Posts Tagged With: chris chibnall

Have I Got Whos For You: End-of-August edition

There’s some interesting stuff currently cooling over at the Brian of Morbius foundry. We’ll have a new video dump, some debunking of myths and soon – when the time is right – I’m going to be plugging the short fiction I’ve been writing, in a lazy and half-hearted attempt to reinvent myself as a storyteller rather than a hack. Well, you have to move on.

That’ll have to wait a bit. In the meantime, here’s this week’s roundup – beginning with a blink of disbelief from the fanbase over Peter Capaldi’s current baldness.

Elsewhere, Chris Chibnall is knocked out in his flat and wakes up in a strange coastal village, surrounded by shadowy angry figures demanding to know why he didn’t resign.

Although there is, as it transpires, good reason to be worried about series 12, as this leaked promotional shot illustrates.

Onto lighter things now. On a break from his travels, the Twelfth Doctor is spotted with Ashildr and Clara at a Home Counties theme park.

And following a dangerous and potentially lethal interstellar musical publicity stunt, the Eleventh Doctor successfully manages to catch Taron Egerton, although sadly the piano was knackered.

And finally, in the unexpectedly leafy outskirts of Central London, there’s an unexpected visitor outside the TARDIS.

“Yeah, Disney don’t want me. Wanna hang?”

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Five Doctor Who episodes to help you deal with grief

I’m writing this four days after my mother died.

It was one of those sudden, unexpected things: a phone call at five in the afternoon, the rain hammering on the roof of the folding camper as we laughed and giggled about nothing, and then the sudden, life-changing moment when you’re told the news, and then the denial (“No. No, no. You’re wrong“) and then…look. To be honest it’s a blur. But somehow things got done. And there was the inevitable back-and-forth between close family members and then we cancelled our day-old holiday and came back to deal with it. She had a heart attack despite having no history of heart trouble and that means a post mortem and a certain amount of limbo while you wait for the phone to ring.

It is a funny state of affairs. There is grieving without grieving. I think that, even after all this time, I am still in shock; a particularly lucid nightmare from which there is no chance to wake. You go onto autopilot: things happen because they must, and because the day needs to be traversed like some desolate, inexplicably familiar commute even though the circumstances are bizarre and frightening. It occurs to me that I have yet to cry about all this, and for once in my life the sense of overriding guilt that is my default emotional state is suddenly and notably absent, simply because I am keeping it at bay for fear that it would just about finish me off.

So I am currently fractured, and not in a good place, and when I’m not in a good place I tend to fall back on something creative. It’s that, or sit there and brood. For example, I have just rendered every single canonical Doctor in cartoon form using the Flipline Papa Louie Pals app; one of those random things you do when you’re waiting for the coffee to reach drinking temperature. I will post them here eventually, when I’ve sorted out the height variance. It seems almost frivolous, but it’s a way of getting through the day. No, it’s more than that: creativity is (and I dearly wish it weren’t) an outlet that is all too often fuelled by melancholy, where bad things lead to good things. In the (sometimes metaphorical) studio of every artist there is – or ought to be – a plaque reading “YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE MISERABLE TO WORK HERE, BUT IT HELPS”.

Or perhaps it’s just a way of shutting out the noise. And it is a noise, this confusing maelstrom of mixed moods, of memories both bad and joyful and sometimes both, of things said and unsaid and this realisation that there is no such thing as a positive or negative emotion, there is only an emotion, and that it is possible to feel both good and bad. “The sun rose steadily over Hogwarts,” writes Rowling at the end of The Deathly Hallows, “and the Great Hall blazed with life and light. Harry was an indispensible part of the mingled outpourings of jubilation and mourning, of grief and celebration.” How wondrous it might have been if we had actually seen that at the end of the film, instead of the mute and oddly soulless calm that David Yates and Warner opted to provide.

