Funny what she gets up when she thinks the cameras are off, isn’t it?
How do you do, fellow teenagers? I don’t have a single meme about Harry and Meghan; if you’re anything like me I imagine you’re heartily sick of the whole thing. This is a world of heroes and villains and ne’er the twain, it seems, shall meet: depending on who you talk to, Meghan Markle is either a strong, independent and blameless woman who’s become a victim of racist bullying, despised by the establishment because she didn’t fit the mould, or an opportunistic prima donna who was awful to the palace staff, contemptuous of Kate Middleton and whose modus operandi was to drive a wedge between Harry and his brother.
The fact that the most likely reality is an awkward combination of both does not seem to have occurred to anyone, at least anyone who reads the papers, but I suppose the world is so much easier when we can view it in black and white. No one likes an ambiguous, well-crafted villain with redeeming features. They want someone they can boo and hiss at. Anyway, enough. It’s way more complicated than I have time to discuss in this silly little blog.
We seem to have missed a few things, like St. David’s Day.
Or Valentine’s Day.
Or Pancake Day.
One of the big bits of Doctor Who news, of course – something we found out on New Year’s Day, immediately after the live broadcast (which I wasn’t watching, meaning I got to find out about it on Twitter) concerned the imminent arrival of incoming companion Dan, set to make his debut in the autumn, or whenever they get round to airing series 13. Dan’s a scouser, and you have absolutely no idea how difficult it was not to make jokes about nailing down bits of the console, but as it stands I managed to keep my humour contained. More or less.
News broke quite recently of the dissolution of Daft Punk, the dance hall stalwarts who’ve been making music together for nearly thirty years, and who’ve produced a shedload of songs that I’d forgotten they did. I do remember, some years ago, an appearance at a festival by Wurzel-esque comedy band Folk On, who were on fine form as ever but who managed to have everyone jigging along in the mud when they sang “We’re up all night to get some (milk!) / We’re up all night for good fun / We’re up all night to get folky…”. It’s a sad day for music, as while they were never really my thing I can’t deny that they’ve completely changed the scene and that ‘One More Time’ is a bangin’ masterpiece. Luckily the two of them seem to have already found another job.
We’re still in lockdown, whereby all but essential travel is banned – although that doesn’t seem to have stopped Banksy, who ventured from his native Bristol to my home town of Reading to scribble his latest drawing on the wall of the heritage masterpiece / public eyesore (delete as applicable) that is Reading Gaol. It’s Oscar Wilde, escaping with a typewriter, sheets tied together like in Colditz, something that never happened in real life. As far as we know, anyway.
“That’s it, nearly there. Just a little further. You know what, Yaz, I think I’m getting an idea.”
Elsewhere, in a forest in Hampshire, someone else is breaking lockdown:
My children have been watching a lot of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The eldest two spent New Year’s Eve watching a few back to back with the horror movie Us; I’d say I don’t know what was the most terrifying part of the whole thing but earlier in the evening we’d all been watching Cats, so I think you have your answer. In any case, Ramsay is a good deal more sprightly than he was in Gordon Ramsay’s Bank Balance, a show that seems to have been almost universally panned, although it’s good to know that they’re managing to make the most of the old TARDIS sets.
“Our first contestants tonight are Amy and Rory, from Leadworth in Gloucestershire…”
I read an interesting thing in the press the other week about a scientific dig that yielded unexpected results, and the instant thing I thought of was Lovecraft and shoggoths and albino penguins. But I also did this. You couldn’t not, really.
Politics, and the news that the Prime Minister has designs on a colossal subterranean junction is met with the mirth and condescension it undoubtedly deserves.
We giggle at these fancies, but is it such a terrible idea? It’s certainly a more practical solution than teleportation, which (and why does nobody discuss this?) effectively kills you and reconstructs an identical copy at the other end, unless you’re in The Fly or something. And yet when we’re watching TV we’ll readily accept teleportation, and faster-than-light travel, and the existence of wormholes, or a police box that can fly and open its doors to a completely different place a few seconds later.
“Just through there, sir.”
And I would rather be anywhere else than here today. Still. This week – 9th March as I write this – marks the week the schools officially reopen (they never actually closed, of course, and teachers never stopped working), meaning a return to something awkwardly like normality. Well, kind of.
