Reviews

Review: Eve of the Daleks

We spent New Year’s Day in the Usk Valley. Emily’s family try and have a seasonal get-together every year, although last December, like most of the country, we were hunched over a Zoom window, watching out-of-sync Muppet films and screwing up our eyes to see what presents people were showing off. This year the meet was back on, and there was no backing out, so at half past six I turned off my phone and made a point of avoiding social media until we’d got home the next evening.

The upshot of this little slice of family life is that this is not going to be a straight review. I really don’t have the inclination or the energy to deal with people who tell me I’ve got it wrong. And that’s how it’ll go. Because I watched yesterday evening, thought “Yeah, that was all right” and then immediately hopped onto Twitter where I was categorically informed that no, it was not all right, it was a pile of horse shit. “I would rather sell my own family into slavery,” wrote one disgruntled Twitter user, “than watch that inexorable heap of bollocks again. We should burn down the BBC with Chris Chinballs still inside it.” I may be making that up. You decide.

Instead, this is a list of notes: things I spotted, things that jumped out, musings from the rest of the family. We haven’t done one of those in a while, although BuzzFeed does them all the time. It is my vain hope that this one will be faintly interesting, or at least a little less obvious than throwing in GIFs and the words “WOOO! THE COPS CAN’T HANDLE HER!” (something they did during their recent Matrix write-up). The eldest and I spent a weekend last October at a songwriter’s workshop hosted by Martyn Joseph; the key takeaway, at least for me, was “Don’t add to the noise”. So I’m trying very hard not to.

Here we go, then…

02:33 – I used to have that edition of Monopoly. I think everybody did, but ours was just as battered as the one Adjani Salmon has plonked on the table. My mother always used it as a prop in one of the stories she’d repeat ad nauseum, one that made her look both a little smug and also borderline anti-Semitic (which is ironic, given that we’re Jewish by birth). The only mystery bigger than why Nick is dropping it off at a lock-up at ten to midnight on New Year’s Eve is how Sarah could possibly think that cardigan could work. Seriously, it’s a disaster. It’s like being in a 1970s MFI showroom.

09:42 – The opening credits roll. “Oh,” says Emily. “That was a short one.”

The realisation that this is going to be Groundhog Day territory hits my family when the TARDIS crew show up in the basement, miraculously alive. Quoth Thomas: “Oh. It’s going to be one of those episodes, is it?”

As everyone else takes this in, I’m reflecting. The last time Doctor Who did a loop story, the loop itself was the big reveal. ‘Heaven Sent’ works precisely because we didn’t know, until not long before the end, what the Doctor had rediscovered and then forgotten over and over. It strikes me that the reaction of the fandom to new stories and Doctors is its own particularly toxic loop. I’m also musing on the prospect of this particular loop going on for four billion years. Neither thought is comforting.

14:09 – It’s official. I’ve Googled, and can find absolutely no reference to a product called ‘Beef N Beans’. Either they printed thousands of labels on these tins, or they’re so low-end market the internet doesn’t want to know. I’m not sure I want to know. Maybe it’s a dark web thing. That’s somehow more appealing than the prospect that Chibnall made this up in his own head.

15:58 – Dan is arguing with the Dalek. Emily shouts “God! Where’s he been the last few years? Why doesn’t he watch Doctor Who?”

She is shifting a little bit in the armchair to get comfortable. I think the sling is chafing. Emily is wearing a sling because she fell over at Warwick Castle three days before Christmas. It’s her left arm, and it’s only a hairline fracture, so it could have been worse, but she’s in perpetual discomfort. I think she might have been put off ice skating. I tell her that the average age of people with skating limb fractures is 33, so she’s in good company.

“Sorry to hear about your fall,” said her mother, when she found out – to which Emily replied “It wasn’t a fall, IT WAS A SPORTING INJURY!”

16:30 – This time around, the clock reads 23:53. “Ah! Look at that,” I say.

“What?” says Daniel.

“When they restarted before, it was eight minutes to midnight. Now it’s only seven. I think the loops are going to get progressively shorter.”

Sure enough, Whittaker soon confirms this, everyone is faintly impressed at my insight and I nod and smile and don’t let on that I read it in Den of Geek several days ago.

21:09 – I have to say, Aisling Bea is killing this episode. I’ve never been so invested in a supporting character. I want her to come out of this intact. I don’t care about Nick, who is nice enough in a vaguely stalkerish sense but could probably make a heroic sacrifice at the end of the story in order to save everyone else. That would be very Doctor Who. But Sarah is wonderful. I want her in the TARDIS, complaining about the lack of seating in the console room and bombarding Cybermen with sarcastic banter until their heads explode.

34:56 – How many deaths is that? Three? Four? This is basically Chibnall doing a Shatner, isn’t it? Because in Generations, Kirk got to die twice, and then die again in The Return, and then come back to gallivant around the universe with Spock in the fanwank trilogy they threw out in the late 1990s. We’ve seen the Doctor get shot by Daleks before, but it’s never been fatal before now: if a thing is worth doing, it seems, it is worth doing multiple times.

As a side note, it’s curious how the Daleks have a brilliant aim when a target is still but are absolutely shit when someone’s on the move. Don’t they have tracking of some sort?

40:47 – Oh God. The Doctor’s doing her big speech. I can feel the rest of the family inwardly cringing. The problem with moments like this is that Chibnall can’t write them and Whittaker can’t deliver them. She’s a perfectly good actress and a good Doctor, and I like her a lot, but she can’t pull this off simply because the confines of the character she’s created don’t allow for it. It’s like watching an awkward supply teacher reading out a task description left by a far more capable teacher. Please don’t use the word ‘humans’, Jodie. Please don’t – ah, shit.

44:30 – A tear rolls down Mandip Gill’s cheek as John Bishop points out the thing that everyone else has already figured out. We kind of saw this coming but I imagine all the people who shipped her and the Doctor are feeling somewhat vindicated. Apparently they dropped in that term during an interview with Jodie Whittaker recently and she had to admit she didn’t know what it means. I didn’t either. I only put it in here so it’ll show up in the search results.

50:03 – I read on the internet, after the fact, that people were bothered by the ‘fact’ that Dan and Nick get to do the heroic self-sacrifice thing this week while the women stand around being selfish and / or useless. Is that what was happening? Because I honestly don’t know how I feel about that reading, and get the feeling that as a man I probably have an unconscious bias, so I’m not sure I should weigh in. I’d be interested in what female viewers think.

55:00 – This is almost done and we have yet to see the mysterious cameo they mentioned. Somehow I’m wondering whether the elusive Jeff will turn out to be Jeff from ‘The Eleventh Hour’. That’d be a random thing to do. No, wait, there’s a guy filming the fireworks on his mobile. He’s – hang on, who is that? Is that the chap from ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’? The one on the crane who was being targeted because Tim Shaw drew his name out of a hat? And what was his name, anyway? I squint during the credits and find out it was Karl, which I’d completely forgotten. I’d say it’s nice to see him, except there seems to be absolutely no reason for him to be here except to generate a bit of SEO interest. Which is a cynical outlook, but I don’t think I’m wrong.

55:15 – The TARDIS has had a refit! It’s…I literally can’t tell the difference.

57:50 – And we’re done. Nick and Sarah cop off in a taxi while the TARDIS flies overhead. The credits roll and then there are pirates, and oh look, it’s the Sea Devils. Well, there’s a bit of excitement. Although we really need Jon Pertwee, opening his eyes wide and muttering about galactic yo-yos. That wouldn’t have been a bad way to finish.

Still. It strikes me that we’ve just watched a compromise episode, on just about all fronts. When you’re filming in a pandemic, there need to be concessions, and for a one-set, one-gimmick self-contained oddity this one just about clung together. It felt like they could have done more with the story, but perhaps as a bit of lighthearted silliness, it wasn’t quite the trainwreck it could have been. Plus the Jodie-haters got to see her blasted multiple times, and her supporters got to see her cheat death. Just this once, Rose, everybody wins.

