Posts Tagged With: mandip gill

Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

Late 2001, and I’m coming out of a Reading multiplex with a couple of friends. (One is a programmer of some renown; the other will eventually become a highly successful children’s author.) We’ve just finished the first Lord of the Rings, which everyone agreed was very good, even if perhaps the scenery was the best thing about it. We have discussed the Balrog, and the relative brilliance of Legolas (who, it is agreed, is probably the person you’d want at your back in a barroom brawl), and now we’re onto Sean Bean. In what has become something of a career trope, he plays a character who doesn’t make it to the end credits.

Jon – who is not one for reading cast announcements, and in any case the internet is not what it will eventually become – says “The thing about the Council of Elrond was that I kind of assumed it was Boromir, because who else would it be? But they didn’t actually announce him or call him by name until Frodo dropped the ring in the snow. Everyone else gets a mention. Not him.”

I’m telling you this because it’s been two hours since I finished watching ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ and the reverse has happened. We had five or six supporting characters and I cannot remember a single thing about any of them. Oh, there are bits. One of them was clearly hitting on Graham, which will make next week all the more traumatic when she finds herself at the wrong end of a Cyberman’s blaster. I think one of them mentioned that he was a teacher and that they were sick of running, which is a surefire indication that you should set your alarm forward by fifteen minutes and catch an earlier bus. And one of them had a brother who barely spoke, and who spoke even less when he was killed off, which happened almost immediately.

But that’s it. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single actor, or what they’d been in – not that I necessarily expect this, being generally out of touch with any TV that doesn’t come with hard-coded subtitles (it’s snobbish, but those Nordic dramas are just so pretty); still, at least I could be telling you something interesting about them. God knows there was nothing in the actual episode to give them any sense of lasting appeal. They were sounding boards for the regulars to bounce off: people to keep them company on the long, desperate pilgrimage across space, where your biggest fear is a flying head, or Graham’s infernal optimism; a cockney, cardiganed Wilkins Micawber, breezing from one disaster to another safe in the knowledge that sumfink will always turn up.

Or perhaps that’s the point – perhaps these people are supposed to be anonymous because that’s the point of the story. And perhaps we’ve got so used to Chibnall ramming the point of the story down our throats, or bashing it over the heads of the collective fandom like a TARDIS blue Mallet’s Mallet, that any engagement with subtlety is going to be a misstep. “We’re refugees,” laments one character [consults notes; it’s Steve Toussaint]. “We’ve all lost everything and everyone, and nobody cares.” “We care,” affirms the Doctor, before sending her companions off to an uncertain fate while she tries to bargain with the Lone Cyberman – who’s picked up a couple of pals along the way. Presumably we now have to call him something else? What’s that you say? He’s the Cyberium? Well I’m not calling him that; it’s silly. Cyberium is the sort of unobtanium that’s crying out to be used in a seventies comic, probably featuring the slightly effeminate Cybermen who minced. Something with the Fourth Doctor and K-9. ‘The Shadow of Cyberium’. Yes, I can see it now, in all its multi-panelled, black-and-white glory. Copyright Donna Noble.

At least the social commentary is done and dusted fairly quickly and we can get onto the real meat of the episode, which is mostly about flying heads. Yes, the heads come off and fly now, did we mention that? Hence in an early scene we witness the Doctor, her pals and the aforementioned people I don’t care about running away from a barrage of drone fire and a fresh batch of budget-gobbling CGI explosions, as half a dozen heads pursue them across the burning ruins of what looks curiously like urban Glasgow. It’s like that scene with the model plane in Short Circuit 2, only marginally less exciting. The whole thing is very silly, but it’s not really any sillier than anything in ‘Nightmare in Silver’, and for some reason people seem to really like that one. Chibnall constructs two branching narratives, containing less story combined than Maxine Alderton managed in a single episode last week, and while Ryan and Yas explore gloomy starships and pull off reckless (if effective) manouevres in deep space, the Doctor is snapping at Ryan and –

[consults notes again]

Matt Carver. You see what I mean.

No, the problem isn’t what’s happening, it’s that I don’t care about it. These people are the last remnants of humanity and it’s all the Doctor’s fault, but we’re not given any real opportunity to reflect on that, or the fact that it’s her that got them into this mess: it’s all conveniently brushed aside so Chibnall can lay a trail of breadcrumb-shaped set pieces, leading to whatever ghastly wooden structure he’s spent the last few months hammering. Ashad revives the Cybermen, seemingly giving them back their emotions (there’s a point to it, I’m sure, and undoubtedly we’ll be told next week) and as the episode closes Graham and Yas are holding the door against an onslaught of newly awakened Cybertroops, while the Doctor is gazing into this week’s McGuffin – a portal that leads to salvation – and discovering that the answers she’s seeking are quite close to home, in an absolutely literal sense. Oh look, it’s Sacha Dhawan. Because when you haven’t got a clue how to shoehorn a cliffhanger, a surprise reveal usually does the trick. Not even the presence of Ian McElhinney, robed, wizened and strolling up and down a windswept beach like a genial Luke Skywalker (acting everyone else off the screen in the process), is enough to alleviate the tedium.

About the most interesting thing that happens this week is interesting only because it’s left unexplained. It’s the tale of Brendan, a foundling left in the road in what appears to be Ireland; raised to adulthood by his adoptive parents; who takes a slow motion fall from a cliff and wakes, Highlander-style, completely unharmed; and who is greeted upon his retirement by two father figures who inexplicably look two or three decades younger than he does. This is all clearly connected somehow – whether it’s some sort of Cyber experiment, an origin story to explain Ashad, a CIA trick or whether the Time Lords are somehow involved has yet to be cleared up, although the only certainty is that the discussion will almost certainly be more interesting than the resolution.  “We have to get rid of everything, I’m afraid,” Brendan is told, seconds before his mind is seemingly wiped. “Thank you for your service. We’re only sorry you won’t remember it.”

I can’t help thinking that as far as ‘Ascension’ is concerned, those words might be oddly prophetic.

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Review: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, 
Knocking on the moonlit door…

Well. Since you ask me for a tale of ghosts and chills and things that go bump in the night, I shall provide not a story from my own collection, but rather I shall defer to the pen of Emmerdale writer Maxine Alderton. For our entertainment tonight, she would like to transport us across the waters, where there’s a storm blowing in over ninteenth century Switzerland. It’s been the year without a summer – hardly a phenomenon if you’re in the UK, but we’ll let that go – and in a pretty house on the shores of Lake Geneva, a group of writers are trying to outspook each other on a night that’s destined to change literary history. Except right now it isn’t, because Percy Shelley’s gone missing and the others are more interested in playing Twister (they might have been having a dance, but that’s not what it looked like) than doing any writing. As observations about procrastination go it’s painfully astute, but something is quite clearly off, and luckily the four newcomers on the doorstep have arrived just in time to put things right.

The Doctor’s met Mary Shelley before, of course, and even travelled with her for a bit – something ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ wisely elects to ignore completely, much to the chagrin of various fans for whom a steady and sensible continuity is the be all and end all (what did these people do during ‘Genesis of the Daleks’?). We get a similar story – in the Big Finish audios it is an encounter with a pair of Cybermen in Vienna that sets the creative cogs a-turning, but here the encounter is framed within the simple narrative conceit that is the haunted house. And haunted it certainly is: lightning flashes at opportune moments (when it follows a declaration that the Doctor is from “the North” you will spit your cocoa), strange shapes appear in the doorway, skeletal hands lurk the corridors and vases fly across the hall. It’s all explained by the plot, with the exception of the mysterious peasant woman who brings Graham his supper, but that’s all part of the fun.

