Posts Tagged With: ryan sinclair

Thursday

“I suppose at some point,” says Graham, “you’re gonna tell us how you did it.”

Around them, the TARDIS hums. It is the ambient hum it makes when the machinery is at rest and waiting for someone to do something. He has learned to pick apart these hums, to differentiate them by mood and to know when a change in pitch or a sudden pulsing means a thing is about to happen. It occurs to Graham, right now, in the casual laziness of an uneventful spring morning, that he has assimilated this knowledge without even realising it; that the process of time and space travel has altered him in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It is the sort of realisation that only springs to mind during the quiet moments, such as this one, a matter of days after that unexpected phone call and then the Vworp, vworp of a materialising police box, and the resumption of his old life, or, depending on how you looked at it, his new one.

From the black wooden box she is in the process of rewiring, the Doctor looks up. “The prison break?” she says. “Not much to tell. Truth be told I can barely remember.”

Graham scratches his head. “Seriously?”

“Trust me, when you’ve broken out of as many prisons as I have, they all sort of blend into one. You know. Like Nordic dramas, only without the scenery. Occasionally you get a fun one, but for the most part they’re all fairly generic.” The Doctor picks up a magnifying glass: tongue extended, seemingly in concentration, she fiddles with a screw the size of a lentil. “This was one of those.”

“So you just got out and came back?”

“Yep. Nothing remotely interesting. Well, apart from the orangutan. And the laughing gas. And the army of sentient vending machines that wanted to make me their ruler.” She gives an apologetic smile. “Just another Thursday, really.”

Graham realises that this is probably all the explanation he’s likely to get, and goes back to his newspaper. He is mocked for having it. Ryan makes jokes about living in the stone age. Even Yas has pointed out that it’s already largely obsolete by the time he reads it, and that digital media is the only way to get up-to-date information. Graham is having none of this. He likes the feel of the thing as he holds it, a small and transient concoction, the world reduced to black and white with splashings of colour, meticulously produced (despite the mistakes), the cheap roughness of the paper, the ink bleeding onto his ageing fingers. He likes having something tangible, this global outlook distilled and framed in a few sheets of grey-white A3. He’s got the whole world in his hands…

Graham gives a start. He hasn’t thought of that in years, and instantly memories of school assemblies soar unceremoniously to the surface, like a diver about to catch the bends. Log tables and playground skirmishes and sneaky fags behind the bike sheds. A caretaker’s bearded threats and scraping nails on a blackboard. Rosie Billington and the way she giggled. The smell of chalk.

“You’re quiet,” says the Doctor, looking up.

“I was just thinking.”

“We don’t have to do this,” she says. “You know, if you’d rather not. I mean there’s no hurry.”

He thinks: there is, really. The ship is a precision engine, built for the most extraordinary of manoeuvres, leaping galaxies and centuries like a child vaulting a gym horse, but its captain has less control over her vessel than she’s prepared to admit, even to herself. You simply never know where you’re going to land – it is the opposite of a bus, and it has been this aspect, now that he comes to hold it in mind, which has probably been the most difficult to grasp in all the time they have been travelling. He tells the Doctor none of this, because she usually nods in an unsuccessful attempt at empathy, the eyes shy and withdrawn, the jaw uncomfortably clenched.

But downtime is rare and you never know when the klaxon will wail signalling another emergency – to which the Doctor responds like Pavlov’s dog chasing its next meal – and right now he is as resolved as he likely to be, and so after a moment he says “No. Let’s get it done.”

“But Ryan – ”

“Yeah, well, we couldn’t agree. Different locations, y’see. He wanted the woods at Ecclesall, because she used to love walking there. I wanted Scarborough, because that’s where I proposed.”

“So what are we doing here?”

“It’s a compromise. I found a bit of map that was more or less between the two and stuck a pin in it.”

“Old school!” The Doctor nods, quietly impressed. “I love a bit of old school.”

“But Ryan, see, he didn’t really want to be involved. He just said ‘Do what you like’. So I thought I’d take him at his word for once.”

Her face darkens a little. “I don’t want to drive a wedge between you two.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. He had a bit of a sulk, but he got over it. Said it wasn’t really her anyway, and that he’d mark it in his own way.”

