Archive for January, 2020

Oscars 2020: 1917

Posted on January 18th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Sam Mendes’ one-take wonder arrives in cinemas with less fanfare than some Best Picture contenders, but it is a superb piece of immersive filmmaking which unites its some-might-say gimmick and its narrative into a single indivisible whole. On the surface, there’s little here that’s new. The whole movie in one take idea has been seen before in versions both genuine (Russian Ark, Lost in London) and faux (Birdman) but arguably never before has it been deployed so ingeniously and so effectively. And, while no-one needs Sam Mendes or anyone else to tell us again that war is hell, it’s rarely been so realistically hellish as it is here. The banality of the pointlessly slaughtered cows in the French countryside is somewhat the point.

The set-up is perfect in its simplicity. Our heroes (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, both totally committed and convincing) have to cross no man’s land and get a message to the Devonshire regiment that they are waking into a trap. That’s it. Early on, I wondered just where the drama was going to come from. Either the information our two have about the German withdrawal is correct, in which case they will meet no resistance; or it’s wrong, in which case they will be diced by machine gun fire in two minutes. Either way, there isn’t a story. But Mendes and fellow screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns have devised a remorselessly incremental series of obstacles which range from the purely natural, to collateral damage, to enemy action, to friendly fire.

And far from being a show-off-y gimmick, the supposed single shot presentation is vital. It means that there can be no cheating. As MacKay and Chapman set out, we’re going to watch every step they take, every breath they draw, every trap they blunder into, every adversity they triumph over. And when we desperately yearn to cut away, we can’t. There’s nothing to cut to.

In The Revenant, shot largely in long takes but including obvious cuts, several times I felt the style chafing against the story. As Iñárritu’s camera tracked along the length of a rifle barrel to move from one side of a conversation to another, I couldn’t help thinking – mate, you could just have cut there. Here, despite the overwhelming complexity of many of the set pieces, Mendes’ camera always seems to be in exactly the right place, and when something does move out of frame that in a conventionally-shot film, we would cut back to – the fact that it is out of frame becomes the point.

It’s also I think important to note that I never – and I use this word as precisely as I can – found the film exciting. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s never boring. It’s absorbing, terrifying, gut-wrenching, horrifying and suspenseful. But it never feels like a thrill ride. This is not James Bond. This is not Bourne. This feels real – even the parade of one-scene cameos can’t quite break the spell, although Benedict Cumberbatch comes close. Also, take a bow Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Adrian Scarborough and Daniel Mays.

And there are moments of quiet beauty too. Hope, among the pain, and one moment which echoes the end of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. And if this film isn’t quite as cynical as that one, then maybe that’s for the good too.

If there’s any justice, this will win Best Picture. It’s more personal and more epic than its closest rival in my eyes, The Irishman, although the bookies currently have it tailing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and I haven’t seen Parasite yet. But if I had to vote tomorrow, this is what I’d pick.

So… what did I think of Orphan 55?

Posted on January 14th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I’m writing these reviews out of a sense of obligation I think more than anything. Maybe Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall just isn’t for me. That’s fine, I suppose, if disappointing personally. But can there really be people who prefer this middle-of-the-road, joke-free, characterisation-deficient, third hand version of the show to the carefully crafted scripts and charismatic leads we got from 2005 to 2017?

Listen, under RTD and Steven Moffat, the show wasn’t consistently wonderful, but both showrunners worked like dogs to try and get every script as good as it could be. And if I thought that Moffat’s attempts at multi-season arcs weren’t always successful, then at least he was trying something new. And, sure we got drivel like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS every so often, but we also got wonders like The Girl Who Waited, The Doctor’s Wife, Heaven Sent and The Zygon Inversion. And the run-of-the-mill stories were all good, entertaining, well-made sci-fi yarns.