But Doctor Who can be like that. At its best (and that is a heady height that is reached all too rarely, it seems) it provides both the opportunity to celebrate life and also to mark its end, as characters die and are appropriately mourned, and death is the next stage on a journey, or a sacrifice worth making, or perhaps as simple as going to bed at the end of a very long day. This list is not exhaustive; nor is it definitive. Certain ‘obvious’ stories (Father’s Day) are missing; other choices will possibly strike you as odd. That’s fine. These are, for one reason or another, the episodes that have helped me, curiously not by revisiting them (I simply haven’t had the time) but purely in terms of remembering key themes and moments and dialogue from years of watching and dissecting and writing about them. And this week, doing that has comforted me. And if anyone is feeling what I’ve been feeling, and can in turn draw any comfort from anything I’ve written, either here or below, then my work is surely not fruitless, nor meaningless.

And I miss my mum.

 

Twice Upon A Time

What would you do, muses Steven Moffat in this Christmas special, if you had the chance to say goodbye again? If the dead were somehow stored as permanent memories, magically rendered flesh through the conduit of a glass avatar? What would you say to them – if, indeed, you could be sure it was them? And how would you know? That’s the mystery that the Doctor endeavours to solve, with the help of a long-vanquished former self, a dead woman and a melancholy army captain whose time is apparently up. There are gags about French restaurants and there is a Dalek, but it’s that idea of loss and survival that lingers long after the smoke from the death ray has dissipated into the air. The notion that we might somehow be able to talk to the deceased – or, more specifically, that they might talk to us – is one that is embossed throughout ‘Twice Upon A Time’, holding it together like the stitching on David Bradley’s hat. The avatar on the battlefield is both Bill Potts and not Bill Potts; both Clara Oswald and not Clara Oswald, both Nardole and…well, you get the idea. In the end, it is the memories of others that make us who we are, and that as long as there is breath in our bodies, they never truly leave us.

 

The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Series 11 opens with the news of a death, only we don’t know that. Jodie Whittaker’s inauguration begins and more or less ends with a YouTube video, uploaded by a tearful young man mourning the loss of his grandmother. It is a grief that will eventually unite him with her second husband – a man who himself carries the weight of loss in his cancer-stricken body: a man with a broken heart living on borrowed time. And yet this is not in itself a bad thing. “I carry them with me,” says the Doctor, when asked how she copes with those she herself has lost. “What they would have thought and said and done. I make them a part of who I am.” It is a sentiment that will eventually save Graham, when faced (much later on) with the ghost of the woman he knew, and who is able to tell her apart from the real thing by remembering how she would have reacted. Still, it is always the Doctor who survives, and sometimes that hurts. And as good as it was, there was a sting to this particular tale when we re-examined its title: this notion that there were two women, both of whom had fallen to Earth, and that only one of them managed to get back on her feet.

 

Heaven Sent

Shaken and broken from the apparent death of his companion, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is marooned inside a watch that looks like a castle, chased by a ghost that wouldn’t look out of place on Scooby Doo, and spends four billion years punching through a wall. On paper it sounds almost ridiculous. In practice it is a stunning, almost groundbreaking entry in the Who logbook, a Groundhog Day of endless grief. But it is the mood of this one that strikes you: a sombre, semi-lit world of browns and greys and dark reds, where corridors shift and paintings decay and one is both always alone and never alone. Clara is both the Doctor’s muse and the object of his grief, manifest in a cacophony of half-glimpses, viewed from behind as she scratches with chalk before vanishing once more into the shadows – the decision to eventually show her one of the few narrative missteps in an otherwise impeccable production. “It’s funny,” muses the Doctor, halfway through this story, drumming his fingers on the arm of a chair. “The day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.” The following week (and presumably requiring something else to do) he would bust Clara from the trap street and she would run off with Maisie Williams in a stolen TARDIS, but we’re not going to discuss that one.

 

The Rings of Akhaten

Poor Neil Cross went through the wringer with this, and it really isn’t fair. Yes, it is overly sentimental and frequently ridiculous. Yes, the the final conceit (in which, during what is a bizarre twist on The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Clara destroys the monster by feeding it a leaf) really doesn’t work. Yes, the singing is a bit much. On the other hand you would be hard-pressed to find an episode of Doctor Who that matches this one in terms of ambition, grandeur and sheer unbridled joy: a rejuvenated Doctor, fresh off his leash, a companion dazzled by the wonders of the universe, a beautifully rendered interstellar market and a dozen good ideas that never quite bear fruit. The Doctor’s graveside stalking of Clara is uncomfortable to watch – it’s rather like reading your girlfriend’s diary – but the whole pre-title sequence is a beautiful and ultimately heart-rending vignette that shows us how someone might be defined by the people close to them. ‘Akhaten’ is about letting go of the things we love, but it treads this path with that sense of bittersweet sadness and joy I was talking about; the one that pervades the closing moments of Harry Potter. And this in the episode where Matt Smith has a wand duel.

