So… what did I think of the thing with the Sea Devils?

Posted on April 18th, 2022 in Culture | 2 Comments »

I don’t have the energy anymore. I’m sure there’s a detailed, beat-by-beat exploration of this story which no doubt I could write and probably would if I were a bit more motivated, but I am not going to do that today. Instead, please accept these disjointed ramblings and let’s hope for better things to come.

A statue either appears out of thin air, or is just regarded with astonishment by a pirate chick who kills a dude and then releases a thing from the statue. The TARDIS arrives in the wrong place. This is possibly due to some space/time/magnet/gravity thing. Everybody delivers some exposition and then Yas and the Doctor wander off to the TARDIS, to give Dan time to wander off. They make a short jump to the past, secure in the knowledge that they can definitely come straight back, despite the space/time/magnet/gravity thing which makes it impossible to steer the TARDIS. The TARDIS gets swallowed by the Myrka, which is cool. The TARDIS materialises underwater, which is cool. The Doctor delivers a stern rebuke against killing, and then hands Dan a light sabre which he uses to murder all the Sea Devils with a single blow. Someone offers to blow themselves up for the Doctor, which is a self-homage to the end of The Master Shows The Doctor His PowerPoint Presentation or whatever it was called.

Then, because Chris has been reading the forums (never read the forums) and he’s found out that some people want the Doctor and Yasmin to become a couple, he has a scene in which the Time Lord cracks on to the novice policewoman, and then is all like “JK I’m on me own.” This of course takes place during a suitable break in the action because Character Development And Plot Advancement Are Two Very Separate Things Never To Be Confused. Any nuance that might have been developed from this situation is firmly erased, but then so is any complexity regarding the morality of having jolly adventures with pirates or the notion that the Sea Devils have a right to their planet. (“Slight wrinkle there,” says the Doctor and then never refers to the issue ever again.) The Sea Devils’ plan is to cover the planet in water, because two thirds of its surface being covered and the oceans being miles deep in places just isn’t enough room. Great, now we can just kill ’em all without compunction.

This is all shot in such a way as to never look remotely nautical or remotely Asian, edited in such a way that it’s barely possible to tell who is where or what is going on, and acted in the now-standard Blue Peter style. At the end, everyone is friends again, the son warmly embracing the woman who slaughtered his father for being near a statue. Even by the very low standards set by the last three seasons, this was thin, amateurish, will-this-do gibberish, with too much dialogue given to a Sea Devil whose lips don’t move, bizarrely empty ships for COVID reasons, and a supporting cast who do little more than provide a running commentary on whatever is happening in front of them (“He’s forcing them off to die in the water.”) like the world’s shittest magician.

Make it stop. Please, just make it stop.

But – hey! – Ace and Tegan are back.


So… What did I think of Eve of the Daleks?

Posted on January 1st, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

3.5 out of 5 stars
Here’s the top line. That was pretty good. Plenty of the faults of this era are still present, but many were mitigated and all of the extra special Flux and Timeless Child annoyances visited upon us have been temporarily set aside. This was a simple story which – just about – sustained 60 minutes. It wasn’t told in a pointlessly confusing way, nor was it egregiously padded out (much) to fit the running time. There’s a problem, it gets worse, there’s a solution. And, we’re blessed with a couple of guests stars who really elevate the material – Aisling Bea in particular really makes even the poorest dialogue sing.

It seems as if Chris Chibnall’s chief contribution to Doctor Who may be having episodes air on the dates the stories are set, which makes this episode all about New Year’s Eve but transmitting on New Year’s Day all the odder. With any lucky, Rusty will bring back Christmas episodes (and Saturdays, although today is a Saturday). Anyway, let’s meet Sarah whose job is a) running a storage facility and b) doling out exposition while on the phone to Mrs Doyle.

This is a good idea for a story – a storage facility is a great spooky location for an adventure (especially with lighting and direction as good as this) and time loops are fun. But almost immediately there is stupid overwriting. Does this facility really have more employees (two) than customers (one)? And yet, being reliably staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is still an absolute priority for the owner? The same is true of the needlessly high stakes TARDIS fix. Why not land first, then get everyone out, and then trigger the reboot? And just how long does it take these super Daleks with their fancy upgraded super weapons to blow a hole in one thin aluminium door? (They can also teleport it seems – so why not just teleport on to the other side of the door?)

