All is not well in Planet Who, folks. There is discontent over the absence of a trailer, anticipatiion fatigue over the BBC’s continuing refusal to name a date, and a general sense of ambivalence about whether it’s going to be any good considering the writers they’ve got on board for next series. And over in a Viking village, Edgar’s let his sneeze get the better of him again.
I spent half an hour yesterday trying to interpolate footage from this year’s John Lewis advert into footage of explosions and disintegrating snowmen and the cracking of ice. It did not go well. My heart simply wasn’t in it, which is never a good beginning. So I cleaned the bathroom instead. There’s no video this week, but at least the house smells fragrant. We’ve done John Lewis before – more than once – and that comparative post I did back in 2016 really is due a revamp. Maybe next year. Maybe.
There was a pile of good things. Georgia Tennant posted a photo on Instagram of her new baby’s induction into the world of Doctor Who, although there was some concern over the episode that she was watching.
“HUNGRY,” said one FB user I occasionally interact with, to which the response from me was “Wrong episode.”
“Close, though, right?”
“Five years out. So in the grand scheme of things…”
If we’re talking series 12, of course, you have to work with what you’ve got. For example, a few weeks back we became aware of a suspected leaked image from an upcoming sequel to ‘Flatline’, although there was immediate speculation as to whether or not it was fake.
It’s not fake, surely? I mean it’s got lighting and everything.
One thing that definitely isn’t fake is the Dalek redesign, which was recently spotted on Clifton Suspension Bridge during a closed ‘maintenance’ slot which was actually booked for the BBC. There was immediate uproar over the apparent redesign, which served no purpose except to highlight the double standards inherent in the assessment of such things, because the Cybermen have been going for almost as long as the Daleks and the new ones are basically unrecognisable, whereas the Daleks have hardly changed at all over the years and the moment they do there’s wailing and crying and gnashing of teeth. Maybe that’s the whole problem. Perhaps a general evolution would have made the removal of the sink plunger an acceptable thing. Perhaps they’ve signed up to a twenty-four hour callout service and there’s no longer any need to do it themselves.
Anyway, it turns out there’s a reason for it.
I’ve been struggling a little bit with Thomas’s school this week, who have been perhaps less than understanding about some of his additional needs, even though they usually do a good job. We have explained to him that while copying out the question before you add the answer does seem rather pointless, you sometimes simply have to toe the line and pick your battles. We live in a system of assessments and targets and indecipherable lingo, and with four kids at four schools it really can be a bit of a minefield.
Anyway, Thomas is basically happy, but I do wish he’d read more. It’s Ripley’s Believe it or Not or a Beano annual or something in the Big Nate range, and while I’m not a reading snob of any sort there’s a wealth of great stuff out there he’s missing out on simply because he can’t be bothered. Occasionally – just occasionally – you can find something that’ll interest him, like we did when we found a Derren Brown book about hypnotism and the power of suggestion. He’d developed something of an interest in the man after regular visits to Thorpe Park this year where we all got rather attached to the Derren Brown ghost train – a ride I’m not allowed to spoil, because they ask you not to. Then this book showed up in a charity shop and he was riveted. It’s the sort of thing that makes me shudder, just faintly, because whether it’s genuine psychic ability or a simple confidence trick Brown is a piggin’ genius and the thought of Thomas going down that road makes me wonder what the consequences would be. It’s like giving the supersoldier serum to Red Skull. “No man should have that kind of power.”
I was trying to find something for him the other week when I stumbled upon this hideously inappropriate Doctor Who novel. I could still let him read it; the joke would probably sail over his head.
Audiobook available soon from all good streaming services.
Star Wars updates now – and cometh the man, cometh the Mandalorian.
It’s not just me, is it? Tell me it’s not just me.
I am trying to put my finger on the moment I lost interest in the Star Wars franchise. It might have been the Clone Wars movie. It might actually have been Shadows of the Empire, Lucas’ 1997 foray into episode 5.5 territory that tried several approaches, none of which really worked. The book was particularly disastrous. Years down the line and we’re bombarded with spin-offs no one asked for and comparatively few people watched and now there’s a TV series about a masked bounty hunter who may or may not be Boba Fett (is he Boba Fett? I haven’t bothered to find out) and oh look, George Lucas has changed the Greedo death AGAIN. If I’m grouchy about this it’s because Disney has announced this week that they’re pulling the Lego Star Wars exhibit from Legoland Windsor because for some unfathomable reason the sight of tiny brick men in a dimly-lit walkthrough will be enough to prevent people going to their own Star Wars-themed parks, most of which are in another country. I am one of the few people who objected to Disney buying the thing a few years back – as far as I was concerned they couldn’t come up with a bigger mess than Attack of the Clones, and thus far I’ve been proved right – but this annoys me. Next time I might just take the kids to a museum instead.
I mean honestly.
We conclude with politics, and Kay Burley has an empty chair in her studio.
