So… what did I think of Survivors of the Flux?

Posted on November 28th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

Christ, I mean, what even was that? If you thought episodes 1 and 3 were a bit hard to follow, episode 5 was a complete sugar-rush, trailer-cut, epilectic seizure of an episode – all bright lights, pointless callbacks and bonkers juxtapositions, amounting to precious little.

Survivors of the Flux mainly progressed three different threads, none of which had any connection to people who had survived the Flux. Yaz, Dan and Jericho are stranded in 1901; the Doctor has been turned into an angel and recalled to (The) Division; the Grand Serpent is taking over UNIT. I’ll go through this in more detail in a minute, but the first thread achieves next to nothing which couldn’t have been achieved by Dan remembering his Liverpool history in the very first scene; the second is more info-dump in place of drama and the third is redundant, repetitive and borderline nonsensical.

Let’s take the turn-of-the-century crew first. Stranding our three humans, with varying levels of experience with the Doctor, in Earth’s past with no recourse to the TARDIS, should have been fascinating. But this creative team has no interest in who these people are, how they might react to this situation, or how not just days or weeks but years of battling to stay alive might change them. After countless months risking life and limb side-by-side with Yaz, Jericho remarks that she seems very used to dealing with dead bodies as if this is the first such instance. Either the past few years have been very incident free, or somebody has let another first draft script go before the cameras.

So, we get a lot of sub-Indiana Jones running about and falling over, none of which achieves very much. The Doctor has told them to look for where Earth is vulnerable, and coupled with all the UNIT stuff, I did fear we were going to get a needlessly complicated explanation as to why the Earth kept getting invaded year-after-year in the 1970s (or was it the 1980s?). It still isn’t clear to me why the Flux destroying/not destroying/damaging/affecting/being near lots of other planets in 2021 would mean that Earth would be likely to be serially invaded 120 years earlier. But also, as far as I could tell, it wasn’t. So that’s good.

Meanwhile, nothing that the Raiders of the Lost Story Arc gang does actually has any effect. Borrowing a page from River Song’s handbook, they graffiti the Great Wall of China. Karvanista, in 2021, looking at images from 1904, complains that he can’t help because he doesn’t have a time machine. Finally, Dan remembers that he’s from Liverpool and there are mysterious tunnels there. These scripts have gone the long way round to bring Dan and Joseph Williamson face-to-face but despite the enormous amounts of shoe leather involved, we still have Dan from 2021 and Williamson from 1820 meeting in 1904. Why? Who can say?

The Doctor shrugs off the cliffhanger like a mild cold and – oh dear – Barbara Flynn is Tecteun, who for reasons which defy logic claims that she found the Doctor, created the Time Lords, fiddled with the Universe to make it better, sent a memory-wiped Doctor out into it to fuck it up, and now has retrieved the Doctor before erasing the Universe. Anyway, she’s been dusted now, so if she had more exposition to dump, it dies with her.

Just as the only scene which matters in Yaz, Dan and Jericho’s plot is the one with Joseph Williamson, the only scene which matters in Dot Cottan’s plot is the one with Kate Stewart. I don’t know who The Grand Serpent is, why he is now a one-man-band instead of the great ruler he was in episode three, why he founds UNIT only to dismantle it, or why he takes decades to do what he clearly could have done in an afternoon. If played from Kate Stewart’s point of view, this might actually have worked as drama. Battling to save UNIT from bureaucrats who don’t understand its value, a shadowy figure seems to be helping her, but her suspicions mount until finally she confronts him. As it is, it’s just another trip the long way round to achieve very little except “Hey it’s the Sontarans again”. Big whoop.

Bel was there at one point. So was Di, for some reason. Vinder was atomised, or swallowed up by Passenger, or something. But for all the talk of universe-ending calamity and for all the running around and falling over, this was an episode in which a lot of frantic energy was achieved to push the plot on hardly at all and where there was precious little actual jeopardy. Yas, Dan and Jericho are hardly ever in mortal danger, are coping just fine psychologically and don’t suffer much worse than a waiter banging one of them on the head before obediently committing suicide. The Doctor, as usual, plays the role of companion asking questions and getting cryptic answers and achieves absolutely nothing at all during her time on screen. Kate Stewart comes out of this fine, but spends four years doing sweet FA while Dot Cottan is opening the back door to the Sontarans.

Not for the first time in this era, nobody is ever placed in the kind of physical danger which would make this work as an exciting adventure story, apart from Kate Stewart for five seconds. Nobody is placed under the kind of psychological pressure which would make this work as ambitious TV drama. None of the big concepts make any sense and none of the characters do more than recite their intentions or backstories at each other.

Honestly, this looked and sounded like fan fiction at best, a Blue Peter competition winner at worst and I have little hope that the final episode will redeem the season, because I just haven’t the slightest clue what any of this means or why I should care. These episodes shriek for attention like a hyperactive child but can’t think what to do with that attention once they receive it. Episode two was tolerable and episode four had some fine moments. The rest has been scarcely more than gibberish. A fine comedown for the BBC’s flagship export. I think I’m actually a little bit grief-stricken. I feel as if someone has killed an old friend, as someone once said.

So… what did I think of Village of the Angels?

Posted on November 21st, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

So – on the one hand, The Haunting of Villa Diodati wasn’t a fluke. On the other hand, this is basically that story all over again. The Doctor and co turn up to a spooky old house and run around dealing with old enemies and various spatio-temporal phenomena until it’s time for the Doctor to come face to face with the big bad, be taken over by something it was carrying – and boom, we realise this was all just a set-up for the big confrontation next week. Only this time, some clot has edited in five minutes of another unrelated story at random points through the episode.

That’s not to say I didn’t like it. Actually, I liked it a lot. But it’s odd that Maxine Alderton has chosen to, or been asked to, more or less replicate last season’s antepenultimate episode for this season. Anyway, trying to apportion credit or blame by looking at the title sequence is a mug’s game. I don’t know who wrote what, and I won’t pretend to. What I will say is that while some characters and some sequences work better than others, there’s a real sense of pace and jeopardy and energy here that has been pretty much completely absent from the show for quite some time.

Let me get some niggles out of the way first. The cliffhanger resolution is frankly drab. Quipping furiously to try and distract us from the vacuity of the explanations offered, this is little more than “with one bound they were free.” Some of the dialogue hints at terrible things happening to the TARDIS interior when Jodie connects those wires, but no – a few sparks, a bit of a pop and everything is fine. And what’s the point of bunching up your three regulars so they can all fit nicely into a single 16:9 frame and then cutting that frame into three vertical slices?

Once the action gets going, a lot of this is Blink redux, with a bit of Time of Angels mixed in. Just as in early episodes this year, the script is largely happy to have the angels play the hits rather than reinvent themselves. And just as before, the direction is sometimes sloppy about who is looking where and when, how fast the angels move and so on. Also sloppy is that nearly-fabulous mirror shot. Annabel Scholey stands up revealing that her mirror image has wings. But where’s the pull-back into the rest of the bathroom which we needed to establish whether Claire really has wings or only sees them in the mirror (or has become nothing more than a mirror reflection)?

Claire of course is the woman we saw in episode one, but it doesn’t affect the story one jot that they’ve met before and in fact the script is playing silly games here. We’re meant to think that Claire met the Doctor out of order. She calmly greets her as if she’s an old friend. In fact, she’s only glimpsed the Doctor and the TARDIS in a confusing and disorienting premonition that she can’t yet make any sense of – but you get no hint of that in the episode one encounter.

What you do get in the early portions of this episode is Scholey and Kevin McNally playing actual characters who sound like they have agency and interiority in a genuinely interesting and dramatic situation. This isn’t just competent, it’s seriously properly good. McNally’s Professor Jericho doesn’t tear up the rule book (and we could probably have done without name-dropping Belsen) but he’s well-thought out, very well played and he works. And Scholey continues to deliver on the promise she showed in episode one, bucking the trend I identified in last week’s review of the casting director not having as good an eye under this regime.

Also more than pulling their weight are Gerald and Jean, who aren’t fleshed out quite as much, but still pop off the screen in the way that so many characters in this era of the show refuse to. True, we have to overlook the way in which small-minded little Englander Gerald, who’s never even considered that his grand-niece might be a person worth talking to, still blithely allows himself to be given orders by a teenager from the colonies. But – hey! – someone has remembered that Yas is/used to be/wants to be/once wanted to be a copper so that’s something.

For all her running around and barking orders, the Doctor achieves very little once again, and as usual is relegated to the role of companion in her own story, desperately asking questions so better-informed characters can fill her in with exposition dumps. The difference this time round is that what is happening to her and the other characters really does feel exciting and high stakes and like it matters. And the expo-dumps when they come are genuinely interesting. I’m even starting to give the tiniest of fucks about the Division and the Doctor’s role in it, truth be told. Claire turning to stone is a hugely arresting image and the twist of the angel being the quarry rather than the hunter is fabulous – as is the incredible sight of the quantum extracted village just petering out into empty space, and the 1967 and 1901 versions sitting side by side. True, the old Peggy / young Peggy business is a direct lift from Blink but it was a good story beat before Steven Moffat used it and it’s still a good story beat here. I just don’t know what it adds, other than a feeling of familiarity.