But in a recent interview with DWM, the new showrunner describes the most exciting part of his job as hiring good people and getting out of their way. Not for him, rewriting and rewriting other people’s scripts, cannibalising ideas he was saving for himself if necessary to make sure that a script with someone else’s name on it would work. No. Write a few scripts, let other people write theirs. Knock off for an early lunch. Hence the only half-decent scripts last year were the ones without Chinball’s name on them.

Best of these was probably It Takes You Away by Ed Hime, one of only two stories last year (along with The Witchfinders) to present anything remotely resembling an actual character dealing with a genuine dilemma, as opposed to a lot of hard-to-pronounce names and endless walking. So, I was excited to see his name on the credits of Orphan 55, but sadly, this is square in the middle of Chibnall Who with all of its faults and none of the virtues of last year’s effort.

So – briefly – Graham, who over the last few months has been taken on a life-changing tour of the universe is bafflingly thrilled to have won a free holiday. The holiday camp is rigorously ordinary, with no hint of a larger universe, and nothing you wouldn’t find at Center Parcs, save for a ludicrous and embarrassing “hopper virus”. Customer host Hyph3n (who looks like she is performing in a community theatre version of Cats but had to make her own costume from a leftover Spaceballs outfit) delivers some exposition and everyone starts dying at the hands of monsters who are only ever shot in close-up shaky-cam because the costumes are shit.

As uninteresting and thinly-drawn guests start milling about, wandering in and out of danger, it eventually transpires that this holiday camp is in the middle of a dead planet. One of the guests has been taken by the monsters, so the surviving cast all troop outside to get slaughtered. They have to wear a stick-on piece of technology because this is Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who. And because it’s Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, this piece of technology never impacts the plot in any way at all.

The missing guest everyone is looking for gets killed off-screen. Then it turns out – buh, buh buum – that this is actually Earth and the monsters are the remnants of humanity. This has approximately one tenth the emotional impact of Peri walking around Marble Arch tube (a place she almost certainly has never visited before) in the story The Trial of a Time Lord which a teenage Chibnall famously went on TV to slag off.

The compassionate Doctor has no interest in protecting the once-human monsters, but carries on cheerfully murdering them and getting other humans killed. A man who never listened to his smart-arse son starts listening to his smart-arse son, because that’s a little bit like character development if you squint. Somebody turns out to be somebody else’s daughter and blows everything up. Then the Doctor and friends suddenly appear back in the TARDIS because although the plot hasn’t resolved yet, the time is about to run out. Moral of the story – you should probably avoid single-use plastics.

I mean, Jesus.

I suppose this is worth two stars. I mean, things did actually happen which is a change from Rosa and Demons of the Punjab but if anything they’ve wildly over-corrected, stuffing this episode with so much “action” that it all becomes a meaningless blur. And again, nothing for the regulars to do; again, no supporting characters make any impact at all; again, all of the science fiction concepts are third hand; again, nothing really makes any sense. Even Jodie Whittaker looks like she’s going through the motions.

2 out of 5 stars

Oscars 2020: Nominations, Little Women

Posted on January 13th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

So, we’ve barely finished singing Auld Lang Syne and already the Oscar nominations are here. Depressingly, Todd Philips’ empty Joker leads the way, with eleven nominations, but in a sign that the trend towards spreading the awards out evenly may continue, three other films earned ten nominations each (1917, The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and a further four earned six nominations.

Here’s a run-down of the nine Best Picture nominees – seven of which I have already seen at the time of writing!

Ford v Ferrari. Workmanlike and engaging, but definitely here to make up numbers. Will likely win nothing at all. Review here.

The Irishman. A huge achievement, if not quite Scorsese at his very best, then certainly enthralling and beautifully acted. Review here.

Joker. As noted, I didn’t like it. Review here.

Jojo Rabbit. Flawed both in concept and execution and yet frustratingly winning when it’s actually on. Scarlett Johansson is luminous. Review here.

Little Women. A remarkable adaptation of a literary classic. Review below. It’s a crime Greta Gerwig wasn’t included in Best Director.

