Archive for November, 2021

So… what did I think of Survivors of the Flux?

Posted on November 28th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

Christ, I mean, what even was that? If you thought episodes 1 and 3 were a bit hard to follow, episode 5 was a complete sugar-rush, trailer-cut, epilectic seizure of an episode – all bright lights, pointless callbacks and bonkers juxtapositions, amounting to precious little.

Survivors of the Flux mainly progressed three different threads, none of which had any connection to people who had survived the Flux. Yaz, Dan and Jericho are stranded in 1901; the Doctor has been turned into an angel and recalled to (The) Division; the Grand Serpent is taking over UNIT. I’ll go through this in more detail in a minute, but the first thread achieves next to nothing which couldn’t have been achieved by Dan remembering his Liverpool history in the very first scene; the second is more info-dump in place of drama and the third is redundant, repetitive and borderline nonsensical.

Let’s take the turn-of-the-century crew first. Stranding our three humans, with varying levels of experience with the Doctor, in Earth’s past with no recourse to the TARDIS, should have been fascinating. But this creative team has no interest in who these people are, how they might react to this situation, or how not just days or weeks but years of battling to stay alive might change them. After countless months risking life and limb side-by-side with Yaz, Jericho remarks that she seems very used to dealing with dead bodies as if this is the first such instance. Either the past few years have been very incident free, or somebody has let another first draft script go before the cameras.

So, we get a lot of sub-Indiana Jones running about and falling over, none of which achieves very much. The Doctor has told them to look for where Earth is vulnerable, and coupled with all the UNIT stuff, I did fear we were going to get a needlessly complicated explanation as to why the Earth kept getting invaded year-after-year in the 1970s (or was it the 1980s?). It still isn’t clear to me why the Flux destroying/not destroying/damaging/affecting/being near lots of other planets in 2021 would mean that Earth would be likely to be serially invaded 120 years earlier. But also, as far as I could tell, it wasn’t. So that’s good.

Meanwhile, nothing that the Raiders of the Lost Story Arc gang does actually has any effect. Borrowing a page from River Song’s handbook, they graffiti the Great Wall of China. Karvanista, in 2021, looking at images from 1904, complains that he can’t help because he doesn’t have a time machine. Finally, Dan remembers that he’s from Liverpool and there are mysterious tunnels there. These scripts have gone the long way round to bring Dan and Joseph Williamson face-to-face but despite the enormous amounts of shoe leather involved, we still have Dan from 2021 and Williamson from 1820 meeting in 1904. Why? Who can say?

The Doctor shrugs off the cliffhanger like a mild cold and – oh dear – Barbara Flynn is Tecteun, who for reasons which defy logic claims that she found the Doctor, created the Time Lords, fiddled with the Universe to make it better, sent a memory-wiped Doctor out into it to fuck it up, and now has retrieved the Doctor before erasing the Universe. Anyway, she’s been dusted now, so if she had more exposition to dump, it dies with her.

Just as the only scene which matters in Yaz, Dan and Jericho’s plot is the one with Joseph Williamson, the only scene which matters in Dot Cottan’s plot is the one with Kate Stewart. I don’t know who The Grand Serpent is, why he is now a one-man-band instead of the great ruler he was in episode three, why he founds UNIT only to dismantle it, or why he takes decades to do what he clearly could have done in an afternoon. If played from Kate Stewart’s point of view, this might actually have worked as drama. Battling to save UNIT from bureaucrats who don’t understand its value, a shadowy figure seems to be helping her, but her suspicions mount until finally she confronts him. As it is, it’s just another trip the long way round to achieve very little except “Hey it’s the Sontarans again”. Big whoop.

Bel was there at one point. So was Di, for some reason. Vinder was atomised, or swallowed up by Passenger, or something. But for all the talk of universe-ending calamity and for all the running around and falling over, this was an episode in which a lot of frantic energy was achieved to push the plot on hardly at all and where there was precious little actual jeopardy. Yas, Dan and Jericho are hardly ever in mortal danger, are coping just fine psychologically and don’t suffer much worse than a waiter banging one of them on the head before obediently committing suicide. The Doctor, as usual, plays the role of companion asking questions and getting cryptic answers and achieves absolutely nothing at all during her time on screen. Kate Stewart comes out of this fine, but spends four years doing sweet FA while Dot Cottan is opening the back door to the Sontarans.

Not for the first time in this era, nobody is ever placed in the kind of physical danger which would make this work as an exciting adventure story, apart from Kate Stewart for five seconds. Nobody is placed under the kind of psychological pressure which would make this work as ambitious TV drama. None of the big concepts make any sense and none of the characters do more than recite their intentions or backstories at each other.