“Is that why he’s gone off with Yas?”

“They’re out somewhere. They said to pick ’em up when we’re done.”

“Couldn’t you…?” the Doctor eyes the urn, balanced delicately on the console. “I mean, couldn’t you take half each?”

Graham shakes his head. “You know, you’re the most brilliant person I’ve ever met,” he says. “But you really haven’t got a clue how these things work, have you?”

The Doctor shoots a doleful smile. “Apparently not.”

* * * * *

There are no police boxes left in Ilkley. There is a pub, which used to do a decent roast; it sits opposite the church, suited locals spilling into the lounge on a Sunday: hymns and jukeboxes and collection plates and fruit machines. The sacred and the profane. Draperies and perfumeries jostle for space with the art galleries and gift shops; now and then a break will appear as the cobbles disappear into a dead end, someone’s trade entrance. The houses sit on well-kept streets, unimposing and unassuming piles of Yorkshire stone.

As they walk, Graham is doing mental gymnastics. He can’t quite fathom out why it is that Grace’s ashes shouldn’t be split into equal piles. There’s nothing illegal about the idea. He knows people who’ve done it, and he does not judge them. Grace exists as an idea, as a memory, but her corporeal self has been reduced to a collection of ceremonial atoms, carried like playground sand. Still. The idea doesn’t sit well with him, although he can’t express it in words. It is not a religious thing, merely a matter of principle. It exasperates him, in a way, that he cannot adequately explain this to the Doctor and that even if he could, she would be unable to understand.

Instead he says “Quiet. And why’s the pub closed?”

The Doctor is peering into the contents of a public bin: lager bottles, chip wrappings and yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news. Her brow furrows like an allotment trench. She looks left and right, frowning.

Graham sees her anxiety, although he does not see the bin. “What is it?”

“Should have checked the scanner. The TARDIS really doesn’t do short hops.”

“Yeah, but we’re still here, aren’t we? This is definitely the right place.”

She nods, although her eye is still on the newspaper. “We’ve jumped forward a little further than I’d have liked.”

“I get the feeling there’s a second half to that thought and you don’t wanna tell me.”

“Got it in one.” The Doctor takes him by the arm. “Come on. We’ve a hill to climb.”

* * * * *

Head southeast out of Ilkley and the landscape shifts. The trees are older; colossal firs and elms bordered by white slatted fences; schools and bungalows and the squat signs of estate agents. Then the houses become fewer, further apart and bigger, and the trees line the roads. The moor bursts forth to the right, while hills and valleys spill out to your left, unannounced.

“I could have sworn there was a song about this place,” says the Doctor as they walk. “Remember something, anyway.”

“It’s called On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at.”

“Bar tap?”

“Bar tat. Means going out without your hat on.”

“I don’t wear a hat. Not these days anyway.” The Doctor clasps at her hair, as if to check this is still the case. “Used to have loads. Funny how things change when you get older.” She stops to catch her breath, hand on hip, taking in the increasingly impressive views. “Or younger.”

“Well, anyway,” says Graham, his hand still clutched tight to the shopping bag housing Grace’s urn, “This bloke didn’t have his hat, and then he dies. And his body gets eaten by worms, which get eaten by ducks, which then get eaten by the bloke singing the song. So it’s basically a song about cannibalism.”

The Doctor concentrates, apparently processing. “What happens if you’re a vegetarian?”

* * * * *

The Cow and Calf sounds like it ought to be a pub. It is actually a rock formation, a lengthy outcrop of millstone, sitting atop Hangingstone Road and overlooking the moor. For some pilgrims it is their destination; for others a starting point. One formation stretches across the apex of the hill in a long misshapen spillage of stone and grass, a pasty that has crumbled in the oven. Nearby, squat by comparison – although still impressive – is the calf, perched almost precariously, like a cartoon boulder, waiting to tip agonisingly forwards onto an unsuspecting coyote.

The Cow and Calf is also a pub, although this is further up the road, and it is shut.

Now there are sprinklings of rock amongst the grass, flat stone walls and clumps of weed. Doves keeping a chattering vigil over unhatched eggs, hidden from the absent hikers. Clefts and crevices and piles of shingle.

“Oh, look,” says the Doctor, trying not to look pained. “A quarry.”