If anything, the explanation feels a little frenzied. At first we’re at a loss as to why the Doctor’s got a headache and why Polidori is able to phase shift through a wall and why the rooms are looping back on themselves (yes, Pete, I know it saves on set-design, but the article still needs an in-universe explanation). It’s all very Escher, in a good way, and it is inevitably leading to a brain dump – which you can just about follow, providing you concentrate. At first it’s all running from disembodied Hammer hands and wondering what happened to Shelley. And then, twenty-five minutes after the TARDIS crew have arrived, the story kicks well and truly into gear when a familiar-looking monster turns up in the driveway, shaking the mud from its thick metal boots. I say familiar: it’s had a couple of refits, its emotions are still working and half the visor is missing. This is a redesigned Cyberman for an age of gothic horror, both tragic and deadly, arguably more human than many of the human characters bedding down for the night at the sunless villa.

If you know your Highlander, you’ll know that Byron faked his own death, and lived for hundreds of years, turning up in 1960s California in the guise of Jim Morrison, and eventually losing his head to Duncan MacLeod. His first quickening gives Mary Shelley the idea for Frankenstein: similarly here it is the monstrous Cyberman (theatre veteran Patrick O’Kane), lurching through the villa in a mangling of limbs, perhaps the most human cyborg we’ve seen since Lytton, that provides the creative spark she needs. It’s a literal spark, the Cyberman taking energy from a lightning strike that is enough to recharge its power cells, and in what is far and away the standout scene, a frightened Mary pleads with the monster’s remnant of humanity – it’s a gambit that seems certain to pay off, until it doesn’t. If Graham’s confrontation with Tim Shaw in ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’ was irritatingly formulaic, ‘Haunting’ shows what can happen when you shake the net a little. And all the while, Byron’s whimpering in a corner and using an innocent woman as a human shield.

The other thing about this scene is the Doctor. Faced with a seemingly impossible decision – kill Shelley or doom humanity – Whittaker’s lake is finally ruffled when Ryan elects to make the decision for her, and in an instant we see all the fire and fury of Tennant at Pompeii; of Smith as he frets over the star whale; of Capaldi at the edge of the volcano. Even if the possible consequences of Shelley’s death are overdone slightly, it still works, and (just about) manages to make its point without overstating it. There have been angrier Doctors, and there has been better dialogue, but it’s welcome relief to see Whittaker finally uncaged as she turns on her companions: “Sometimes,” she spits at them, “this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous, with me at the summit, in the stratosphere alone.” It’s an astonishing moment – it won’t be enough to silence the naysayers, but you can’t have everything.

To all intents and purposes, ‘Haunting’ is this year’s ‘Utopia’: a contextually disconnected narrative that feeds directly into the finale, as the Doctor dashes to the future in order to save it from an unavoidable mistake. It nonetheless manages to be more self-contained and standalone than its spiritual predecessor, a story about the telling of stories and what happens when they’re left untold. Just how much, we’re asked to ponder, is society dependent upon the arts? It’s a stretch to imagine that Whittaker’s arrival was enough to inspire Byron to write ‘Darkness’, but not a wildly implausible one. These people aren’t just writers talking shop: their actions would go on to reshape the world, with more ideas and narrative conceits than can be dreamt of in your philosophy. I speak from the unavoidable bias of being someone who’s often mocked for having an arts degree, but this stuff counts, dammit, and in the days that curricula are being drastically restructured and the BBC looks set to lose its license fee it feels more topical than ever. Quoth Churchill: “Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.” (At the risk of watering the argument he did not, at any point, say “Then what are we fighting for?” when asked to cut arts funding.)

Not everything is perfect, but then no episode of Doctor Who ever was. I mentioned a slightly hurried info dump; elsewhere it’s a little frustrating to see Graham sidelined as this week’s comic relief, reduced to quibbling over sandwiches and being frightened by the butler while in search of a toilet. Ryan’s ‘believe in yourself’ encounter with Mary is decently written but clumsily rendered, and it’s left to Yas to provide the most malleable of this week’s companion encounters, as she ruminates with Claire Claremont over a possible love interest – it could theoretically be Ryan, it’s more likely to be the Doctor and if fan theory is correct it will turn out to be the Master. Whittaker herself is the subject of Byron’s wandering eye, although she promptly rebuffs him; something of a shame, as the fan fiction from that alone would be absolute gold dust.

But just when your interest is starting to dip then bang! The candles flicker or the staircases shift or there’s another corpse. Crammed but not quite overstuffed with ideas, this is a thrilling, compelling and downright frightening piece of television, impeccably lit (in the traditional sense of the word) and, for the most part, decently directed, although you sometimes wish Emma Sullivan would angle the cameras a little more. An unexpected gem in a lackluster and frustrating season, it is as singularly enjoyable an episode of Doctor Who as we have seen in a long time, due in no small part to Alderton’s sparkling teleplay. The next time there’s a gathering of great literary minds, they could do a lot worse than inviting her along.

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Review: Can You Hear Me?

Doctor Who ventures into dangerous waters when it tackles the surreal. Sometimes (‘Warrior’s Gate’, ‘Heaven Sent’) it works beautifully. Other times it’s like those all-you-can-eat buffets that serve pizza and chips alongside the curry and prawn crackers: an enjambment of elements that don’t quite come together, but which you’ll happily ingest anyway because at least it’s calories. Is it a good idea to venture into the domain of the unorthodox when the show is already struggling? Charlene James (this week’s co-writer, arguably most famous for a play about FGM) might not have realised quite what she was getting herself into, but given that Doctor Who has spent this year utterly confused as to its own identity, what she’s managed to produce is an uncannily appropriate precis of where we’ve got to, which is no mean feat.

To all intents and purposes, ‘Can You Hear Me?’ is this year’s ‘It Takes You Away’: abstract, meandering and often confusing, a world where you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s imagined. Hopping from fourteenth century Syria to the orbit of a distant star – Sheffield, as per usual, acts as an intermediate waypoint – the Doctor is investigating monsters in the dark and anomalous biological wave patterns, along with the strange wrinkled fellow dressed as the owner of a London bookshop sneaking in and out of people’s bedrooms. No one knows who he is (spoiler: he’s not the Black Guardian) or why he’s feeding off the nightmares of unsuspecting children like some sort of dark and twisted BFG – still, Graham’s getting headaches and can’t deal his cards properly. Something’s got to give.

The evidence all points to a curious planetary alignment, and thus – with a sense of aplomb that that’s becoming quite alarming – Whittaker puts on her Resolved Face and fires up the Quattro. But no sooner has the TARDIS gang arrived at their destination (a roomy, predictably metallic spacecraft, or a beacon, or something; I wasn’t really paying attention) than they’re all plunged into a series of nightmares: Graham is haunted by the spectre of Grace, who informs him that his cancer has returned; Yas is abandoned on the hills over Sheffield; Ryan is given a vision of the apocalyptic future teased in ‘Orphan 55’. The Doctor herself gets a brief glimpse of the Timeless Child (although I can’t be the only one who was hoping that her initial confrontation with Zellin would turn out to be a dream), wandering outside the Gallifreyan citadel in the manner of something in a Japanese horror film. These nightmares are rendered flesh thanks to a parasite that buries itself in the ear canal; it’s like a slightly less unpleasant version of The Wrath of Khan. “It may be,” said one online acquaintance, “the first time in history that a main DW villain has given the Doctor the finger.”

