Posts Tagged With: the woman who fell to earth

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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Doctor Who series 11: the executive summaries (part one)

Shameless plug alert, folks: this is where I talk about The Doctor Who Companion. It’s a fan site that grew out of the not-exactly-defunct* Kasterborous.com (there’s a story there; you can read about about it if you want) and is run by Phil Bates, who is a capital fellow even if we disagree vehemently over whether the show’s currently any good or not. Phil is lovely to work for because he’s always very, very grateful for anything I produce for him, even though a lot of the time the pleasure is largely mine: it’s lovely to find an editor who is willing to let you write about whatever you please and who is willing to publish three-thousand rambling diatribes without ever asking you to cut out a paragraph or two; frankly I marvel at the people who manage to get all the way through them. But it’s a great site (I am unavoidably and unashamedly biased) because we aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions, and we manage to do a bit of everything – although we’ve spent most of the last three months looking in depth at Jodie Whittaker’s inaugural series.

The way The Doctor Who Companion works is this: each episode is reviewed by a different person, which keeps things interesting and fresh and allows for a variety of perspectives. While the user comments are drifting in for each episode, the site’s various writers are also hard at work preparing their three-hundred word summaries of each story for inclusion in that week’s communal write-up, published a few days later. This is great, as it allows you to still say your piece about episodes you particularly loved or hated even if it wasn’t one you got to review, and thus the DWC is a fan site that encompasses a wild variety of differing viewpoints, rather than concentrating solely on the positive or negative.

What I’ve found this year is that mine tended to be more positive than others. It’s no secret that (with one notable exception) I’ve generally enjoyed series 11, certainly more than some of the other writers and more than many of the regulars haunting the DWC comments file. Perhaps I’m not seeing something that other people see very well; perhaps it’s the other way round. Perhaps watching it with children gives things a different sheen; perhaps that’s the sort of smug elitism that I could do without. Or perhaps I’m just going soft in my old age. The truth – inconvenient as this may be – is that I don’t care about Doctor Who as much as I once did, having (d)evolved over the last couple of years into a sort of comfortable post-fandom where I recognise that it’s just a fun little TV show. I’m either the perfect person to be writing about it or the worst possible choice, depending on who you talk to.

Anyway, here are the summaries for series 11, simply because we might as well. If you’ve been reading the reviews I post here, you’ll find a lot of what I say vaguely familiar, because it is a bit of a copy-and-paste. There are no apologies on offer for this: I have a family and we need to keep the house tidy. I don’t want to tip this into TL:DR territory, so we will publish this in two instalments. Here’s the first, encompassing episodes one through five. The rest (including Resolution) will follow in a day or two.

 

The Woman Who Fell To Earth

‘In a way, this episode was cursed from its very inception. When you change everything at once – particularly the sort of changes we’ve seen over the past year or two – you loop a millstone of expectation around the neck of whatever it is you’re creating. It was never going to live up to the hype. The Blade Runner sequel didn’t, and they had a budget that would rival the annual GDP of some East European countries. What chance the BBC?

As first stories go, I’ve seen worse. Oh, there’s no real plot, but that’s not a bad thing. The narrative in post-regeneration episodes always plays second fiddle to the establishment and development of both new Doctor and, where appropriate, new companions: that’s exactly as it should be, and in this instance the new TARDIS crew show great promise. It’s easy to look at this as a box-ticking exercise but they’re real people doing real things, and after years of smugness from Moffat, it really is a breath of fresh air. Most importantly, Whittaker herself is confident, sparky and believable – there are clear echoes of Tennant both in her manic technobabble and heartfelt reassurances to the people whose lives she’s forever transformed.

Not everything works, of course. The social commentary is hopelessly shoehorned and the monster is about as derivative as they come – and you’re left, after the end credits have rolled, with a general sense of ‘meh’. Still, there’s a lot to like. With a pleasingly retro title sequence and refreshingly nonintrusive score, it’s a new direction I think I can get behind – along with a Doctor I’m prepared to follow, if only to see what she’ll do next.’

