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

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…

So… what did I think of Resolution?

Posted on January 5th, 2019 in Culture | No Comments »

Doctor Who Christmas specials often operate by different rules than the regular episodes. With certain obvious exceptions, they stand-alone, outside the regular continuity and generally avoiding any season-arc material. They frequently have a more exuberant tone and often feature a more extravagant guest-cast than usual. While disregarding a great many elements which made previous seasons of Nu-Who so successful, Chris Chibnall has been careful to make sure that at least some baby is retained, while the bathwater goes gurgling down the plug-hole.

In some respects, Resolution is a rehash of 2005’s stunning Dalek, the moment when I suddenly realised that Doctor Who in the twenty-first century could work. In each case, we have a single Dalek, brought back to life by well-meaning humans, which proceeds to lay waste to everything in its path, before the Doctor finally stops it in its tracks. Robert Shearman’s script isn’t perfect either, and the production team in 2005 is still finding its feet, but the differences between the two stories are instructive.

First, in Chibnall’s most brilliant innovation (possibly of his whole run to date), it’s the Dalek mutant which is brought back to life. The slightly portentous not-technically-a-pretitles-sequence-because-again-we-have-no-titles has echoes of the opening of The Battle of Rancorous Cornflakes – but is an effective scene-setter. And the relationship between Lin and Mitch is nicely handled. What’s the most effective part of the whole episode is the sight of Charlotte Ritchie, possessed by this alien parasite which gradually takes control of her more and more thoroughly.

I’m going to gloss over the fact that Dalek mutants apparently don’t actually need so-called “survival” machines any more, which seems a very boring thing to complain about given the upsides. All of this works gangbusters, with the Doctor’s pursuit of the creature not requiring her to be stupid in order to keep her one step behind, and the body horror nicely judged for a family audience. The ruthlessness of the Dalek and the horror than Lin experiences are very strong, but never overwhelming or off-putting. And the custom-built Dalek casing when it materialises is great, and let’s a have a mention for the hugely funny and enjoyable scene in which UNIT has been killed by Brexit. What’s less amusing is the over-familiar, patronising and childish “joke” about people’s internet being cut off. All right, grandad, I won’t watch your Doctor Who episode on iPlayer then. FFS.

So here’s the second big difference between this episode and Dalek. Every so often, this exhilarating science-fiction action-adventure gets intercut with a much less interesting, sub-Broadchurch family drama, in which cliched mopey teen Ryan turns out to have a cliched deadbeat Dad. (Think Pete Tyler but much less interesting). Daniel Adegboyega isn’t really given much to do, but his big scene with Bradley Walsh is good. What’s little short of bewildering is the seemingly-random swapping in-and-out of TARDIS occupants in order to allow the “right” people to interact at the right time. Of course, the other function of this thinly-drawn and off-theme second plot strand is to deposit Chekhov’s microwave at the Doctor’s feet. So let’s have a talk about the ending.

Setting up an unstoppable foe makes for a very exciting middle. But when you need your story to conclude, you have to stop the unstoppable. It’s a difficult storytelling problem, to say the least. The ending of Dalek doesn’t have the same kind of high-octane excitement that the rest of the story does, but it’s rooted in character and emotion. It’s all about who a Dalek is, at its core. And it’s about who the Doctor is, especially this new Doctor, suffering from survivor’s guilt. Because of the interplay between these three well-defined characters – the Doctor, the Dalek and Rose – the Dalek’s reason to exist is violently yanked away from it, and so it ceases to exist. But not without getting in one last devastating jab: “You would make a good Dalek.”

What solution does Chris Chibnall find? Run around behind it and microwave it to death. Sorry, what? With all the equipment on board the TARDIS, it’s impossible to disable a Dalek without a defrost setting?

And if you want to talk about overstuffed TARDISes, this is ridiculous. The Doctor, Yas, Ryan, Graham, Mitch, Lin and Aaron all have to gang up on it, but the plan really only requires one to distract it and one to stick the magnetron on it, so once again, the supporting cast get nothing to do Ryan and Graham get one scene each with Aaron (which as noted neither propels nor illuminates the main plot) and Yas gets exactly nothing.