Marriage Story. A somewhat slight affair that flirts with something darker and stranger, but remains resolutely real, for good or for ill. Review here. Has no real shot at Best Picture though. Review here.

1917. Seeing it soon, will report back.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Loose assembly of short films pretending to be a feature. Some of those short films are awfully good though. Apparently I neglected to review this when I saw it, for which apologies.

Parasite. Opens in the UK on 7 February.

As to predictions – my hunch is that Best Picture and Best Director will be split. Best Director seems likely to go Sam Mendes way, since 1917 is the film for which it is easiest to identify the director’s contribution. If we assume that eliminates 1917 from Best Picture, and we can also eliminated no-hopers like Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, Marriage Story and Parasite (sorry) then that leaves us with just three. If we further assume that a Joker backlash is coming (surely!?) then that leaves Once Upon a Time and The Irishman, and I think Scorsese’s feels like the more substantial work.

Best Actor, tiresomely, will likely go to Joaquin Phoenix however – backlash or no backlash – and Best Actress I still think will go to Renee Zellweger, although the competition is far fiercer than I imagined when I first saw the film. Best Supporting Actor seems likely to go to Brad Pitt (Jonathan Pryce surely doesn’t have a chance and the others all have Oscars already). Best Supporting Actress is harder to call, with pretty much everyone in with a shout, but Johansson deserves it.

And we’ll do screenplays while we’re here. Original Screenplay will go to Parasite which will also pick up Best International Feature, obvs, while Adapted Screenplay should go to Little Women but will actually go to The Irishman.

So, let’s talk about Little Women. Louisa May Alcott’s novel was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. As written, it is purely chronological, beginning with sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in adolescence and following them through to young adulthood (or the grave in Beth’s case). The book is fairly episodic and Jo’s marriage to the middle-aged Professor Bhaer is a curious development for the character.

According to the estimable YouTube channel BeKindRewind, which I cannot recommend highly enough, following the publication of the first volume, Alcott was besieged with correspondence from fans of the book, all eagerly shipping Jo and neighbour Laurie. Alcott, who had already paired oldest sister Meg up with her love match John Brooke, had no interest in marrying the strikingly independent Jo off to Laurie or anyone else, but she eventually bowed to pressure from her publisher and provided her with a husband. As cheeky snub to her fans, however, she devised the seemingly most inappropriate husband she could and ended the second volume with Jo and the Prof setting up a school together.

The previous film versions of the book have all rendered it fairly faithfully and have tackled the Bhaer problem in various ways. The 1933 version which made a star of Katharine Hepburn renders the book accurately if tersely and just goes ahead and has Professor Bhaer as an older German man who inexplicably falls in love with Jo and she with him. The 1949 version is an MGM chocolate box of a movie with a much softer June Allyson as Jo (although she still cries “Christopher Columbus!”) at every opportunity. This Bhaer is younger and sexier, but the structural problems remain.

When Winona Ryder took on Jo in 1994, the whole story became a little more grounded. This Jo isn’t anything like as stylised as her predecessors, but she’s also the most feminine of the three – Hepburn’s is an early but very obvious example of queer coding – and she gets to choose between Christian Bale’s Laurie and Gabriel Byrne’s Bhaer – hubbah hubbah. So, we have historical screwball, chocolate box, sophisticated soap opera. What can Greta Gerwig do in 2019?

Plenty.

First of all, she’s completely reinvented the book’s structure. Now, we start with Jo and Bhaer in New York, creating a connection between them from the very beginning. However, unlike in the book – and previous film versions – Bhaer is not the one to suggest that Jo writes stories from her own life instead of her preposterous tales of damsels in distress. Jo takes ownership of her own creativity. From here, the film darts nimbly back and forth through time, often finding little echoes of later and earlier scenes. In the book, Beth cares for a local family even more poverty stricken than her own, and catches scarlet fever from the dying baby. The Marches fear her death is imminent but she recovers, although permanently weakened. Later, she succumbs. This double-beat feels needlessly episodic and threatens to rob the whole subplot of its tragic power. Gerwig plays the two scenes of Jo awaking in Beth’s room and finding her bed empty and running downstairs back to back. Once with a joyous outcome, and once with a ghastly one. It unifies this narrative thread, taking what worked in the novel and making it a complete cinema experience.