 

Blink

Viewed from one perspective, ‘Blink’ is a story about bootstraps and puzzles and the frightening things that lurk in old houses. That’s usually how I approach it, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing the same. But it’s so much more than that: it is, at its core, a story about loss, as Sally Sparrow – the undisputed queen of Companions That Never Were – has her heart broken twice, once by an old acquaintance and once by a new one. This would count for nothing if the script were mawkish and sentimental, but it is neither: ‘Blink’ is one of those stories that works just as well when it is being sad as when it is being frightening, and the death of Billy Shipton (announcing, with a poetic abstractness that would eventually outstay its welcome, that he would live “until the rain stops”) is among the most poignant scenes that Moffat has ever committed to paper. And it’s here, in these moments of downtime when the statues are off camera and the score is quiet and understated, that the paradox of the Weeping Angels is revealed: that the tragedy that trails in their wake is visited not upon those who are taken but on those that are left behind. The Doctor calls this potential energy; at the risk of sounding tremendously cloying, we might just as easily call it love.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Jodie Whittaker Special)

Today’s post is all about the haters. Yes, you. You there, at the back. The people who leave angry emojis on everything Thirteenth Doctor related – not because it’s not funny or because it’s obnoxious or overly cute; just because it’s her. I’ve seen you. You never comment, and you never explain yourself when you’re critiqued. It’s clearly a hang-up about Whittaker (I will accept, at a push, that some of it may be about Chibnall) because this sort of reaction doesn’t appear on any other post. Why do you do it? What’s the point? And don’t give me that bollocks about how you’re repressed, about how criticism of Whittaker has accusations of “SEXIST!” flung in your direction so you have no choice but to hide behind emojis, afraid to say what you think because of the online censors. This isn’t fucking North Korea. Man up.

In any case, here’s a bunch of Whittaker-themed stuff that I’d been stockpiling for an occasion like this. Enjoy it. Except you there, at the back. I know you won’t. Well, you can’t win ’em all.

First and foremost, here’s Jodie Whittaker celebrating Yorkshire Day.

Meet Jodie Whittaker, the other Fifth Beatle.

The Doctor and the Brigadier explore a nice part of the forest.

Memories of chips.

The princess and the frog.

Who wore it best?

Time Lord parents’s evenings.

Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber training isn’t going too well, until the Doctor comes up with a new strategy.

Exploring the corridors of the Tsuranga, the Doctor and her companions stumble upon the worst horror of all.

I think this one more or less speaks for itself.

“Oh great; we’ve got a squatter.”

A YouTube stunt goes horribly wrong over at the Kerblam! warehouse.

And finally, parked up in a forest, the Doctor has an unexpected visitor.

“Never heard of him. But I’m going that way; I can drop you…”

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The Smallerpictures video dump (2019, part three)

Videos. You know the drill by now. And I’ve got a Holby I haven’t watched yet, so what say we dive straight in?

 

1. Things the Thirteenth Doctor loves (February 2019)

It was Emily who noticed. We were tidying the lounge one Monday morning, the day after ‘The Witchfinders’ (unless you had Amazon, in which case you’d probably already seen it), and talking about Series 11 and the way it was written. And Emily picked up on something about the new Doctor that I’d missed. “She doesn’t have a catchphrase as such,” she said, “but she does tell us about stuff she likes, doesn’t she? ‘Oh, a conspiracy. I love a conspiracy.'”