There’s a second climax after that one, which makes even less sense and which undoes a lot of the good work in the first three quarters of the episode, so this is still recognisably Season 11 stuff – clumsily structured, with no thematic unity, an underused regular cast and thinly drawn supporting characters. But it’s also Chibnall’s best script of the season, and Jodie Whittaker has never been better in the central role.

Leave Yas, Graham and Ryan at home. Make Mitch and Lin temporary companions. Find a Dalek weakness other than consumer electronics and have the win come at some kind of cost (even Lin survives, which I suppose is fair enough for a celebratory episodes, but it does seem unlikely) and this might have been an absolute classic. As it is, four stars.

4 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos?

Posted on December 11th, 2018 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Arghh!! So close!

This is Chibnall’s best script so far. But it’s probably the fourth best story of the year, about level with Arachnids in the UK and with some of the same flaws.

What’s frustrating is that Arachnids was almost as good as it could have been, it just needed an ending that made sense and was on-theme. Whereas Battle comprehensively squanders any number of hugely promising story ideas in its last ten minutes, in a rather dispiriting and depressing way.

The opening is some of the best stuff we’ve seen all season.The Ux are a fascinating creation and the visuals are absolutely eye-popping. The mystery of Ranskoor Av Kolos is fascinating and guest star Mark Addy makesa great impression as Paltracki. I have two niggling complaints about all this.

Firstly, the neurobalancers are clearly going to be very important later (read on) but why don’t we get a clear shot of team TARDIS applying them?And why does this story need two separate unrelated little black gizmos which you stick to your face? Secondly, as always sagacious Andrew Ellard points out, Chris Chibnall’s talent for euphonious alien planets, characters and races lags very far behind his showrunner predecessors. Epzo, Tsuranga, Krasko, Ranskoor Av Kolos and even Paltracki are all awkward in the mouth and grating on the ear.

Then, the mission is defined and the team sets off. Two things here. Firstly, Steven Moffat acutely pointed out that a great deal of classic Doctor Who, for budgetary reasons, involves people standing around urgently. Russell T Davies brought running to the series, if not for the first time, then certainly as a regular feature. Chris Chibnall’s revolutionary vision for the show seems to involve walking. An awful lot of walking. Walking towards the Ghost Monument, walking around Robertson’s hotel, walking around the corridors of the Tsuranga, walking up and down Pendle Hill, walking through the anti-zone and now plodding across the surface of Ranskoor Av Kolos. Rather like the anti-zone (although far less colourful and dramatic) it’s another plot-retardation device. Everyone needs time for a chat. Have to keep the plot on hold for a bit. It’s bad writing. It just is.

However, one of those chats is probably the best-written and acted scene in the whole season. When Graham tells the Doctor he’s going to kill Tzim-Sha if he gets the chance, I believe him. And I care. It’s powerful stuff, paying off story threads started nine weeks early, beautifully played by both Whittaker and Walsh.

The rest of the actual plot is pretty much standard middle-level Doctor Who science fiction nonsense. Ancient religion, blah blah blah. Mysterious crystals, blah blah blah. Hugely powerful forces, blah blah blah. Fine, but hardly the point.

It really is best not to think too much about the details. One of the bad-guys who was just banished but not killed in an earlier episode (Tzim-Sha) returns, leaving the fate of Racist Fonzie still open. The robo-sentries from the terribly tiresome Ghost Monument are back for no very good reason. The Doctor finally admits that her anti-gun rhetoric is inconsistent, hypocritical and badly thought-through, further weakening her character. The Ux are a race of exactly two people (saves on budget) who live three thousand years or more, conveniently the same time that Tzim-Sha has been waiting for the Doctor. The very important people who urgently need rescuing just get treated like cargo and contribute nothing to the story. Nothing really feels like it means anything or it matters terribly much. Even getting back out of the floating rock castle in the sky, which took an awful lot of sonicking and frowning to get into, happens easily, quickly and off-screen.

As things ramp up, Jamie Childs does his best to build the energy and excitement, so it does feel dramatic, but when the character stuff should be paying off, there’s nothing he can do to fill the void that Chibnall leaves him. In order to save the day, the Doctor has to convince Andinio andDelph that their creator is a fraud and that the last three thousand years of sacrifice and toil have been for nothing. This should be appalling news and they should hate her for telling them this. No, they just happily agree to switch sides. On Earth, Tzim-Sha killed passers-by without a second thought. Now, he just stands there and listens to the Doctor explain that she’s going to foil his plan, and then lets her do that. Oh wait, he’s plumbed into this machine in some way. Is that why he can’t act more directly? It must be super-important that he stay connected. No, he just pulls out the tubes when it’s time to go and be shot by Graham.

