sailed (and docked, and sailed again, and struck an iceberg). It’s not enough for the Doctor to snap “No firearms!” when Ryan suggests gunning down the robots: instead, the aversion to shooting things is contextualised with a ludicrous set piece, where the young fella shouts “CALL OF DUTY!” before displaying an uncanny level of precision while handling a gun he’s never seen before and has no idea how to use. (For the record, I have played several of the Call of Duty games, and whatever Ryan says, the only thing you really learn is that Activision wouldn’t know a decent story if it clonked them over the head with a rifle butt and then locked them in a Gulag.)

Look, I don’t mind the social commentary. And I know this is for kids. But I was watching it with several kids, and at least two of them thought it was ridiculous, particularly when the Doctor then clarifies her remarks by systematically frying all the robots with a conveniently placed EMP, not long before she then blows up several pieces of fabric with this week’s Chekov’s Gun, which happens to be cigar-shaped. The lesson we learn from all this is that mindless violence is fine as long as it doesn’t involve shooting anything, because that’s something the Doctor left behind in the eighties. This in itself isn’t a problem – the concept of absurd double standards has been going on for years, and it’s pointless to complain about it now – it’s just the heavy-handed approach that has the audience rolling its collective eyes. It’s for the kids, but kids are smart, and they know when they’re being patronised. Maybe we could have a monologue to camera next week?

It should come as no great surprise that the titular Monument turns out to be the TARDIS. Chibnall sensibly gets it out of the way at the beginning, and the scene in which the Doctor is eventually reunited with her craft is understated and genuinely touching, although the gag about redecorating – with its obvious punch line – is a misfire. Indeed, some of the best things about this week involve character, from Yaz’s frank conversation with Angstrom about her family to Graham’s tentative sparring with Ryan. Perhaps it’s an age thing, but Graham is swiftly becoming my favourite character this year, with Bradley Walsh throwing himself into the role of reluctant adventurer with dignity and aplomb: Graham hasn’t got a clue what’s going on most of the time but he’s always willing to have a go, and that makes him great fun to watch.

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 Tenza 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 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 shoehorning character development and 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 they’ve got the TARDIS back. Now can we please talk about something else?

 

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Video Review: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

I’ve been putting it off for years, but you’re only young once, right?

Well, unless you’re a Time Lord. Then it’s open season. This morning I met a woman in remission who said that learning the piano was on her bucket list. This is a completely different scenario and I actually don’t know why I even brought it up. But still: it seems silly to continually procrastinate when I now have more time on my hands than I’ve had since before Edward was born.

So today, to celebrate the launch of our newly designated brianofmorbius.com URL (paid for, and AD FREE) I’m launch a new feature: I’m going to do video reviews for Series 11. I will include links for these in the text version (the first one has been done for you) but I’ll also post them separately, simply because you’re more likely to find it.

It is early days so I ask you to please bear with me. I am new at this, just as I was once new at written reviews (which hopefully explains why the early ones were rubbish). It could probably do with a little less self-indulgence – some of the silliness from this week’s session has already landed on the cutting room floor, and I’m still playing with the format. I’ll get better.

In the meantime, here’s what we came up with for the series opener. I throw myself open to the mercy of the court.

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Review: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

“We don’t get aliens in Sheffield!”

In the middle of a bustling northern city, people are disappearing. There are lights where there shouldn’t be lights. A ruined kebab lies in the middle of a deserted street, surrounded by salad which was recently used as an offensive weapon. And a sparky woman who looks to be in her mid thirties is bustling about a train carriage in a suit that really shouldn’t fit her but somehow does, giving orders and occasionally screaming

Maybe it’s because I work in the media these days, but I can’t recall a time a series opener was surrounded by quite so much anticipation. It’s partly the way the entertainment press works, with three hundred word articles carefully shaped around quotes, speculative guesswork and social media reaction, but partly the fact that this feels, just for once, like something different. Doctor Who has always been about change, but this has been the closest thing we’ve had to an outright revolution since 2005, with just about everything changing at once. And while it’s fair to say that the show will always survive – in some form or another – and that the worst case scenario would be cancellation and then the 1990s playing on repeat, there is nonetheless a very real sense that the BBC are taking a big gamble this year, one that could either rejuvenate a tired franchise or kill it stone dead. And the biggest question on the lips of eighty per cent of the fandom this weekend was roughly the same: would the opening episode of series 11 live up to its colossal hype?

The answer, of course, is yes. And also no.

‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is a Schrodinger’s Doctor Who. It is both brilliant and dreadful, depending on whom you ask. Most of the people who were determined not to enjoy it will have hated it, or at least the parts they managed to watch before switching off the TV in disgust and voicing their discontent on the official Facebook page. Meanwhile, those who have treated the Thirteenth Doctor with the same sort of reverence religious fanatics typically reserve for the second coming (which, in a way, is exactly what’s going on) are shouting “TOLD YOU SO! TOLD YOU SO!” from the rooftops, which is coincidentally exactly what all the haters are shouting as well. As such, the truth (subjectively speaking) is a murky middle ground where this was at once a revelation and a distortion, a triumph and a disappointment, all things either good or ungood.