What really lets these scenes down is Dan, whose entire character has just disintegrated over the last two episodes. Lately he just says or does whatever is required to keep the plot wheels turning. Swap him out and put in Ryan or Graham and nothing changes. In fact, take him out all together and just have Yaz on her own and nothing changes. And further undermining the title character for no particular purpose, Yaz has to tell the Doctor not to go through the time barrier which is so wrong it almost hurts. And how do Yaz and Dan even know how the Angels work? All the Doctor has told them is “Don’t Blink”. She doesn’t explain to them (or the audience) why not or what the consequences will be until the episode is almost over.

But before it’s over, it’s going to deliver one of the finest cliffhangers of the revived series, with everyone in massive trouble – and then nearly fuck up that brilliant ending by channel-surfing to the tedious adventures of Vinder and Bel.

So, let’s just ignore the whole silly Vinder/Bel/Azure plot which obviously could have been in another episode, but that’s not the game this season is playing, so okay, fine, I suppose. What’s left is generally pretty bloody good, both as a thrilling 45 minute slab of escapist TV and as part four of a six part adventure. In particular, the Doctor has been turned into an angel and Yaz and Dan are stuck 120 years in the past, with no TARDIS and no way of getting help. That’s exactly the kind of big, complicated problem which would have benefited from having six whole episodes to sort it out. Shame there’s only two left.

Oh – and what happened to the closing theme music? I don’t much like this version of the theme but it seemed to be missing its bassline tonight. Was that deliberate? If so, why?

So… what did I think of Once, Upon Time?

Posted on November 14th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

– How’s the script going then?

– Oh, you know. Fine.

– Just fine?

– Well, no, I mean… I don’t mean fine… I mean… it’s…

– Fine?

– Yeah, it’s fine.

– Wow. Okay. What are you going do?

– I mean, I could…

– No.

– I could…

– Don’t.

– I might have to.

– Please, please, just don’t.

– I could just tell the whole thing in the wrong order…

Once, Upon Time joins its 21st century stablemates World Enough and Time and Twice Upon a Time to continue the saga of “Flux” and bring us to the half-way point. If episode one was “what if Doctor Who but ADHD?” and episode two was “what if Doctor Who but only the hits?” then episode three was “what if everybody’s backstory but all at once?”

We begin with yet another sodding character in yet another new location with yet another barely-visible strand of story holding it together. The slow downgrading of the Flux from universe-ending catastrophe to possibly only confined to a small area now continues with even if it hits you dead on, your planet just goes a bit Terry Nation’s Survivors rather than being reduced to ash. And speaking of which, some badly-rendered CGI Daleks are floating about, doing nothing.

Speaking of badly-rendered CGI there was some nostalgicly shoddy effects work this week with the blue floaty pixels resembling something Dave Chapman might have conjured up for Peter Davison with a BBC Micro and a Quantel machine. Seriously – was this left to the last minute? There’s no interactive lighting, no sense of the cloud moving through its environment, and it makes nearly half-a-dozen appearances, all equally poor. It’s really rare to have to complain about dodgy effects in modern Who, and sure, if the stories are good enough, we can survive some ropey visuals, but in this case, well…

Another odd thing happens immediately after the opening titles. We cut straight from northern Irish one woman army and her interior monologue to the Doctor’s interior monologue. Virgin New Adventures editor Peter Darvill-Evans made it a rule for the novels he oversaw that writers should never go inside the Doctor’s head. The Time Lord should be unknowable, keeping private thoughts private. This writer is so keen to let us into to Jodie’s thoughts that he places two different people’s voiceover narration in consecutive scenes. It’s enough to give Robert McKee an aneurysm. Luckily, Jodie quickly abandons interior monologue in favour of just talking out loud to nobody instead. Was the writer briefly confused and thinking that this was a Big Finish audio drama?

Once Whittaker practises her hurdling skills, it’s time out for narrative coherence and buckle up for 40 minutes of Random Stuff coming at you thick and fast. But juxtaposition is not narrative and confusion is not mystery. Unless we know where our heroes are and what’s happening to them, why should we care? Never mind, relaxen und watchen das blinkenlights.

One game that’s being played here is watching the regular cast playing different characters – one of my absolute favourite tropes of all times – but even this doesn’t really come off here. The fun of seeing familiar actors playing unfamiliar roles is seeing them acting very differently from their established characters. But for that to work, they have to have established characters and they have to act differently. This is just, oh look, Mandip’s wearing a different hat. The one exception might be that brief scene in the police car between Whittaker and Gill. Look how much better, livelier, funnier, Jodie Whittaker is when doing pastiche Victoria Wood. I’ve done my best to distance the lead actor from my overall disappointment at the post-Moffat show but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this incarnation of the Doctor is just an empty suit of clothes. The combination of flat writing and straight-arrow delivery resolutely fails to lift the character off the page, and here’s where it’s exposed most fully.

It doesn’t help that, as usual, Chibnall makes sure that the Doctor is clueless, helpless, baffled, powerless and inert. As the episode reaches a climax, she’s actually begging for agency in her own story and, as usual, her pleas go unanswered. Meanwhile, Dan and his not-a-girlfriend pop up again (mam and dad are forgotten) and we get that ping of “Oh, she was in the first episode” which is what takes the place of actual narrative catharsis when you have to resort to telling your story in the wrong order because it would be deathly dull if you told it so that it was easy to follow. Or even possible to follow.

Almost none of the other arbitrary floating bits of narrative really come alive. As noted, seeing Jacob Anderson, Mandip Gill and John Bishop pretending to be space marines wouldn’t be all that interesting even if they were much, much better at pretending to be space marines. But when you’re given dialogue which requires that you explain to your platoon how your equipment works as you’re deploying it, frankly there’s not much even the best actors can do. And they’re incredibly dumb, again and again and again attributing their leader’s loopy behaviour to Temporal Haze (I love their early stuff, especially on vinyl).

Vinder’s crisis of conscience might mean something to someone – who knows? – and it’s Mandip Gill’s turn to re-enact Blink this time because, sure. That Victorian tunnel-botherer pops again, because, well, we’ve paid the actor now. But all of this is basically gibberish, and because none of it means anything or relates to anything, it’s also incredibly boring despite all the pretty lights and colours. When the Doctor tells us that she’s “hiding you here” while she “tries to get the Mori into place” what does that look like? What does it feel like? What’s hard or easy or costly about it? What does it mean? What is she actually doing?

There are crumbs of interest along the way. Although I have zero interest in the timeless children, it’s cool to see Jo Martin again. Yet again, the Whittaker Doctor has to passively sit and watch Doctor Who before she knows how to resolve the situation. It’s a bit of a cheat (and a swizz!) that most of the time it isn’t Martin on-screen, and Jodie cos-playing the Fugitive Doctor isn’t a noticeable upgrade. But although I despaired at how easily-killable all those Cybermen were (gosh little Chrissie has got all his action figures out of the play-box today!) there is some genuine depth of feeling in that little scene where that fierce wee woman tells a dying tin-plated foe “Love is the only mission. Idiot.” Where has this story been hiding amid all of this nonsense? And will we get to see more of it soon?

Someone else who manages to blast away the cobwebs as soon as she sets foot on the set is blessed, indomitable and Very Peculiar Barbara Flynn who classes up the joint no end in her cameo as the White Guardian / Omega / God / The Terrible Zodin. Something else that this episode made me realise is that, for whatever reason, the post-Moffat years have been a bit of a desert when it comes to really strong guest stars. Billie Piper, Jenna Louise Coleman, Freema Agyeman, Pearl Mackie and especially Karen Gillan have gone on to have huge careers. I can’t somehow see the same happening to Mandip Gill or Tosin Cole.

And the series also showcased early performances from the likes of Andrew Garfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Carey Mulligan and Felicity Jones as well as attracting stars like Bill Nighy, Anthony Head, Diana Rigg, Frances Barber, Ian McKellan and many more. When the current team goes shopping for a big name celebrity they come back with Mr Big from off of Sex and the City, or John bloody Bishop. And the featured roles like Racist Fonzie in The One with Rosa Parks go to bland actors who fade from my memory while I’m watching them. Where have all the good actors gone? What’s happened behind the scenes to screw this up?

But look what happens when somebody really fucking good like Barbara Flynn turns up. Yes, she’s yet again undercutting the Doctor (Chibnall never wavers from this mission – even the Ravagers tell Jodie “We brought you here, knowing what you would do”) but by god she’s doing it with some style.

The end of the episode feels oddly perfunctory. Last week’s cliffhanger has been resolved with an almost-literal “and with one bound, they were free.” Dan and Yaz haven’t done anything in the real world (Have they? Did they?) so they just blithely soldier on, unaffected by the narrative as usual. Vinder – whose backstory we’ve sort of had explained to us (just not in a way that either makes sense or impacts the ongoing story) – is now dropped off on a desolate Survivors version of his home planet – why does the Doctor abandon him there and why does he want to stay? – and is mooning after Cyberkiller, which is nice. And next week it’s going to be more chances to re-enact Blink. Maybe this time, they’ll remember that if you look away from the Angels long enough to, say, unplug the Playstation then they’ll get you. Or maybe they won’t. Does it matter? Does anything really matter?