“It’s supposed to look like a calf sitting with her mother,” says Graham. “We did it at primary school. According to local legend there was a giant who had a barney with his wife and then split the rock in half as he was running away from her.”

“A Geryon, actually, from the Mylanx cluster. And it was more than an argument. She was trying to kill him!”

“And you know this how?”

A sheepish look. “I was their marriage counsellor.”

He feels a hunch building. “Grace once told me there was a UFO sighting here. 1980s. Anything to do with you?”

“No comment.”

* * * * *

The two of them climb to the summit and the world is spread like a ruffled blanket: in front, Ilkley nestles in the valley like a crab in a rockpool; to their left, West View Park and, somewhere beyond, the canals of Silsden; facing due east, the lights of Otley and the rim of the hills at its borders. The National Park draws the tourists like flies to an abandoned picnic, but even the clicks of a thousand smartphones have their benefits, and the land is still unspoilt and undeveloped. Graham never tires of vistas like these, even when he has seen a dozen offworld mountains and baked in the heat of vast purple alien suns. Essex was his childhood, but Yorkshire has become his home, something no amount of glacial palaces or endless tropical beaches will ever be able to quench.

Later, he will wonder why it was so quiet.

The Doctor is standing on the Calf, hands on hips. “Will this do?”

“Yeah, it’s as good a place as any.” Graham looks behind him; the top of the Cow is tempting but he can feel the creak in his joints and doubts he can climb any higher. The wind whips in from the north-east, reddening faces and billowing the tales of coats, bringing with it the tales of old fishermen from Staithes, the clacking claws in the dripping lobster pots, and the scent of freshly-plundered haddock.

He reaches into the bag, pulling out the urn. He will have to face the right way, or risk a re-enactment of The Big Lebowski. It is a favourite film, but there are some truths better confined to fiction.

“So what now?” asks the Doctor. She is seated a couple of yards away, boots dangling over the edge. “Are you supposed to say something?”

“Yeah.” Graham regards the blackness of the urn, glinting in the sunlight of early April. It is the colour of grease, intricately crafted, he suspects, for ergonomic consideration as well as aesthetics. It feels comfortable, weighted but not excessively heavy, solid but movable. He begins, carefully, to twist the lid, screwing counter-clockwise, feeling the scrape of ceramics. Besides the wind, it is the only sound he can hear.

The lid removed. Graham hands it to the Doctor, who has joined him: she turns it over in her hand, admiring the workmanship but also testing, he suspects, for flaws or archaeological interest. Ever the scientist. He is almost amused. She becomes suddenly aware of him staring at her, and stops, almost-but-not-quite-embarrassed, pocketing the lid in her raincoat. “Sorry. Miles away. Go on.”

Graham looks at the open urn, and then at the hills. He remembers coming up here as a younger man, that breathless climb with old friends. Kendal mint cake and hot coffee. He remembers other climbs with the Doctor: the hot sands of Desolation filling his boots; the hills of eastern Pakistan; the cliffs down at Penzance. Was there a conscious moment when he decided that the journey was more fun than the destination; when travel became the point? Was it after he’d left? Or before?

His mind, he realises, is not on the job, and desperately, he tries to think about his wife.

“Grace – ” he begins.

The Doctor stands, patient. Graham tries to read her and cannot.

“Did you ever lose someone?” he says after a moment. “I mean I know you said you did, back when we first met. But I never pressed you for the details, ‘cos I never felt like I should.”

She waits, allowing the silence so that he may fill it.

“No, what I mean is – ” Graham fumbles his words like a toddler with a football. “Did you ever lose someone the way I did? You know. Prematurely?”

“More than I can count,” she replies, and Graham nods; it is the answer he expected. “Well. Not really. I never stop counting.”

“How many?”

She gives him a look, which Graham interprets – correctly, as it turns out – as I’m not answering that one.

“Some young, some old,” the Doctor continues with a sigh, by way of deflection. “Some you’d call worthy sacrifices, if there is such a thing. People giving themselves to save the universe, or just to save my life. Others…” She breaks off in mid flow, looks out at the landscape. “Others were just needless.”

“And Grace? Where would you file that?”

The Doctor doesn’t answer.

