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.

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.

So… what did I think about Arachnids in the UK?

Posted on November 1st, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

Okay… so… that was… better. It certainly felt more like Doctor Who anyway.

Why don’t we start with the good stuff?

The regular cast, although still thinly-drawn, are beginning to emerge slowly. This should have been Yas’s episode, but in fact she’s rather overshadowed by the enormous number of guest cast, and Ryan’s dyspraxia wasn’t mentioned, reducing him from Teen-with-Dyspraxia to just Teen. (We know he’s a teenager because he listens to something called “Stormzy”.) But Mandip Gill does much with little and Bradley Walsh continues to impress.

Then there’s actual jeopardy and adventure! Giant (very, very well-realised) spiders come smashing through bathtubs and legit mandible a guy to death. There’s an American tycoon whose resemblance to Trump, while painstakingly obvious, isn’t too cartoony – certainly no clumsier than Henry van Statten and played by a more famous, charismatic and skilled actor.

We also get a Doctor who begins, in flickers and starts, to sound and behave like the Doctor. Trying to talk to the spider in the neighbour’s flat, figuring out where the epicentre of the spider activity is, and thinking Robertson might be Ed Sheeran all really worked.

And the science-fiction adventure plot largely worked. A proper threat. A reason for people to be in danger. Something resembling a resolution. And some amazing visuals, not just the underground spider breeding lair, but also the TARDIS in the vortex at the beginning.

There are some negatives, however. The supporting cast was hugely over-stuffed. Did we really need a fired mum, a spider expert, a whistle-blower and a sacrificial bodyguard as well as the family members who get left behind in the flat? Surely some of those could have been collapsed into one, given we have a regular cast of four to service every week?

And Graham’s scene mourning poor old Grace is lovely – but it gives me the queasy sense that this version of Doctor Who divides people into two groups: those whose deaths actually matter, who will be mourned, whose passing leaves a void where they once were; and people who get bumped off in the course of a rollicking adventure to make it seem scarier, and who never get referred to ever again. Now, Doctor Who has always cared more about some lives than others, but it’s rarely been this blatant, partly because we’ve never spent much time in the company of grief before. Almost as if it doesn’t really work in the context of a science-fantasy show for all the family.

Then, there’s the resolution. Firstly, simply luring the spiders to Chekhov’s Panic Room (it would have been much nicer to have had the Doctor guess that Robertson had a panic room, because he’s the type; avoiding deus ex machina endings only works when you are also careful to conceal the set-ups) and leaving them to die slowly is a pretty limp ending, coming at no cost to anyone, whether real or potential. But, this stupid business of “guns are bad, but killing is fine” won’t go away. Robertson shoots a slowly-suffocating spider through the head, claiming it was a mercy killing. You know what? I’m with Robertson. Assuming the spider can register pain and fear, I don’t think it much cares that gun control is hot political topic on another continent, 3000 miles away. Given the choice between a slow agonising death and a bullet to the brain, I think it would pick the bullet.

More to the point, is letting these creatures slowly suffocate or starve the best she can do? Isn’t there another planet they can be taken to? A way to curb their murderous instincts? Anything but this cheerful horror-show.

So, let’s look at our Chibnall Check List.

No real sense of jeopardy or threat? This was a really exciting episode with good suspense and adventure sequences.

Whole team trails behind the Doctor who does almost all the plot heavy-lifting? Kinda. There are some good character moments in the first half, but the resolution only actually requires Robertson to have a panic room, and someone to vibrate something. Everyone else just stands around and watches. That said, the opening scene in the hotel is good, Shobna Gulati does excellent work and so does Tanya Fear.

Long conversation with bizarrely impotent villain? The spiders (thankfully) can’t talk, and the conversations with Robertson are fairly good.

The threat just vanishes at the 42 minute mark? Check.

The Doctor professes not to use guns, but the enemy is dispatched with lethal force in any event? Check.

