Doctor Who ventures into dangerous waters when it tackles the surreal. Sometimes (‘Warrior’s Gate’, ‘Heaven Sent’) it works beautifully. Other times it’s like those all-you-can-eat buffets that serve pizza and chips alongside the curry and prawn crackers: an enjambment of elements that don’t quite come together, but which you’ll happily ingest anyway because at least it’s calories. Is it a good idea to venture into the domain of the unorthodox when the show is already struggling? Charlene James (this week’s co-writer, arguably most famous for a play about FGM) might not have realised quite what she was getting herself into, but given that Doctor Who has spent this year utterly confused as to its own identity, what she’s managed to produce is an uncannily appropriate precis of where we’ve got to, which is no mean feat.
To all intents and purposes, ‘Can You Hear Me?’ is this year’s ‘It Takes You Away’: abstract, meandering and often confusing, a world where you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s imagined. Hopping from fourteenth century Syria to the orbit of a distant star – Sheffield, as per usual, acts as an intermediate waypoint – the Doctor is investigating monsters in the dark and anomalous biological wave patterns, along with the strange wrinkled fellow dressed as the owner of a London bookshop sneaking in and out of people’s bedrooms. No one knows who he is (spoiler: he’s not the Black Guardian) or why he’s feeding off the nightmares of unsuspecting children like some sort of dark and twisted BFG – still, Graham’s getting headaches and can’t deal his cards properly. Something’s got to give.
The evidence all points to a curious planetary alignment, and thus – with a sense of aplomb that that’s becoming quite alarming – Whittaker puts on her Resolved Face and fires up the Quattro. But no sooner has the TARDIS gang arrived at their destination (a roomy, predictably metallic spacecraft, or a beacon, or something; I wasn’t really paying attention) than they’re all plunged into a series of nightmares: Graham is haunted by the spectre of Grace, who informs him that his cancer has returned; Yas is abandoned on the hills over Sheffield; Ryan is given a vision of the apocalyptic future teased in ‘Orphan 55’. The Doctor herself gets a brief glimpse of the Timeless Child (although I can’t be the only one who was hoping that her initial confrontation with Zellin would turn out to be a dream), wandering outside the Gallifreyan citadel in the manner of something in a Japanese horror film. These nightmares are rendered flesh thanks to a parasite that buries itself in the ear canal; it’s like a slightly less unpleasant version of The Wrath of Khan. “It may be,” said one online acquaintance, “the first time in history that a main DW villain has given the Doctor the finger.”
It’s not entirely without context. The early parts of the episode deal with domestic drudgery and the fact that the Doctor’s companions all have worlds they’ve left behind – a concept not explored properly since Davies was in charge (Moffat, while fond of dipping in and out of his characters’ Earth-bound existences, nonetheless gave them a curious sort of dependence on the TARDIS, a succession of well-heeled addicts constantly looking for their next fix). Here, for the first time in Chibnall’s run, we learn what happens when your nearest and dearest have to manage without you: Yas’s sister Sonya can’t hold down a job, while Ryan’s friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang, seen out on the basketball court in the first part of ‘Spyfall’) has lapsed into depression. The timings with Time To Talk Day are deliberate and it’s hard not to shake the notion that both James and Chibnall were writing from a spec sheet, but it’s not totally incongruous, just a little rushed. (Curiously, Tibo’s venture into support group territory includes a grump about supermarket self checkouts, something the BBC seems to dislike in general.)