I looked through the transcripts, and it’s all over the place. I think almost every episode is referenced in the video below – ‘Rosa’ is missing, as is ‘Resolution’ and ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’, although in fairness the Doctor spent half of that one lying on a sofa. But everything else has at least one, and some have several. It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to criticise, if you’re not a fan of Chibnall, although this is somewhat pointless as Moffat did much the same thing with Smith, who had a tendency to say “And then you did that. Why did you do that?”. It became something of a trope, although it’s trickier to actually source the dialogue. I’m of the conviction that Doctor Who does not need catchphrases, and that (Baker aside) the fandom’s attempts at finding them are scrappy at best, but if we must have one these days I’m not sorry that it’s manifested as it has here. I know we’re giggling about it, but at least there’s a bit of variety.

I had a lot of fun making this one. Whatever you think of the writing, Whittaker has a sense of fun about her that I hope comes across. There is something particularly endearing about the way she bellows “APPLE BOBBING!”. Oh, and in reference to number 7, it was explained to me (via a YouTube comment) that the they’re talking about Hamilton, the Broadway musical dedicated to the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, which opened a couple of years ago and which, according to the Doctor, is destined to have more revivals than Cher’s musical career. You learn something new every day, don’t you?

 

2. The Bohemian Rhapsody edit (March 2019)

Quantum of Solace is a big pile of shit, isn’t it? Well, perhaps that’s a little harsh. It’s better than View To A Kill, at least, although I confess I’ve undergone tooth extractions which were less arduous than having to watch that one. But Solace – which has an interesting premise – is completely massacred by Marc Foster’s fondness for jump cuts. There are sometimes two or three a second, usually in the action sequences (the boat chase springs to mind), pummelling the viewer with shots of flying fists and the chains and the fizz of surf, as Bond and some random guy whose name I can never be bothered to remember duke it out in an exotic locale that we can’t even see anyway because the bloody camera won’t stay still. It is impossible to follow. I have no idea what’s going on and I refuse to put this down to old age: it’s just incomprehensible garbage.

Compare this to the fight scene in Atomic Blonde. You know, the one in the stairwell? Or John Woo’s 2 minutes, 42 seconds in the frenetic final act of Hard Boiled. Or, if we’re thinking about 007, the beautiful, single tracking shot that opens Spectre, where Bond wanders in and out of hotel rooms and across roofs as the dizzying spectacle that is the Day of the Dead unfolds below him. That, film students, is how you open a blockbuster. It’s all studio trickery, of course – so is Atomic Blonde, come to that – but it doesn’t matter: the only real difference between the two of them is that Atomic Blonde has an outstanding fight sequence couched in a generally wonderful movie, whereas Spectre is graced with a mesmerising opening and then it’s downhill all the way.

Anyway, I thought we were done with frantic jump cuts, until I heard about Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a film I got to see quite recently and, as a word of reassurance, most of it’s fairly straight-laced, perhaps too much so. There is a press conference which mines every cliche in the book and there is a dramatic climax outside, at night, in the rain. Because obviously. On the plus side, the band look and sound the part (even if certain songs are dropped in earlier or later than they should have been) and the Live Aid set is so well done you can forgive the liberties they take with history. Besides, it’s kind of hard to concentrate on the anachronisms given that you spend about fifty per cent of the running time staring at cats.

Still. There’s one scene. You remember. It’s the one at the pub. The one that has more edits than the ITV version of Robocop. There are 52 in all, making the average shot around 1.57 seconds long (someone else’s homework, not mine). I’m told there are reasons for this; that narrative shifts after the scene was shot meant it no longer made sense and they had to go back and re-sequence it, but that doesn’t stop it inducing migraines. The film was Oscar-nominated for best editing; go figure. Interesting times at the Academy.

How to translate this into Doctor Who? It had to be something dialogue heavy, something featuring a number of people who could form different focus points, something where everyone stayed roughly stationary to keep the continuity fluid, and something I knew reasonably well. This one was an obvious choice: it is my favourite scene in an otherwise patchy episode and I do find it rather sweet, so I thought it might be fun to chop it up a little. The results speak for themselves, and not necessarily in a good way.

 

3. Doctor Who and the Vow of Silence (November 2018)

Yeah, I dunno. Thirteen years since ‘Rose’, and the Doctor still doesn’t have a clue.

 

Allons-y!