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Review: Flux Part Six – The Vanquishers

My family and I are big fans of The Goes Wrong Show. A TV spinoff from long-running West End hit The Play That Goes Wrong, each week sees the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society tackle a new work, ‘live’ on the Beeb, only to be hindered by missized sets, exploding props and actors who don’t seem to understand the concept of stage directions. It’s rip-roaring family entertainment, ridiculous and physics-defying and occasionally very touching, but it’s the opening episode of series 2 I wanted to discuss: tired of the group’s continual failings, the bombastic Robert (Matt Berry meets Brian Blessed) stages a successful coup and then directs a period drama called ‘Summer Once Again’, insisting on perfection throughout. When the opening scene inevitably falls apart, Robert stops the action and asks for a reset: this happens over and over and by the time we actually finish it, most of the show’s running time has already elapsed and the actors have no choice but to frantically hurry through the rest of the play. Scenery flies in and out in an instant, dialogue is rushed or omitted entirely, and seasons change in a flurry of falling leaves and fake snow until the curtain falls on the breathless and deeply unhappy troupe.

The last time we saw the Doctor, things didn’t look good – but sometimes, particularly when your back’s against the wall, you have to cut a corner or two. ‘The Vanquishers’ has a lot of loose ends to tie up, and it manages by cheating, as well as a certain amount of economisation. After an abrupt and somewhat disappointing conclusion to last week’s cliffhanger (the Doctor evades certain death at the hands of Swarm by diving out of the way), we’re back at invasion central: Yaz and Dan and Jericho are cornered by marauding Sontarans, Kate Stewart’s left UNIT in the hands of the Grand Serpent and the Doomsday Clock has ticked another second closer to the heat death of the universe. So much to resolve, and so little time.

The only solution to such a conundrum, of course, would be if the Doctor could be in three places at once. And this week, for the express purposes of plot, that’s exactly where she is: split assunder between three different locales, phasing in and out as per the story’s needs, usually at the most inconvenient of moments. It plays rather like the Star Trek: TNG finale, ‘All Good Things…’, in which Picard has to navigate both his past and (imagined) future in order to deal with a spatial anomaly and get Q off his back. So while Doctor the first is gallivanting round a Sontaran base with Karvanista and Bel, Doctor the second is reunited with Yaz and Dan, where they deal with the threat of alien invasion and the imminent destruction of the universe by bribing a Sontaran with chocolate. It’s quite as ridiculous as it sounds: there is no reason for its presence other than the fact that it’s funny (to varying degrees; Moffat really handled this stuff rather better) and the sight of a wide-eyed Dan Starkey goggling over a bar of Dairy Milk is destined to be memed to death, which was presumably exactly what Chibnall wanted. There are probably worse ways to be mark your place in Doctor Who’s history. If you’re going down, at least go down fighting.

Meanwhile, Doctor the third is stuck at Division Centre, with a disinterested Ood and a couple of psychopathic killers for company. At least we assume they’re psychopathic. To be honest my entire assessment of Swarm and Azure is built on assumptions. They’re merciless guardians of entropy from a period we glimpsed only in flashback and only when there were dozens of other stories going on at the same time. Chibnall gives us enough to join the dots – just – but at the risk of mixing metaphors, the picture that results isn’t so much a bucket and spade as it is a Rorschach inkblot, or the fuzzy scribble that hounded Rose in ‘Fear Her’. Oh, there’s an enjoyable conversation between Azure and the Doctor – Whittaker at her most intense, sparring with a smirking villainess who thinks that all life is futile and deserves to be snuffed out (as I recall Judge Death aspired to a similar philosophy, though he at least had more impressive teeth). But this is a meagre banquet, a scrap of development here and there, a sliver of empathy amidst the gloating. Both Azure and her brother retire from this mortal coil (disintegrated by the demigod they have supposedly resurrected) no further fleshed out than the bronzed skeletal bodies they’ve inhabited since episode one: all sneer, no substance. We don’t really know what they’re up to, or why, and we don’t particularly care either.

At least it looks pretty. You might accuse Doctor Who of being top heavy when it comes to CGI, but it seems churlish to complain when we’re being granted the spectacular vistas we’d arguably been denied during the scaled down stories we witnessed in series 11 and 12. Dalek fleets explode in dazzling panorama. Sontaran fleets loom over Rio de Janeiro and Paris (we know it’s Paris, of course, because you can see the bloody Eiffel Tower). And the Doctor wanders through a black and white flashback of her own childhood, as the mysterious floating house drifts in and out of existence with a wave of Swarm’s gloved hand – he and Azure providing the only pigmentation in an otherwise drab monochrome, like the girl in Schindler’s List, or the video for ‘Wonderwall’. Ironic, seeing as they themselves are so utterly bereft of colour.

The discussion we had last week – concerning past lives and forgotten history – becomes a McGuffin of sorts for the Doctor, or perhaps an obstacle. There simply isn’t time to actually delve that far, not when there are so many other plot strands to resolve. Tecteun is given only the most cursory of mentions; this has now become about stopping the Flux. Learning about the past, we are assured, is a distraction, and when the whole thing is dangled quite literally in front of the Doctor’s nose in the shape of a fob watch she wisely elects to hide it in the dimensionless depths of the TARDIS, safe from herself and future showrunners, “unless I really ask for it”. The implication, surely, is that we’re moving on, at the very least until New Year’s Day, although I suspect that fans will not let it rest that easy.

But while Swarm destroys and rebuilds the floating house, you can’t help but feel mildly disappointed that the Doctor never enters it. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mystery; nor are we necessarily done with this story arc, the question of what’s behind that rotting wooden door merely postponed, rather than shoved back into Pandora’s box right before it’s thrown into the sun. There’s no reason we couldn’t go back – all the same, having come this far, why couldn’t we have ventured a little farther? Seen the experiments in the cabinets; cast our eyes over a series of bizarre objects; glimpsed a dozen unknown figures who may or may not have been prior incarnations, like the screen in Morbius’s lab? (Question: is it Division? Or The Division? Because the definite article seems to have gone walkabout this year, and it’s not down the back of the sofa, because I’ve looked.)

Whittaker herself is affable and watchable, whether she’s giggling on a torture rack or flirting with herself (often in the same scene). Time and again she’s shown herself to be an expert at the frivolous remark – “What this ship really needs,” she mutters, faced with someone else she doesn’t know, “is lanyards” – but while she possesses Tennant’s facetious light-heartedness we don’t really delve much beyond that, save a couple of brooding remarks and (god save us) an actual tear during a final not-quite conversation with Yaz. There is none of the fire that lit her during ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ – it’s mostly down to the script, but you wish she’d reacted to the genocide of the Lupari with a little more emotion. Even a dual appearance as the personification of Time, dour-mouthed and serious and sporting a different coat, is largely wasted.

The companions have their own journeys this week: Dan’s takes him to the TARDIS (by way of the museum we saw him exploring in episode one); Vinder and Bel wander straight into each other’s arms, electing to wander the cosmos with Karvanista. It’s all a bit Guardians of the Galaxy, without the tree – although Bel still hasn’t had that baby, and it’s been in there for years, so who knows what she’s actually growing? As for Karvanista, the bushy sidekick is given the nearest thing we get to character development, angrily declaring his backstory with the Doctor off limits (reliving the memory, it turns out, will literally kill him) but giving us hints that the pair were closer than we’d realised. “There was a time I’d do anything for you,” he glowers from the neon haze of a Sontaran prison cell. “But you left me.”

It is Jericho who is granted a hero’s death, bowing out in a literal blaze of glory after proving rather too trigger-happy defending Claire from an oncoming Sontaran patrol. It was inevitable: Kevin McNally does a good line in indignant pomp, and you find yourself nodding and smiling as he introduces himself as ‘Scourge of Scoundrels’, before noting – just before he’s incinerated by the blast – that it would have been a brilliant title for his autobiography. My children were upset, but that’s all part of the fun. It’s not proper Doctor Who unless you lose a supporting character you actually like. (No, Adric doesn’t count.)

And yet it feels rushed. This, you sense, is what happens when you film an ambitious storyline in the height of a pandemic. There is enough material here to fill a series of ten episodes, possibly more if they stretched out the camerawork. Instead we’re plagued with enough jump cuts to make the cafe scene in Bohemian Rhapsody look like a Ken Loach film. I’m not asking for pages of dialogue. I’m just asking for the chance to pause for breath. Because when McNally died on that ship you really feel he ought to have had a little more time. When Bel and Vinder collapsed into that embrace, they needed another minute or two – enough time, at least, for Vinder to process the fact that he was going to be a father. And if the not-quite relationship between Dan and Diane deserved a little more closure than a bit of mumbling about restaurant bookings – or if nothing else a little more than a single wistful stare. Flux manages, at the very least, to give a decent send-off to the Grand Serpent, who is fittingly exiled (by Vinder and Kate) to an isolated rock in deep space, where he can have the rule of authority he always craved, in complete solitude. Be careful what you wish for.

