Archive for October, 2018

So… what did I think of Rosa?

Posted on October 22nd, 2018 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Way back when Doctor Who was created, its remit was to be educational as well as entertaining. Roughly speaking, stories set in Earth’s history, which generally had no science-fiction elements at all, apart from the fact of the presence of the TARDIS crew, alternated with science-fiction stories. Viewers could see adventures taking place in ancient Rome, ancient Greece, during the Reign of Terror, and (rather tediously) at the dawn of humanity.

Gradually, it became clear that the science-fiction stories, specifically the monster stories, were much more popular, and so after Troughton’s second story, The Highlanders, historical stories were pretty much retired. When they did return, in tales such as Pertwee’s The Time Warrior or Tom Baker’s The Masque of Mandragora, they tended to be science-fiction tales in a historical setting.

Under Russell T Davies, the historicals evolved again. Now, the celebrity historical was the order of the day. Going back to Elizabethan London, and meeting science fiction witches, wasn’t enough. Now they have to meet Shakespeare too. Or Dickens. Or Queen Victoria. And it’s this template which Chris Chibnall is working from. Sounds like a good pitch, doesn’t it? Doctor Who meets Rosa Parks. But is fast-moving, adventure series Doctor Who really the right forum to explore the American civil rights movement? Might we not prefer a home grown series like Quantum Leap, whose episode set in this time period is a fan favourite?

Or, I wonder if any other readers have seen the current American sci-fi series Timeless? In this pleasantly jolly adventure series, a small team has to pursue evil-doers bent on changing history through time, trying to make sure that none of their meddling alters the present in any meaningful way. It’s only rarely what Doctor Who has as its mission. The Doctor’s remit is usually to try and alter things for the better. Timeless bakes the need to preserve the status quo into its format.

It also works with a small team (the time ship only has three seats), all of whom have clearly-defined qualities and skills. Abigail Spencer is Lucy, the historian with a personal connection to the evil-doers. Matt Lanter is Wyatt, the army guy who can keep them safe and who is handy with his fists, and comfortable with firearms. And Malcolm Barrett is Rufus, the engineer who knows how the time ship works, and who also is black, which is consistently an issue as they travel into America’s racist past. All three are charming and funny, and the tone is usually fairly irreverent and fun, even as they tackle important issues.

Bluntly, Rosa wasn’t half as much fun, half as interesting, or half as well judged as even a pretty poor episode of Timeless.

Now, before I go on, let me take in a bit of the wider context.

I finished watching this episode with a heavy sigh, and had a quick look online, expecting to see a general chorus of “What the hell was that?” “How clumsy, trite and uninteresting!” and “Chibnall must go now!” And there were some.

But there was also a preponderance of lavish praise. “Beautiful”, “moving”, “best episode for years” and so on. This gives me pause.

I was already pretty familiar with the story of Rosa Parks, and from my brief research since the episode aired, it seems as if writers Chibnall and Malorie Blackman have rendered it pretty faithfully. Could it be that what people are responding to is the power of Rosa Parks’ story, rather than any particular imaginative leap on the part of the writing and production team? Does that matter? Is the fact the Doctor Who is returning to its educational roots a good thing? If more 11 year olds are inspired to Google “Rosa Parks” who would otherwise not have heard of her, isn’t that a huge benefit? Must I really give Doctor Who no credit at all for rendering the story accurately – even the bits which sound made-up, like the fact that Parks was refused entry eleven years earlier by the same bus driver on which she made her stand?

Well… okay. I’ll tell you what. I’ll give all of the historical aspects of this story a pass. I do this with some misgivings, because I don’t know that Doctor Who should be just retelling stories from history, with no twist, fillip or imaginative leap (I didn’t like Vincent and the Doctor much, but at least it tried to show us a famous figure from history from a new angle). But okay.

That leaves two other elements – the time travel story (our twenty-first century heroes interacting with 1955 Alabama) and the science fiction story (the need to foil the evil exploits of one “Krasko”).

Sorry, but both of these I thought were sorely wanting. The time travel story needed much stronger characters than it has at this point. When Rufus (of Timeless) goes back in time to America’s racist past, he’s smart and primed and ready for the attitudes of the people he’s going to meet. He doesn’t like it, and when people are super-racist, there’s often a moment for him to take mild revenge, but he gets it – it’s part of the territory.

