So… what did I think of Regurgitation of the Daleks?

Posted on January 2nd, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

As with COVID-19 (and so many things) at this stage I’m resigned to just having to ride it out. Apparently, pandemic-related filming restrictions mean this year we will get even fewer episodes of Doctor Who than were planned. I can’t say that’s a bad thing. The sooner we get through this era, the happier I will be. Dreams of Chibnall leaving early and Whittaker staying on seem to be just as fanciful as hopes that the UK government won’t screw up the vaccine rollout or the Brexit would be averted at the 11th hour. So, now we have to make the best of what we’ve got.

And – lo! – here are all the Chris Chibnall writing flaws we’re used to. Let’s take them one at a time. Firstly, he sequesters his stories into shooty-bang-bang scenes and let’s-calmly-talk-about-our-feelings scenes and the two never affect each other. Let’s-calmly-talk-about-our-feelings scenes make for good therapy but lousy drama in the first place. What’s worse is that there’s no interaction. In good writing, if you do choose to take a break from the action in order to explore a character’s emotional state, those emotions are products of the action scenes, and the conversation affects the choices that the characters make when the mayhem starts up again. Almost like it’s, I dunno, the same story. Here, none of the characters moping about the Doctor being there or not being there has the slightest bearing on the battle against the Daleks, so all that happens is that the talk-about-your-feelings scenes make the shooty-bang-bang scenes seem silly and the shooty-bang-bang scenes make the talk-about-your-feelings scenes seem dull.

And Chibnall inelegantly carves his story into unrelated segments temporarily as well as tonally. The massive cliffhanger at the end of the last episode promised us a story about the Doctor’s escape from prison as the (ugh) “fam” cope with life without her back on Earth. You know, the way that the cliffhanger involving the sudden appearance of Catherine Tate in a wedding dress was followed by a whole story involving Catherine Tate in a wedding dress. Here, the business of the Doctor being in prison is dealt with in its entirety in the first 15 minutes, never to be referred to again.

And what’s the point of bringing back a beloved character from an earlier and better-written incarnation of the show, if you can’t use that character to rob the Doctor of agency and generally belittle the character? As if the Doctor couldn’t escape from a Judoon prison on her own. As if!! This, by the way, is the only plot function for Captain Jack, even though he continues smirking around for the rest of the episode. Meanwhile the (ugh) “fam” discover there is something Dalek-y going on and massively fail to do anything useful to stop it.

There’s a lot of good story to be told about what travelling with the Doctor does to you, and what happens when it stops. But there’s so little depth to these characters, so little specificity in the writing, that all we get is that a) they look a bit mis and b) they are utterly incapable of useful action without the Doctor there to back them up. Which not only makes me wonder what the Doctor sees in them, but casts the hinted-at spin-off, The Adventures of Graham and Ryan in a different light. How long you think they’ll last with only psychic paper to back them up? A week? A day?

Speaking of characters with so little depth, and padding the running time with story threads which lead nowhere, the supporting cast of IT whizz Leo and soon-to-be-PM Jo are incredibly thinly drawn even by Chibnall’s standards. In a relentlessly uninteresting prologue, fixated on details about how the Dalek from last year’s special ends up where the plot needs it to be, there is not one hint of character detail beyond a passing reference to a generically poorly mum. This laborious sequence again never pays off, and is the least interesting, most needlessly complicated way of reintroducing the Daleks imaginable. Any other writer would have whipped off the sheet to reveal the creature, dealing with how it got there in a throw-away line, so we could have more of the actual narrative. But somebody gave Chibnall 75 minutes to fill which is why the story doesn’t start for the first 15, ends 15 minutes early and the schedulers have to pad with three minutes of trailers after it’s over.

And, christ, these characters are thin. IT whiz kid is young and Does Technology, manipulative politician is manipulative and political. Neither of them gets any growth or is altered by events in any way, and both are mown down by Daleks as soon as they’ve fulfilled their plot function. There’s barely even any conflict between the three co-conspirators. And, if you’ve come to the conclusion that Dalek-remakes-itself-by-possessing-human is literally the only Dalek story you’re capable of telling, so – fuck it – you’re just going to do it twice in a row, maybe don’t spend the first ten minutes of your screen time reminding us how fresh this all seemed last year.

Most of the rest of the episode just consists of the (ugh) “fam” trudging around after the Doctor, en masse, barely differentiated, lucky to get a line of dialogue here or there. There’s a moment in the Dalek factory, where for a second I thought the episode was going to take a turn for the hugely better. One of those Dalek mutants plops down onto Jack’s back and begins trying to take him over – you know in exactly the same way that they did last year, but then we’d never seen them do that before.

Consider what might happen if a Dalek mutant had Jack Harkness under its power? A Dalek mutant with all the hate and ferocity of a Dalek but in the body of a man who cannot be killed. The mind reels! Luckily, Chibnall was smart enough to see the possibility of a really good story coming and quickly nipped that sucker in the bud. Whew. The whole scene was just there to up the shooty-bang-bang quotient of the story. It didn’t matter that Yaz and Jack were almost taken over and it didn’t matter on whose backs the Dalek mutants landed. Lucky escape for all concerned!