This incredibly fluid, nimble, lucid script is brilliantly handled by an exceptional cast. Meryl Streep makes an enormous amount of hardly anything, Tracy Letts is great value as Jo’s publisher, Timothée Chalamet takes Laurie on a thrilling journey from trusted friend, to asshole to member of the family, and Laura Dern is warmth personified as Marmee. And the four March sisters are all perfectly cast, Eliza Scanlen as fragile Beth, Florence Pugh as proud Amy, Emma Watson as romantic Meg and at the centre of this delicate epic – fierce, funny, gawky, independent, heroic Saoirse Ronan as Jo.

Again and again, Gerwig the screenwriter finds ways to deepen and strengthen what Alcott gave her, as well as streamlining and focusing the action. Characters manage to give each other long proto-feminist speeches, and they all sound exactly in keeping and of the period, because they are delivered so sincerely and written so thoughtfully. And Gerwig the director manages to make keeping all of these characters in focus, keeping track of multiple time periods, juggling huge variations in tone, look effortless, which it absolutely isn’t.

While not perhaps as daring as Joker would like to think it is, or as technically formidable as 1917 undoubtedly is, this is a truly magical evocation of a much-loved classic which manages to totally reinvent it, while not losing sight of what made it so beloved in the first place. I can’t wait to see what Gerwig does next.

Pre-Oscars 2020: Jojo Rabbit and Ford v Ferrari

Posted on January 10th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Two films this week which have been part of the Oscar conversation but which won’t necessarily clean up or even get Best Picture nominations. Both came out strong, but reviews haven’t been uniformly praiseworthy – Jojo Rabbit has proved to be divisive and Ford v Ferrari (released here as Le Mans 66) has left many lukewarm.

When I first heard about Ford v Ferrari, with Christian Bale and Matt Damon starring all I knew was that it was about some kind of car race. I vaguely assumed that it would be the two of them squaring off – one working for the Americans and one working for the Italians. Actually this is the two of them teaming up to take on the greasy Ities and win one for Ford, mom and Apple Pie.

James Mangold is an old pro and knows just how to marshal the material, balancing the corporate jockeying, pulse-pounding driving and mano-a-mano face-offs. He gives us just enough details about the intricacies of race rules, regulations and tactics without bogging us down, and Daman and especially Bale go to town with their characters. There’s a laudable attempt made to give Mrs Bale (Caitriona Balfe) more of a stake in the narrative, but apart from one loopy over-the-top scene about half way through, this is a boys film about boys who do boy things.

The true facts give Mangold and his screenwriters (including playwright Jez Butterworth) quite a lot to work with, and don’t require them to invite lots of new nonsense to juice up the story. But the demands of sports movies eventually take hold and this settles into a reassuringly familiar shape. So, this is well-made intelligent storytelling rather than anything truly innovative or authored.

The same can’t be said for Taika Waititi’s sixth film as director. Jojo Rabbit tells the story of ten-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, growing up in Nazi Germany practically friendless, save for an imaginary Adolf Hitler who dines on unicorns, keeps him company and encourages him to do more with his life. Over the course of the film, he tries and fails to make a name for himself in the Hitler youth and then has to confront the fact that his mother is harbouring a Jewish girl in the attic.

The first thing to say about this film is that it is tremendously charming and funny. Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo is very strong and he is ably supported by Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa and Archie Yates as Yorki. Sam Rockwell is as good as ever as the gone-to-seed Army officer in charge of the Hitler Youth camp and even broad performers like Stephen Merchant and Rebel Wilson don’t overbalance the whole thing. Waititi is great value too as Jojo’s imaginary Hitler, and even the Schindler’s List ploy of having German characters speak English with a German accent works most of the time.