I had a conversation with Trevor Baxendale about this: he’d said it didn’t work for him because the Silence wasn’t actually invisible (a mistake many Who fans seem to make when they’re making jokes about them online), so surely she’d be able to see it? We were back and forth for a bit, with me explaining myself and the two of us eventually agreeing that the actual concept of the Silence was so vague there is wiggle room. Better yet that we should concentrate on episodes of Doctor Who that actually work. Like ‘Heaven Sent’, for example, seeing as we seem to be on a bit of a series 9 kick this morning. I had cause to rewatch ‘Heaven Sent’ this week – for reasons that will become apparent another time – and one thing that strikes me is how meticulously constructed the whole thing is; aside from certain questions about where the first set of dry clothes came from it really hangs together quite well.
When I’m not prepping badly Photoshopped memes or writing lengthy discourses for The Doctor Who Companion, you will often find me hunched over entry level video editing software, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’ll strip out audio, chop and swap to avoid copyright infringement, download effects, spend an aeon scanning for rogue frames. It is a lonely and not always rewarding experience – the ideas never quite manifest on screen the way they do in my head, and the videos I upload to social media are, more often than not, a question of ‘that’ll do’ rather than ‘that’s good’. I learned a long time ago to stop beating myself up over this. There’s nothing wrong with striving for self-improvement, and I’m always looking for ways I can do things better, but ultimately this is a hobby. Video editing is like sex: even average results are better than no results. At least you’ve done something.
No one watches me on YouTube any more. Facebook seems to be where it’s at. But I like YouTube; it allows for a more permanent, easily accessible (and malleable) archive that I can herd into collective posts like this one. And today, I bring you another instalment: we’re in the late stages of 2018 now, with three short videos I knocked out at the tail end of last year. I don’t think they’ve been seen by anyone who is likely to offer me a job, and as far as I am aware none of them made the likes of Doctor Who Magazine. But that’s fine. When your audience is small but appreciative, as opposed to large and fickle, there’s no pressure to outdo yourself. In each case I looked at the final result and thought “Yeah, that’ll do” – and sometimes, that’s actually a good place to be.
1. Whovian Kombat: The Witchfinders vs. The Satan Pit (November 2018)
Regular readers here may remember that back in late 2018, I was counting Satans. Well, to be specific, the number of times the word was used in ‘The Witchfinders‘, an episode obsessed with exorcising the demon (hunches shoulders, closes eyes, breathes out, says ‘This house is clean’ in best Zelda Rubenstein voice). My gosh, there were a lot of them. You don’t notice until you string them together, which I did, just for the fun of it. Bearing in mind that everyone speaks in colloquial (or at least understandable) English in this story – at a point in history when the language as we know it was still evolving – you do wonder if it’s a TARDIS translation thing, and that the old girl has got bored of all the other names they’ve been churning out and has interpreted everything as ‘Satan’ simply because she can’t be bothered. Or maybe demon fatigue has nothing to do with it. The TARDIS is always a little bit wary when it comes to the divine: like Alistair Campbell’s Labour party, as a matter of principle it doesn’t do God.
Anyway, this sort of evolved into a new feature: Whovian Kombat, in which we take two hopelessly mismatched episodes of the show and dump them in the Thunderdome until one of them has beaten the other to a bloody pulp. And in this instance there was an obvious candidate; obvious, that is, in more ways than one. You’ll see what I mean – but as a public service announcement I am completely out of ideas for a sequel, so if anyone has any episodes they’d like to see thrown together in this manner I would welcome all your comments. If no one can think of any, that’s probably not a bad thing. Sequels have a tendency to be rubbish, as Mad Max 3 proved in abundance.
2. Doctor Who meets Kermit the Frog (November 2018)
I didn’t like the frog. A lot of people did; a lot of other people found it rather silly. It’s a shame, in a way, because it’s the sort of abstract surrealism that I usually go for in abundance. I loved ‘Warriors’ Gate’. And the cinematic, almost portentous direction in the first half of ‘Androzani’ – in which the camera lingers, spying through keyholes and following at strange angles – is one of my favourite moments in Classic Who. And yes, I get that Grace loved frogs and that they clearly set this up from the beginning. That doesn’t mean it works.
The truth is that final scene is the straw that breaks the back of an already stumbling camel. The narrative that precedes it is trite and laboured; the story (such as it is) is dull, the dialogue second-rate. By the time the Doctor steps into the cost-saving white space containing a chair with a frog on it, I was already fed up. Series 11 was a mixed bag – some of it was marvellous, a lot of it was pleasingly average, and some of it was frankly dreadful – but this was a nadir. Generally the fan response to such things is to write lengthy rants about it in grumpy, swiftly-locked Facebook posts, but over the years I’ve found the best way to rinse out the taste of a bad experience is to take the piss out of it, which is exactly what I did.
You have to watch what you’re doing when you’re redubbing Kermit. There are two of them (well, three since the last one threw in the towel) and while Whitmire does a more than adequate job of reproducing Henson’s affable tones, there are subtle differences that stand out when you put the two of them together. So with the exception of the beginning, which borrows from the ‘Coconut’ sketch in Kenny Rogers’ 1979 Muppet Show appearance, most of these are actually from the soundtrack to The Muppets, the movie that catapulted the frog and his pals firmly back into the limelight – largely because Kermit’s at his most raw and vulnerable, which seemed to fit the vibe. And, because it’s the Muppets, we finish on a song. Fifteen seconds to curtain, Ms. Whittaker.
