Crumbs, it’s February. What happened? You know, apart from the obvious, clock-ticking, calendar-ripping passing of time? How did we get to the point where I’ve uploaded eight new videos to YouTube and have yet to scribble a single word about a single one for the BoM faithful, or at least for the sake of maintaining a decent archive?
Well, we can’t have that. There’s a lot to get through so here’s the first, and we’ll come back to the others when the dust has settled. In a way, I kind of miss the days when I had the time (read: hours of procrastination in the office) and inclination (read: nothing else to write about) to produce lengthy posts about each individual video I mashed. But that time has gone, and I do think it works better this way. Sometimes less is more. Big Finish might do well to remember that.
1. Theresa May Dances (October 2018)
When you’ve got a Prime Minister who’s inherited a dog’s breakfast and who’s been tasked with spinning straw into gold by the end of the tax year, you sometimes have to make the best of things. I offer no apology for the mixed metaphors: there simply isn’t a new way to write about Brexit, at least not one I can think of, and unimaginative literary analogy is about the best we can manage. But I’d like you to cast your minds back to October, when Mrs May visited Africa and was videoed dancing along with some natives, in a moment that made headlines because there wasn’t much else going on that day; before we knew it the whole thing had been remixed with Toto playing in the background and everybody was having a good old giggle at a middle aged woman dancing the way your aunt dances at weddings. God, at least she wasn’t trying to floss. That would have been a sight.
The Conservative Party Conference followed not long after, and the Prime Minister took to the stage to the strains of ‘Dancing Queen’, in a moment that was both wonderfully cheery and cynically opportunistic. Was the PM graciously sending herself up? Or burying bad news? Why not both? Can’t she have just a little fun in between trying to keep the party from splintering and fending off Boris’s gaffes? But there was something off about her choice of song, so I muted ABBA and replaced it with the theme from The Pink Panther, which I think is a marked improvement.
2. Doctor Who vs Baby Shark (October 2018)
Baby Shark is one of those videos that languished in comparative obscurity until the right person shared it on social media. Sometimes that’s all it takes: a single Tweet, a nod from a heavily-subscribed Facebook page and then bang! You’re viral. I’ve had it happen to me, on a very small scale, but the Baby Shark craze was a phenomenon you are probably quite sick of and one you don’t need me to recount for you now. Suffice it to say it was everywhere last year, from the toy shops to the clubs to that appalling James Corden version (I’m not linking. Look it up if you must, but don’t say I didn’t warn you). I encountered it for the first time at a Shropshire children’s holiday club where a mutual friend played it for the kids one afternoon, and…well, let’s just say it’s been an earworm, and not necessarily in a good way.
To assemble this, I took footage from ‘A Christmas Carol’ (of course) and ‘Gridlock’ (sharks, crabs, basically the same thing) and then – once we hit the halfway point – all hell breaks loose. That’s largely because you eventually run out of sharks, and it rather forced me into a corner, but that sort of problem has created some of the finest episodes of Doctor Who, and a similar creative principle applies here, to a far lesser extent. Still, it’s a shame the Doctor hasn’t yet encountered the Selachians, at least on screen, because that would have given me far more to work with. Anyone got Chibnall’s phone number?
3. The John Lewis Christmas Ad – Doctor Who Edition (November 2018)
Christmas seems ages ago now, but some things can be watched any time of the year. The John Lewis Christmas Ad is arguably not one of them, but it does rather depend on the content: the sight of a small child waiting anxiously for December 25th so he can hand over the gifts he got for his parents doesn’t work; nor for that matter does a snowman struggling through the frozen wilderness to buy a scarf and gloves to the strains of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but that one was a load of shite anyway, so it’s horses for courses. Nevertheless there was something timeless about this year’s offering – in which Elton John retraces his past to that very first piano – although whether it would have been quite so effective in the middle of June, instead of the warmly nostalgic glow offered by a cold autumn, is something we could arguably debate. Myself, I watched it with cynical eyes (they’ve never topped that moon one, and they’re becoming increasingly formulaic) until the very end, when the piano was unwrapped and I instantly thought of my five-year-old son, who tinkles with the house piano daily and who incidentally had ‘Your Song’ playing on his bedroom CD player almost nightly for about three months, and my eyes instantly brimmed with tears. Damn you, John Lewis. You did it to me again.