So, we’re heading in the right direction – at last – and I had a lot of fun watching the first 35 minutes, and even quite liked the very end, in which our trio make the positive choice to travel with the Doctor. I just get the weird sensation that this version of the show might not be for me anymore. A feeling I’ve genuinely never had before.

Anyway, for what they’re worth, four stars.

So… what did I think of Rosa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… what did I think of The Ghost Monument?

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

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

Where to start with this one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scenery really was nice though.

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

What did I think of The Woman Who Fell to Earth

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

It’s another clean sweep then.

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

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

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

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

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

And then Jodie Whittaker arrives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… what did I think of Twice Upon A Time?

Posted on December 27th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Give me a second to blow the dust off. Right, there we go. Hello everyone.

As what I fondly imagine are “regular readers” will recall, I was, by and large, hugely impressed with Series Ten of Doctor Who, and the two-part season finale in particular I thought was a total triumph, one of Steven Moffatt’s very best scripts for the series, brilliantly orchestrated by Rachel Talalay and anchored by a titanic performance from Peter Capaldi. I was fully on-board for the gimmick of regenerating Doctor meets regenerating Doctor and so was beside myself with anticipation for this year’s Christmas special.

What we got was… unexpected.

The opening was glorious, clips from The Tenth Planet artfully merged with recreated scenes, until finally Doctor meets Doctor in the nostalgically studio-bound polar wastes. But for the first forty minutes or so, this was pretty flaccid stuff. True, both Doctors played their parts to the hilt – although as usual the returning Doctor is a pastiche version rather than an accurate evocation of the real thing. The most outré lines though, were accurate Hartnell quotes. Mark Gatiss too plays his part with real feeling and sensitivity, and of course it’s a delight to have Bill Potts back, and even more of a delight to see her wandering around a beautifully-recreated classic TARDIS.

But where’s the jeopardy? Where’s the drama? Where, in short, is the plot? As delightful as it is to have Peter Capaldi and David Bradley exchanging well-crafted zingers, put-downs and in-jokes (“Mr Pastry”) the whole thing seems almost entirely inert, and that allows nagging questions to start to impinge. Just why exactly does two Doctors meeting in 1986 pluck a dying soldier from the battlefield in 1914? Why is such a big issue being made of Bill’s identity if no solution proffered is going to prove acceptable to the Doctor? And why on Earth are we risking life and regenerating limb to double check Nikki Amuka-Bird’s story with Rusty the Dalek from the forgettable Series Eight story?

If that was all this story had to offer, I would be pretty pissed off by now. Luckily, the last fifteen minutes are something a bit special. From the Christmas Eve Armistice onwards, the story suddenly takes flight. An evil villain plotting the downfall of our heroes still fails to materialise, but the rich themes of sacrifice, honour, friendship and kindness come to the fore, and the returning companions are handled with much more grace and subtlety than Karen Gillan’s reprise of Amy in the very unsatisfactory Time of the Doctor.

The regeneration itself – alone as it was the last time a Doctor and a showrunner departed together – was a little laboured, but who could really argue for cutting Capaldi’s final barnstorming performance? And lo! There she is. The Doctor. All blonde hair, wide eyes and in the most terrible trouble, plunging to certain death out of the TARDIS doors. Oh brilliant.

 

So – some housekeeping.

To briefly recap, Steven Moffat’s first three seasons were characterised by vaulting ambition which rapidly out-reached the series’ ability to attain them. While the arc-plot collapsed into further and further gibberish, only a few stand-out episodes survived (The Girl Who Waited, A Good Man Goes to War, The Crimson Horror and especially The Doctor’s Wife) despite Matt Smith’s supple performance.

With Capaldi at the helm, the seas were calmer. The last series alone boasted Thin Ice, Oxygen and The Pyramid at the End of the World which would be poll-winners in any year which didn’t include World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. So, Chibnall and Whittaker inherit a series in rude health. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

Lastly, this blog will probably not spring back into the kind of life which it enjoyed in its heyday, but I will be recording some probably fairly brief Oscar reviews in the coming weeks and months, when I can find time away from my new podcast – Best Pick.