3. Resolution Trailer: Recut (December 2018)
Chris Chibnall said, more than once, that series 11 was “the perfect jumping on point”. I don’t know why I’ve put that in quotes when I’m paraphrasing. But you get the idea: you can start, if you want to, from the moment Ryan Sinclair fails to ride his bike, having never seen a single episode of Doctor Who before, and you’ll be fine. Certainly it almost worked; this felt, as much as anything had in years, like a clean break – right down to the lack of familiar monsters and only the vaguest mentions of the past. Yes, there were nods to ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’. That could easily have been a joke, had you not known such an episode existed. It’s all a far cry from series 3, in which the Doctor sits down with Martha and tells her all about Gallifrey, just after they’d escaped an obscure Troughton monster that no one really remembers because no one has seen it properly for decades. And yes, I know they just released the thing on Blu-Ray. Work with me.
But in any case – and for better or worse – that was almost what happened this time. There were throwbacks to the past (some of which were apparently put in to troll the already disgruntled), but you got the feeling that there was a sense of ripping up the worksheet and starting over – and it is this, I’m convinced, that angered many of the fans who felt they were watching something that no longer felt like Doctor Who. That’s another debate for another day (and watch this space for that) but it was something that did at least feed quite nicely into the much hyped trailer for the New Year special, in which the name of what the Doctor describes as ‘the most dangerous creature in the universe’ was held back until the episode proper. We all knew what it was anyway, but it added nicely to the tension: if the Doctor is scared, then we should be starting to panic a little bit ourselves. What could possibly be scarier than a Dalek?
Barney. Barney the bloody purple dinosaur. That could.
I’m sure you’ve all been sitting there with baited breath waiting for part two of my collection of Doctor Who Companion episode summaries, and you know how I hate to disappoint you. This is going to be a long one, so let’s get straight on with it – do be aware that things get a little silly in this installment, for which I make no apologies whatsoever. Oh, and if you missed part one, it’s available here.
Demons of the Punjab
(I wrote the review for this one, and thus didn’t provide a summary. But this is what I would have said if I had…)
‘Stepping back into history is nothing if you don’t put some sort of contemporary spin on it. It’s not enough to narrate the Partition of India (important as that may be); such moralising may be well-intentioned but it ultimately comes to nothing if you don’t pack the twenty-first century lens. And so it is that 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?”
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.
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. Is the moral hand-wringing appropriate for prime time BBC? That’s another post. In the meantime, at least you can enjoy the view.’
No, no, no. This won’t do at all, McTighe. Twists? Balanced arguments? Subtlety? Structure? That’s not a fit for 2018 Doctor Who, and you know it. It was all going so well, and then you had to spoil things. I’m incredibly disappointed. You’ve let me down, you’ve let yourself down, and you’ve let the whole multiverse down.
Let’s take a look at how that would have ended if Chibnall had written it, shall we?
INT. WAREHOUSE LEVEL. DAY
The Doctor, Yaz and Ryan stare in horror at the scene: thousands of workers, across the vast packing level, juddering and writhing in a distorted and grotesque fashion, their bodies spasming with what looks like electrical pulses. Veins pop, and the eyes of each worker have gone ghostly white.
CYNICAL EXECUTIVE: Watch closely, Doctor. Watch, and witness the next stage of efficiency.
YAZ: Doctor, what’s happening to them?
DOCTOR: The virus is entering its final stages. It’s only a matter of moments before they’re lifeless corpses reacting purely to electrically stimulated impulses. Going through the motions, but to all intents and purposes, dead. Clinically dead.
RYAN: You mean like X-Factor finalists?
DOCTOR: Not now, Ryan!
RYAN: Sorry. I trip over words sometimes as well as my own feet. It’s ‘cos I’ve got dysprax-
EVERYONE ELSE: WE KNOW!!!
YAZ: Isn’t there anything we can do?
The Doctor locks eyes with the Cynical Executive, who keeps his gun trained.
DOCTOR: Help them. These aren’t machines, they’re people! They can’t function in a state of constant productivity; they need rest! They need interaction! They need time away from the packing spaces! This obsession with productivity has driven them into the ground. That’s why they reached out to me – well, one of ’em did. I knew something was off at Kerblam the moment we arrived – just couldn’t see what it was. So I dug. And now I find you’re turning them into zombies!
CYNICAL EXECUTIVE: It’s too late, Doctor. When the virus enters its final stage, they will reach a state of uninterrupted productivity, at the cost of most neural functions. They’ll be able to perform the roles we give them, never stopping, never resting, never tiring. We call it… permawork.
Graham is still over at the side of the room, tending to Forgettable Sidekick, who is sat in a chair.
GRAHAM: Doc, she’s fadin’!
Yaz does that thing with her eyes, Ryan shuffles his feet, and the Doctor bites her bottom lip and looks like she’s trying to smell a fart.
DOCTOR: Fading… but not succumbing! That’s it! It’s technobabble jargon jargon resulting in a speedily delivered convenient plot device!
YAZ: Yer wot?