It’s not entirely without context. The early parts of the episode deal with domestic drudgery and the fact that the Doctor’s companions all have worlds they’ve left behind – a concept not explored properly since Davies was in charge (Moffat, while fond of dipping in and out of his characters’ Earth-bound existences, nonetheless gave them a curious sort of dependence on the TARDIS, a succession of well-heeled addicts constantly looking for their next fix). Here, for the first time in Chibnall’s run, we learn what happens when your nearest and dearest have to manage without you: Yas’s sister Sonya can’t hold down a job, while Ryan’s friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang, seen out on the basketball court in the first part of ‘Spyfall’) has lapsed into depression. The timings with Time To Talk Day are deliberate and it’s hard not to shake the notion that both James and Chibnall were writing from a spec sheet, but it’s not totally incongruous, just a little rushed. (Curiously, Tibo’s venture into support group territory includes a grump about supermarket self checkouts, something the BBC seems to dislike in general.)

‘Rushed’ might be a decent word for it, actually. ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ suffered from having almost no story: ‘Can You Hear Me?’ suffers from having rather too much. The net result is an episode that wants to push the envelope for the companions, leading up to an inevitable departure for at least one of them (visualised on screen by a wordless exchange of nervous glances across the TARDIS console at the story’s conclusion), but it does so within the context of establishing a separate mythos and by introducing supporting characters who show promise but who barely have room to breathe. This is one of those stories that would have benefited from two parts – more insight into the nightmares, more time with Tibo and Sonya and a better, more character-driven expansion of the false gods’ motives would all have been welcome, and the lesson to be learned here is that you can’t always have your cake and eat it, particularly if you only have fifty-odd minutes before the cafe shuts. It is an onslaught of ideas and concepts and themes, as confused about its own identity as Ryan apparently is about his own.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crucial expository scenes with Zellin (Ian Gelder, rather less sinister than he was in Torchwood), who appears on the spacecraft in a literal puff of smoke and then proceeds to namedrop half a dozen Classic Who characters for no reason other than the bet that Chibnall was presumably trying to win. I’m sure it must have sounded splendid as pure concept: in practice it is an atrocious melange of ephemeral garbage, there purely to keep the Gallifrey Base threads ticking over. Things improve marginally when Rakaya turns up, strutting around like an intergalactic supermodel with her own portable wind machine, and the animation that explains her imprisonment is decent enough, but it’s too little, too late. You can almost picture Chibnall at his writing desk, knocking back that third whiskey and poring over James’ script while browsing his Twitter feed, seething “Fine. You want references? SNACK ON MY WRATH, FINK RATS!”

This is a great shame, because there’s actually quite a lot in here to enjoy, if you can extract it from what is a structural car crash. The set design and cinematography are both imaginative: Graham, shot from above, as if observed by some unseen phantom, foreshadowing both the arrival of Zellin and the cameo from Grace; the wide-angled shots of Mandip Gill, alone and isolated in the countryside; the neon, Tron-like sparsity of the ship / beacon / outpost. There’s even a stab at fleshing out Yas, something Doctor Who has needed for quite some time. While James’ dialogue fails to ascend the lofty heights of the show’s heyday, she does, at least, have a flair for reasonable conversation – Whittaker’s closing dalliance with Graham, awkward for all the right reasons, is quintessential Doctor, and if it makes you angry and uncomfortable, it should.

A brief foray online confirms that the angry voices are invariably the loudest, but one thing I’m struggling with this week is the recurring accusation that this was “more preachy PC bullshit” – the meat of which seems to have escaped me, at least during a first watch. Perhaps it was the ethnically diverse casting, a by-product of the fact that Ryan and Yas both hung out with people of their own skin colour. Perhaps it was the notion of a crinkly white god who was to all intents and purposes subservient to a hot-looking black god. Perhaps it was the inclusion of mental health issues, which – while awkwardly shoehorned – stayed just the right side of condescending, largely because the Doctor wasn’t in the room. None of this is a problem, and the insistence the fandom has of labelling everything that jars “PC bullshit” serves no purpose – it’s the same reason I can’t get on with “bad writing”, which serves as a euphemism for “this episode was not to my taste and I can’t really explain why”. Forgive me if I’m preaching to the choir, but at the risk of sounding like a shill, one reason it’s called political correctness is that sometimes, believe it or not, it’s actually correct.

It still doesn’t work, though. This is two good episodes crammed into a single, mediocre instalment: a heady concoction of ideas and concepts that unleashes a series of frivolous monsters and has them tackle big issues. There is no sense of real menace about Zellin or Rakaya, which is part of the point – the real monster is man’s inhumanity, not to man, but to himself. But it takes time to adequately convey a message like that, and somewhere along the line, between all the curries and the FIFA games and the hospital drips, the message gets rather lost. The central question the story poses, at least ostensibly, is ‘Can You Hear Me?’: an appropriate answer might be “Yes, but we have no idea what you’re trying to say.”

On the upside, at least there were no bloody frogs.

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Have I Got Whos For You (series 12 edition, part three)

This week? Well, among other things, I’ve been thinking about Terry Jones.

In the streets of Gloucester, Marcia is surprised when Colin Baker turns up early to collect his scarf.

I’m posting this one without comment, because I think we’ve all had enough of experts, haven’t we?

Meanwhile, Hollywood mourns the death of the legendary Kirk Douglas – who, at the age of 103, really seemed to be like one of those people you thought would go on forever…

Bodega Bay, March 1963: the TARDIS makes an unexpected stop that leaves the Doctor and her companions with a distinct sense of deja vu.

Dallas, November 1963: Atop a grassy knoll, the Lone Cyberman watches and waits and bides his time.

Madagascar, 2019.

And in a fictional hospital in Bristol, a certain Jo Martin does her rounds.

“Yeah, just ‘Doctor’ is fine.”

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Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

Warning: many spoilers below. Read at your peril.

There are some episodes of Doctor Who that, when you examine them under a bright light, actually aren’t terribly good. ‘Extremis’ is perhaps the most obvious contemporary example. ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ is another. ‘Utopia’ a third. None of these stories is particularly memorable, in the grand scheme of things. ‘Utopia’ sees the Doctor and Martha (with an old friend in tow) explore the end of the universe while being pursued by the carnivorous remnants of what used to be humanity. ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ assembles a ragtag bunch of waifs and strays and pits them against a silent religious order, in more than one sense of the word. ‘Extremis’ marks the beginning of the Monk trilogy – the low point for series 10 – in a story that is memorable solely because it pulls the rug from under our feet in its closing minutes. (Well, that and the scene with the Pope. That was quite funny.)

But they’re all stories we remember because Things Happened. ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ was event television. There was absolutely nothing special about it, in terms of the story it endeavoured to tell; it’s certain key moments that stand out. It starts innocently enough. Bereft and miserable, the Doctor is finally distracted from her hours of TARDIS console vigil by an alert from Gloucester: the Judoon have landed outside a cafe, and are in the process of throwing their monosyllabic weight around while they search for a dangerous fugitive. They’re still inflexible and brutal, and the Doctor is keen to intercede before things get too nasty – and intercede she does, although the can of worms she opens as a result is dark, slimy and full of entrails…look, basically it’s a complete dog’s breakfast. She should never have let them talk to Yas.