So… what did I think of War of the Sontarans?

Posted on November 8th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

That was… better. Good? Not really, but better. Beginning the episode with a problem and ending it with a solution gave it a more satisfactory shape (almost as if Doctor Who works better as an anthology series, gosh) although it wasn’t the Sontaran plot I was ultimately most interested in.

The opening shot was one of the most striking in the series’ entire history. I can’t remember a black-and-white scene since the first few seconds of The Two Doctors and the grotesque Terry Gilliam-esque house on legs is a remarkable piece of design work. What does it mean? I couldn’t tell you, but I liked it.

Readers will recall that the previous episode ended with the universe-ending Flux sweeping through star systems, laying waste all before it. As the new episode starts, the universe-ending nature of the titular menace seems to have been somewhat overstated, since in all three main areas of activity for the story, the universe seems absolutely fine. Maybe there was an escape pod? There often is.

What happens next suggests a writer not wholly in control of the narrative world. What we need is to have Dan back on Earth, going to wok on Sontarans, the Doctor in the Crimea palling up with Mary Seacole and Yaz at the Temple of Atropos. Not for the first time in Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, an apparently deadly force turns out to be merely a taxi service instead (not that he innovated this trope) and so the doomed central characters are not obliterated but just deposited in a new location. Isn’t that what the TARDIS is for? But rather than actually take people where they need to go, Dan and Yaz both take a detour via Sevastapol. Luckily the TARDIS is there so the Doctor can follow them. Unluckily, the door has vanished. Luckily, the door reappears once the Doctor’s bit of plot is finished. Is any of this remotely justified? No, stuff just happens because it needs to. Character in the wrong place in the story? There you go, have some pixels.

From this point on, we follow each central character on their own journey. This is an improvement over the lunatic ADHD treatment of the previous episode. Let’s take them in order from worst to best. Handily the stupidest and least interesting section is the Doctor in the 1850s. There’s one quite nifty bit of business, which alas we’d already seen in the trailers, where Jodie Whittaker has to point to Yaz and Dan with her hands up. It’s the kind of thing which I can imagine Matt Smith doing, but he would do something like that six times an episode, whereas Whittaker does something like that twice a season. But it was fun.

The rest of the time, the panicky, uncertain Doctor who gets things wrong all the time is back. She has no clue what has happened to Yaz and Dan, and basically forgets about them until the Sontarans are vanquished. She fails to notice the biggest word on not a particularly big map for many seconds. She relies on Mary Seacole to tell her basic facts about Sontaran anatomy which she must already have known from previous encounters (and ignores the fact that Mary Seacole’s observations of the captive Sontaran disprove the assertion that they will die if they don’t regularly return to their ships to recharge) and the whole stupid plot relies on every Sontaran going for a lie down at exactly the same time. Have they never heard of shifts?

Mary Seacole is a fascinating individual, but just as with historical figures from recent episodes past, she doesn’t do anything except recite her biography at us. Her particular skills and traits are never used and she doesn’t accomplish anything which the Doctor shouldn’t have been able to do in five minutes. Instead, the episode is almost over before the Doctor finally springs into action and then she’s outwitted by Colonel Blimp, an incredibly one-dimensional caricature with no nuance whatsoever.

To be fair, I did chuckle at “I wanted to ride a horse,” and the Sontarans, while not cast in a particularly new or interesting light, are not actively screwed up. But there’s a sense here that the ideas in the script are far bigger than the stories they are being used to tell. For Russia never to have existed, Sontarans must have been on Earth for generations (Peter the Great ruled from about 1682 – almost 200 years before the Crimean War) so why does General Cliché doubt that the Doctor has ever fought them? And what have they been doing for the last couple of centuries? Polishing their armour?

And if Sontarans have been squatting in Eastern Europe for hundreds of years, what effect will that have on 21st century Liverpool, where Dan is? Seemingly none whatsoever. Nobody in our time has ever seen or heard of them before. I would say – perhaps this will all be resolved in a future episode, but on past form I doubt it.

So, on to Dan’s adventures in occupied Wirral. This was better – cleaner lines of action for the main characters, a clearer sense of threat and a solution which makes marginally more sense. But it’s incredibly frustrating that given the first episode’s insistence on meeting absolutely everybody that the whole six episode saga was ever going to include, we had never met Dan’s parents before. Why are we bothering spending time with Dan’s not-really-a-girlfriend and his mate at the foodbank and that idiot trick-or-treater when we could have been establishing a family unit which was going to be the focus of his storyline?

Notably, Dan and his folks seem to figure out how to take care of Sontarans far more quickly and efficiently than the Doctor does, and those two earlier problems are still here. Through various plot contrivances, Dan has been taken from his Liverpool home, to a Lupari ship, to the TARDIS where he’s witnessed the not-quite-as-universe-ending-as-we-were-led-to-believe Flux, to the Crimean War and now – back to Liverpool again. Do these adventures better equip him to handle the alien invasion? Not really. As noted, his parents have to show him the ropes. So, the point of him taking this long journey to get back where he started was… er… um…

And here’s another idea bigger than the story it’s being used for. Facing certain Sontaran death, Dan is saved at the last minute by his doggy mate Karvanista who has sworn to protect him. Okay, fine. That does sort of look like set-up and pay-off if you squint. But the concept was that every human on the planet has their own personal canine bodyguard. Earlier in the episode, Dan evaded a gang of Sontarans blasting laser fire at him by the method of running away from them in a straight line, which did much to diminish their threat. Maybe because of this, the script includes a rather upsetting scene in which Dan is forced to watch three innocent humans be executed by firing squad, a massacre he’s powerless to prevent. Can I suggest that rather than needing one of these scenes to balance out the other, we would have been better off with neither (which would also have helped get this flabby episode back under 50 minutes). But also – where are the Lupari defenders of those humans? Were they too busy fetching a stick to come and help?

The Doctor and Dan have a long catch-up after which they both do the thing there were going to do anyway, but all of these grumbles aside, Dan’s adventures on Earth generally did feel high-stakes, interesting and I’m slowly starting to warm to him as a character. But, slightly to my surprise, it’s Yaz’s adventures on Space Planet Temple of Doom which worked the best.

Russell T Davies was at great pains to keep Doctor Who grounded when it first came back. There are no alien planets in the whole of Series One and when we do finally visit one with David Tennant, it’s called “New Earth”. The Temple of Atropos on the Planet Time sounds like ridiculous made-up science fiction nonsense, but there’s an integrity and an attention to detail in these scenes which is missing elsewhere. I’ve always liked Mandip Gill and been perpetually frustrated that she gets so little to do. That little detail of WWTDD written on her hand, Swarm’s use of it to undermine her, and the reaction written in Gill’s eyes, rather than spelled out in lumpen dialogue, speak vast volumes about who she was and who she has become – volumes that hours of previous stories haven’t been able to grapple with. It doesn’t hurt that MVP of episode one, Jacob Anderson, is here too (and so is that Victorian tunnel-botherer, but so what) and that Sam Spruell is having the time of his life as Swarm. I don’t know what is happening to these four figures, but this feels like a mystery rather than just confusion and the sight of Yaz taking her place on that dais feels apocalyptic the way that Donna Noble being saved did, or Bill having a visible hole blasted through her mid-section.

Again, the Doctor doesn’t really do anything except panic and ask questions, but this time she’s got something to panic about. The final moments really felt like the series was beginning to live up to its “epic” billing, so despite a laundry list of grumbles and nit-picking, I’m actually left with a bit more optimism than usual.

So… what did I think of The Halloween Apocalypse?

Posted on November 1st, 2021 in Culture | 1 Comment »

It’s a different experience watching these episodes knowing that the end is in sight. But just as it’s hard to judge a multi-episode serial on the basis of a single episode, it’s hard to know where to begin this review. Was it a satisfying fifty minutes of television? Not really. Did it know that it was functioning primarily as set-ups for half a dozen or more plot threads? Clearly. Is that a good idea? Probably not.

Let’s go through this, most obvious element, first. This is essentially – what if modern Doctor Who but ADHD? We leap from character to character, setting to setting, without ever getting the time to be invested in any of them. Other than sheer novelty, what is the point of giving the Victorian engineer, the Sontarans and the woman going “the long way round” tiny little introductions in episode one, when any or all of them could be saved until a point in the longer story where they actually have something relevant to do?

But the team is determined to go all out and leave the thirteenth Doctor with a bigger crisis than any she’s encountered before. So, the first episode ends with a threat to the entire universe. Does this colossal raising of the stakes actually make the story more engaging? Not necessarily. On balance, the battle of Canary Wharf is better drama than Davros’s reality bomb because the emotional stakes in Doomsday are sky-high whereas the main threat in Journey’s End is rarely more than word peril.

Let’s take this section-by-section. Other than the Victorian engineers whose conversation is completely meaningless for now, The Weeping Angels and the Sontarans are the most disposable. Following the unexpectedly rapturous reaction to Blink, Steven Moffat, brought back the Weeping Angels as soon as he was installed in the big chair but he wrang new ideas out of their every moment. Chris Chibnall has a nasty habit of taking elements of Doctor Who which one or other of his predecessors has reinterpreted and returning them to their less-interesting earlier versions. So, after Missy completely reimagines what the character of the Master could be, Chibnall just goes back to writing him like the cackling maniac played by John Simm. Likewise, the Weeping Angel just reprises the scenes in Blink with zero variation.