“It’s no fun,” says Graham finally. “Being the one who carries on. Because every planet we land on, every new sky we get to see, all I can think of is how she might react. Which ones she’d like or which ones she’d hate. What she’d think of the locals; whether I’d act differently or do something differently, because of something she said. She loved it when it rained; I ever tell you that? So that time we were on the planet of the rain gods – what was it called?”

“The Planet of the Rain Gods,” she replies, matter-of-factly. “They don’t have much imagination.”

“Yeah, there – well, she’d have loved that. And then I get to thinking that maybe she wouldn’t, because of all the other stuff that was going on. And I realise that maybe I didn’t know her as well as I thought. And it…”

He breaks off.

“It frustrates me that we had so little time together,” Graham says when he has gathered his thoughts. “Because then I could have got to learn all this stuff.”

“I know.” The Doctor is nodding. “Really, I do. But sometimes second-guessing is all you have. That’s the way the universe works. It’s not charted or pre-ordained. It’s this great big ball of cosmic fluff; there’s no plan. There are some things you can change, some you can’t. But when it comes to life and death…no one gets to decide that. Not even I can. All we have to decide,” she concludes, “is what to do with the time that is given us.”

That final sentence rings like a bell in Graham’s pop culture repository. “Tolkien?”

“Me, actually,” she says, slightly abashed. “He was blocked. That was a fun afternoon. We made scones.”

Something else has just occurred to Graham, something he feels he ought to address. “Thing is, though, you’re a time traveller. I know that people die, and you can’t necessarily change that, but can’t you…you know, can’t you cheat? Pop back and have extra days when they were still around?”

“I could. But I don’t. I mean if nothing else it’s dishonest; it’s like cheating on the lottery.” The Doctor looks momentarily distracted; Graham files this part of the exchange for future reference. “It’s also incredibly dangerous, because then you’re crossing timelines and that’s where the web of time is at its thinnest.”

She pauses as if for dramatic effect. “You have to be really careful then. You never know what you’ll unleash.”

“So you never did it?”

“Once or twice. And even then I kept my distance. Or tried to. Not always successfu- anyway, doesn’t matter. Death is closure, Graham. However it comes, it’s a door you don’t want to open again.” The Doctor’s face is a mask. “I learned that the hard way.”

Graham nods, and the Doctor turns to him, sharply. “Please don’t ask me to do it. Ever.”

“I won’t,” says Graham.

“Good.” The two of them stand there, Graham helpless. What left now for his eulogy? What could he say that he hadn’t said at the funeral, the chapel bustling with friends and relatives, his grandson brooding and sombre? Had he hoped for some new insight, some growth of character, some unearthed perspective that came from travelling? Certainly he feels different, more whole somehow. So why can’t he find the words?

“That’s typical of you, love,” he can hear Grace chuckling. “Always worrying too much.”

Graham turns his head; she is not standing on the Calf, any more than she haunts a Norwegian cabin or the house they shared on Shrewsbury Road. There is a soundtrack of quotes that plays constantly in his head; it’s simply a question of turning off the mute button.

“I feel like Ryan should be here for this,” he says eventually.

“I was wondering when you’d get there,” says the Doctor, with a smile.

* * * * *

They go down. The early afternoon sun warms the pavements, and their footsteps echo with clatters on the cobbled stone. The larks are making song in the beeches and oaks, while cats prowl along crumbling walls like skulking prison guards. The urn jostles back and forth in Graham’s bag, the ashes of his late wife still tossing back and forth inside it. It has been agreed that they will do this another day,

“Shame the pub’s closed,” Graham mutters as they round the corner of Church Street and into Bridge Lane, where the TARDIS is parked. “I could murder a pint.”

“Come on. We’ll pick up the others and then I’ll take you for lunch. Somewhere that does pizza. I love pizza.”

“By take you for lunch, you mean one of us is buying, right?”

“Graham!” The Doctor pretends to be affronted; he sees through her like a layer of clingfilm. “What do you take me for?”

“Someone who never pays. But listen, thanks for today. Even though we didn’t do anything, at least…” He lets the sentence trail.

“Well, I’m always up for a stroll,” says the Doctor, who is not keen to get personal, at least not just now. “And hey, if you’re still stuck for a location you can always stick another pin in the map.”