DWC write-up

The Ghost Monument

‘In the grand scheme of things, I suspect The Ghost Monument will be remembered in much the same way as The Bells of Saint JohnThe Lazarus Experiment, or Delta and the Bannermen. It is staggeringly average. There was nothing about it I loved; similarly, there was comparatively little I didn’t like, and certainly nothing that made me want to throw things at the TV. It jumps straight in: 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’ by two of this week’s guest stars. We have Epzo, hostile, treacherous and harbouring Freudian resentment since the day he fell out of a tree, and Angstrom – tortured, pragmatic, and conveniently lesbian.

It all looks very pretty, but it’s generally a bit of a misfire. There is needless shoehorning (including a pointless Call of Duty set piece) which may be crowd-pleasing but which only serves to undermine some of the very good character work going on, particularly with Graham and Yaz. Oh, and having Whittaker bring us up to speed by reading 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.

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 Stenza 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 in Hell Bent 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 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 we’ve got the TARDIS back.’

DWC write-up

Rosa

‘It’s a curious thing, the butterfly effect. By and large, Doctor Who doesn’t do subtle, and even when it has a go they have to hit us over the head with the methodology. Still, it’s an effective way of doing things. A shift change here, a broken window there, and before anyone realises what’s happening years of progress are out of the window and segregation and institutional racism are alive and well in 2018.

We didn’t go there, quite, but you might be forgiven for finding the results a bit heavy handed. Has Doctor Who shifted once more into sledgehammer and nut territory? How else would you do it? There is no nice way to tell this story to its intended audience without talking about the way things are now, and no way to do so with the intended audience (kids) unless you are fairly transparent about it, and for all Malorie Blackman’s good intentions, while there are white people in charge, this is always going to come across as virtue signalling.

Was Rosa a stone that Doctor Who ought to have left unturned? Perhaps not. But make no mistake: it’s a throwback that is set to alienate a part of the fanbase as much for its style as for its content. This is as close to a straight historical as we’ve had in years, and that’s going to upset people. There are no monsters in the cupboard: merely an unpleasant man who could just as easily have stepped out of the house down the road as he could have warped in from the 49th Century. There is not a whiff of culture shock about Krasko and that makes him dangerously close to home – and it is this, I am convinced, that is likely to fuel much of the inevitable resentment that we’re seeing online from people who “aren’t racist, but”. The fact is, he’s much of a muchness: greater sins are committed by the people of Montgomery, and Krasko is bland and unrecognisable because he doesn’t need to be anything else. He’s not the villain. The villain is us, and all of us.’

DWC write-up

Arachnids in the UK

‘There’s a scene at the beginning of Arachnids In The UK 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.

This was a great episode, until its last 10 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.

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. 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 20 minutes of Hinchcliffe-inspired jump scares, followed by 20 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 24 hours, as I write this, 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.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter; 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.’

DWC write-up

The Tsuranga Conundrum

‘For its first 15 minutes, The Tsuranga Conundrum is a godawful mess. The leads totter and stumble around a gleaming spacecraft trying to make sense of things, motiveless and directionless, meeting characters with no apparent pizzazz and learning snippets of information about a war that sounds about as interesting as all the food pictures that clog my Instagram feed. Meanwhile Whittaker is lurching along the ship’s many corridors (specifically, the same corridor shot six times from different angles) hacking the systems and generally behaving like the know-it-all brats you often see in Holby City who think they run the hospital. It’s not a bad thing to have a Doctor who – suddenly deprived of her TARDIS and still recovering from a life-threatening injury – is driven, maniacal, and not a little selfish, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun to watch.

Thankfully once we get our first glimpse of the carnivorous Pting – gnawing its way through the ship’s hull and mechanical systems with the appetite (not to mention diet) of Ted Hughes’ Iron Man and the ferocity of Gnasher from the Beano – the crisis is in place and things start moving along. The Pting is small but deadly, with an insatiable appetite and no apparent motive for its path of destruction, so the Doctor sets about finding one while a conveniently situated war hero is tasked with flying the ship, even though it will probably kill her (and ultimately does). She’s assisted by an android who is by far the most interesting character this week, and it’s a shame that we don’t get time to plumb Ronan’s hidden depths – because if you’re doing a cute version of Alien, surely the robot’s going to turn out to be dodgy?