Before we move on, let’s get the elephant out of the TARDIS and back into his paddock. Whittaker is fine. If it takes her a while to warm up that’s typical post-regeneration, and by the time she announces both to a sneering extraterrestrial and the world in general that she’s the Doctor (from the top of a windswept crane, no less), we’re ready to believe her. There are few surprises. She plays the role in exactly the manner you might expect her to, based on the available trailer footage and the recently unveiled preview clip that no one watched when it was leaked, honest. There is an intense, Tennant-like quality to her manic gesticulations and babbling monologues: enthused and distracted and simultaneously comfortable around people in a way that Smith’s and Baker’s Doctors never were. Whittaker herself has deliberately not done her research (her performance is arguably the better for it), and any connections we make are simply going to fulfil the Eighth Doctor’s observation about seeing patterns that aren’t there – nonetheless it is Tennant’s Doctor that Whittaker seems to be channelling, and while she will undoubtedly make the role her own sooner or later it is the Tenth Doctor that currently provides our best frame of reference. It is deeply symbolic, in a way, that the first time we encounter her she has just fallen through a roof.

If the last series opener was a character piece, and ‘The Eleventh Hour’ was a stylistic overhaul dressed up in a rural, almost Pertwee-esque caper (‘The Daemons’ on steroids), this tries to deliver a gripping narrative as well as establishing a raft of new travellers, and doesn’t quite succeed. The plot – such as it is – concerns an alien warrior who has come to Earth in order to ascend the career ladder by picking off a randomly designated human; it’s a microcosmic Predator, in Sheffield. Said alien is dressed in one of Iron Man’s cast-offs and has the distinct advantage of being able to kill anyone he touches thanks to an extremely low body temperature. He has a hundred facial piercings, all made with human teeth, and has an unorthodox mode of transport, given that the first time we see him he’s emerging from a giant Hershey’s Kiss that’s sitting in the middle of a warehouse.

If I’m not exactly selling this to you it’s because the monster of the week, or at least this week, is perhaps the least engaging aspect of the story, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. It’s certainly not atypical when you view it in the context of the show: Prisoner Zero wasn’t much to look at either, at least until he turned into Olivia Coleman, and the Sycorax were mind-numbingly dull. So it is here: Tzim-Sha (or Tim Shaw, to quote the Doctor’s phonetic teasing) is the same old run-of-the-mill warrior type we’ve seen a hundred times before, a one-dimensional nonentity with few redeeming features and a face that quite literally sets your teeth on edge. A slight Machiavellian streak is about the only thing he’s got working in his favour, and it would have been interesting to find out exactly why this dark suited Goliath feels the urge to cheat in a competition where his physiology already gives him a strong tactical advantage. As it stands, Tzim-Sha’s underhand tactics merely provide a convenient wall for the Doctor to use when she’s bouncing off a few quips about morality.

 

Still. The absence of a memorable, or even interesting villain gives us room to concentrate on the characters, and it’s here that the new series shows its greatest promise. As much as I’ve come to defend the outgoing showrunner over the past year – having realised that ninety per cent of the hatred directed towards him, including my own, was simple jealousy – one thing that is still irritating about Moffat’s work is his tendency to use characters as production lines for jokes. This didn’t simply extend to special guests (sit down, Sally Sparrow, and have a Scooby Snack) but also series regulars. Clara was fun, sparky and usually fun to watch, but she also had a brain like a library, and this was before she started work as an English teacher. The same is true of Amy and to a lesser extent Bill, and while the doe-eyed hand-wringing got a bit much during the Davies years, it’s a blessed relief to find a rendering of Doctor Who that isn’t full of characters who sound like they ought to be in something by Tom Stoppard.

One thing that strikes you about ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is that up to a point it’s grounded in authenticity. Chibnall has spoken about the idea of family and in the opening story this idea manifests in a literal, semi-blended sense, with Bradley Walsh and Holby stalwart Sharon D. Clarke providing surrogate parenting roles for the bumbling-but-promising Ryan. Ryan is curious, sincere and can’t ride a bike, but inexplicably masters the controls of a building site crane in three minutes flat. Joining him is probationary police constable Yasmine, who is first seen resolving a parking dispute and who seems to spend half the episode behind the wheel of a car, which is what happens when you don’t have a working TARDIS. Walsh is great fun, as we knew he would be – Brian Williams in Grouch Mode, although there’s room for development. It’s a shame, really, that Clarke’s role is little more than a plot point: the adventurous, gung ho instinct that Graham will presumably inherit once he’s trailed round a few quarries, assimilated from a woman whose cards are marked from the moment she steps onscreen. It’s like ‘Face The Raven’ all over again, although at least this time there’s a story.

The episode may be full of real people doing real things but there is a tedious amount of fourth wall breaking. We were promised that gender wouldn’t be a factor, and to a great extent it isn’t – but we do get a couple of worthy-but-dull monologues from the Doctor about moving on. “Right now,” she laments,  “I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts.” The nods to fandom couldn’t have been more obvious if she’d been sitting in an interviewer’s armchair reading out Tweets. Not long after, having assembled her new sonic screwdriver in thirty seconds flat – courtesy of a hammer-and-tongs montage that couldn’t be more A-Team if you stuck Mike Post underneath it – Whittaker announces that she’s basically made a Swiss Army knife, only without the knife, because “Only idiots carry knives”.