At first, it seems the Judoon are after an elusive, perenially nervous Stroud native called Lee (Game On‘s Neil Stuke, looking jumpy and perpetually hungover), nice enough but clearly hiding something. Lee is married to Ruth (Jo Martin, recently decorating the boardroom at Holby City), who is celebrating her birthday by handing out flyers for city tours that no one is booking – at least until the Judoon show up, all leather and pointed helmets, stomping through houses and cathedrals and killing anyone who gets in their way, while Whittaker makes awkward jokes about canals. That the fugitive turns out to be Ruth is no real surprise; that Lee meets an early demise twenty minutes in is predictable television; that Ruth is harbouring a buried past and hidden skills is more or less what everyone expected.

That she turns out to be the Doctor, of course, is something of a twist.

In a way, you have to hand it to Chibnall (the script is Patel’s, but this idea was almost certainly not) for actually surprising his audience. The buzzing about altered backstories has been an omnirumour since late 2018, but it wasn’t until last night that it appeared to actually have legs, and its unveiling was reasonably spectactular, Whittaker digging in the dirt for a buried TARDIS while Martin smashes the glass panel inside a lighthouse (the only thing that could have upped the symbolism levels would have been to make it a ceiling) and before changing her clothes. So catastrophic is the anticipated fallout from a move like this it’s tempting to disengage yourself from the fandom entirely: suffice it to say the decision to insert (or at least appear to insert) an earlier incarnation, with all that insinuates, and then cast a black woman in the role was not only a bold move but also an extremely savvy piece of trolling from the chief writer. Even if it’s not up there with ‘The Name of the Doctor’ – in terms of reveals, it’s more of a ‘Death In Heaven’ moment – it is, at least, guaranteed to get the internet talking about Doctor Who in a way that no one has for quite some time. I’d imagine it was a long night for bowlestrek.

At moments like these the temptation to shout “Bollocks!” (as I did during ‘Orphan 55’) is stronger than ever. But any doubts that Martin really is the Doctor (or at least a Doctor of sorts) are instantly dispelled by the synchronised, ‘Midnight’-esque conversation that follows – along with certain behavioural aspects that seem fairly authentic, albeit at the Colin Baker end of the scale. Acting is a big part of it: Martin’s demeanour change from human to Time Lord is powerful but understated; two halves of the same character, pompous and serious while Whittaker looks increasingly confused and out of her depth. It could still turn out to be an elaborate ruse, but honestly I’m not convinced that this current production team are capable of that sort of feint: this feels more like the sort of game-changing reveal that prompts an explosion of fan theory. She’s the Doctor from a parallel universe. A future Doctor with memory loss. A hidden incarnation sandwiched between Troughton and Pertwee. A buried secret past, Chibnall’s rumoured ‘Thirteen Previous’ cycle coming to fruition. Pick one.

It makes it a difficult episode to review. The story itself is bland and inconsequential, serving solely to advance the series arc: more than anything, ‘Fugitive’ feels not so much like the first part of a two-part story but a filler episode that we’ll revisit in a month or two, or perhaps even next year if the rumours have any substance. The TARDIS fam have next to nothing to do this week, to the extent that they’re removed from the narrative entirely by the most unexpected of guest stars, materialising in a gloomy spacecraft in the company of Captain Jack Harkness. Older, a little grizzled around the jaw but still as flirtatious as ever, Barrowman wastes no time in snogging Graham and complimenting him on his temples before evading a barrage of laser fire from the unseen monsters who want their ship back. As much fun as it is, the inconvenient truth is that Jack’s cameo serves absolutely no purpose, other than to have the fans squealing and jumping out of their seats, something I’ll admit I did. He’s there to deliver a cryptic message to the Doctor (disappointingly, the two never meet – perhaps they’re saving that for later), but surely he could have sent an email or something? On the other hand it’s lovely to see him, and it says something about the pace of an episode when a cameo from a long-departed guest actor is one of the least interesting things about it.

The other inconenient truth is that, despite its good intentions, ‘Fugitive’ wasn’t exactly a rug sweeper. It feels, more than anything, that those days are over: that the two-way feedback now supposedly deemed essential to the production process has rendered this a series of games and one-upmanships; television reduced to a series of “Gotcha!” moments. For all its jaw-dropping revelations (and there were several) it’s hard not to feel ever so slightly cheated; that this was an event, rather than anything of any substance. Moreover it was an event inserted purely for shock value, a cynical headline-grab in the manner of Moffat’s decision to tinker with the numbering (something no amount of garbage about writer’s block can ever really justify). Doctor Who isn’t produced in a vacuum, and while Whittaker maintains she doesn’t read the papers it should be fairly self-evident by now that Chibnall does. It is impossible not to conclude that this decision was made to deliberately upset certain people. And while I don’t object to big changes, as long as they work, and while I’d be happy to see Martin again on the strength of her performance this week, I’m not sure how I feel about the the BBC poking the fandom with a stick. Although let’s face it, that’s something the Doctor does particularly well.

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Review: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

For Emily, the eye-rolling started early. It happened when Graham was giving a history lesson, three companions in Mufti (and a Doctor who seems happy to keep the braces on) gathered in a sparse office in early twentieth century New York. No one seemed to know anything about Nikola Tesla, including the mansplaining bus driver. They had just been walking through the streets asking about Times Square and the Empire State Building, both of which had yet to be built, and as far as my other half was concerned, this fresh display of ignorance was a bridge too far. “Honestly!” she spluttered. “Didn’t this lot learn anything at school? Don’t you need to have at least some GCSEs to become a police officer?”

I’d never studied or even learned about Tesla at school, and I told her so. “Didn’t you measure in Teslas?” she asked.

“Look,” I said, “I can’t remember a thing about Year 11 Physics. Except for that conversation with Mr Brame about whether the backwards universe from Red Dwarf was possible.”

I’ve learned a lot since secondary school, although Tesla is still a knowledge gap – one I recently attempted to fill by playing Tesla Vs Lovecraft, a twin-stick shooter which gives you an array of steampunk gadgetry and puts you on the streets against hordes of denizens conjured from other dimensions by Lovecraft himself, for reasons we’ve never quite managed to discern. It is ridiculous fun but I bought it, I will confess, largely for the Lovecraft connection – a man who has never and likely never will make any sort of appearance in Doctor Who, for reasons that ought to be obvious if you know anything about him, although his influence over the show has been prolific, from the outright pastiche that is ‘Image of the Fendahl’ to the tentacled mouths of the Ood.

All Nintendo Switch sessions aside, having the TARDIS fam wax lyrical in such a fashion of ignorance is, at least, familiar territory. But never mind Graham, Ryan and Yas meeting famous historical people without a clue whom they’re addressing – why on Earth doesn’t the Doctor know? Mistaken identity often enhances a narrative, but it jars when the pudding is overegged: are we really supposed to believe that there isn’t a visual dictionary in the library, or that no one checks the readouts to see when and where they’ve actually landed? It’s happened twice this year, once with Ada Lovelace and once with the pioneering inventor who graced last night’s episode, and on both occasions the audience has been quicker on the uptake than the Doctor – who manages to wander into and escape from the Niagara Falls power station without having a clue that she’s in the presence of the man responsible for building it.

In ‘Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’ Nina Metivier re-imagines the eponymous Tesla – played with dignity and aplomb by ER’s Goran Višnjić as an impassioned immigrant (albeit one with a passport) who has pursued the American dream and found it as about as substantial and rewarding as a bag of cheese melt dippers. In his quest for fame and the pursuit of knowledge Tesla has run afoul of a ruthless business rival and a parasitic race of giant alien scorpions – in that order, although presented in reverse. Said business rival is of course Thomas Edison, who, in this week’s Classic revisitation, is played by Robert Glenister, last seen littering the floor in ‘The Caves of Androzani’. Edison is presented here as a ruthless and ambitious slanderer, a man of business above ideals, reaping the benefits of intellectual copyright theft. He’s first seen outside his impressive laboratory, shot from below, as if towering over the landscape like a giant. By the end of the story – and the closing conversation between the two men – the camera has shifted to favour Tesla, who looms subtly over his rival, having attained the moral high ground if not the financial victory he so desperately craved.