And after the possibilities of the Sontarans were massively expanded in the form of Strax, here they just go back to being generic baddies – who are weirdly obsessed with each other’s personal appearance. You know, the way that cloned races would be. They also appear to be thirty trillion light years away, which is a neat trick in a universe which is only 90 billion light years across. So that’s only an error of three orders of magnitude. This took me ten seconds to verify on Google. Why does no-one on the production team care enough to do the same? Or is the whole tiresome mantra of this season going to be “Bigger! Better!”

The characters who actually had anything to do this episode were the regulars, Karvanista the dog, Dan the scouser and Swarm who’s a sort of cross between Tim Shaw and Ashad. Swarm does little except Be Evil and is dwarfed by the nexus-like universe ending wave of orange pixels. He also has a maddening habit of stopping the action to show Jodie Whittaker episodes of Doctor Who. Of all the things to copy from The Timeless Children, I really thought we’d seen the last of that.

There’s some very sloppy writing regarding that too. Yaz is written mainly as a dependable second-in-command but the Doctor announces that she’s had a weird “glitch” and Yaz, not unreasonably wants to know more. The rest of the scene plays out as if this is something that Yaz identified for herself and she is frustrated when the Doctor won’t explain herself. But the Doctor is the one who brought it up, completely unprompted, and who then becomes petty and precious, blaming Yaz for not being sufficiently grateful. Given that Whittaker still can’t think of anything to do beyond impersonating David Tennant, this adds nothing good to an already thin and weak incarnation of the Doctor. The episode never misses an opportunity to have her screw something up, get the wrong end of the stick, be in the dark or be inappropriately flippant.

To be fair, her getting the wrong end of the stick with Karvanista and his doggy chums is understandable given that nothing he does in the first part of the episode makes the slightest bit of sense given the reveal at the end of the episode. Why bother explaining to your own personal human that you’re there to keep him safe? Why would a race whose only purpose is to save humans work so hard to kill a human in a silly Batman style trap? And why would you leave a booby trap behind to slaughter other humans once you’ve saved yours? (See also Demons of the Punjab.)

That brings us to Dan, who as usual is a bundle of characteristics rather than a person. His devotion to Liverpool I doubt is ever going to be relevant again (like Ryan being a YouTuber) but the episode is determined to tell us what a nice guy he is, as he refuses to take any goods from the food bank home to his own empty fridge. The trick-or-treat supposed comedy sketch which follows in which a grown man, for no earthly reason, attempts to extract sweets from him is eye-wateringly bad. It wouldn’t be hard to fix the total lack of motivation – make him a parent of one of the children, a bit too eager to join in the fun, for example. But if the purpose of Dan’s introduction is to make us fall in love with him, surely he should be giving his last chocolate bar to this looper instead of being sarcastic at him.

The script is so determined to service him with would-be zingers that it robs the confrontation with Karvanista of any tension. We’ll shortly learn that Fido wasn’t trying to kill him anyway – breaking down the door with a great big glowing axe and not bothering to explain anything is exactly how you’d run a rescue operation if you had arrived hours early and had plenty of time to spare. And while we’re at it, do the Lupari really need one ship per human? Can they not send 70 million ships each of which can take 100 people? Sigh. Bigger! Better!

By this point, the fact that Dan’s front door regenerates between his kidnap by Karvanista and the Doctor’s arrival feels scarcely worth mentioning.

Amongst all the “will-this-do?” near-gibberish, a couple of things stick out. In an episode pointlessly overstuffed with characters, I was briefly diverted by the banter between the older and younger security guards and miffed to see them so casually bumped off. Jacob Anderson does much with little as Vinder, stuck talking to himself (because of COVID restrictions?). It is always nice to see Dan Starkey, even if the dialogue is poorer than usual and the shifting doors inside the TARDIS is a nifty mystery.

All of this might turn into a compelling saga with rich characters who come into fascinating conflict and a resolution which is as inevitable as it is unpredictable. But I doubt it, sorry. For all the breathless whirl and dash, this is more of the same and little else.

No Time to Die

Posted on October 6th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Warning – spoilers!

After the initial flurry of five films in six years, which exhausted Sean Connery, the Bond producers cranked out a new instalment every two years, pretty much without fail between 1967 and 1989. Not the loss of their star, the break-up of the partnership between Broccoli and Saltzman, rival movies exploiting rights that Eon didn’t control nor even the rise of AIDS and political correctness could halt the machine. And when the bandwagon stopped in 1989, it roared back into life six years later and Pierce Brosnan starred in four films over seven years which together earned nearly $2bn.

Daniel Craig’s tenure has been nothing like as smooth. The chaotic Quantum of Solace sprinted out of the traps just two years after the amazing critical and commercial success of Casino Royale. But Skyfall took four years and the uneven Spectre another three. After four films in nine years, Craig was exhausted and ready to retire. The news that he would be starring in a fifth film was surprising, and the Eon team reunited writer John Hodge and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) to have the movie ready for November 2019.

Eventually, Hodge and Boyle moved on and long-time Bond scribes Purvis and Wade got their old job back, with Cary Fukunaga becoming the first American to direct a Bond film. The new release date was April 2020 and I bought tickets as soon as they went on sale. I eventually saw it in October 2021. Eon resisted various suggestions that the film go to streaming, and stubbornly sat on their prize cinematic asset until it could get a theatrical release. The gamble seems to have paid off, with box office records tumbling.

But is the film any good?

After the amazing reinvention of the series in Casino, the disappointment of Quantum, the lavish extravagance of Skyfall and the rather clumsy Spectre – not to mention the 18-month delay – my anticipation could hardly have been more fervent. Formulas are funny things. It can be reassuring to see a familiar sequence of events – why did it take four movies before we got a Daniel Craig gun barrel at the beginning? – but they can get stale very quickly. And yet it can be hard to attract and retain fans if you stop giving them what they want. That’s one of the thrilling things about Skyfall. It absolutely feels like a Bond move through-and-through, while constantly giving us things we’ve never seen in a Bond film before. But when Spectre’s at its worst, it’s straining to be Bond Chapter IV, despite that fact that none of the previous films have in any way prepared the ground for that.

Like Quantum before it, No Time to Die picks up pretty much exactly where Spectre left it (following a brilliantly eerie flashback sequence). For the first time, we see Bond continuing the relationship which ended the previous film. The stunning action scene which follows is a continuation of that storyline, rather than a standalone Bond-on-a-mission, and although the song is terrible and the titles a bit uninspired from the usually excellent Daniel Kleinman, I loved the evocation of the Dr No graphics in the transition from teaser to credits.

What follows is certainly unhurried – this is the longest Bond film by a considerable margin – and there is a sense of the plot doing a laborious three-point-turn in the middle of the film, but it feels purposeful, deliberate and carefully calibrated. As the various narrative elements converge – a terrifying bio-weapon, Blofeld’s revenge from captivity, a plot against SPECTRE itself, Bond and Madeleine’s relationship, Bond and MI6’s relationship and Madeleine’s history with Safin – the length feels justified and Fukunaga holds his nerve, letting moments breathe when they need to, giving us jokes when we want them (possibly thanks to script doctor Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and staging the action brilliantly.

Even more so than in Casino or Skyfall, Bond, Madeleine, Felix – even M and Q – feel like proper lived-in characters with agency, history and a sense of connectedness. Meanwhile, over-the-top elements like the bonkers science, the pockmarked Safin and a wonderful cameo from Ana de Armas mean that we are still allowed to have fun – lots of fun. What works slightly less well is the introduction of a new 007. Lashana Lynch is fine, but seems far more relaxed and charismatic giving interviews than she does as the surnameless “Nomi” and the business of them swapping the 007 moniker back and forth seems like a comedy bit searching aimlessly for a punchline.

After the hugely entertaining springing of Obruchev, the terrifying sight of Bond and Leiter trapped in the bowels of a doomed yacht, Bond’s reunion with his MI6 colleagues and an amazing chase / hunt / fight in a bafflingly misty Norwegian forest – the stage is set for the big finale at the Terrifying Villain’s Secret Lair. Bond is retired. Leiter is dead. 007 is a girl now. What can this film possibly do to ring the changes one last time?

Casino Royale, the 21st film in the series, was the first time we’d seen a first mission for Bond. Every other actor’s first film in the role has been just another chapter in the continuing saga. And now, for the first time, the 25th film shows us Bond’s last mission. Infected with a deadly pathogen which will kill the people he cares most about in the world, he sacrifices himself to ensure that the missile strike wipes out Safin’s nanobots. Wow.

It’s an extraordinary end to a finely-calibrated film that knows exactly when to be Bond part V, when to be Bond part XXV, when to be entirely its own thing and when to tip its hat to Fleming (the garden of death owes a lot to the novel You Only Live Twice, at the end of which Bond is presumed dead). Spectre is so clumsy in its attempts to retrofit earlier films into an overarching story that it nearly makes me like Skyfall less. No Time to Die is so well-constructed that it actually makes me like Spectre more. And it has the guts to stick to its convictions and take this incarnation of the character to the only logical end that he could ever have. And yet, the credits end with the familiar phrase: James Bond Will Return.