‘Rushed’ might be a decent word for it, actually. ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ suffered from having almost no story: ‘Can You Hear Me?’ suffers from having rather too much. The net result is an episode that wants to push the envelope for the companions, leading up to an inevitable departure for at least one of them (visualised on screen by a wordless exchange of nervous glances across the TARDIS console at the story’s conclusion), but it does so within the context of establishing a separate mythos and by introducing supporting characters who show promise but who barely have room to breathe. This is one of those stories that would have benefited from two parts – more insight into the nightmares, more time with Tibo and Sonya and a better, more character-driven expansion of the false gods’ motives would all have been welcome, and the lesson to be learned here is that you can’t always have your cake and eat it, particularly if you only have fifty-odd minutes before the cafe shuts. It is an onslaught of ideas and concepts and themes, as confused about its own identity as Ryan apparently is about his own.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crucial expository scenes with Zellin (Ian Gelder, rather less sinister than he was in Torchwood), who appears on the spacecraft in a literal puff of smoke and then proceeds to namedrop half a dozen Classic Who characters for no reason other than the bet that Chibnall was presumably trying to win. I’m sure it must have sounded splendid as pure concept: in practice it is an atrocious melange of ephemeral garbage, there purely to keep the Gallifrey Base threads ticking over. Things improve marginally when Rakaya turns up, strutting around like an intergalactic supermodel with her own portable wind machine, and the animation that explains her imprisonment is decent enough, but it’s too little, too late. You can almost picture Chibnall at his writing desk, knocking back that third whiskey and poring over James’ script while browsing his Twitter feed, seething “Fine. You want references? SNACK ON MY WRATH, FINK RATS!”
This is a great shame, because there’s actually quite a lot in here to enjoy, if you can extract it from what is a structural car crash. The set design and cinematography are both imaginative: Graham, shot from above, as if observed by some unseen phantom, foreshadowing both the arrival of Zellin and the cameo from Grace; the wide-angled shots of Mandip Gill, alone and isolated in the countryside; the neon, Tron-like sparsity of the ship / beacon / outpost. There’s even a stab at fleshing out Yas, something Doctor Who has needed for quite some time. While James’ dialogue fails to ascend the lofty heights of the show’s heyday, she does, at least, have a flair for reasonable conversation – Whittaker’s closing dalliance with Graham, awkward for all the right reasons, is quintessential Doctor, and if it makes you angry and uncomfortable, it should.
A brief foray online confirms that the angry voices are invariably the loudest, but one thing I’m struggling with this week is the recurring accusation that this was “more preachy PC bullshit” – the meat of which seems to have escaped me, at least during a first watch. Perhaps it was the ethnically diverse casting, a by-product of the fact that Ryan and Yas both hung out with people of their own skin colour. Perhaps it was the notion of a crinkly white god who was to all intents and purposes subservient to a hot-looking black god. Perhaps it was the inclusion of mental health issues, which – while awkwardly shoehorned – stayed just the right side of condescending, largely because the Doctor wasn’t in the room. None of this is a problem, and the insistence the fandom has of labelling everything that jars “PC bullshit” serves no purpose – it’s the same reason I can’t get on with “bad writing”, which serves as a euphemism for “this episode was not to my taste and I can’t really explain why”. Forgive me if I’m preaching to the choir, but at the risk of sounding like a shill, one reason it’s called political correctness is that sometimes, believe it or not, it’s actually correct.
It still doesn’t work, though. This is two good episodes crammed into a single, mediocre instalment: a heady concoction of ideas and concepts that unleashes a series of frivolous monsters and has them tackle big issues. There is no sense of real menace about Zellin or Rakaya, which is part of the point – the real monster is man’s inhumanity, not to man, but to himself. But it takes time to adequately convey a message like that, and somewhere along the line, between all the curries and the FIFA games and the hospital drips, the message gets rather lost. The central question the story poses, at least ostensibly, is ‘Can You Hear Me?’: an appropriate answer might be “Yes, but we have no idea what you’re trying to say.”
On the upside, at least there were no bloody frogs.
Happy December! Did you know that the Master’s hatred of Will Ferrell spawned an unexpected seasonal tradition?
It’s Monday, which means two things. First, I’m entirely failing to finish tidying the lounge. Second, it’s time for our regular roundup of news and gossip from the world of everyone’s second favourite TV show (right behind Stranger Things, which I will get round to seeing one of these days). So what’s been going on in Whovania this week?