DOCTOR: SHE’S IMMUNE!
She turns with a flourish and does that thing with the screwdriver. You know the one. The Dance School routine.
CYNICAL EXECUTIVE: Wait, no –
DOCTOR: Sorry fella. This order’s been cancelled.
The Doctor whirls on the spot, and points the screwdriver at the strip lights above the assembled mass of workers. A jolt of electricity zips down and hits everyone. The lights go out momentarily. When they flicker back on, the hordes of workers are miraculously restored to normal, staring at each other, brushing the dirt from their clothes. There’s probably an inter-racial hug.
RYAN: What did you do?
DOCTOR: Reversed the polarity.
YAZ: The polarity of what?
DOCTOR: Oh, I’ll explain later. [To the executive] Just as you’ll have some explaining of yer own to do, once the authorities arrive. I’m sure they’ll be very interested to learn about the lengths you’ll go to just to meet a sales target.
CYNICAL EXECUTIVE [With a smirk]: They’ll have to catch me first.
He rolls up a sleeve and punches a couple of buttons on a concealed pad, and then blinks out of existence.
DOCTOR: NO!!! Gaah. Always the teleport.
GRAHAM: Anyone else notice this seems to be ‘appening every week?
‘Fun fact: in this week’s episode the word ‘Satan’ is used thirty-nine times. Thirty-nine. I know this because I checked the SRT file. It’s almost as bad as the overuse of ‘fungus’ in the Mario movie. Of course, Satan doesn’t make any sort of appearance and the witches aren’t really witches at all. But you knew that before they’d finished rolling the opening titles, didn’t you?
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 fairly pointless 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?)
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?
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. 45 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.’
‘There’s a scene at the end of The Battle of Ranskoorav Kolos that is as inevitable as it is disappointing. Out of breath, heavily armed, and as angry as we’ve ever seen him, Bradley Walsh is given the chance to avenge the death of his wife, and he bottles it. It would have been so nice (not to mention realistic) if he’d pulled the trigger; it’s no less than Tim Shaw deserves, and watching him face the repercussions of that –heaping him in with the likes of Wonder Woman, or Brad Pitt at the end of Se7en – would have made for a fascinating story. Instead, Chibnall lapses into the most oft-mined cliché in the action movie handbook, apart from the slow-motion flame run (and we even get a bit of that as well). Graham becomes the bigger man, and good old Tim is locked up on a planet with no security, in a cryogenic prison that’s so easy to open even Ryan could manage it.
It’s a shame, really, because – while hardly a classic– Battle does offer us a glimpse of the Doctor Who we’d got used to in recent years. That’s not to say this is another Journey’s End (and by the way, Chibbs, referencing that story in this one really doesn’t do you any favours) or even a Doctor Falls. But it does have pitched battles, the Earth in peril, and rifle-toting robots with AI that’s so terrible it manages to outgun Assassin’s Creed. Everyone gets out alive (well, almost), and everyone gets to be useful. There are even extensive quarry sequences. Who cares that they’re basically ripping off The Pirate Planet?
And yet… And yet there is a problem with unleashing this low-octane melange of explosions and countdowns, because all it does is make you wonder how the episode might have looked had Russell T Davies been at the helm. Perhaps the result would have been no different – the BBC can spin all they want but it’s obvious that Doctor Who’s had its budget cut this year, and this gets to be a problem when they’re clearly hearkening back to the fiery set pieces we’d become accustomed to over the last decade and a bit. Sat next to them, the end product is like one of those films where the heavily-armoured jeep gets stuck in the mud and the heroes have to go the rest of the way on a stolen micro-scooter. If the impression we’ve had all this year is that of a work in progress, rather than something that’s forged its own identity, then it’s worrying that this damp squib is all they can pull out of the hat for a series finale. Or perhaps the New Year’s special is the actual series finale, and this was just the build-up.But either way, it doesn’t help when, having spent 9 weeks bleating about how we need to move on from the old days, an episode like this merely serves to remind me how much I miss them.’
(This was another one of mine, and as we go to press the collective write-up is still forthcoming. But seeing as we’re here…)
‘As well as being a remake of Dalek, Resolution is also an exercise in restraint. That we do not see the Dalek proper until the fourth act is a risky stunt, but one that pays off: there was a deep-rooted fear that it would be reduced to little more than a cameo, the sort of thing the BBC show as little as possible because they’ve only got the props for one afternoon, but thankfully it’s unfounded, and the resurrected creature emerges from the smoke with plenty of time to spare. For a cobbled alien built with junk by an archaeologist, it is almost comically robust, right down to the jet pack thrusters and the tank-breaking rockets hidden behind its bumps. It is an excuse for an explosive showdown with the army from which the Dalek emerges unscathed, flying off into the sights of military jet planes and angry Twitter users who complained about ‘needless reinvention’. (For the record, it’s not needless and it’s not a reinvention; it’s an improvised Dalek made from scrap and you know perfectly well that you’ll buy the bloody thing when it comes out in May.)