Speaking of shooty-bang-bang, what happens next is basically horrible. Dozens of Daleks, whose only interest is in purging the streets of England of non-Dalek life exterminate the shit out of everyone. This is never reset, or retconned away. Hundreds of people died, maybe thousands. But nor is it ever referred to again. The Daleks end up defeated. Everybody happy. But Yaz, and Graham and Ryan aren’t even curious about whether any of their family or friends is among the prodigious towers of corpses. How long will Britons be burying the dead in mass graves for? For how long will the mourning last? What effect will this slaughter have on the national psyche? Who cares? Happy New Year!!

And then, just briefly, against all the odds, the episode did start to get good, or at least interesting. The Doctor’s plan – to summon bronze Daleks to see off the cyberpunk Daleks – is, if not wildly original, then at least arrestingly insane. It doesn’t sound very much as if it’s a product of her long incarceration, nor her newly-complicated family tree (the first, as noted is never referred to again; the second is referred to twice, firstly to dismiss it entirely, secondly to establish she’s angry, but that anger never becomes a plot point) but it is a suitably desperate measure to deal with a desperate situation. And then, Mr Big goes and fucks it up. That’s actually exciting!

While this is straight out of the Harry Ellis school of sleazy negotiations (so it appears Die Hard is actually a New Year’s film) it does fit with what little we know of Mr Big’s character, and Chris Noth sells it hard. And the eventual resolution with the spare TARDIS disguised as a police box is neat. Like a stopped clock, Chris Chibnall can’t help but write an actual story every so often, as hard as he seemingly tries not to. But if anything, this ends up being too easy, too brief. There’s no cost to any of the people we care about, whereas the cost to others is so gigantic, we can’t even contemplate it.

This all looks pretty good, I suppose. Director Lee Haven Jones keeps it all moving, Jodie Whittaker does what she can with the very limited opportunities the script offers her (first relegated to being Jack’s companion, then snapping back into generic anydoctor mode, with no hint of either of the two different massive traumas she’s just faced) and Chris Noth pitches his pantomime villain at the right level. But none of it resonates, none of it surprises. It’s Doctor Who by the numbers, but written by someone who can only count on his fingers.

And then, some people leave the TARDIS.

The Doctor, incarcerated for decades, manages to return to her (ugh) “fam” after an entirely arbitrary period of ten months. The Doctor bringing back Rose a year late in Aliens of London was devastating, drove a long-standing wedge between him and Rose’s family and served to introduce the idea that travelling in the TARDIS can sometimes come at a cost. Here, as noted, the supporting cast is never more than a bit down-in-the-dumps without the Doctor, and incapable of executing any kind of useful planet-saving plan in her absence. But the length of their separation and their reaction at the end of the story all feels completely random.

Ryan’s been a bit glum for much of the preceding season, but the character is so tissue-paper-thin and Tosin Cole so determined to underplay that it’s impossible to glean anything specific or interesting from his journey through the story or his decision at the end of it. His departure I guess makes sense if you squint at it, and thus so does Graham who wants to look after him. But Yaz seemed the most betrayed when the Doctor vanished and yet bizarrely she’s the only one who’s staying. In the hands of another showrunner, I might be excited at the possibility of this unhealthy attachment being further explored. What does Chris Chibnall have in mind for next year’s batch of episodes? Fucking John Bishop.

2 out of 5 stars

Thoughts about America

Posted on October 29th, 2020 in Blah | No Comments »

A handful of scattershot thoughts about what the next few days, weeks and months might bring.

To begin with I boldly make the prediction that Joe Biden will win the electoral college. I hope it’s by a landslide, but I’m not quite so sure of that. If he pulls 60, 70, 80 electoral college votes clear of Trump, then it’s all over. Sadly, if 2016 taught us anything it’s that you should never underestimate Trump. And while I think the current state of the polls makes it nigh-impossible for him to achieve a victory in the normal way of things, a narrow margin opens up the possibility of all sorts of further shenanigans involving contingent elections in the House of Representatives and other ways in which a sore loser might attempt to exploit constitutional loopholes.

I further make the prediction that – come what may – we will not hear a concession speech from Donald Trump. Clinton’s speech in 2016 came very late in the day, but come it did. I’m not certain if a defeated Trump will sink into a fug of depression and just sort of fade away or whether he will spend his last few weeks in office in a crazed fury, lashing out at all around him. All things are possible with this most monstrous and unpredictable of, I suppose it’s technically correct to say “humans”.

So, let’s grant ourselves the luxury of imagining a rosy future for 2021 in which American Democrats win not just the presidency but the House and the Senate too. Joe Biden in his much-vaunted first 100 days (before the crushing wheel of electoral cycles begins to stifle his potential) has much to do. He inherits a country needlessly ravaged by disease, entering a recession and more divided than ever.

What, first of all, of the Supreme Court? Adding extra justices is tempting, and may be correct. I certainly think it would not be unpopular – but it would also be controversial. And it probably needs to come with a raft of other reforms, otherwise the next few decades will see a cycle of tit-for-tat court packing with each party attempting to out-pack the other whenever it’s their turn at the wheel. Various other reforms are possible and needed, and there is reason to be hopeful that Biden will zealously implement all he can.