“It’s lovely to see you everyone back, and I’m pleased you’ve all remembered your masks…”
Yes, well, I think two weeks of radio silence is long enough. I spent quite a lot of it building a TARDIS-themed virtual art gallery (coming soon to a WordPress feed near you!) and rolling my eyes at people on Facebook who still have no idea who Brendan actually was, or are convinced that Chibnall’s shat all over the legacy of Doctor Who, or who think the Master is lying, or any combination of the above. That’s until we all started talking about getting coughs instead; I’m frightened for my elderly father and the schools are about to shut, but at least the moral outrage over Series 12 is dying down.
Anyway: there are quite a few unrealised blog posts lying around in my drafts folder, and seeing as we’re all going to be stuck at home for the forseeable future you might as well have something to read. But before we get to any of them, we really ought to do a news update.
First, there’s the fallout from Rishi Sunak’s publicity phot, as a certain other high-ranking politician with dodgy scruples asks if you would like the good tea or the bad tea.
Over on the Naismith Estate, Max Von Sydow is upset that he and Timothy Dalton have both turned up at the Time Lords’ New Year’s Eve party wearing the same dress.
And it turns out some members of the public have an unorthodox approach towards celebrating No Smoking day.
Secret recordings reveal the real culprit behind Prince Harry’s prank call from Greta Thunberg.
At the BBC, there are internal complaints that the new sanitisation procedure is borderline excessive.
Donna Noble regrets not packing her own bog roll.
Sometimes washing your hands isn’t quite enough.
And on the streets of Cardiff it seems that not everyone is taking government guidelines seriously.
When I’m not prepping badly Photoshopped memes or writing lengthy discourses for The Doctor Who Companion, you will often find me hunched over entry level video editing software, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’ll strip out audio, chop and swap to avoid copyright infringement, download effects, spend an aeon scanning for rogue frames. It is a lonely and not always rewarding experience – the ideas never quite manifest on screen the way they do in my head, and the videos I upload to social media are, more often than not, a question of ‘that’ll do’ rather than ‘that’s good’. I learned a long time ago to stop beating myself up over this. There’s nothing wrong with striving for self-improvement, and I’m always looking for ways I can do things better, but ultimately this is a hobby. Video editing is like sex: even average results are better than no results. At least you’ve done something.
No one watches me on YouTube any more. Facebook seems to be where it’s at. But I like YouTube; it allows for a more permanent, easily accessible (and malleable) archive that I can herd into collective posts like this one. And today, I bring you another instalment: we’re in the late stages of 2018 now, with three short videos I knocked out at the tail end of last year. I don’t think they’ve been seen by anyone who is likely to offer me a job, and as far as I am aware none of them made the likes of Doctor Who Magazine. But that’s fine. When your audience is small but appreciative, as opposed to large and fickle, there’s no pressure to outdo yourself. In each case I looked at the final result and thought “Yeah, that’ll do” – and sometimes, that’s actually a good place to be.
1. Whovian Kombat: The Witchfinders vs. The Satan Pit (November 2018)
Regular readers here may remember that back in late 2018, I was counting Satans. Well, to be specific, the number of times the word was used in ‘The Witchfinders‘, an episode obsessed with exorcising the demon (hunches shoulders, closes eyes, breathes out, says ‘This house is clean’ in best Zelda Rubenstein voice). My gosh, there were a lot of them. You don’t notice until you string them together, which I did, just for the fun of it. Bearing in mind that everyone speaks in colloquial (or at least understandable) English in this story – at a point in history when the language as we know it was still evolving – you do wonder if it’s a TARDIS translation thing, and that the old girl has got bored of all the other names they’ve been churning out and has interpreted everything as ‘Satan’ simply because she can’t be bothered. Or maybe demon fatigue has nothing to do with it. The TARDIS is always a little bit wary when it comes to the divine: like Alistair Campbell’s Labour party, as a matter of principle it doesn’t do God.
Anyway, this sort of evolved into a new feature: Whovian Kombat, in which we take two hopelessly mismatched episodes of the show and dump them in the Thunderdome until one of them has beaten the other to a bloody pulp. And in this instance there was an obvious candidate; obvious, that is, in more ways than one. You’ll see what I mean – but as a public service announcement I am completely out of ideas for a sequel, so if anyone has any episodes they’d like to see thrown together in this manner I would welcome all your comments. If no one can think of any, that’s probably not a bad thing. Sequels have a tendency to be rubbish, as Mad Max 3 proved in abundance.