So… what did I think of the end of Series Ten?

Posted on July 3rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

As the Capaldi era comes to an end, Steven Moffat has just three more chances to show us that his technical brilliance, his love for the programme and his vaulting ambition can work together to provide some really terrific storytelling, and not get in each other’s way as they are so wont to do.

The opening of World Enough and Time is unbelievably cheeky, with Missy proclaiming “I am Doctor Who and these are my expendables – Exposition and Comic Relief.” This almost feels last-day-of-school, but Moffat, guardian of the legacy, is always careful to provide a canon-friendly interpretation of the lines.

We find ourselves on board a miles-long spaceship, fighting the gravity well of a black hole, such that it is experiencing massive time dilation effects. This is a lovely science fiction concept, based in real physics, it’s just a shame that we saw another, slightly less rigorous version, last week. Suddenly, shockingly, Bill Potts gets a hole visibly blasted through her middle and then Cybermen bundle her off to the floors below. Although – if the Cybermen are evolving on the very bottom floors, where time is running the slowest, surely it should take them decades to even notice the presence of humans on the upper levels?

While the Doctor debates and argues, Bill makes friends with a shambling Fagin-like figure in the hospital on the ground floor. A lot of this is just vamping, and it’s slightly annoying that the time dilation isn’t ramped up just a little bit more. We know full well that the “hospital” is a cyber-conversion centre so the suspense is when and not if Bill will be fully converted. But the scenes of the Doctor working the problem feel a bit lifeless, which is a shame when the time dilation means that the Doctor and company could have headed straight for the lift and still been years getting down to where Bill is.

What’s brilliant about the stuff with Bill is how cleverly Moffat uses parts of the mythology which have gone unnoticed until now and provides justifications for them. Just as Clara’s calm words get turned into Dalek ranting in The Witch’s Familiar, and so we understand why Daleks sound the way they do, here the Cyber chest-units are retconned into elaborate surgical heart-replacements. And don’t the “Mondasian” Cybermen look fantastic?

About half way through the episode, I caught myself musing “I wonder when John Simm is going to show up,” and then I instantly realised that that’s who Fagin was. I honestly don’t think I would ever have got there without the advanced publicity. Shame on you, BBC.

Finally, at the episode’s end it all comes together. The Master is unveiled, Bill is converted, and the Doctor is at a loss. It’s a great part one, emphasising personal loss and avoiding the diminishing returns which set in when writers start trying to raise the stakes by having the threat become greater and greater.

The Doctor Falls takes an hour to wrap up – well sort of – what the previous episode began, but compare to season finales past, never seems hurried or over-stuffed. It’s nice to see the Doctor on the front foot so early on, springing into action and escaping to higher floors. The location footage on Sam Spiro’s farm somewhat fights the notion that we are on a gigantic spaceship, but there are sufficient reminders so this just about works and Rachel Talalay handles this visual conundrum very well indeed.

Shooting cyber-Bill as Pearl Mackie means we never forget the person inside the tin suit, and keeps hope alive that she will be returned, even if the rest of the script is dismantling that hope piece-by-piece. Her plight is hugely affecting and it’s clear that – for once – Moffat is thinking through the human side of the dilemma he’s created instead of just writing crossword puzzle clues for the viewers to solve.

The time dilation works for and against our heroes. On the one hand, it means that the Cybermen have time to evolve (another lovely piece of ret-conning – the Cybermen are not unique to Mondas or Telos, or Marinus(!), but are an inevitable by-product of technological advancement). But it also means that with each floor you go up, it takes them longer to follow. So Nardole figuring out how to selectively blow up parts of the ship buys them time, but more time than it might have done otherwise. (Although the justification that Nardole’s remote control device can’t be controlled remotely is astonishingly feeble.)