Ryan, on the other hand, just blunders into racist white folks’ way, without a second thought. What are we supposed to make of him as a character now? Has he never cracked a book? Has he never experienced racism in his personal life? Maybe he has led a life of relative privilege and always thought that people who bang on about civil rights are exaggerating? Could be interesting. I still wouldn’t think that he had managed to earn his place on board the TARDIS, but I might be engaged in watching him slowly grow up. Alas, a later scene makes it very clear that he has experienced racism, so he’s just a dummy then?

Bradley Walsh, the most experienced actor of the three, just about manages to cling on to something resembling a character, but Yaz again is just a blank. Neither black nor white, neither brave nor cowardly, neither smart nor naive, she’s engaging because Mandip Gill plays her with spirit, but I have no idea what drives her or what she adds to the team.

That brings us to the science-fiction element of the story. With a script credited to two writers, it’s impossible to say who worked on what, and it’s likely that they both worked on everything to a large extent, but it might be a reasonable assumption that Blackman was researching Rosa Parks while Chibnall devised Krasko with his call-backs to Doctor Who stories of the recent past. All of the bad habits which have been on display in the last two stories are here again.

The whole team trailing behind while the Doctor does all the actual story? Check. The long conversation with the bizarrely impotent villain? Check – two of them this time. The threat just vanishes at the 42 minute mark? Check. The Doctor professes not to use guns, but the enemy is dispatched with lethal force in any event? Check.

And much else besides just doesn’t make sense. In the motel, there’s an attempt to provide a sense of the whole team working together, as if they all had Timeless-style complimentary skills. But the scene is pointlessly interrupted for an intrusion by a cop which goes nowhere before I think the Doctor actually says “Right, where were we?” And, as the final scene of the episode shows, the Doctor has a wonderful device which can tell them everything they want to know about Rosa Parks and which would also provide an entirely safe place to hide. It’s the conveniently located, but also quite well-hidden TARDIS. Still, nice Banksy gag.

And what’s all this about limiting the villain? First he can’t shoot straight. Fair enough, neither can anyone in a science-fiction adventure story. Then it turns out, he’s incapable of killing anyone. Way to raise the stakes, Chibnall! So, does the fact that his gun is a time disruptor mean that he could have shot the Doctor and he just missed? Or does the gun not count as lethal force? Who cares, before long it’s out of batteries and the villain is deprived of it. He basically just stands there and lets the Doctor take the vortex manipulator off his wrist. Now all the team needs to do is keep an eye on him, or preferably lock him up somewhere, and the story is over. Instead, like children playing hide-and-seek, the Doctor turns her back and obediently lets him put his evil plan into action.

And what is his plan exactly? To keep parts of America racist, even though those parts of America are centuries in his past. Even if we buy that that would be desirable to a man from so far in the future – would it even work? To give Rosa Parks essentially all of the credit for the American Civil Rights movement isn’t very flattering to the rest of America, nor is it particularly accurate. Rosa Parks was not the only person to stand up to (or sit down to) segregated buses in Alabama, it’s just that her case was the one chosen by the NAACP. If she hadn’t ridden on that bus that day, then – given that none of the other meddling by either side seems to make a difference – chances are that America would be just the same today.

And it doesn’t help that all of the nonsense with tailoring, fishing, bus timetables and so on is incredibly, ball-achingly, mind-numbingly boring and stupid. The fact that it finally, improbably, builds to a single scene in which the time travel plot, science fiction plot and history lesson actually combine with some semblance of power, is unexpected to say the least. Making Graham, Yas and Ryan have to keep their seats and refuse to help Parks is genuinely arresting. It hasn’t been built up to, it’s almost immediately laughed off, and it doesn’t reverberate beyond the couple of minutes for which it lasts, but it does work.

While I’m grumbling, I hate everything about Krasko from his stupid penny-dreadful name to his sub-Fonzie costume to his “I’m-so-evil” delivery. And although Jodie Whittaker continues to do decent work with the thin material given her, this incarnation of the Doctor is turning into a pretty bland David Tennant impersonation. After the genuinely bold Capaldi incarnation, this is very disappointing.

So, it’s a write-off then? Yeah, pretty much. I was underwhelmed by The Ghost Monument, but gutted at Rosa’s lack of ambition, scope, threat, adventure or sensitivity. It told me nothing I didn’t already know about the Civil Rights Movement or contemporary racism in Britain or America, and it failed to be an entertaining adventure story. Did you like it? Great – I’m honestly super happy for you, and I really hope that reading all this hasn’t put you off it. Does it help if you don’t know the story of Rosa Parks? Maybe. Does that make all the problems I’ve identified vanish? No.