It’s a story about time travel, of a sort, and so it fits perfectly. And what better way to tell the Doctor’s story than by examining the history of his most constant companion? And so we start with Whittaker and move backwards through to Hartnell, with stories that (by and large) showcase the TARDIS. And, of course, I got into trouble with the purists because there’s no Troughton (although he’s there, lingering just out of shot) and because there’s barely any Pertwee and because the Hartnell is from ‘The Name of the Doctor’ because THAT WAS THE BEST BLOODY FIT AND I DON’T CARE THAT YOU WOULD RATHER I’D USED ‘AN UNEARTHLY CHILD’. Honestly. Still, if nothing else it served as a timely reminder as to why I unsubbed from most of the group feeds last year. Doctor Who fans. What a bunch of dickheads.
4. The Stalking of Dan (November 2018)
I loved ‘Kerblam’. ‘Kerblam’ was marvellous. The only complaint is that there really wasn’t enough of Lee Mack, who has one good scene with Yas before getting abruptly killed off so we can think the narrative is moving in one direction when in fact it’s dropping a colossal red herring (an episode of Doctor Who that surprised me; who’d have thought it still possible?). And there’s poor old Dan, lying dead in a warehouse like an Amazon headline waiting to happen. But you’ll remember, just before we discover his lifeless corpse, that Yas is walking through the darkness calling out his name, which immediately gave me flashbacks to the autumn of 2002. I did, in the process of putting this together, try and fuse Alan’s shouts with those of Yas, but it didn’t really work, so to the cutting room floor it went.
I might as well let you know that this is a dry run for something quite special I’m planning for a few weeks’ time, when I eventually get round to finishing it. But in order to actually do that I’m going to have to watch an awful lot of I’m Alan Partridge. Which is no bad thing.
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’.’
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.
This afternoon, Daniel helpfully pointed out that it’s thirty-two days until Christmas.
By the time you read this, it’ll be thirty-one. Possibly less. Or maybe you’ve stumbled upon this way after the fact and it’s now three hundred and sixty until the next one. Time is relative. But it’s also short, so let’s not dawdle. You and I both have shopping to do, and we’re not going to get it done hanging about here scrolling through text on a smartphone. Time to hop online to visit Amazon, methinks, where they do a lovely line in antique lamps.
All of which leads us neatly into our assessment of ‘Kerblam!’, episode seven of this rollercoaster of a series. Because it wasn’t all plain sailing at the retail giant’s dark and dingy premises. Lurking behind the creepy robots and rolls of bubble wrap, there were a plethora of HIGHLY IMPORTANT CLUES AND SIGNS hearkening back both to classic stories from days of yore, and also THINGS THAT ARE GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT SERIES. And if you didn’t notice them it’s simply because you weren’t paying attention. But no matter, because here at the Brian of Morbius offices we’ve gone through and deconstructed and scrutinised and worn out several biros writing them all up for your perusal, so strap yourselves in for this week’s whistlestop tour through fan theory central.
First there’s one that I can’t fully explain. Here’s a shot of Graham in the cleaning cupboard, surrounded by posters.
For the sake of clarity, the text in each poster reads as follows:
Eyes on the prize, guys!
KERBLAM! Live your best life
Don’t forget, you’re the lucky one!
On its own this means nothing, until you rearrange the letters of each slogan to reveal something very interesting indeed, because two of them refer directly and unambiguously to the much-maligned ‘Sleep No More’:
Shuteye Progeny Size
Fallibly Rebukes Overtime
Could we finally be about to witness a sequel to Mark Gatiss’s underrated found footage adventure of sleep crust monsters in space? You know, the one that ended on an ambiguous cliffhanger because Gatiss planned a follow-up episode that never materialised, presumably because he was too busy on League of Gentlemen?
I’d say yes, but a curious thing happens when you rearrange the third slogan – it turns into a Donald Trump reference.
Encountered Hokey Golf Tryout
So we’re stumped. Perhaps this is coming back to ‘Arachnids’; perhaps it isn’t. Your guess is as good as mine at this point, dear reader, and please do leave your comments in the usual box.