There are two potential problems with this story. One is structural. Is it really necessary for Jojo to have two secret friends (or three, or even four, depending on how you count)? And it is striking that the film occasionally struggles to find room for Imaginary Hitler. Waititi’s version of the Fuhrer is such a prominent figure in the trailers, but he disappears from the film for large stretches and almost never affects the outcome of the narrative. What he does contribute is a whimsical tone which is supported by Jojo’s fascination with the true facts about Jews (all of which are grand guignol fantasies about their vile habits, evil powers and bizarre biology) and his mother’s playful attitude to bringing up her son.

The other problem is that the same whimsical tone is going to collide with the true facts of the Second World War. This is a version of the rise and defeat of the Nazis which never even mentions concentration camps, let alone depicts the fate of Jews who, unlike Elsa, did not have obliging mothers to conceal them in handy eaves. What exactly is Waititi hoping to say in this story that hasn’t been said before? World War II from a child’s point of view is hardly a new idea – see for example, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Hope and Glory, Empire of the Sun (all from 1987), Forbidden Games, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and no doubt many others. Is Waititi just borrowing the potent imagery of the Nazis to give his fantasy a bit more grit? And if so, is that a worthwhile endeavour?

It’s perhaps a testament to the quality of the filmmaking that I didn’t let many of these thoughts bother me at the time. The first half is hugely enjoyable and when, as it inevitably must, the story takes a darker turn, Waititi manages the shift in tone smoothly and compellingly. And I haven’t yet mentioned the film’s true secret weapon – luminous, incandescent Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother. With this and Marriage Story, Johansson proves conclusively that there’s far more to her than Black Widow. Here she’s spectacular – dancing, inventing, playacting and filling Jojo’s life with love, compassion and imagination, and then she pulls back to a more internalised style for her conversations with Elsa. Far more than Waititi’s cartoonish Hitler, she gives this story its heart and its meaning.

Again this is an interesting film rather than a great one. It isn’t a crass fable which has no understanding of the horrors of the holocaust, but it also needs to soft-pedal a lot of the consequences of the Nazi regime in order to avoid breaking the spell, which means that it can only ever be a compromise. As compromises go, however, this one is highly entertaining and it does hang together.

More news on Monday after the nominations are officially announced.

So… what did I think of Spyfall, part two?

Posted on January 6th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Okay, to begin with, this wasn’t a case of an epic build-up followed by a damp squib of a resolution. Part two continued to learn the lessons of Resolution with proper jeopardy, real stakes, and it actually made the Doctor a proactive problem-solver, all of which is good. But a lot of the same criticisms still apply. Characterisation is largely non-existent, the regulars are wasted and none of the bits of the story connect to each other in meaningful ways.

To begin with, in the whirl and dash of the episode, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the companions, who usually stand around parcelling out one character’s worth of dialogue between the three of them, have been shunted off into their own story for the entirety of the episode. From the moment we see them in that plane hanger (and just how did they get there?) to their reunion with the Doctor, nothing that they do impacts the main plot in the slightest. And much of what they are doing is fairly stupid. I pity poor Bradley Walsh having to hop up and down pretending that lasers are shooting out of his shoes. Christ almighty. And lucky for the three of them that when they do deliberately call attention to themselves, Lenny Henry, who wants nothing more than the three of them eliminated, sends the very feeblest force at this disposal to intercept them.

One of Chris Chibnall’s most frustrating faults is his habit of introducing potentially thrilling ideas and then forgetting about them instantly. Early in the episode, Lenny Henry’s mastery of all world communication is used to make Yas, Graham and the other one wanted by the police. How will their friends, their families, react to this? What repercussions will this have on the rest of their lives? For me, the new series of Doctor Who came alive when the Doctor brought Rose home a year later than intended. Her family were grieving. Mickey Smith was accused of her murder. This felt real. For Chris Chibnall, it’s a brief adrenalin rush and then it’s forgotten – despite the fact that we spent five boring minutes in part one establishing all of their families!!