Needless to say, Jodie Whittaker has dominated. It’s not enough that we had two – two! trailers in the space of a week; we also have an episode title and guest cast. (At the risk of implementing a well-worn cliche, Doctor Who trailers are like buses, only they’re like buses in Reading town centre on a Friday night, because you have to wait ages and then two come along at once and you can’t actually hear yourself think on there for all the shouting and food fights and babies throwing toys out of prams. At least you can block these people on the internet; you can’t do that on the 38 to Purley-on-Thames.)
Still. I think we can all agree that ‘Spyfall’ really is a fairly dreadful title, although it did give me the excuse to do this, which almost works.
What happens in ‘Spyfall’? Well, there’s a bit of gubbins about rewritten DNA and Stephen Fry turns up playing a character called ‘C’. Whittaker herself is heard to mutter “The name’s Doctor…the Doctor” in a moment so gut-wrenchingly corny it could only have come from the hand of Chris “HELP ME WITH MY BEATLES QUIZ, MUM!” Chibnall, but this is the sort of thing I’m prepared to let go if I’m watching something enjoyable. ‘The Crimson Horror’ was thoroughly stupid, and occasionally excruciating, but it was also fun. Isn’t that really what Doctor Who is supposed to be about? Fun, and hopefully not too transparently woke?
I’ve been thinking about the word ‘woke’, really. It implies a heightened state of awareness, the notion that all those who are not transparently and overtly tuned in to injustice and equality and political correctness are in some way unconscious. It’s ridiculous terminology because there’s really nothing wrong with being asleep, particularly when you’ve spent a hell of a long time campaigning and fighting and you just need a bit of a rest. You never get the full story, really, do you, from someone who seems to be the opposite of ‘woke’? They’re just dismissed as fossilised dinosaurs who have no awareness of the world around them, rather than someone who has perhaps more awareness than you’d care to realise, and who has learned how to pick their battles, and who has decided that the best thing for their own state of mind is to give the outward appearance of being asleep.
“Yeah, I think we’re gonna have to cancel Christmas.”
While we’re at it, I have another pet hate I’d like to just mention and then talk about another day when I have more time.
Seriously, this is what happens if you let the internet write Doctor Who scripts.
There’s also news about the upcoming comic crossover in which Jodie Whittaker encounters the Tenth Doctor; one that had already given rise to speculation that he would appear in the next TV series for the current Doctor to castigate (in a conspiracy laden video I refuse to link to, because it’s bollocks and I’m not giving them the traffic). After much back and forth between the idiot fans who genuinely thought this was happening in the TV series and those of us who actually read beyond the headline, we’ve finally cleared up that this is a spin-off, and that whatever happens it’s probably not going to be hateful. I almost wish it was, really; you might as well give the haters something to really complain about.
In any case, it’s now emerged that said crossover will actually be a revisitation of the events of ‘Blink’, but from the perspective of both Doctors rather than Sally Sparrow. Unfortunately the most widely-shared link for this story came from Screen Rant, who ran with “BLINK TO BE REWRITTEN” (paraphrasing, but that was the sentiment), in a story I refuse to link to for reasons that should by now be obvious, and then all hell broke loose because many people, it turns out, are too thick to go any further than a fan baiting headline.
I had a near miss with writing for Screen Rant; did I ever tell you? I will spare you the details, but let’s just say there were one or two creative issues with their work ethic, and given the garbage they put out these days I think it was a lucky escape. Teaching piano is far more fun, and nobody tells you to kill yourself.
A little Star Wars news now, because I’ve got a stack of gags, and Jodie Whittaker’s got a bad feeling about this.
There’s also an exclusive press photo from the Episode IX After Party.
And this deleted scene from ‘It Takes You Away’ suggests that the BBC originally planned something quite different for last year.