2. Doctor Who meets Kermit the Frog (November 2018)
I didn’t like the frog. A lot of people did; a lot of other people found it rather silly. It’s a shame, in a way, because it’s the sort of abstract surrealism that I usually go for in abundance. I loved ‘Warriors’ Gate’. And the cinematic, almost portentous direction in the first half of ‘Androzani’ – in which the camera lingers, spying through keyholes and following at strange angles – is one of my favourite moments in Classic Who. And yes, I get that Grace loved frogs and that they clearly set this up from the beginning. That doesn’t mean it works.
The truth is that final scene is the straw that breaks the back of an already stumbling camel. The narrative that precedes it is trite and laboured; the story (such as it is) is dull, the dialogue second-rate. By the time the Doctor steps into the cost-saving white space containing a chair with a frog on it, I was already fed up. Series 11 was a mixed bag – some of it was marvellous, a lot of it was pleasingly average, and some of it was frankly dreadful – but this was a nadir. Generally the fan response to such things is to write lengthy rants about it in grumpy, swiftly-locked Facebook posts, but over the years I’ve found the best way to rinse out the taste of a bad experience is to take the piss out of it, which is exactly what I did.
You have to watch what you’re doing when you’re redubbing Kermit. There are two of them (well, three since the last one threw in the towel) and while Whitmire does a more than adequate job of reproducing Henson’s affable tones, there are subtle differences that stand out when you put the two of them together. So with the exception of the beginning, which borrows from the ‘Coconut’ sketch in Kenny Rogers’ 1979 Muppet Show appearance, most of these are actually from the soundtrack to The Muppets, the movie that catapulted the frog and his pals firmly back into the limelight – largely because Kermit’s at his most raw and vulnerable, which seemed to fit the vibe. And, because it’s the Muppets, we finish on a song. Fifteen seconds to curtain, Ms. Whittaker.
3. Resolution Trailer: Recut (December 2018)
Chris Chibnall said, more than once, that series 11 was “the perfect jumping on point”. I don’t know why I’ve put that in quotes when I’m paraphrasing. But you get the idea: you can start, if you want to, from the moment Ryan Sinclair fails to ride his bike, having never seen a single episode of Doctor Who before, and you’ll be fine. Certainly it almost worked; this felt, as much as anything had in years, like a clean break – right down to the lack of familiar monsters and only the vaguest mentions of the past. Yes, there were nods to ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’. That could easily have been a joke, had you not known such an episode existed. It’s all a far cry from series 3, in which the Doctor sits down with Martha and tells her all about Gallifrey, just after they’d escaped an obscure Troughton monster that no one really remembers because no one has seen it properly for decades. And yes, I know they just released the thing on Blu-Ray. Work with me.
But in any case – and for better or worse – that was almost what happened this time. There were throwbacks to the past (some of which were apparently put in to troll the already disgruntled), but you got the feeling that there was a sense of ripping up the worksheet and starting over – and it is this, I’m convinced, that angered many of the fans who felt they were watching something that no longer felt like Doctor Who. That’s another debate for another day (and watch this space for that) but it was something that did at least feed quite nicely into the much hyped trailer for the New Year special, in which the name of what the Doctor describes as ‘the most dangerous creature in the universe’ was held back until the episode proper. We all knew what it was anyway, but it added nicely to the tension: if the Doctor is scared, then we should be starting to panic a little bit ourselves. What could possibly be scarier than a Dalek?
Barney. Barney the bloody purple dinosaur. That could.
I’m sure you’ve all been sitting there with baited breath waiting for part two of my collection of Doctor Who Companion episode summaries, and you know how I hate to disappoint you. This is going to be a long one, so let’s get straight on with it – do be aware that things get a little silly in this installment, for which I make no apologies whatsoever. Oh, and if you missed part one, it’s available here.