And what was Lenny Henry’s plan exactly? First of all, judging by that interaction at the airport, he’s obviously trying to keep his nefarious plots as secret as possible. Crashing one of his private planes into the Essex countryside is hardly likely to do that. But also, massive emphasis is given to harvesting people’s private data. Yet, the Voord’s plan only requires that people use the devices. It doesn’t matter whether Lenny is harvesting their data or not. And if alien menaces using personal communications devices that have become ubiquitous to take over people’s brains sounds familiar, it’s because you saw it in 2006 in Rise of the Cybermen – in the era of MySpace and Napster.

Of course the Voord’s plan doesn’t make any sense either. Humans are not the only things on planet Earth with DNA. The Voord could use DNA in trees for their data back-up. And just where is this data coming from anyway? Have the filled up some other planet’s biostorage already? And what’s in it for Lenny, whose only desire is to control people’s data, be rich and famous, and show off to his mum. Turning the majority of humans into flash drives prevents him from doing any of these things.

The Doctor meanwhile is off playing Overlooked Women of History Top Trumps and while it’s a pleasure to see Ada Lovelace and Noor Khan, again they aren’t really given anything much to do – certainly nothing which requires their unique talents. As with part one, it’s Sacha Dhawan who is the saving grace of the episode. The set piece in the 1834 tech fair is genuinely gripping, brutal and exciting. Shame that later on, we get one of those dreary Chibnall parlay scenes, where the Master seemingly forgets that top of his to-do list for the day was to kill the Doctor.

And speaking of forgetting, I did not like the Doctor mind-raping her allies once their usefulness was at an end. Has she never heard of consent? Ada was actually saying “No, I don’t want this.” Jesus.

When everyone is reunited, it turns out that the Doctor’s plan to save her fam was – again – to bribe the architect first. When he isn’t half-remembering better RTD stories from 2006, Chibnall is half-remembering ideas that Steven Moffat thought were so played-out as to be worth spoofing in 1999. And then we get the dreary notion that Gallifrey, once lost, then found, has been lost again. When, at the end of Gridlock, the Doctor tells Martha about his home for the first time, it’s because meeting a new companion had meant that for a moment he could pretend to himself that Gallifrey was still there, that the Time War had never happened. Even though the vocabulary is made up science fiction words, the emotions are real. When Jodie Whittaker plays the same scene at the end of Spyfall, there’s no context for it, there’s nothing to hang on to. We’re just expected to punch the air because Chibnall remembered “Kasterborous” from The Pyramids of Mars and the Timeless Child from his own The Ghost Monument.

Of course, if the Doctor did have access to Lenny Henry’s plane whenever she wished, then it might have been more straightforward to disable the bomb the same way that she disabled the Voord’s back-up system. And what the hell was the Master doing for all that time? Having a nap? Why??? It’s also a shame that the Doctor’s new togs are two sizes too big for her, which again makes this feel like a fan-made Youtube video starring a precocious child wearing her dad’s clothes.

I guess this is worth another three stars – for Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh, definitely for Sacha Dhawan (even if this is just the John Simm master again), for the energy and punch of the direction (this time from Lee Haven Jones instead of Jamie Magnus Stone, odd) and the scene in the exhibition. But I fear it’s going to be a long old season…

3 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Spyfall, Part One?

Posted on January 5th, 2020 in Culture | 1 Comment »

3 out of 5 stars

As regular readers may know, I wasn’t hugely impressed with Series 11. With only a handful of exceptions, this was a huge step back from the last Capaldi season, suffering from thin characterisation, jeopardy-free plotting, very few novel or exciting concepts, three poorly-defined regulars who stand around doing nothing and a general sense of “Will this do?”. Given the low episode count and lengthy wait, this was crushingly disappointing.

