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

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

Arghh!! So close!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s it. We’re done for 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Oscars 2019: First Man

Posted on December 11th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

Image result for first man movie

First Man has all the trappings of an Oscar triumph. True to life story of American heroism? Check. Opportunity for visionary filmmaker tocreate indelible images? Check. Strong Oscar pedigree among creative team?Check. Box office smash hit… eh, not so much.

Damian Chazelle is an undeniably talented filmmaker, and – far more than the rather low-stakes and meandering La La Land – his new filmshares a lot of DNA with his first big hit Whiplash. Again, we are plunged intothe action with precious little in the way of explanation or backstory. Again, we are left to impose our own thought processes on to a stubbornly taciturnleading man. But here, rather than focusing on an intensely human battle ofwills, with a (frankly rather odd conception of) jazz music as the background,we instead have one of the most audacious engineering projects in the historyof the twentieth century as our story material.

The problem is that Neil Armstrong isn’t the most pivotal figure in this story. The Right Stuff succeeds partly because it finds a very specific angle from which to come at this tale – who are the people who will fly these machines and what qualities do they need to have? – and because of director Philip Kaufman’s determinedly quirky approach. The other companion film to these two is 2016’s Hidden Figures, which successfully finds an untold and very human story, but squanders it in unambitious, sitcom-level execution.

Not only does Armstrong spend the movie obediently carrying out the wishes of others, rather than being a wilful hero who makes decisions and controls his own destiny, the very facets of his personality which make him ideal for the job – calm under pressure, presents well, not prone to outbreaks of emotion – also make him a pretty dull hero for a movie. In this regard, Ryan Gosling is an excellent choice. His movie-star stoicism translates very well into Armstrong’s patient heroics.

What Chazelle attempts is a portrait of a marriage. Second-billed Claire Foy should have an equal stake in the narrative, but when he’s flying a rocket to the moon, and she’s at home hoping her intercom connection to mission control won’t be cut off, it’s hard to see them as equals. This version of the film suddenly crackles into life when Foy makes him sit down and tell their kids that there’s a chance he won’t be coming back. Suddenly, Gosling’s closed-off performance becomes the point, rather than a detail. But it’s a long time to wait and it’s over with fairly quickly.

Elsewhere, it’s pretty much drama-documentary here’s-how-we-went-to-the-moon stuff, buoyed by Chazelle’s sense of style – for example, almost completely denyingus exterior shots of rockets taking off, instead keeping us trapped in the variouscapsules and cockpits with the pilots. But even here, fascinating parts of the story don’t make the cut. Not just planting the American flag on the moon (for fuck’s sake) but the details of who (if anyone) wrote those first words for Armstrong to say – and did he blow his lines? Or Aldrin damaging the circuit breaker which would enable the lander to take off again – and having to jam a pen inthere to make it work. That would have been a great pay-off for the kind-of-an-asshole version of Aldrin essayed by Corey Stoll, but it’s omitted entirely.

Meanwhile, an entirely fictitious tribute to Armstrong’s late daughter is introduced instead, which I object to not because it’s made up but because it didn’t ring true, which is far more important.

Will this sweep the boards on 24 February? Hard to say at this point, but I think probably not. With up to ten nominees for Best Picture, it’s in with a shout there, but stands very little chance of winning. Chazelle and Gosling might pick up nominations too, but both were overlooked at the Golden Globes, so it doesn’t look likely.

Other films on my Oscar radar include: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Roma, Vice, The Favourite and Can You Ever Forgive Me.

So… what did I think of It Takes You Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think that’s it.

Yup, those are all my complains.

I know, I know. But read on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Hime for showrunner.

Pre-Oscars 2019 – A Star Is Born

Posted on November 30th, 2018 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

We don’t yet know what’s on Academy voters’ minds for next year, but it’s a near-certainty that Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut will feature heavily. I confidently expect to see half-a-dozen nominations for A Star is Born, not just making up the numbers in Best Picture, but likely some or all of Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Score and Best Original Song too.

Not that this is a new story of course. First filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March as a bitter satire on Hollywood’s star-making system, it became Judy Garland’s comeback vehicle in 1954 when she made a musical version with James Mason. In 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson kept the music, but moved the action away from movies and into rock concerts, and that’s the pitch for the 2018 incarnation, which stars Lady Gaga as waitress-singer-songwriter Ally.

Part of the issue with the story, across all these variants, has always been – whose is it? Very often, the female lead has been the bigger name, but the structure of the plot generally means that the male lead takes over in the final third. Here, it’s much more Cooper’s story than Gaga’s all the way through. Previous incarnations of her character have been given new names as part of the star-making process (so Esther Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester). Here, slimy producer Rafi Gavron simply takes away Ally’s surname – a moment that never really lands because, almost unbelievably, we never find out what her original surname is!

Both Cooper and Gaga have families around them (which isn’t always the case in earlier versions), but Cooper’s is much more fleshed-out and his interactions with brother Sam Elliot (never better), and Dave Chapelle drive much of the action. What’s weird is that, Gaga aside, this is a woman-free story. Ally has a father (Andrew Dice Clay – no, really!) but no mother. She sings at a male drag bar. Her best friend is a gay man. Where are her female friends??

Little of this really matters while the film is on though. Cooper and Gaga have chemistry to spare, and even if the film closely hugs the contours of previous versions, it consistently finds ways to make them fresh and engaging. Ally’s first song on-stage with Jackson Maine is particularly fine, with Gaga pitching Ally’s uncertainty, strength, talent, delight and terror perfectly. Only the end of Jackson’s story seems a little hasty. Norman Maine overhears Esther Blodgett deciding to give up her career to look after her husband. Jackson Maine just takes his wife’s producer’s word for it and obediently fetches a sturdy belt.

As director, Cooper occasionally falls prey to some TV-commercial lighting and framing, and his sometimes eccentric editing rhythms don’t always work, but overall, this is confident, engaging, character-driven movie-making. It deserves its bonanza box office and if it does take home armfuls of Oscars – well, it will be a safe but not undeserving choice.

So… what did I think of The Witchfinders?

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

Now this really is more like it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… what did I think of Kerblam!?

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

Hey, everyone – Doctor Who’s back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.