Demons of the Punjab
(I wrote the review for this one, and thus didn’t provide a summary. But this is what I would have said if I had…)
‘Stepping back into history is nothing if you don’t put some sort of contemporary spin on it. It’s not enough to narrate the Partition of India (important as that may be); such moralising may be well-intentioned but it ultimately comes to nothing if you don’t pack the twenty-first century lens. And so it is that this week the time-travelling quartet (I cannot and will not bring myself to refer to them as ‘Team TARDIS’) travel back to 1947 to discover the roots of a story that Yaz’s grandmother refuses to tell. The notion of delving into the past to solve untapped mysteries is one that’s naturally going to appeal to just about everyone (while I’m not about to go into details, it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot this past week) and while it inevitably turns out to be a Pandora’s box, there’s never any question that it was an adventure not worth having. As Yaz notes, “What’s the point in having a mate with a time machine if you can’t go back and see your nan when she was young?”
So before you know it, we’re trundling round the Punjab two days before they draw a line in the sand and neighbour makes war upon neighbour. There are resentful siblings and an upcoming wedding to a man that no one recognises – and the woods are littered with alien technology. The twist, of course, is that the titular demons turn out to be nothing of the sort, becoming instead a paradigm for a wiser, older version of humanity, roaming the universe and honouring unobserved deaths as an act of penance. Introducing such a concept so soon after Twice Upon A Time is a narrative risk – Big Finish’s monthly range has suffered in the same way – but if anything, the Assassins of Thijar (what do we call them? Thijarians? Anybody know?) are a better fit. Masked, armoured, and imposing, appearing from the shadows like a cut-price Predator, they are obvious villains in the same way that the Fisher King was, and the fact that they turn out to be entirely benevolent (if ultimately impassive) is a harsh lesson in judging by appearances.
This is, above all, a story about reacting – the consequences of being in a situation you can’t change, a sort of virtual reality history lesson that is likely not to sit well with some people. “All we can strive to be,” notes Graham, in a lump-inducing moment with Prem that is by far this week’s high point, “is good men”. Graham, indeed, is the one to watch this week – moving from childlike fascination to helpless abandonment with the precision of an actor at the top of his game. Elsewhere, Ryan spends most of his screen time kicking up the dust, while the Doctor officiates at the wedding (in a speech that’s likely to outlive Tumblr itself, never mind do the rounds on it). But even if they’re only chewing up the scenery, at least they do it with a certain panache. The supporting characters, too, acquit themselves well, although Amita Suman rather lets the side down, giving a performance as wooden as the huts that sprinkle the roads.
As with the first Lord of the Rings movie, the real star is the scenery. The Doctor and her companions stride through the fields and lanes of rural Punjab (actually Granada), given a warm, almost sepia-tinted glow by Sam Heasman’s exemplary cinematography. The forest sparkles in the low sun of afternoon, and the camera lingers over the poppies that bloom in the fields. The cavernous interior of the Thijar spacecraft is bland and fundamentally pointless, somehow, and yet again the TARDIS barely gets a look-in (did they only have that set for half an hour, or something?), but both are forgivable offences when everything else looks so pretty. Is the moral hand-wringing appropriate for prime time BBC? That’s another post. In the meantime, at least you can enjoy the view.’
No, no, no. This won’t do at all, McTighe. Twists? Balanced arguments? Subtlety? Structure? That’s not a fit for 2018 Doctor Who, and you know it. It was all going so well, and then you had to spoil things. I’m incredibly disappointed. You’ve let me down, you’ve let yourself down, and you’ve let the whole multiverse down.
Let’s take a look at how that would have ended if Chibnall had written it, shall we?
INT. WAREHOUSE LEVEL. DAY
The Doctor, Yaz and Ryan stare in horror at the scene: thousands of workers, across the vast packing level, juddering and writhing in a distorted and grotesque fashion, their bodies spasming with what looks like electrical pulses. Veins pop, and the eyes of each worker have gone ghostly white.
CYNICAL EXECUTIVE: Watch closely, Doctor. Watch, and witness the next stage of efficiency.
YAZ: Doctor, what’s happening to them?
DOCTOR: The virus is entering its final stages. It’s only a matter of moments before they’re lifeless corpses reacting purely to electrically stimulated impulses. Going through the motions, but to all intents and purposes, dead. Clinically dead.
RYAN: You mean like X-Factor finalists?
DOCTOR: Not now, Ryan!
RYAN: Sorry. I trip over words sometimes as well as my own feet. It’s ‘cos I’ve got dysprax-
EVERYONE ELSE: WE KNOW!!!
YAZ: Isn’t there anything we can do?
The Doctor locks eyes with the Cynical Executive, who keeps his gun trained.
