I mean, I made this one weeks ago, the last time it happened, but it seems fairly topical right now.
You have to feel a little bit sorry for Theresa May. She inherited an absolute dog’s breakfast, a situation that no one was going to be able to resolve because the concept of government in this country (and, indeed, in many democracies) is far more about the acquisition of power than it is about getting things done. No one had a clue how to pull out of the EU, and from what I can see we still don’t. And as Forrest Gump would say, “That’s all I got to say about that.”
Talking of Brexit:
You will have your own suggestions: please leave them in the usual place.
Brexit is having an effect on the economy, of course, with yet another great British retailer headed firmly down the tubes.
Actually I haven’t been in an HMV for years – well, specifically the last time I was in London alone, which would be for the ‘Twice Upon A Time’ press screening back in December 2017. I’d tried unsuccessfully to buy my mother gloves (no suitable gloves – in Oxford Street!) and wandered in; I’d been briefly tempted by a bobble-headed John Hurt, but in the end had left empty-handed. The unfortunate truth is that I don’t really like the place very much. It’s expensive, unless you’re multi-buying, which is what I used to do – come away with five CDs for £30, or two or £15 if it was the newer stuff – and they would sit on my shelves and never get played, another contribution to the great accumulation of stuff. Just before Christmas we had a big clearout of stuff, and the local charity shops were seeing me almost daily. I feel as good about it as I did a year back when I got rid of all my Doctor Who DVDs. (They’re still here digitally, of course, but hard drives are much easier to store.)
I once passed out in the Reading branch of HMV; did I ever tell you that? It was a hot summer’s day over two decades ago, and I was temping at the civil service, earning a little cash to see me through university. I’d while away the lunch breaks wandering the shops and would often find myself casually re-filing all the CDs that punters had left in the wrong places, only to have other customers assume that I worked there – at least that’s what I assumed, seeing as they were asking me to direct them to the Classical section. On this one particular Tuesday I dropped off in a dead faint not far from the video section and awoke as I was being shepherded down the escalator by two paramedics. I spent the afternoon in hospital. The next day I was back, moving Bob Dylan back to the D’s.
Moving on to other matters, there’s been drama over at Sandringham this week.
I was in an Oxford leisure centre yesterday when I overheard two elderly gentlemen remarking that “Young people have accidents too” – a sentiment I would not in any way disagree with. The remarkable thing about this was that I had genuinely forgotten that Prince Philip is standing there with his TV doppelganger, although Smith only plays him in the first two series, with Tobias Menzies taking over for series 3. The question of who they’ll get to play him in later series, as the televised queen approaches middle age, is still open to debate. Timothy Dalton, perhaps?
That episode was almost a decade ago. Can you believe it?
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’.’
Shameless plug alert, folks: this is where I talk about The Doctor Who Companion. It’s a fan site that grew out of the not-exactly-defunct* Kasterborous.com (there’s a story there; you can read about about it if you want) and is run by Phil Bates, who is a capital fellow even if we disagree vehemently over whether the show’s currently any good or not. Phil is lovely to work for because he’s always very, very grateful for anything I produce for him, even though a lot of the time the pleasure is largely mine: it’s lovely to find an editor who is willing to let you write about whatever you please and who is willing to publish three-thousand rambling diatribes without ever asking you to cut out a paragraph or two; frankly I marvel at the people who manage to get all the way through them. But it’s a great site (I am unavoidably and unashamedly biased) because we aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions, and we manage to do a bit of everything – although we’ve spent most of the last three months looking in depth at Jodie Whittaker’s inaugural series.
The way The Doctor Who Companion works is this: each episode is reviewed by a different person, which keeps things interesting and fresh and allows for a variety of perspectives. While the user comments are drifting in for each episode, the site’s various writers are also hard at work preparing their three-hundred word summaries of each story for inclusion in that week’s communal write-up, published a few days later. This is great, as it allows you to still say your piece about episodes you particularly loved or hated even if it wasn’t one you got to review, and thus the DWC is a fan site that encompasses a wild variety of differing viewpoints, rather than concentrating solely on the positive or negative.