I’m feeling a bit miserable about this, so let’s move on. Here is the moment early in the episode where Team TARDIS are all given bio-scans in order to determine their suitability for work (just before the Doctor cheats the system so she can get out of mopping the floor). Have a look at the display on the right.
We may annotate this as follows:
How, you’re undoubtedly asking, can we know that the grouping is this precise? It comes simply from the eyeline of the figure on the display, which is looking at the gap between 13 and 14. Hence this is a Doctor who is already looking ahead towards her own future. Is the fact that she is staring at Julie Hesmondhalgh a coincidence? Well, is it?*
There’s more, though. You will also note from the ascending text at the side of the display that this is system 5.8, which alludes CLEARLY AND SPECIFICALLY to The Fiveish Doctors Reboot, which starred the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Doctors (all right, three of them; McGann’s basically a cameo). It also refers both to the Fifth Doctor’s eighth story, ‘Arc of Infinity’, and episode eight in series 5, ‘The Hungry Earth’. From this we can derive –
‘The Hungry Earth’ featured the Silurians
‘Arc of Infinity’ guest stars rogue Time Lord Omega
Omega 3 is a nutrient commonly found in fish
The Silurians dealt with fish in ‘The Sea Devils’
To break this down: a future Big Finish production will see Doctors Five through Eight join forces to combat the Sea Devils, who have joined forces with Omega (providing a dual role for Peter Davison). The date is to be determined, but should we add five and eight we get thirteen – and adding Tennant’s Doctor (and Davison’s son-in-law) to the mix takes the total to 23, suggesting 2023, or Doctor Who‘s sixtieth birthday to be precise. (If this is all sounding a bit tenuous, don’t forget that the words ‘Big Finish’ can also be rearranged to form ‘In Big Finish’, or even ‘Big Finish? NI!’, which is useful if you’re a Monty Python fan.)
“Yes, yes,” I hear you shout, “but why do we need to add Tennant to get that date?” Well, I’ll come to that later. For now, we’re back in the store room, and Bradley Walsh is still hanging out with the creepy janitor.
There are three green bottles, sitting on the shelf. That’s three green bottles, sitting on the shelf. You have thirty seconds to clear away the earworm. Go!
Finished? Good. There are also two yellow bottles on the middle shelf. We’re coming back to those, but we’ll concentrate on the greens first. Three Greens, as anyone who follows racing news ought to be aware, is the name of a racehorse. However, it is the horse’s geneology that is of particular interest: its dam was French horse Happy Landing, while it was sired by Niniski – a word derived from a Turkish term for neutering. Hence, the appearance of three green bottles is a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS reference towards ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’, referring both to the Doctor’s gender swap and also her unorthodox entrance early in the episode, when she crashes through the roof of a Sheffield train carriage.
You will also note the repeated use of the word ‘progeny’. Join the dots, folks.
Oh, I was going to talk about the yellows. Well, there’s no need. We did it the other week. Have a look at my entry for episode 4, and tell me you didn’t see this coming.
Finally, there’s a scene when the Doctor, Yaz and Ryan break into Slade’s office and find…a filing cabinet. It’s right up there with the Bit In The Shed in A Beautiful Mind for shock value, isn’t it? Still, there is a close-up of the document they fish out that gives us pause for thought (particularly if you hit the pause button, as I had to in order to get this screen grab), so let’s take a butcher’s at it.
The first thing you notice are the photos. Actually the very first thing that I noticed was that one of the missing women is called Irsa Moyner, which sounds like a Londoner talking about the Little Bear constellation. More about her in a minute – before we get to that, can we just take a note of the sums at the left? The ones that add up to ‘Caves of Androzani’? Sorry, I mean 135? As in story 135? It really is Davison’s week, isn’t it?
Back to Irsa, and it’s her ID number we need to take a closer look at, seeing as it’s the only one we can actually read properly – a clearly deliberate ruse on the part of the cinematographer. That number, for point of reference, is 7.35 / 384734533311336 /46, if we take the vertical lines to be ones and the slash marks to be division signs.