There is a sense of frustration about it, because Flux feels like the series Chibnall always wanted to make: grandiose, world-changing and with a sense of finality, a set of water cooler moments to rival Tennant diving through the hatch of an open spacecraft, Eccleston’s defiant “I’m coming to get you,”, or Capaldi’s four billion year wall punch. Certainly there have been scenes and segments that we’ll be talking about for some time: the Angel freeze-up at the end of part four, the heist on Atropos, the literal destruction of the entire cosmos at the end of the first instalment. Even the Sontaran in the corner shop, although not every word said about it will be praiseworthy.

But it’s hard not to feel a little cheated, just as the programme itself cheats in order to (more or less) finish its narrative on time. There is nothing untoward about the bending of physics or the narrative trick used to get the Doctor back into the universe in order to save it, except that it feels rushed, hastily implemented, skirted around in order to Get The Story Done. And it is for this reason that ‘The Vanquishers’ epitomises, on many levels, everything that’s been both good and bad about this year. It’s fun and bold and often exciting; these are all good things, and to be treasured, because we don’t have enough good things these days. But it’s like wolfing a McDonalds on your way back to the train station – you feel like you’ve experienced something hot and mildly satisfying, but you can’t really tell what it was. There is a sense of things being unfinished, of time being wasted, of opportunity squandered. For all its good qualities, it is hard not to view Flux as a breakneck scramble for the finish line, an ensemble of confused players rushing through the final act before the credits roll, yanked up at speed with the same indecipherable intensity as the drama that preceded them.

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Review: Flux Part Five – Survivors of the Flux

I imagine there are a number of very disgruntled Doctor Who fans ranting and raving on social media at the moment. Not that this is in any way new. The internet is pockmarked with zits of anger and boils of rage – all directed at a show these people profess to love – and it is impossible to travel very far, wherever you happen to be going, without running into pustules of self-righteous indignation, seemingly desperate to be lanced or popped. Getting angry at Doctor Who is very fashionable. I should know; I’ve done it myself.

But this week’s anger is liable to take a specific form, and comes as we learn, more or less unambiguously, that two particular fan theories from the last couple of years have basically fallen at the wayside. The first (and by far most popular) is that the Master’s revelation halfway through ‘The Timeless Children’ was an outright falsehood. For a number of people (I’m not going to say ‘many’, because I suspect they’re probably just a particularly vocal minority) the prospect that Gallifrey’s public enemy number one was lying through his teeth was a far more appealing one than the likelihood that Chibnall genuinely wanted to see this through to the bitter end, even if it meant rewriting history. “The Master lies,” we’re told, over and over. “You can’t trust him”.

Well, no. You can’t. As far as unreliable narrators go, he’s up there with Keyser Soze. But…really? Is that something you’d honestly see Chibnall doing? Inserting new Doctors – including the first person of colour to land the role, if you don’t count Lenny Henry – only to turn round and say “Sorry, folks, this doesn’t count”? Or “We said there were loads of Doctors, but we were only pulling your leg”? Not only is it the sort of negligent trolling I don’t think even he’s capable of, it discards everything we’ve seen over the last three years; it also severely undermines the BBC’s (admirable) diversity agenda, and hence it isn’t the sort of trick he’s about to pull. I mean, Davies might. But that’s entirely up to him.

The other theory that has now failed to bear fruit is an expanded version of this: that Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor inhabits a parallel universe, and is most likely herself a parallel Doctor. Hence everything that’s happened over the past few years, from angry Ptings to mysterious to TARDISes buried near lighthouses, has been a series of adventures chronicled by another set of adventurers. You know, a different Doctor. Not ours. Not the real one. And thus the timeline may be restored without prejudice and everybody’s happy (and by ‘everybody’, I mean that small-but-vocal contingent I previously mentioned). Capaldi regenerates into someone else and series 11-13 were only a dream, an imagined memory, half-human on its mother’s side. Isn’t it brilliant when you can strike the stories you hate from the continuity?

But as we saw in ‘Survivors of The Flux’, the Doctor really is the Timeless Child, and this really is our universe – something that’s not just a passing observation but a major plot point. The moment comes at the midway point in what is essentially a fifty-minute infodump. After a visually striking (if pedestrian) opening scene where the Doctor walks through a field of Angels, she then spends the rest of the episode confined to a single room where a middle-aged woman dressed like a post-apocalyptic Amelia Earhart fiddles with a set of controls and sneers at her. There is an Ood in the corner, who is there for no reason other than the fact that Chibnall clearly wanted an Ood, and whose reasoning the Doctor is able to affect in thirty seconds flat. She gets it on side by explaining that the universe it’s about to blow up contains other Ood, and that killing them is murder. How the Ood was unable to reach this conclusion on its own is left unexplained, but we should probably be used to that by now.

That the mysterious woman turns out to be Tecteun, the Doctor’s long lost mother, turns out to be no great shock. Nor are we surprised when she tempts Whittaker with a set of restored memories, presumably detailing all the times she was stomping across the universe doing Division’s dirty work. Nor do we care when the Doctor turns the offer down flat. Even the cliffhanger, in which Swarm and Azure pop up out of nowhere just in time to disintegrate Tecteun out of existence, is something you could see coming a mile off. The net result of this is that a series of uninteresting twists are heaped together in an attempt to make the whole more than the sum of its parts, in which respect it fails miserably. This is a wobbly tower of nothingness: reveals are dumped on top of reveals until they cease to have any impact, a layer cake where every layer is jam.

It’s as if Chibnall sat down to write this week’s episode having woken up in a panic in the realisation that he had ninety-four minutes of screen time left and enough unexplained material to fill about six hours. The only answer is to dump it all into a single speech and leave the audience to fill in the gaps. Which I wouldn’t mind, had it been even slightly entertaining – but most of the exposition is as dry as a desert. “Colossal,” beams Tecteun when the Doctor asks about the extent of Division’s influence. “Across space and time, its influence is unparalleled. Its reach is unlimited. All from the shadows. It achieves its aim beyond our wildest dreams.” It reads like a BBC press release. Barbara Flynn does the best she can with the dog’s breakfast she’s given, but when your job is primarily to tell everyone what’s been going on, how much life can you really inject?

There were good things. Craig Parkinson oozes venom (quite literally) as the treacherous Prentis, a sliver of white in his hair and a snake living on his back. His rise to the top of UNIT might almost be Machiavellian were it not for the fact that we’ve seen him before, in a very different setting, and it is clear that this is probably the same man, either immortal or carrying a TARDIS (or a working vortex manipulator). He manages to off anyone who gets in his way, with the notable exception of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, who lights up the screen in what is the episode’s single best scene, before vanishing into the darkness as UNIT is defunded and her house is blown up. It’s all good fun until you realise that Chibnall’s effectively turned a Brexit gag into a significant plot point, but Jemma Redgrave is always fun to watch, so perhaps it’s churlish to complain.

Then there’s the companions, who mercifully have a bit more to do this week, having spent the last three years backpacking round the world in search of artifacts that might help them predict the year of the coming apocalypse (spoiler: it’s 2021); Around The World In Eighty Days with touches of Indiana Jones. They even get their own montage, hiking to Nepal (presumably Wales), red dotted lines charting their progress as the music swells in the background. All this is before they realise that what they were searching for was right under their noses the whole time, which really is a bit Wizard of Oz. Still, it’s nice to see more of Kevin McNally, who slides into the role of temporary sidekick with aplomb, sparking well with Bishop and Gill, whether he’s running from an obviously-placed stick of dynamite or shoving a corpse over the edge of a boat. The scene with the farquhar is likely to split the fandom. Personally, I was chuckling.

Four years ago Emily and I were watching series three of Twin Peaks. It was twenty-five years in coming and in retrospect I wonder whether the sense of anticipation led us to overlook some of its shortcomings. For every wonderful, crowd-pleasing moment (when Kyle MacLachlan looks to camera with a reassuring smile and declares “I am the FBI”, it’s difficult not to cheer) there are moments of unfulfilled promise: James Hurley’s half-visited storyline; the scenes with Ed and Norma and Nadine that basically come out of nowhere…it’s a mess. A god-awful glorious mess, but still a mess.