It collapses in yet another damp squib of a finale, the Pting flushed into space while Graham drops in a convenient plug for Call The Midwife – but all that said, there’s nothing really wrong with any of it. The monster-of-the-week gets less screen time than Baby Avocado, but clearly that set was an expensive build and they’d already spent enough money on the spiders. What happens in Tsuranga is nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking – but failing to set hearts alight is hardly a capital offence, and if we’re in a place where Doctor Who is only worth watching when it says something then we have officially moved into interesting times and I might have to find myself another show for my Sunday evenings. Ultimately this is innocuous, harmless filler material: a pleasant way to pass an hour, nothing more, nothing less. It seems almost churlish to complain about that.’

DWC write-up

* I had a look at Kasterborous.com this morning and it seems to have transitioned into one of those dreadful ‘news’ sites featuring articles in bad English that have either been written by someone who barely speaks it, or the result of a Babelfish hack job on existing copy. Still ascertaining which, although that could take me some time…

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Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition)

I’m currently in Yorkshire, sampling the heady delights of rolling hills, ruined abbeys and the local chips – so you’ll have to wait a bit for more serious content. And yes, if you hadn’t noticed, the video reviews have been sadly absent. The first one took far longer to do than I thought it would and frankly I think there are other things I could be doing with my time. So I’m ditching it. Maybe another year, but not this one.

Have a few images to keep you going. We start with the obvious.

And yes, in answer to your question, I am working on a video version of this, but we need to wait for the unscored upload for ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ first. Otherwise it’s going to be all over the place.

Speaking of all over the place, the DW location scouts have been all over the place in their search for exotic filming spots. They found one off the coast of South Africa that stood in for the planet known only as Desolation, but there was still something rather familiar about some of the scenery.

Not to mention this.

You draw far too much attention to yourself, Ms. Whittaker.

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God is in the detail (11-01)

Ah, Steven Moffat. Now there was a man who loved teasing his audience. It was never enough just to put a twist in; his goal, played out with nigh-on obsessive abandon, was the trail of breadcrumbs. Whether it’s Sherlock surviving his fall from the roof, the true identity of Ms Utterson from Jekyll, or what was really in the Doctor’s room in that creepy hotel, it wasn’t genuine Moffat without a puzzle for everyone to solve. It’s a far cry from the days when Doctor Who was aired once and then had to be revisited via Target novels because no one had a video recorder and in any case the BBC had already wiped the tapes. Repeat viewing is not only encouraged, it’s practically mandatory, along with all the bells and whistles of online discussion, dissection and deconstruction.

Still, Moffat’s gone now, so we can’t do that anymore, right? Wrong!

If you’re new here, you won’t know that I spend much of my time during series broadcasts going back through last week’s episodes searching them for things that will come back to haunt us later. Because as everyone in the Doctor Who production offices knows, there is NO SUCH THING as an accident. Every sign, every prop, every seemingly inconsequential bit of detail – from the shape of buildings to the seemingly random use of filming locations – is a potentially VITAL CLUE that gives us CLEAR AND SIGNIFICANT FORESHADOWING for events later in the series.

And guess what? Chibnall has apparently inherited Moffat’s clue fixation. Because when I went back through ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ I found a whole bunch of stuff – and today, dearest reader, I bring it to you, served up with a salad garnish and a complimentary Americano. Come with us now as we explore a world of signs and wonders that will LITERALLY make your head explode.

We start on a train.

Observe the two numbers by the wall panel – one directly above Jodie Whittaker’s head, one at the upper left of the screen. We’ll get to that one in a moment, but let’s look at 68509 first. It is – as if you hadn’t guessed – a reference to the zip code for Lincoln, Nebraska, where the TARDIS crew are set to land in an episode from Series 12. The Nebraska DHHS is here, which will presumably be a plot point as the Doctor refuses to go anywhere that’s just initials.