Honestly, this looked and sounded like fan fiction at best, a Blue Peter competition winner at worst and I have little hope that the final episode will redeem the season, because I just haven’t the slightest clue what any of this means or why I should care. These episodes shriek for attention like a hyperactive child but can’t think what to do with that attention once they receive it. Episode two was tolerable and episode four had some fine moments. The rest has been scarcely more than gibberish. A fine comedown for the BBC’s flagship export. I think I’m actually a little bit grief-stricken. I feel as if someone has killed an old friend, as someone once said.

So… what did I think of Village of the Angels?

Posted on November 21st, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

So – on the one hand, The Haunting of Villa Diodati wasn’t a fluke. On the other hand, this is basically that story all over again. The Doctor and co turn up to a spooky old house and run around dealing with old enemies and various spatio-temporal phenomena until it’s time for the Doctor to come face to face with the big bad, be taken over by something it was carrying – and boom, we realise this was all just a set-up for the big confrontation next week. Only this time, some clot has edited in five minutes of another unrelated story at random points through the episode.

That’s not to say I didn’t like it. Actually, I liked it a lot. But it’s odd that Maxine Alderton has chosen to, or been asked to, more or less replicate last season’s antepenultimate episode for this season. Anyway, trying to apportion credit or blame by looking at the title sequence is a mug’s game. I don’t know who wrote what, and I won’t pretend to. What I will say is that while some characters and some sequences work better than others, there’s a real sense of pace and jeopardy and energy here that has been pretty much completely absent from the show for quite some time.

Let me get some niggles out of the way first. The cliffhanger resolution is frankly drab. Quipping furiously to try and distract us from the vacuity of the explanations offered, this is little more than “with one bound they were free.” Some of the dialogue hints at terrible things happening to the TARDIS interior when Jodie connects those wires, but no – a few sparks, a bit of a pop and everything is fine. And what’s the point of bunching up your three regulars so they can all fit nicely into a single 16:9 frame and then cutting that frame into three vertical slices?

Once the action gets going, a lot of this is Blink redux, with a bit of Time of Angels mixed in. Just as in early episodes this year, the script is largely happy to have the angels play the hits rather than reinvent themselves. And just as before, the direction is sometimes sloppy about who is looking where and when, how fast the angels move and so on. Also sloppy is that nearly-fabulous mirror shot. Annabel Scholey stands up revealing that her mirror image has wings. But where’s the pull-back into the rest of the bathroom which we needed to establish whether Claire really has wings or only sees them in the mirror (or has become nothing more than a mirror reflection)?

Claire of course is the woman we saw in episode one, but it doesn’t affect the story one jot that they’ve met before and in fact the script is playing silly games here. We’re meant to think that Claire met the Doctor out of order. She calmly greets her as if she’s an old friend. In fact, she’s only glimpsed the Doctor and the TARDIS in a confusing and disorienting premonition that she can’t yet make any sense of – but you get no hint of that in the episode one encounter.

What you do get in the early portions of this episode is Scholey and Kevin McNally playing actual characters who sound like they have agency and interiority in a genuinely interesting and dramatic situation. This isn’t just competent, it’s seriously properly good. McNally’s Professor Jericho doesn’t tear up the rule book (and we could probably have done without name-dropping Belsen) but he’s well-thought out, very well played and he works. And Scholey continues to deliver on the promise she showed in episode one, bucking the trend I identified in last week’s review of the casting director not having as good an eye under this regime.

Also more than pulling their weight are Gerald and Jean, who aren’t fleshed out quite as much, but still pop off the screen in the way that so many characters in this era of the show refuse to. True, we have to overlook the way in which small-minded little Englander Gerald, who’s never even considered that his grand-niece might be a person worth talking to, still blithely allows himself to be given orders by a teenager from the colonies. But – hey! – someone has remembered that Yas is/used to be/wants to be/once wanted to be a copper so that’s something.

For all her running around and barking orders, the Doctor achieves very little once again, and as usual is relegated to the role of companion in her own story, desperately asking questions so better-informed characters can fill her in with exposition dumps. The difference this time round is that what is happening to her and the other characters really does feel exciting and high stakes and like it matters. And the expo-dumps when they come are genuinely interesting. I’m even starting to give the tiniest of fucks about the Division and the Doctor’s role in it, truth be told. Claire turning to stone is a hugely arresting image and the twist of the angel being the quarry rather than the hunter is fabulous – as is the incredible sight of the quantum extracted village just petering out into empty space, and the 1967 and 1901 versions sitting side by side. True, the old Peggy / young Peggy business is a direct lift from Blink but it was a good story beat before Steven Moffat used it and it’s still a good story beat here. I just don’t know what it adds, other than a feeling of familiarity.

What really lets these scenes down is Dan, whose entire character has just disintegrated over the last two episodes. Lately he just says or does whatever is required to keep the plot wheels turning. Swap him out and put in Ryan or Graham and nothing changes. In fact, take him out all together and just have Yaz on her own and nothing changes. And further undermining the title character for no particular purpose, Yaz has to tell the Doctor not to go through the time barrier which is so wrong it almost hurts. And how do Yaz and Dan even know how the Angels work? All the Doctor has told them is “Don’t Blink”. She doesn’t explain to them (or the audience) why not or what the consequences will be until the episode is almost over.