What I’ve found this year is that mine tended to be more positive than others. It’s no secret that (with one notable exception) I’ve generally enjoyed series 11, certainly more than some of the other writers and more than many of the regulars haunting the DWC comments file. Perhaps I’m not seeing something that other people see very well; perhaps it’s the other way round. Perhaps watching it with children gives things a different sheen; perhaps that’s the sort of smug elitism that I could do without. Or perhaps I’m just going soft in my old age. The truth – inconvenient as this may be – is that I don’t care about Doctor Who as much as I once did, having (d)evolved over the last couple of years into a sort of comfortable post-fandom where I recognise that it’s just a fun little TV show. I’m either the perfect person to be writing about it or the worst possible choice, depending on who you talk to.
Anyway, here are the summaries for series 11, simply because we might as well. If you’ve been reading the reviews I post here, you’ll find a lot of what I say vaguely familiar, because it is a bit of a copy-and-paste. There are no apologies on offer for this: I have a family and we need to keep the house tidy. I don’t want to tip this into TL:DR territory, so we will publish this in two instalments. Here’s the first, encompassing episodes one through five. The rest (including Resolution) will follow in a day or two.
The Woman Who Fell To Earth
‘In a way, this episode was cursed from its very inception. When you change everything at once – particularly the sort of changes we’ve seen over the past year or two – you loop a millstone of expectation around the neck of whatever it is you’re creating. It was never going to live up to the hype. The Blade Runner sequel didn’t, and they had a budget that would rival the annual GDP of some East European countries. What chance the BBC?
As first stories go, I’ve seen worse. Oh, there’s no real plot, but that’s not a bad thing. The narrative in post-regeneration episodes always plays second fiddle to the establishment and development of both new Doctor and, where appropriate, new companions: that’s exactly as it should be, and in this instance the new TARDIS crew show great promise. It’s easy to look at this as a box-ticking exercise but they’re real people doing real things, and after years of smugness from Moffat, it really is a breath of fresh air. Most importantly, Whittaker herself is confident, sparky and believable – there are clear echoes of Tennant both in her manic technobabble and heartfelt reassurances to the people whose lives she’s forever transformed.
Not everything works, of course. The social commentary is hopelessly shoehorned and the monster is about as derivative as they come – and you’re left, after the end credits have rolled, with a general sense of ‘meh’. Still, there’s a lot to like. With a pleasingly retro title sequence and refreshingly nonintrusive score, it’s a new direction I think I can get behind – along with a Doctor I’m prepared to follow, if only to see what she’ll do next.’
‘In the grand scheme of things, I suspect The Ghost Monument will be remembered in much the same way as The Bells of Saint John, The Lazarus Experiment, or Delta and the Bannermen. It is staggeringly average. There was nothing about it I loved; similarly, there was comparatively little I didn’t like, and certainly nothing that made me want to throw things at the TV. It jumps straight in: last week’s cliffhanger is resolved quite literally at the speed of light, the Doctor and her companions rescued from the vacuum of space faster than you can say ‘Bowl of petunias’ by two of this week’s guest stars. We have Epzo, hostile, treacherous and harbouring Freudian resentment since the day he fell out of a tree, and Angstrom – tortured, pragmatic, and conveniently lesbian.
It all looks very pretty, but it’s generally a bit of a misfire. There is needless shoehorning (including a pointless Call of Duty set piece) which may be crowd-pleasing but which only serves to undermine some of the very good character work going on, particularly with Graham and Yaz. Oh, and having Whittaker bring us up to speed by reading a scientist’s log book somewhat lessens the horror: it’s clear what they’re trying to do, but talking scarves really aren’t much of a threat, and besides, the sense of isolation was already done and dusted the moment the killer robots turned up.
It’s now apparent that Chibnall’s promise that these would be no series arc this year may have been a misdirection, as indicated by both the re-emergence of the Stenza and Whittaker’s apparent shock at being told about ‘the timeless child’, which may or may not have been the Doctor but probably is, in the same manner that Series 9’s Hybrid may or may not have been the Doctor but probably was. It’s too soon to know where we’re going with this, but it keeps the press hot and the fan theories bubbling, so everybody wins. There was a brief window when the comparative novelty of an overarching narrative was just about enough for the show to escape with its dignity intact: such an approach had worn out its welcome by the end of Series 5 and by the time the Doctor was stomping across Gallifrey in Hell Bent I was just about ready to throw in the towel and get on board that shuttle with Rassilon. Things may improve this year but there’s no point in sacrificing narrative for the sake of fulfilling a grand design, and if that’s really what’s about to happen again then the audience may be in for a long and tedious few weeks. Still, at least we’ve got the TARDIS back.’