Do acronyms count? Because there’s a very prominent one just above – UNIT. And the numbers that follow – 9110, for ease of reference – refer EXPLICITLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY to UNIT. Why is this? Well, the first two allude to Marc Platt’s novelisation of ‘Battlefield’, released in print form in July 1991, while the 10 refers to 2010, the year in which The Sarah Jane Adventures broadcast their 2010 crossover episode ‘The Death of the Doctor’, which saw Sarah Jane team up both with the Eleventh Doctor and former member of UNIT staff Jo Grant, as played by Katy Manning. We’ve been asking for another appearance from Jo for years, and it looks like we might finally be about to get our wish.

(As an aside, this is a good time to mention that I finally met Katy Manning last December. She was absolutely lovely, despite me squealing like a fanboy. I have it on good authority that she is like that with everyone.)

But was it a nod to Jo Grant, or was it actually about Matt Smith? Consider this screen grab from Ryan’s YouTube monologue.

There are a number of things going on here, in a quite literal sense. Ryan’s thumbs up rating sits at Eleven (capitalisation intentional) while his thumbs down is sitting at two. Leaving aside the question of exactly what sort of callous bastard would rank down a video where you were talking about your dead grandmother, we also need to consider what number you get when you add eleven and two.

I will leave it to you, dear reader, to do the math(s).

Ryan’s view count is nineteen, which is a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS reference to Paul Hardcastle’s iconic song about the Vietnam War, indicating a likely story arc for Series 12. And his subscriber count is sitting pretty at thirty-seven, which is not a random number and certainly NOT A COINCIDENCE. Thirty-seven, you will recall, is the age of Dennis the political peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – a film that introduced us to the delightful Tim the Enchanter. You see? There was a whopping great clue about the identity of this episode’s villain smack bang in the middle of the opening scene, and not ONE of you noticed. Not one. I’m not angry, folks, I’m just disappointed.

A funeral next, because we need to talk about the balloons.

There are sixteen balloons, which allude to the thirteen canonical Doctors, plus John Hurt, Richard Hurndall and David Bradley: in short, sixteen actors who have played the Doctor onscreen in official BBC stories. (There are probably more; don’t tell me about them because it’ll spoil the pattern.) Note that the Eighth Doctor is directly over Bradley Walsh’s head. Also note that Paul McGann’s Holby City storyline seems to be drawing to a natural close – it may have wrapped up by the time you read this and it may even have wrapped already, as I’m writing it. We’re two episodes behind so please don’t spoil it for me.

Additionally, notice the colour scheme. There are three:

Never mind the subtle but CLEAR-CUT indication that Lalla Ward will soon be back as Romana – has anyone else noticed that there’s one missing? The short, scooter-riding one? The one who shares her name with a famous author?

There are a number of episode titles we could mash here, such as The Tell-Tale Hearts, or The Satan Pit and the Pendulum, or simply The Oblong Box, which doesn’t need any modification. But could the imminent appearance of the great writer himself – a man whom the Doctor has encountered several times before – be any more clear cut? To borrow one of Gareth’s jokes, quoth the raven: “Again again!”

We’ll conclude at the end of the episode, in this scene in the charity shop where the Doctor picks out her outfit.

“But how can you tell it was a charity shop?” some people on Facebook have been whining, to which the answer is “Of course it’s a bloody charity shop”. I mean, look at it. There are books on the shelves and there’s a pile of bric-a-brac near the clothes racks. Yes, the changing room is unusually big. Maybe Cardiff has an obesity problem. Besides, where else are you going to find that sort of mismatched ensemble, other than in the dressing up box at a local children’s centre?

I mentioned this to Emily, who said “Well, of course it’s a charity shop. I can just picture her going through those t-shirts. ‘Ooh, look, this one says Sarah-Jane Smith. That rings a bell’.”

I laughed, and then said “Listen, if Sarah-Jane was still stitching name labels in her clothes in her her mid-twenties, I’m glad the Doctor left her in Aberdeen.”

But I’m sidetracking. Because there’s a reason they went to this particular charity shop (or thrift store, if you’re reading this in the other side of the Atlantic). Where is it? If you’re in Cardiff  you could probably have told me without having to look it up, but I had to do a bit of legwork – a word which in this context means ‘look at Google Maps’. There are plenty of charity shops in Cardiff, but we may narrow it down by using the Domino Pizza emporium on the other side of the street as an anchor.

