Posts Tagged With: sci-fi

Skip Nine

I’ve decided that hanging around Doctor Who forums is a bit like hanging out in a shopping centre with a bunch of teenagers on a Sunday evening. Occasionally you’ll witness a witty exchange of banter, a decent rap battle, a spot of genuine affection from a young couple, a dazzling display of skateboarding. But most of it is people trading insults and showing off. Occasionally a bottle of alcopop gets thrown at a window, although if you’re lucky you can avoid the crossfire: ‘Hide post’ is the equivalent of taking an abrupt right turn into the alley that cuts through past Card Factory and the back of New Look and through to the bus stop, where (mother of mercy) the 8:13 will be along any time now.

Why do it? I get this question thrown at me regularly, mostly by people who are far more sensible and who have full time jobs and who don’t understand (or have simply forgotten) the blood, sweat and tears that go into procrastination when you’re filling in the spare minutes between piano lessons or waiting for an article to go live. Yes, I know the kitchen needs cleaning; I’ll do it later. In all seriousness it’s mostly about people watching. It is by observing them, lurking silently and engaging when you have to, that you find out what makes them tick. There are sociological benefits: we think we understand the fans, but perhaps we cannot say this is truly the case until we have walked a mile in their Converse boots, or at the very least followed at a respectable distance, clearing up the misunderstandings.

In any event – when you hang around the forums, certain phrases jump out at you. “Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey” is bandied about more than a geek’s underpants in a school changing room. “The Doctor lies” is another. Both are typically employed in situations where someone wants to contribute to a technical discussion whilst having absolutely nothing of any value to say. Laura Marling titled her second album I Speak Because I Can, which is a noble sentiment unless all that comes out of your mouth is irrelevant drivel.

But here’s one I see a lot. It’s one that deserves discussion – decent, consolidated discussion, which basically means everything I’ve ever written about it on Facebook, conveniently collected into a lengthy fan-baiting article. It’s the “Don’t skip Nine” thing – for the uninitiated, the fearful, almost fanatical devotion that self-proclaimed ‘serious’ fans have towards respecting the legacy of Eccleston, to the extent that they will cajole, ridicule and bully any other fans who say that they’re not particularly taken with him.  And it strikes me, having encountered it for years, that we have to clear this up. We have to clear it up because it is a talking point, because it says a lot about what’s wrong with the fandom, and because posts about it are endemic. Seriously. I’m looking at one right now. “Respect the first series,” it says, “and don’t skip it”.

At first glance it seems there is a bit of a straw man thing going on here. I’ve been wallowing in the murky depths of fandom for longer than I care to count and, despite looking very hard, I have yet to actually encounter anyone who says “Do skip Nine”. There are plenty of people who advocate watching it however you want (which is – to throw in a spoiler – basically what I was planning on doing for the rest of this post). But then you do a little digging and you discover that all too often, the Eccleston series gets missed off the American network broadcasts, and as it turns out it is these broadcasts that provide the only Doctor Who that many people the other side of the pond get to see. And thus, when hard-up high school students who can’t afford Netflix grumble that they never get to see the Eccleston episodes and is it really worth seeking them out specially, they’re typically reassured by well-meaning fans who say “No, it’s fine, you can jump ahead if you wan-”

“DON’T SKIP NINE!!!!”

Or, if you want to be marginally more polite, “Respect the first series and don’t skip – ” Look, if I really have to unpack this then let’s get a few things straight: first and foremost, if we’re counting, it wasn’t the first series. It was the twenty-seventh. It’s the first if you count Nu Who as a reboot – which I kind of do, most days, because while many people maintain it’s a single show that gradually evolves, there are still watershed moments and there is a colossal sea change between 1989 and 2005. ‘Rose’ is incredibly different to ‘Survival’. Really it is. Oh, you can talk about common threads and nods to Pertwee, but stylistically, structurally and tonally there is a huge chasm between Seven and Nine: it’s like a great big fiery ravine, with the 1996 TV movie standing in as one of those wobbly bridges that is in danger of bursting into flames and collapsing at any moment.

I don’t think you need to cross that bridge, necessarily. There is no problem with starting in the modern era and leaving it there. The past is another country, a Shangri La (literally, if Ken Dodd has anything to do with it) of strange and wonderful delights, but let’s deal with the elephant in the room: a lot of Classic Who is slow and doddery and while I love it to bits, it really isn’t for everyone. If we’re ever going to move on, we need to accept that some of it is boring. I still haven’t seen ‘Meglos’. It’s partly because the Target cover scared the crap out of me when I found it, as an uninitiated ten-year-old, in our local library, but it’s also because I’ve just never bothered and from what I can gather I haven’t missed very much. Those of you who are in here regularly will know that I write for The Doctor Who Companion, which periodically puts out feelers for new staff. When Phil (the site’s co-founder and editor-in-chief) was on one of his previous recruiting drives he included the following: “You have to like the show, but it really doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen every episode”.

Here’s the thing: half the people who are shouting “Don’t skip Nine” (and I know this, because I’ve talked to them) are happy to wallow in blissful ignorance when it comes to their knowledge of pre-2005 Doctor Who. “Oh, it’s not the same thing,” they say when I bring it up. “Because, you know, it’s a clean break. But there’s so much in that first series that defines what follows. If you don’t watch Eccleston, you don’t know about how he met Jack and Rose and how he helped Jack and how Rose helped him. You don’t know about Bad Wolf and so ‘Day of the Doctor’ makes no sense, and you don’t know how the Ninth was born in battle, full of blood and anger and reven-”

OK, stop. You’re quoting now and it’s embarrassing. I mean, I get all that; honestly I do. But it works on the other side of the coin. I have never been comfortable with this idea of the Doctor as a composite – it always strikes me he’s a dazzlingly inconsistent character who was written to reflect whatever attitudes the writers of the day wanted to advocate. But if we must see him this way, then we need to start at the beginning. For example, if you skip Hartnell, the significance of companions in the Doctor’s life will be lost on you. You’ll never really understand Donna’s words at the end of ‘The Runaway Bride’, and why he really does need someone with him. If you skip Troughton, you’ll miss out on why the Doctor was running, and why the clownlike persona that later informs Smith’s era is actually a facade, even though a number of people find it irritating.