But as well as a nation which is fundamentally broken in so many ways – a gargantuan iniquitous plutocracy, a crazed and monstrous caricature of capitalism run amuck, unfettered by regulation, controls or common sense, and riven with racism, distrust and religious bigotry – Biden also presides over a political system which has forgotten why it exists and who it is for. Obama entered the White House in 2009 with an overt agenda to build coalitions, seek bipartisan support for bills and work with Republicans to improve the lives of the American people. He ran headlong into Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who in his turn had the overt agenda of wishing to prevent Obama from accomplishing anything at all, no matter what it was.

Indeed, it seems likely the McConnell has sacrificed Trump himself in his zeal to leave America with a Supreme Court which skews conservative. In 2016, the empty court seat which McConnell ensured Obama did not get to fill may have weighed on the minds of moderate Republicans who didn’t care for Trump, but didn’t want Clinton to appoint the next Supreme Court Justice. A Republican Majority Leader who wanted four more years of Trump (as well as one who cared a damn for not being painted a spineless hypocrite who invents imaginary rules to suit his own agenda) might well have kept the seat open for the same reason. Instead, McConnell, sensing that Trump may lose anyway, has rammed through the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett and now presumably will retire once the Senate and the Presidency goes Democratic, having achieved his life’s work.

Now, Democrats are being urged to get in the mud and play the same kind of dirty pool – but where will that leave us. If McConnell does retire, is it possible that some of those moderate Republicans we keep hearing about might be willing to work with instead of against President Biden?

But how does Biden square the circle of needing a bipartisan, collegiate approach to legislation in order to heal America’s ravaged political system, with the urgent need to pass radical bills of the type that would cause many Republicans to engorge with fury?

Sometimes, winning is the easy part.

Check back here in a few days’ time to see if that last sentence still holds good.

Homemade Pizza

Posted on June 12th, 2020 in recipes | No Comments »

Making pizza at home is one of those things I’d wanted to do for ages, and being in lockdown was the spur I needed. That and discovering the secret of no-knead pizza dough as I’m not blessed with a stand mixer nor the patience to knead bread dough for twenty minutes. Here’s what worked for me.

Equipment

You will need…

  • A pizza stone or a pizza steel. This is a lump of metal or stone with the ability to absorb a lot of heat. It simulates the cooking from below that a pizza sitting on the floor of a wood burning stove would get. Some people use both in combination. A steel is more expensive, and I got a stone because I’m cheap, which is why my pizzas, although crisp on the bottom, are still very pale. Mine cost about £25.
  • A pizza peel. Don’t under-estimate the importance of this bit of kit. Transferring a pizza from the worktop to the stone/steel is very tricky without it. Mine cost about £40 and has a nifty handle which rotates under it for easy storage.
  • Some kind of blender or liquidiser for the tomato sauce.

The principle here is to let time do the work for us. So this has the benefit of requiring very little time actively spent making pizza, but you do have to plan ahead. If you’re starting this Monday morning, the earliest you’ll have pizza is Wednesday lunchtime.

Dough ingredients

Makes four small pizzas

  • 500g flour. I use strong white bread flour but you can use almost anything.
  • ¼ tsp active dry yeast (yes, that’s all you need)
  • 2 tsp fine salt
  • 350ml water

This couldn’t be easier. Put the ingredients in a bowl and stir them together. The result will look like a shaggy mess, but you don’t have to get everything incorporated. Just stir until there isn’t any dry flour left. Then cover with a tea towel and leave on the kitchen workbench for 8-24 hours. Active time spent so far: five minutes.

At the end of this time, your shaggy bowl of nonsense will have transformed into a much more homogenous, but still very sticky dough. Pizza nerds will tell you that this dough has a 70% hydration, which is another way of saying it’s very sticky. Generously flour the worksurface and your hands. Turn out the dough, ball it up, and divide it into four. Shape each quarter into a ball and put in a Tupperware container or bowl covered with clingfilm and stash in the fridge for another 8 hours or up to a week. Active time spent so far: 10-15 minutes depending on if you count cleaning the work surface, washing up the bowl etc.

Sauce

During one of these intervals, you can start thinking about sauce. A few experiments taught me that I prefer a raw tomato sauce – it gets plenty of cooking on the pizza in the oven. Whole canned tomatoes have better flavour than the chopped variety but tend to be watery. I dump the can of tomatoes into a bowl, fish out the tomatoes, leaving the juice (presumably made from less good quality tomatoes), spoon them into a liquidiser and blitz them for 20 seconds or so. Even this tends to give me a sauce which is too watery, so I transfer the pulverised tomatoes into a sieve and strain off most of the water until I end up with two or three tablespoons of richly flavoursome tomato goodness. To this I add a generous pinch of salt, a slightly less generous pinch of black pepper, a half teaspoon of sugar and a whole teaspoon of oregano or dried mixed herbs. One 420g can makes about enough sauce for one pizza, but it’s as easy to do two cans at a time, and you can stash the sauce in the fridge next to the containers of dough. This all takes about another ten minutes including the washing up. With dough balls and tomato sauce in the fridge, you can have a pizza ready to eat in only about twenty minutes, with over half of that spent watching it cook in the oven.

Pizza

Okay – it’s pizza day. First, put your pizza stone on the top rack of your oven and crank it up as high as it will go. With my oven, that’s 275 degrees. Leave it there for 45 minutes. Now, assemble your pizza station. I prefer my mozzarella finely chopped or grated as opposed to in big slices. About 50g per pizza. Do that first, as well as any other toppings you want.