To cut a long story short, it is this one:

“KIDNEYS!”

This is loaded with detail. Never mind the fact that there is a phone box RIGHT THERE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET, indicating that not only is the much-anticipated Bill & Ted 3 movie finally out of production hell, but that IT WILL BE A DOCTOR WHO CROSSOVER – never mind all that, have you seen the sign just above the housing association window? You know, the one about landlords? Are we heading back to Bristol? Could David Suchet’s Series 10 character be about to make a sudden, unanticipated return? Well, it’s no longer anticipated, is it? We called it, right here. Watch this space.

But wait! There’s more. The address for this particular map reference is 202 Cowbridge Road, and in production history we find that story 202 was ‘The End of Time’, a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS nod to the IMMINENT RETURN of Rassilon, presumably in the Christmas special. Sadly there’s no word on whether he’ll be played by Donald Sumpter, so we may need to look further afield. Anyone got Jeremy Irons’ phone number?

But wait! There’s STILL more. Look across the street.

Let’s ignore the near miss on that sign, shall we? I suspect the owners are very grateful that it’s the U that’s missing, rather than the O. Besides, we’re now in Series 6 territory: Canton referring, of course, to Canton Everett Delaware III, the Doctor’s erstwhile companion during his battle with the Silence, and who has by the present day moved into local radio, producing a couple of hours of disco-themed music on a weekly basis for online radio station NTS, broadcasting from London, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Manchester. Who else saw that coming? I know I didn’t.

But as if this weren’t enough, scroll back up to that first picture again and note the Registered Charity Number on the sign above the Kidney Research window. It’s 252892 – seemingly innocuous, right? Wrong again. Because a curious thing happens if you stick this into the hex box for an RGB colour converter. I know because I did it, and I could scarcely believe the shade that appeared on the display:

Mind. LITERALLY. BLOWN.

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Video Review: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

I’ve been putting it off for years, but you’re only young once, right?

Well, unless you’re a Time Lord. Then it’s open season. This morning I met a woman in remission who said that learning the piano was on her bucket list. This is a completely different scenario and I actually don’t know why I even brought it up. But still: it seems silly to continually procrastinate when I now have more time on my hands than I’ve had since before Edward was born.

So today, to celebrate the launch of our newly designated brianofmorbius.com URL (paid for, and AD FREE) I’m launch a new feature: I’m going to do video reviews for Series 11. I will include links for these in the text version (the first one has been done for you) but I’ll also post them separately, simply because you’re more likely to find it.

It is early days so I ask you to please bear with me. I am new at this, just as I was once new at written reviews (which hopefully explains why the early ones were rubbish). It could probably do with a little less self-indulgence – some of the silliness from this week’s session has already landed on the cutting room floor, and I’m still playing with the format. I’ll get better.

In the meantime, here’s what we came up with for the series opener. I throw myself open to the mercy of the court.

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Review: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

“We don’t get aliens in Sheffield!”

In the middle of a bustling northern city, people are disappearing. There are lights where there shouldn’t be lights. A ruined kebab lies in the middle of a deserted street, surrounded by salad which was recently used as an offensive weapon. And a sparky woman who looks to be in her mid thirties is bustling about a train carriage in a suit that really shouldn’t fit her but somehow does, giving orders and occasionally screaming

Maybe it’s because I work in the media these days, but I can’t recall a time a series opener was surrounded by quite so much anticipation. It’s partly the way the entertainment press works, with three hundred word articles carefully shaped around quotes, speculative guesswork and social media reaction, but partly the fact that this feels, just for once, like something different. Doctor Who has always been about change, but this has been the closest thing we’ve had to an outright revolution since 2005, with just about everything changing at once. And while it’s fair to say that the show will always survive – in some form or another – and that the worst case scenario would be cancellation and then the 1990s playing on repeat, there is nonetheless a very real sense that the BBC are taking a big gamble this year, one that could either rejuvenate a tired franchise or kill it stone dead. And the biggest question on the lips of eighty per cent of the fandom this weekend was roughly the same: would the opening episode of series 11 live up to its colossal hype?