There is the usual fan-baiting and the structure is off-kilter and some of the dialogue is dreadful – but somehow, none of it matters. This is as high octane and blazing as we’ve got this series – and even if that’s not a great deal, it somehow feels like enough. Whether it’s the galactic firework display that opens the narrative, the TARDIS crew standing at the doorway wearing expressions of unbridled, childlike joy; Segin Akinola’s pleasingly retro score; the numerous offscreen adventures the Doctor and her companions have been having that will have fan fiction writers reaching for notebooks… just the sheer joy of the thing, it all zips by in an hour of silliness, a metal dustbin doing ridiculous things before getting covered in lashed-together circuitry in a scene worthy of Scrapheap Challenge. It feels like the most overused monsters in the canon are fun again, and for all the clunky dialogue and jokes about the internet and narrative shortcomings (are we really supposed to be worried about the fact that the Dalek is about to call a fleet that isn’t there?), this is that rarity in Nu Who: an episode that I not only enjoyed but would actually watch again. Twice Upon A Time had us asking whether there could be any such thing as a good Dalek, when perhaps the question we ought to have been asking was whether, in today’s day and age, there could still be any such thing as a good Dalek story. If Resolution proves anything, it’s that the answer can be ‘yes’.’
It’s no coincidence that during the screening of this week’s Doctor Who I started thinking about The Iron Giant. Specifically there’s a scene at the end of The Iron Giant where the shattered leviathan lies strewn and scattered across the world, having been partially incinerated in an atomic blast, only for its fragments to jiggle and wobble and then gravitate towards the disembodied head, buried in the ice like a decapitated Statue of Liberty, gradually and painfully reassembling. Assuming you’ve seen the New Year’s special – specifically its opening scenes – you will know why this moment sprang to mind. You will also remember that The Iron Giant was about an unorthodox family dealing with advanced alien technology and military bureaucracy, at which point the analogy more or less breaks down. But still. The jiggling components remain: a loose collection of nuts and bolts knitted together into something that shouldn’t make sense, and yet somehow does.
‘Resolution’ is ostensibly a remake of ‘Dalek’, which was in itself a remake of ‘Jubilee’, making it a cannibalised slip of a thing: a hotchpotch of ideas and themes that crawls from the belly of post-hangover prime time entertainment like something that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be. Part domestic, part love story, part Nationesque action adventure, part sprawling epoch-jumping drama, it has a go at everything, trying on a variety of outfits over the course of its hour-long running time, and just about gets away with it. The result is a light, airy affair, with discussion points kept to a minimum. The links to ‘Dalek’, for example, are slighter than they may appear, and are largely about setup rather than thematic elements – being restricted solely to the concept of a lone, conveniently superpowered travel machine that has been cut off from its fleet and is understandably desperate to phone home.
But ‘Dalek’ – whatever Russell T. Davies may want to tell you – was never about introducing Nation’s finest to a new audience. It was about reinventing the damned thing so it was improbably potent, drawing a huge number of parallels with the man who was trying to kill it. In many ways it was a strange choice for a first Nu Who Dalek story: this creature that was more like the Doctor than anyone had previously cared to admit, setting the stage for a dozen similar confrontations over the next decade, all saddled with the curse of diminishing returns. There is none of that here; no soul-searching from the Doctor, save a couple of hurried lines – Whittaker confessing, over furrowed brow, that she “learned to think like a Dalek a long time ago”, before seeking affirmation from her companions that she’s given the Dalek sufficient warning before trying to melt it with bits of an oven.
But that’s all you get. For the most part, there simply isn’t room. There is a lot of fetch and carry, but it occurs at breakneck speed: the Doctor flies back and forth along the vortex, events seemingly transpiring in real time, parking the TARDIS with newfound precision in front rooms (crushing at least one chair, which will have the Facebook groups arguing for weeks about continuity) and on city streets and in the confines of GCHQ come the episode’s fiery finale. There is technobabble but the Doctor seems infused with a new sense of purpose, someone who’s been given a tangible and unambiguous enemy to fight, when she gets the chance. It is not until the eleventh hour that she actually gets that chance, but it is worth the wait, just.
This is, once more, a story about family, Chibnall sidelining some of his characters during the episode’s downtime so that they can deal with personal issues. Early on, Ryan – who apparently can’t decide whether to call Graham ‘Gramps’ or ‘Grandad’ – takes his estranged father (Darren Adegboyega) to a familiar-looking cafe so that they can not quite bond, Aaron’s prepared monologue about running from your mistakes apparently falling on deaf ears. A few minutes later Graham has a go, with considerably more success, although the net result is unavoidably cloying. They make for the weakest moments in an otherwise decent script; it’s not that Chibnall can’t write domestic, more that…actually, look, Chibnall can’t write domestic. On the other hand, neither could Davies; Camille Coduri just about walked out of series one with her dignity intact but ‘Love and Monsters’ was – for all its other brilliance – simply embarrassing at times, at least when Jackie was on screen. Moffat wasn’t much better, decorating his heartfelt monologues and teary exchanges with a barbed wit and layered emotional pathos that frankly never felt real or authentic, becoming the sort of approach that outstayed its welcome long before the man who actually turned in the scripts.