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God Is In The Detail (11-09)

Eagle-eyed readers – or at least those who keep spreadsheets – can’t have failed to notice that we skipped episode eight in our (almost) weekly round-up here at Conspiracy Central. I was trying to sort out Edward’s birthday party and that threw my timetable out of whack, so I trust you will forgive me. Fear not! We return this afternoon with a fresh batch of VERY IMPORTANT SIGNS AND CLUES that you probably missed while you were watching the Doctor and her companions trundle round a Norwegian log cabin in last week’s ‘It Takes You Away’. I can’t promise any frogs, but you won’t be bored.

First and foremost, I want you to think back to Titanic. No, I know it brings back bad memories, but work with me. Recall, if you can, the moment at the beginning where Bill Paxton describes what happened when the boat sank – the filling of the lower decks with water, sinking the boat lower and lower into the water until it was almost vertical, whereupon the hull cracked and split in two. It’s a great scene because Leonardo Di Caprio doesn’t feature at all, but also because it effectively describes the rest of the movie without really spoiling it. If I were feeling particularly callous I’d suggest that you could probably roll the credits there, and it would have made for a better film. But I am not in any way callous, of course.

Nonetheless I now want you to remember the sequence that opened ‘It Takes You Away’, after the TARDIS had landed by the fjord, and the four of them trooped up to the cabin. And you may recall this:

It’s a cleverly framed shot and it’s over in a heartbeat once the camera pans left – thank goodness for freeze frame, eh? Because in point of fact this rope swing represents the entire story, in one single moment. There are two identical cabins – both with triangular-shaped bedrooms (see opening image) – bridged by a long tunnel. (I’ve been scouring Kevin Eldon’s CV for a connection to the plastic swing, but haven’t found anything yet. Give me time.)

Next we move to the shed, where Ryan and Yas have just had an unfortunate encounter with a headless chicken. Or pheasant. Or perhaps an enormous cock, although that might have been Nigel Farage.

Needless to say this is loaded with detail. Rather than spend ages describing everything here, forcing you to scroll endlessly back and forth between text and image, I’ve created a handy annotated guide. See, I’m kind like that.

Ah yes. A note about that gas. There are two bottles – already layered with significance, as you will note from the two on the table. The one in the red bottle is most likely propane, which indicates that the white is one of those replacement cylinders you get from building hardware suppliers, because why would you want both butane and propane? We therefore see an old casing refilled with new material, which is precisely the opposite of the Doctor’s regeneration process; hence the theme of opposites and the mirror universe is hinted at earlier than any of us thought.

But there’s more. You knew there would be more, didn’t you? Leaving aside the obvious Faustian connotations of the red and white (Mephistopheles vs. The Good Angel, not to mention their ties with the White and Black Guardian – something we probably predicted weeks ago although I can’t find the reference – there is a reason we can see two Calor gas bottles (other gas suppliers are available) in the background. Because while Calor have branches everywhere, their headquarters are in Warwick, in a building called Athena House. The name is a red herring; the postcode is not. It’s CV34 6RL – referring specifically to Christopher Villiers (‘The King’s Demons’, ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’) and Rula Lenska (‘Resurrection of the Daleks’), or more specifically to the years in which they turned 34 and 6: that is, 1994 and 1953.

Subtract 1953 from 1994 and you get 41. This is one shy of ’42’, an episode written by Chris Chibnall. Therefore we conclude DEFINITIVELY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY that a prequel to this episode – establishing the sentient sun and presumably carrying a slightly shorter running time – is on the cards for 2019, or whenever Chibnall gets round to finishing it.

Can I also point out that propane turns up in ‘The Moonbase’ and that ‘The Moonbase’ starred Patrick Troughton, who then went on to star in ‘The Two Doctors’? Good. Glad we’ve got that established.

The writing’s on the wall for this next clue.

This isn’t just a random set of instructions that the Doctor scribbled in a panic. Each of those three phrases can be conveniently rearranged. (The last one, by the way, is cut off from view, but I think we can safely assume that it reads ‘Find out who else can take care of her’.)

The first two rearranged phrases read as follows:

HARASSED MEDIA DUDES

HE FREE SPEAK

You’ve figured out, of course, that this refers to the Doctor Who showrunners and Christopher Eccleston respectively. Keep your eyes peeled for that memoir. It’s going to be a blinder.