From here – the story follows three tracks. The fate of Bill. The fate of the children. The fate of the Master. They don’t really affect each other, which is not perhaps ideal. The Master can be removed from the story entirely without anything changing, but unlike the pointless cameo from Clare Higgins in Hell Bent, here they serve not just as something to cut away to, but underline the real point of the story, and indeed the point of the Doctor. I would have liked it underlined that the Master(s) leave the children to die not because they refuse to be kind, but because they are cowardly. But nevertheless, the Doctor’s desperate plea that they stand and fight with him, and their ironic mutual destruction add immeasurably to the episode’s bleak tone.

Bill of course, finds a saviour, in the form of The Pilot from Episode One. Again – serialised storytelling done right. This is not vaguely mentioning a past event in order to get a fanwanky cheer. This is setting up a figure with clearly defined abilities and proclivities and then dropping her back into the narrative when she’s needed.

The fate of the children and Nardole is rather less clear. The Doctor is totally backed into a corner here. Wounded, dying even. An army of cybermen below him which will only grow bigger. One opportunity to get innocents out of the line of fire. All he can do is send them a few floors up and hope that they have a few extra months or years – either to live and grow and be happy, or to think of another plan.

The Doctor himself, meanwhile, fighting off regeneration, stumbles out of the TARDIS and into the snowy landscape, presumably of the North Pole c. 1986 and meets – himself.

Well, we’ll judge this audacious move on the merits of the Christmas special, but let’s try and assess this two parter on its own merits.

Clearly, it’s by far the best finale Steven Moffat has written. The Big Bang barely makes any sense, and coming off the back of The Pandorica Opens with its absurd Monster Convention, it’s amazing that it works at all on any level. The Wedding of River Song is total gibberish, failing to wrap up the Lake Silencio storyline in any satisfactory way, and providing next to nothing in terms of narrative coherence. The Name of the Doctor doubles down on this kind of unintelligibility, although The Time of the Doctor makes it look like a masterpiece of structure. Time is surely the worst regeneration episode in the entire show’s history.

Under the firm leadership of Peter Capaldi, things improve. Death in Heaven isn’t a patch on Dark Water, but is still far better than any of the Smith finale episodes (maybe on a par with The Big Bang). Hell Bent, alas squanders the considerable capital built up by Heaven Sent, but this year’s pair work beautifully together to tell a complicated science-fiction story, that keeps its focus on the characters we love and care about, which doesn’t try and pack too much in to its running time, and which lets five amazing actors do wonderful work together. It’s telling how much more apocalyptic this feels than The Big Bang for example, not because the fate of the universe is threatened, but because the Doctor gives so much to eke out a draw against impossible odds.

A few little niggles in both episodes prevent me from offering up a full five stars but I’ll happily give four and a half to both.

Overall, this has been another very strong season, with only Smile and Knock Knock really letting the side down. Extremis makes not a whit of sense but is quite fun while it’s on and all the others have been good to great. Here’s my final ranking.

  1. World Enough and Time
  2. The Doctor Falls 
  3. The Pyramid at the End of the World 
  4. Oxygen 
  5. Thin Ice 
  6. The Lie of the Land 
  7. The Eaters of Light 
  8. Empress of Mars 
  9. The Pilot 
  10. Extremis 
  11. Knock Knock
  12. Smile 

And just for fun, let’s compare this to the rankings on Gallifrey Base to see just how in-tune or out-of-step I am with Doctor Who fans across the world.

  1. World Enough and Time 91%
  2. The Doctor Falls 86%
  3. Oxygen 82%
  4. Extremis 79%
  5. The Pilot 76%
  6. Thin Ice 74%
  7. Knock Knock 74%
  8. Empress of Mars 73%
  9. The Pyramid at the End of the World 73%
  10. The Eaters of Light 69%
  11. Smile 67%
  12. The Lie of the Land 64%

The fondness for Oxygen as well as the finale two-parter doesn’t surprise me, nor does how much people like Extremis. The excellent Pyramid coming so low down, beneath the awful Knock Knock is very surprising, and I would never have picked The Lie of the Land as the season’s worst. I wonder why people disliked it so much?

One more Capaldi episode to go. See you at Christmas…

So… what did I think of The Eaters of Light?