DOCTOR: Help them. These aren’t machines, they’re people! They can’t function in a state of constant productivity; they need rest! They need interaction! They need time away from the packing spaces! This obsession with productivity has driven them into the ground. That’s why they reached out to me – well, one of ’em did. I knew something was off at Kerblam the moment we arrived – just couldn’t see what it was. So I dug. And now I find you’re turning them into zombies!
CYNICAL EXECUTIVE: It’s too late, Doctor. When the virus enters its final stage, they will reach a state of uninterrupted productivity, at the cost of most neural functions. They’ll be able to perform the roles we give them, never stopping, never resting, never tiring. We call it… permawork.
Graham is still over at the side of the room, tending to Forgettable Sidekick, who is sat in a chair.
GRAHAM: Doc, she’s fadin’!
Yaz does that thing with her eyes, Ryan shuffles his feet, and the Doctor bites her bottom lip and looks like she’s trying to smell a fart.
DOCTOR: Fading… but not succumbing! That’s it! It’s technobabble jargon jargon resulting in a speedily delivered convenient plot device!
YAZ: Yer wot?
DOCTOR: SHE’S IMMUNE!
She turns with a flourish and does that thing with the screwdriver. You know the one. The Dance School routine.
CYNICAL EXECUTIVE: Wait, no –
DOCTOR: Sorry fella. This order’s been cancelled.
The Doctor whirls on the spot, and points the screwdriver at the strip lights above the assembled mass of workers. A jolt of electricity zips down and hits everyone. The lights go out momentarily. When they flicker back on, the hordes of workers are miraculously restored to normal, staring at each other, brushing the dirt from their clothes. There’s probably an inter-racial hug.
RYAN: What did you do?
DOCTOR: Reversed the polarity.
YAZ: The polarity of what?
DOCTOR: Oh, I’ll explain later. [To the executive] Just as you’ll have some explaining of yer own to do, once the authorities arrive. I’m sure they’ll be very interested to learn about the lengths you’ll go to just to meet a sales target.
CYNICAL EXECUTIVE [With a smirk]: They’ll have to catch me first.
He rolls up a sleeve and punches a couple of buttons on a concealed pad, and then blinks out of existence.
DOCTOR: NO!!! Gaah. Always the teleport.
GRAHAM: Anyone else notice this seems to be ‘appening every week?
‘Fun fact: in this week’s episode the word ‘Satan’ is used thirty-nine times. Thirty-nine. I know this because I checked the SRT file. It’s almost as bad as the overuse of ‘fungus’ in the Mario movie. Of course, Satan doesn’t make any sort of appearance and the witches aren’t really witches at all. But you knew that before they’d finished rolling the opening titles, didn’t you?
There’s a lot of reacting going on in The Witchfinders. Graham wears a hat; that is about all you can say for him. Ryan’s job is to look uncomfortable, but Cole does this extremely well and thus it seems fairly pointless to bring it up. Whittaker, for her part, is snooping around examining the mud like a caffeine-fuelled archeolologist and mostly getting wet, at least during the scenes when she’s not sending Yaz off to do a bit of family liaison – real police work for the second time in two weeks. (Why is it only the guest writers who remember Yaz’s career choices? Did Chibnall forget his own brief, or does he simply not care?)
Then there’s Alan Cumming – an extremely talented actor who is clearly having a ball with this cacophony of mud monsters and pitchforks, although it is frankly difficult to see him as anyone but Alan Cumming. Playing James, I like an effete pantomime baron – or at the very least a supporting character in Casanova– he is a braggart and a poseur, condescending to the Doctor (who stomps away complaining about being ‘patronised to death’) and flirting with Ryan. It’s a warm and memorable performance but there’s something off key about it: something that hearkens back to Graham Crowden in The Horns of Nimon, a serious part rendered utterly ridiculous. Is this a good thing? It depends whom you ask, surely?
Still, perhaps that isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps the lesson we’re learning from this Brave New World that is Chibnall’s Who is that it is capable of good things when it is worthy and serious, but even greater things when it is not. Would The Witchfinders have worked better had it been graced with serious performances, or more elaborate social commentary than the brief monologue that we were given? It seems doubtful. 45 minutes is not long enough, and the world does not need another Crucible. In many respects, this week was as wobbly and precariously balanced as a house of cards, but I spent most of it laughing. I’m honestly not sure, this morning, just how much of that was intentional. But nonetheless I was laughing. That’s not a bad way to spend a sabbath.’