The New Year special managed to address some of these problems. The regulars remained poorly-defined and generally still stood around doing nothing, and the plotting was still relentlessly ordinary, but the reinvention of the Dalek was fun and exciting and there was at least some jeopardy. With another entire year off to get ready for the new season of again only ten episodes, Chibnall and co seemed primed for success.

What we got was… kind of a mess.

I think the biggest problem with the Chibnall era so far, of which much of the foregoing is symptomatic, is an inability to understand how Doctor Who stories typically work and an unwillingness to reinvent them. So, without a solid version of what has worked in the past and without a brand new methodology, what we’re left with is “isn’t that the kind of thing they used to do on Doctor Who?” But the pieces are assembled clumsily, without thought as to how they are meant to fit together.

So, here we have the Doctor working in cahoots with secret government organisations, facing death at the hands of familiar devices gone rogue, working to uncover the secrets of mysterious slayings and the return of an old foe but – with one notable exception – it comes across like teenage fan fiction, rather than the expert storytelling of a master craftsman.

The gulf in approach (and frankly ability) is nowhere better illustrated than in the trio of “where have you been” scenes early in the episode, re-establishing Yas, Graham and the other one. All three have one piece of information to impart and deliver it in the most straightforward, unambitious, mediocre way possible. There’s no twist, there’s no flair, there’s no surprise. There aren’t even any good jokes (in the whole episode). Can you imagine either of Chris Chibnall’s predecessors letting three whole scenes like that trundle tediously by?

And when the story proper starts, it’s more a series of largely unrelated action beats than anything resembling a narrative. The British government kidnaps the Doctor and her companions – more exciting than just phoning her up I suppose – but then it’s those very cars which are themselves (rather feebly) sabotaged by the alien menace. Why? Why doesn’t it attack when they’re out in the open? Why have two different unrelated forces both trying to overpower our heroes, and then put them together in the same vehicle? Why wait for Fancy Guest Star Number One to dole out pages of exposition before offing him also? What does any of it mean?

The alien menace which can execute anyone at anytime then takes most of the rest of the episode off, while the Doctor and co potter about meeting Fancy Guest Star Number Two and Waris Hussein (of whom more later) and the old familiar Chibnall aimless wandering takes over. There are some shreds of interest as the, let’s call them the Voord, circle the house in the Australian outback, but I struggled to find anything of interest in the by-the-numbers tech millionaire’s HQ. And once again, most of the companions stand around doing nothing. Rewrite this episode with Yas talking to Fancy Guest Star Number Two and the Doctor on her own in Australia. Same story isn’t it? And what’s the point of the magic death ray which doesn’t kill you, it just transports you to another place and then when that environment becomes too overwhelming, it transports you to yet another different place? The major threat in this story seems to be less a deadly threat, more a handy short-cut.

When the promised James Bond spoof starts, again it’s the clothes (literally) of the rival franchise which get appropriated rather than any understanding of its appeal and the bullet-spraying bike chase is more absurd than fun. Lost in the whirl of all of this was Jodie Whittaker, who is capable of far more than she was given to work with here. Chibnall writes her largely as generic hero, and occasionally as idiot comic relief. It’s not hugely inspiring.

Just when I was about to write this off as another two-star clunker however, something happened. I’ve rarely seen a supporting character with quite so big a bright neon “I am secretly evil” sign flashing above his head as Waris Hussein has here. But I almost forgot about that in the ridiculous ambition of the plane chase. By this stage, I’d long given up on the story actually making sense or being about anything, but I did appreciate the lengths the production team were going to.

But the reveal that Waris was actually the Master took me completely by surprise, and it’s a testament to the writing (I suppose) and the PR management that I was unspoilered by this. Waris – sorry Sacha Dhawan – is a marvellous actor and his loopy giggling was quite a treat. For that, and that alone, I’ll bump this episode up to three, but I’m still pretty glum about what’s happening to my favourite show. Come at me, haters.

Maybe tonight’s episode will redeem the story. But in general, part ones are easier to write than part twos so…