Is this sort of thing any worse than Tennant’s aversion to guns, or the moralising we got during the Pertwee era? Perhaps it isn’t, and if anything the problem we have these days is that it’s far more likely to generate a headline or a meme, rather than being one of those lines you could simply roll your eyes at and conveniently forget. It’s appropriate that in a world suddenly and drastically aware of just how much waste it’s generating, a show like Doctor Who is no longer is allowed to be disposable trash: the days of file-and-forget are long gone. So perhaps it’s a little unfair to single out Chibnall for doing things that have been a part of the Who rhetoric since 1964: perhaps it’s the culture, more than anything, that deserves a second look.

Still, that can wait. There is much to like in here, even if it’s somehow less the sum of its parts. The new filters lend the show a grand, film-like quality that quite becomes it: Sheffield has seldom looked quite so impressive, even if we mostly see it at night. Likewise, incumbent composer Segun Akinola has learned the lesson Murray Gold never did – namely that less is more. Ambience soaks through the episode without ever overstating its point, and I can’t be the only one grateful that the stirring, overwritten melodic themes and piano-and-string driven moments of overwrought pathos are finally done and dusted, with Grace’s funeral and Ryan’s emotional YouTube monologue delivered in calm, dignified silence.

We end on a cliffhanger, although there are no cliffs in sight: merely the cold vacuum of space, with the Doctor and her new companions adrift, sans TARDIS and seemingly without hope. It’s rather like being in limbo, which is perhaps where Doctor Who has been for some time – and where it remains, even with this new approach. But that’s fine. We can wait. A slow burner is better than a disastrous beginning – that’s what we had with Capaldi, whose first episode is wobbly and uneven and only occasionally marvellous. Far better to warm up slowly than be graced with a work of brilliance that ultimately takes us nowhere. We’ve got ten weeks. Let’s enjoy the ride.

 

If you have time, check out this week’s video review.

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Review: Twice Upon A Time

Warning: contains spoilers.

This is, without doubt, the quietest regeneration story you’ll ever see. It begins and ends in the silence between gunshots. On the battlefields of war-torn France, two frightened, exhausted soldiers stare at each other down the barrel of a service revolver, locked in an awkward stalemate, a Mexican standoff that stems from a language problem. The bullet that will kill them both is never fired, because it is interrupted – as is the way of things – by a song that drifts on the air; a chorus of Silent Night, in the original German. Elsewhere, the cannons on another world are silenced by a reunion between two old foes that learned to get along. And the Doctor awaits his end in a frozen landscape – but it is a quiet end, soft and subdued, the way that snow renders things mute.

‘Twice Upon A Time’ is a story about consequences. The Doctor has faced down the Cybermen and paid the price; it’s appropriate that his younger self has reached the same stage in his journey, and thus it is here that we come in – up to a point. Nods to ‘The Tenth Planet’ are fleeting, the much-touted recasting of Ben and Polly reduced to a twenty-word exchange that is over in a matter of seconds and has no bearing on the plot other than to give the First Doctor an excuse to go outside, possibly for some time. Like every incarnation since 2005, the re-imagined First Doctor’s regenerating hand is seen to glow; it would be easy to complain about the retcon, but it serves as an appropriate visual shorthand, so perhaps we should turn a blind eye.

In a way, it’s going to be a disappointment. This is not a story in which the Twelfth Doctor weaves in and out of the scenery at the Antarctic base, endeavouring to hide from his younger self, like Marty McFly or Harry Potter or that episode of Red Dwarf where Lister steals his own kidneys. Nor is it the much-anticipated resolution of Capaldi’s very first appearance, a pair of ferocious eyebrows and the clank of a lever as the thirteen Doctors unite to save Gallifrey. The Hybrid – another plot strand that was never fully resolved – doesn’t even get a mention. Perhaps that’s something we’ll revisit further down the line. We can only hope it isn’t.

Instead, there is a tale about dying, and what happens afterwards. ‘The End Of Time’ gave us a Doctor refusing to face death; ‘Twice Upon A Time’ depicts a Doctor who is facing it with perhaps a little too readiness. Bill returns, seemingly from the afterlife, but the Doctor is mistrustful: is she all that she appears to be? The answer, of course, is yes – and also no, with this Bill comprising a composite of memories mapped onto a glass gestalt. We are given next to no information as to how this works: it is enough (or at least it ought to be enough) that it does, but there is commentary here about the nature of what is real and what isn’t, and whether we can really believe anything that anyone tells us about themselves, an analogy of constant, increasingly uncomfortable relevance in this most ambiguous of ages. “May you live in interesting times,” as the old Chinese curse goes, and the Twelfth Doctor’s concluding story, while not exactly high octane, is never less than interesting.