And the reason it works, despite being a mess, is that we’re dealing with pre-conceived characters we knew well. Lynch knew he’d told us all he really wanted to about these people, when we lived their lives and visited their homes in the early 1990s. All that remains is to drop in a coda (in the case of Audrey Horne, an interrupted cadenza). We don’t need to see any more of Ed and Norma, because we know their story and they deserve the happy ending they’re given. This isn’t the case with Flux, where Chibnall slingshots around a host of new and vaguely-connected characters in different times and places, offers the flimsiest of sketches and the barest character development the running time allows, and then ties them all together at the eleventh hour with string so old and frayed it could snap at any minute. There’s still at least one episode to go (possibly more, if he elects to draw this out into the specials) but it’s become apparent that this year’s Big Event is a story where plot is directing character, rather than the other way round: where they decided to wipe out the universe and stick in a bunch of half-formed people to see how it would affect them. Which is par for the course in Doctor Who, at least some of the time – but when it’s been hyped up so much, and when it’s all the new content we’re getting, you can’t help wishing they’d managed something a little more substantial.

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Review: Flux Part Four – Village of the Angels

Early June, 2007. Emily and I are coiled on the sofa, watching Carey Mulligan stumble through the cracked remains of an old building – “You live,” says Finlay Robertson, erroneously assuming that the mansion in which they’ve gathered is her permanent residence, “in Scooby Doo’s house”. There is a fizz of background noise on DVD, as a bespectacled man from a film shot forty years ago mutters a warning. In the shadows, statues lurk. Until you turn your back. Until you blink. And then…

Well, then you get to go back in time a few decades and live out the rest of your life in the village where you grew up, before meeting yourself as a young child. Which isn’t such a bad way to go, really. We could think of worse. Drowning, electrocution, live burial. Over-exposure to the theme from Barney. And this is why the Angels only really worked in one story, where the novelty was enough and where the stakes were raised by the Doctor’s warning about what would happen if they managed to get hold of a TARDIS. When all is said and done, that’s the extent of their appeal. Everything else – the neck-snapping in the wreck of the Byzantium, the makeshift factory farm at Winter Quay – is merely commentary.

Having actually got hold of a TARDIS in last week’s finale, the Angels elect not to switch off the sun (something the Tenth Doctor had feared), but instead dump the battered old police box in 1960s rural England so they can pick up a stray. Because it turns out that not all Angels are wrong ‘uns, if we can really say that any of them were. Some of them have tired of their work with the Division and have gone on the lam, where they can hide out on Earth, ensconced within the mind of a young woman who –

Sorry, wait a minute. Back up. Slowly. Stand clear; this vehicle is reversing. Say that again. They do what? Angels have jobs? With the Division? How does that even work? How do you arrange a performance review for a direct report when you can’t make eye contact with them? Is remote working an option given that every time you arrange a Zoom meeting they accidentally pop out of the monitor? What about salary? Do they zip back in time to deposit their pay packets into hundred-year-old accounts and then live off the compound interest? What happens at the Christmas party when it’s time to form the conga line? These are all serious questions, and I think we should be told.

But unanswered questions are par for the course this series. And there are loose ends a-plenty this week, and most of them concern the Doctor. In the sort of bait-and-switch that Chibnall has made one of his staples, she turns out to be the target the Angels were looking for all along, ending the story on the mother of all cliffhangers, frozen like a Medusa victim as Yaz and Dan look on helplessly from sixty-six years ago and twelve feet away. Quite why the Angels weren’t able to do this earlier in the story is anyone’s guess, but we may assume that it’s because the image of Jodie Whittaker turning to stone in a graveyard stuffed full of statues looks ridiculously cool, so perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it. And while it’ll be undone in a heartbeat, there is something captivating and utterly chilling about that final image. Bet B&M are lining up the figure rights as we speak.

‘Village of the Angels’ is the sort of haunted village horror story that 70s Who managed brilliantly, only with the pacing cranked up to eleven and the pathos at a big fat zero. I know we’re supposed to care about poor Peggy, who vanishes from the home of her irritable great-uncle and his long-suffering wife (played proficiently, if with a certain shallowness, by Vincent Brimble and Jemma Churchill), only to be discovered by a displaced Yaz and Dan wandering around Medderton in 1901. But it’s difficult to care too much when she radiates the same level of glacial calmness displayed by one of the Midwich children in Village of the Damned. There’s something freakish about her. She barely even breaks a sweat when her hapless great-uncle crumbles into rubble (I was going to say she barely even blinks, but let’s not go there). Instead she merely stares at the spectacle, and then notes “He was never kind to me”. We should have seen it coming: an earlier scene has her seated at the table in a seemingly abandoned farmhouse, chickens pecking at the butter and the gramophone still running, lit from behind in a serene halo, like a divine child. You might even say an angel.

Perhaps surprisingly for a base-under-siege tale, visual flair is a cornerstone of the episode’s construction, Robin Whenary’s cinematography working in a delicious tandem with Jamie Magnus Stone’s tight direction, emphasising angles and corners and the feeling of being under constant surveillance. The troubled Claire grows a pair of wings in a mirror, delicately foreshadowing the story’s finale, before facing off against the Doctor on the other side of a windswept beach (in quite unsuitable footwear), the sky a turbulent maelstrom. Closeups are abundant, and the stony denizens scream out of the darkness with a lustre and ferocity we haven’t seen in some time. It doesn’t all work: the Scribble Angel and Fire Angel are supposed to breathe new blood into old enemies, but there is a certain silliness about them, a gimmick that serves little purpose beyond a brief visual cue. Perhaps I was just thinking about ‘Fear Her’.

Still, the best scenes in ‘Village’ occur in that poorly-defended house, the doors rattling as unseen fists pound and blank-eyed faces loom at the window like a dozen extras from a Romero film. It’s terrific stuff, and it almost seems a shame when we have to leave it behind for 1901, in which Dan and Yaz have a bit of a wander and a chat and do not a lot else. Maxine Alderton managed to keep everyone busy during ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’, but she struggles here to find substantial roles for the Doctor’s companions, beyond having Yaz yell out “No!” at opportune moments, something Mandip Gill admittedly does rather well. Faring better is Thaddea Graham (Bel), saving the life of an ungrateful refugee on another decimated planet before hopping off into the stars, reappearing for a cannily placed credits scene. She’s tremendous fun to watch, and whatever the murky truth behind this inexplicably lengthy pregnancy, the romance between her and Vinder is genuinely touching, and you really do hope they manage to survive the universe’s implausibly lengthy destruction.

It’s wobbly and a bit uneven in places, but as a whole it works. For every magical reforming picture or jarring snatch of audio (Brimble’s scream when he is first zapped by the Angel is particularly unnecessary) there is a feast of dimly lit churchyards and frantic, elegantly composed set pieces. Guest performances, too, are largely sound – Kevin McNally and Annabel Scholey excel as stuffy academic and frightened woman out of time respectively – and there is a cohesiveness to the story that survives beyond the oddities; a mesh bag, crammed full of rocks, a few rough edges poking through the holes, but essentially intact. Chibnall’s run on Doctor Who hasn’t been without its problems, and the jury is still out on whether Flux is going to pan out as successfully as we’ve been promised – but this week he made the Angels scary again. That, in itself, is something of a triumph.

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Review: Flux Part Three – Once, Upon Time

I’ve just noticed something rather unfortunate. The problem with reviewing a series of single over-arching stories like this is that the reviews are rather difficult to title. You can’t do it without mentioning the ‘Flux’ thing, which leaves you with various syntax difficulties. I’m using a colon and an em dash as well as that strangely placed comma and I don’t really like it very much. And it came up in my thought process because this very week Rockstar Studios released Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, which is nigh-on impossible to say, let alone write down. There are far too many ‘the’s, for one thing. Oh, and as it turns out the GTA remaster was dreadful, largely because they mashed up the controls, ruined the Switch port, locked up the PC launcher, turned all the character models into Roblox knock-offs and took out the fog. Hence Metacritic’s average rating is (at time of writing) a whopping 0.6, which is both unprecedented and awkward.