The answer, of course, is yes. And also no.

‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is a Schrodinger’s Doctor Who. It is both brilliant and dreadful, depending on whom you ask. Most of the people who were determined not to enjoy it will have hated it, or at least the parts they managed to watch before switching off the TV in disgust and voicing their discontent on the official Facebook page. Meanwhile, those who have treated the Thirteenth Doctor with the same sort of reverence religious fanatics typically reserve for the second coming (which, in a way, is exactly what’s going on) are shouting “TOLD YOU SO! TOLD YOU SO!” from the rooftops, which is coincidentally exactly what all the haters are shouting as well. As such, the truth (subjectively speaking) is a murky middle ground where this was at once a revelation and a distortion, a triumph and a disappointment, all things either good or ungood.

Before we move on, let’s get the elephant out of the TARDIS and back into his paddock. Whittaker is fine. If it takes her a while to warm up that’s typical post-regeneration, and by the time she announces both to a sneering extraterrestrial and the world in general that she’s the Doctor (from the top of a windswept crane, no less), we’re ready to believe her. There are few surprises. She plays the role in exactly the manner you might expect her to, based on the available trailer footage and the recently unveiled preview clip that no one watched when it was leaked, honest. There is an intense, Tennant-like quality to her manic gesticulations and babbling monologues: enthused and distracted and simultaneously comfortable around people in a way that Smith’s and Baker’s Doctors never were. Whittaker herself has deliberately not done her research (her performance is arguably the better for it), and any connections we make are simply going to fulfil the Eighth Doctor’s observation about seeing patterns that aren’t there – nonetheless it is Tennant’s Doctor that Whittaker seems to be channelling, and while she will undoubtedly make the role her own sooner or later it is the Tenth Doctor that currently provides our best frame of reference. It is deeply symbolic, in a way, that the first time we encounter her she has just fallen through a roof.

If the last series opener was a character piece, and ‘The Eleventh Hour’ was a stylistic overhaul dressed up in a rural, almost Pertwee-esque caper (‘The Daemons’ on steroids), this tries to deliver a gripping narrative as well as establishing a raft of new travellers, and doesn’t quite succeed. The plot – such as it is – concerns an alien warrior who has come to Earth in order to ascend the career ladder by picking off a randomly designated human; it’s a microcosmic Predator, in Sheffield. Said alien is dressed in one of Iron Man’s cast-offs and has the distinct advantage of being able to kill anyone he touches thanks to an extremely low body temperature. He has a hundred facial piercings, all made with human teeth, and has an unorthodox mode of transport, given that the first time we see him he’s emerging from a giant Hershey’s Kiss that’s sitting in the middle of a warehouse.

If I’m not exactly selling this to you it’s because the monster of the week, or at least this week, is perhaps the least engaging aspect of the story, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. It’s certainly not atypical when you view it in the context of the show: Prisoner Zero wasn’t much to look at either, at least until he turned into Olivia Coleman, and the Sycorax were mind-numbingly dull. So it is here: Tzim-Sha (or Tim Shaw, to quote the Doctor’s phonetic teasing) is the same old run-of-the-mill warrior type we’ve seen a hundred times before, a one-dimensional nonentity with few redeeming features and a face that quite literally sets your teeth on edge. A slight Machiavellian streak is about the only thing he’s got working in his favour, and it would have been interesting to find out exactly why this dark suited Goliath feels the urge to cheat in a competition where his physiology already gives him a strong tactical advantage. As it stands, Tzim-Sha’s underhand tactics merely provide a convenient wall for the Doctor to use when she’s bouncing off a few quips about morality.