Having said all that, perhaps the most surprising thing about Moffat’s final episode is how little it surprises. It is no surprise at all to learn the Captain’s true identity; nor does the appearance of Clara raise any eyebrows, given that it occurs at a point in the narrative when we already know the host to be a shapeshifting intelligence capable of mimicking anyone it pleases. The moment this is finally explained to the Doctor, in the convivial hush of No Man’s Land not long after the football match, it becomes inevitable that Matt Lucas is waiting in the wings, brushing the crumbs from his duffle coat. Even the appearance of Rusty is foreshadowed by the head crabs that scour the ruins of Villengard; the resemblance to mutated Daleks is obvious, and the Doctor all but names them even before he climbs to the top of the tower.

The strange thing about the Rusty cameo is how pointless it seems. The Doctor’s requirement for a database that’s even bigger than the Matrix is tenuous at best: this is an excuse for a couple of explosions amidst a barrage of laser fire, something the episode otherwise lacks. It is, perhaps, a way for Moffat to revisit old stories he never quite resolved – something that Davies did with vigour back in 2009 – and indeed, the very presence of Villengard hearkens back twelve years to the chief writer’s very first tale for Nu Who. So too it provides an opportunity for us to see how much the Twelfth Doctor has changed; his trajectory from the manipulative apathy of ‘Into The Dalek’ to his plea for kindness in ‘The Doctor Falls’ (by way of the mid-life crisis that constitutes most of Series 9) is as wide ranging as character development gets, and if nothing else, a reappearance from the Good Dalek serves as a timely reminder of exactly how we got here.

Several things grate. The First Doctor was curmudgeonly and brusque, but no more bigoted than anyone else of his generation, or at least the generation he represented: it is not necessary to have quite so many nods to ‘casual chauvinism’, and while Capaldi does a good line in embarrassed outrage, it’s a joke that’s cracked at least five or six times more frequently than the episode needed. There are needless references to the notorious ‘smacked bottom’ scene from ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; teamed with more conversations about Bill’s sexuality, it feels like political point-scoring, an exercise in ticking the diversity box juxtaposed with a desperate plea from the writers and actors not to turn this into a big deal. We’ve been trying, honestly, but you keep giving us ammunition: it was a recurring theme during Series 10, and perhaps the requests for press restraint would have been better served if the stable door hadn’t been closed when the horse was already halfway to Guildford.

Bradley himself is a curiosity, a visitation wrapped in an evening suit. Practically the first thing he does is grab his lapels, but that’s where the resemblance stops. Bradley does not take it upon himself to try and be Hartnell portraying the Doctor, nor does it follow that he should. The man’s twenty years older. He doesn’t even fluff his lines, for pity’s sake. But a curious thing happens: it more or less works. Bradley was a good Hartnell, and a less effective Doctor-played-by-Hartnell, but unshackled from the confines of scripts and scenes we know all too well, and given room to breathe as opposed to simply mimic, the suspension of disbelief suddenly becomes that much easier to maintain. There is a certain poetic license in his performance – this is an older, less assured First Doctor, perhaps closer to the character we saw in ‘The Three Doctors’ than anything that appeared on TV during the 1960s – but if you squint, you can almost imagine that this ageing Yorkshireman could inhabit the role that Hartnell made his own.

It ends, as one might expect, in fire and torment and the mother of all monologues: one that is disappointing if only because we’ve heard so much of it before. Capaldi paces the TARDIS with similar restlessness to his manner at the end of ‘The Doctor Falls’ – raging, it seems, against the old girl herself, as if her mechanisms were somehow guiding his transformation. (It’s really not so much of a stretch, given that so many of them have happened on the console room floor.) There are jokes about pears. Meanwhile, the more astute among us will no doubt be wondering why the soldiers were singing in German when there was a TARDIS parked just up the road. Is it because of the religious content? Is this another nod to ‘Extremis’? Or do two TARDISes cancel out the translation effect? And why am I even bringing this up, unless it’s to pick up on social media trends?

Finally – in the moment we were denied at the press screening – Whittaker emerges, staring at her reflection with a look of wide-eyed amazement, like someone who’s experiencing every birthday and Christmas in one go. It’s obviously not a controlled regeneration – it never is – but it’s clearly hoped that we’re as enamoured of her appearance as she is herself, even if you half expect Amy to pop her head out from the bedroom and ask if she wished really, really hard. Within seconds, the new Doctor is failing to fly the TARDIS in the most spectacular manner possible, plummeting to what we assume is Earth in the sort of slow motion you normally reserve for Hollywood action movies, and we’ve already forgotten about Mark Gatiss – who, it must be pointed out (because I haven’t yet) was actually not too bad at all.

Still, there is something good about all this. There is something right about a tale that does not need to rely on visual spectacle or the fate of the universe to make its point. There is something good about a Doctor who has already died in battle, and who is living on borrowed time: two Doctors, if you like. Stories that occur in frozen moments (hello, Key 2 Time, have a celery stick) are a big part of spinoff lore; rarely do they translate to the small screen, but the fact that ‘Twice Upon A Time’ works when it really shouldn’t is largely down to the chief writer’s decision to turn the narrative into an elegy that is actively about that moment, rather than an excuse to tell an unrelated story. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of unabashed escapism – god knows that’s what we had in ‘Voyage of the Damned’ – but a protracted, reluctant farewell seems a better fit, even though it won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

But it’s more than that. There’s a sense of cautious joy here, a bittersweet lament for the things we leave behind coupled with a willingness to look forward with hope, even in the face of the unknown. It’s not a call for unity. This isn’t Brexit. It’s a request to understand each other. “Sometimes,” Moffat seems to be telling us, “things don’t go wrong. Some motivations are sound. Some purposes are good. Sometimes even if something is seemingly too good to be true, it still happens. Things change, and no one likes it. And yes, people die, but sometimes opposing sides can reach a fragile, uneasy peace.” And perhaps that, more than anything else, is the message we need to hear this Christmas.