Will he? But how? Bringing Craig back from the dead (as Fleming did with The Man with the Golden Gun) seems like it would betray everything that this film set out to do. Having Henry Cavill stroll into Ralph Fiennes’s office and start bantering with Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris would be weird. Yes, it worked with Moore and Dalton (and even Brosnan had Desmond Llewellyn connecting him to previous incarnations) but none of them got obliterated by Royal Navy missiles.

Another reboot? Yes, we’ve had – what is it now eight Spidermans in four years? – but surely there’s a limit. And in this post-Marvel, peak TV world, we’ve become accustomed to a consistent chronology, making perfect sense (if you squint) across years if not decades, and in various media.

So, what? I think the only sensible option now is to take Bond back to the 1950s. Ignore the Craig and pre-Craig stuff completely and tell stories more like Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (written in 1954, three years before Sputnik, let alone the Apollo programme) in which a crazed ex-Nazi is plotting to aim a nuclear missile at London. This has been pitched before – Tarantino wanted to do a period Casino Royale with Pierce Brosnan in the early 2000s – but now I think it’s the only way of carrying on the franchise.

For the time being though, Barbara and Michael should toast their success. It may have taken fifteen years (making Craig the longest-serving Bond) but these five films as a package overcome the weaknesses in the two lesser efforts and tell us, for the first time, The Bond Saga. It’s an amazing achievement and I can’t wait to watch this fantastic film again.

Russell’s back

Posted on September 27th, 2021 in Culture | 1 Comment »

This is the most extraordinary news. It’s virtually unprecedented.

Getting the writer of Queer as Folk, Bob and Rose, Casanova and The Second Coming to work on the programme at all was remarkable enough. That he, Atlas-like, bore the entire weight of resurrecting a show which had become a burden, a joke and then a half-remembered folk memory is astonishing. And that he turned it into an international megahit is, with the benefit of hindsight, exactly what one might expect – but it was a huge gamble.

The job was also exhausting. So, after four seasons, five years and two Doctors, Rusty moved on and Steven Moffat was the obvious choice to replace him. Received wisdom seems to be that Matt Smith was a worthy successor to David Tennant, but that the writing was less consistent, that it tailed off further when Peter Capaldi took over and that when Chris Chibnall started as showrunner, it became a pale shadow of its former self.

My personal view is not quite in alignment with this. Matt Smith was a remarkable find as the Doctor, but I found the stories often frustratingly complicated and I wasn’t on board with the show attempting to sustain multi-season arcs without every really committing to full serialisation. The Capaldi era I found to be far more consistent, and I find the refrain that his scripts were poor compared to Smith’s baffling when I consider entries like Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, The Zygon Invasion/Inversion, Oxygen or World Enough and Time.

Outside fandom, there was a decline in interest in the show, with Series 9 and 10 getting significantly lower ratings than earlier years – although IMDb audience scores give Series 9 the second best average (after Series 4). Rotten Tomatoes audience scores support the received wisdom better. Series 7 (Matt Smith’s last) is the first to get less than 90% and Peter Capaldi’s last gets only 69%.

When Jodie Whittaker took over, ratings initially shot up. But the new audience didn’t stick around and for her second season, we were right back where we were when Capaldi left. Except this time, the audience who was watching wasn’t as happy. On IMDb, Series 1 is the worst-performing pre-Chibnall run with a score of 8.0 out of 10. Series 11 rates 6.6 and Series 12 rates 5.9. On Rotten Tomatoes, it’s even worse. Again, these are the two worst-performing runs, this time by an even wider margin. Series 11 manages 20% and Series 12 only 16%.

And this I don’t think has been helped by the small number of episodes, coming less frequently than ever. The year-plus gap between Series 9 and Series 10, with only one Christmas Special broadcast in the whole of 2016, was very unusual. But from this point on, it became the norm. After Series 10 was broadcast in April 2017, rather than returning to the March-April launch of the first six seasons, Series 11 didn’t air until October – and then it only aired 10 episodes instead of 12. Series 12 didn’t air until over a year after Series 11 had come to an end. Series 13 is expected 20 months after the start of Series 12. We’ve gone from Doctor Who on the air for three months out of every year to ten weeks out of every two years. Matt Smith gave us 44 episodes in four calendar years. Capaldi gave us 39 episodes over four calendar years. With Jodie Whittaker we’ll end up with 32 episodes over five calendar years.

So, where does all of this leave Rusty? Let’s start with logistics. October-November 2021 will be a six-part epic masterminded by Chris Chibnall. Chibnall, you will remember, first came to fandom’s attention by going on TV to slag off The Trial of a Timelord as a teenager. Now, as showrunner, his plan to rescue the show from an onslaught of criticism, and following an unexpectedly long hiatus, is to tell one long story across the whole season. Brilliant! Then during 2022 we will get three specials, which will presumably conclude with Jodie Whittaker’s regeneration. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these will be New Year’s Day, Easter and Christmas. Then the baton gets handed back to Rusty for the 2023 run. And that will include the assumed 60th anniversary special.

But this leads some people to conclude that Rusty’s problem is going to be handling a new Doctor and a multi-Doctor anniversary special simultaneously. Why? The cadence which Russell established in 2005-2009 was airing a full season from March-ish to June-ish, having a Christmas special in December and then round we go again. So, I would expect a Christmas (or New Year, it doesn’t really matter) special to end the Chibnall/Whittaker era, followed by a complete season of 10-12 episodes starting in March/April 2023, allowing plenty of time for the new Doctor to bed in – and only then a 60th anniversary special in November. And it’s not like the incoming team doesn’t have time. That first full season of episodes is 18 months away. If not more – the plan above would still work if Series 14 ran from late August to early November, as Series 8 did.

And what will he do? The prodigal producer’s return really is an unprecedented phenomenon. One thinks of Gene Roddenberry launching Star Trek: The Next Generation, two decades after the original series went off the air, or Lorne Michaels returning to save Saturday Night Live. I’m told Phil Redmond returned to Brookside after a long absence, but I never watched that. So – what will his approach be?

Steven Moffat varied the Russell T template gradually and cautiously, choosing to evolve the format rather than revamp it. Much the same happened when Graham Williams took over from Philip Hinchcliffe in 1977. City of Death is very unlike The Ark in Space, but Horror of Fang Rock is clearly from the same team that brought you The Talons of Weng Chiang. But both John Nathan-Turner and Chris Chibnall changed everything as soon as they could, with Chibnall also given the opportunity to wipe the regular cast slate clean from day one (which took JNT a year to accomplish). New aspect ratio, new composer, new logo, new everything.

When Russell began in 2005, he had nothing to build on. And in fact, he invented the Time War as way to avoid lots of tedious talk of Gallifrey and Time Lords and other continuity which would be meaningless for the new audience. Now back in charge, will he hit the Fast Return Switch? Will we see Murray Gold back holding the conductor’s baton, the Chibnall era logo junked (won’t somebody think of the Blu-ray box set spines?), return appearances by the Moxx of Balhoon, Jackie Tyler and those silly cat nuns?

Or will he build upon the new lore established in the last five years? Keep Sacha Dhawan as the Master, get Bradley Walsh to make a guest appearance, follow up on the Timeless Child? Of course, I don’t know, but my hope is that this will feel like a return to 2009 in terms of tone, but that he will keep all of those story ideas on the table. Whether we like it or not, they are part of the narrative of the show, and sometimes old ideas brought back can be improved upon and rehabilitated. I don’t think he will or should carry on where Chibnall left off, but I don’t think he’ll pretend the last five years haven’t happened either.

Lastly – who will he cast? It can’t surely be another boy. That would be a ghastly admission that the biggest problem with Series 11-13 is that the leading actor had ovaries instead of testes. Jodie Whittaker rarely comes across as a mysterious alien, but that’s largely because she’s written as such an uncertain, passive, bland character – not because no woman alive could ever have stepped into David Tennant’s holy sneakers. Looking at people he’s worked with before, Lesley Sharp jumps out at me as someone who would take the character in a whole new direction – but given her appearance in Midnight, that would be a little odd. The other obvious suggestion is Lydia West who unbelievably would be 30 in 2023 – older than both Peter Davison and Matt Smith when they took the part. That’s assuming he doesn’t do the right thing and go for Susan Wokoma.

So – I’m optimistic. Hugely optimistic. Watching Doctor Who and not enjoying it is a new experience for me. I look back on eighties episodes that I now find wanting and can’t remember any disappointment when I watched them for the first time. And between 2005 and 2017, if I didn’t like The Curse of the Black Spot or Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS or In the Forest of the Night or Smile, it hardly mattered because in a week or two I’d get The Doctor’s Wife or The Crimson Horror or Flatline or Oxygen. I want Russell to innovate the way he did in 2005. I want him to push the envelope and take risks. But if the rubber band does snap back to where he left off in 2009 – that would be fine by me too.