And most egregiously of all, the hugely built-up neurobalancers come to nothing. Forcing characters to act against their nature, confronting them with their darkest secrets, paranoid fantasies and basest thoughts is a wonderfully effective science-fiction trope which can really reveal character in a way which is not available to conventional drama. The Doctor and Yas losing their identities as the terrible forces of the planet take hold once they’ve removed their neurobalancers could have been an amazing sequence, easily helping me to overlook some of the other rather iffy plotting and catapulting this to the top ranks of this season.

What actually happens? The Doctor and Yas get a bit of a sore head for thirty seconds, then put the neurobalancers back on again. I’ve never seen a writer so allergic to drama, so blind to the possibilities of their own scripts.

The other big payoff here is Graham’s confrontation with Tzim-Sha. As I’ve said, this is very clumsily arranged, and it doesn’t really come to anything. Graham just decides not to kill him – but again trapping a villain for eternity is presented as a kindness, compared to a quick death. What does help slightly is that Tosin Cole does his best work of the whole season. His stuff with Graham gives us a flash of what this relationship could have been, with a bit more time, a bit more care and a bit more talent.

And that’s it. We’re done for 2018.

Chris Chibnall has had more time to prepare fewer episodes than any showrunner in history, and yet most of these scripts felt to me like hasty first drafts. There’s enough good stuff here to scrape together four stars, but the only really good scripts this year have been the three without Chibnall’s name on them – the fun Kerblam!, the very dramatic and funny Witchfinders and the truly excellent It Takes You Away. These are also the only scripts to even attempt to make proper use of the four regulars (can you tell me one necessary or even interesting thing which Yas does in this entire episode?).

As usual, let’s compare my reactions to fandom at large. Over on Gallifrey Base, Rosa comes out top, averaging 8.49 out of ten. with The Woman Who Fell to Earth just behind it on 8.44. But Rosa has a lot more 9s and 10s. The Ghost Monument does surprisingly well in fourth place with an 8.26, just inching ahead of It Takes You Away. The Tsuranga Conundrum is decisively last with an average of just 6.6 and nearly double the 1s and 2s of its nearest rival The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

So, this has been a divisive year, to say the least, and we now need to wait till early 2020 for the next full season. But ratings are top-notch so I imagine the BBC will be happy, and therefore that the job is Chibnall’s for as long as he wants it. Sigh.

One troubling stat though is to be found on Rotten Tomatoes which aggregates critics’ and users’ ratings. For the first ten seasons of the revived series, critic ratings range from a low of 71% (Series One) to a high of 100% (Series Two to Five) with recent series all in the mid to low nineties.

Audience ratings range from a high of 94% (Series Two) to a low of 73% (Series Ten) with Russell’s stuff generally doing better than Moffat’s and Smith’s stuff generally doing better than Capaldi’s.

Series Eleven gets 95% from critics and a jaw-dropping 46% from users.

Can they all be woman-hating, mouth-frothing, misogynistic bros who just loathe the show now because of the sex of the lead performer? I mean – it’s possible. But maybe, just maybe, Chris Chibnall should look at some of the feedback in more detail. Once the fans turn on you, there’s no going back…

So… what did I think of It Takes You Away

Posted on December 6th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

Let me put you out of your suspense. Five stars. This is it. This everything I’ve been looking for all season long.

Is it perfect? No, not quite. But I don’t require perfection for five stars, if enough elements are strong enough. I will defend Kill the Moon to the death. Does that mean I don’t think that the science is total and utter garbage that doesn’t even make intuitive sense? Of course not. But the moral dilemma and the presentation of the Doctor’s relationship with Clara is so outstanding, I’ll happily give the gibberish biology a total pass.

So, let me get a few gripes out of the way early on, then we can all luxuriate in praise. This episode balances the needs of the four main characters better than anything since episode one. Yas is the most side-lined, but Ed Hime doesn’t overstuff the supporting cast and manages to give Graham a real stake in the action – and, for basically the first time – Ryan too. But Ryan’s early interactions with Hanne are so clumsy and frankly shitty, I question why he’s allowed on the TARDIS at all. By the end of the episode, it’s easier to see that this gives him an arc, but the barrier for entry to the most incredible ship in the universe has never seemed lower.