This review originally appeared in The Doctor Who Companion.

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Doctor Who series 10: the executive summaries (part two)

Right, where were we?

(If you missed part one, it’s here.)

The Pyramid at the End of the World

‘If anything, The Pyramid at the End of the World suffers from Difficult Second Album Syndrome, or at least second act fatigue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, except to say that nothing very much happens. That’s something we’ve got used to this series, but that it’s suddenly a problem is less a hallmark of collective boredom and more the fact that a ponderous narrative like this does not sit well with the alien invasion badge the episode wears at its heart. This is the middle part of a trilogy, a fact that we’re never really allowed to forget.

The basic problem is structure. The sort of personal journey that forms the story’s emotional core works fine when you’re watching a character piece – as we did with, say, The Pilot – but it’s less successful when large chunks of the episode revolve around the Doctor travelling from one place to another, interacting with supporting characters who are presumably baffled as to why they’re having to contend with a cantankerous retired prog rock guitarist, and wondering when the real hero’s going to show up. Far from the dashing, tedious hero we’ve encountered, this is a man who tactically misjudges an elementary problem and is doomed as a result. That needn’t be a bad thing. Stories in which the Doctor blunders into a bad situation and makes it worse can be marvellous. Unfortunately, this week’s wasn’t one of them.’

DWC write-up

The Lie of the Land

‘Certain things about The Lie of the Land grated. The structure is off, somehow, as if this were a very good two-part story crammed into 42 minutes, because the Monks had taken up two episodes already and they couldn’t stretch to another. Its voiceover is cloying and unnecessary: it is, to all intents and purposes, the Blade Runner of Nu Who, and it is only in the final reel that its purpose becomes apparent, Bill’s mother becoming not just a convenient expository sounding board but also a crucial plot device. The whole thing is very Rings of Akhaten with the same wind machine they used in The Pilot but you can, at least, understand why we’ve had to put up with half an hour of interior monologue.

There is an awful lot of decent material this week, even if it isn’t always used as effectively as it might be. The opening montage, which openly parodies Forrest Gump, is nothing short of marvellous, particularly with the addition of Capaldi’s soothing voiceover, bookended by the most sinister of grins. Capaldi, indeed, is absolutely the best thing about this week, whether he’s comforting a suddenly remorseful Missy or – in the episode’s high point – explaining his apparent change of heart to an incredulous Bill with such fortitude that for a second you’re almost prepared to believe it. Unfortunately, it’s a that scene concludes with a mildly ridiculous denouement, and a quite unnecessary regeneration from the Doctor – “A bit much?” he quips, mostly through the fourth wall, and thus confirming that the whole thing was more about deceiving the audience than it was about winding up Bill.

But the voiceover isn’t the only thing that jars. The society Whithouse creates is frightening and oppressive and reasonably convincing, but there frankly isn’t enough of it: fascist police states are encapsulated in single, cliche-driven boot-in-the-door scenes (first they came for the communists, and I did not speak out), where non-conformists are dragged away in full view of disapproving neighbours. How much more might we have benefited from a more comprehensive overview of those who rejected the Monks’ programming? The resistance movement, and the laughing men behind the guns that served under the Doctor? The figureheads in charge, kowtowing to the will of the Monks, struggling to remember a time when they succeeded or failed purely on the whims of political ambition? Even the Monks themselves, who linger in the background this week, motives untapped, barely uttering a word? How much better, indeed, might the story have been had it begun with the planet under a state of siege, with flashbacks to key moments from the Pyramid episode and all the ephemeral dialogue from last week scattered to the ashes and replaced with something a little more substantial? We’ll never know, but it doesn’t stop me wondering.’

DWC write-up

The Empress of Mars

‘What to say about Empress? It’s not profound. It makes no real political point, save the kind of digs at the British Empire you typically see on Horrible Histories (a show in which Gatiss has appeared, along with his League of Gentlemen co-stars). It has a lot of stuff about queen and country, including a pleasing Pauline Collins reference. It has an amusing, if fairly derivative cold open – excuse pun – that is enough to draw your interest, even if it does not quite reach the hyperbolic praise that Moffat ascribes to it (“The best pre-titles idea [he’d] ever heard”, according to Doctor Who Magazine, which rather overstates its supposed brilliance). It has a bunch of gung-ho British soldiers speaking an indecipherable language (‘rhino’ is mentioned; I honestly don’t know whether this is colloquially accurate or whether Gatiss is just making this s**t up). And it has a new form of squareness gun: it literally folds people up in a sort of fatal compression, useful for packing suitcases. Gatiss describes this as “a new way of killing people”, suggesting that he’s never read The Twits.