If you skip Pertwee, you don’t understand the Doctor’s ambivalent relationship towards the military, and how the Brigadier’s actions at the end of the Silurians are echoed, to a certain extent, in ‘The Christmas Invasion’, and you’ll fail to grasp the Doctor’s relationship with Sarah Jane; hence most of ‘School Reunion’ will go over your head. If you skip Baker (the first), you’ll never fully understand ‘The Witch’s Familiar’. If you skip Davison, you won’t understand why the death of Adric haunted the Doctor for years, and had a keen bearing on the way the Eleventh Doctor developed. If you skip Baker (the second), you’ll miss out on a crucial plot development that informs, at least in part, the War Doctor’s eventual decision to use the Moment. If you skip McCoy, you’ll miss out on the gradual darkening of the Doctor that is the first stage of his road towards the Time War.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

There’s a problem with that little rant, and it is this: it’s possible to enjoy ‘School Reunion’ without having seen ‘Hand of Fear’. Consequently, it is equally possible to enjoy ‘Utopia’ without having seen ‘Parting of the Ways’. And yet the Eccleston warriors persist in their hundreds, insisting that he must never be skipped. It’s all very noble (sorry, that’s the wrong companion, surely?) but it betrays a certain hypocrisy, because when you actually confront indignant fans – you know, the ones who insist there is only one way to watch Doctor Who, and that’s from the ‘beginning’, right the way through – then the argument collapses faster than a house of cards that was sitting on a table at the onset of a small, localised earthquake. It turns out that many of these people have not seen Troughton. For them, the beginning is 2005, and everything that precedes it is commentary. I know this because I have checked.

And it goes further: I have to have the same conversations with Classic puritans for whom 1963 was the Alpha and 1989 a kind of Omega, and everything that follows that is commentary. Both theories have their advocates, but what about Big Finish? If I was to say that the only way to have a full appreciation of the show was to listen to the hours of supplementary audio material that accompanies it, could you really argue with me? What about the books? The comics? The video games? Where do you draw the line? Canon, you say? All right, what’s that?

You get this sort of double standard all over the forums. Just the other day, for example, I had an altercation with a fan who took umbrage with the Thirteenth Doctor’s ‘cruel’ or ‘cowardly’ behaviour in a few hand-picked (and misrepresented) scenarios: her callous treatment of the spiders, for example, or the irresponsible manner in which she flushes the P’Ting into outer space where it will presumably inflict more damage. “Not only has this Doctor forgotten the promise,” he griped, “She doesn’t even know what the promise means.”

Well. First and foremost, the ‘promise’ is a shameless bit of retconning from Moffat, albeit retconning I’m happy to endorse on the grounds that it’s his remit (and, as this chap pointed out, “Every episode since 1963 is to all intents and purposes a retcon”. But that’s kind of the point. The ‘cruel and cowardly’ thing was an off-the-cuff Dicks remark that later became a myth, albeit of the fluffy sort. It’s mostly harmless, but preaching it as some kind of orthodox liturgy does the Doctor something of a disservice, given that he’s broken it on multiple occasions throughout the years: witness the destruction of Skaro, ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’, the Ogron who got shot in the back, the climax of ‘The Dominators’ (and please don’t get me started on Hartnell). Frequently the Doctor will casually blow something up and then walk away without a second thought. Sometimes he’ll even crack a joke (sit down, ‘Vengeance on Varos’, the macaroons are in the oven). The Doctor has no business being a role model of any sort – and if you’re going to chew out Whittaker, you have to chew out every single one of them.

I don’t have a problem with people who think Eccleston’s series is important. It is, even though I never really took to him as the Doctor. I also agree with the notion that watching it gives you a decent grounding in things that happen later, just as I maintain that a decent knowledge of the Peladon stories is helpful when you’re watching ‘Empress of Mars’. Things only become unpleasant when you decide that your own particular approach is the only sensible way to watch Who – in other words, when it is used (as it frequently is on the internet) as a stick with which to beat other fans. That’s when it gets sticky, if you’ll pardon the obvious pun. When I eat scones, I start with butter, then add a layer of jam, and then a healthy dollop of cream. In Devon, they do it the other way round. Believe it or not, I’m OK with this, just as I am OK with people who have sugar in their coffee. Why should there be only one way to skin a cat?

If you wanted to watch Doctor Who, you could start at the very beginning and work your way through. Or you could start at 2005 and then go back to the Classic episodes when you’re done with series 11. Or you could do as I did, and dip in and out, watching old stories in between the new ones. Watch a different story for each Classic Doctor and then investigate the ones you like. Or skip the eighties entirely; many people do. There is no ‘right’ or ‘best’ way of doing it. There is the approach that works for you, and that’s all that matters. Certain things are improved when watched in order – ‘Earthshock’ loses a certain something, for example, if it is the first Adric story you’ve seen. Conversely you can watch ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ having never seen ‘An Unearthly Child’ – or anything with Davros, for that matter – and you’ll be quite content. This is a show about time travel, and if some things happen out of order, it’s not a big deal. Welcome to the Doctor’s universe.

So skip Nine if you want. No one worth their salt will care, and anyone who lectures you about it isn’t worth engaging with. As with any other Doctor, he lifts right out and it’s possible to enjoy the show for what it is having never seen him. You’ll miss out on the gas mask zombies, one of the finest (and most fearsome) creations ever to grace our screens, but you’ll also miss ‘Boom Town’. Every cloud has a silver lining, just as every rose has its thorn. And believe it or not, there are some Roses you don’t have to pick.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Part 378)

Hot enough to barbecue, isn’t it?