So, here’s what I’m looking for in the rest of the season.

The characters have to be sharpened up. I need to know what makes Ryan different from the teenager sitting next to him on the school bus. I need Yas to show a bit more of that ambition and bravery from episode one. I need Graham to want to be charging around the universe with the Doctor. And I need stories which are designed to let these character traits get them into trouble or get them out of it. I need to know why this story with these characters. This, of course, is drama 101.

I also need proper adventures with proper threats. Not races to the death which turn into a stroll across a desert. Not a vile white supremacist who it’s revealed can’t kill anyone and who has to be left alone to do his evil deeds to give him a chance. The Doctor’s mad jump from crane to crane in episode one was really exciting. Nothing’s matched it since or even come close. This, of course, is adventure 101.

This desperately thin, remorselessly uninvolving stuff really isn’t worth more than one star, but I’ll give it two on the basis that Rosa Parks’s story needs telling, and it was told here with clarity, taste and accuracy. That’s just not what I turn on Doctor Who for.

So… what did I think of The Ghost Monument?

Posted on October 18th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

If the first story of the new season was a little uncertain, the follow-up was tremendously thin and underpowered. Six characters flog through a series of barely-challenging ordeals, but in a way which one could have managed, and the pay-off at the end scarcely seems worth it.

Where to start with this one?

Well, why don’t we start with the South African locations and the truly excellent camerawork, masterminded by director Mark Tonderai. Say what you want about this episode (and I intend to) it looks absolutely fantastic. That goes for the new opening titles as well. Harking back to the 1960s howlround effects, but in full 3D, they look lovely and the new theme is growing on me as well, except for the strangely flatulent wheeze about seven second in.

What’s missing is a pre-titles teaser, which has been a feature of the show since it returned in 2005, and a feature of a great many television shows besides. It’s a good discipline, forcing creatives to have something compelling and arresting on screen in the first few minutes. I rather miss it now it’s gone.

We start, inevitably, with our heroes being rescued from deep space – the only resolution that cliffhanger could possibly have had – and therefore a bit pointless. The Doctor does nothing clever to get them out of it, and so we have to accept that two mercenaries, battling each other for glory, would both independently stop and snatch exactly two out of the four travellers out of the vacuum, on the feeble and unexplained pretext that they might be “bonuses”. This of course is shot down by Art Malik, and shortly afterwards, Shaun Dooley calls the regular cast “irrelevant”. Trouble is – he’s not wrong.

Splitting the leading characters into two teams is fairly routine stuff, and so there might have been some point to having them scooped up in this way, if they were going to remain separated from each other for much of the episode. It might have been a bit more interesting to see, for example, Yas, having to cope with being on an alien planet without the Doctor there to protect her. In fact, the whole team is reunited after only a few minutes (and a little lesson from the Prometheus School Of Running Away From Things). The result is that Yas, in particular, is drastically under-served. Graham and Ryan get a nice enough scene about poor dead Grace, but as I feared, this ends up casting a pall over proceedings, without actually confronting the ghastly nature of real grief.

The plot, when Art Malik laboriously spells it out for us, is that dreariest of sci-fi/fantasy clichés the Journey Through The Cave Of Traps, which is here dressed up some kind of competition or race. Trouble is, it never feels like a competition or a race. The two “competitors” are generally friendly and collaborative, cheerfully let the Doctor do most of the problem-solving, never once sabotage each other or play dirty, and never show the slightest bit of urgency, before during or after agreeing to call it a draw.

In fact, the whole thing feels limp, underplotted for the running time and generally a bit, well, thin, with Chekhov’s Cigar hugely well signposted and the Doctor’s insistence on not using guns, rather undermined by her easy use of lethal force in any case. And just why do robot sentries carry guns that can be fired by human hands?

What seemed like a new and interesting “arc” – the need to find the TARDIS – actually gets resolved by the end of the episode. And I’m not so annoyed by that. The Doctor needs her TARDIS, and so does the show. And the new prop and set look great. But such a swift and easy resolution contributes to the feeling that this whole story was fundamentally irrelevant. If at the end of The Woman Who Fell To Earth, the Doctor had built a gizmo that brought her the TARDIS, then not much would have changed. And that’s this story all over. Precious little in the way of characterisation, very low on incident or imagination and ultimately rather pointless.

The scenery really was nice though.

Two stars, and I’m genuinely anxious about next week now.