Basically, it has ‘filler’ stamped all over it, but there is nothing wrong with a decent filler. Some episodes of Doctor Who are destined to set the world alight. Gatiss’ latest will not, but that’s not the end of the world. If its supporting characters could do with a little more depth, that’s a by-product of the 40 minute structure (and something which, when Chibnall comes to the table, could do with a serious rethink). The leads acquit themselves more than adequately, even if the Doctor has little to actually do this week except react. And it has Ice Warriors doing Ice Warrior-ish things, in a self-contained narrative that, while popping the odd seam in its bag of containment, manages to just about stay inside it. Profundity can wait: this is fun. Really, what more do you want on a Saturday evening?’

DWC write-up

The Eaters of Light

‘There is a scene about fifteen minutes into The Eaters of Light which is borderline painful to watch. It involves Bill in an excruciating, needless discussion about her sexuality, and it sticks out like a sore thumb because the rest of the episode is so good. Everything else just works. This is a self-contained narrative that is sure of its own identity. It is well-constructed and frightening when it needs to be, with decently-realised set pieces: it helps, also, that director Charles Palmer takes his visual cue from Nick Hurran – and, in particular, The God Complex – by showing us the monster only sparingly, a wriggling, tentacle thing where the gaps are filled by the limits of the human imagination.

Supporting characters are affable enough, but it’s the leads who excel – with the Doctor as compelling as he has been all year. “Are you sulking?” he says to Kar. “When you want to win a war, remember this: it’s not about you. Believe me, I know.” It is whispered and understated, with Capaldi’s native Scots perhaps even more pronounced than usual, the way that newly repatriated residents often find their accents slipping back towards the native when they go home. It’s a stunning scene, worthy of the best of Tennant, but you sense that of the newer actors only Capaldi could really have pulled it off. If this series doesn’t win him a BAFTA, there is no justice.’

DWC write-up

World Enough and Time

‘Some episodes of Doctor Who fall under an umbrella we might label Event Stories. A Good Man Goes To War (and its immediate follow-up) might be a decent example; The Wedding of River Song is another. Monsters and threats are all present and more or less correct, but the McGuffins serve the dramatic purpose of padding out the running time between the twists. Put simply, these stories are not about the story; they’re about traversing the arc. Event Stories are usually the ones that people remember, because they are the game changers – the ones that kill, that resurrect, that shine a torch onto the identity papers of heretofore mysterious, enigmatic guest stars.

World Enough and Time is a classic case of an Event Story. This is not an episode that you watch for the meat, because by and large there isn’t any. Oh, there are Things That Happen. Many of the Things That Happen will have the fans talking: one or two undoubtedly resulted in the collective dropping of jaws. Nonetheless, it is the moments, rather than the whole, that you carry with you. That’s not to do it a complete disservice: Bill is as good as ever, the hospital is appropriately creepy, and Rachel Talalay shows once more exactly why she’s one of the best directors in the business. John Simm is marvellous as the Fagin-like, heavily accented Mr Razor, and Missy’s “Doctor Who” exchange with Bill and Nardole takes an axe to the fourth wall and essentially summarises every conversation I’ve ever had on Facebook. It’s just a shame that that moments like these couldn’t have occurred within the confines of an actual story – instead of a collection of vignettes and moments, stitched together into a Frankensteinian whole, much like the shambling abominations that haunt the corridors of the Mondasian spacecraft.’

DWC write-up

The Doctor Falls

‘It just wasn’t very good, really, was it?

I mean I could lie about it, if you want. That might have been the easier solution. I’ve had calls for my head this week. “When the show is cancelled,” someone said, in the wake of a negative write-up I gave it, “the finger will point at this, fair and square”. Clearly he’s overestimated the clout held by a single entertainment journalist, although I did appreciate the compliment.

Here’s the basic issue: the Doctor is old and tired and gives up. That’s it in a nutshell. His plan to get rid of the Cybermen is to blow up as many as he can while a group of colonists escape in a lift. It’s an excuse to write him into a situation where he is forced to regenerate – and then stubbornly refuses to, using pain as a stimulus in much the same way that Rutger Hauer staves off his death towards the close of Blade Runner. That’s the sort of corner that will prove difficult to write yourself out of the next time it happens, although that’ll be Chibnall’s problem, which largely explains why Moffat did it.

The leads, to be fair, acquit themselves brilliantly. Mackie is all tortured angst and wall demolition (she will, at least, be useful if the Doctor ever needs a knock-through); Lucas improbably gets a love interest, but his farewell is pleasantly understated; Gomez and Simm work well together, whether they’re dancing or (literally) at each other’s throats. Simm, in particular, is a revelation, the Master we could have done with ten years ago, instead of the mugging (if well-matched) idiot who came up against Tennant – each Master reflects the Doctor they’re encountering, and this older, less ridiculous version is the perfect foil for Capaldi. Speaking of Capaldi, we are once more in BAFTA territory, with the actor switching between tearful pleading and raging against the dying of the light, often within the same reel.