And why does nobody know what a Dalek is? Dan acts like he’s never seen one before and yet he was an active (or at least present) member of a story in which the Doctor deliberately plotted to wipe them all out. (Seems like she needn’t have bothered.) And Sarah and Nick presumably slept through last year’s New Year’s Day special in which the streets of the UK were crawling with the buggers. Also, Sarah (who basically has to run this place singlehanded due to her feckless staff) has never once walked down the corridor in which her only customer has his storage unit until tonight. But her trying to face down a Dalek is some of the best writing we’ve seen in years (at least on episodes credited to the show-runner), and her fumblingly getting to know Nick really does work. “We must have missed each other,” she pathetically lies, hating herself. LOOK! A LINE WITH SUBTEXT! IN A CHRIS CHIBNALL SCRIPT!! IT MUST BE CHRISTMAS!!

Seeing both Nick and Sarah get offed so early is quite shocking – but the lead in to the titles is actually great, even if the other shoe drops almost immediately. Though this isn’t quite a Groundhog Day situation in which people in the time loop remember everything, nor is it TNG’s Cause and Effect where discovering you’re in a time loop is the biggest problem. Here people kind of remember but also kind of don’t, until they definitely do, all of which feels like the weakest possible choice. And the rules of the time loop are desperately fuzzy. Time keeps resetting closer and closer to midnight, which does something to mitigate the inherent lack of drama when you know you’ll always get another go. But reaching midnight is never something we notice – the time loop resets when everyone’s dead, regardless of what time it is, so we have a ticking clock which never counts down to zero.

Now, come on, Chris, you’ve only got five characters to service. You must be able to find something for Yas and Dan to do this time. Sadly, not. There’s lip-service paid to the fact that they need to work together as a team (although the Doctor’s rousing speech is desperately shit and then immediately undercut by the fact that the next go through is their least successful yet). And sure, all five are present and doing… stuff at the end – even Sarah’s mammy. But whereas Sarah and Nick light up the screen as fully rounded characters with agency and appeal and an arc, Yas and Dan just traipse around after the Doctor, as usual. Yes, Dan goes off to “distract a Dalek” at one point but this is just busy-work. It doesn’t change anything. He doesn’t learn anything useful, and the Doctor isn’t noticeably helped by this noble act. In fact, until the climax, she’s even more useless than usual, taking ages to cotton on to what’s happening, alienating everyone and unable to get there in time to save Nick who has to figure out how to duck all by himself.

As usual, there’s a patented story-grinds-to-a-halt-so-characters-can-talk-about-their-feelings-but-not-in-a-way-which-affects-the-plot scene. But if we’re going to have one of those, let it be this one. Poor old Mandip Gill who has stuck with this thankless part for seemingly ever, finally gets to show what she’s capable of. Yes, the line about her and Dan having travelled together for four years is just absurd, and yes, the episode ends by kicking the can down the road yet again, and no this scene doesn’t connect with the rest of the episode thematically or in plot terms – but it does work as a bit of television drama. If only the story it was telling wasn’t one about an abusive relationship. Hey-ho. The fact that Sarah and Nick’s relationship can be developed so smoothly without the plot needing to stop so they can chat makes this device even more irritating. Why is this so easy with characters we’ve only just met and so hard with characters one of whom we first saw in October 2018?

Sarah is not just defined in terms of her relationship to Nick either. Her not trusting the Doctor is very neat. True, it once again undermines the Doctor, but it makes sense, speaks to her character, and complicates the plot without any kind of “special pleading”. And that’s this episode all over. As the story of how Sarah and Nick met under bizarre circumstances and were freed from the time loop and spared from the Daleks by a not very likeable blonde lady in funny clothes who probably caused all this to happen – it’s exciting, looks great and is even funny at times. Not only that, it all just about makes sense, and it’s quite hard to guess the ending. Dragging it down are two extraneous characters who add nothing and quite often just stand around mute, engage in dreadful “bants”, or repeat what other people have already said, but as they’re not on-screen much, the amount of damage they can do is limited.

As usual then, this is first draft stuff, with inconstancies and silliness which a quick script-editor’s pass would have easily fixed. But this is a hugely promising first draft. Unlike pretty much everything from Spyfall onwards (with the possible exceptions of The Haunting of Villa Diodati and Village of the Angels) this doesn’t have any major problems which hole it below the waterline. It works. It’s a story. So Happy New Year everybody.

“Flux” – Doctor Who’s longest ever story?

Posted on December 6th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

Was this the longest story ever?

Well, this brings up a lot of complicated questions, like what do you mean by “longest”? And “story”? And “ever”?

There are various candidates for long Doctor Who stories and opinions differ about what counts as a single story and what doesn’t. If behind-the-scenes production details are key to you, then you might well count The Trial of a Time Lord as four separate stories since that was how it was planned and made. But if you put more stock behind how episodes are presented, than that 1986 season was presented as one story in 14 episodes – until its home video release. You might also consider whether all episodes of a “story” have to be broadcast consecutively. You might even consider the whole of the 16th season to be one long story (“The Key to Time”) since it begins with the Doctor being sent on a quest to locate the pieces of the Key and ends with all six pieces found.