I suspect that there were a lot of angry people on Twitter last night, both gamers and otherwise. For example, a fair few of us are trying to work out what on earth Chris Chibnall meant when he had one of his characters mutter “No one calls them video games” during the middle of a clumsy plug-that-wasn’t-a-plug-but-kind-of-was for The Edge Of Reality. Yeah, we do. I mean not all the time; ‘games’ is a perfectly appropriate shorthand. But if we’re talking to people who aren’t gamers (which does happen, honestly), we call them video games, just like we call him ‘the Doctor’ if we’re talking to people who watch the show, and ‘Doctor Who’ if we’re talking to people who don’t. Everyone does that, right? Right? I am right about this, aren’t I?

To be clear, I get that Yaz wasn’t playing The Edge of Reality. I also don’t think that having a Weeping Angel invade your video game like that could be seen as anything other than a nod, given the timing. Even if it wasn’t (and it almost certainly wasn’t). This is the problem when you immerse yourself too deeply in Doctor Who lore; you start seeing the patterns everywhere. For example, why does Vintner’s love interest (you know, the one who isn’t Yaz) talk about him ‘looking different’ when she’s chatting to her Tamagotchi-that’s-actually-a-foetus? Why else, unless he’s got some kind of regenerative ability? Which would presumably make him the Doctor’s father, of course. Or he isn’t and it’s simply another ridiculous fan theory, the way that people misinterpreted Dan’s “Had a mate with one of these” from episode one and turned it from a simple joke into obvious foreshadowing for a prior encounter that he’s keeping very secret, in all likelihood from the rest of us. Which is…oh, I don’t know, minimally plausible, even though it suggests to me that most of these people simply don’t understand British humour, or indeed humour full stop.

In fairness, we did find out this evening that Dan’s hung around with the Doctor before. It’s just he was a dog. And of course it’s not really him at all; there’s a projection thing going on. The Doctor figures this out just after she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror that makes her look several thousand years younger, and perhaps a little taller. She’s in the middle of a ramraid on the planet Time, which is one of the Division’s illicit projects, and one that temporal terrorist Swarm is in the process of exposing. It leads to a standoff in which Jodie Whittaker is reading out the Fugitive Doctor’s lines in her own voice, which basically means she cranks up the intensity just a notch and shifts her body language. It does, at least, put paid to the season 6b theory, more or less. Probably less.

Still, it’s nice to see Jo Martin back for another stint – even though we mostly get snatches of her, the camera cross-fading between her and Whittaker like a crap version of Keanu Reeves’ scramble suit in A Scanner Darkly. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) the impact is lessened by the fact that the mirror scene occurs in the midst of a giddying series of time-jumping fragments, as characters dip in and out of conversations they haven’t had yet or might never have, experiencing memories of each other and stories that some of them would rather forget. Yaz gets bored in a patrol car and smashes a Nintendo Switch (these are two separate events, just in case you’re worried about where your tax money is going). Dan has a coffee with his not-quite girlfriend, reminiscing moodily about getting dumped. And Vinder is exploring a murky past and a disastrous career move when he stuck to his principles and tried to expose – we presume unsuccessfully – the slippery Grand Serpent (Line of Duty alumnus Craig Parkinson, as corrupt in an interstellar penthouse as he was in AC-12). As for the Doctor, she’s darting around between timelines, swapping identities at random and trying desperately to get the gang back together before the universe implodes around her.

You will have gathered, even if you haven’t looked at the Twitter feeds, that this is love-it-or-hate-it TV. There are compelling arguments for both. It’s nonsensical from the get-go. That’s what happens if you tease out a largely metaphysical cliffhanger resolution for an episode’s entire runtime (bar a couple of frustrating minutes at the end when Vinder lands on his home planet, which looks like Constantinople after it’s been sacked, and the only emotional reaction he can muster is a slight pout – the sort you’d do when Greggs has run out of cheese and onion bakes). This is a story that isn’t a story, framed by the meandering poetic voiceovers from a woman who spends most of her time giggling at emojis. The exploits of Bel (Thaddea Graham) may be a distraction from the main narrative, such as it is, but at least she’s fun to watch, when she’s not pushing buttons on that wretched screen.

Still, you wonder. What would Moffat have made of this? Because that’s clearly the line that Flux is taking: the multi-stranded time-hopping magnum opus that the previous showrunner knocked off almost effortlessly. It’s all there, more or less – the characters with hidden backstories, the revisited scenes that shed new light on old moments, the connections that don’t become apparent until the final reel. The Doctor floats in a vortex with three white gods and then has a conversation with someone who may or may not be a Guardian. A few minutes later we’re watching a full-fledged TARDIS invasion. Moffat, you sense, would have been a little more restrained, a little more structured, and I’d probably have been bored. Chibnall knows his number is up, and wants to go out with a bang. You can almost picture him in the BBC bar, knocking back a few drinks with Matt Strevens. “I know it’s all over the place,” he says. “And people will probably hate it. But hey, at least they’ll remember it.”

I’ll tell you why I’m thinking about Moffat. There’s a scene halfway through where Bel is fighting off Cybermen. “Love is not a mission,” says the last one as it lies motionless on the floor, having asked Bel what she’s doing in this neck of the woods. “Love is an emotion. Emotions are not missions.” Bel barely skips a beat before she puts another blast through his cranium, noting “Love is the only mission, idiot”. It’s utter garbage, and it’s exactly the sort of utter garbage Moffat would have written had he still been in charge. We ignore revelations like this at our peril: people rail against Chibnall’s dialogue, and with some justification, but let’s not forget where we were and, more importantly, what it was actually like. Doctor Who fans spend most of their waking hours looking back at the hill they just climbed or peering at the one that’s just over the horizon, and it is always assumed that the hill they’re currently occupying is the most arduous of the lot. Never does it occur to them that it’s all a matter of perspective.

And it is perhaps for this reason, more than any other, that I adored last night’s installment. Because it was all over the place. You couldn’t work out what was real and what wasn’t. We jumped in and out of Liverpool and in and out of time in a whirlwind of cameos and flashbacks and flash-forwards and confused half-explanations. Daleks – awful CGI Daleks – swum into view in a scene that practically screamed “Contractual obligation” (and yes, I know that’s a myth, but really, that’s the sort of cameo that gives the myth its potency). Characters and motivations vanished up the creek faster than a spinach-infused Popeye off to rescue his girlfriend. It was audacious. It was ridiculous. It didn’t make sense. And I enjoyed every mad second of it. Sometimes, madness makes for TV gold. It’s not a hard and fast rule (see ‘It Takes You Away’), but some of the best Doctor Who stories are the ones that are thinking outside the box. On that basis alone, ‘Once Upon Time’ is an outrageous masterpiece – preposterous and absurd, but captivating from slow-motion teaser to high-octane conclusion. Bravo, we say, sir. Bravo.

Now: if you’ll excuse me, I really fancy a Marmite sandwich.

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Review: Flux Part Two – War of the Sontarans

Smoke rises over a blood-soaked battlefield. Corpses lie scattered near spilled bayonets and broken guns, bereft of both life and dignity, gaping wounds mixed with mud and rain. Somewhere, a crow caws its lament for the dead. A lone rider emerges from the distance. The helmet is removed. It’s a Sontaran, the one we saw in the trailer last week in an episode we knew was already titled ‘War of the Sontarans’. So much for the big reveal.

Perhaps I shouldn’t grumble. One of the best cliffhangers of early seventies Who (yes, even better than the faceless policemen or the PATTERNED FLOOR OF DEATH) was Pertwee’s exclamation of “Daleks!” when the soldiers he met in the jungle spray-painted an invisible enemy into existence; the effect was marred somewhat by the fact that this occurred at the end of episode one of ‘Planet of the Daleks’. Although was the Dalek itself the reveal? Or was it the fact that they can turn invisible now, the sort of shock factor that predates ‘Remembrance’ by some fifteen years? And does it really matter anyway?

We could argue about this all evening. What is at least fairly obvious is that the Sontarans have had a bit of a refit. They’re still battle-hungry, they’re still a clone race (more on that in a moment), they’re presumably still at war with the Rutans and they still haven’t worked out a solution for that awkward Achilles’ heel (well, all right, neck). But the design has undergone a few changes. They’re a little taller, grubbier, wrinklier – age, as we saw last week, is a factor – and if the potato gags are still coming thick and fast on the internet, the potatoes themselves appear to be going off.