But that’s only two thirds done, and there’s still a final phrase to unpack. That last one can be shuffled into ACANTHUS ACHE DEER FELINE FOOTWORK, indicating that the Doctor is set to meet a strange dancing cat-stag hybrid in a mysterious forest. There will probably be cake.

Last but not least this week, we’re in a kitchen.

It’s a Slayer t-shirt. But there’s a reason it’s reversed, and it’s nothing to do with the fact that it’s a mirror universe. Well, all right, it is, but it’s not only that. In fact this is a nod to backmasking, the practice of inserting subliminal messages into records that are only revealed when a song is played backwards. They had their heyday in the 1980s when conservative parents started to get very concerned about the terrible effects backmasking was having on their children, who were being told to smoke marijuana, kill their parents and sacrifice a virgin – never mind the fact that half of the reverse ‘messages’ were actually gibberish, given a temporary stay by a fusion of media hysteria and the power of suggestion. (I’ve always found the concept of playing songs backwards faintly odd, truth be told, but I suppose it’s easier when you have vinyl.)

Anyway. In 1985, Slayer released their second studio album, Hell Awaits, and the title track contained a backwards message that was planted quite deliberately – cries of “Join us!”, supposedly referring to the fan club as opposed to a Satanic cult, although Ann Coulter would probably argue that it was basically the same thing. And a curious thing happens when we examine the track listing:

Oh, and while we’re at it, the word ‘Slayer’ may be conveniently rearranged into ‘Yas Rel’. That’s Yas, right? And the UNIT OF DALEK MEASUREMENT? Surely we need no more clues that the Daleks WILL BE MAKING AN APPEARANCE IN THE NEW YEAR SPECIAL?

What do you mean they’ve already called that?

Oh, right. Still. The Mirror published it. You know, the Mirror…

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Review: It Takes You Away

A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood. The mouse saw a TARDIS, which was in the process of being abandoned by four eccentric travellers, none of whom were dressed for hiking.

The group had a flat structure, which meant that one of them was in charge and told everyone else what to do. This was how they ended up at a mysterious log cabin with three locks on the door, although it was fine to pick them because this is Doctor Who and breaking and entering is perfectly acceptable when you’re a Time Lord.

The house was occupied by a blind teenager hiding inside the wardrobe along with Hitler and several copies of ‘Fury From The Deep’. She was frightened because her father had left her.

“Maybe he’s left yer,” suggested Ryan, prompting a furious Yas to sock him on the jaw.

“What? I’m only sayin’ he’s probably abandoned her – ” Sadly this sentence remained unfinished, because Yas had just kneed him in the gonads.

“None of that, here, Ryan,” said the Doctor, scribbling HER FATHER IS PROBABLY DEAD on the wall so they could all have a good giggle about it.

In the upper room there was a mirror which offered no reflection. Graham and Ryan considered the possibility that they were both vampires, which would explain why Ryan didn’t seem to have a pulse. Graham munched on his cheese and pickle sandwich and hoped the red stuff was beetroot.

The Doctor examined the mirror. “Shall I break the glass?” she asked.

“Why not?” replied Yas. “You already did it to the ceiling.”

On the other side of a mirror there was a long tunnel that looked like the Peak District because it probably was. Inside was Kevin Eldon wearing makeup that was at once instantly familiar and very slightly rehashed.

“I’ll take you through these tunnels if I can have the sonic vibrator,” said Kevin.

“Why do you want that?” asked Graham, which prompted a lecherous grin.

It was just then that the killer moths attacked. This was fortunate, because Kevin was frankly a dickhead.

At the end of the passage was the same room but the grips had moved some of the furniture. Downstairs there was a man wearing a Slayer t-shirt, and two dead women. Neither of them knew what they were really doing there, although this may have been a reaction to the shooting script as much as anything else.

Thankfully the Doctor had figured out that there was another facet to the creation of the universe that the show hadn’t done yet, and that it was responsible for everything, and conveniently well-intentioned.

“How do you know all this?” asked Yas.

The Doctor mumbled something about having seven grandmothers and then made a Zygon reference, which had tabloid journalists reaching frantically for their iPads, although it also had the unfortunate side effect of setting the internet on fire.