Now, sprinkle flour and/or semolina on your pizza peel, and flour on your work surface. Plop a dough ball out on to the floured worktop and start pressing and stretching it out as thin as you can get it. Once it’s nice and thin and round(ish), quickly lift it up and drop it on the peel. Give the peel a shake to make sure it isn’t sticking. Work fast! It will stick eventually and then you are completely screwed.

Spoon on the tomato sauce and spread it almost to the edges, then any other toppings you want, then the cheese. Carry the pizza on the peel to the oven and jiggle it off onto the hot stone. Every oven is different, but I’ve settled on 12 minutes to get the crust a nice colour and all the cheese melted. It will go faster if you turn the grill on, but then there’s the risk that the underside of the crust won’t get crisp.

Grab some tongs and yank the cooked pizza off the stone onto a plate or cooling rack and now you can start work on the second pizza. Do not let a fully assembled pizza sit on the peel while the pizza ahead of it cooks. It will stick and you will have no way of removing it intact.

Here’s the result of a recent batch. Light, crispy, chewy, salty, cheesy and pretty much perfect.

Coping and how I’m doing it

Posted on April 1st, 2020 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

The COVID-19/Novel Coronavirus worldwide pandemic has changed everything and everyone is finding their own way of coping.

I’m not sure to what end, but I thought I would put down a few observations about my own personal strategies – possibly as a marker to look back on next week, next month or next year.

In many ways, the stay indoors, socially isolate, talk to people mainly over the Internet lifestyle sounds a lot like my preferred way of living. But it turns out there’s an awfully big difference between a lifestyle chosen and a lifestyle enforced.

In the Before Times, my week was rather unstructured and quite unpredictable. Some days would see me up early, suit on, and meeting corporate clients or delivering workshops or seminars at banks, law firms, ad agencies or the like. Some days I would be meeting friends, talking about creative projects such as a new play, or being the public face of one of our podcasts. We maintain an office in Camden so some days I would be there, cranking through admin, talking to Gina or Alex or Ned about future plans, or meeting our bookkeeper or accountant. When I’m editing podcasts, I prefer to work from home. Some of these “edit days” are spent entirely in my dressing gown. Often, I end up working late and at weekends, so I’m rarely up early unless I need to be. I’m blessed with living only a 40-minute walk from the West End, so sometimes I’ll walk into town to see a movie.

I’ve learned that what I need to keep myself happy and rested – since I don’t get weekends off in any meaningful way – is one “snow day” per month. On this day I need never get dressed if I don’t feel like it, and spend most of my waking hours eating cheese and watching old movies / Doctor Who episodes. It’s preferable for all concerned if I’m alone in the house.

Suddenly, in the last two weeks, all of that has changed. And I’ve had to change with it. So I’ve made some deliberate choices about my schedule which may be the opposite of what you’ve done if you previously had a fairly strictly routined working life.

I’m setting my alarm for 8:30am every morning, and trying to do 20 minutes on the exercise bike each day, starting no later than 9:30am. Since I get most of my exercise from walking, and I won’t be doing as much of that, this seems like a sensible way to burn some calories, and not just spend the day in bed. Then, I shower, shave and dress. I rarely wear t-shirts in any case, so I’m typing this in a business shirt with cufflinks. If I’m not seeing people I don’t live with, I sometimes don’t shave for several days. That can’t happen anymore. With no access to a hairdresser either, that way madness lies. I’m not prepared to come out of hibernation looking like the wild man of Borneo. (Is that an okay thing to say?)

10:30am to 6:00pm are working hours – this includes editing podcasts, but it also includes all the other usual things: replying to emails, updating websites, financial planning, conference calls and so on. At 12:00pm on Monday and Friday, we have a regular company catch-up (there are five of us) so we can stay sane, stay connected, and plan together. At 6:00pm every weekday, Deborah is recording her Instagram Live series “The New Normal” so I can be on hand to help with that and when she’s up and running, I can sign off for the day.

I’m making a real effort to keep the flat tidy and stack the dishwasher and/or wash the dishes each night. We’re continuing to pay our cleaner – who used to come three times a week! – but she’s no longer visiting our home and cleaning it. Coming downstairs to a clean kitchen is a good and important start to the day. Going to the supermarket involved queueing outside for twenty minutes (standing 2m away from the person in front) but once inside, most items were available and most shelves looked well-stocked.

I suddenly have a very active virtual social life! I spent one evening with old university friends on Zoom, celebrated a friend’s birthday on House Party and I’m looking into whether it might be possible for my monthly poker game to go ahead virtually.

I’m trying to do as little work as possible in the evenings and at the weekend. Often, Monday’s Guilty Feminist has to be uploaded on a Sunday evening, and that’s fine, and we’re planning on recording an episode of Best Pick on Saturday. But last weekend I mainly spent watching Pixar’s Onward (very good) and Tiger King on Netflix (with friends on House Party for bants).

It’s just over one week in and this is working for me so far. I know I’m lucky. I have no kids I’m trying to home school, I have money in the bank (at least for now), I have a wonderful partner to go through this with me, a team of motivated and talented people working on our business and a pleasant home environment with fast Internet and three adorable cats. Many people around the country are far worse off than me, which is why I’ve also filled in the form to volunteer for the NHS Responders. I’ll let you know how that goes soon.

Stay safe. Stay indoors. Wash your hands.