“Nah. I think I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Suit yourself.” She takes out her screwdriver and does an atmospheric reading. A warning light pings. “Dang it! Left the oven on. We’ll probably have to fumigate the kitchen, again.”

“Doc – ” He stops, and looks her in the eye. “Seriously, why’s it so quiet?”

“Another time,” she says, meaning it.

He thinks once more about Grace: the ceramic nonsense of the urn, carrying something which is both his and wife and not his wife. Decades reduced, quite literally, to a cinder. The strangeness of carrying her in a shopping bag, the way he still carries her in his heart and his head. How much of memory, he wonders, is rooted in things like this? Where does the soul live, after the body has gone? Is that why old possessions take on so much meaning? Do we use them as houses, real estate for the dead?

The Doctor lingers at the door of the TARDIS; Graham thinks she looks sad. The mouth droops a little, the eyes a locked window onto some ill-remembered misdeed, or something else entirely.

“Anything you wanna get off your chest?”

There is a small, almost indiscernible intake of breath: body languge for pull yourself together, Doctor. “Come on. Pizza. And then….yeah. Somewhere else.”

The door latches shut. Then there is the sound of keys on piano wire, and the blue box fades and vanishes, and soon it is as if it had never been there.

 

Photos by Dave Noonan and Kreuzschnabel.

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

I’m on a clock this morning, so there will be as little text as possible. But we start with a deleted scene from ‘The War Games’.

Because of her narcolepsy, the Doctor’s career as a hula hoop artiste was unfortunately rather brief.

Goblet of Fire, revisited.

Unused publicity still for ‘The Timeless Children’.

“Yas! I can’t get this hat off!”

“That one. No wait, that one. No, not that one. Look, it was definitely a tree.”

“What the hell is she doing here?”

“RUN AWAY!”

It’s fine, Rose; he’ll catch you.

Enjoy being at home, if that’s where you are. It won’t be forever.

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Review: The Timeless Children

The worst thing you can do when you’re composing any sort of review – the cardinal sin all writers are in danger of committing if they’re not careful – is to make it all about you. It’s such an easy thing. An anecdote here, a bit of fan snobbery there and before you know it you’ve got a sixteen hundred word vanity puff piece which says nothing at all. I have done this, on more than one occasion, and I have paid the price, usually in the comments box. Hell hath no fury like the fan who has had to wade through the ramblings of an unchecked ego.

But what choice do we have, sometimes? What other resort, what alternative route out of the quandary when there is so much subjectivity? Because Doctor Who inhabits a vacuum. It has done ever since Twitter arrived. Here, for the first time, we were able to see what people thought, in graphic, extraneous detail, in a real-time sense, and the mirror that we held up showed nothing but ugliness. Twitter amplifies. Facebook is no better. I’ve already been driven to despair this evening by some of the comments – about Chibnall’s abysmal writing, the needless retcon, the realisation that the show has gone well and truly down the toilet. And these were the people who hadn’t even seen it yet, and who were refusing to watch it out of principle. When friends sign up for Twitter and ask me for advice about how to survive on it, my response is invariably the same: “Delete your account now, and walk away, before you get sucked in to all the idiocy.”

You are reading this, I hope, after you have seen the story. And if you have seen the story you already have your own opinion and you do not need mine. I typically provide it for the sake of completion – I’ve reviewed everything on TV since ‘The Snowmen’, even when said review takes the form of a recipe or a laundry list of tropes. (Seriously, don’t read the ‘Akhaten’ one. It’s not one of my better efforts, as Jim took great pains to tell me eighteen months after I wrote it.) I wish I could say my aspirations are noble. I would like to hope that I can write reasonably coherently and fluidly, with the insight of a fan but the clinical detachment of a journalist, even though sometimes I feed the wrong wolf. You need people who can keep things balanced, at least some of the time. That middle ground – the barren, endlessly parched terrain between the two extremes of sycophancy and hatred is such a cold and lonely place but I walk it because I must, because it is the only place that feels comfortable.