Belief, research, conspiracy theories and evidence

Posted on August 10th, 2021 in Skepticism | No Comments »

Let me start by telling you three stories. The first is one you very likely know. A fraudulent tailor with no money to buy cloth nevertheless persuades a wealthy emperor that he will make him the finest suit of clothes imaginable. The emperor, deceived by the flattery of the tailor, believes that he is wearing a beautiful new outfit (made of very lightweight material). In fact, he goes out to greet his subjects stark naked. The rest of the crowd falls prey to the same mass delusion until a little boy points out the truth and then the spell is broken and the emperor becomes a laughing stock.

Now let’s also consider the story of the fraudulent Hitler diaries. Unlike the fable of the emperor’s new clothes, this is a true story (although I don’t swear that every detail here has been forensically researched). A fairly incompetent forger named Konrad Kujau wrote them himself during the early 1980s, staining the pages with tea to make them look old, before he sold them to the German news magazine Stern for several million pounds. Stern relied on the analysis of English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper who pronounced them genuine. Only after the fraud was uncovered did Trevor-Roper reflect on his thought process which included factoring in that Stern was paying a vast sum for the publication rights. Since fraudulent Hitler diaries had no value, he reasoned, these must therefore be authentic.

Finally, let us consider Edmund Landau and Fermat’s Last Theorem. As many people know, the brilliant 17th century mathematician Pierre de Fermat once scribbled in the margin of a book the equation xn + yn = zn and asserted that he had discovered a truly marvellous proof that there were no whole number solutions where n > 2. (If n = 2, this is Pythogoras’s theorem.) He did not alas provide the proof, claiming that the margin was too small to contain it. The theorem was finally proved in 1995 by English mathematician Andrew Wiles, whose proof ran to many dozens of pages and build on the work of Gerhard Frey and Ken Ribet and required a deep understanding of semistable elliptical curves. Evidently, this was not the proof which Fermat had (or thought he had).

Fermat’s Last Theorem was for three hundred years the outstanding unsolved problem in mathematics. Not because it was particularly important (although Wiles’ work did open up new avenues of exploration) but because it had remained unsolved for so long and yet it could be stated in terms which anyone with a passing knowledge of algebra could understand. This meant that it attracted the attentions of a great number of enthusiastic amateurs, all of whom imagined that they would be the ones to solve the unsolvable.

The problem was compounded in 1908 when industrialist Paul Wolfskehl offered a large cash prize for a valid proof. Edmund Landau was the mathematician who was, for a while, responsible for assessing entries. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of submissions, many of which were little more than gibberish, he eventually had a stack of cards printed which read: “Dear [BLANK]. Thank you for your manuscript on the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. The first mistake is on line [BLANK]. This invalidates the proof.” He gave the job of filling in the blanks and returning the cards to his students.

What does all of this tell us about vaccines, conspiracy theories and the nature of evidence?

I had high hopes that the natural experiment currently being run in which tens of millions of healthy adults are being given a vaccine to help prevent them from contracting COVID-19 would silence the anti-vax brigade. If it were true that vaccines were toxic in any way at all, then we would see a huge wave of whateveritis sweeping the globe. No such wave has in fact materialised. The best (ugh) the anti-vaxxers could muster were a few cases of blood-clotting, which were at such a low incidence it was barely possible to connect them to the vaccine at all.

Although something of a side issue here, the case of blood clotting is instructive when it comes to vaccines in particular. Even though the incidence was so low that it was almost impossible to distinguish from the base level (some people will get blood clots anyway), it was determined that one brand of vaccine could increase the likelihood of developing a blood clot in some people. Okay then. We have identified a risk. Somebody fearful about developing a blood clot would be sensible to refuse the vaccine. Even if the risk is small – blood clots are nasty and can be fatal.

Except… that by not getting the vaccine, you are increasing your risk of contracting COVID-19. And one of the possible complications of COVID-19 is – blood clots. In fact, you are many, many times more likely to develop a blood clot as the result of contracting COVID-19 than you are from getting the vaccine.

Life is a game of risk vs benefit. The problem is that we tend to see risks where we take positive action (getting a shot) and ignore them where we are passive.

But that alone can’t explain the demented anti-vax brigade rapidly pouring on to social media to tell me that vaccines are toxic, that they aren’t properly tested, that diseases don’t exist and that I should do my own research. There’s an enormous appeal for some people in the conspiracy theory. It enables the conspiracy theorist to be the brave little boy in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, whose plain common sense and straightforward approach cuts through all of the sophisticated bullshit to expose the obvious truth. Of all the characters in that story, the one we want to be is the little boy. We don’t want to be the villainous tailor whose nefarious plans are ruined and we certainly don’t want to be the foolish emperor, taken in by such a simple trick. The appeal is obvious.

The trouble is that fate is manifestly unlikely to present us with such a situation. Randall Munroe in one of his XKCD comics, imagines a riposte to a parent who asks “If all your friends decided to jump off a bridge – would you?” as follows: “Which scenario is more likely: every single person I know, many of them level-headed and afraid of heights, abruptly went crazy at exactly the same time… or the bridge is on fire?”

Thus, Edmund Landau’s pre-printed cards. Landau didn’t need to read these crazy would-be proofs, and nor did he fear missing the mathematical discovery of the century. Anyone who had done the necessary work to even begin to attack this prodigiously difficult problem would of necessity be someone in the mathematical community who was publishing on a regular basis, and that is where the proof would turn up (if it were ever found). Landau didn’t live to see Wiles’ proof which was published nearly a century after his death, but its form and the manner of its revelation would not have surprised him.

That brings us to the key question. How can I, with a 2:2 in mathematics, know that Wiles’ proof is correct? I have read an outline of the proof intended for the curious lay reader, and I failed to keep the concepts clearly in my head. I do not have a mental model I can use for considering modular groups or elliptic curves or how they relate to each other. In fact, when Wiles’ proof was first published, an error was found and it took Wiles and a colleague several further months of work to patch the problem. Probably there are less than 100 people living who can read and appreciate every line of the final version – such is the obscurity of modern mathematics, all of it resting on pre-existing understanding of already fairly abstruse and difficult material.

In practice, I cannot “do my own research”. It is too late for me now to begin a decades-long career in number theory and I do not believe that the investment of time and energy would have a satisfactory payoff. So, how can I be sure that I am not poor foolish Hugh Trevor-Roper, who takes the fact that Stern believes in the Hitler Diaries as a reason to vouchsafe to that same organ that they are worth the sum proposed for their publication rights?

This is the charge that the conspiracy theorists level at those of us who subscribe to scientific scepticism. Some of the more obviously loopy ones will happily (and loudly) present themselves as the little boy pointing at the naked emperor. The idea that a minority opinion is likely a false one has never entered their head. They so enjoy the heady rush of being in the select group of the clear-thinkers and the far-seers that they never stop to question why no-one else can think those same clear thoughts and see those same far-off things.

But the charge of blind obedience or fatuous credulity is a harder one to dismiss. You’re just believing what you’re bring told. You’re Hugh Trevor-Roper falling for the Hitler diaries because some authority figure tells you they’re genuine. And look! They proclaim. Here is a paper which proves what I am saying is correct. Here is a doctor who doesn’t believe in germs. Here is an engineer who doesn’t believe the Twin Towers could have fallen without demolition charges. Here is an Air Force pilot who has seen flying saucers. Here is an astronaut who believes the Earth is flat. Here is a photo of Bigfoot. Here is a NASA scientist who can read minds. Et cetera and so forth.

Particularly with medicine, online debate-via-link-to-scholarly-journal is rife. Don’t take my word for it, look at the conclusion reached by this research team. This exchange of technical papers which neither party can properly understand is the height of pointlessness. I was (unwisely) drawn into a debate about the events of 9/11 on Facebook not long ago. A “new” paper had been published (several years ago), paid for by a group whose only purpose is to find any contradiction at all in the “official story”. This piece of mathematical modelling purported to show that the collapse of Building 7 was inexplicable without some additional force acting (they coyly stop short of saying the word “explosives”). Online it was easy to find people with far more expertise than me taking this paper apart, but the technical details were beyond me and so I saw no reason to comment on its contents.

What I found fascinating was the existence of another paper which had been published many years earlier which had modelled the collapse and found that the weakening of the structure due to the immense heat of the fires which burned for nearly an hour was entirely sufficient to explain what was observed on that horrific day. I was angrily told by defenders of the later paper that they had been researching the subject for years and were expert in this field (and by those same defenders that the online criticism which I provided links to was too technical). But the existence of this earlier paper seemed not to have registered.

Surely, if a second analysis has been performed which comes up with a different result, then the first question to ask would be: what was the difference in approach and what were the faulty assumptions made by the first team? Otherwise, what sense does it make to accept the conclusions of the second paper wholesale and completely dismiss all of the conclusions of the first? Without an understanding of what led to the difference, we’re simply being asked which black box we prefer. How can we possibly learn any objective truths about the world by doing this?

So, are we doomed to just saying “nobody knows” or committing to decades of re-education to get to the truth? I don’t believe so. In practice, we don’t need to even ask these basic questions. We don’t need to take the paper(s) apart. We don’t need to begin a lengthy career of detailed study to be able to critique the work of both teams. We can just ask instead: who else believes this?