Doctor Who Series 12 Overview

Posted on March 2nd, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Fuck me, that was rough.

My final rankings are as follows…

Best of a profoundly sorry bunch was The Haunting of Villa Diodati (4 out of 5 stars) which actually had some thematic unity and dramatic power to it.

Praxeus (4 out of 5 stars) and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (3.5 out of 5 stars) are thin but they basically work. Spyfall (3 out of 5 stars) was nonsense but it was fastmoving and the surprise reveal of The Master was well-handled. Can You Hear Me(2.5 out of 5 stars) and Orphan 55 (2 out of 5 stars) are both mis-fires. Ascension of the Cybermen (2.5 out of 5 stars) showed some promise, but the finale isn’t worth any stars at all because it wasn’t a story. Fugitive of the Judoon was the story I enjoyed most as it was on, despite its maddening flaws. Whether it’s still worth the 4.5 stars I gave it then is up for debate.

This compares to the noble burghers of GallifreyBase as follows. Averaging their scores out of ten, we get the following. They put Fugitive top with 8/10, then Villa Diodati close behind on 7.9. Ascension and the two parts of Spyfall are next, all scoring in the mid-7s. TeslaThe Timeless Children and Can You Hear Me are all in the mid-sixes and Praxeus gets 6.1 before Orphan 55 rounds out the series with a pretty poor 4.8. What these averages don’t reveal is the enormous number of ones (balanced by a fair few nines and tens) for the finale which really has proven to be divisive.

At the end of his first series “I don’t read reviews” Chibnall suddenly seemed to realise that his plan to treat this as a brand new programme with no past, and to never reference the show’s 57 year history had been an error and so he threw the lever so far back in the other direction it snapped off in his hand. What the hell this means for Series Thirteen is anyone’s guess. I suppose I’ll still be watching. And hoping.

 

The Tiresome Children

Posted on March 2nd, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

This isn’t so much a review as a collection of disorganised rambling thoughts. I can only assume Chris Chibnall would approve.

The current showrunner of Doctor Who appears to be incapable of structuring a story. The companions are once again shunted off into a side quest which is boring on its face (running away from Cybermen, hiding from Cybermen, mysteriously not being shot dead by Cybermen). The Doctor is completely passive throughout. Absurd plot elements such as a so-called “death particle” are introduced arbitrarily, their abilities never defined, and then they are written out when convenient.

The current showrunner of Doctor Who appears to be allergic to drama. If we absolutely have to disinter the foundations of the central character and make what was once so appealing – those lovely mysterious origins – so much more prosaic and dull, then could we not at least find some way to do it which has a bit more power to it than the Doctor being shown a slide show? And how does the Doctor escape from her confinement? She plays herself a clip compilation of old episodes of Doctor Who. Does she literally fanwank herself out of jail??

The current showrunner of Doctor Who has decided to have three companions and has forgotten why. I don’t think we even see Ryan back on Earth. Why should we bother? He’s a nothing character. A space where a person might be.

The current showrunner of Doctor Who is impervious to the dramatic possibilities of his own ideas. Committing, for whatever boneheaded reason to putting a piece of the Doctor’s DNA inside every Time Lord, he then continues to write a story in which there’s a piece of Time Lord in every Cyberman, but the implications of this are never addressed because let’s just blow them all up instead. Not by the Doctor though, ugh, yuck, violence. Let’s have someone else do it instead. Hurrah. I love happy endings. Never cowardly or cruel! Run away and have them all blown up by someone else. Look for a third way? Why bother?

And the stupidity mounts up and up and up. Two of the companions and some other people I couldn’t give a shit about are trapped on an impossibly vast Cyber battle cruiser. Some of the Cybermen have been activated to go and kill humans on the planet below. How many? Not sure. What about the rest? Never specified.

The humans have been detected by Cyber technology so they need to hide – and quick. Luckily, they come up with a plan to very slowly and laboriously dismantle the dormant Cybermen they happen to be standing next to. Hide all the (apparently odourless) body parts they’ve had to scoop out from the inside. Then climb inside the suits – what do you know, they’re all a perfect fit – and stand and wait for Ashad the hero Cyberman to do his rounds. On the countless floors of this enormous ship, WHICH HAS SENSORS TO DETECT HUMANS, he finally wanders into the bit where the humans actually are, potters around a bit sniffing the Cybermen and then just leaves. Phew. Now our plucky humans can escape to the planet’s surface. Not before, that would have been silly. How do they get there? Never specified.

This, for one reviewer, was the highlight of the episode.

And I could go on, and on, and on. Try as I might, I can’t bring myself to care about the Doctor’s previous lives. Clearly the interesting version of the Doctor is the one who decided to steal a TARDIS and go on the run. Previous versions apparently just obediently did what they were programmed to do by a higher power – you know the way The Doctor never would. In fact, the insight which allows the Whittaker Doctor to get her shit together and dive back into the fray (for all the good that does) is that her past doesn’t define her. How can it? Her memory of being all those other incarnations has been wiped. So, it hasn’t changed her at all, then? And all that build up was for… nothing, I guess. Why should we care? Why should she care? Why should anyone care about all this bullshit?