Is it fair to say that Doctor Who’s family scenes only really work when they happen offscreen? Perhaps it is. Perhaps we’re being overly harsh. Nonetheless it is the family scenes that grate this week, and it’s a pity in a way that the story’s climax hinges around the possibility that we might lose a supporting character who was there largely to provide narrative closure and a convenient (not to mention clumsy) plant and payoff. That this doesn’t happen – the seemingly inevitable self-sacrifice of Aaron postponed, at least for a year or two – is, at least, quietly refreshing, even if Ryan’s old man is far too happy to accept that his son travels the cosmos in a flying police box with a whole tick sheet of BBC diversity rendered flesh.
Elsewhere, there’s the usual fan-baiting. The Doctor waxes lyrical about her own father, in a deliberately ambiguous exchange that provides a Rorschach of possibilities. Ryan is ‘a kid with dyspraxia’. There is also a line about Rels that had me on the floor. Still, you feel as if you’re being toyed with, each new location that the tentacled parasite visits providing a potential hotspot for the inevitable reunion with its casing. Surely it’s buried somewhere in UNIT headquarters? No, there is no UNIT – the taskforce conveniently sidelined as a result of Brexit-inspired shenanigans – and the nation that held its breath when Kate Stewart’s name was mentioned can let it out again in a hiss of disappointment, and then nip back on to iPlayer to watch ‘The Power of Three’.
That we do not see the Dalek proper until the fourth act is a risky stunt, but one that pays off: Briggs’ deep-throated growl is effective, and the sight of Lin (a watchable Charlotte Ritchie) shooting out speed cameras with an untethered ray gun undoubtedly had Top Gear fans cheering into their pint glasses, but it’s like watching an Avengers film where Bruce Banner can’t Hulk out (actually, did that happen? somebody told me that happened). There was a deep-rooted fear that it would be reduced to little more than a cameo, the sort of thing the BBC show as little as possible because they’ve only got the props for one afternoon. That would have been a reasonable assumption given the little we’ve seen of the TARDIS this year, but thankfully it’s unfounded – and following the sort of dimly lit montage that could have occurred on an episode of The A-Team (for the second time this series), the new Dalek emerges from the smoke like the prototype suit that Tony Stark built in the first Iron Man, all welded metal and anger. For a cobbled alien built with junk by an archaeologist it is almost comically robust, right down to the jet pack thrusters and the tank-breaking rockets hidden behind its bumps. It is an excuse for an explosive showdown with the army from which the Dalek emerges unscathed, flying off into the sights of military jet planes and angry Twitter users who complained about ‘needless reinvention’. (For the record, it’s not needless and it’s not a reinvention; it’s an improvised Dalek made from scrap and you know perfectly well that you’ll buy the bloody thing when it comes out in May.)
Somehow, none of it matters. This is as high octane and blazing as we’ve got this series – and even if that’s not a great deal, it somehow feels like enough. Whether it’s the galactic firework display that opens the narrative, the TARDIS crew standing at the doorway wearing expressions of unbridled, childlike joy; Segin Akinola’s pleasingly retro score; the numerous offscreen adventures the Doctor and her companions have been having that will have fan fiction writers reaching for notebooks…just the sheer joy of the thing, it all zips by in an hour of silliness, a metal dustbin doing ridiculous things before getting covered in lashed-together circuitry in a scene worthy of Scrapheap Challenge. It feels like the most overused monsters in the canon are fun again, and for all the clunky dialogue and jokes about the internet and narrative shortcomings (are we really supposed to be worried about the fact that the Dalek is about to call a fleet that isn’t there?) this is that rarity in Nu Who: an episode that I not only enjoyed but would actually watch again. ‘Twice Upon A Time’ had us asking whether there could be any such thing as a good Dalek, when perhaps the question we ought to have been asking was whether, in today’s day and age, there could still be any such thing as a good Dalek story. If ‘Resolution’ proves anything, it’s that the answer is ‘yes’. It wasn’t as good as The Iron Giant, but that’s OK. Nothing is.
An earlier version of this article, published 01-01-2019, contained an error of judgement. It mistakenly attributed UNIT’s suspension to a funding crisis, rather than a retrospectively obvious Brexit gag. This has now been updated.
By the time this little missive turns up on the feeds, I will be in Swansea. I trust your week is going well. I will probably be shouting at the kids. One of these days I really must take them down to Cardiff and do a proper location tour, rather than simply strolling along Roald Dahl Plass and giggling at the Ianto shrine. I need to go and check out that cemetery, for example, and re-enact bits from ‘The Girl Who Waited’ in Dyffryn Gardens. So many power stations, so little time.
As I write this it’s late July, we’re still in the middle of a heatwave and it’s almost impossible to think remember a time when it wasn’t insufferably humid. But the last holiday we had – and one I’ve unfortunately neglected to write about until now – was back in February, when we visited Haworth in Yorkshire, under a couple of feet of snow. Home of the Brontë sisters (and their wayward black sheep), Haworth is hilly, picturesque and overly tourist-driven, particularly in the old village, but it’s not a bad place to spend a week, and the moors are right on your doorstep – providing you can cope with the mud.