 

Still. The absence of a memorable, or even interesting villain gives us room to concentrate on the characters, and it’s here that the new series shows its greatest promise. As much as I’ve come to defend the outgoing showrunner over the past year – having realised that ninety per cent of the hatred directed towards him, including my own, was simple jealousy – one thing that is still irritating about Moffat’s work is his tendency to use characters as production lines for jokes. This didn’t simply extend to special guests (sit down, Sally Sparrow, and have a Scooby Snack) but also series regulars. Clara was fun, sparky and usually fun to watch, but she also had a brain like a library, and this was before she started work as an English teacher. The same is true of Amy and to a lesser extent Bill, and while the doe-eyed hand-wringing got a bit much during the Davies years, it’s a blessed relief to find a rendering of Doctor Who that isn’t full of characters who sound like they ought to be in something by Tom Stoppard.

One thing that strikes you about ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is that up to a point it’s grounded in authenticity. Chibnall has spoken about the idea of family and in the opening story this idea manifests in a literal, semi-blended sense, with Bradley Walsh and Holby stalwart Sharon D. Clarke providing surrogate parenting roles for the bumbling-but-promising Ryan. Ryan is curious, sincere and can’t ride a bike, but inexplicably masters the controls of a building site crane in three minutes flat. Joining him is probationary police constable Yasmine, who is first seen resolving a parking dispute and who seems to spend half the episode behind the wheel of a car, which is what happens when you don’t have a working TARDIS. Walsh is great fun, as we knew he would be – Brian Williams in Grouch Mode, although there’s room for development. It’s a shame, really, that Clarke’s role is little more than a plot point: the adventurous, gung ho instinct that Graham will presumably inherit once he’s trailed round a few quarries, assimilated from a woman whose cards are marked from the moment she steps onscreen. It’s like ‘Face The Raven’ all over again, although at least this time there’s a story.

The episode may be full of real people doing real things but there is a tedious amount of fourth wall breaking. We were promised that gender wouldn’t be a factor, and to a great extent it isn’t – but we do get a couple of worthy-but-dull monologues from the Doctor about moving on. “Right now,” she laments,  “I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts.” The nods to fandom couldn’t have been more obvious if she’d been sitting in an interviewer’s armchair reading out Tweets. Not long after, having assembled her new sonic screwdriver in thirty seconds flat – courtesy of a hammer-and-tongs montage that couldn’t be more A-Team if you stuck Mike Post underneath it – Whittaker announces that she’s basically made a Swiss Army knife, only without the knife, because “Only idiots carry knives”.

Is this sort of thing any worse than Tennant’s aversion to guns, or the moralising we got during the Pertwee era? Perhaps it isn’t, and if anything the problem we have these days is that it’s far more likely to generate a headline or a meme, rather than being one of those lines you could simply roll your eyes at and conveniently forget. It’s appropriate that in a world suddenly and drastically aware of just how much waste it’s generating, a show like Doctor Who is no longer is allowed to be disposable trash: the days of file-and-forget are long gone. So perhaps it’s a little unfair to single out Chibnall for doing things that have been a part of the Who rhetoric since 1964: perhaps it’s the culture, more than anything, that deserves a second look.

Still, that can wait. There is much to like in here, even if it’s somehow less the sum of its parts. The new filters lend the show a grand, film-like quality that quite becomes it: Sheffield has seldom looked quite so impressive, even if we mostly see it at night. Likewise, incumbent composer Segun Akinola has learned the lesson Murray Gold never did – namely that less is more. Ambience soaks through the episode without ever overstating its point, and I can’t be the only one grateful that the stirring, overwritten melodic themes and piano-and-string driven moments of overwrought pathos are finally done and dusted, with Grace’s funeral and Ryan’s emotional YouTube monologue delivered in calm, dignified silence.

We end on a cliffhanger, although there are no cliffs in sight: merely the cold vacuum of space, with the Doctor and her new companions adrift, sans TARDIS and seemingly without hope. It’s rather like being in limbo, which is perhaps where Doctor Who has been for some time – and where it remains, even with this new approach. But that’s fine. We can wait. A slow burner is better than a disastrous beginning – that’s what we had with Capaldi, whose first episode is wobbly and uneven and only occasionally marvellous. Far better to warm up slowly than be graced with a work of brilliance that ultimately takes us nowhere. We’ve got ten weeks. Let’s enjoy the ride.

 

If you have time, check out this week’s video review.

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