Also, the Doctor’s lying to Hanne about the “map” she scrawls on the wall is unconscionably awful. It pays off at the end, and it’s great that Hanne wasn’t fooled, but it’s still a fairly hateful thing to do, and unlike previous displays of lack of empathy from her male-presenting predecessors, she isn’t criticised or punished for it. It just stands. Also, I didn’t like her promising the sonic to Ribbons, when clearly she had no intention of keeping this promise.

And lastly, we can now add “wee” to the “chicken poo” from Not-Really-Demons in the Punjab to our list of potty training words that have somehow made their way into a Nebula-winning science fiction programme.

I think that’s it.

Yup, those are all my complains.

I know, I know. But read on…

Let’s start with what’s good. The set-up is briskly efficient. Hanne is an engaging character, well-played by Ellie Wallwork. The mystery is clearly established, and the mirror/portal is a splendid and sudden left-turn. The anti-zone acts as a plot-delaying device more than anything else. That’s not a criticism, merely an observation, because while you can imagine a version of this story which deletes the buffer zone between dimensions, and just has the characters stepping from one version of the house to the other, a lot of what happens in there is the episode’s most visual striking, funniest and contains the most genuine peril – something which has been in short supply this year. And who could complain about extra Kevin Eldon.

Everyone’s actions throughout are clearly motivated and spring from character. Hanne knocks Ryan out and heads for the portal, against the Doctor’s instructions, because she doesn’t trust him, not because the plot requires her to. And the arrival of Team TARDIS in the mirror universe is genuinely surprising, unsettling and unpredictable.

And then WHAM! The episode drops the other shoe like an anvil. Finally, Graham’s grief over Grace – in early episodes either ignored or inappropriately painful given the hijinks elsewhere – means something. It connects to the theme of the episode, it increases the jeopardy for the characters and we get a proper stitching together of emotion, adventure and high concept in a way which we haven’t seen frankly since World Enough and Time. I’m amazed that Chibnall, who presumably had some kind of scene like this in mind when he wrote The Woman Who Fell to Earth, let another writer deliver the punchline. Or maybe he didn’t have this in mind at all, and Ed Hime just saw the opportunity. Whatever, I don’t care. This episode is too good. And Bradley Walsh is sublime.

The Doctor – and it really is the Doctor all the way through this episode – desperately tries to get the humans to reject those they’ve loved, while the Solitract universe starts to tear itself to pieces. Jamie Childs does a wonderful job here, creating the apocalyptic atmosphere the script demands, aided by some of Segun Akinola’s best music.

And then it all comes down to the Timelord and the talking frog.

You don’t like the talking frog? Fine. Okay. I get it. It’s a bold choice, for sure. And if you don’t like it, I understand. It’s a pretty pisspoor special effect too, but c’mon. We’re Doctor Who fans. We can take it.

For me, it hardly matters what form the Solitract takes. For it to take a form associated with Grace, but which isn’t Grace, makes perfect sense. And the image is one which only Doctor Who could provide.

We’ve one more episode to go. I frankly doubt this series can do any better than this.

Ed Hime for showrunner.

5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of The Witchfinders?

Posted on November 29th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

Now this really is more like it.

From the very beginning of this episode, there’s a swagger, a commitment to drama, and to fun, a sense that everyone involved knows exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. The Doctor ripping off her coat and plunging into that lake is a defining moment for this incarnation. The panicky figure of The Ghost Monument is nowhere to be seen, neither is the stoic back-turner of Rosa and Demons of the Punjab. This is morally-righteous, heroic stuff and all the better for it, with the Chibnall Checklist of Tedium completely absent for the second week in a row.

Other writers have grumbled that the Doctor grumbles when later in the episode, men attempt to sideline her. But it’s precisely because Joy Wilkinson’s script makes her so strong for so much of the episode that these moments don’t undermine her. In fact, throughout there’s proper adventure and jeopardy, real moments of tension, very strong character work, and a much more rich and profound theme than last week’s “Cor, Amazon, eh? What are they like?

