Posts Tagged With: doctor who

Review: Resolution

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.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Festive Edition)

“Oh. You’ve redecorated.”

The snowman is about the best part of it. The rest of it looks deliberately pasted on, which I suppose is the point. I can never quite get the hang of lighting in things like this, but I suppose if we’re talking about a fictional alien spacecraft in an entirely made-up TV series, it doesn’t matter if things look a bit plastic.

Anyway, having done up the TARDIS, it’s off for a spot of carol singing.

It’s been a funny few days, really; the fans are angry about the absence of a Christmas episode, never mind the fact that the constant repetition of the ‘Resolution’ trailer meant we had more Doctor Who on our screens yesterday than we have for years. It was helpful, at least, that the BBC finally confirmed what most of us had already figured out even before it was leaked. (And for the record, they never denied the existence of Daleks, nor did they say they were gone for good. So no one lied to you and you can stop complaining about it.)

Meanwhile, in the real world, people are arguing over exactly what may or may not have been said about the Prime Minister, presumably in an attempt to avoid discussing the stuff that actually counts.

Those of you still crying out for a Christmas episode could always head over to The Doctor Who Companion, where I’ve written a festive short story featuring the Thirteenth Doctor and her companions. It features time travel, bad Photoshopping and jokes at the expense of the fandom, and there may be a couple of Father Ted references.

Meanwhile, over here at BoM, the Twelfth Doctor is unable to understand the appeal of stag parties.

“Is there something on my head?”

Anyway, people always talked about wanting a musical episode, and I saw a couple of musicals recently and then one thing sort of led to another…

Incidentally, a very Happy Christmas to all of you at home.

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Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition, part 5)

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that it’s Wednesday and I have yet to upload a review. That’s in no small part because I was asked, at rather short but nonetheless welcome notice, to do a review for Metro, and you can read that one if you really want to, although it should be taken as read that it’s somewhat different to the one I’d have posted here.

But you know, audiences and that. I do have something quite special planned (that’s ‘special’ in a Church Lady sense, of course), but to help you while away your time while I get that finished, here’s a few…things to keep you going.

First up: Jodie Whittaker’s the king of the world. Sorry, that should be ‘woooooooorrrrlllld’.

On a hospital ship heading towards an outer colony, the damaged P’ting is healed by an unexpected visitor.

Elsewhere, in the forests of Lancashire, Nintendo resorts to unorthodox marketing strategies in order to shift units.

But that’ll have to go on the back burner for now, because the Eleventh Doctor would like a little chat.

See you in a few days…

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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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Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition, part 3)

“Yeah. Like this, wasn’t it?”

You would not believe the flak I got from this one. I had to block three people. Some pointed out it was badly Photoshopped; it is. Others said “HOW DARE YOU DESECRATE THAT WONDERFUL MOMENT WITH THIS IMPOSTER”, or words to that effect. I said that it was there simply because I observed Whittaker walking through a forest and the image jumped out at me. I’d say that some people have too much free time, but that’s a bit pot-kettle, isn’t it?

The scenery in ‘Demons of the Punjab’ was, of course, one of the best things about it, although travelling through those wonderful grasslands and woodland glades does have a downside.

That’s to say nothing, of course, to what happens when you get to the edge of a cliff only to find there’s an unexpected visitor sneaking up behind you.

Oh, and finally this week: proof, as if any were actually needed, that episode five really was a conundrum.

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Review: Kerblam!

Picture the scene. Jodie Whittaker is standing by a group of uniformed warehouse staff, all of whom are about to succumb to a fatal virus. She is in the process of shouting down an angry executive. Graham is standing six feet away, wrapping a blanket around the delirious, pockmarked supporting character they’ve picked up on their journey through warehouse central. Ryan is fidgeting, and Yaz is doing that thing with her eyes.

But our eyes are on the Doctor. “Look at them!” she’s yelling. “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!”

The executive smirks. “One hundred per cent correct, Doctor. And now it’s too late for you to stop me. 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…”

He pauses for emphasis. “Permawork.”