But the real problem with The Doctor Falls – aside from its failure to live up to the generally tremendous series that preceded it – is that Moffat once more sacrifices story for crowd-pleasing spectacle, Bill’s tedious (and overwrought) resurrection a depressing reminder of Clara’s. This is ultimately about pushing the envelope as far as possible before abruptly dropping it in the shredder: all you end up with is a bunch of plain white confetti, of little use to anyone. “Doctor Who,” says the chief writer, “shouldn’t really be about death. I don’t believe it’s the kind of show that says there are bitter, twisted, nasty endings because it’s not.” Keep telling yourself that, Steven.’

DWC write-up

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Doctor Who series 10: the executive summaries (part one)

When I’m not blogging here (which seems to be most of the time these days), and when I’m not writing for Metro, you’ll often find me over at the hallowed halls of The Doctor Who Companion, churning out think pieces and gently poking fun at fan theory. We are a small but dedicated and also very eclectic team, and the great thing about the DWC is the sheer variety of stuff that’s on offer – we don’t just do news and reviews, there’s an awful lot of other content, and if you’re not reading it, you really should be.

But reviews are where we’ve been at for the past twelve weeks, because that’s what you do when there’s a series on. To keep things interesting, the site’s editors had a different person review each episode, and then asked for two-hundred word summaries from the rest of us, which they pasted into single documents, serving as composites of alternative views and opinions to sit alongside the main review for that week. And it occurred to me, as we reached the end of the run, that these little vignettes were actually as good a summary of how I’ve felt about particular episodes as anything else.

So I’m reproducing them here. And if you’ve been reading my series 10 reviews, you’ll probably recognise much of the text, because it’s usually lifted word for word. But I daresay there were at least some of you who simply scrolled to the end to look at the interest chart, right? And now you’ll never have to worry about what I said. So here are episodes one through six, each linked to its DWC communal write-up so you can see how my opinions compared with the rest of the team (if you want to read the stuff I published here, it’s available from the Reviews tag). I didn’t do one for ‘The Pilot’, having actually written the main review for that week, but I’ve cobbled something together, and episodes seven through twelve will follow in a day or two.

 

The Pilot

‘The best way to describe The Pilot is ‘grounded’. Because this is an episode that is anxious to root itself (to use Peter Capaldi’s own words) before you’re allowed to go anywhere. This is not a Doctor who turns up and comically integrates himself (or rather fails to) into a community, as we saw in The Caretaker or The Lodger. This is a Doctor who’s already been on the scene a long time, who cannot possibly be as young as he looks, and who is visibly offended when people fail to point this out. But there’s more to it than that: this is not another Snowmen, in which the arriving companion breaks the Time Lord out of a funk overnight. It takes time. The Doctor’s tenure may be well-established but it still takes a good few months (read: minutes) for his new companion to discover what’s really going on.

The episode’s success lies largely in the fact that it doesn’t try to do too much. The cast are a big help – Capaldi is comfortable and self-assured as the Doctor, and his support make the most of what they have – but the strength of The Pilot lies in its concept of space, in a strictly terrestrial sense. It introduces new characters and gives them breathing room – hence the Doctor and Bill are flung together not by impossible forces, but by a sense of mutual loneliness and the driving need to explore. By the time the Doctor has temporarily abandoned his plans to guard whatever it is he’s guarding in that vault and whisk Bill away to the stars (tellingly with a line that echoes Christopher Lloyd’s reckless abandonment of responsibility at the end of Back to the Future), it feels like an inevitability – and we cheer with her.’

DWC write-up

Smile

‘The last time Frank Cottrell-Boyce wrote for Doctor Who, he produced something that – for better or worse – was unlike almost anything that had preceded it. In Smile, the references come thick and fast: The Happiness Patrol-esque drive for shallow optimism; the Vardy’s childlike misunderstanding, echoing the nanogenes in The Doctor Dances, only with the appetite of the Vashta Nerada; the Seeds of Doom bit… I could go on. Had Cottrell-Boyce delivered 45 minutes of tropes and no substance, I’d be glowering, but there’s plenty of meat on the bone (which is more than you can say for many of the colonists). With the help of some thoughtful dialogue, and a narrative sparsity that mirrors the vast, almost minimalist surroundings, the episode’s real joy is the chemistry between its two leads, an ostensibly chalk and cheese pairing that is showing real promise. There’s nothing wrong with homage when it works, and Smile does.’

DWC write-up

Thin Ice

‘Perhaps the best thing about Thin Ice is the wink it makes at the audience. It is not a story that pretends to be grand or significant. It is a story in which the Doctor rewrites Dickens and gets all fanboyish over a con artist. It is a story in which an unreconstructed Nicholas Burns does the splits as the ground cracks beneath him. It is a story in which you wonder whether the thing in the Vault is actually John Simm, and whether the final ‘boom’ that accompanies the words ‘NEXT TIME’ is a simple sting for the episode 4 trailer or that crucial fourth knock.