In order to help you make up your own minds, here’s a handy checklist of long Doctor Who stories and where they land on these various criteria. Amuse your friends, annoy your relatives etc.

The Daleks Masterplan (October 1965 – January 1966)

  • Number of episodes: 13
  • Slot length: 25 minutes
  • Rough running time: 13 x 25 = 325 minutes = 5 hours and 25 minutes.
  • One on-screen story title: No, as was standard practice for the era, each episode has its own title
  • Episodes shown consecutively: No, the stand-alone episode without the regular cast “Mission to the Unknown” was shown first, then the four part story “The Myth Makers”, then the remaining 12 episodes of “The Daleks Masterplan”. So you can count this as 12 episodes, instead of 13 if you want, with a total running time of 5 hours.
  • Same writer and director throughout: Terry Nation wrote episodes 0-5 and 7 (counting Mission to the Unknown as episode 0) and Dennis Spooner wrote the rest. Derek Martinus directed Mission to the Unknown and Douglas Camfield directed the remaining 12 episodes.
  • Made as one production: episodes were rehearsed and recorded one a week, as was standard practice for the era.
  • Novelisation / home video: Novelised in two volumes, Mission to the Unknown and The Mutation of Time. The three existing episodes have been released as on DVD.
  • Production code(s): T/A for Mission to the Unknown, V for the remaining episodes.

The War Games (April – June 1969)

  • Number of episodes: 10
  • Slot length: 25 minutes
  • Rough running time: 250 minutes = 4 hours and ten minutes
  • One on-screen story title: Yes
  • Episodes shown consecutively: Yes
  • Same writer and director throughout: Yes
  • Made as one production: episodes were rehearsed and recorded one a week, as was standard practice for the era.
  • Novelisation / home video: Novelised in one volume. Released on a double VHS and a double DVD under the single title The War Games.
  • Production code(s): ZZ

The Key to Time (September 1978 – February 1979)

  • Number of episodes: 26
  • Slot length: 25 minutes
  • Rough running time: 650 minutes = 10 hours and 50 minutes
  • One on-screen story title: No, there are six stories of four episodes each, except the last which is in six episodes
  • Episodes shown consecutively: Yes
  • Same writer and director throughout: No, each story has its own writer and director, although Robert Holmes writes two and David Fisher writes two, while Michael Hayes directs two.
  • Made as one production: Each of the six stories was made as a separate production.
  • Novelisation / home video: Each story was novelised separately. All six stories were released as separate VHS editions. The whole season was released as a DVD box set.
  • Production code(s): Each of the six stories has its own production code from 5A to 5F.

The Trial of a Time Lord (September – December 1986)

  • Number of episodes: 14
  • Slot length: 25 minutes, but episode 14 was given 30.
  • Rough running time: 355 minutes = 5 hours and 55 minutes
  • One on-screen story title: Yes, episodes are only identified as “The Trial of a Time Lord, part X”
  • Episodes shown consecutively: Yes
  • Same writer and director throughout: No, five episodes are written by Robert Holmes, four by Philip Martin and five by Pip and Jane Baker. Four episodes were directed by Nicholas Mallet, four by Ron Jones and six by Chris Clough.
  • Made as one production: Made as four productions, even though parts 9-12 and parts 13-14 share a production code (all work on parts 13-14 was completed first, then work on parts 9-12 began, even though they shared sets and actors). They were later novelised and released on home video as four separate stories.
  • Novelisation / home video: Novelised in four volumes. Released as three VHS box set, as a DVD box set and as a Blu-Ray season box set.
  • Production code(s): 7A, 7B and 7C.

Flux (October – December 2021)

  • Number of episodes: 6
  • Slot length: 50-60 minutes
  • Rough running time: 325 minutes = 5 hours and 25 minutes
  • One on-screen story title: Yes and no. Each episode is given the overall title “Flux” as well as a chapter number and an individual title.
  • Episodes shown consecutively: Yes
  • Same writer and director throughout: Chris Chibnall wrote all six episodes and shares credit with Maxine Alderton on episode four. Jamie Magnus Stone directed three episodes and Azhur Saleem the other three
  • Made as one production: Made in two production blocks, one for each director.
  • Novelisation / home video: Released as a season box set on DVD and Blu-ray.
  • Production code(s): N/A

Calculating run-times discounting opening and closing credits and episode recaps is left as an exercise for the reader.