It is a silly thing, written in the shivery, pre-caffeine moments before the dawn on what is shaping up to be a cold and frosty November morning, but I think it’s probably the sort of sequence many of us were expecting in last night’s episode. The news that Doctor Who was off to Amazon had me raising my eyebrows: was this to be another rant at consumer culture, the want-it-now generation, a response to the many rumours about practices and policies behind the closed doors of the retail giant’s gargantuan premises? Certainly you’d be forgiven if you thought it was. The very first thing that happens in this episode – no, belay that, the second, right after the Doctor has fished out a fez from a cardboard box – is the discovery of a printed note, containing the words “Help me”, echoing stories in the broadsheets. But in a way you can’t blame Pete McTighe (this week’s guest writer) for avoiding outright condemnation. BBC Worldwide have to work with Amazon, after all – they stock the Blu-Rays. There are lessons to be learned from Rain Man, which was censored – and sometimes banned outright – on in-flight movie showings after Dustin Hoffman’s character refuses to get on a plane because they’re not flying with Quantas. Guess which airline was happy to screen the movie uncut?

Or perhaps it’s simply that McTighe is a better writer – better at least than Chibnall, who would have gone with the zombies plot, and consequences be damned. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing: if I do I have to reassess the entirety of series 11, and I’m not doing that before coffee. Perhaps if something like this had cropped up in the Moffat era, in which twist-laden stories were the show’s bread and butter, the eye with which we judge would be a little more critical. Nevertheless: as it stood, we got an episode of Doctor Who that surprised me, and in a world where I’m really starting to think I’ve seen everything the show has to offer, that’s TV gold.

At its core, ‘Kerblam!’ is a lighthearted and often humorous take on the daily grind of shift work and the feeling you’re a cog in a machine. It’s something I’m only able to relate to partially – I did my stint in a warehouse over twenty years ago and that was very much on a casual basis – but the jokes about office politics come thick and fast and are largely delivered by white-eyed, passive-aggressive robots who tilt their heads in a manner that ought to make more than a few of us feel uneasy. The outward friendliness that masks what is essentially a master-slave relationship is about as zeitgeisty as it gets, and they remind me of a temporary contract I had with a large insurance company I elect not to name – twenty of us crammed into a small space on the first floor of an anonymous building on the outskirts of a business park – and the woman in charge of our team who came over to me on the final day of the placement when I was chatting to a friend, to politely warn us that we’d been “spotted”. Nearly two decades on I’m still trying to work out exactly what she meant by that – I’d gone to school with this particular supervisor and it was difficult not to feel put out, particularly since the aforementioned friend and I had hit all our targets six weeks running.

The robots in ‘Kerblam!’ do not discriminate, unless there’s a reason. Certainly when they snatch away Kira (Claudia Jessie, recently seen in Vanity Fair) it’s hard not to feel a sense of relief. Kira is one of those irritating types you meet at university, the one who’s had a rubbish childhood and is now graced with flatmates from hell, but who is determined to make the best of her situation by singing badly at open mic evenings. Mercifully Kira does not carry a guitar, but even though she grates you know she’d be perfectly suited to Charlie, the doe-eyed janitor who is the epitome of Hugh Grant-esque social awkwardness whenever he has to be within touching distance. The four travellers watch from the sidelines, and Graham manages to have a brief heart-to-heart with his learning mentor in a darkened store room. “Have you smelt her?” Charlie enquires, eagerly. Walsh doesn’t let the smile slip from his poker face. “Funnily enough,” he replies, “I haven’t.”

That Charlie turns out to be the episode’s villain comes as a shock – as does the death of Kira, disintegrated to atoms when she touches booby-trapped bubble wrap. It’s all part of a series of tests that Charlie’s been running – testing out bombs on unsuspecting workers before enacting his master plan, which is to kill thousands of customers at once in order to destroy the public’s trust in machines. This is the same year that The X-Files did the exact opposite, in a strange, practically wordless episode in which Mulder and Scully are beset by angry drones when Mulder refuses to tip a robotic waiter. It was decently executed, but there was a heavy sense of deja vu that mercifully fails to permeate the confines of this week’s episode – there’s something refreshing about the way McTighe subverts the Angry AI motif, particularly when the unmasked villain turns out to be this story’s Professor Quirrell.