Posted on June 23rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

I don’t remember whether or not, as I sat and watched Survival in December 1989, I knew I was watching the last episode of Doctor Who for the foreseeable future. Over ten years, I’d watched this stalwart of British TV get shunted around the schedules, have its season lengths slashed, and finally I’d watched it get shut down and pensioned off.

When the series came back (properly came back), sixteen years had passed. Yes, we got the Daleks back, but without Roy Skelton and without John Scott Martin. The Cybermen returned, but David Banks and Michael Kilgariff remained absent. The Master returned, but Geoffrey Beevers stayed at home. It was a new broom. A new team. About the only exception to this implacable rule was director Graeme Harper. (Thinking of other exceptions is left as an exercise for the reader.)

So, when last week Ysanne Churchman reprised her role as Alpha Centauri, it seemed only fitting that this week was the first time a classic series writer returned to the fold. Rona Munroe created the planet of the Kitlings, and it is she who now brings us The Eaters of Light.

Before we gear up for the no-doubt dementedly epic two-part finale we take a break from serialised storytelling and just go for a yarn. This is a pretty good one, albeit kicked off by the fairly unlikely premise that Bill Potts, yes, that Bill Potts, would be so invested in the fate of the ninth Legion of the Imperial Roman Army that she would have to go and see for herself. What she in fact finds is one of the best-designed and executed monsters the series has ever done, linked with a strong science-fiction device that actually seems to make sense and to work. All this and a nifty moral dilemma too.  If this is non-epic, non game-changing, Doctor Who business-as-usual, then I’m all for it.

There is a slight issue, as there so often is, with the cannon-fodder cast not always being too readily distinguishable, but Rebecca Benson does well as Kar, and so do Brian Vernal and Sam Adewunmi on the Roman side. But after a week in which they were slightly overshadowed by the guest cast, this time around the regulars really get to shine. Ten episodes in and the writers still haven’t got bored of the concept of Bill asking all those questions which have never been asked before, which is great because neither have I. But this is easily the best Nardole episode yet, playing right into Matt Lucas’s comedy talents without him ever becoming annoying.

The Stones of Blood style opening probably isn’t needed. Either this was a set-up for a pay-off later deleted, or a last-minute addition to bulk out the running time. The tag with Missy obviously belongs to the next story and not this one, so I’ll overlook it for now. And the nonsense with the crows is a hideous stumble, bringing back horrid memories of Matt Smith claiming he can speak baby. But overall, this is fine stuff, funny, exciting and properly thought through with Charles Palmer doing a fantastic job behind the camera. Four stars.

So… what did I think of The Lie of the Land?

Posted on June 12th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Endings are tough, as this blog has observed before, and following the excellent Pyramid at the End of the World was never going to be easy. And The Lie of the Land made a decent fist of it, while not quite scaling the same heights.

The time jump helps enormously, defining this as its own story, linked to but separate from the two (or three?) earlier installments. People who compile lists of Doctor Who stories (how tragic!) worry endlessly about whether The Trial of a Time Lord is one story or four (or three) (it’s four) or whether the Return of the Master sequence at the end of Series Three is one story or two (or three) (it’s one). As I observed last week, this is serialised storytelling done right, and that means I have no hesitation in calling “The Monk Trilogy” three stories.

It’s not just the fact of it’s being a trilogy which calls Last of the Time Lords to mind, nor the brief presence of the Master. The whole dystopian Earth subjugated by fascist overlord aesthetic seems familiar both from this and Turn Left, especially because in all three versions, the companion is forced to survive separated from the Doctor. The nifty turn here is that the Doctor is broadcasting propaganda videos on behalf of the oppressors.

All the most interesting stuff surrounds the Doctor’s apparent turncoat shenanigans, culminating in the powerful and cheeky confrontation between Bill and Capaldi, complete with faux-regeneration light-show, so handy for casting-related trailer internet chatter. What follows is rather less interesting, not least because the whole set-up screams “reset button”. In Turn Left, this is not an issue, because the whole episode is a might-have-been. In Last of the Time Lords, Russell goes to tremendous lengths to make sure that the year-that-never-was is remembered by some people, so there is a least some cost to the Master’s cruelty.