‘There’s a scene at the end of The Battle of Ranskoorav Kolos that is as inevitable as it is disappointing. Out of breath, heavily armed, and as angry as we’ve ever seen him, Bradley Walsh is given the chance to avenge the death of his wife, and he bottles it. It would have been so nice (not to mention realistic) if he’d pulled the trigger; it’s no less than Tim Shaw deserves, and watching him face the repercussions of that –heaping him in with the likes of Wonder Woman, or Brad Pitt at the end of Se7en – would have made for a fascinating story. Instead, Chibnall lapses into the most oft-mined cliché in the action movie handbook, apart from the slow-motion flame run (and we even get a bit of that as well). Graham becomes the bigger man, and good old Tim is locked up on a planet with no security, in a cryogenic prison that’s so easy to open even Ryan could manage it.
It’s a shame, really, because – while hardly a classic– Battle does offer us a glimpse of the Doctor Who we’d got used to in recent years. That’s not to say this is another Journey’s End (and by the way, Chibbs, referencing that story in this one really doesn’t do you any favours) or even a Doctor Falls. But it does have pitched battles, the Earth in peril, and rifle-toting robots with AI that’s so terrible it manages to outgun Assassin’s Creed. Everyone gets out alive (well, almost), and everyone gets to be useful. There are even extensive quarry sequences. Who cares that they’re basically ripping off The Pirate Planet?
And yet… And yet there is a problem with unleashing this low-octane melange of explosions and countdowns, because all it does is make you wonder how the episode might have looked had Russell T Davies been at the helm. Perhaps the result would have been no different – the BBC can spin all they want but it’s obvious that Doctor Who’s had its budget cut this year, and this gets to be a problem when they’re clearly hearkening back to the fiery set pieces we’d become accustomed to over the last decade and a bit. Sat next to them, the end product is like one of those films where the heavily-armoured jeep gets stuck in the mud and the heroes have to go the rest of the way on a stolen micro-scooter. If the impression we’ve had all this year is that of a work in progress, rather than something that’s forged its own identity, then it’s worrying that this damp squib is all they can pull out of the hat for a series finale. Or perhaps the New Year’s special is the actual series finale, and this was just the build-up.But either way, it doesn’t help when, having spent 9 weeks bleating about how we need to move on from the old days, an episode like this merely serves to remind me how much I miss them.’
(This was another one of mine, and as we go to press the collective write-up is still forthcoming. But seeing as we’re here…)
‘As well as being a remake of Dalek, Resolution is also an exercise in restraint. That we do not see the Dalek proper until the fourth act is a risky stunt, but one that pays off: there was a deep-rooted fear that it would be reduced to little more than a cameo, the sort of thing the BBC show as little as possible because they’ve only got the props for one afternoon, but thankfully it’s unfounded, and the resurrected creature emerges from the smoke with plenty of time to spare. For a cobbled alien built with junk by an archaeologist, it is almost comically robust, right down to the jet pack thrusters and the tank-breaking rockets hidden behind its bumps. It is an excuse for an explosive showdown with the army from which the Dalek emerges unscathed, flying off into the sights of military jet planes and angry Twitter users who complained about ‘needless reinvention’. (For the record, it’s not needless and it’s not a reinvention; it’s an improvised Dalek made from scrap and you know perfectly well that you’ll buy the bloody thing when it comes out in May.)
There is the usual fan-baiting and the structure is off-kilter and some of the dialogue is dreadful – but somehow, none of it matters. This is as high octane and blazing as we’ve got this series – and even if that’s not a great deal, it somehow feels like enough. Whether it’s the galactic firework display that opens the narrative, the TARDIS crew standing at the doorway wearing expressions of unbridled, childlike joy; Segin Akinola’s pleasingly retro score; the numerous offscreen adventures the Doctor and her companions have been having that will have fan fiction writers reaching for notebooks… just the sheer joy of the thing, it all zips by in an hour of silliness, a metal dustbin doing ridiculous things before getting covered in lashed-together circuitry in a scene worthy of Scrapheap Challenge. It feels like the most overused monsters in the canon are fun again, and for all the clunky dialogue and jokes about the internet and narrative shortcomings (are we really supposed to be worried about the fact that the Dalek is about to call a fleet that isn’t there?), this is that rarity in Nu Who: an episode that I not only enjoyed but would actually watch again. Twice Upon A Time had us asking whether there could be any such thing as a good Dalek, when perhaps the question we ought to have been asking was whether, in today’s day and age, there could still be any such thing as a good Dalek story. If Resolution proves anything, it’s that the answer can be ‘yes’.’