Still, you don’t want to see my holiday slides. Well, you do; just not all of them. What possible interest could the BoM audience have with seven shots of us rolling an enormous head up a 1:3 slope? (I knew I didn’t think that one through.) Or panoramic views of the Peaks? You can go to Shutterstock for that sort of thing and you’ll probably find the lighting is better. Still, we did go to Cliffe Castle Museum, in the heart of Keighley (pronounced Keith Lee, for some unknown reason, although I live in a country where Godmanchester is pronounced ‘Gumster’ by the locals, so clearly it’s not worth turning over that particular stone). And this was on the top floor.
Cliffe Castle is home to a dazzling array of…stuff, from ancient Egyptian artifacts to nineteenth century tea bricks (Google it). There are ornate chandeliers in the Victorian parlour, contemporary paintings around the balcony, and there’s an impressive taxidermy collection near the geology exhibition. You walk through one room that deals with farming traditions into an ornate summary of the formation of the Earth, from magma through to Cretaceous, in an impressive inner sanctum with black walls that make the colours stand out. Sod local history: I’m going to look at rocks.
Speaking of stuffed animals, we did find this during our wanderings.
It’s hard to miss it, really, isn’t it? Apparently this really was a genuine sheep, born of ewe and graced with two heads; by the looks of it the poor thing didn’t live very long. It is in here because we think it resembles a Smiler.
My family and I visited an awful lot of museums on this trip – one of my favourites was the Bradford Industrial Museum, which has an impressive array of classic cars, printing presses and just about every loom that rolled off the production line, and if you’re not well versed in the history of weaving when you go in, it’s a dead cert by the time you leave. There are live demonstrations and workshops and a temporary exhibit near the gift shop – and that was where we found this.
I mean. it’s Peter Cushing, isn’t it? He’s changed his hair but I’m sure I can spot Roy Castle in the back somewhere.
One thing this neighbourhood is famous for is its art – or one artist in particular. David Hockney (you know, the swimming pool guy) was born in Bradford, and don’t they know it. Nowhere is this more prevalent, perhaps, than Saltaire – a model village (in the aspirational, as opposed to physical sense) that’s now a World Heritage Site since the mill closed its doors, before re-opening them to reveal a bookshop and hipster cafe. The mill’s enormous ground level is now a spacious, almost cathedral-like exhibit dedicated to Hockney (and a number of other artists): vast murals dominate the walls and ethereal music is piped through the speakers. It’s an almost religious experience, and I say that as a lifelong churchgoer.
We went to Saltaire, but just down the road from the Industrial Museum there’s a smallish gallery called Cartwright Hall, which doesn’t have any incense, but which does have a prototype for Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor costume in the Hockney exhibition upstairs.
Hockney’s a permanent fixture at Cartwright Hall, but the stuff downstairs is shaken up every couple of months. When we went there was a room dedicated to old circus posters, which was far more interesting than it sounds, and an entire wall of Abzorbaloff victims.
Meanwhile, spotted in a Bradford underpass: the DWSR team that never made it back from the ‘Flatline’ shoot.
Admit it, you’re secretly pleased.
What were we doing in Bradford? Amazingly, we weren’t there for Indian food (which Bradford does very well). We were visiting the National Science and Media Museum: five floors of old cameras, magic lanterns and a nice little exhibition about the history of the internet. (There’s also an IMAX cinema, for those who can afford that sort of thing.) If you troop past the walls displaying old cartoons (which are frankly a little unsettling) you will find the penguin jewel heist from The Wrong Trousers – the only set that Aardman didn’t lose in the fire that hit their studios several years back. There’s also an old arcade full of slot machines and consoles from the 70s, 80s and 90s, where we spent a happy half hour revisiting Asteroids, Gauntlet and Sonic The Hedgehog, and where I swiftly remembered that I was never any good at Street Fighter II.
This week at Brian of Morbius, as news emerges of Elton John’s Grand Farewell Tour That’s Going To Take Three Years, an unexpected guest singalong at one of his concerts prompts concerns over cultural appropriation.
Elsewhere, proceedings at the Superbowl are interrupted by an unexpected pitch invasion.
An exclusive still emerges from a Doctor Who casting session that was mercifully denied the green light of approval.
OK, this one caused a rumpus. In its original form it garnered a fair number of comments, many of them negative and one or two calling for my head. Some of the best made it to the testimonials page. Timing was part of it; we published this on the tenth anniversary of ‘Parting of the Ways’ and Eccleston’s regeneration. It’s like holding an anti-war protest on Armistice Day. If that sounds like I’m overstating my case, you haven’t seen Doctor Who fans when they’re upset…
Eccleston was a great actor, but he never felt like the Doctor
Published: 18 June 2015
I’ve loved Christopher Eccleston for years.
I loved him in Shallow Grave, where he played an unhinged Scot who drilled holes in the attic floor. I loved his brief, disconnected cameo in The Others, and his turn as sadistic Major Henry West in 28 Days Later. His performance in The Second Coming was a literal revelation. I even love him in Gone In Sixty Seconds, in which he makes the most of a dog’s breakfast as Raymond Calitri, a crime boss who gets to stick Nicholas Cage in a car crusher – which is something I think we’ve all wanted to do for years, or at least since 8MM. Calitri eventually falls to his death, but his best scene occurs earlier in the film, during an angry confrontation with Cage: “Am I an arsehole?” he asks directly. “Do I look like an arsehole?” (Cage’s response is a quiet “Yeah.”)