One of the nicest things about ‘Kerblam!’ is the way it manages to find roles for everyone. While Graham is off mopping floors with Charlie, the Doctor and Ryan are busy in the packing room – Ryan’s uncanny dexterity explained away by nods to a previous job, in the episode’s I Have Dyspraxia moment. They also have time to raid an office or two; McTighe sensibly gives us two executive types, one more ostensibly dodgy than the other, but all roads lead to Rome, and both of them turn out to be trustworthy. Meanwhile, Yaz is paired with Lee Mack, who warns her not to touch the antique lamps. Mack plays an older, world-weary version of his Not Going Out persona, and it’s a shame that more isn’t done with him – his early death, too, comes as something of a surprise, although it’s hard not to burst into giggles when Yaz is seen walking down the empty aisles of the warehouse yelling “Dan! Dan! Dan!” like Alan Partridge. But if this is the first week that Team TARDIS feels like a name that actually fits, it’s the guest stars that shine – particularly Julie Hesmondhalgh, brilliantly warm as an out-of-her-depth head of HR who nonetheless feels, at times, like she could secretly be a criminal mastermind, blustering and heartfelt and acting just about everybody else off the screen.

There’s nothing particularly world changing about this week. It starts with unexplained mysteries, ends with a bomb in a hangar, and mines enough reserves from the sinister robots cliché to last us until 2020. But there are plenty of things we could say about the people I spoke to last night who said that, for the first time this year, they were watching something that “felt like proper Doctor Who“. I’m not really sure where you go from that – whether that’s an unfair assessment, or an indication of a general drop in quality, this episode a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory, rather like Sick Boy’s assessment of The Name Of The Rose. If you’re a regular here you know my feelings on this year and we won’t have that conversation again, at least not for another week or so.

Still, none of that matters for the moment. ‘Kerblam!’ is ridiculous fun in the best sense of the word. Like many stories in the canon it is strongest when it is being deliberately silly – whether it’s the Doctor trying to talk a drone out of an existential crisis, or Ryan, Yaz and Charlie’s video game inspired descent through dispatch, easily the biggest laugh Doctor Who has given us in a long time. It is punchy, aesthetically pleasing television, delivered with the same panache, efficiency and attention to detail as a parcel from Kerblam itself. Just don’t touch the bubble wrap.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Brexit Edition)

You will notice – or at least you will when it subsequently doesn’t show up – that there is no God Is In The Detail post this week. To be honest I thought it best if I leave this one; it seems disrespectful.

Let’s talk about something else, shall we? We’ve got a stack of episode 5 and 6 memes coming your way soon, but they can wait a bit. We’re getting behind in our coverage of current events; for example, 5th November came and went.

So, for that matter, did National Sandwich Day.

In music, news emerges of the other Spice Girls reunion.

And there’s conspiracy and intrigue over at the BBC when a certain entertainment journalist meets a sticky end.

All of which brings us neatly up to today, when Theresa May unveiled her new Brexit secretary.

Ah, the Brexit secretary. The only significant Civil Service role where the occupants last less time than the Chelsea manager. I have watched today’s events with an unhealthy mixture of amusement and alarm. How did we end up here, with this dog’s breakfast? What was the point at which people lost their minds? Perhaps my spectacles are rose-tinted but I’m sure – in fact I’d stake my reputation on it – that there was a time we were sensible about these things. There was a bit of politeness. We listened to each other, or at least we were sufficiently reserved to give the outward appearance of listening, rather than simply waiting for the other person to finish so we could say our bit.

My grasp of the situation is somewhat limited, but from what I understand, a year or two ago somebody made a controversial decision to shake up a system that a number of people – a large number, or a small-but vocal number, depending on who you talk to – didn’t seem to like very much. There are all sorts of reasons why this might have happened, but the fallout was anger and division and an awful lot of arguing, and now the woman who’s acting as figurehead is getting heaps of abuse even though most of the problem has nothing to do with her.

Some are saying we should have done this years ago: others are saying it’s a bad idea full stop. And there are a few people saying “Told you so” in response to a much larger group of people who are complaining that while they wanted change, they really didn’t expect it to be quite like this.

So that’s where we are, in a nutshell. I think I might go and watch some Doctor Who now, to take my mind off things.

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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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