‘It’s a curious thing, the butterfly effect. By and large, Doctor Who doesn’t do subtle, and even when it has a go they have to hit us over the head with the methodology. Still, it’s an effective way of doing things. A shift change here, a broken window there, and before anyone realises what’s happening years of progress are out of the window and segregation and institutional racism are alive and well in 2018.
We didn’t go there, quite, but you might be forgiven for finding the results a bit heavy handed. Has Doctor Who shifted once more into sledgehammer and nut territory? How else would you do it? There is no nice way to tell this story to its intended audience without talking about the way things are now, and no way to do so with the intended audience (kids) unless you are fairly transparent about it, and for all Malorie Blackman’s good intentions, while there are white people in charge, this is always going to come across as virtue signalling.
Was Rosa a stone that Doctor Who ought to have left unturned? Perhaps not. But make no mistake: it’s a throwback that is set to alienate a part of the fanbase as much for its style as for its content. This is as close to a straight historical as we’ve had in years, and that’s going to upset people. There are no monsters in the cupboard: merely an unpleasant man who could just as easily have stepped out of the house down the road as he could have warped in from the 49th Century. There is not a whiff of culture shock about Krasko and that makes him dangerously close to home – and it is this, I am convinced, that is likely to fuel much of the inevitable resentment that we’re seeing online from people who “aren’t racist, but”. The fact is, he’s much of a muchness: greater sins are committed by the people of Montgomery, and Krasko is bland and unrecognisable because he doesn’t need to be anything else. He’s not the villain. The villain is us, and all of us.’
‘There’s a scene at the beginning of Arachnids In The UK that is possibly its strongest moment. You’ll have seen it several times already because it’s the one the BBC used as their preview clip. It’s the bit where the Doctor lands in Sheffield, half an hour after she left, and releases her companions back into the wild, only for a guilt-stricken Yaz to ask her back for tea. It is a simple scene, with an obvious punch line, but it is absolutely endearing – not since the Duty of Care scene in Under The Lake has the Doctor been quite so lovable – and nothing else Arachnids throws at us quite matches it. Lesson learned? Hold back your strongest material, especially when people are going to watch you anyway.
This was a great episode, until its last 10 minutes. It’s frightening – the spiders are convincing, and the build-up to their reveal is decently handled, thanks to Sallie Aprahamian’s competent (if not exactly imaginative) direction. The leads acquit themselves well – Graham’s soft-eyed sightings of Grace are among this week’s quieter highlights, and Whittaker excels at just about everything, whether it’s striding through hotel corridors or trying not to eat Hakim’s dodgy pakora. The supporting characters are (for a change) interesting and engaging; Tanya Fear, in particular, excels as a scientist who is there solely to provide scientific exposition, but doing so with such flair that for once all the technobabble is actually fun to watch.
The ending is another matter. I don’t know. I spoke last week about how this was to all intents and purposes a kid’s programme, and have written reams elsewhere explaining why this is and how we must accept it and move on – but I do wonder if kids are the audience for this. Was it really necessary to have Robertson brandish his dead bodyguard’s firearm with an evil cackle like some 1990s supervillain? Even if it was, did we really need him to monologue, while the Doctor glowers about mercy, wearing a ridiculous spray gun kit on her back like someBlue Peter Ghostbuster? We were fine last week, because that was a story that was actively about social justice, but in something clearly designed to be a horror narrative (aired three days before Halloween) it feels like Chibnall’s trying to win a bet or something. I’m not adhering for stylistic unity, but moments like this just don’t fit.