It’s very easy to knock the direction Star Wars has taken, simply because it’s contemporary. You remember what you choose to remember, which was that the Ewoks were rubbish but at least they were cute rubbish, and that yes, Jar Jar was racist, but I suppose it was a long time ago and anyway it’s NOT AS BAD AS THAT STUPID SCENE WHERE LEIA SHOOTS OUT INTO SPACE. Likewise, there are a bunch of people yelling at Chibnall for producing an overly simplified portrait of racist white people in ‘Rosa’, simply because that was the best way to tell a story which (let’s be honest) was aimed at kids, and every single one of these people has completely forgotten the laboured monologues we used to get from McCoy and Pertwee and Hartnell, mostly when they were slagging off the military, or the lecturing about sweat shops in ‘Planet of the Ood’, or…I mean, if we’re going to throw any shade in the direction of last year, couldn’t we just agree that the monsters weren’t much cop? I don’t mind straight white men being the villains, because that’s kind of the way it always used to be, but the new creations they did include (benevolent or otherwise) weren’t so much offensive as simply dull. But that’s all fine, because Bradley Walsh has promised us that series 11 will feature some “absolutely terrifying monsters”.
I think this’ll be the last batch post for a while. We’ve taken a good chunk out of the meme backlog, and while there are still quite a few to go up, they can stagger in as and when, like drunk students crashing back into halls of residence after a night down the union. At least one of them might involve a traffic cone.
Today’s theme – if you hadn’t guessed – involves images involving more than one Doctor, which is something I do quite a bit when the ideas come. They do seem to come thick and fast these das, which is an indicator that I have more free time than is strictly healthy, but at least one family member appears to be following in my footsteps. This is both encouraging and slightly alarming. A bit like life, really.
We begin with a couple of Doctors celebrating the summer solstice, which should give you an idea just how long some of these have been hanging around.
Meanwhile, in a nearby playground.
Time Lord songwriter’s workshops.
Impromptu lightsaber battles.
Derby walking tours.
Posted without comment.
“This mirror’s brilliant; I look years younger.”
So there’s this guy I found on Facebook who takes pet photos and one thing sort of led to another.
“Bugger off, David.”
Time Lord mid-air collisions.
Edward set this up. Edward is five. I am worried about Edward.
Today’s post is all about the haters. Yes, you. You there, at the back. The people who leave angry emojis on everything Thirteenth Doctor related – not because it’s not funny or because it’s obnoxious or overly cute; just because it’s her. I’ve seen you. You never comment, and you never explain yourself when you’re critiqued. It’s clearly a hang-up about Whittaker (I will accept, at a push, that some of it may be about Chibnall) because this sort of reaction doesn’t appear on any other post. Why do you do it? What’s the point? And don’t give me that bollocks about how you’re repressed, about how criticism of Whittaker has accusations of “SEXIST!” flung in your direction so you have no choice but to hide behind emojis, afraid to say what you think because of the online censors. This isn’t fucking North Korea. Man up.
In any case, here’s a bunch of Whittaker-themed stuff that I’d been stockpiling for an occasion like this. Enjoy it. Except you there, at the back. I know you won’t. Well, you can’t win ’em all.
First and foremost, here’s Jodie Whittaker celebrating Yorkshire Day.
Meet Jodie Whittaker, the other Fifth Beatle.
The Doctor and the Brigadier explore a nice part of the forest.
Memories of chips.
The princess and the frog.
Who wore it best?
Time Lord parents’s evenings.
Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber training isn’t going too well, until the Doctor comes up with a new strategy.
Exploring the corridors of the Tsuranga, the Doctor and her companions stumble upon the worst horror of all.
I think this one more or less speaks for itself.
“Oh great; we’ve got a squatter.”
A YouTube stunt goes horribly wrong over at the Kerblam! warehouse.
And finally, parked up in a forest, the Doctor has an unexpected visitor.
“Never heard of him. But I’m going that way; I can drop you…”
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’.’
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…
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.