Well, it was. March may have been in like a lamb, but it still feels cold, largely thanks to the the sub-tropical temperatures that adorned our country this time last week, which led to a myriad of park selfies and fretting about global warming. Myself I tend to hide under the bedclothes (all right, on top of them) when the sun comes out. There are two types of people in hot weather: cats and dogs. I am and always have been a dog. But that’s fine; you all enjoy the sun. Just remember to keep up your fluid intake.

I swear, that girl gets everywhere.

In other news, Jihadi Jack’s interview went rather sour.

And there was an exciting announcement about a new instalment of Doctor Who, accompanied by a hurried publicity shoot.

I confess I’ve not encountered virtual reality in its current form. The overriding memory I have is the strange, 3D-rendered thing they did back in the 1990s where you had blocky, pixellated monsters following you; a quick Google tells me it was called Dactyl Nightmare, which worked on more than one level. I’m past the point of brushing off contemporary VR as a gimmick, on the grounds that – from what I hear, anyway – developers seem to have found a way to do it reasonably well, which is due in no small part to the development of the FPS genre, to the point where games look fairly realistic, even if you still can’t see your feet unless it’s Alien: Isolation or something. To all those whinging about the absence of a new series this year, and the money that’s been wasted on this instead, did you really think the two were mutually exclusive? That’s not how budgeting works. At least it’s something to chat about, even if the Doctor’s head is abnormally large. She looks like she’s auditioning for a remake of Mask or something. Would a bit of proportion control have been so difficult, really?

Still, you’d probably play it if this happened.

Well, all right, maybe you wouldn’t.

Anyway. Enjoy your Pancake Day, won’t you?

 

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The Smallerpictures video dump (2019, part one)

Crumbs, it’s February. What happened? You know, apart from the obvious, clock-ticking, calendar-ripping passing of time? How did we get to the point where I’ve uploaded eight new videos to YouTube and have yet to scribble a single word about a single one for the BoM faithful, or at least for the sake of maintaining a decent archive?

Well, we can’t have that. There’s a lot to get through so here’s the first, and we’ll come back to the others when the dust has settled. In a way, I kind of miss the days when I had the time (read: hours of procrastination in the office) and inclination (read: nothing else to write about) to produce lengthy posts about each individual video I mashed. But that time has gone, and I do think it works better this way. Sometimes less is more. Big Finish might do well to remember that.

 

1. Theresa May Dances (October 2018)

When you’ve got a Prime Minister who’s inherited a dog’s breakfast and who’s been tasked with spinning straw into gold by the end of the tax year, you sometimes have to make the best of things. I offer no apology for the mixed metaphors: there simply isn’t a new way to write about Brexit, at least not one I can think of, and unimaginative literary analogy is about the best we can manage. But I’d like you to cast your minds back to October, when Mrs May visited Africa and was videoed dancing along with some natives, in a moment that made headlines because there wasn’t much else going on that day; before we knew it the whole thing had been remixed with Toto playing in the background and everybody was having a good old giggle at a middle aged woman dancing the way your aunt dances at weddings. God, at least she wasn’t trying to floss. That would have been a sight.

The Conservative Party Conference followed not long after, and the Prime Minister took to the stage to the strains of ‘Dancing Queen’, in a moment that was both wonderfully cheery and cynically opportunistic. Was the PM graciously sending herself up? Or burying bad news? Why not both? Can’t she have just a little fun in between trying to keep the party from splintering and fending off Boris’s gaffes? But there was something off about her choice of song, so I muted ABBA and replaced it with the theme from The Pink Panther, which I think is a marked improvement.

 

2. Doctor Who vs Baby Shark (October 2018)

Baby Shark is one of those videos that languished in comparative obscurity until the right person shared it on social media. Sometimes that’s all it takes: a single Tweet, a nod from a heavily-subscribed Facebook page and then bang! You’re viral. I’ve had it happen to me, on a very small scale, but the Baby Shark craze was a phenomenon you are probably quite sick of and one you don’t need me to recount for you now. Suffice it to say it was everywhere last year, from the toy shops to the clubs to that appalling James Corden version (I’m not linking. Look it up if you must, but don’t say I didn’t warn you). I encountered it for the first time at a Shropshire children’s holiday club where a mutual friend played it for the kids one afternoon, and…well, let’s just say it’s been an earworm, and not necessarily in a good way.

To assemble this, I took footage from ‘A Christmas Carol’ (of course) and ‘Gridlock’ (sharks, crabs, basically the same thing) and then – once we hit the halfway point – all hell breaks loose. That’s largely because you eventually run out of sharks, and it rather forced me into a corner, but that sort of problem has created some of the finest episodes of Doctor Who, and a similar creative principle applies here, to a far lesser extent. Still, it’s a shame the Doctor hasn’t yet encountered the Selachians, at least on screen, because that would have given me far more to work with. Anyone got Chibnall’s phone number?

 

3. The John Lewis Christmas Ad – Doctor Who Edition (November 2018)

Christmas seems ages ago now, but some things can be watched any time of the year. The John Lewis Christmas Ad is arguably not one of them, but it does rather depend on the content: the sight of a small child waiting anxiously for December 25th so he can hand over the gifts he got for his parents doesn’t work; nor for that matter does a snowman struggling through the frozen wilderness to buy a scarf and gloves to the strains of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but that one was a load of shite anyway, so it’s horses for courses. Nevertheless there was something timeless about this year’s offering – in which Elton John retraces his past to that very first piano – although whether it would have been quite so effective in the middle of June, instead of the warmly nostalgic glow offered by a cold autumn, is something we could arguably debate. Myself, I watched it with cynical eyes (they’ve never topped that moon one, and they’re becoming increasingly formulaic) until the very end, when the piano was unwrapped and I instantly thought of my five-year-old son, who tinkles with the house piano daily and who incidentally had ‘Your Song’ playing on his bedroom CD player almost nightly for about three months, and my eyes instantly brimmed with tears. Damn you, John Lewis. You did it to me again.