Science proceeds in general not because of individual mavericks whose ideas seem crazy at first. Instead, evidence gradually piles up in favour of one conclusion more than the others. It was well-known and agreed by almost all medical practitioners that stomach ulcers were caused by stress, until it was shown that they were caused by bacterial infection. Now, virtually every doctor prescribes antibiotics. Palaeontologists used to believe that dinosaurs were likely scaly and reptilian. Now the preponderance of evidence suggests instead that many of them were feathered. The evidence moved the consensus of opinion over time.

With COVID-19, we have seen this play out as we’ve watched. Early guidance emphasised handwashing, because (for a variety of reasons) the importance of aerosolised viral particles was underappreciated. Now, both mask-wearing and crucially ventilation for indoor events is understood to be key. We didn’t know that when the pandemic started. But the consensus of medical opinion moved as the evidence accumulated.

And this brings me to my last bugbear regarding Internet vaccine warriors. We have seen that “do your own research” is ridiculous. We are simply not equipped to do anything of the sort. Instead, we need to appreciate that we are not likely to be the little boy pointing out that the emperor has no clothes – if everyone else sees clothes and we don’t, it’s far more likely that we are having a stroke. But the world is full of plausible sounding people who write articles and share videos (and post blogs!) and it’s easy to get seduced by their rhetoric.

“Watch this video, then you’ll understand.” “This doctor gets it, read what she writes.” “This book really changed my mind about this topic.”

So now we have an expert who is explaining complicated ideas in ways that we lay people can understand. We don’t have to worry about whether we can master the technical details. If this expert can explain this in a way which makes sense to us – then we will understand it. Right?


This is in fact the very error made by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who took the opinion of Stern as the basis for his conclusion. You can’t learn about scientific consensus by listening to one expert, no matter how slick, folksy, friendly or straightforward they seem.

Watching well-produced explainer videos on YouTube is a great way to learn about stuff and there are some great creators out there. But you don’t discover objective truths about the world by opinion shopping. You can’t sift through a few different takes on a complex subject and then decide “I’ve found my guy.” That only works if your guy is just saying what everyone else is saying. But if your guy is an outlier, you need to ask why. If your guy’s evidence – which might be highly convincing to you, a non-expert – has failed to convince the other experts, you need to ask why not.

So, if 99 doctors tell you that the vaccine is safe and it’s in your best interests and society’s best interests for you to take it as soon as you are offered it, the fact that you can find a 100th doctor who tells you something else is not relevant. At all. Because if that one doctor had real evidence that the other 99 were wrong, the other 99 would change their minds. How do we know? We have seen it happen in real time as the pandemic has played out, and we have seen it happen throughout the history of science. Your one paper “proving” that masks don’t slow the spread of this, or any disease, does no such thing. It’s an outlier. The consensus is that they do help. Your one paper is wrong. (Or it isn’t widely applicable. Or you’ve misunderstood it. Or it doesn’t say what you claim it does.)

Salinsky’s Second Law: You can prove anything with one study.

This has become a very long post, for which apologies. My point really is a simple one.

We believe our dentist when we are told we need a filling. We believe the mechanic when we are told that our car needs a new fan belt even though we couldn’t pick a fan belt out of a line-up. We trust experts all of the time and don’t feel the need to “do our own research” – unless and until a campaign grows around a particular topic and a small but insistent band desperately needs to believe that the emperor has no clothes on.

So, I don’t really mind where you fall on the scale from “I’m not anti-vax, I just don’t feel this has been tested enough,” to “You’ve been lied to! Disease isn’t real!” Both those positions are wrong because both of them misunderstand what science is and how it works. You can’t possibly know what “tested enough” means. You don’t (and I don’t) have even a basic working knowledge of how vaccines are routinely developed or tested and what happened in this case. The first error is in word eight. This invalidates the argument.

So, by all means “do your own research”. Research is fun. You can teach yourself a lot and you can end the day understanding more about virology, immunology, biomedical research and the spread of infectious diseases than you did at the beginning. But if you fail to take into account where the conclusion you are satisfied with sits in relation to the scientific consensus, you are not avoiding the error made by Hugh Trevor-Roper, you are committing it.

Don’t be Hugh Trevor-Roper. The bridge may very well be on fire.

So… what do I think of the news that Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker are leaving Doctor Who?

Posted on August 3rd, 2021 in Culture, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Honestly? Relief.

That sounds harsh, but for me personally this era of the show has been a slog more than a joy. I’m reminded of the Annie Hall “such small portions” joke but there’s been so little new Doctor Who since Capaldi left that it’s doubly frustrating that the tiny morsels we get have been so poor. However, that does at least mean that’s when we look back on the grand sweep of the show as a whole, the Chibnall years will be a fairly brief segment. Thus, relief. As odd as it is for showrunner and leading actor to both commence and depart together, and as odd as it is for a producer not to outlive a Doctor, they’re leaving, it’s official and plans are no doubt already underway for their replacements.

Now, let’s acknowledge that bad things happen when people are made to run shows for which they no longer have any enthusiasm. Watching the Season 24 Blu-ray box set, it becomes clear that John Nathan-Turner first expressed thoughts of leaving after The Five Doctors anniversary special in 1983. He ended up still working on the show when it was cancelled in 1989 – following the BBC’s eccentric decision to fire Colin Baker who wanted more than anything to keep playing the part, but to retain the services of JNT who wanted more than anything to be assigned to a different show.

So, if Chris and Jodie want to leave, then leave they should. But the timing is odd.

Less so for Jodie. Every Doctor post Eccleston has done about-three-seasons over about-four-years. Tennant did three x 14 episodes back-to-back and then four specials between Christmas 2008 and New Year’s Day 2010. Matt Smith had that weird split series six which was at least partly about manoeuvring the fiftieth anniversary special into position, but again completed the equivalent of three full seasons between spring 2010 and Christmas 2013. Under Capaldi, an episode was shaved off the season length and he had a year off between December 2015 and December 2016 but again he completed his tenure about four years after he began and with the usual quota of 40 or so episodes to his name.

Even before COVID, the latest team took an unprecedentedly long amount of time to prepare an unprecedentedly short season. Ten months after Capaldi’s farewell, a ten episode season began airing on BBC One. Over a year later, another ten episodes finally emerged. Now, after a further eighteen months, we will get Jodie’s third season of just six episodes. Together with two New Year’s Day specials and three more 2022 specials, that will give us just 31 episodes broadcast over five calendar years. At the end of which the showrunner is so knackered that he has no option but to quit the show? Really? (I’m not saying he was forced out, but it is peculiar.)

As lovingly detailed elsewhere in these pages, very few of these episodes have been to my taste. But rather than the tone being too jokey or too serious, or the emphasis being on elements of the show I care less rather than more for, my chief complaint about what little we’ve been given is that basic elements of scriptwriting craft have been largely absent. So we have an overstuffed TARDIS full of thinly-drawn characters, who rarely impact the plot in meaningful ways. We have episodes in which good ideas are squandered and dialogue is rarely more than functional. We have endless minutes drifting by in which the main cast just wanders about. We have horrific interpretations of the Doctor’s morality and we have plotting which is as often predictable as it is nonsensical. And no good jokes. At all. None.

A few episodes stand out. The Witchfinders has a plot that makes sense and a strong guest cast and it’s about something. It Takes You Away has a real sense of atmosphere and a balls-to-the-wall bonkers climax. The Haunting of Villa Diodati has some of the best the era has to offer, although it’s not consistent. But honestly, that’s about it. And that’s before we get to the gibberish of the Jo Martin Doctor and the Timeless Child. Chris Chibnall upends the history of the show, proffers a lengthy explanation that barely explains a quarter of the mysteries he introduces, then immediately tells us why it doesn’t change anything (before having the murderous and cowardly Doctor have someone else do her killing for her to resolve the plot). Sigh.

Amidst all of this is Jodie Whittaker. Veteran script editor Terrance Dicks observed that the part of the Doctor is basically actor-proof. This is a diplomatic slam on some of the actors who post-dated his day-to-day involvement in the show who he thought were miscast. And he’s probably right. The part isn’t ideally suited to traditional leading-man actors like Peter Davison or Paul McGann. Weirdos like Tom Baker and Matt Smith are easier to write for. It’s hugely to both of their credits that the combination of Russell T Davies and David Tennant created such a massively popular version of the programme, despite Tennant seeming to lacking the eccentricity that the part usually benefits from.

As far as non-male actors go, Jodie Whittaker is firmly in the traditional leading camp, rather than the character type. If the part had gone to Tilda Swinton or Miriam Margolyes or Meera Syal or Katherine Parkinson, that would have hugely impacted the way the scripts were written. But, while Jodie will show up, look the other actors in the eye, and say the lines with conviction, she isn’t going to alter the fabric of the programme in any way at all. And beyond taking the not-good-with-social-niceties element of the previous two Doctors and running with that, the showrunner hasn’t created an actual character for her to play either, so she’s generally been reduced to little more than a bit of Davison-esque breathless enthusiasm where an interpretation should be.