There are some moments of clumsy plotting and uncertain geography. Early on, Yaz joins the Doctor and co as they head off to Becka Savage’s mansion. Then, for no real reason, she doubles back just in time to see Willa Twiston menaced by a root. In no time at all, she’s back at the mansion with the Doctor, and then the Doctor and Yaz have to go together all the way back to Willa’s place. Surely that could have been streamlined a little?

And it’s a similar story towards the end, when the Doctor and company are knocked out and then reconvene before the final assault. It doesn’t seem like a long journey, but night falls very quickly.

In general, new director Sallie Aprahamian photographs and paces the whole thing wonderfully. The only real exception is the – as noted, iconic – first ducking stool scene which seems to be over and done with far too quickly to finish off even very elderly Mother Twiston. Did they run out of time? Money? Was it cut down at the last minute, for fear of being too scary for children?

She has also assembled a truly exceptional supporting cast – headed by a wonderfully ludicrous Alan Cumming as a wildly louche King James, who gains just enough depth by the end of the story that we’re forced to take him somewhat seriously. But the great turns keep coming. Here’s Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage, and lovely stuff from Tilly Steel and Tricia Kelly too.

Possibly the weakest part of the episode is the climax, where it all becomes a bit of an RTD style whirl of technobabble and images. But personally, I rather like an RTD-style whirl of technobabble and images, and there’s good thematic stuff going on here with the King putting the witch to the fire and good character stuff too with Willa stepping up to the plate. (Although “Only I know the way,” is a bit of a feeble justification. Even dyspraxic Ryan could find his way to the top of a hill without a sat-nav.)

Ah yes, Ryan. Needless to say, even a writer as skilled as Wilkinson can’t make real characters out of Chibnall’s walking trio of cliches. It’s fun to see Ryan objectified by King James as so many Doctor Who girls were in the seventies, but it only underlines the fact that he has no personality to speak of and no plot function at all. Bradley Walsh continues to grab whatever crumbs are available and Mandip Gill is as personable as ever. But what makes me cross about this episode is that we were denied the version in which it’s just, say, the Doctor and Yaz who land in seventeenth century Lancashire. With three times as many lines, even if the part had been woefully underwritten before, I bet Wilkinson could have given Yaz some real character development. But when all the companion stuff is split into tiny pieces, there really isn’t a chance.

Overall, easily my favorite of the season so far, with only a few minor niggles preventing me from awarding it the full five stars.

I mean, I’ve got to save something for the finale, haven’t I…?

4.5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Kerblam!?

Posted on November 20th, 2018 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Hey, everyone – Doctor Who’s back.

You remember, the quirky sci-fi series in which an eccentric alien visits strange worlds, overthrows oppressors and inspires the rest of the crew of the TARDIS. Yeah?

Okay, let’s get a few negatives out of the way first of all. This is a terrible title for a Doctor Who story, and a fairly terrible idea. Like Russell T Davies’ Bad Wolf the problem with up-to-the-minute satire is that it dates awfully quickly. The setting of a featureless warehouse populated by humans doing menial work is timely now, but unlikely to endure the way that Genesis of the Daleks has.

On the other hand, the Chibnall Check List of Boredom has been entirely abandoned. Even the trio of regulars are given personalities, a stake in the narrative, something to do. I swear Ryan even got a line of dialogue at point. (I think he mentioned his dyspraxia – for the first time since the pilot – while demonstrating his graceful and efficient skill at packing boxes.)

The set-up has a faint whiff of reverse-engineering. We want a warehouse with lots of people who can be spookily bumped off, and we want some creepy robots. But it’s in the far future, so why wouldn’t it be fully automated? I know – there’s a political movement which is pushing for humans to be employed. The robots are fairly ridiculous (not quite as nonsensical as the ones in Smile but close) and there’s clearly no need for human-looking robots when the whole system could be fully automated, but at least someone (presumably first time Who scribe Pete McTighe) has thought about these issues and provided an explanation.

And, you know what, none of this really matters. And the unexplained crisis at the beginning doesn’t matter either, and nor does the startling ease with which the Kerblam! Man penetrates the TARDIS. Because this is a proper adventure. Big name guest stars get killed off horribly in a lovely display of casting profligacy. Tempting clues are left throughout and do then build to something. Compare the sudden power outages in this to the Doctor’s sudden visions of demons early in last week’s episode. One is there for a reason and helps the Doctor and us to unravel the mystery. The other is not only never explained, it actively contradicts the reason given for the aliens’ presence.