It’s appropriate, in its own way. The last time the Doctor dealt with spiders we had 20 minutes of Hinchcliffe-inspired jump scares, followed by 20 further minutes of tedious social commentary, along with the revelation that the moon was an egg. I’m not so cross about that, but I do object to them shoehorning an abortion debate into what was, until that moment, a satisfying and frightening story. Arachnids doesn’t suffer from quite the same structural issues, but its climax, in which a leering Robertson declares that guns are what will make America great again – within 24 hours, as I write this, of another mass shooting – is undoubtedly hot property, but something that frankly could have done with a bit less piety and a little more subtlety. That Robertson escapes unharmed (and without so much as a by-your-leave by any character except Graham) is a sure sign that we will be coming back to him later, and if we’re counting possible story arcs in a year that we’re not supposed to be having them, I make that four for four.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter; perhaps this week the whole is greater than the sum. But there’s a sanctimonious tone to the conclusion of this story that taints it: the idea that all life is sacred, however many appendages you have. Has the Doctor never heard of pest control? Is she going after Rentokill next? When Robertson pulls the gun and announces that this is a ‘mercy killing’, you almost find yourself agreeing with him – and that, I’m convinced, is not how we’re supposed to be feeling. It all climaxes in a damp squib of a finale, the Doctor and her new friends (we’re not supposed to say ‘companions’ anymore, are we?) travelling off to new adventures in a sequence that’s supposed to be heartwarming, but simply isn’t. And as much as I’d like to put these moments out of my mind and concentrate on the good stuff, it’s scenes like this that linger like a bad smell. Perhaps it’s overstating the point, but how unfortunate that Arachnids should end its life the same way the mother spider ended hers – on its back, disorientated and confused, with all its legs wriggling in the air.’
‘For its first 15 minutes, The Tsuranga Conundrum is a godawful mess. The leads totter and stumble around a gleaming spacecraft trying to make sense of things, motiveless and directionless, meeting characters with no apparent pizzazz and learning snippets of information about a war that sounds about as interesting as all the food pictures that clog my Instagram feed. Meanwhile Whittaker is lurching along the ship’s many corridors (specifically, the same corridor shot six times from different angles) hacking the systems and generally behaving like the know-it-all brats you often see in Holby City who think they run the hospital. It’s not a bad thing to have a Doctor who – suddenly deprived of her TARDIS and still recovering from a life-threatening injury – is driven, maniacal, and not a little selfish, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun to watch.
Thankfully once we get our first glimpse of the carnivorous Pting – gnawing its way through the ship’s hull and mechanical systems with the appetite (not to mention diet) of Ted Hughes’ Iron Man and the ferocity of Gnasher from the Beano – the crisis is in place and things start moving along. The Pting is small but deadly, with an insatiable appetite and no apparent motive for its path of destruction, so the Doctor sets about finding one while a conveniently situated war hero is tasked with flying the ship, even though it will probably kill her (and ultimately does). She’s assisted by an android who is by far the most interesting character this week, and it’s a shame that we don’t get time to plumb Ronan’s hidden depths – because if you’re doing a cute version of Alien, surely the robot’s going to turn out to be dodgy?
It collapses in yet another damp squib of a finale, the Pting flushed into space while Graham drops in a convenient plug for Call The Midwife – but all that said, there’s nothing really wrong with any of it. The monster-of-the-week gets less screen time than Baby Avocado, but clearly that set was an expensive build and they’d already spent enough money on the spiders. What happens in Tsuranga is nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking – but failing to set hearts alight is hardly a capital offence, and if we’re in a place where Doctor Who is only worth watching when it says something then we have officially moved into interesting times and I might have to find myself another show for my Sunday evenings. Ultimately this is innocuous, harmless filler material: a pleasant way to pass an hour, nothing more, nothing less. It seems almost churlish to complain about that.’
* I had a look at Kasterborous.com this morning and it seems to have transitioned into one of those dreadful ‘news’ sites featuring articles in bad English that have either been written by someone who barely speaks it, or the result of a Babelfish hack job on existing copy. Still ascertaining which, although that could take me some time…
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.
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.
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.
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.
And….we’re back from commercial. Right, did everybody enjoy Thanksgiving? ‘Cos the Doctor’s got the turkey on.
(Mr Bean did it first, of course, and to arguably better effect.)
Thanksgiving is typically more about spending time with your family than it is about exchanging gifts – but there have been scores of references to packaging all over the internet after ‘Kerblam’, and not in a good way.
Elsewhere in the Whoniverse this week there was consternation when an Amazon Prime scheduling cockup meant that American subscribers to their streaming video service got to watch episode eight before they’d seen episode seven.
As for me, I’ve been tinkering with grainy, near-unusuable shots from ‘Kerblam!’ (do I have to type out the exclamation mark every time? It’s incredibly tedious) in order to produce more obscure connections to CBeebies programmes, although feedback for this one does suggest I’m not alone.
But I did find time to get hold of this exclusive preview shot from next week’s Holby City.
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.