It’s a story about time travel, of a sort, and so it fits perfectly. And what better way to tell the Doctor’s story than by examining the history of his most constant companion? And so we start with Whittaker and move backwards through to Hartnell, with stories that (by and large) showcase the TARDIS. And, of course, I got into trouble with the purists because there’s no Troughton (although he’s there, lingering just out of shot) and because there’s barely any Pertwee and because the Hartnell is from ‘The Name of the Doctor’ because THAT WAS THE BEST BLOODY FIT AND I DON’T CARE THAT YOU WOULD RATHER I’D USED ‘AN UNEARTHLY CHILD’. Honestly. Still, if nothing else it served as a timely reminder as to why I unsubbed from most of the group feeds last year. Doctor Who fans. What a bunch of dickheads.

 

4. The Stalking of Dan (November 2018)

I loved ‘Kerblam’. ‘Kerblam’ was marvellous. The only complaint is that there really wasn’t enough of Lee Mack, who has one good scene with Yas before getting abruptly killed off so we can think the narrative is moving in one direction when in fact it’s dropping a colossal red herring (an episode of Doctor Who that surprised me; who’d have thought it still possible?). And there’s poor old Dan, lying dead in a warehouse like an Amazon headline waiting to happen. But you’ll remember, just before we discover his lifeless corpse, that Yas is walking through the darkness calling out his name, which immediately gave me flashbacks to the autumn of 2002. I did, in the process of putting this together, try and fuse Alan’s shouts with those of Yas, but it didn’t really work, so to the cutting room floor it went.

I might as well let you know that this is a dry run for something quite special I’m planning for a few weeks’ time, when I eventually get round to finishing it. But in order to actually do that I’m going to have to watch an awful lot of I’m Alan Partridge. Which is no bad thing.

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What is Jodie staring at?

I don’t know, it was probably in The Guardian or something.

It’s one of those enigmatic, thoughtful shots, and not just because of the critical thinking pose. The way the eyes are cast up, not necessarily in contemplation but in anticipation of something that is either out of shot or invisible to all but the woman looking at it. There are a bunch of publicity shots like these when the broadsheets are running an interview and usually the art is in the composition, but this is even more abstract than most. That doesn’t even look like a real table. It’s like a slab of blue, as if Jodie was folding her right arm over a JPEG.

Anyway, it was crying out for a Photoshop or something, and I kept getting ideas, and I wound up doing a whole series of them. So here they are, and if anyone has any requests, I’ll make more. You know where to write.

In the meantime…

 

 

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Review: Resolution

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.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Brexit Edition)

You will notice – or at least you will when it subsequently doesn’t show up – that there is no God Is In The Detail post this week. To be honest I thought it best if I leave this one; it seems disrespectful.

Let’s talk about something else, shall we? We’ve got a stack of episode 5 and 6 memes coming your way soon, but they can wait a bit. We’re getting behind in our coverage of current events; for example, 5th November came and went.

So, for that matter, did National Sandwich Day.

In music, news emerges of the other Spice Girls reunion.

And there’s conspiracy and intrigue over at the BBC when a certain entertainment journalist meets a sticky end.

All of which brings us neatly up to today, when Theresa May unveiled her new Brexit secretary.

Ah, the Brexit secretary. The only significant Civil Service role where the occupants last less time than the Chelsea manager. I have watched today’s events with an unhealthy mixture of amusement and alarm. How did we end up here, with this dog’s breakfast? What was the point at which people lost their minds? Perhaps my spectacles are rose-tinted but I’m sure – in fact I’d stake my reputation on it – that there was a time we were sensible about these things. There was a bit of politeness. We listened to each other, or at least we were sufficiently reserved to give the outward appearance of listening, rather than simply waiting for the other person to finish so we could say our bit.

My grasp of the situation is somewhat limited, but from what I understand, a year or two ago somebody made a controversial decision to shake up a system that a number of people – a large number, or a small-but vocal number, depending on who you talk to – didn’t seem to like very much. There are all sorts of reasons why this might have happened, but the fallout was anger and division and an awful lot of arguing, and now the woman who’s acting as figurehead is getting heaps of abuse even though most of the problem has nothing to do with her.

Some are saying we should have done this years ago: others are saying it’s a bad idea full stop. And there are a few people saying “Told you so” in response to a much larger group of people who are complaining that while they wanted change, they really didn’t expect it to be quite like this.

So that’s where we are, in a nutshell. I think I might go and watch some Doctor Who now, to take my mind off things.

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God is in the detail (11-05)

It’s a complicated business, having a baby. There you are, flat out on the hospital bed, squeezing an object the size of a melon out through a hole the size of….yes, well, let’s leave out the specifics, shall we? I’m sure many of you know are familar with the process, and I know I am; I’ve watched it four times, although my wife was doing most of the pushing.

Anyway, if you’re on a hospital bed – as poor Yoss was, in last week’s ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’, you won’t have much time for pattern spotting. And thus it’s possible that the likes of Yoss allowed the whole of episode 5 to pass without being made aware of a single VERY IMPORTANT DETAIL. Which is a shame, because there were tons of them this week – so many I’ve had to skimp on the text a bit, and allow the pictures to speak for themselves. All those gleaming white corridors are full of secrets; a number of them concern screens. We like screens. Screens only look like gibberish – the sort of thing that’s roughed in the BBC’s graphics department during post-production – and to the uninitiated reader that’s exactly what they are. It’s a good thing you and I can read between the lines, isn’t it?

We begin with a star chart. Let’s cut to the chase: there is, along the zip-like curve stretching from left to right, a singular point which serves as the start and end for a clearly mapped trajectory. Using a particularly select (and far too complicated to explain) set of criteria I have thus determined that the asteroid field is in fact a set of waypoints that produces the following:

In other words, LTA is (gestures) that way.

But what is LTA? Local Traffic Authority? Licensed Travel Agency? The Lawn Tennis Association? It’s none of the above, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. No, LTA in fact stands for Lost Time Accident. Superficially this refers to any accident that prevents an employee from returning to work the next day. Of course, in Doctor Who it means something completely different: it is any episode in which the characters find themselves displaced in time, or finding that time has passed without them. The arrow is pointing to the right, suggesting that this concept will feature in a future installment: could we be set for a fiery, Moffat-inspired series finale? Perhaps one that features, I don’t know, monsters that displace people in time? Monsters made…from STONE? (And yes, I know what Chibnall said. Rule one: Chibnall lies.)