Tesla himself is somewhat whitewashed, in much the same way that Churchill was, but it’s to Metivier’s credit that she manages to string together a tale that avoids the preachiness of other recent instalments, even if it manages this by the skin of its teeth. Oh, there are moments. “Business is the American way,” Edison harrumphs for the umpteenth time, before grinning about the time he reduced his rival to ditch-digging. On the other hand he expresses remorse over the loss of his staff (“These were men with families!”), he doesn’t cut and run, he doesn’t try and sell out Tesla to the villain of the week, and at the end he extends a hand of friendship, even if he’s only following the money. It’s simplistic and it doesn’t always work, but to all those I’ve heard complaining about the anti-Trump, anti-American sentiment: are you absolutely sure we were watching the same episode?

Where Tesla and Edison are reasonably developed, considering this is Doctor Who, the villains are sadly lacking: Anjli Mohindra, caked beneath layers of makeup, plays a poor cousin to the already destitute Racnoss and manages to be the least interesting villain since…well, the one they did two episodes ago, if we’re nitpicking. There is nothing to say about the Skithra, except that they crawl over the interior of an uninteresting spacecraft, besiege Tesla’s out-of-town laboratory, and ransack the streets of New York (prompting an amusing chase sequence which will have all the advocates of the Fruit Cart Trope punching the air, or perhaps waving an angry fist and yelling obscenities in an unknown language). That they are dull and forgettable is precisely the point, but it’s a waste of Mohindra’s talent – she really was quite good in that thing with Simon Callow – and when Whittaker sneers that “When you die, there’ll be nothing left behind”, you wish it wasn’t all quite so meta.

Whittaker herself appears to be finally hitting the mark, even if the stories and dialogue don’t always do her justice. She references both Baker (“Nice place you’ve got here, probably”) and Hamlet while facing off against the Skithra, and is equally at home uncoupling a train carriage as she is cobbling together bits of machinery. There is a sense, more than ever, that the TARDIS is a family, with unscreened adventures referenced in every story, and Whittaker leads them with a madcap aloofness that puts you in mind of Tennant, on one of his good (read: less miserable) days. Indeed, ‘Night of Terror’ is easily the sort of story that might have taken place under his reign, perhaps in the company of Martha.

If there’s one thing we might say for the companions this series it’s that there’s something rather blasé about them. Gone is Ryan’s sense of awe at meeting Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, or Graham’s quiet observations in ‘Demons of the Punjab’. Instead there is an apathetic sheen to each new encounter. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to them that this is a Big Deal. Perhaps dropping in cries of “Wow!” and “Awesome!” is viewed as gauche or silly in these cynical, enlightened days, the sort of thing best left to Sophie Aldred. Perhaps the writers don’t have time to put them in, or simply assume that someone else has done it. Or perhaps they’ve all got travel fatigue. Come the end they’re all making jokes about average days, as if getting in and out of trouble was as natural as riding a bus or scrolling through a Facebook news feed. “First time here can be a lot,” Ryan notes to Dorothy Skeritt (Haley McGee) as the two of them chill in the TARDIS. “It certainly is a lot,” she retorts. “But you take it in your stride.”

Nonetheless: it was good, and it was solid – which sounds like faint praise, but in a series where Doctor Who seems to be in danger of losing its structural integrity it’s nice to have something that forms a bit of a foundation. ‘Night of Terror’ won’t exactly set the world alight, nor is it destined to make the top ten lists, but if kids didn’t know who he was before they certainly will by the end, even if it’s not exactly a balanced portrait. While not without its flaws, there’s more here that works than doesn’t: the guest cast are mostly very good, old New York is pleasantly rendered, and considering it’s her first time, Metivier seems to have more of an idea of what’s going on than many other writers. She can come again. But next time can we have a minigun and a bit of Cthulhu?

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Review: Orphan 55

My American contacts sometimes tell me they have to watch Doctor Who with subtitles. “It’s the accent,” they insist. “It’s just too thick. We can’t understand what people are saying.” Having dug a little deeper, I’ve determined that the accent is only part of the equation: the real reason, it turns out, is the relentless pace at which dialogue drops out of the air, as if the cast had a sweepstake going to see how quickly Jodie Whittaker could get through a scene. For someone who claims not to have watched a great deal of Doctor Who she certainly knows her Tennant: nobody did caffeine-fuelled exposition quite like he did; at least nobody until now.

Whittaker’s penchant for technobabble almost proves her undoing tonight – “You talk too much”, one supporting character observes, and indeed it is this insistence on explaining everything at breakneck speed that causes the Doctor to drain her oxygen supply at the most inconvenient of moments. But that’s all right, because she’s just bumped into the surprisingly affable Dreg Chief, emerging from the shadows in a heaving mass of muscles and teeth to provide a crucial plot development. The Dregs, you see, are what humanity is destined to become if we don’t get our act together: mindless, permanently enraged half-people, attacking in mobs and incapable of anything resembling coherent language. Is this science fiction, or have they been at a Britain First rally?

‘Orphan 55’ is the tale of what happens when you don’t tell your friends why you’re miserable: having beaten off an unnamed, mostly unseen tentacled monstrosity just before we catch up with them at the story’s opening, the gang elect to take a holiday on Tranquility Spa, which looks rather like a European conference centre with an outdoor pool. Greeted by an unsightly dog (we really are in Spaceballs territory here), the Doctor swiftly finds herself alone and abandoned as her pals go off to explore on their own – and although it’s literally a matter of seconds before trouble starts, Whittaker looks, for a moment, just about as vulnerable and human as we’ve ever seen her. It is a lovely vignette that is over before it’s had the chance to really begin, and its brevity sets the tone for what follows: forty-five minutes of guns and explosions and noble self-sacrificing geriatrics, where ecosystems and corporate structures and scientific principles are all half-discussed, half-shouted in a flurry of exposition while several people run down a darkened corridor or panic over a computer terminal. It’s all horribly confusing in places, and if Ed Hime’s last effort (the atrocious ‘It Takes You Away’) suffered heavily from the complete absence of a plot, his follow-up suffers from having rather too much of one, which presumably means that Chibnall has to invite him back next year to see if he can nail it the third time.

Said plot revolves around the rather excessive security forces populating the facility, not to mention the sudden brownouts, which are enough for the Doctor to smell a rat – or at least a worm, which she yanks from Ryan’s mouth in what is the episode’s funniest sequence. Elsewhere Yas has bumped into a cheerful elderly pair and Graham just wants to lounge on a deckchair in a cardigan like a Kay’s catalogue model, but it isn’t long before the lights go out and the sirens go up, and then there is a gunfight in a corridor and the first of several deaths. Tranquility Spa is an onion of intrigue, hiding layers of revelatory insight, each layer darker and more intriguing than the last, and so the Doctor and her friends leave the safety of the hotel’s gleaming interiors to uncover them all – although it’s a decision that at least three of them will live to regret.

