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.

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.