Next we’ll take a look at the conveniently small bomb stored in the anti-matter drive.

It looks like a simple rejig from the designs department, mildly steampunk in appearance. Doesn’t it? But there was a reason they made it look this way – and once annotated, we uncover a wealth of information.

And you thought it was just a prop.

Let’s move on to the set itself now. For the most part the scenery was relatively minimalist – a lot of gleaming white corridors and hospital waiting rooms – but there were some intriguing moments in some of the labs. Take this shot, for example, of Eve and Ronan.

(It’s telling that Suzanne Packer’s character was so bland I couldn’t remember her name. I had to Google it. Is there any chance of having interesting supporting characters who aren’t there for comic relief?)

Anyway: the scenery here is loaded with symbolism and foreshadowing – throwbacks, imagery and clues about what is to come. Observe:

I mean, the Guardians really are due a revival, and they can be anyone they want, as long as they get the outfits right. Can we have Liam Neeson?

Screens again. There is a crucial wall panel displayed about a third of the way in, when Durkas (had to look that one up as well) is searching for information on his sister.

There are two things we need to be looking at. In the first instance, you’ll notice the three circular patterns in the centre of the image, each of which contains four dots, followed by a further dot at the bottom: a reference to twelve of the thirteen canonical Doctors, plus the War Doctor at the bottom. Which twelve, I hear you ask? That would be Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker, Davison, Baker, McCoy, McGann, Eccleston, Smith, Capaldi and Whittaker. And no, I didn’t deliberately type out their names to help with search rankings. Honest guv.

Those of you who recite these names in your prayers before bedtime will have noticed immediately that one of them is missing. To answer the question of exactly where David Tennant is, it is necessary first to look at the top of the image, and then superimpose something on top of it.

So now you know.

Last but not least, another screen.

This is a deceptively confusing image, because despite having many apparent layers, we’re only looking at one thing – and that’s the grid on the right. Starting from the very top and then moving to the right and then down, in rows, I’ve made a note of the highlighted squares and their correlating numbers, assuming that the first, unoccupied square in the grid corresponds to one. The sequence runs like this:

At first glance it looks like a lottery draw that got hideously out of control, but this is, in point of fact, a very deliberate and cleverly coded message. In order to unscramble it we have to glance back through story lists, whereupon we can ascribe each number as follows:

2 – The Daleks
3 – The Edge of Destruction
15 – The Space Museum
25 – The Gunfighters
31 – The Highlanders
34 – The Macra Terror
37 – The Tomb of the Cybermen
40 – The Enemy of the World
44 – The Dominators
52 – The Silurians
54 – Inferno
61 – The Curse of Peladon
62 – The Sea Devils
67 – Frontier in Space
69 – The Green Death
70 – The Time Warrior
79 – Revenge of the Cybermen
83 – The Android Invasion

Finally, if you take the fifth line of dialogue from each script, and arrange them in (just about) chronological order, this is what happens.

“There’s been a forest fire. Everything’s sort of white and ashen.”
“Well, let me look at it.”
“Well, upon my soul, yes. Yes. Now isn’t that extraordinary? Yes, we were wearing those cloaks and things, weren’t we? Well, I must say, it’s going to save us a lot of bother changing. Yes. Now, lets see where we are, shall we?”
“Where do we all meet up with Seth?”
“Oh, it’s cold and damp.”
“That’s right.”
“What, these?”
“Oh, stop fussing, you two. Come on. ”
“I decided otherwise, Probationer Toba.”
“Come on, Bessie, be more co-operative. All mimsy were the borogroves, And the mome raths – ”
“Excuse me, Sir Keith?”
“Hepesh, you have already had your say in the Grand Council. The question has been discussed and decided.”
“We’re abandoning ship! We’re abandoning ship! Our position is – ”
“You can keep it. Spit and polish, cocktail parties and all those passengers?”
“It were a shame, that was.”
“Sour wine! Stinking meat! Sour wine. Is this how I am served?”
“Can’t stand the stuff, thanks all the same. So we could be anytime, anywhere?”
“Doctor?”

 

And I think we all know what that means, don’t we?

That’s all we have time for this week. Join me next time, when we’ll be looking at cranberries, and why they’re purple. Santé!

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Review: Arachnids in the UK

It’s 1988. I’m in the last year of primary school and I have a dream that gets inside my head, more or less permanently. It takes place in one of those alt-universe scenarios in which the school has been converted into a wildlife reserve, and what passed for a stationery cupboard and ICT suite thirty years ago has been designated ‘The Tarantula Room’. As the dream begins I’m walking out of that room into the main hall, which has been made over as a snow scene, where there is a tarantula the size of a park bench sitting near the piano. Back in the main enclosure, I come across two glass cases: one is filled with babies, the other is seemingly empty. As I approach, a colossal, black-and-orange arachnid is climbing into view, filling the entire cage. It’s smaller than the one in the hall, but it terrifies me, and I scream and I run for the doors – and find them locked.

That was three decades back and since then I can’t look at a tarantula without breaking into a sweat. Actually I don’t look at them at all. I leave the room during the first five minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I haven’t even bothered with Arachnophobia. Years ago I visited the cinema with a few friends; they ran the trailer for Eight Legged Freaks and I watched the whole thing from behind my hands, along with one other similarly afflicted member of our party who is now a respected children’s author. I just about made it through Return of the King, although I still haven’t quite forgiven Emily for running a hand up my arm when Shelob came out.