It’s no coincidence that during the screening of this week’s Doctor Who I started thinking about The Iron Giant. Specifically there’s a scene at the end of The Iron Giant where the shattered leviathan lies strewn and scattered across the world, having been partially incinerated in an atomic blast, only for its fragments to jiggle and wobble and then gravitate towards the disembodied head, buried in the ice like a decapitated Statue of Liberty, gradually and painfully reassembling. Assuming you’ve seen the New Year’s special – specifically its opening scenes – you will know why this moment sprang to mind. You will also remember that The Iron Giant was about an unorthodox family dealing with advanced alien technology and military bureaucracy, at which point the analogy more or less breaks down. But still. The jiggling components remain: a loose collection of nuts and bolts knitted together into something that shouldn’t make sense, and yet somehow does.
‘Resolution’ is ostensibly a remake of ‘Dalek’, which was in itself a remake of ‘Jubilee’, making it a cannibalised slip of a thing: a hotchpotch of ideas and themes that crawls from the belly of post-hangover prime time entertainment like something that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be. Part domestic, part love story, part Nationesque action adventure, part sprawling epoch-jumping drama, it has a go at everything, trying on a variety of outfits over the course of its hour-long running time, and just about gets away with it. The result is a light, airy affair, with discussion points kept to a minimum. The links to ‘Dalek’, for example, are slighter than they may appear, and are largely about setup rather than thematic elements – being restricted solely to the concept of a lone, conveniently superpowered travel machine that has been cut off from its fleet and is understandably desperate to phone home.
But ‘Dalek’ – whatever Russell T. Davies may want to tell you – was never about introducing Nation’s finest to a new audience. It was about reinventing the damned thing so it was improbably potent, drawing a huge number of parallels with the man who was trying to kill it. In many ways it was a strange choice for a first Nu Who Dalek story: this creature that was more like the Doctor than anyone had previously cared to admit, setting the stage for a dozen similar confrontations over the next decade, all saddled with the curse of diminishing returns. There is none of that here; no soul-searching from the Doctor, save a couple of hurried lines – Whittaker confessing, over furrowed brow, that she “learned to think like a Dalek a long time ago”, before seeking affirmation from her companions that she’s given the Dalek sufficient warning before trying to melt it with bits of an oven.
But that’s all you get. For the most part, there simply isn’t room. There is a lot of fetch and carry, but it occurs at breakneck speed: the Doctor flies back and forth along the vortex, events seemingly transpiring in real time, parking the TARDIS with newfound precision in front rooms (crushing at least one chair, which will have the Facebook groups arguing for weeks about continuity) and on city streets and in the confines of GCHQ come the episode’s fiery finale. There is technobabble but the Doctor seems infused with a new sense of purpose, someone who’s been given a tangible and unambiguous enemy to fight, when she gets the chance. It is not until the eleventh hour that she actually gets that chance, but it is worth the wait, just.
This is, once more, a story about family, Chibnall sidelining some of his characters during the episode’s downtime so that they can deal with personal issues. Early on, Ryan – who apparently can’t decide whether to call Graham ‘Gramps’ or ‘Grandad’ – takes his estranged father (Darren Adegboyega) to a familiar-looking cafe so that they can not quite bond, Aaron’s prepared monologue about running from your mistakes apparently falling on deaf ears. A few minutes later Graham has a go, with considerably more success, although the net result is unavoidably cloying. They make for the weakest moments in an otherwise decent script; it’s not that Chibnall can’t write domestic, more that…actually, look, Chibnall can’t write domestic. On the other hand, neither could Davies; Camille Coduri just about walked out of series one with her dignity intact but ‘Love and Monsters’ was – for all its other brilliance – simply embarrassing at times, at least when Jackie was on screen. Moffat wasn’t much better, decorating his heartfelt monologues and teary exchanges with a barbed wit and layered emotional pathos that frankly never felt real or authentic, becoming the sort of approach that outstayed its welcome long before the man who actually turned in the scripts.