Elsewhere Ryan had allowed himself to be hoodwinked by Hanne, who then led him through the mirror into the passage.

“I hate you,” said Hanne, for no very good reason.

Ryan was in the process of composing a witty retort when the moths attacked again. They knew they had to make the most of their screen time, because union rules forbade them appearing at the finale.

One thing led to another, and everyone met up in the mirror cabin.

“You ain’t my real mum,” snarled Hanne with the ferocity of an Eastenders actress.

Ryan blinked. “How can she tell?”

“It’s ‘cos she’s blind,” replied the Doctor. “It’s like her superpower, innit?”

“Isn’t that a bit exploitative?”

“Stow it, Call-of-Duty,” she snapped.

Graham looked over at his dead wife. “You were much nicer before you fell off that crane,” he said.

Grace had recently watched Infinity War, and took this as an opportunity to try out her Iron Man impression. It really was quite good.

The Doctor was struggling with the mirror. “We’ve less than ten minutes to go before the credits, and they haven’t done the throwback gag yet,” she muttered. “Yas, can you drop in a Pertwee reference?”

Yas obliged, although she was too young to really understand how these things worked.

Isolated from her friends, the Doctor wandered through a cost-saving white space to be greeted by the sight of a frog on a chair.

“Hi-ho,” said the frog, “and welcome to The Muppet Show.”

The Doctor cocked her head. “I thought the Brexit debate was next week?”

“Be my friend,” pleaded the helpless frog. “We can make brownies and everything.”

“How are you with French food?” asked the Doctor.

The Doctor left, but not before blowing a kiss to the frog, who promptly turned into Mathew Waterhouse; one of the few times that shedding the body of a lime green amphibian cannot be said to be an improvement.

On their way back to the TARDIS, the gang discussed how they could have had such a cracking story last week only to find themselves caught up in something so gut-wrenchingly tedious.

“They did say everybody would be talking about it,” said Yas, being the only one who subscribed to the BBC Twitter feed. “Just not necessarily in a good way.”

Graham looked over at Ryan. “So is that our character arc done now?”

“Probably,” said Ryan, adding “Grandad. Can I go back to making zimmer frame jokes?”

Graham sighed, and unwrapped another sandwich. And off they went.

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Review: The Witchfinders

Lurking on Facebook somewhere is a woman that I recently blocked. Actually the blocking was mutual, which is in itself a long and not terribly interesting story, although the reasons behind it are worth a mention. She has spent a number of months in vehement protest against the casting of a female Doctor, because it was her concrete belief that the historical treatment of women would make it all but impossible for the writers to churn out adequate stories set in the past. Either no one would take the Doctor seriously, thus rendering her all but useless, or everyone would improbably fall for her irreverence and charm and the story would be historically inaccurate. There were a dozen ways the rest of us managed to explain away this potential stumbling block, both with narrative workarounds and at least a dozen male-dominated stories where this happened (not to mention the show’s frequent historical cock-ups), but they fell largely on deaf ears.

For all the bleating and cat-fighting on the internet, it was clearly preying on the mind of Joy Wilkinson – late of Nicholas Nickleby and now the writer of two episodes of this year’s Doctor Who. The first of these is ‘The Witchfinders’, in which the intrepid Time Lord and her companions land the TARDIS in the wrong place and wind up in a (literal) witch hunt. Taking charge as is her custom, the Doctor swiftly finds herself demoted, outvoted and dismissed by the patriarchy, and ends up accused of witchcraft herself and tied to an anachronistic ducking stool. Meanwhile, the witches aren’t really witches at all. But you knew that before they’d finished rolling the opening titles, didn’t you?

Fun fact: in this week’s episode the word ‘Satan’ is used thirty-nine times. Thirty-nine. I know this because I checked the subtitles. It’s almost as bad as the overuse of ‘fungus’ in the Mario movie. It wouldn’t be a problem had they unpacked things a little bit. Oh, there’s a passing reference to Lucifer. The rest of it is cries of “Burn the witch!” from authoritarian dignitaries and disappointingly quiet villagers; there is a token nod to the Bible but the Doctor casually brushes aside any religious arguments about Satan, merely declaring herself ‘not a fan’, while Graham quotes Pulp Fiction.