So let me repeat that disclaimer: I love Eccleston. He’s a talented actor and, if the rumours about his on-set conduct are to be believed, a man of great integrity. But I could never get used to him as the Doctor.
These things are always going to be relatively subjective. Everyone has their own ideas of what the Doctor ought to be, and what he isn’t, and what he… never won’t be… sort of thing. And I suppose that my Doctor is always going to be BBC English (all right David, I’ll settle for Estuary), with fashion sense that dallies between elegant and eccentric. Eccleston’s minimalist look is (purposely) as stripped back as his Doctor, and similarly direct. And it seems strange to me that I should find it as foreign as the idea of Shaggy wearing a business suit. All this is accompanied by remarks about “beans on toast” (a line I cannot hear in the mouths of any other Doctor, except perhaps the Sixth, in the same manner that he delivers the words “carrot juice?!?”). It all seems – and forgive me for this dreadful snobbery – it all seems a bit too working class. I know that’s the point, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
It’s not the accent. I don’t think accent in itself is the problem, because I have no issue with Capaldi’s Glaswegian twang, even if I occasionally have to turn on the subtitles to make out what he’s saying above Murray Gold’s frankly intrusive score. It’s no problem having a Doctor who’s not from around here, although I think I was probably one of many people who was hoping that the Twelfth Doctor would use the words “Lots of planets have a Scotland” at some point in Deep Breath. (As it stands, we had the encounter in the alley, arguably more famous for being the first example of eyebrow fetish – and that regrettable scene with Vastra, in which Capaldi almost appears to be acting in a docudrama about Alzheimer’s.)
I watched Rose again recently with my six-year-old, and it’s sometimes tempting to wonder whether we’ve been more forgiving of that opening episode – of the series in general – than we would have been if it was in the middle of a Doctor’s run. How many of the shortcomings went unnoticed simply because it was Doctor Who, and it was back? Does it matter? I’d suggest it probably doesn’t, except when you line up all the Doctors in a row, whereupon Eccleston is the one that always sticks out like a sore thumb.
A friend of mine describes Vincent and the Doctor as “a good episode of something”, and in many ways he’s right: part of its charm lies in the fact that it’s relatively atypical. Similarly, Davies rewrote the rulebook in 2005 when he resurrected the show by effectively rebooting it. But it’s a trend that he and his successor spent the next ten years gradually undoing, and what we have now is a show that glorifies in its past, revisiting and rewriting it on a whim. And I wonder if the fact that the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors take obvious cues from previous Doctors – in a way that the first casting did not – has skewed my appraisal of the Ninth. In other words, to what extent is a failure to accept Eccleston a reflection of what’s come since, as much as what came before?
But there’s more to it than that. Not long before the 50th anniversary episode, I created (purely as a lark) a series of tables that charted the average effectiveness of each New Who Doctor when it came to dealing with the end-of-episode threats that he faced, at least when compared to any companions or supporting characters who wound up doing most of the work for him. In many ways the data is flawed, because he gets only one series in which to prove himself, but it should be no great surprise that the Ninth Doctor sits at the bottom of the list. He’s rubbish.
It is his incompetence, indeed, which forms much of that first arc. That first batch of episodes is to all intents and purposes about the Doctor learning to be the Doctor again. The central concept was that of empowering the companions so that they are no longer screaming girls, and it is the Time Lord himself who is forced to diminish in order for this to happen. (When Rose admonishes the Doctor after their encounter with the Nestene in the series opener, proclaiming that he was “useless in there”, it more or less sets the tone.)
A brief analysis of that first series reveals a game of two halves. It’s all building up to Dalek – a good story, although the Big Finish drama upon which it is based is better. The finale of Dalek has the Doctor actively confront the monstrosity from Skaro, wielding the sort of gun you’d normally expect to handled by the likes of Jack (you almost expect Tennant to pop his head round the corner, raise an eyebrow and remark “Compensating for something?”). It’s a powerful moment, although anyone who seriously thinks it’s dramatically out of character clearly wasn’t watching the programme in the ’80s.
After Dalek – which I’ve always described as the Emperor’s Throne Room moment, given that it’s the point at which the central character comes close to losing the plot – Eccleston’s touch noticeably lightens. There is less brooding. At the end of The Doctor Dances he is boogieing around the TARDIS to the strains of Glenn Miller. But he still seems off somehow. The finale to that episode sees the Doctor fix the zombified patients simply by waving his hands. There’s excessive arm-folding. The ‘ape’ jokes are borderline offensive. It’s partly the scripts, but he feels like someone playing the part in a pantomime.
Then there’s a moment in Parting of the Ways where it clicks. It’s a small scene, in which the Doctor is on the floor of Satellite 5, assembling things out of cables and bits of circuits and chatting quietly with Rose. I like it because all of a sudden it feels right. I like it because, for just about the first and only time that series, Eccleston ceases to be the actor trying to play the Doctor, and actually becomes the Doctor.