Still. Spiders are OK. Spiders are useful and clever and always welcome in our house. Spiders I can handle. Except. Except when…look, when I was four, my parents took me to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. It was all going well until we got to the giant tortoises. Tortoises are supposed to be something you can pick up and hold, which can have devastating consequences if you’re partially sighted and mistake them for a pasty or something. Coming face to face with one that’s as tall as you are was a bit of a shock. It’s a great shame because the Galapagos tortoises are dignified and wrinkled and command our respect. You’re not supposed to run away screaming, although the tortoise probably couldn’t do much if you did. It calls to mind the Eddie Izzard routine about the Attack of the Giant Land Snails. “They’re coming!….They’re still coming!”

This is basically the three-paragraph method of explaining that last night’s Doctor Who was, in many ways, a bit of a difficult one. But we got through it, largely because the kids came and sat on the sofa, giving my whitened knuckles a reassuring squeeze with one hand while using the other one to run their fingers up my arm. I am considering a will rewrite.

What happened in ‘Arachnids in the UK’? Well, the long-awaited “She’s in charge” scene finally reared its ugly head, although it flows nicely when it does. The Doctor is competent in a crisis and flustered by social niceties. Ryan’s into Stormzy. We get to meet Yaz’s family, who are disappointingly ordinary. Graham is seeing ghosts. And on the site of an abandoned coal mine, Donald Trump is building a hotel populated by giant spiders. These are house spiders, grown to a colossal size thanks to a combination of genetic experimentation and toxic fumes from the landfill that is sitting beneath the hotel’s foundations. It’s like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, except no one jumps on a skateboard.

There’s a scene at the beginning of the episode that is possibly its strongest moment. You’ll have seen it several times already because it’s the one the BBC used as their preview clip. It’s the bit where the Doctor lands in Sheffield, half an hour after she left, and releases her companions back into the wild, only for a guilt-stricken Yaz to ask her back for tea. It is a simple scene, with an obvious punch line, but it is absolutely endearing – not since the Duty of Care scene in ‘Under The Lake’ has the Doctor been quite so lovable – and nothing else ‘Arachnids’ throws at us quite matches it. Lesson learned? Hold back your strongest material, especially when people are going to watch you anyway.

Four stories in and the staples of Chibnall’s writing style – at least the ones he’s adopted for his tenure in charge – are starting to arrange themselves into patterns. There is the obligatory lesbian character. There is the moment Graham is refreshingly practical. There is the bit where Ryan flirts with Yaz. Some of it is good; some of it isn’t. The gay thing is, at least, dealt with with more subtlety than it was under Moffat, who insisted that it wasn’t a big deal that Bill was gay and then rammed it home just about every week, doing everything except giving her a badge to wear. Chibnall’s approach is to drop it in for a random character and then move on, and perhaps this is the best way forward. Perhaps the only way to meld this into the show’s philosophy is to do it in every episode until we stop realising it’s there. “How often does the train go past?” / “So often you won’t even notice it.”

The ending is another matter. I don’t know. I spoke last week about how this was to all intents and purposes a kid’s programme, and have written reams elsewhere explaining why this is and how we must accept it and move on – but I do wonder if kids are the audience for this. Don’t they know already that guns kill people? Wouldn’t we be better aiming something at the NRA? We can see from the outset that Robertson is an irredeemable bastard – cowardly, selfish, and ready to believe his own hype. He is Trump (or at least the left-wing media’s embodiment of Trump) in all but name – indeed, that particular elephant is dealt with halfway through the episode when it is revealed Trump is a business rival whom Robertson hates, leaving Chibnall free to poke jibes at the current President without fear of Cease and Desist notices from the White House legal team.

When you’re writing for the screen they go on and on about ‘show, don’t tell’ – but was it really necessary to have Robertson brandish his dead bodyguard’s firearm with an evil cackle like some 1990s supervillain? Even if it was, did we really need him to monologue, while the Doctor glowers about mercy, wearing a ridiculous spray gun kit on her back like some Blue Peter Ghostbuster? We were fine last week, because that was a story that was actively about social justice, but in something clearly designed to be a horror narrative (aired three days before Halloween) it feels like Chibnall’s trying to win a bet or something. I’m not adhering for stylistic unity, but moments like this just don’t fit.

It’s appropriate, in its own way. The last time the Doctor dealt with spiders we had twenty minutes of Hinchcliffe-inspired jump scares, followed by twenty further minutes of tedious social commentary, along with the revelation that the moon was an egg. I’m not so cross about that, but I do object to them shoehorning an abortion debate into what was, until that moment, a satisfying and frightening story. ‘Arachnids’ doesn’t suffer from quite the same structural issues, but its climax, in which a leering Robertson declares that guns are what will make America great again – within twenty-four hours of another mass shooting – is undoubtedly hot property, but something that frankly could have done with a bit less piety and a little more subtlety. That Robertson escapes unharmed (and without so much as a by-your-leave by any character except Graham) is a sure sign that we will be coming back to him later, and if we’re counting possible story arcs in a year that we’re not supposed to be having them, I make that four for four.

This was a great episode, until its last ten minutes. It’s frightening – the spiders are convincing, and the build-up to their reveal is decently handled, thanks to Sallie Aprahamian’s competent (if not exactly imaginative) direction. The leads acquit themselves well – Graham’s soft-eyed sightings of Grace are among this week’s quieter highlights, and Whittaker excels at just about everything, whether it’s striding through hotel corridors or trying not to eat Hakim’s dodgy pakora. The supporting characters are (for a change) interesting and engaging; Tanya Fear, in particular, excels as a scientist who is there solely to provide scientific exposition, but doing so with such flair that for once all the technobabble is actually fun to watch.

Does all that make up for things? Perhaps it does; perhaps this week the whole is greater than the sum. But there’s a sanctimonious tone to the conclusion of this story that taints it: the idea that all life is sacred, however many appendages you have. Has the Doctor never heard of pest control? Is she going after Rentokill next? When Robertson pulls the gun and announces that this is a ‘mercy killing’, you almost find yourself agreeing with him – and that, I’m convinced, is not how we’re supposed to be feeling. It all climaxes in a damp squib of a finale, the Doctor and her new friends (we’re not supposed to say ‘companions’ anymore, are we?) travelling off to new adventures in a sequence that’s supposed to be heartwarming, but simply isn’t. And as much as I’d like to put these moments out of my mind and concentrate on the good stuff, it’s scenes like this that linger like a bad smell. Perhaps it’s overstating the point, but how unfortunate that ‘Arachnids’ should end its life the same way the mother spider ended hers – on its back, disorientated and confused, with all its legs wriggling in the air.