In other words, it’s a sum, and the answer is 4.1530613e-16.
This is all about the Metacrisis Doctor. You know, the one who grew out of a hand. 4 refers not to to Tom Baker, but to series 4 (Nu Who), in which Tennant’s doppelganger makes his first (and mercifully only) appearance. e-16 refers to European Route E16, which leads through Northern Ireland, Scotland and eventually Norway – where said Metacrisis Doctor was eventually abandoned in the company of Rose. Oh, and that big number in the middle? You’ll never guess what vector image it corresponds to on Stock Unlimited.
Ooh baby, baby, it’s a wild world…
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Picture the scene. Jodie Whittaker is standing by a group of uniformed warehouse staff, all of whom are about to succumb to a fatal virus. She is in the process of shouting down an angry executive. Graham is standing six feet away, wrapping a blanket around the delirious, pockmarked supporting character they’ve picked up on their journey through warehouse central. Ryan is fidgeting, and Yaz is doing that thing with her eyes.
But our eyes are on the Doctor. “Look at them!” she’s yelling. “These aren’t machines, they’re people! They can’t function in a state of constant productivity, they need rest! They need interaction! They need time away from the packing spaces! This obsession with productivity has driven them into the ground. That’s why they reached out to me – well, one of ’em did. I knew something was off at Kerblam the moment we arrived – just couldn’t see what it was. So I dug. And now I find you’re turning them into zombies!”
The executive smirks. “One hundred per cent correct, Doctor. And now it’s too late for you to stop me. When the virus enters its final stage they will reach a state of uninterrupted productivity, at the cost of most neural functions. They’ll be able to perform the roles we give them, never stopping, never resting, never tiring. We call it…”
He pauses for emphasis. “Permawork.”
It is a silly thing, written in the shivery, pre-caffeine moments before the dawn on what is shaping up to be a cold and frosty November morning, but I think it’s probably the sort of sequence many of us were expecting in last night’s episode. The news that Doctor Who was off to Amazon had me raising my eyebrows: was this to be another rant at consumer culture, the want-it-now generation, a response to the many rumours about practices and policies behind the closed doors of the retail giant’s gargantuan premises? Certainly you’d be forgiven if you thought it was. The very first thing that happens in this episode – no, belay that, the second, right after the Doctor has fished out a fez from a cardboard box – is the discovery of a printed note, containing the words “Help me”, echoing stories in the broadsheets. But in a way you can’t blame Pete McTighe (this week’s guest writer) for avoiding outright condemnation. BBC Worldwide have to work with Amazon, after all – they stock the Blu-Rays. There are lessons to be learned from Rain Man, which was censored – and sometimes banned outright – on in-flight movie showings after Dustin Hoffman’s character refuses to get on a plane because they’re not flying with Quantas. Guess which airline was happy to screen the movie uncut?
Or perhaps it’s simply that McTighe is a better writer – better at least than Chibnall, who would have gone with the zombies plot, and consequences be damned. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing: if I do I have to reassess the entirety of series 11, and I’m not doing that before coffee. Perhaps if something like this had cropped up in the Moffat era, in which twist-laden stories were the show’s bread and butter, the eye with which we judge would be a little more critical. Nevertheless: as it stood, we got an episode of Doctor Who that surprised me, and in a world where I’m really starting to think I’ve seen everything the show has to offer, that’s TV gold.
At its core, ‘Kerblam!’ is a lighthearted and often humorous take on the daily grind of shift work and the feeling you’re a cog in a machine. It’s something I’m only able to relate to partially – I did my stint in a warehouse over twenty years ago and that was very much on a casual basis – but the jokes about office politics come thick and fast and are largely delivered by white-eyed, passive-aggressive robots who tilt their heads in a manner that ought to make more than a few of us feel uneasy. The outward friendliness that masks what is essentially a master-slave relationship is about as zeitgeisty as it gets, and they remind me of a temporary contract I had with a large insurance company I elect not to name – twenty of us crammed into a small space on the first floor of an anonymous building on the outskirts of a business park – and the woman in charge of our team who came over to me on the final day of the placement when I was chatting to a friend, to politely warn us that we’d been “spotted”. Nearly two decades on I’m still trying to work out exactly what she meant by that – I’d gone to school with this particular supervisor and it was difficult not to feel put out, particularly since the aforementioned friend and I had hit all our targets six weeks running.