“Hey!” says Emily, watching from the armchair while I scribble notes. “That’s how you’d look if you shaved your head!”

The Sontarans are in the Crimea – where the Doctor’s just landed, in the company of Dan and Yaz – but we’ve barely recovered from the opening credits before the companions are zipped into the future, leaving the Doctor to tackle the alien menace on her own. Well, not quite. She’s joined this week by nurse Mary Seacole (a gaily frocked Sara Powell), who patches the wounds of both English and ‘foreign’ soldiers, and who keeps a Sontaran chained up in the back like a rabid dog, or perhaps the subject of some strange fetish. Well, it’s a long way from home.

Leading the fight is General Logan (Casualty’s Gerald Kyd), a man almost as well-defined as a rain-smeared street painting, and about as two-dimensional – and who sadly has nothing much to do except refuse the Doctor’s help, look deeply disappointed when his troops are mown down by Sontaran lasers and then undo a theoretically peaceful conclusion with the sort of dirty trick that would impress even Harriet Jones. It’s all done with patronising guff about knowing your place and the same awkwardness that pervades most of Chibnall’s encounters with faceless pillars of authority: they’re around to advance the plot, and nothing more. There is no sense of who this man is, where he comes from or why he’s making the decisions he has – guilt, we’re told, is the only rationale that fits, but it would have been nice to get a few notes about motivation, however brief. Instead there’s a lot of sneering, a bit of a rumble on the battlefield and then an enormous explosion, before Whittaker stomps off to her doorless TARDIS in a sulk. Powell, on the other hand, looks to be having a whale of a time – her backstory may be reduced to a brief paragraph of hurried exposition, but she throws everything into the role, whether it’s scribbling notes at the edge of a Sontaran encampment or listening to the Doctor’s plan with the rapt attention of a brown-nosing schoolgirl. “Hello dear!” she says to Dan over a monitor screen, two centuries in the future. “I don’t understand any of this.”

While all this is going on, Yaz is stuck on the planet Time, which is a silly name for a planet (“And yet,” notes the Big Bad, “here we are”). Time itself is bleeding out of the temple – a mysterious and unduly beige facility landing somewhere between a quasi-Lovecraftian TARDIS knock-up and one of the sets from Dune, guarded by robed avatars who keep phasing in and out of existence with varying degrees of intensity, according to how much the universe is currently falling apart. Yaz isn’t there long before she runs into Vinder, the outpost commander who narrowly avoided being blown into smithereens last week, and whose enigmatic CV has now been embellished with the single addition of ‘Disgraced’. There’s a whiff of chemistry between the two of them, which means he won’t make it past episode six. Come the finale, they’re part of the circle, as the gloating Swarm parades the room with the swagger of a Marvel supervillain, flanked by the rest of his gang. We still don’t know who he is, and to be honest it’s kind of difficult to really care.

For all that, there’s an impulsive silliness about this episode that actually works quite well. It’s largely thanks to Dan, who jumps straight into the messy job of saving the entire planet with a gusto that’s borderline alarming. He cracks the three fingers thing immediately, and barely even flinches when watching the execution of three unnamed intruders to the Sontarans’ dockland headquarters. Even when reunited with Karvanista, he takes every revelation in his stride with the air of a man who’s been doing this for years, presumably because Chibnall wanted him this way. Either Yaz’s sudden competence is contagious, or this is poorly-written foreshadowing for some fob watch twist. Also, I know it’s dark and the Sontarans are probably tired, but why is it they’re able to mow down an entire platoon of advancing British soldiers from the other side of a foggy marsh, but they can’t hit an unarmed Scouser from ten feet away? It’s like a scene from Star Wars, and at least that had a more interesting score.

But I wonder if perhaps it’s better this way. If perhaps we’re better off with silly: if grandiose and overblown and ridiculous is a lesser evil, an acceptable substitute for worthy-and-dull. And with that in mind, I leave you with this personal highlight: the sight of John Bishop in a clapped-out Volvo, with two people who are supposed to be his parents despite being only about ten years his senior (which is perhaps not such a stretch, given we’re in Liverpool), talking about an alien invasion. They’re telling him that the best way to knock out a Sontaran is to hit the back of the neck. “How’d you find that out?” asks an incredulous Dan.

“Fella in Birkenhead,” is the response. “He was drunk. With a mallet.”

There’s a delicious pause. And then a shrug. “Birkenhead.”

And I giggled. That can’t be a bad thing.

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Review: Flux Part One – The Halloween Apocalypse

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.

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Review: Revolution of the Daleks

“Seriously,” said Emily, from where she was perched on the far end of the sofa. “Who drinks tea when it’s poured straight into a cup? From a tea stand? It’s far too hot!”

‘Revolution of the Daleks’ begins in a roadside layby and ends on a hill above Sheffield. Its opening conceit – that the unsuspecting courier responsible for transferring the charred remains of the Dalek we met in ‘Resolution’ was ambushed – depends on a slightly convoluted chain of events, and it rather sets the tone for everything that follows, but that does seem to be the way that Doctor Who is written these days. Or perhaps it’s the way it’s always been written and we’ve only just noticed.

Dalek stories tend to follow a pattern: either the Daleks are simply trying to blow something up, or there are foolish humans who believe they can form some sort of alliance with them. ‘Revolution’ skates a rather awkward middle ground between the two; this time around it’s shady government minister Harriet Walter (Jo Patterson, who is never allowed to do anything more interesting than stand in a car park) who’s managed to reverse engineer Dalek technology in an attempt to build a robotic security force, heralding “The age of security”. To do this, she’s enlisted the help of shady business tycoon and former Presidential wannabe Jack Robertson (Chris Noth), last seen storming out of his hotel after mowing down a giant spider with a handgun, as toxic waste rumbled up from the ground beneath. Asking a man like this to be responsible for rolling out one of the biggest technological breakthroughs in decades is a bit like putting Montgomery Burns in charge of a green energy plan, but none of this seems to bother Harriet, who mumbles something about offshore bank accounts while standing under an umbrella. Clearly misery makes for strange bedfellows.

While all this is going on, Graham and Ryan are fretting about Yaz, who has established a base of operations in the spare time capsule that brought them all back to Earth at the end of ‘The Timeless Children’, and which is now covered in post-it notes. They’ve moved on, but the sleeping bag on the floor and the slightly glazed look in her eye is proof that Yaz clearly hasn’t, and that finding the Doctor is still job no.1. “I must be able to work it out,” she seethes, in the manner of Zosia March in Holby City, just before her eventual breakdown. It’s clear where this is going, and if the mental health issues Yaz is facing are only skirted around on this occasion we may assume that further fallout is coming, most likely when the TARDIS crew has shrunk a little bit.

As for the Doctor herself, she’s still stuck in the unnamed prison on the other side of the galaxy, bunged in a cell for unmentionable crime – no, really, it was seventy-five minutes long and I still don’t have a clue what they were – and forced to share a cell block with an angry P’Ting, a helpless Weeping Angel, a possessed Ood and even one of the Silence (“I forgot you were here”, she quips as the two come face to face). It feels like a missed opportunity – it’s quite sweet to have the Doctor address the security cameras as she passes them, but it would have been nice to see a little more of the effect it was having on her. A brief, clumsily-executed dalliance with Ryan later on is about all we get, and Whittaker is forced to convey the rest in a handful of awkward stares and quasi-meaningful silences.

Still, it isn’t long before she’s sprung from the joint, with the help of Jack Harkness (an increasingly craggy-looking John Barrowman), who turns up with a literal support bubble in which the two make good their escape. Said escape basically involves running down a corridor, which feels very much like home – there was a concern over whether these two would bond, but they manage to click together reasonably well (it helps that, in keeping with Doctor Who’s ongoing environmental concerns, most of Jack’s best lines are recycled). “My own TARDIS!” exclaims the Doctor as the two of them materialise within it, just in case the weird filters had left us in any doubt. Indeed, one of the biggest mysteries dropped on us last series is not whether or not the Doctor is in fact the Timeless Child, but why they can’t fix the lighting, which seems perennially off. Perhaps it’s to hide Barrowman’s wrinkles.