So… what did I think of The Vanquishers?

Posted on December 5th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

We’ve seen plenty of promising set-ups undone by poorly-thought-out finales during modern Doctor Who, of course. Almost none of Steven Moffat’s final episodes live up to the promise of the penultimate instalments – with the apotheosis of this trend being Heaven Sent / Hell Bent, one half of which is a total triumph of the television arts, the other half of which is wildly undisciplined, often makes very little sense and doesn’t earn any of the emotional beats it strains for.

This was rather different. The previous five episodes had been so poor in execution that it was scarcely possible for the final chapter to redeem them – but the concept of the season as a whole was also completely wrong-headed. When reviewing Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, I noted that the Doctor spends some time early in the episode acquiring a temporary gang to surround himself with – behaviour so peculiar he is forced to comment on it, in the hope that that will make it seem more understandable (it doesn’t). It’s scarcely a surprise that when the end of the story comes, each of these people has a skill-set which exactly meets a need which the plot presents the team with. It’s a version of James Bond using each gadget he’s given by Q exactly once. It’s basically a set-up and payoff, if you squint, but ideally you need not to notice that the set-ups are being set-up at the time.

It’s the same here, but with the volume turned up to eleven, the jump-cutting gone bananas and the technobabble so thick you could eat it  with a spoon (or a quantum neutrino artron spoon, I suppose). I could, and I suppose I will, make a list of things which didn’t make any sense, but honestly, what was the point of any of this? It’s not an epic battle for the safety of the universe in any meaningful way, none of the characters get a chance to register and the whole thing is littered with cargo-cult drama.

Let’s define that term for a moment. In the 1940s, westerners landed planes full of amazing cargo on remote islands and then buggered off again. The islanders, hopeful that more planes would visit, recreated the landing strip, lights and so on, turned into a religious ritual. They copied the form of what they had seen without understanding its function or purpose.

We’ve seen this since early in Series 11. Chris Chibnall dimly recalls that the Doctor doesn’t like guns, so he has her resort to non-artillery forms of fatal despatch, or condemns her foes to the torture of a long slow death rather than a quick painless one – while trumpeting her superior morality. She walks up to weeping angels, taunting them by blinking, because Chris Chibnall dimly recalls that blinking is a bad thing to do near an angel, but he’s forgotten why. And here, he dimly recalls that having a sympathetic character die at the end gives the audience a rush of emotion, but Jericho’s death is pointless and stupid and meaningless.

So, because the story ends with the Earth intact, friendly characters restored to their right time and place, and the threat of the Flux withdrawn, we get a feeling of satisfaction. But the entire edifice collapses under the weight of a moment’s introspection, there are no emotional beats that feel earned or worthwhile and the tactic of starting the story off with a flurry of different characters and locations didn’t remotely pay off, because most of them stand around doing nothing during the climax – fairly standard for this writer but particularly galling when so much effort has been expended to set them all up. While the contrived neatness of the Dinosaurs on a Spaceship gang feels first draft, forced, laboured – at least it is contrived. This is just excess for the sake of excess.

Okay, if you can bear it, let’s go through some of the things that didn’t work, didn’t make sense or left me confused. Let’s start by noticing – as I didn’t in my review of last week’s episode – that among a series of easily-dismissed cliffhangers, the shocking end of episode four turned out not merely to be undone almost instantly, not merely to be yet another seemingly-fatal-event-revealed-as-taxi-service-to-the-next-bit-of-plot, but in fact the angels delivering the Doctor to the precise place and person that she had been seeking at the start of chapter one. <PITCH MEETING>Oh very convenient psychopathic killers!</PITCH MEETING>

The “previously on…” montage seemed to blend into the beginning of the episode proper, which is cut so rapidly that it gave the whole episode a previously on… energy (a device employed for real by The Good Fight recently, but here just the result of trying to pack too much into 60 minutes).

What will Swarm and Azure do now they have the Doctor in their grasp? Well, they will split her through time enabling her to be exactly wherever she needs to be in order to foil their plans. The rest of their time together is spent portentously announcing the same kind of gibberish we’ve been hearing since Fugitive of the Judoon until they obediently commit suicide and let the Doctor go. Nothing that happens in this part of the plot matters at all. There are a couple of lines about the Flux not being quite as bad because of some Oodling around, but honestly, it doesn’t make a difference. The Flux (and the Flux part two) have had such wildly inconsistent destructive powers that it scarcely matters if the Ood turns the volume down a bit – or up a bit, or anything.