It hasn’t “broken the show”, because it’s all just demented fan theory nonsense that doesn’t mean anything either while it’s on, or for the future of the programme, or its past. But I guess at least we know where Chris Chibnall stands on the Morbius Faces Debate now. Next year – the UNIT DATING REVELATION THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING. “Doctor, every calendar you thought you knew, was a lie.” Etc, etc. Continued on page 94.

And I’m sorry Sasha, but I’m really bored of this performance now. Third time out, there’s no gas left in the tank. While Michelle Gomez’s Missy revealed layer after layer in writing and performance, this time around, the actor repeats the same pop-eyed ranting and the writer just turns the character into his own personal avatar. “You miserable fans! Quake in fear as I threaten the very nature of your realities! Ha ha ha!” He’s so keen to make the Master the hero of the story (he does have agency after all, which is more than can be said for any other character) that he has him in two places at once. Heaven forbid that the Doctor should be allowed to investigate her own back-story.

And like all good writers, with two charismatic mega-villains, facing off against each other, he just unceremoniously writes one out in a flat second when he’s run out of ideas. Ashad, the paranoid Cyberman, brilliantly played by Patrick O’Kane, reduced to a magic mega bomb to end the story with.

It’s all so stupid and pointless, that it’s barely worthwhile trying to summon up the energy to point out all the plot holes. How did the Master find Gallifrey? Never explained. How did he manage to get past their defences and kill everyone? Never explained. How does this enable him to discover the Doctor’s boring origin story? Never explained. Why are portions of Gallifrey’s darkest secret which must never be revealed to anyone because… reasons… redacted and others not? Never explained. Why is Ruth Martin swanning around as the Doctor when Brendan has no idea who he is? Never explained. Why is Brendan’s magic power to survive death by shooting and falling unscathed, when the whole point of this stupid backstory is that what makes Time Lords special is regeneration? Why did they call themselves Time Lords when they gave themselves regeneration not Time Travel? If there are countless previous incarnations of the Doctor running around the Universe, why have our Doctor and them never crossed paths before? Why does Ko Sharmus even have a bomb which can only be detonated manually? Who would make such a thing? Who would buy it? Why is the TARDIS suddenly so vulnerable to incursion? How can the Judoon suddenly identify their quarry on sight? Are we meant to be pleased that the current showrunner remembers how funny it was when an earlier showrunner had the Doctor repeatedly say “What?” during an end-of-season cliffhanger?

This is not so much a story, it’s a mad Whovian ranting his idiotic fan fiction in your face for an hour.

And that’s who’s running Doctor Who now.

Jesus suffering Christ.

Anyway, I hear Star Trek: Picard is good.

So, what did I think… oh for fuck’s sake, I can’t even…

Posted on March 2nd, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

In 1986, a teenaged Chris Chibnall appeared on BBC television to publicly criticize the 14 part serial The Trial of a Time Lord which made up the 23rd Season of Doctor Who. Now, in 2020, he is able to put his own vision of the show on screen. A vision which includes…

  • The Doctor in an incongruously colourful costume
  • The unexpected return of The Master
  • A heavy reliance on old enemies and PR-friendly guest stars
  • An alternative version of the Doctor whose provenance is uncertain, and who we don’t realize is the Doctor until later in the story
  • A desolate alien planet revealed as Earth in the far future
  • Evil capitalists who want to use human brains for their own purposes
  • An over-arching season-long storyline revolving around Gallifrey and the Time Lords, which makes it hard for casual viewers to understand or keep up.
  • Lengthy sections consisting of the Doctor watching Doctor Who via the Matrix instead of taking part in the story.
  • In the final bumper-length episode, the Doctor and the Master disappear into the Matrix, a world of illusion where it isn’t clear what’s real and what’s not (a bit like in The Deadly Assassin).

Make of that what you will.

As to the content of this episode – I mean it defies reviewing really, doesn’t it, being mainly gibberish. Not so much a sci-fi adventure story as a mad Whovian ranting his dreadful fan theories into your face for an hour. I may have some more detailed thoughts later, but for now I’m just profoundly disappointed and shocked at the vacuous inanity of it all.

And then there’s this.

So… yeah…

So… what did I think of Ascension of the Cybermen?

Posted on February 26th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Well, this seems to have gone down well with fandom as a whole. And it’s not hard to see why – classic monsters reimagined, proper jeopardy for the regulars, some Moffatian mystery with impregnable Brendan, lots of action and excitement and a doozie of a cliffhanger ending.

Me? I’m not quite so happy.

Let’s take this in stages. The basic plot begins with the Doctor arriving to save the last vestiges of humanity from the Cybermen. So far, so Utopia. The aforesaid vestiges are apparently named Ravioli, You-Alarm-Me, Fearcat, Biscuit, Fo’c’sle and – for some reason – Ethan. Nothing any of them can do, not even doughty Julie Graham, can put much life into them although Steve Toussaint does much with little.

The Doctor comes armed with a multitude of anti-Cyberman devices which she confidently deploys but none of them work. So, in plot terms, the same as if she’d turned up without them. I mean, I suppose we’ve raised the stakes a bit but we know the Cybermen are fearsome foes anyway and it’s much more in character for the Doctor to turn up in the thick of things and have to improvise. Having all her gadgets fail is not only narrative vamping (and if you like that, you’ll love the rest of the episode) it also does much more to weaken her than it does to build up the threat.