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God is in the detail (11-02)

When I first watched ‘The Ghost Monument’, my heart sank a little. For all my heartfelt belief that Chibnall had inherited the mantle of Chief Puzzler and Imp that Steven Moffat cast from his bosom ere he ran forth from the Doctor Who production offices clicking his heels and shouting “I’M FREE!” while dancing a merry jig, it seemed that the second episode was as dry as the desert in which it was filmed, barren and stagnant and utterly bereft of clues. There were no monitor readouts. No intricately decorated chambers. Not even a bus to look at. Just a lot of ruins. I was lost and helpless and out of inspiration. There were tears, I tell you. Actual tears.

But that second viewing was like a light bulb going on. Because when you dig beneath the surface (shortly before lying down on your back and throwing a cigar in the air) there is a whole bunch of VERY IMPORTANT SIGNS AND WONDERS in this story, pertaining to this year’s series arc and beyond. And today we bring you just a few of the very important CLUES AND HINTS that we noticed. Just a few, mind; I’m on holiday tomorrow and I need to pack.

And while I’m doing that, constant reader, perhaps you would be good enough to examine this.

They keep telling us to count the shadows: today I’m telling you to count the spotlights. There are ten in total, of varying sizes, alluding to Doctors One through Nine, including the war Doctor. The angle from which this was shot – in which identical-sized lights suddenly take on unique and distorted sizes – is itself highly important as it enables us to ascribe values to each spot. Because (and this is the crucial point) THESE DO NOT APPEAR IN ORDER. Taking into account the relative number of episodes that each Doctor has appeared in, we may number the spots like this.

Starting with 1 and working our way clockwise, we get the number 12759346885, and Googling this leads us to a French phone number lookup site. It runs off the acronym CACS, and is part of the OVH cloud computing network. But a curious thing happens when we rearrange these letters: we get ‘Cosh Vac’, which is an UNMISTAKABLE WARNING that in a subsequent episode Bradley Walsh will be whacked on the head and then thrown out into the vacuum of space (again), and that the cryptic sight of the Doctor blowing a kiss to her companions is the moment she’s going out to rescue him.

Also note that Whittaker is angling her head into the sweet spot between one and two, which refers to the much-desired and sadly missing final episode of ‘The Tenth Planet’, in which viewers saw William Hartnell regenerate onscreen into a scruffy cosmic hobo. But is it still missing, or is this a clue that they’ve found it? Could it be that Philip Morris’s rummaging through Nairobi skips and Saudi military compounds has finally borne fruit? Are they saving this for a Christmas download? Only time will tell, but I’d start digging out your piggy bank now, if I were you.

Next let’s look at this rather splendid piece of South African architecture.

You will observe:

  • The four pyramid-style pillars at the top, symbolising the first four Doctors
  • The pillar on the dunes below, positioned directly below the fourth pillar, therefore referring CLEARLY AND EXPLICITLY to the imminent return of the Curator, as played by Tom Baker
  • The general prettiness of the whole thing.

I mean it is rather grand, isn’t it? Beats a quarry in Suffolk, that’s for sure. Still, don’t let the aesthetics distract you – we’re not finished yet. You see the lines of square holes just above the sand? Examine the top layer. For this it’s necessary to resort to binary, taking the presence of a hole as a 1 and the absence of a hole as a 0.

Thus, if we read along that top layer of holes, we get the following: 10100100010001

which converts to decimal as

1051310

Or, in other words:

It’s when we examine this week’s guest cast that things get really interesting. First let’s look at Shaun Dooley, who played opposite John Simm and Olivia Coleman in Exile and David Tennant and Olivia Coleman in Broadchurch. And yes, there’s an old joke about the BBC having only a dozen actors and endlessly reusing them – but c’mon, folks. These actors? Can that really be a coincidence? I’m calling it here: The Thirteenth Doctor will meet with an alliance of Prisoner Zero and the Master in 2019, and will find herself aided and abetted by the Tenth Doctor. As if all this weren’t enough to whet your appetite, Dooley was also seen in The Woman In Black, THE COLOUR OF CHOICE FOR JODIE WHITTAKER’S THIRTEENTH DOCTOR REVEAL VIDEO. This is all building to something. Just watch.

Then there’s Art Malik, who appears in hologramatic form, sitting in a tent. But we have to rummage through his CV to get to the meat. First there’s his role in A Passage To India, A COUNTRY THAT WILL BE VISITED LATER IN THE SERIES. Then there’s his role in The Living Daylights, playing opposite Timothy Dalton – yes, him wot played Rassilon. Some years later, after fourteen months of unemployment and some nasty letters from the Inland Revenue, Malik resurfaced in what is probably his most popular role, playing a terrorist opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1994 blockbuster True Lies.

What do we make of this? The title itself is a blatant clue as to the existence of the series arc, given Chibnall’s insistence that he was speaking the truth about a non-existent series arc that now seems to be about to rear its toothy head. And, of course there were [coughs] one or two other things he may have been lying about, all the while feigning his innocence like a naughty schoolboy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Need we point out the homophonic parallels between Malik and Dalek? We need not.

However: we may also rearrange the letters of Salim Abu Aziz (Malik’s True Lies character) into ‘Lamia is abuzz’, which CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY pertains to the Greek story of Lamia, a Libyan queen who was mutated into a child-murdering monster by her own grief. I will just remind you all that in the last episode we were warned about a timeless child. And I leave it to you, dear reader, to join the dots.

Susan Lynch was in Ready Player One, which features a TARDIS. Um.

Oh, and just before I sign off, has anyone noticed the cushions? The cushions that happen to be THE SAME COLOUR AS JODIE WHITTAKER’S TROUSERS? Who else saw that one coming?