It’s nice – if a little predictable – that the TARDIS fam aren’t exactly thrilled when the Doctor shows up in Graham’s living room, but they don’t have long to ruminate on her ten-month absence before we’re off to Osaka, which is where the plot finally kicks into gear. Robertson has a secret factory producing Dalek clones – so secret that even he doesn’t know about its existence, prompting the incredulous industrialist to ask about how they could have signed the purchase orders. It’s all the work of the gravel-voiced, back-humping Reconnaissance Dalek, which has been breeding a secret army that can inexplicably teleport itself into Harriet Walter’s empty cases when the lighting changes. (‘Inexplicably’ may be the wrong choice of word. There is an explanation, it’s just mildly rubbish.)

Everything about ‘Revolution’ screams “Oh well, we know it’s silly, but there are Daleks”: whether it’s the Soylent Green nods in the factory, the 3D printing thing, or the Doctor’s plan to hide away from the Dalek fleet by parking her TARDIS on a rooftop just as they’re flying over (still, at least Jack will be happy). The dialogue is crammed with contemporary platitudes and self-referential gags (Robertson sneers about people being tired of experts, while Ryan proclaims that “It’s OK to be sad”). It’s fine that Doctor Who does this, but dialogue is not and has never been Chibnall’s forte, and box-ticking should never actually feel like box-ticking. There is, at least, a perfunctory attempt to flesh out Chris Noth’s character a little bit, and he evolves from one-dimensional Trumpalike to someone with the potential to be a bit more interesting and, at times, almost likeable; he waltzes off into the sunset with his reputation restored, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that the next time we see him the TARDIS will have once again landed inside the Oval Office.

Does it work? Just about. It’s preposterous and cringeworthy and you feel like a story of this nature really ought to have a little more in the way of explosions and fire fights, but it’s also a departure story and the Daleks were always going to play second fiddle to the characters. That’s not a problem when it’s done well, but it isn’t: Jack’s complicated relationship with the Doctor is touched upon only briefly, and even a couple of well-placed nods to ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ can’t save the two companion departures from being both cloying and overly sentimental. At least they make it out alive, which is presumably so that all the development can be left to a later story. As we watch Ryan – the young man who can sink a hoop from twenty yards and fling himself from platform to platform with the precision of Mario, but who still can’t ride a bike – struggle on top of the Sheffield hill where we first met him, it’s left to Graham to point out that the two of them have plenty of other things they could be doing, and somewhere in a house in London, Nicholas Briggs is already polishing his first draft.

We were talking about box-ticking, and ostensibly this delivers on what it promises. There are Daleks galore (they even have a standoff of sorts, although it’s basically a lot of shouting and scrapping, rather like one of those viral news videos you see on Twitter) and there are assorted loose ends tied and other knots left deliberately open, and in what has become an increasingly rare turn of events the Doctor saves the Earth with an actual plan. But it’s difficult not to be a little underwhelmed – that this was a story that tried to do a little too much of everything and didn’t really cover any of its bases as fully as we’d have liked; a bed sheet that’s shrunk in the wash and that doesn’t quite fit. If I were in any way cynical, I might call the John Bishop announcement (which occurred in the episode’s immediate aftermath) a matter of impeccable timing; something to distract us from the mediocrity we’d just experienced. But perhaps that’s unfair. And perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway. Perhaps running out of steam simply means you pootle along gently, in a state of affable content rather than world-beating splendour. And perhaps affable content isn’t such a dreadful thing these days, if it ever was. Perhaps Doctor Who has always been mediocre, and we’ve only just noticed.

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Doctor Who series 12: the executive summaries (part three)

Our series writeup concludes with a look at the Cyber trilogy, and the episode that basically deconstructed canon. I think this may be the point at which I officially lost the plot. That’s OK, there wasn’t that much of a plot to begin with.

 

The Haunting of Villa Diodati

To the tune of Science Fiction Double Feature:

Jodie’s got a new jacket
And they’re making a racket
Just as loud as the wind and the rain
It’s the summer of darkness
But there’s no sign of Harkness
Still they said we won’t see him again

There’s a fixed point in time
A combining of minds
For an evening of terror and fear
But there’s no drive for mystery
They’d rather play Twister, least
That’s what it looked like from here

Science fiction, Sunday feature
With yet another disturbing creature
Just enjoy it, ignore the ratings
We could argue about UNIT dating
Or, I don’t know-oh-oh-ohh
Whether Jean-Luc Picard could make it so
On HBO
I wonder if we’ll see some more of Jo?

There’s a big metal beast
And a storm from the east
Seems all hope for humanity’s gone
Byron behaves like a cad
Even Yaz isn’t bad
And Graham’s lost on his way to the John

Ryan acts like a melon
Now the Doctor is yellin’
And the butler’s a corpse on the floor
If you ignore all the theories
It’s the best one this series
And I’m really quite anxious for more

Science fiction, Sunday feature
The BBC’s our reluctant teacher
Who would Yaz like to be kissing?
At least the rants and lectures are missing
But I don’t know-oh-oh-ohh
I think they’ve kept them in reserve for next week’s show
I don’t wanna go
My favourite Teletubby’s always Po
Ko Ro Bo So
Somewhere I think this song has lost its flow

DWC write-up

 

Ascension of the Cybermen

Here we go, then.

Feekat (Steve Toussaint) – Teacher. Suitably grizzled. Last seen at 15:27, when he’s offed by a marauding Ashad.

Ravio (Julie Graham) – That woman from Bonekickers hiding behind a lot of grime. Last seen flirting with Bradley Walsh. Presumably hiding a tragic past. Dialogue minimally more sensible than it was in Bonekickers.

Yedlarmi (Alex Austin) – If Fiore from Preacher had a Prozac addiction, he would be sort of like Yedlarmi. Last seen panicking in a Cybercarrier.

Fuskle (Jack Osborn) – Yedlarmi’s mute brother. Last seen at 09:55, when he’s caught in an explosion.

Bescot (Rhiannon Clements) – a pilot, or something. Feisty.

Ethan (Matt Carver) – More capable than his boyish appearance suggests. Makes it to the beach with the Doctor, but probably won’t make it much further.

Ko Sharmus (Ian McElhinney) – Episode 8 Luke Skywalker, but less grumpy. Either a disguised Rassilon or the Ruler of the Universe, in which case we’d like to see the cat next week.

Why, constant reader, have I gone to all this trouble? Well, it’s for largely selfish reasons; I have to make a note of them somewhere. Otherwise I can’t remember a thing. I’ll be looking back in the middle of a Series 13 write-up at a random thing that happened to a particular character in this story, and I’ll be as confused and empty-headed as Arnold Rimmer during an engineer’s exam. Age is part of it; comparative unfamiliarity (as I write this, Ascension has been viewed a single time in our house) is another factor – but sheer mundanity takes the lion’s share. This episode was a masterclass in How To Construct Generic Characters Who Amount To Nothing.

Seriously. There’s no spark, no life, no soul. You could have given their dialogue to a group of year seven drama students and it’d be similarly dead. There’s no problem with the performances per se – everyone makes the best of what they have – but it’s disheartening to watch a story in which bad things happen to supporting characters who disinterest me. It happened in Into The Dalek. It happened in Oxygen. And Empress of Mars, and – look, it’s not new; it was just particularly bothersome this week. A full cast of interesting secondaries is a pipe dream, of course, and Classic Who is crammed with generic three-line roles who were offed by the Daleks before they’d made their mark…still, you need at least one, surely? Otherwise, how are you supposed to care about people getting blown up or shot at when they don’t leave any sort of gap?

I’m sure it wasn’t always like this. I can still remember every one of the people from LINDA. They were fun and they were sparky and it wasn’t fair that they all got superglued to Peter Kay’s hips (to be fair, I wouldn’t wish that fate on Jacob Rees-Mogg). I don’t even think it’s the type of stories you tell. Voyage of the Damned is a glorified base-under-siege (with the notable exception that the base is falling to Earth), but the people in that were, if occasionally stereotypical, at least fully-formed stereotypes. Some of them even had a bit of spunk to them. And his track record proves Chibnall is perfectly capable of coming up with decent supporting characters when he pulls his finger out. Everyone slates The Tsuranga Conundrum – perhaps rightly so – but at least Yoss the pregnant man was fun to watch.