And then, as the Doctor starts putting the pieces together, the crisis gets worse! It doesn’t suddenly go away. There are some stumbles in the directing, as poor misguided Charlie just looks around forlornly, waiting for the Bubble Wrap of Doom to explode – and the regular cast just sort of stare back at him. But as a piece of early evening adventure for all the family, it genuinely does work pretty much all the way through.

Not only that, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is starting to emerge. There’s a really engaging childish streak which she’s discovering. Watch her as the instructions not to ride on the conveyor belts are given with increasing clarity and severity. It’s delightful. And what’s the point of being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes?

This was never going to be a five star masterpiece. It’s ambitions are not to rewrite the rules of the series, or push the Doctor to places she’s never been before. There isn’t really much of a theme or deeper meaning here, and what little we do get along those lines is fudged in the ending – it’s not the faceless corporation to blame, it was one of the human workers. Much more The Dominators, much less The Sunmakers. Obvious conclusion – more human workers are needed! Huh?

And the very last scene is fumbled as well. I can (just about) take deadly bubble wrap, but what the hell happened to that joke at the end? Why isn’t written, shot, timed or edited to be light and funny and a neat punchline? It just dribbles away awkwardly.

Looking at Kerblam! in the context of the season as a whole, it’s basically competently written all the way through, but it has rather more than its fair share of niggling execution errors. The other basically entertaining story this year, Arachnids in the UK, arguably aimed a little higher, and had fewer execution errors, but had some rather more fundamental storytelling issues in its last third.

In the end, it’s probably a wash. Four stars and on we go. The question remains – is this a blip of quality or are we ramping up to a rousing conclusion to the series…?

4 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Demons of the Punjab?

Posted on November 14th, 2018 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Here it is. Six episodes in and the first episode without Chris Chibnall’s name attached as writer. We also welcome Doctor Who’s second non-white author (unbelievable that it took this long!). I’m grateful that the subject of the Punjab is being tackled by a writer with some personal connection to the region, but slightly apprehensive that the black British writer gets to tell the black people story and the writer with an Indian heritage gets to tell the Indian story. A bit like the Sylvester McCoy years when we got four stories in a single season all featuring a black performer – hurrah! Except they are all men, and they were the descendent of a cane-cutter, a blues musician, a jazz musician and a rapper.

Early on, the dialogue is a bit exposition-clunky, and the trip to Yaz’s past replays the first act of Father’s Day but with much less care and gravity. Once we arrive in the Punjab however, things take a definite turn for the better. The relationships between the guest cast are strong, well-played and clearly defined (not the regulars, don’t be ridiculous) and the alien menace is genuinely scary.

Jodie Whittaker continues to play this uniquely apologetic, uncertain and clumsy Doctor with enough vim and vigour that much of the time, we don’t notice how apologetic, uncertain and clumsy she is. Stealing the alien teleport devices and using them to make a barrier to keep her friends safe is one of the most Doctor-ish things she’s done since building herself a new sonic screwdriver out of Sheffield steel.

What happens next is disappointing, but not all of that disappointment is this story’s fault.

The alien menace turns out to be entirely benign. That’s clearly far less interesting than everybody’s lives being threatened, but to tell this kind of story occasionally is a nice idea. The huge problem with the Thijarians is that they are almost identical carbon-copies of Steven Moffat’s glass avatars from Twice Upon a Time. Even the visual presentation is the same. So, we have a less exciting version of the aliens than we were promised, we have to deal with the fact that no only has our hero got it wrong (again), she has apparently jumped to negative conclusions based only on appearances, and the true state of affairs is familiar from six stories ago.

This leaves the Doctor with no wrong to right, and no reason to be there. She simply has to walk away, taking Yaz with her, as they cannot interfere in the awful events about to unfold. Again, this is powerful stuff – but overfamiliar from only three stories ago. Overall, this story is better told than Rosa but to replay a weaker version of the climax of that story at the end of this one is a huge let-down after the excellent build up.

This, then, is okay. Better probably than anything this year except Arachnids, which in any other year would have been the all right, nothing special, mid-season filler story, but this year is the “thank goodness for actual Doctor Who at last” story. Vinay Patel is to be congratulated for his careful and detailed work creating the family relationships in 1947. Handed three very thinly-drawn regular cast members, he opts to basically forget they are there. Even Yaz, who should have some kind of stake in the narrative, doesn’t really do anything and Ryan is reduced to just repeating whatever the last person said.