But at its heart, it’s a story about the necessity of exploration: to scratch and forage, to find both the joys and the darkness therein, the frozen river serving as metaphor for Bill’s discovery of her mentor’s darker side. The path to enlightenment, it is implied, lies not in the certainty of tradition but the willingness to think sideways, whatever the risk. “Only idiots know the answers,” the Doctor insists, in the episode’s latter third. “But if your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s your future worth?” Ultimately, Thin Ice speaks to us of the dangers of venturing deeper – the perils that lurk in the darkness and the fear of the unknown – but also of the unexpected clarity that results when you come back up to the surface.’

DWC write-up

Knock Knock

‘The central problem with Knock Knock is that it simply isn’t very frightening. There’s nothing wrong with the set-up: six people in an overly large house with dodgy electrics and a seemingly inaccessible tower, presided over by a sinister, seemingly omnipresent figure with the ability to suddenly pop into existence as if from nowhere, like a podgy Q from Star Trek. The contract is signed with nary a second glance at the small print – if anything, Bartlett has written a morality fable for the EULA generation that emphasises the importance of reading the terms and conditions. Only Bill remains wary – but even she is keen to avoid discussing the obvious problems lurking in the house, clearly seeing it as a means of escape. The students’ nonchalance is the sort of behaviour that usually has the audience screaming at the TV, but it’s very easy to do that when you’ve already heard the screams of the house’s first victim, and a seemingly blasé attitude is at least consistent with the jumping in feet first attitude that Doctor Who typically seems to espouse. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is – but how might we apply that logic to ‘the gateway to everything that ever was, or ever can be’?

What the episode needs is a little more of the scare factor that drips through in the much-improved second half, and a little less of the mundanity that punctuates the earlier scenes: conversations about Bill’s sexuality spring to mind, as does the rather tedious question of whether the Doctor is her father or grandfather. This was clearly an experiment, and while the list of gripes (the occasional fall-back on conventional horror tropes; the Doctor’s effective relegation to sidekick status; the Freudian thing) is plentiful: they don’t make for an experience that is unilaterally bad, just one that feels like a disappointment after the last three weeks. But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that the bubble has burst. If this is the first time in the series we’ve had call to say ‘Meh’, then that’s a sure-fire indication that on the whole, they’re getting it right.’

DWC write-up

Oxygen

‘Oxygen is one of those ‘worthy’ episodes. You know, the sort where everyone talks about the message. It happens a lot, and it’s a problem. It’s nice that people care about things, but the earnestness with which throwaway lines of dialogue and supposedly grand speeches are adopted as profile signatures and – just occasionally – life mantras is something that puzzles me immensely. It’s as if Doctor Who is no longer allowed to be important unless it means something. Robert Holmes showed you can be political, and thus this is something you ought to do at every conceivable opportunity, with episodes that say Important Things left on a pedestal, while the more superficial, disposable stories (sit down, Planet of the Dead, your chops and gravy are in the microwave) are critically lambasted for being disposable candy floss. There is bugger all social commentary in The Invasion; it’s Cybermen running around London. It is also tremendous fun. That really ought to be enough.

Thankfully, Oxygen has the fun factor in spades, whether it’s the Doctor effectively kidnapping Nardole in the opening scene, or the mesmerising, wordless spacewalk (when people say things like “You’re about to be exposed to the vacuum of space!” in Hollywood blockbusters it sounds corny as hell; Capaldi pulls it off); or the moment, just a short time later, when the Doctor abandons Bill in a corridor. It manages this despite a dearth of interesting supporting characters (indeed, the only one you notice is memorable precisely because he shouldn’t be) and a rather clumsy, overstated semi-cliffhanger. None of this matters when the rest of it is as good as it got this week. A triumph, from start to not-quite finish.’

DWC write-up

Extremis

‘I called this. I just want that noted for the record. I called it months ago and said that the idea of an unreliable Doctor – one who thought he was the Doctor, but wasn’t – was something the show hadn’t really done yet and that I wished it would. I know the overlap is all wrong, but I’m just going to leave that there. And yes, I know that you don’t have to be real to be the Doctor. But still.

Extremis is a story in which the dramatic climax is someone sending an email. On paper, it must have seemed ludicrous. In practice, it is stunningly effective: it is, like Let’s Kill Hitler, one of those stories where everything works because nothing works, full of crazy ideas and head-scratching nonsense. The action moves from the Vatican to the Pentagon to CERN for no reason other than it can, with a global conspiracy that is almost as needlessly elaborate as the Cyberman’s convoluted plot in The Wheel In Space. It is likely to be divisive. Some people will love it, others will hate it. On its own, it does not easily stand up: as part of a trilogy, history may judge it more kindly. Some will rail against its supposed cleverness; others (like me) will see this as an example of Moffat pushing things as far as he can, and perhaps not quite as far as he wanted (how more daring might it have been had we discovered that every previous episode, and not just this one, had been a simulation, and that it turned out that David Bradley was guarding the vault?). Some will cheer at the audacity of actually killing the Doctor; others will produce a Series 6 box set and cough gently. This is not one for the ‘generally good’ or ‘generally bad’ pile: it will tread the uneasy tightrope between the two, with fans and critics either side, anxious to give it a push one way or the other. In the grand scheme of things, it’s Marmite. But that’s OK. I happen to like Marmite.’

DWC write-up

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