If you’re going to throw the fate of humanity into balance, it would be nice if you could at least give us some fully fledged humans to worry about. It’s not like I care about what’ll happen to the companions. We know they’ll survive, at least until next week (and almost certainly beyond, because Doctor Who hasn’t properly killed a full-time companion since Earthshock). Conversion is a possibility, of course, but it’s unlikely because the media (who’d already seen the episode) spent most of last week writing glorified press releases that asked “Is Ryan in danger?” coupled with that picture of him wired up to what was actually the ship’s control panel, rather than the Cyber-conversion unit we all knew it wasn’t. Besides, they did that three years ago and even Chibnall isn’t that much of a hack. Probably.

Bet he’s dusted off the Cyberwoman outfit just in case, though. I mean it might fit Yaz. God, there’s an image.

DWC write-up

 

The Timeless Children

‘Questions after this week’s Doctor Who:

  • Has anyone location-spotted that TARDIS house yet? Can we have a deleted scene where it suddenly dematerialises, and across the road Craig Owens rubs his eyes and then mutters “Not again….”?
  • If Brendan really was a projection of the Doctor’s origins, is Gallifrey in Ireland, or is Ireland in Gallifrey?
  • Assuming the rumours about Graham and Ryan are true, what are the odds of their last scene being shot in the cemetery where Grace is buried? And what are the odds Graham’ll say “We move on, but we never forget, and I think she’d be proud of both of us”, while looking forlornly at the headstone?
  • Did Ashad really greenlight that Cyber Lord plumage? Has he not stopped to consider the practicalities? How do they compensate for the extra weight? What happens if three of them are trying to squeeze into a Debenhams lift?
  • On a scale of 1 to 50, what’s the likelihood of Whittaker beginning her next conversation with Dhawan with the words “So, you escaped from Gallifrey then…?”
  • We’ve had Remembrance, Revelation, Resurrection, and now Revolution of the Daleks; can we have Remuneration of the Daleks next? With a behind-the-scenes look at Dalek accountants and payroll, like The Sun Makers but all about zero hours contracts? How about Renaissance, where they’ve all got artist’s berets and are elevating themselves up to the ceiling of the Sistine?
  • Coronavirus. Plot predictions. Please give reasons for your answers. __________
  • If the Master’s so good a hacker, how come he can unearth Gallifrey’s secret past and grisly backstory but he can’t recover Fury From The Deep?

Seriously; I think we should be told…’

DWC write-up

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Doctor Who series 12: the executive summaries (part two)

The lockdown writeup continues in earnest. Today, we’re looking at episodes five through seven – also known as the Dreammaker Revisited, the Plastics Rant, and The One That Changed Everything, not necessarily in that order. I’d been reading a lot about Mondrian during the mid-point of Series 12; possibly that comes across.

 

Fugitive of the Judoon

(We published this one as a separate piece, because…well, you’ll see why. It was far too long!)

 

Doctor: The streets of Gloucester are beset
With things to make you scream and fret
A great big stomping black platoon
Of horny, militant Judoon!
I think they want to make a capture
To transport like some ghoulish rapture.
Quick, Yas! To them you’ll have to speak
And earn your crust, at least this week.
All right?

Yas: Well, yes, I’ll try to play ’em
But hang on, aren’t we missing Graham?

Ruth: I’ll have to hide! It’s me they want
I’ll head for that baptismal font

Doctor: Too late! They’ve seen you, don’t you know
We’ll have to make a-

Ruth: KO BO SO!

Doctor: I didn’t know you spoke their tongue.

Ruth: Neither did I. And why’ve I flung
A rhino cop across the floor?

Doctor: The scene lacked pace. But here come more!
We’d better drive out to the coast
Or otherwise we’ll both be toast.

Ruth: But where’s your friends? You’re on your own
You’ve got no clue just where they’ve flown
Or what they’re doing, now they’re missing!

Doctor: I imagine mostly kissing.

Jack: You read my mind. Which one’s the Doc?

Graham: It isn’t me. But what a shock!
What did you want?

Jack: I had a plan.
Beware the lonely Cyberman
And – arrgh! They’ve pulled me from this joint!

Yas: That cameo really had no point.
We’ll have to see if Whittaker
Can find out what the answers are.

Doctor: I’ve dug and dug, and found a TARDIS!
I’m lost, although I’ve tried my hardest.

Ruth: Allow me to explain, my dear
I’ve just remembered why I’m here
It seems that I’m a Time Lord too
Another Doctor, just like you.

Doctor: You can’t be me! I won’t allow it
The fans’ll surely disavow it!
You cannot be me night or day
On Calufrax or Gallifrey
You can’t be me on Metabilis
Unless you tell me what the drill is.
You can’t be me in acid rain
Or –

Ruth: Please, let’s not do all that again.
I’m this year’s overarching query
Left to the mercy of fan theory.

Doctor: I simply do not have a clue
About these Doctors One and Two.
It makes no sense! I just can’t see
How I am you and you are me.
I’ll sulk for weeks in sheer frustration
About this mystery incarnation.
This duplicated wooden box
This ghastly temporal pair-o-docs.

Ruth: I understand now why you run.
The crowds’ll hate you for that pun.

Doctor: I like your dual role though, kitten.
It makes me feel quite underwritten.
We’re kicking up the hornet’s nest
The fandom’s going to be quite stressed.
As retcons go, this one’s encumbering
We haven’t even touched the numbering.
I need a break – you must agree
This story’s been enough for me.

Graham: Well, yeah, that’s true – but wait a minute,
Nothing really happened in it!

With apologies to another great Doctor.

 

Praxeus

‘I’m going to level with you: I spent certain key moments of Praxeus hiding my face in my hands. It’s nothing to do with virtue signalling. It’s simply because the type of death depicted this week – the scaling of the body, from fingertips to skull, followed by sudden facial disintegration – is something I’ve never been able to watch, and thus something I’ll avoid watching as much as possible. You remember that scene in Resident Evil where the guy gets sliced into cubes by the lasers? I don’t.

It’s an exercise in empathy, this cowering behind the fingers, because my ten-year-old was similarly freaked. And I suppose this was an episode for him, in a way, given the message it was conveying, delivered with the same sense of understated reserve we’ve come to expect from Chibnall’s time on Doctor Who. It isn’t enough simply to show the effects our disposable culture is having on the oceans; we have to get a hastily delivered lecture as well, Whittaker pacing and gesticulating with the ferocity of a BSL interpreter during a Stormzy gig, pausing to dip her head and lower her register during the important bits. Regular readers at the DWC will know that I was one of the few champions of Series 11, and I stand by everything I said in 2018, but even I’m finding this a bit much.

That’s a shame, really, because the more this run of episodes continues the more Jodie seems to be hitting her stride. She really is very good this week: confident and calm, pulling off precise TARDIS manoeuvres without breaking a sweat and appearing, it seems, in all corners of the world at a moment’s notice with the sort of omnipresence that Jennifer Saunders’ character managed in Muppet Treasure Island. Indeed, Praxeus is one tribute act after another, paying homage both to The Birds and Hot Fuzz almost within the same minute. Indeed, there’s a glossiness to Praxeus that lends it an elegant, packaged feel: who cares if the scenery is largely recycled when it looks this good?

But as good as it is – and there is much to enjoy this week, from Graham’s heartfelt, beautifully photographed beach conversation with Jake to the happy ending we arguably didn’t deserve – it’s very much Been There, Done That. The timing doesn’t help – we’re only three weeks after Orphan 55, remember – but it’s hard not to shake the feeling that someone high up at the BBC is sending down notes, mostly along the lines of “Needs a monologue”. Would it hurt to simply mention things and then drop an advisory message at the end of the programme so that people can look things up on the internet? Because we’ve got 490 minutes a year, which really isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, and I’d really not be wasting any more of them listening to another lecture about how plastic is killing the environment. Not when the BBC have just greenlit another line of action figures.

Oh, and just as an afterthought: somewhere, millions of years ago on prehistoric Earth, a charred and bloodstained young maths prodigy is crawling out of a wrecked spacecraft. And he’s really, really pissed off.’

The DWC write-up is still missing. 

 

Can You Hear Me?

“James, are you sure you want me to use this?”
“Yeah, sorry. I just don’t have time to write anything this week.”
“Yet you somehow found time to throw this together.”
“…”

DWC write-up

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