There’s a lot of reacting going on in ‘The Witchfinders’. Graham wears a hat; that is about all you can say for him. Ryan’s job is to look uncomfortable, but Cole does this extremely well and thus it seems almost churlish to bring it up. Whittaker, for her part, is snooping around examining the mud like a caffeine-fuelled archeolologist and mostly getting wet, at least during the scenes when she’s not sending Yaz off to do a bit of family liaison – real police work for the second time in two weeks. (Why is it only the guest writers who remember Yaz’s career choices? Did Chibnall forget his own brief, or does he simply not care?)

As seems to be the custom this year, Wilkinson keeps her supporting cast light: three with speaking roles, and one whose job is mainly to advance through a forest holding an axe, leering like someone doing a cut-price Jack Nicholson impression. Siobhan Finneran (Benidorm, Downton Abbey) acquits herself well enough: the revelation that Becka is related to the witch she accuses comes as an interesting twist that sadly goes nowhere very promising. She’s out for blood against Tilly Steele (Victoria), who does a decent line in frightened peasant, before becoming sufficiently empowered to lend a hand in Whittaker’s final rescue operation, marching across the fields with flaming torches like a Frankensteinian mob.

Then there’s Alan Cumming – an extremely talented actor who is clearly having a ball with this cacophony of mud monsters and pitchforks, although it is frankly difficult to see him as anyone but Alan Cumming. Playing James I like an effete pantomime baron – or at the very least a supporting character in Casanova – he is a braggart and a poseur, condescending to the Doctor (who stomps away complaining about being ‘patronised to death’) and flirting with Ryan. It’s a warm and memorable performance but there’s something off key about it: something that hearkens back to Graham Crowden in ‘The Horns of Nimon’, a serious part rendered utterly ridiculous. Is this a good thing? It depends whom you ask, surely?

Certainly Cumming (largely thanks to the considerable amount of screen time he is given, not to mention the insights into his lineage) has the effect of transforming the story, rendering a dark fable largely ridiculous and impossible to take remotely seriously even in its most sinister moments. Not that we can blame this entirely on him, considering the monster-of-the-week is an imprisoned race of alien warriors who emerge when a woman cuts down a tree, taking the form of sentient, bodysnatching dirt. At least I think they were alien warriors. While we leave the forests of Lancashire knowing King James all the better, the Morax – surely a verbal play on Lorax, Dr Seuss’s ecological fable – are a by-product, a last-minute substitute for real witchcraft, a focus for the villagers’ hate. There are dark things afoot in Pendle Hill but none of them concern black magic, just a panicky landowner who cannot cover her tracks quite fast enough.

In a way it’s a great shame that the story doesn’t actually feature any real black magic, because Clarke’s third law – to which Wilkinson pays affectionate homage at the episode’s denouement – has been done to death by now. The convenient dismissal of the occult happens in just about every story in which it makes an appearance, with the notable exception of ‘The Satan Pit’, introducing a monster whose existence even the Doctor isn’t able to adequately explain. “Maybe that’s all the Devil is, in the end,” he muses to Ida in that episode’s best scene. “An idea.” It’s a powerful moment, rendered all the more so for the story’s uncertain conclusion. But this is an infrequent occurrence, memorable for precisely that reason, and whether it is ‘The Daemons’ or ‘State of Decay’ anything supernatural in this programme is typically cast into the harsh light of reality the moment the TARDIS crew turn on the lights. With certain rare and deliberately ambiguous exceptions, the Doctor doesn’t do God.

Still, perhaps that isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps the lesson we’re learning from this Brave New World that is Chibnall’s Who is that it is capable of good things when it is worthy and serious, but even greater things when it is not. Would ‘The Witchfinders’ have worked better had it been graced with serious performances, or more elaborate social commentary than the brief monologue that we were given? It seems doubtful. Forty-five minutes is not long enough, and the world does not need another Crucible. In many respects this week was as wobbly and precariously balanced as a house of cards, but I spent most of it laughing. I’m honestly not sure, this morning, just how much of that was intentional. But nonetheless I was laughing. That’s not a bad way to spend a sabbath.

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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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