Here, once the Monk’s spell is broken, it’s business as usual very quickly, so the only point of interest is the manner of their despatch. This is thought through, again using material developed earlier in the season in an intelligent way, without making the whole thing a Gordian Plot of bewildering complexity. But Bill’s sacrifice doesn’t really resonate, because it’s just vastly unlikely that her mind-meld actually will kill her, and because it just doesn’t and for no very good reason.

Bridging the gap between these two halves (one very strong, the other serviceable but slightly uninspired) is another confrontation between the Doctor and Missy. Far more than the much-hyped but rather empty Doctor/Davros scenes in Series Nine, the issues explored here are genuinely fascinating, and Michelle Gomez continues to find new things to do with the character, deepening and broadening a figure who was once the very epitome of a moustache-twirling pantomime villain.

So this is an easy four stars. Very far from a catastrophic let-down, but not quite delivering the clarity, originality and depth of the previous installment.

And… what did I think of The Empress of Mars?

Mark Gattis is nothing if not prolific. With nine scripts for the series under his belt, only the two show-runners have written more for the modern day incarnation of the show and he is only beaten by Terry Nation and Robert Holmes in the classic era. However, the quality of his output ranges from the excellent (The Crimson Horror) to the serviceable (The Idiot’s Lantern, Cold War) to the downright terrible (Robot of Sherwood, Sleep No More).

This story is absolutely in his wheelhouse, combining his love for England and Empire with his knowledge of Doctor Who’s past, with his somewhat carefree relationship with technology (how Victorian technology is pressed into space-faring service is never really explained).

The teaser is a bit Moffat-by-the-numbers with the Doctor and Bill on a lackadaisical tourist trip to no real purpose, but the reveal of the message under the Martian ice is interesting enough and once we get to Mars, the visuals are eye-poppingly brilliant. I’m a bit disgruntled by once again, putting the actors in great big uncomfortable space suits and then having them take off the helmets on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Instead of a handful of human cannon-fodder, we get a small army of redcoats to worry about, but it’s a tribute to the writing, directing, casting and acting that the three principals – Godsacre, Catchlove and Jackdaw all manage to distinguish themselves and avoid all blurring together. And the double-crossing plot does seem to make sense at first viewing. “Friday” exploits the greed of the human soldiers for assistance in rescuing his queen, who first turns on her saviours and then grudgingly respects the nobility of their leader.

The updated version of the Ice Warrior’s sonic weapon is absolutely brilliant, a fantastic 3D evocation of the Mylar-wobble that Leader Clent and Commander Radnor had to worry about, and Adele Lynch chews up all the scenery available (and has the false teeth to do it) as Queen Iraxxa. And while, as noted, the magic Victorian spacesuits don’t really make any sense, in general the sight of a Zulu-style steampunk British Army facing off against some “upright crocodiles” seems joyfully silly as opposed to offensively stupid the way those spitfires in space did.

What’s missing I suppose is any sense of real depth or surprise. There are interesting issues here which Doctor Who has been keen to tackle lately, but the Empire-building British forces are thinly drawn and there is very little moral dimension to their actions, beyond what the plot requires. Similarly, while the story unfolds very smoothly and fairly satisfyingly, there are hardly any heart-in-the-mouth goodness-whatever-will-happen-next moments.

I think the disappearance of the TARDIS is meant to be like that (it provokes the Doctor to exclaim “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” which feels totally wrong) but this is evidently another script written before Matt Lucas agreed to come on board, so the whole jaunt with Nardole and Missy feels like it’s coming from another story entirely. And while Capaldi and Mackie do everything that’s asked of them, neither really gets any opportunity to show what they’re capable of here, leaving Anthony Calf to walk off with the acting honours.

So, this is probably three-and-a-half stars if we’re being fair, but I’ll bump it up to four for the reappearance of Ysanne Churchman – returning to the series after 43 years which must be some kind of record.