The Sontaran takeover of an Earth surrounded by a shield of Lupari ships continues not to have any reality whatsoever. If it was happening, presumably it would look a lot like what we already saw in episode two. In which case, why did we spend an entire episode establishing how easily-defeatable the Sontarans are, before revealing them as the season’s Big Bad? Their plan just about makes sense, but it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone overmuch, and at the end of the day, when it’s used against them, it’s just a light show.

You can’t say the same about the Williamson tunnels which allow visitors to travel to other worlds and other times. Williamson dug the tunnels to connect these different portals he had discovered, which is a neat trick given that he must have excavated first in order to have seen these portals. He then did more digging because he thought that yet more tunnels would give humanity somewhere to hide from the end of the world. The thought of making a shelter somewhere further from the destructive power of these portals did not occur to him, it seems. And lo – he was mocked for his foolishness, despite the fact that all he had to do was walk unbelievers into one of these portals and they would have seen with their own eyes he was telling the truth. He is dismissed from the narrative, having served his purpose, which was… nothing I can easily recall. Nothing about the tunnels solves the problem of the Flux or does anything other than muddle an already complicated narrative and provide a feeble justification for people meeting up who have no business being re-united. This is Chibnall’s habit of “I need this character to be here, so now they are,” taken to ludicrous extremes.

On which subject, having three Doctors knocking around does at least give the central character some agency, but at the cost of stopping anyone else from having anything to do. Yas and Dan come off worst, as usual. As far as I can recall, neither of them does anything other than gawp for the entire run-time. Kate Stewart from 2017 procures a TARDIS abandoned in 1967 and delivers it to the Doctor in 1904 by means not disclosed and then takes Vinder’s moment of triumph away from him by pointing a second, redundant gun at The Grand Serpent – and now she’s done for the day too.

Ah yes, The Grand Serpent. It’s passably amusing I suppose that the Doctor takes the piss out of his silly name, even if this is this week’s script taking the piss out of how poor last week’s script was, but again, The Grand Serpent doesn’t really have a role to play here either. Everything the Sontarans are doing they could have done without him, and evidently they could have done it all with or without UNIT in place to defend the Earth. But they’re made to look and sound ridiculous by having a stupid obsession with candy bars, so that’s nice.

There probably are explanations as to what Jericho and Claire are doing on the Sontaran ship, what the Sontarans think they are doing, why they wanted them to do it, and what happened as a result, but I didn’t pick them up. The Doctor’s sacrifice of Jericho would have been pretty hard to take if his death was the only way in which the threat could be neutralised. It’s kind of nauseating here, since it amounts only to – oops, butterfingers.

What’s far, far harder to take is that every single one of the six billion Lupari have been murdered to protect the Earth. At the end of the episode, as everyone congratulates themselves on a job well done, Karvanista doesn’t seem any more than mildly peeved at this slaughter. Remember, he began the episode fully intent on killing the Doctor and Yas because she had dared to ask him about the Division. Now she’s responsible (in part) for the wholesale massacre of his entire race, every single person he ever knew or loved, a grudging respect seems to have formed between them. What must really grind his gears is that he can fly every single one of those six billion Lupari ships on his own by remote control. So really all of his friends, colleagues, family and associates could have stayed safe at home. <PITCH MEETING>Whoops! Whoopsie!</PITCH MEETING>

I could go on, but honestly it’s too tiring. This exhausting series has been characterised by juxtaposition over dramatic action, whirling pixels over personal jeopardy, confusion over mystery and a total unwillingness to grapple with the ideas the story has presented. When Yas and the Doctor have their heartfelt chat at the end, it almost – for an instant – feels as if, at the eleventh hour, Flux might be about to give us something with some kind of meaning, even a cargo cult version of it. But no, comedy Dan is here to ruin the moment. Phew. Hurrah for comedy Dan.

There will be time to put the Chibnall/Whittaker era in its proper context soon. When we get to November 2023, we’ll be able to see not just how we got here, but also where we went. For now, it remains inconceivable to me that a writer this incapable of basic characterisation, cause-and-effect plotting or sayable dialogue should have been put in charge of the BBC’s flagship show, and equally inconceivable that he thought himself at all capable of handling a story this vast and sprawling.

I haven’t given stars for any of these episodes. With the previous two seasons, I think I was probably a bit too generous, as early optimism forced me to tack on extra points for “just being Doctor Who” or somesuch. That optimism now having evaporated, I think I would probably take a whole star off pretty much everything after The Woman Who Fell to Earth because even the best instalments are labouring under the weight of terrible series-wide decisions. With these episodes, I guess Sontarans on Horseback is worth two out of five, and Oh Look It’s the Angels Again might struggle up to three. The rest are all zeroes across the board, because they never actually cohere into stories.

What a fucking shame.

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.

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.