The robots in ‘Kerblam!’ do not discriminate, unless there’s a reason. Certainly when they snatch away Kira (Claudia Jessie, recently seen in Vanity Fair) it’s hard not to feel a sense of relief. Kira is one of those irritating types you meet at university, the one who’s had a rubbish childhood and is now graced with flatmates from hell, but who is determined to make the best of her situation by singing badly at open mic evenings. Mercifully Kira does not carry a guitar, but even though she grates you know she’d be perfectly suited to Charlie, the doe-eyed janitor who is the epitome of Hugh Grant-esque social awkwardness whenever he has to be within touching distance. The four travellers watch from the sidelines, and Graham manages to have a brief heart-to-heart with his learning mentor in a darkened store room. “Have you smelt her?” Charlie enquires, eagerly. Walsh doesn’t let the smile slip from his poker face. “Funnily enough,” he replies, “I haven’t.”
That Charlie turns out to be the episode’s villain comes as a shock – as does the death of Kira, disintegrated to atoms when she touches booby-trapped bubble wrap. It’s all part of a series of tests that Charlie’s been running – testing out bombs on unsuspecting workers before enacting his master plan, which is to kill thousands of customers at once in order to destroy the public’s trust in machines. This is the same year that The X-Files did the exact opposite, in a strange, practically wordless episode in which Mulder and Scully are beset by angry drones when Mulder refuses to tip a robotic waiter. It was decently executed, but there was a heavy sense of deja vu that mercifully fails to permeate the confines of this week’s episode – there’s something refreshing about the way McTighe subverts the Angry AI motif, particularly when the unmasked villain turns out to be this story’s Professor Quirrell.
One of the nicest things about ‘Kerblam!’ is the way it manages to find roles for everyone. While Graham is off mopping floors with Charlie, the Doctor and Ryan are busy in the packing room – Ryan’s uncanny dexterity explained away by nods to a previous job, in the episode’s I Have Dyspraxia moment. They also have time to raid an office or two; McTighe sensibly gives us two executive types, one more ostensibly dodgy than the other, but all roads lead to Rome, and both of them turn out to be trustworthy. Meanwhile, Yaz is paired with Lee Mack, who warns her not to touch the antique lamps. Mack plays an older, world-weary version of his Not Going Out persona, and it’s a shame that more isn’t done with him – his early death, too, comes as something of a surprise, although it’s hard not to burst into giggles when Yaz is seen walking down the empty aisles of the warehouse yelling “Dan! Dan! Dan!” like Alan Partridge. But if this is the first week that Team TARDIS feels like a name that actually fits, it’s the guest stars that shine – particularly Julie Hesmondhalgh, brilliantly warm as an out-of-her-depth head of HR who nonetheless feels, at times, like she could secretly be a criminal mastermind, blustering and heartfelt and acting just about everybody else off the screen.
There’s nothing particularly world changing about this week. It starts with unexplained mysteries, ends with a bomb in a hangar, and mines enough reserves from the sinister robots cliché to last us until 2020. But there are plenty of things we could say about the people I spoke to last night who said that, for the first time this year, they were watching something that “felt like proper Doctor Who“. I’m not really sure where you go from that – whether that’s an unfair assessment, or an indication of a general drop in quality, this episode a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory, rather like Sick Boy’s assessment of The Name Of The Rose. If you’re a regular here you know my feelings on this year and we won’t have that conversation again, at least not for another week or so.
Still, none of that matters for the moment. ‘Kerblam!’ is ridiculous fun in the best sense of the word. Like many stories in the canon it is strongest when it is being deliberately silly – whether it’s the Doctor trying to talk a drone out of an existential crisis, or Ryan, Yaz and Charlie’s video game inspired descent through dispatch, easily the biggest laugh Doctor Who has given us in a long time. It is punchy, aesthetically pleasing television, delivered with the same panache, efficiency and attention to detail as a parcel from Kerblam itself. Just don’t touch the bubble wrap.