When the Cybermen make their appearance, it’s initially in the rather comical form of a swarm of flying Cyberheads. If you can stop giggling at how absurd this looks, then it’s suddenly clear that these flying drones are way more effective at finding, cornering and eliminating the humans than the slow-moving stompy Cybermen of yore. So it’s rather surprising (and convenient) that the efficient and brutal drones kill a single human and then all bugger off, job done.

The fam get split up with Graham and Yaz joining Ravioli, Biscuit and You-Alarm-Me and Graham and Yaz prove that when the chips are down a tone-deaf approach to personal trauma is all you need to get out of a sticky situation. Sadly, the script can’t make up its mind whether the plan is to vent the oxygen into space to propel them to the “safety” of a Cyberfreighter, or whether it’s instead to divert all life support power to the thrusters. It genuinely sounds as if different drafts of the script were being shot simultaneously.

Although the stuff with the Cybermen all waking up is well done (hey, cute, they look like the ones from the 1970s), the level of threat seems absurd compared to the number of humans. One Cyberman should be enough to “delete” half a dozen exhausted freedom fighters. Once you get above about six, who really cares? Having thousands just seems pointless. And just what is Ashad doing to them to make them scream? I thought he was reviving them, but in one shot, he looks like he’s murdering them.

Speaking of Ashad, his stuff with the Doctor is all much better. Again, none of this really accomplishes very much. Just as all that ultimately happens to Yaz, Graham and the numpty squad is that they move from one place where there are Cybermen to another place where there is a portal, all that ultimately happens to the Doctor and the other one is the same thing, but the Doctor and Ashad get better dialogue. Patrick O’Kane is the real MVP of this and the previous episode and Jodie Whittaker really rises to the occasion here too.

Finally, after an awful lot of running up and down corridors, we arrive at the portal. Hey! It’s Gallfrey! Oh! It’s the Master! Gosh, it’s the end of the episode. So, this is all tease and no pay-off, and it’s taken a enormous amount of screen time to accomplish precious little.

And speaking of all tease and no payoff, let’s talk about Brendan. Having channelled RTD for a lot of this series, the teaser and subsequent Brendan material is straight out of the Steven Moffat playbook – except I can’t help but think that Moffat would have got us at least to the cliff fall (very familiar looking cliffs, those, DI Hardy…) if not to the electrocution / chameleon arch / shock therapy scene before the opening titles and given us much more to go on by the episode’s end.

So as 50 minutes of television, this was profoundly unsatisfying. Lots that made very little sense. Lots of running around accomplishing nothing. No characters that really popped (although it was nice to see Ian McElhinney). And no real sense that this season arc is coming together at all. That makes this episode hard to judge on its own merits. If The Timeless Children smashes it out of the park, then that might make this seem far more effective in hindsight. If Chibnall flubs the finale, this will likely seem ever thinner. For now, 2½ stars is the most I can muster.

2.5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of The Haunting of Villa Diodati?

Posted on February 21st, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I’m really conflicted about this one. Much of this was very good indeed. Frustratingly good. If this is what this team can do when they try, why have we had to suffer through so much slurry recently? But there are still lots of niggles, lots of things which smack more of fan fiction than prestige television for all the family.

Let’s start with the fact that we only have ten episodes to play with and yet we’ve got two episodes in a row in which the team are stuck in spooky situations, unsure what’s real and what’s not and menaced by animated fingers. And what on earth is the point of bringing back the cold open if you don’t actually have anything to do with it? Everybody screaming makes no sense at all. It’s just stupid.

And there probably isn’t quite enough story for 50 minutes of television. The first third is all exposition and marking time. The second third is fun-and-games in The House That Jack Built. And the final third is where things really start getting good. But it’s quite a long wait and, again, while there’s some good stuff here, there’s some pretty ropey stuff too.

The eternal problem of the trio of redundant companions hasn’t gone away. Maxine Alderton does make them sound like people – and she doesn’t make them all sound like the same person. That might be damning with faint praise, but she’s the only writer to do that so far this series. What she can’t fathom (and nor can anyone else) is how to integrate them into the storyline. Yaz, who’s the most archetypal companion anyway, does do a bit of poking around, but only during the early “marking time” sections of the plot. Ryan manages to get challenged to a pistol duel – a hugely exciting development, especially for a series which is so reluctant to put any of the regular cast in mortal danger.

(Sidebar: that’s only recently struck me, but it’s really odd. One of the reasons that the end of Spyfall Part One was so effective was that it looked like all three companions were going to die. But that’s super-unusual. One of the benefits surely of having an expanded regular cast is that it gives us a lot of people who we care about who can get into life-threatening situations and need rescuing – by the Doctor or by each other. But most of the time, they just stand around comfortably. Even when plans fail such as when Rani Not the Queen of the Racnoss comes through those doors near the end of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, the fact that Graham is in harm’s way doesn’t seem to be the point. Why aren’t all three of them constantly being menaced by buzz-saws, taken over by alien mind parasites, facing firing squads, being infected by spektrox nests and so on?)

But, then, in a truly bizarre bit of scripting, this terrifying turn is just forgotten about and never referred to again. Poor Graham, meanwhile is stuck in a subplot which involves him needing the loo. Thrill! As TV’s Bradley Walsh asks people where he can spend a penny. Marvel! At his inability to empty his bladder! Truly, this is our “the one with the giant maggots” moment.