Along the way they run into the usual motley crew of supporting characters. Bella (Gia Re) is a troubled young woman hiding a dull family secret. Vilma (Julia Foster) is a surprisingly spritely pensioner who provides the catalyst for the story’s second act when the Doctor launches a rescue operation to find her kidnapped boyfriend. Nevi (James Buckley) is a middle-aged Oompa Loompa who didn’t realise that Bring Your Child To Work Day was last week; his role is to stand around looking entirely gormless while his son Silas (His Dark Materials’ Lewin Lloyd) does all the thinking. None of these people are very interesting and I have gone to the trouble of writing down their names and who played them in order to give you a handy reference guide, because you will have forgotten every single one of them by Wednesday, if not sooner. You’re welcome.

The second half of ‘Orphan 55’ is pure Terry Nation: there’s a bomb, and someone twists an ankle. The gang split off into factions to try and save themselves from certain death, with lessons learned and familial bonds strengthened at the eleventh hour. That said, I can’t for the life of me remember what Yas was doing: a couple of early scenes aside, Mandip Gill really has been horribly underwritten this series, to the extent that if she had slipped into the crack of erasure that swallowed Rory Williams, not even the audience would notice. It’s a shame, because there is an innocent sweetness to Gill that made her one of the most endearing facets of Whittaker’s first year, and to see her confined to the sidelines in this manner is frustrating, particularly when she’s clearly talented.

All inadequacies aside, it’s at least a lot of fun to watch, and things are breezing along quite well until the last minute and a half, when a dejected crew stand around the TARDIS console wondering if there’s any point to anything. It’s left to their captain to reveal, with all the subtlety of a presidential Tweet, that this apocalyptic future happened because of man’s inhumanity to man – and, what’s more, we can change it. Which would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact that generally speaking we can’t: awkward moments in ‘Pyramids of Mars’ aside, Doctor Who is very much a predestination show, the parallel timelines of Back to the Future confined gracefully to the waste bin of unused plot devices, except when it’s really important to the narrative or the writers are simply bored. Or when some suited executive sends down a fax asking them to tone it down so the kids don’t get too scared, because they really want to stay on the right side of Ofcom now the election’s over, and isn’t Greta going to find it all a bit defeatist? Or perhaps Chibnall felt the story needed a rewrite. Or perhaps there was no tinkering at all: perhaps it was simply Hine erecting a soapbox in the TARDIS (which is understandable; Whittaker’s only five foot six). The net result, regardless of its point of origin, is a watered-down environmental message that undoubtedly serves its purpose, assuming that purpose was to send the episode crashing through the floor right at the end of its denoument. “It’s only a possible future,” the Doctor insists, calmly, to which there really ought to be a unilateral cry of ‘Bollocks’.

There was a Guardian thinkpiece this week – I’m not linking to it; it’s ridiculously misguided – that said Doctor Who wasn’t woke; it was more offensive than ever, and proceeded to tell us why (their argument was basically “Token trans characters and the black people died”). At the other end of the scale, I was told this evening that including a climate change message was pandering to the Woke brigade – something I don’t fully understand, as there’s nothing Woke about climate change and there never really has been; it’s simple common sense. I don’t know where we go from there, but if you’re in a place where Doctor Who is offending both sides of the fandom, you’re either getting it colossally right or colossally wrong. I really would like to say it’s the former, but every week it becomes harder to make that call. Someone, somewhere, is making a lot of bad decisions this year – it may be Chibnall, it may be someone else, but the net result is a TV programme that’s in danger of losing its identity – at least last year we knew what Doctor Who was, even if it wasn’t something we immediately recognised, and if these last three weeks have proven anything it’s that indulging in transparent fan service is only going to erode whatever identity you were in the process of forging (which is what happened to the last Star Wars film). There is, somewhere underneath, a terrific show in series 12 waiting to get out, but it’s not one we’ve thus far been allowed to see. Instead we’re presented with a glossy, outwardly respectable veneer – a Tranquility Spa of slick marketing videos and idyllic publicity stills and a hype train loaded with goodness – that hides a dark underbelly of something rotten. It’s just a question of how long everyone can survive before the walls cave in.

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Review: Spyfall (Part Two)

Spoilers follow.

It’s 1988, and Keanu Reeves has just stepped into a phone box. It will be over a decade before he does this to escape from a hammy Man In Black; on this occasion it’s strictly academic, in the most literal sense. Keanu, you see, is playing one half of a time travelling twosome who need to pass a history test in order to save the world. In the company of Alex Winter (who did Freaked and then dropped off the radar faster than Change UK), Keanu travels back and forth through time picking up various historical figures, getting in and out of scrapes, and playing air guitar a lot. Towards the end of the film, he and Alex are in something of a predicament: how, the two of them ponder, can their report be salvaged when there’s no time left to break people out of the lockup? The only solution is to go back and do it afterwards and leave everything they’ll need lying around, so that’s exactly what they do. Three years later, while waging war with an unpleasant P.E. teacher / would-be dictator in the middle of a Battle of the Bands contest, they win by using the same strategy. It’s cheating, really, but it works.

By and large – and this is not a criticism – Doctor Who doesn’t do it. Oh, there are moments. ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ builds its entire opening episode around the conceit, as Rowan Atkinson and Jonathan Pryce trade insults and wave metaphorical tackle over opposing sides of a castle banqueting hall. It’s something apparently dear to the heart of Steven Moffat, and there would be periods, much later on, where it would become a convenient escape device from a seemingly impossible situation (cf. ‘Blink’, ‘The Big Bang’), or even a multi-episode plot device (hello series 6, pull up a chair and have a custard cream). But stories in which time travel is used as a plot device, rather than a convenient method of establishing a setting, seem to be on the wane in this bold new vision of the show. For better or worse, it seemed like these were days we’d left behind: that the complicated bootstrap paradoxes of ‘Before The Flood’ were largely – and do excuse the pun – a thing of the past. And so they were, until tonight.

That Chibnall uses it twice in the same episode (once to resolve a cliffhanger, once to save the Earth) isn’t necessarily a problem. A surreptitious rewiring is the sort of thing the Doctor does all the time; it’s how he cheats death in ‘The Witch’s Familiar’ and ‘Evolution of the Daleks’, so why shouldn’t it work when it’s applied across multiple time periods? It doesn’t even feel like Chibnall’s out of his depth, particularly: there are undoubtedly holes in the blanket but you could say that of any of Moffat’s stories, and thus it seems churlish to look for them. And for those of us who were expecting a last-minute spiriting away to the Master’s TARDIS, accompanied by the words “I’d much rather enjoy the satisfaction of watching the Doctor’s friends die while she was here to witness it” (which is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to happen) it came as a pleasant surprise when Ryan crawled commando-style up the floor of the jet only to see his name written on the wall, like discovering your name on a gift underneath an explosive Christmas tree that’s now caught fire. Landing a plane with a mobile phone? Well, Bond did it with a car. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, particularly when it can spirit you away from white glowing aliens, or men with guns.

No, the problem with ‘Spyfall: Part Two’ has nothing to do with silly plot devices; it’s simply that the pacing is off. Having the Doctor travel two hundred years into the past to pick up Ada Lovelace is absolutely fine. The pages of exposition seemingly necessary to explain her importance, however, are downright tedious. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in 1830s London with Charles Babbage or war torn Paris with the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo; Whittaker paces and monologues and gushes about the admirable pioneering qualities of the people whose memories she will eventually wipe, reeling out the history, seemingly unaware that she’s left her mates in 21st century Essex. It’s like watching a BBC Schools presenter on crack. I’m being unnecessarily unkind, but there is a reason why the Doctor is not allowed to travel alone; occasionally she needs someone to tell her to shut up.