The other apparent sea-change since 2018, apparently, is that the show is “woke” now. I’ll deal with this briefly as it doesn’t really warrant more than a few lines. No, the show which told stories about the need for pacifism, green politics and feminism in the 1970s hasn’t suddenly gone Marxist. No, the show which first included two men kissing in 2005, first included a non-white regular cast member that same year, and first gender-swapped a familiar character in 2017 didn’t suddenly discover diverse casting when Jodie Whittaker was handed the keys to the TARDIS. It’s just that when previous showrunners did these things, fans generally liked them because they were using these characters to tell good stories. But when the only thing you can say about Ryan is that he’s black (and he’s dyspraxic for about one episode in five) then that’s going to look much more like stunt casting than Michelle Gomez as Missy. The anti-woke brigade isn’t out in force in the same way for Sacha Dhawan. Why not? Because he was good (at least to begin with). If anything, it will be a pity if there’s pressure on the next team to retreat to the “safety” of the kind of white, male, straight, non-disabled casting which in fact we were already seeing less and less of between 2005 and 2017.

So, who will be the next team and what will they do? Obviously, I have no idea. (Aren’t you glad you took the time to read this?) But since there hasn’t been a female showrunner since 1965, it’s probably time for a woman behind the typewriter as well as hovering over the console. That rules out my top choice of Peter Harness (sorry Peter), assuming Neil Gaiman isn’t free. Maxine Alderton’s work on Villa Diodati shows enormous promise, but if someone with Chibnall’s CV can fail as comprehensively as he did, that suggests that we really do want someone with some miles on the clock in this role. Phoebe Waller-Bridge I suspect wouldn’t want to be tied down for three or more years. Sarah Phelps?

And what do we want? Firstly, a vision for who the Doctor is. The blessing and the curse of the show at this point is you have 13 hard acts to follow. You have more than a dozen incarnations, all with their adherents and detractors, which means finding a new version which adds to the corpus, while not violating what we already know, is hard. That’s why I say that it needs to be actor-driven. I had no idea that the Doctor was capable of some of the things which Matt Smith pulled off, but they all (or almost all) made sense once I’d seen them.

Secondly, we need to get back to stories being plot-and-character led. Don’t have three companions because you think it would be nice to go back to having three companions again. Have three companions because you have stories which need three companions. And give them at least as much personality and individuality as, say, Tegan Jovanka, even if they don’t get the depth of Rose Tyler or Amy Pond. Don’t have stories in which you revisit the show’s origins because you think revisiting the show’s origins is intrinsically exciting or interesting. Revisit the show’s origins because you have an exciting story to tell which naturally leads you there.

And maybe it should be someone who wasn’t a childhood fan of the show. Hiring fans worked with RTD and Steven Moffat, but hiring non-fans also worked with Barry Letts and Phillip Hinchcliffe. There’s no shortage of people knocking around who can tell a future showrunner what a Judoon is, or what Fenric means. But people who can write really good science fiction television drama for a family audience and within a BBC budget – maybe they are rarer than we think.

There’s also the sixtieth anniversary to consider. My guess is that we will learn who the new producer is around the same time as the new series starts airing, and who the new Doctor will be shortly after those six episodes have gone out. So, say we get Jodie Whittaker regenerating into Gemma Whelan in December 2022. A production team headed by Kate Herron could be working on scripts from late this year and have 10-12 episodes ready to go by spring or summer 2023 – September at the latest. That one full series is going to be essential to establish the new direction of the show before any kind of nostalgic anniversary special at the end of November. And while it would be fun to get Capaldi, Smith, Tennant – even McGann – back for one last trip in the TARDIS, it’s likely that Whittaker won’t want to come back so soon, so I wonder if some other mode could be discovered to celebrate sixty years, rather than another multi-Doctor story?

Whatever happens, I will still be watching. And, as always, hoping for the best.

Philips Hue – The Revenge – Part One

Posted on May 19th, 2021 in Technology | No Comments »

It seems it was nine years ago that I was writing about sticking Philips Hue bulbs all over my flat. Well, it doesn’t actually seem like nine years ago, but arithmetic confirms that it was very nearly. A lot has happened since then. Most of the bulbs are still working (one conked out and another met with an accident) but I don’t know if I really ever got the most out of them. They’ve also switched from WiFi connectivity to the more reliable and less router-dependant Zigbee for their communications and they are still very popular despite a huge array of (usually cheaper) alternatives.

In the interim, we’ve also converted our loft, giving us another floor to play with – oh, and there’s been a bit of a flap on about some sort of bug that seems to be going round. Being stuck indoors the whole time with no house guests and very few visitors, I decided to take another look at the Hue situation. I made sure all the bulbs were correctly named in the now-upgraded Hue app. I thought of something sensible to do with the dimmer switch magnetised onto the fridge. I set up rules to slowly dim the lights in the evening and to turn them on in the morning. I made sure that Alexa knew where all the lights were and could turn them on and off as I commanded. And I replaced the existing candle-style bulbs in what I was now using as my study with Hue versions, complete with a little magnet-y Smart Button to control them, adhering to one corner of the existing metal switch.

Upstairs, with the low-ish ceilings which are part of the deal with loft conversions, there were no dangling pendants, only flush spotlight GU10 bulbs. We wanted them dimmable but the touch-sensitive panels which we had installed had always been unreliable and had steadily been failing. First the light at the top of the stairs wouldn’t turn on, then the set of six lights overhead in the TV room. Finally my reading light went. Enough was enough. We hadn’t asked for Philips Hue bulbs when we had the loft done – because the one thing I knew about Hue bulbs was they only came in E27 Edison Screw flavours.

Except – wait. After all this time, could Philips (actually it’s now a company called Signify which has taken over the brand) have come up with compatible GU10 bulbs? Actually, they had. And – in common with much of the rest of the line – you can push the boat out and have all the fancy colours, you can go the cheapskate route and have just white, or you can have what they call “white ambience” which is somewhere in the middle cost-wise and gives you a range of whitish tones from warm gold to icy bright.

Okay, so… Supposing we rip all of those bulbs out and replace them with Philips Hue? The white ambience ones wouldn’t be too expensive. The old switches would be able to give them power but not dim them. Could we replace the switches as well? Probably the easiest solution is to buy some more Philips Hue dimmer switches (oh, and they’ve just come out with a fancy new model) and mount them in covers designed to fit over existing switches. That way if the system throws a fit (or when we move out) we can take our fancy dimmers and leave ordinary switches behind.

And while I’m at it, why don’t we do the same thing downstairs? We have these fancy dimmable bulbs, but turning the dimmer knobs on the existing switches no longer dims them. Replace all of those switches with straight on-off affairs, put covers over them and have Philips Hue dimmers everywhere! I tried this out just inside the front door, where I have a regular ordinary white plastic switch and set up my existing Hue dimmer to turn the stairs lights and and off. It looks smart and works like a dream.

Before I put this plan into action (which would in any case require the services of an electrician) I did a bit of Googling, and I quickly found one possible flaw in the plan. The “bridge”, which plugs into the router and acts as a central hub for all things Hue, is only an itty-bitty little computer, and even if it wasn’t – at a certain point, the airwaves would get clogged with Zigbee signals. The recommended load is 50 bulbs and 12 switches. Downstairs I only had 12 bulbs, even with three in the study. But I would need something like 7-8 dimmers to control them all.

Upstairs, there were a couple of dozen little GU10 bulbs in the ceiling. With both floors, I’d certainly approach the 50 bulb limit and I’d go sailing past the 12 switch barrier. Should I just keep adding devices and hoping? Well, I really want this system to be reliable and pass the wife-compatibility test with ease (this is made more probable since the existing lights very often just don’t work at all) so I didn’t want to take any chances. So, having found some appropriate light switch covers, I decided to test out a second bridge.

Adding a second bridge can create problems. The official app only allows you to access one bridge at a time, although you can switch back and forth with no problem. And I’d heard mixed reports about adding a second bridge to Alexa. The official Hue position is that this can’t be done, but plenty of people on the Internet seemed to have managed it.

I’d got a couple of Philips GU10s at what I thought was a bargain price, until I realised they were white – not even white ambience, just white. But I decided to use them as a test case. I bought a second bridge, plugged it in upstairs, using the hardline from the router that also goes (via a switch) into my Apple TV. I replaced the two GU10 bulbs above our bedroom mirror with the white Hue ones and I set everything up in the app. Then, as the Internet told me I should, I made sure to press the button on the second bridge before inviting Alexa to find new devices. And it worked! Alexa found the two new bulbs and so with the Alexa app I can see all my Hue devices at once.

Then I tried to set up a light group in Alexa called “Mirror Lights” consisting of just these two bulbs – and Alexa kept adding one of my new bulbs and one of my kitchen bulbs from downstairs. I don’t seem to be the only one who has had this problem, and it almost defeated me. I must have tried to set that up half-a-dozen times. Eventually, I found the work-around. You verbally tell Alexa to move the errant light and to add the one you do want. That worked. Okay. I can install new lights and set up apps and switches myself. What I need now is an electrician who can get the recalcitrant loft lights working at all, and then to have that person replace all of the existing switches with ordinary on-off affairs which I can cover with smart dimmers.

To be continued…