I watched this story with my children. I can hear them, now, in the bath, exploring the possibilities Chibnall offered this evening. I can hear them ruminating about where Jo Martin sits in the order (they do not and hopefully never will refer to it as a canon). There’s not a word about series 6b. They’re just saying “Well, we don’t know, and that’s kind of a good thing because we can make it up.” There is a sense of acceptance there – not blind acceptance, as you would have seen if you’d witnessed them scoffing at the end of ‘Orphan 55’ – but there is a realisation that this is a television show and that it doesn’t really matter if it’s good or bad, as long as you try and enjoy it. I don’t think you have to have children to have this worldview; I’m not even sure it helps. But it’s something they’ve grasped, with no help from me. If they can get it, why can’t the fans?

So you know what? I’m not doing this. Because it doesn’t matter what I think. Honestly, it doesn’t. I could talk about the inconsistencies in the structure, the slow, laboured beginning. The relief I felt when the supporting characters were thinned, allowing us to concentrate on the leads. The slight sense of frustration that the Doctor spent most of the episode WiFied to the Matrix, tempered by an appreciation of the visual flair. The annoyance I felt when the Doctor wouldn’t press that switch – now that would have been a way to finish an episode. How the predictable eleventh hour sacrifice of Ko Sharmus was alleviated by Ian McElhinney’s impeccable acting. The elegant silliness of hiding inside suits of armour coupled with a chilling near miss with Ashad, in a sequence that effectively fuses Scooby Doo with Alien. The conspiracy theories that are bound to erupt from Yas’s description of Graham as a ‘human’. The ongoing speculation that Graham is still the Doctor, thanks to the can of worms that Chibnall has ring-pulled open. The sense that he has changed everything but also changed nothing, and that we are, perhaps, in a better and stronger position than we have been in years – the past, like the future, having become an open book. The delight in the disguised TARDIS that pops up on the housing estate like so many newly erected houses on empty plots in my neighbourhood. The moment Whittaker stepped out into a quarry.

It wouldn’t sway you. As it shouldn’t. Reviews like this are at best an echo chamber and at worst a stick for the hornet’s nest. There is nothing that people like less (and nothing which is more likely to make them hit the share button) than telling them what they do not want to hear. You will have your own highlights and lowlights and I welcome them with open arms, but you will not cause me to re-evaluate, and I hope the reverse applies in equal measure.

Here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to tell you what the boys think. Because I wonder, perhaps, whether their opinions count the most – more than yours, and certainly more than mine. Perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps this ridiculous war of words over a computer screen, this mess of unkind people saying unkind things, and who have more love for the show than they seemingly do for humanity, has gone far enough. Perhaps it is time we drew it to a close, at least until the current crisis has passed. And thus I hand you over to my children, who do not yet inhabit the bubble. I pray they never will. I pray there is a better path for them.

We’ll start with Daniel. “It was good,” he says. “I thought there would be more surprises. I didn’t get many mind-blowing things. I think the episode with the Judoon had a bit more in the way of surprise. But I liked it. I liked that you could see inside the Matrix and see what was going on. And I like the Master and how he’s always one step ahead of the Doctor.”

What’ll happen next? “All the Doctor’s companions will go back to their normal lives. They won’t forget about the Doctor but they’ll all move on. Then someone will take over the world and the Doctor will come back and save the day.”

Josh is next. “I liked it, personally. I thought that the Cyber Time Lords looked ridiculous. But I thought it was interesting how the people from the very distant future went back to the twenty-first century. Presumably the Cyber War is still going to happen, so they have to go through life knowing it’s inevitable and there’s no way to stop it. The Master was really good. The bit where he absorbed the Cyberium was strange.”

Anything else? “I thought it was weird how when we saw the traveller experimenting on the Doctor the children seemed to be getting older each time but the Doctor just goes through random ages. I don’t think it means anything. It’s just how they show time passing.”

Finally, Thomas – wonderful, brilliant, baffling Thomas, who bore out an obsession when he was in year one and who gradually learned to love story as much as he loves details; who can solve a Rubik’s cube in a few seconds flat; who is battling his own personal demons that are far more important to me than this tinpot science fiction kid’s show.

“Flash Gordon is better than Star Wars,” he says.

Right, but…

“It brings a whole new meaning to Doctor Who,” he says. “It gives us a new history that changes the way we see it. And I liked Graham and the hat.”

So did I, Thomas. So did I.

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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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