And the guest cast are a bit thinly drawn too. With characters as big as Mary Wollstonecraft and Lord Byron to play with, I would have expected a bit more dash and panache, but – as with Rosa and to some extent Tesla – this is just decent actors reading out parts of Wikipedia at each other. And it’s truly weird to have Byron in one episode and Ada Lovelace in another and have nothing more than a single line of hasty acknowledgment to cover this. Christ, maybe they need even longer to plan the series out properly.

Now, all of this sounds like I didn’t like it, and it’s true, I was frustrated, but this episode had some much better stuff coming. Once the Castrovalva walls kicked in, the atmosphere was incredibly intense, and I did find myself starting to care about what happened to these bland people. We even got a couple of actual jokes. I laughed out loud at “Is it too late to pick another group?” True, Steven Moffat would have given us ten lines as good as that before the opening titles, but that doesn’t make it less funny.

And when the Lone Cyberman appears, it’s a genuine triumph of costume, make-up, performance and conception. True, it’s largely the same trick with a Cyberman which Chibnall already played with a Dalek in Resolution but it works even better here, and the Frankenstein allusions thankfully remain just that. We’re spared seeing Mary’s clunky moment of inspiration. But down in that cellar, backed into a corner, Jodie Whittaker shows us just what she can do as the Doctor, and just where the series has been taking her. It’s with only a trace of smugness that I report that her defining moment of owning the character comes through an epiphany that her three companions are essentially useless, but all of this stuff is actual proper drama. High stakes science-fiction adventure coupled with a real feeling for character and a genuine moral dilemma.

There’s a slight fumble towards the end as the Doctor first needs to retain the Cyberium and then, within the space of the same scene, needs to surrender it, but the ending is absolutely gangbusters. Of course she’d risk the universe to save one poet – not because he’s Shelley but because he’s a life. Because she’s the Doctor. Yes.

So, I’m tempted to give this five stars, overlooking all of the flaws in the first half – as I overlooked the gibberish science in Kill the Moon. But this isn’t as sure-footed as It Takes You Away or The Witchfinders, nor does it have the sheer brazen shock value of Fugitive of the Judoon. I think four is fair, but the last fifteen minutes were an easy five.

4 out of 5 stars

So… What did I think of Can You Hear Me?

Posted on February 15th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I mean at least it’s trying…

God, where to start with this one. Again, it’s a mix of old episodes tossed into a blender, with very little thought for how all the pieces are going to work together. The storybook exposition as well as the theme of nightmares put me in mind of Listen, the darkest fears bit is a lift from (among many other places) The God Complex and Amy’s Choice and there’s the now obligatory pointless references to Classic episodes, because Chibnall has now decided that he needs to do that all the time, instead of never as was his stated philosophy last season.

It’s heartening, I suppose, to see some attempt made to give the companions a bit of characterisation, and some attempt has been made to actually connect the inner lives of the TARDIS crew to the adventure story of the week, rather than putting the adventure on pause while somebody talks unconvincingly about their feelings, but the pacing and the construction of the early part of the episode is very clumsy, as everybody simultaneously has somewhere better to be, and then everybody simultaneously wants to come back on board the TARDIS again. And just what is it that Yaz and her sister a celebrating the anniversary of in this desultory way? Her suicide attempt? Who does that?

The main threat is original enough, I guess, but instead of that pleasing obvious-only-when-you-hear-it kind of originality, like the explanation in The Witch’s Familiar about why Daleks talk the way they do, or Rose being missed by her family in Aliens of London, this is just odd for its own sake. It doesn’t make sense for dreams to communicated finger-to-ear and even visually, this just looks wrong as the fingers pop off (all five although only one is needed) and sail aerodynamically towards their target before very awkwardly reversing course and then burrowing into the ear fat end first – you know, the way that fingers don’t.

And this is another episode which seems determined to weaken and diminish the Doctor. First she can’t cope with being left on her own. Then she can’t tell that The Terrible Zodin is using her to free his friend. And then, worst of all, she can’t even give poor Graham a hug. Even the conversation between Yaz and the other one at the end weakens the Doctor. Past companions have been so enriched by being their travels in the TARDIS, they can’t conceive of ever having to leave. This lot are worried that it’s making them lesser.

And the poor structuring continues. Having tried to make the companions’ nightmares a part of the actual story, Chibnall and co-writer Charlene James just give up and give us the (fairly weak) catharsis for Yaz after the main story is over. The actual climax is almost too stupid for words. The all-powerful immortal Zodin who can travel at will through time and space shits his pants at the sight of the monster he summoned into being? Give me strength. And just how did the Doctor get hold of that sonic screwdriver? Does she have Force powers now?

And yet, as frustrated – and often, frankly, bored – as I was watching this, there are flickers. Finally, somebody (I assume James) has tried to dig a little deeper into these three bland characters who stand around and let plots happen near them. The animated exposition is fun and it is new. Asking the question: what do you gain, and what do you lose travelling with the Doctor? is the kind of thing that having a bigger regular cast should give you access to – although it’s somewhat pointless if they all come up with the same answer. So this isn’t an Orphan 55 or Very Long Walk to What is Obviously the TARDIS scale of disaster, but the general level of incompetence coming from the top is still doing its best to smother the best intentions of the rest of the writing team.

2.5 out of 5 stars