The story – such as it is – concerns a secret conspiracy by tech guru Daniel Barton to wipe the minds of most of the planet’s populace (presumably with some sort of temporary infrastructure on standby to compensate for the socioeconomic cataclysm that would inevitably follow) in order to satisfy the whims of an alien race who, it is hoped, we will see again, if only so they can give us something by way of character motivation. There are plans to enslave the Earth, but we don’t know why; nor are we particularly concerned about any of it. The mysterious non-space between worlds is given no decent explanation, even though it is clearly crying out for one; nor do we get any real clue as to why the Kasaavin were tracking the development of technology, not least a prototype computer that never really worked to begin with. Considering they’re clearly up for teaching a bit of history it would have been nice to include at least a couple of lines about what Lovelace and Babbage were actually doing, but we don’t even get that, which makes it all the trickier to work out why the otherworldly beings were sniffing around 1830s Marylebone. Even the Gelth – as featured in Mark Gatiss’ greatly troubled ‘Unquiet Dead’ – had more of a backstory.

It’s left to the companions to fill in the gaps, which they do with varying degrees of success: Graham is clearly enjoying his laser shoes, operating them with pixel-perfect precision even in the absence of a manual (seriously, did none of this lot watch The Greatest American Hero?), while Ryan whoops and tries not to clap too loudly for fear of launching a missile from his forearms. Yas, on the other hand, has clearly been on one secondment too many, as she seems to have forgotten that she’s a police officer: finding jobs for three companions is tricky at the best of times, which was why Nyssa was always getting headaches, but Gill’s role this week is to sit in darkened warehouses looking clueless while the men have all the fun. There is a melancholy about Yas as she does this; perhaps she’s seen the scripts for the rest of the series and realised that they’re establishing a pattern.

While all this is going on, the Doctor is travelling back and forth (but mostly forth) throughout history, pursued by the new Master, adorned in any number of period costumes in the manner of a recurring Highlander villain (his induction into the Aryan-fetishising Gestapo is, at least, explained, although you can’t help thinking it didn’t really need to be). Unmasked, unleashed and quite possibly unhinged, Sacha Dhawan once again proves himself to be the best thing about this new series by a mile, trading insults with the Doctor atop la Tour Eiffel and getting trigger happy with his Tissue Compressor in polite company. The two of them even get to indulge in a bit of telepathy (after repeatedly spelling out the letter ‘H’ on a Morse transmitter) in a scene that will either make Classic fans cheer or howl with rage, depending on whether we’re talking about Gatiss or Ian Levine. Deadly when roused and even deadlier when quiet, Dhawan wears the skin of the Master like a well-fitted suit, toning down the craziness of his brief introduction last week in order to gloat and glare, before smouldering with rage when he reveals exactly who was responsible for Gallifrey’s apparent destruction.

Ah yes, that. There’s something slightly amateurish about the sight of that ashened, ruined wasteland some ten or fifteen minutes after we’ve heard the Master talking about it. It gives the Doctor a reason to pop over there (something she can apparently do at will now, even though the Time Lords are seemingly unable or unwilling to reciprocate) – still, how much better might it have been for us to first glimpse the ruined citadel completely unwarned? ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a maxim that gets thrown about far too much, but it still feels as if this was the perfect opportunity to use it – as it stands there is no shock value to the scene because we know it is coming, and the BBC presents only the most cursory of vistas, prompting only the mildest of reactions from the person looking at it. Would it have been too much to see the Doctor cry, or at least show some visible signs of upset besides sitting against a TARDIS wall, looking as blank and forlorn as Yas did earlier in the story?

Or perhaps that’s the point – perhaps this, too, is the calm before the storm, a storm the Doctor can only weather with the help of friends she is currently content to leave in the dark, thus setting the stage for six or seven episodes of skirting around the question of who she really is before a final, explosive confrontation. And perhaps that’s the only way to reinvent Gallifreyan history – something, it seems, Chibnall is about to do – without it becoming tedious. And it is destined to be tedious, this game of gods and monsters and prophecy. It is an awkward fact that stories about Time Lords – the anomaly of ‘Deadly Assassin’ aside – tend towards dullness, and it is difficult to see how the current regime could reinvent them. But it does, at least, give us something to ponder as the weeks unfold and the awkwardness in the console room builds towards an inevitable crescendo. Like it or not, we’re going back to Gallifrey, and all that remains now is to see how much of the fandom Chibnall can poke with a stick without losing the casual viewers. It’s a dangerous game, but so is getting out of bed, so one more step along the road we go.

Maybe Graham could bring along his laser shoes. That’d be fun.

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Review: Spyfall

   

Warning: a plethora of spoilers follow.

The other night, my family and I sat down to watch Johnny English Strikes Again. It’s been on the to-do list for a while and we had a spare ninety minutes, which is all it takes for David Kerr to tell his tale of a haphazard secret agent pulled out of retirement when all the other active agents across the globe become suddenly and inexplicably compromised. The man responsible? A seemingly benevolent tech billionaire from Silicon Valley with designs on taking over the world. And only Rowan Atkinson, with his reliance on old school techiques and prowess with a baguette (if you’ve seen the film you’ll know what this is about) can stop him.

I can’t help thinking that such recent exposure to a swiftly flagging franchise renders me incapable of supplying an on-point and unbiased review after the spectacle we all just witnessed. Because it was hard not to feel a sense of already seen as we watched Jodie Whittaker bumble her way through an hour of awkard gags and mildly tedious chase sequences. Bond 25 is due in April and it was clear from the very first shot – a glorious African vista with a secret service operative hiding behind an oversized title card – that this was going to be a jetsetting tour-de-force of espionage and intrigue, with gadgets and guns and sharp-dressed villains. It was obvious enough from the trailer, which featured Lenny Henry shooting out the back of a moving car while Whittaker dons a tuxedo in the middle of a vineyard. This was clearly about cashing in on 007 while it’s hot – like the garage of a kleptomaniac roadworks operator, all the signs were there.

Still, needs must. I’m not sure I can say with a clear conscience that this was any sort of classic, but neither was it a car crash (although it features one or two). ‘Spyfall’ strides the awkward middle line between haphazard fun and mediocre buffoonery, equal parts cringe to crowdpleasing, and there is a sense, as its closing credits roll, of having watched something that was basically candy floss: enjoyable while it lasts but flimsily and loosely constructed, and prone to falling apart the second you poke at it. That’s probably OK: some people like candy floss.

When we last saw Team TARDIS, they were dematerialising into the sunset after the events of ‘Resolution’. A discarded calendar later, the three companions are about to go travelling again: Graham, winner of this year’s “Most likely to have his backstory sidelined” award, is having a check-up; Yas is explaining away yet another secondment; and Ryan has bunked off work for months by faking a series of health scares, including but not limited to a detached retina. (It’s played for laughs, but I had an ex-colleague who used to do this and it’s no joking matter when you spend half your working day covering someone else’s paperwork.) Meanwhile, the Doctor is in the process of changing a spark plug, or something. It’s not exactly a grand entrance, but at least she still has the steampunk eyewear.

Things kick off when the intrepid foursome are all but kidnapped by a bunch of government agents whose job it is to drive them from Sheffield to London: this being Doctor Who, the sat nav goes awry and tries to kill them en route. Before long they’re in the office of C (Stephen Fry, phoning it in from SW1), an MI6 executive whose job it is to look very grave just before he’s shot in the back of the head. It’s so sudden, Ryan almost has a facial movement. The assassins are strange, multi-dimensional chameleonic beings who can seep through walls and even into the console room, and once it becomes apparent that they’re all in danger, the Doctor decides that the best plan is for the four of them to pair off so they’re not as well protected. Thus, she and Graham fly the TARDIS to Australia to catch up with an old friend, while Ryan and Yas visit San Francisco to grill the shady internet mogul (Lenny Henry) who may be responsible.