Is it fair to say that Doctor Who’s family scenes only really work when they happen offscreen? Perhaps it is. Perhaps we’re being overly harsh. Nonetheless it is the family scenes that grate this week, and it’s a pity in a way that the story’s climax hinges around the possibility that we might lose a supporting character who was there largely to provide narrative closure and a convenient (not to mention clumsy) plant and payoff. That this doesn’t happen – the seemingly inevitable self-sacrifice of Aaron postponed, at least for a year or two – is, at least, quietly refreshing, even if Ryan’s old man is far too happy to accept that his son travels the cosmos in a flying police box with a whole tick sheet of BBC diversity rendered flesh.
Elsewhere, there’s the usual fan-baiting. The Doctor waxes lyrical about her own father, in a deliberately ambiguous exchange that provides a Rorschach of possibilities. Ryan is ‘a kid with dyspraxia’. There is also a line about Rels that had me on the floor. Still, you feel as if you’re being toyed with, each new location that the tentacled parasite visits providing a potential hotspot for the inevitable reunion with its casing. Surely it’s buried somewhere in UNIT headquarters? No, there is no UNIT – the taskforce conveniently sidelined as a result of Brexit-inspired shenanigans – and the nation that held its breath when Kate Stewart’s name was mentioned can let it out again in a hiss of disappointment, and then nip back on to iPlayer to watch ‘The Power of Three’.
That we do not see the Dalek proper until the fourth act is a risky stunt, but one that pays off: Briggs’ deep-throated growl is effective, and the sight of Lin (a watchable Charlotte Ritchie) shooting out speed cameras with an untethered ray gun undoubtedly had Top Gear fans cheering into their pint glasses, but it’s like watching an Avengers film where Bruce Banner can’t Hulk out (actually, did that happen? somebody told me that happened). There was a deep-rooted fear that it would be reduced to little more than a cameo, the sort of thing the BBC show as little as possible because they’ve only got the props for one afternoon. That would have been a reasonable assumption given the little we’ve seen of the TARDIS this year, but thankfully it’s unfounded – and following the sort of dimly lit montage that could have occurred on an episode of The A-Team (for the second time this series), the new Dalek emerges from the smoke like the prototype suit that Tony Stark built in the first Iron Man, all welded metal and anger. For a cobbled alien built with junk by an archaeologist it is almost comically robust, right down to the jet pack thrusters and the tank-breaking rockets hidden behind its bumps. It is an excuse for an explosive showdown with the army from which the Dalek emerges unscathed, flying off into the sights of military jet planes and angry Twitter users who complained about ‘needless reinvention’. (For the record, it’s not needless and it’s not a reinvention; it’s an improvised Dalek made from scrap and you know perfectly well that you’ll buy the bloody thing when it comes out in May.)
Somehow, none of it matters. This is as high octane and blazing as we’ve got this series – and even if that’s not a great deal, it somehow feels like enough. Whether it’s the galactic firework display that opens the narrative, the TARDIS crew standing at the doorway wearing expressions of unbridled, childlike joy; Segin Akinola’s pleasingly retro score; the numerous offscreen adventures the Doctor and her companions have been having that will have fan fiction writers reaching for notebooks…just the sheer joy of the thing, it all zips by in an hour of silliness, a metal dustbin doing ridiculous things before getting covered in lashed-together circuitry in a scene worthy of Scrapheap Challenge. It feels like the most overused monsters in the canon are fun again, and for all the clunky dialogue and jokes about the internet and narrative shortcomings (are we really supposed to be worried about the fact that the Dalek is about to call a fleet that isn’t there?) this is that rarity in Nu Who: an episode that I not only enjoyed but would actually watch again. ‘Twice Upon A Time’ had us asking whether there could be any such thing as a good Dalek, when perhaps the question we ought to have been asking was whether, in today’s day and age, there could still be any such thing as a good Dalek story. If ‘Resolution’ proves anything, it’s that the answer is ‘yes’. It wasn’t as good as The Iron Giant, but that’s OK. Nothing is.
An earlier version of this article, published 01-01-2019, contained an error of judgement. It mistakenly attributed UNIT’s suspension to a funding crisis, rather than a retrospectively obvious Brexit gag. This has now been updated.