What did I think of The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Posted on October 9th, 2018 in Culture | 1 Comment »

It’s another clean sweep then.

As apparently is traditional, a new showrunner brings a new look, a new Doctor, a new supporting cast and a new title sequence and theme music (although we have to wait until next week for those last items).

Looking back to Series Five, what now seems extraordinary is how much of the Russell T Davies game-plan the new boy kept. Start with a run-around on Earth. Show us the Doctor from the companion’s point of view. Then go for a bonkers sci-fi outing, followed by a celebrity historical. Then a two-parter with a returning villain and so on.

Series Five also brought us HD for the first time, and now with Series Eleven, we have anamorphic lenses, a 2:1 aspect ratio and of course – a new Doctor.

Early portions of the episode didn’t work for me. I struggle to find anything to relate to in mopey Ryan Sinclair who appears to have dyspraxia instead of a clearly-defined character. His twee misery at not being able to ride a bike didn’t move me at all, and I desperately hoped that I wouldn’t have to witness his inspiring triumph over adversity when he rides a bike to save the day at the end. Luckily, this did not come to pass. Instead his dyspraxia was hardly ever referred to again, reducing him from a thinly-written character with dyspraxia to just some guy.

Yasmin, Graham and Grace I found much more engaging, but of course Grace spent the entire episode walking around with “About to Die” flashing in neon over her head. We’ve all seen the cast shots. We know she’s not part of the regular team. The question wasn’t whether, it was when.

And then Jodie Whittaker arrives.

I will politely gloss over the fact that along with two hearts, a respiratory bypass system and mild telepathy, the Doctor now seems to have gained the ability to survive a fall from hundreds of feet up in the air, straight through the roof of a train. She’s not even scratched.

Chris Chibnall can write the Doctor, and Jodie Whittaker can act. Whether this particular combination will pay dividends or not, it’s probably too early to tell. There’s often a moment early in a new Doctor’s reign where the characterisation settles down. Actually there are two moments that I’m looking for. One where I think “Okay – that’s the Doctor.” And one where I think “Ah! That’s new.” I got flashes of the former. The speech about what it feels like to regenerate put me in mind of Eccleston’s speech about feeling the world turning. But so far this is competent rather than exciting. Another fast-talking, impulsive, contradictory figure in the David Tennant or Matt Smith mould, but yet to really define what makes this incarnation different from all previous ones.

The rest of the plot was serviceable, giving us space to get to know the new team. Whittaker’s finest moment was probably building a new sonic screwdriver from scratch, rather than any of the actual saving-the-world stuff. And thank goodness we were spared an “I am the Doctor. On that basis and that basis alone, I win,” speech. I didn’t mind that she didn’t figure out what was going on right away, although I did find it odd that we only got one erroneous theory. I wonder if a second one is on the cutting room floor somewhere.

After some rather sluggish pacing in the middle, the climax with the two cranes worked incredibly well. Here the new cinematic style and fantastic music from new composer Segun Akinola really came together, and I began to get a glimpse of what might be in store.

But “fridging” Grace creates some new problems. Firstly, it looks as if we’re in for some more serialised storytelling. Doctor Who is fundamentally an anthology series, and you can’t half-ass this kind of thing. A Doctor Who story told in ten hour long episodes could be wonderfully epic, but that’s not the same as taking ten stand-alone tales and grafting on cliff-hangers to the end of each one. Serialised storytelling requires that actions have far-reaching consequences.

So, having Graham and whatisname taken on their journey with the Doctor by accident is good. It means we don’t have to watch them explain why actually they’re super happy to be going on adventure with a stranger when they should be poleaxed with grief. But I strongly suspect that Grace’s death won’t cast a pall over the rest of the season. How could it? So, we bump a character off to bring some “depth” to the episode, but then we pretty much forget it happened. That would work much better if we weren’t committed to making this one long saga.

But, listen, a lot of this is niggling and fussing, in some cases over things that may never happen. Let’s look instead and what is working. Three quarters of the new team is excellent. Graham and Yasmin are genuinely interesting characters, played by strong actors and Jodie is off to an excellent start. Let’s hope that the first Ryan-centric episode comes soon and gives Tosin Cole a chance to win me over.

The new series looks and sounds amazing, the plotting and dialogue are generally sound, and if we aren’t soaring to Moffatian heights of formal daring and machine-gun gags, then at least we aren’t thrashing around in the depths of Moffatian nonsense either. And of course – let’s all cheer – Doctor Who is back, back in the autumn, back on TV and back fighting bad guys.