Yep. Thought so.

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Review: The Ghost Monument

A little over four years ago, we saw the Doctor get pretty close to performing actual surgery. It happened when a group of military types decided to insert him into a Dalek. As written it sounds a little kinky (which was entirely deliberate on my part) – as it stands, there was miniaturisation technology, a cast of entirely forgettable military types and a bit where the Doctor appeared inside an eighties music video, as well as a seemingly abandoned plot strand involving the likely parentage of a soldier named Journey Blue.

If it seems strange that you’ve just been regaled with the plot for ‘Into The Dalek’ it’s largely because I basically had to remind myself. It’s the sort of episode that is so staggeringly average I can barely remember anything about it. My interest level for that week is a single flat line, like a close-up of a heart monitor in a medical drama. It was about as by-the-numbers as they come, with a couple of amusingly callous remarks from the (then) new Doctor the only thing that stands out in my memory. There was absolutely nothing that would make you want to experience it again; neither was there anything that made me want to throw things at the TV. It is the Whovian equivalent of Northampton: an inconsequential place you drive through in order to get to Sherwood Forest.

I’ve devoted two paragraphs to this because it strikes me that in years to come, ‘The Ghost Monument’ will be remembered in much the same way. In the tradition of ‘The Bells of Saint John’, ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ or ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ (insert your own), it is staggeringly average. Last week’s cliffhanger is resolved quite literally at the speed of light – the Doctor and her companions rescued from the vacuum of space faster than you can say ‘Bowl of petunias’, as two ships jump out of hyperspace looking for a planet that’s no longer there. It’s been knocked out of orbit, leading to a crash landing that is arguably the only really memorable set piece in the entire story.

The planet itself is the final waypoint for an intergalactic space race – think Cannonball Run, without the jokes – hosted by none other than Art Malik, appearing like a Grand Vizier in a tent that, at least from the outside, looks rather like the one where Sylvester McCoy once fought clowns and gods. There is none of that here, of course: this is all about getting enough cash to escape from poverty and ethnic cleansing, and you can bet that somewhere in a ramshackle tenement slum on some dystopian colony there is a middle-aged couple watching the whole thing on TV. The race has been narrowed down to two final contestants: Epzo, hostile, treacherous and harbouring Freudian resentment since the day he fell out of a tree, and Angstrom – tortured, pragmatic and conveniently lesbian. Both would kill each other given the chance, but violence results in instant disqualification, so in this week’s morality play the two must learn to put aside their differences if they’re going to get out alive.

Only the Doctor smells a rat. If this was once a thriving planet, she reasons, then where are all the people? It’s not long before we find out, although having Whittaker read the confession from a scientist’s log book somewhat lessens the horror: it’s clear what they’re trying to do, but talking scarves really aren’t much of a threat, and besides the sense of isolation was already done and dusted the moment the killer robots turned up.

You know, there was a time when you could get away with a quick remark about firearms and then that would be the end of it, but ‘The Ghost Monument’ makes it clear that ship has sailed (and docked, and sailed again, and struck an iceberg). It’s not enough for the Doctor to snap “No firearms!” when Ryan suggests gunning down the robots: instead, the aversion to shooting things is contextualised with a ludicrous set piece, where the young fella shouts “CALL OF DUTY!” before displaying an uncanny level of precision while handling a gun he’s never seen before and has no idea how to use. (For the record, I have played several of the Call of Duty games, and whatever Ryan says, the only thing you really learn is that Activision wouldn’t know a decent story if it clonked them over the head with a rifle butt and then locked them in a Gulag.)

Look, I don’t mind the social commentary. And I know this is for kids. But I was watching it with several kids, and at least two of them thought it was ridiculous, particularly when the Doctor then clarifies her remarks by systematically frying all the robots with a conveniently placed EMP, not long before she then blows up several pieces of fabric with this week’s Chekov’s Gun, which happens to be cigar-shaped. The lesson we learn from all this is that mindless violence is fine as long as it doesn’t involve shooting anything, because that’s something the Doctor left behind in the eighties. This in itself isn’t a problem – the concept of absurd double standards has been going on for years, and it’s pointless to complain about it now – it’s just the heavy-handed approach that has the audience rolling its collective eyes. It’s for the kids, but kids are smart, and they know when they’re being patronised. Maybe we could have a monologue to camera next week?

It should come as no great surprise that the titular Monument turns out to be the TARDIS. Chibnall sensibly gets it out of the way at the beginning, and the scene in which the Doctor is eventually reunited with her craft is understated and genuinely touching, although the gag about redecorating – with its obvious punch line – is a misfire. Indeed, some of the best things about this week involve character, from Yaz’s frank conversation with Angstrom about her family to Graham’s tentative sparring with Ryan. Perhaps it’s an age thing, but Graham is swiftly becoming my favourite character this year, with Bradley Walsh throwing himself into the role of reluctant adventurer with dignity and aplomb: Graham hasn’t got a clue what’s going on most of the time but he’s always willing to have a go, and that makes him great fun to watch.

It’s now apparent that Chibnall’s promise that these would be no series arc this year may have been a misdirection, as indicated by both the re-emergence of the Tenza and Whittaker’s apparent shock at being told about ‘the timeless child’, which may or may not have been the Doctor but probably is, in the same manner that Series 9’s Hybrid may or may not have been the Doctor but probably was. It’s too soon to know where we’re going with this but it keeps the press hot and the fan theories bubbling, so everybody wins. There was a brief window when the comparative novelty of an overarching narrative was just about enough for the show to escape with its dignity intact: such an approach had worn out its welcome by the end of Series 5 and by the time the Doctor was stomping across Gallifrey I was just about ready to throw in the towel and get on board that shuttle with Rassilon. Things may improve this year but there’s no point in shoehorning character development and sacrificing narrative for the sake of fulfilling a grand design, and if that’s really what’s about to happen again then the audience may be in for a long and tedious few weeks.

Still, at least they’ve got the TARDIS back. Now can we please talk about something else?

 

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