Again, this looks spectacular, but again we have a villain that just fizzles out, a supporting cast with nothing to do and a Doctor who seems a shadow of her former self.

It may also say something about how I’m feeling about the series so far, that I actually forgot this was on until two hours after it had finished.

3.5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of The Tsuranga Conundrum?

Posted on November 9th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

How long did it take to write these scripts?

The Woman Who Fell to Earth was uneven. The Ghost Monument was thin. Rosa was patronising. Arachnids in the UK was serviceable. The Tsuranga Conundrum is a mess.

And it’s the kind of mess that has all the hallmarks of being written in a tearing hurry. Chibnall, of his own volition has written or co-written 60% of the episodes in Series 11. But he’s also had a longer prep time than anyone since Russell T Davies and he’s only got ten episodes instead of thirteen (or fourteen!). Why this half-baked rubbish then?

Let’s start with the good stuff. Once again, this looks fantastic. Both the space junkyard and the space ambulance are beautifully crafted visual treats, effortlessly summoning up whole alien worlds. And trapped-in-a-confined-space-with-a-deadly-creature-on-the-loose is a perfectly viable set-up for an exciting adventure – if rather a familiar one.

But all of Chibnall’s bad habits are fully on display here once again. The carefully set-up mystery of who planted that mine and why is ignored. The terrifying alien menace is once again pointlessly neutered – it doesn’t eat flesh, only machines. How is that an improvement?

It is also either a Machiavellian planner and plotter who is as smart as the human crew, or a blind creature of instinct, depending on the requirements of different parts of the script. It methodically takes out the escape capsules and the smartest person on board at the start of the story and then at the end of the story, blindly allows itself to be outwitted by the simplest of ruses.

The supporting cast is wildly overpopulated once again. The most successful portion of the episode is Brett Goldstein’s stuff with Jodie Whittaker. Their relationship is genuinely interesting, even if it does fall prey to the “have a regular cast of four but only let one of them carry the story” trope which we’ve been putting up with all season. Such a shame he has to get bumped off first.

There follows the second most bizarre scene in the series so far (after the Doctor telling Racist Fonz that he better not get up to any shenanigans while her back is turned instead of actually stopping him or anything now he’s totally powerless). Having successfully ramped up the tension and got some adrenalin going, the Doctor announces that there will now be a seven minute interregnum for measured and flat conversations between the regulars. What the hell am I watching?

Then there’s the business of the Doctor’s injury. Making this uniquely uncertain and panicky Doctor even weaker than usual is a questionable choice, but it does add to the here-again, gone-again tension, and Jodie Whittaker gamely sells the possibly life-threatening wound.

Until she doesn’t and it’s never referred to again. By the time she’s removing the self-destruct (maybe she could have thought of doing that before sacrificing Queen Amidala to the piloting fairy lights of doom) she’s totally recovered, and that whole plot strand has gone nowhere.

Meanwhile, the rest of the regular cast get shunted off into self-contained side plots which add nothing and are not especially interesting. Why bother having a male pregnancy if it’s going to play out exactly the same as a human woman giving birth? We can watch that on Casualty whenever we like. And having let opposition to American gun culture dictate the content of so many recent scripts it’s jarring to say the least to turn on the same programme and get what could be interpreted as anti-abortion rhetoric (although I doubt that was the intention).

The Doctor’s final plan, as noted, is hugely risky and relies entirely on P’tang Yang Kipperbang behaving totally differently than it has done so far. But any other series would have taken the idea of a creature that eats energy and used that to get the cast into more trouble, not less. If it had consumed the explosion and then quadrupled in size, we could have had a really exciting climax. As it was, the Doctor’s plan works, and the whole threat is just over, with no cost, no problem and no fuss. Following the now-standard Chibnall playbook, which flies in the face of every other adventure/drama series ever.

Look, I enjoyed bits of this while it was on. It didn’t lie there comatose like Ghost Monument or play like Children’s BBC, but is nobody reading these scripts before they’re shot anymore?

What is happening to Doctor Who right now?

Three, rather generous stars.

3 out of 5 stars