We ought to say at this point in proceedings that for all her champing at the bit, the Doctor makes a rubbish spy. Her stratagem for getting results at Daniel Barton’s birthday party is to directly confront its host, with not a shred of tangible evidence beyond a couple of readouts, and she then wonders why he immediately jumps into a Bentley in order to escape from the crazy woman on the patio. Such a clumsily presented scene can only be there to lead us into yet another set piece, and indeed ‘Spyfall’ is full of such moments, jumping from one locale to the next with barely enough time to breathe or explore. A single scene with Yas and Ryan, perched outside an Australian cottage hiding a deep dark secret, is about the only real character-advancing moment we get: all the rest is sound and fury, signifying nothing.

It’s a shame, because Whittaker really is quite good: self-assured and endearing with just a pinch of the darkness we were hoping for. Whether it’s confusing Pontoon with Snap or using a wing mirror to deflect laser blasts in a malfunctioning vehicle, she approaches the role with grace and dignity and seems more Doctor-like than she did last year, even when Chibnall’s script hands her another clunky monologue. She even manages to make the technobabble work, just about. Likewise, the supporting cast do their thing well enough, although it’s a bit tiresome they all get on so well. No one wants another Adric and Tegan, but can’t we at least have a bit of an argument about the TARDIS lighting or something?

Two minutes from the end, the Master shows up. This isn’t strictly true, of course: he’s been there all the time, hiding beneath Sacha Dhawan’s amiable exterior. Dhawan (no stranger to Who, having played Waris Hussein in 2013’s ‘Adventure in Space and Time’) is already a likeable sidekick, but he makes for an even better villain, sneering and angry and possibly quite mad, all the things the Master should be, embodied in a single blazing sequence on board a booby-trapped passenger jet. We were promised a big bang to Episode 1, and for a change this one actually delivers, largely thanks to O’s abrupt heel turn into a character we all know, in an incarnation who is at once new and yet instantly recognisable, even if the fans are going to be arguing for weeks about the chronology. Having been set up as a feasible romantic foil for Yas, the renegade Time Lord engineers a sudden (some would say rushed) cliffhanger, with the Doctor spirited abruptly away from proceedings as her companions face almost certain death – although there’s a TARDIS with a functioning chameleon circuit just outside the window, so probably not.

There are good things about this besides Dhawan. Certainly the whole thing feels like Fleming on a BBC budget; it’s just a question of whether that’s the sort of thing that tickles your fancy or leaves you wondering why they bothered. There are briefcases full of laser shoes and near misses in plush corporate offices (although are we really supposed to believe that Barton didn’t see Yas and Ryan poking their heads three feet above that sofa?). The plot may be nonsensical but this is, at least, something that’s trying to entertain us, even if it’s occasionally trying much too hard. The visual style carries a flair of its own, matched by the score: composer Segun Akinola, having paid tribute to nineties-style Bond orchestrations in ‘Resolution’, delves into outright pastiche here as the camera pans up over the vineyards surrounding Barton’s birthday shindig. It’s ridiculous but it does the job, just like everything else.

But the giggles and surprises can’t mask the pitfalls of last series creeping in. Whether it’s the nondescript villains, the awkward social commentary, the pedestrian dialogue or Chibnall trolling the fandom as the Doctor explains her gender switch with the words “I’ve had an upgrade”, there’s a sense here that some lessons have been learned, but perhaps not quite enough. As hard as it tries, ‘Spyfall’ (at least this part) can’t help but feel like something that was so desperate to be Bond it forgot it also had to be Doctor Who. It’s gift horse and mouth territory so the temptation is to be kind, and it’s still the beginning of the run, so there’s time to get this right – and perhaps with Dhawan’s Master at the helm (or at least in the cargo bay, planting explosives), the series can get back on track without lapsing into tedium. Certainly by bringing him back in this manner Chibnall’s paved an avenue worth exploring, with a new Master / Doctor relationship ready for the harvest, like the grapes in Barton’s vineyard. “Our paths crossed very briefly once,” the Master explains to Graham, a few minutes from the end, referencing a scene that dearly deserves to be written, “when she was a man”. That’s the sort of backstory that deserves a bit of flesh, if only to find out which Doctor he was talking about. I can’t help wondering whether it was Rowan Atkinson.

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Papa Louie Pals Presents: The Companions (Part 1)

Hello! Welcome to Good Burger, home of the good burger; may I take your order?

As you’ll have seen the other week, I spent large parts of August assembling a plethora of Doctors with the help of Flipline Studio’s Papa Louie Pals, which enables you to create your own characters in the vein of the developer’s cutesy, animated consumers and baristas. In other words, you too – in the comfort of your own home – can make the sort of people who wander in to Papa’s Tacoreria and order…well, tacos. Or burritos, or whatever else they sell; I’m sure I don’t know. I haven’t played them, remember?

But give me an app that lets me be a bit creative and it’s like a red rag to a bull, and – having done all the Doctors – I elected to spend a little time creating the companions as well. We start, today, with the New Who brigade: most of the big players are in there, although I’m kicking myself for not including Wilf. Just for good measure, I stuck a couple of villains in as well (all right, one villain in multiple forms, which does rather narrow it down). Oh, and I couldn’t bring myself to do Adam, largely because he’s a twat.

Still. Everyone else is here, just about. And yes, there is a Classic Who companions gallery in the works, at some point when I get round to it. I may even take requests, as long as they’re more imaginative than “Please stop doing this”.

Let’s get cooking…

We’ll get these two out of the way first. There are lots of ways to do Rose; I have gone with her series one look, which is a little more chavvy and a little less refined than the slicker haircut and more revealing outfits she wore in series 2. Donna looks like a slightly younger version of herself, but that’s not a bad thing.

Nardole is…well, he’s a little taller than I’d like, or a little slimmer; pick one. But he looks vageuly Nardole-ish. And I’m quite pleased with Bill; I even remembered to put the bow in her hair.

The Masters, next (yes, there are multiple versions). Simm’s 2007 look is basically a man in a black suit; take away the evil eyes and he could be auditioning for Reservoir Dogs. He’s accompanied here by River Song, sporting her classic vest-and-skirt combination, as worn in ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ and probably other episodes I can’t be bothered to Google.

Two more Masters: the hooded monstrosity from ‘The End of Time’ and the restrained, bearded 2017 Master I always hoped we’d get to see. That’s my favourite contemporary take on the character, and it’s irritating that he really doesn’t work here: the hair is too shaggy, the beard (while being the closest I could manage) is wrong, and the tunic is more chef than rogue Time Lord. he looks like an evil sensei from a Japanese martial arts movie.

Missy, on the other hand, came out a treat, even if she does vaguely resemble a sinister version of Lucy from Peanuts. That’s presumably what Mickey Smith is thinking, unless it’s “Did I leave the iron on?”.

Series 11 now. Graham and Ryan first. Note that Graham’s smile is slightly smaller than the rest: this is deliberate.

And here’s Yas – along with Captain Jack, who is probably staring at her bottom.

The Ponds! They’re wearing matching shirts, which happened because I was feeling a bit lazy that morning, but it’s rather cute.

Lastly, Martha – whose jacket is just about perfect – and Clara. Specifically Oswin, although that dress isn’t quite as figure-hugging as I’d like. Still, she looks pleased with it.

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