But before it’s over, it’s going to deliver one of the finest cliffhangers of the revived series, with everyone in massive trouble – and then nearly fuck up that brilliant ending by channel-surfing to the tedious adventures of Vinder and Bel.

So, let’s just ignore the whole silly Vinder/Bel/Azure plot which obviously could have been in another episode, but that’s not the game this season is playing, so okay, fine, I suppose. What’s left is generally pretty bloody good, both as a thrilling 45 minute slab of escapist TV and as part four of a six part adventure. In particular, the Doctor has been turned into an angel and Yaz and Dan are stuck 120 years in the past, with no TARDIS and no way of getting help. That’s exactly the kind of big, complicated problem which would have benefited from having six whole episodes to sort it out. Shame there’s only two left.

Oh – and what happened to the closing theme music? I don’t much like this version of the theme but it seemed to be missing its bassline tonight. Was that deliberate? If so, why?

So… what did I think of Once, Upon Time?

Posted on November 14th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

– How’s the script going then?

– Oh, you know. Fine.

– Just fine?

– Well, no, I mean… I don’t mean fine… I mean… it’s…

– Fine?

– Yeah, it’s fine.

– Wow. Okay. What are you going do?

– I mean, I could…

– No.

– I could…

– Don’t.

– I might have to.

– Please, please, just don’t.

– I could just tell the whole thing in the wrong order…

Once, Upon Time joins its 21st century stablemates World Enough and Time and Twice Upon a Time to continue the saga of “Flux” and bring us to the half-way point. If episode one was “what if Doctor Who but ADHD?” and episode two was “what if Doctor Who but only the hits?” then episode three was “what if everybody’s backstory but all at once?”

We begin with yet another sodding character in yet another new location with yet another barely-visible strand of story holding it together. The slow downgrading of the Flux from universe-ending catastrophe to possibly only confined to a small area now continues with even if it hits you dead on, your planet just goes a bit Terry Nation’s Survivors rather than being reduced to ash. And speaking of which, some badly-rendered CGI Daleks are floating about, doing nothing.

Speaking of badly-rendered CGI there was some nostalgicly shoddy effects work this week with the blue floaty pixels resembling something Dave Chapman might have conjured up for Peter Davison with a BBC Micro and a Quantel machine. Seriously – was this left to the last minute? There’s no interactive lighting, no sense of the cloud moving through its environment, and it makes nearly half-a-dozen appearances, all equally poor. It’s really rare to have to complain about dodgy effects in modern Who, and sure, if the stories are good enough, we can survive some ropey visuals, but in this case, well…

Another odd thing happens immediately after the opening titles. We cut straight from northern Irish one woman army and her interior monologue to the Doctor’s interior monologue. Virgin New Adventures editor Peter Darvill-Evans made it a rule for the novels he oversaw that writers should never go inside the Doctor’s head. The Time Lord should be unknowable, keeping private thoughts private. This writer is so keen to let us into to Jodie’s thoughts that he places two different people’s voiceover narration in consecutive scenes. It’s enough to give Robert McKee an aneurysm. Luckily, Jodie quickly abandons interior monologue in favour of just talking out loud to nobody instead. Was the writer briefly confused and thinking that this was a Big Finish audio drama?

Once Whittaker practises her hurdling skills, it’s time out for narrative coherence and buckle up for 40 minutes of Random Stuff coming at you thick and fast. But juxtaposition is not narrative and confusion is not mystery. Unless we know where our heroes are and what’s happening to them, why should we care? Never mind, relaxen und watchen das blinkenlights.

One game that’s being played here is watching the regular cast playing different characters – one of my absolute favourite tropes of all times – but even this doesn’t really come off here. The fun of seeing familiar actors playing unfamiliar roles is seeing them acting very differently from their established characters. But for that to work, they have to have established characters and they have to act differently. This is just, oh look, Mandip’s wearing a different hat. The one exception might be that brief scene in the police car between Whittaker and Gill. Look how much better, livelier, funnier, Jodie Whittaker is when doing pastiche Victoria Wood. I’ve done my best to distance the lead actor from my overall disappointment at the post-Moffat show but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this incarnation of the Doctor is just an empty suit of clothes. The combination of flat writing and straight-arrow delivery resolutely fails to lift the character off the page, and here’s where it’s exposed most fully.

It doesn’t help that, as usual, Chibnall makes sure that the Doctor is clueless, helpless, baffled, powerless and inert. As the episode reaches a climax, she’s actually begging for agency in her own story and, as usual, her pleas go unanswered. Meanwhile, Dan and his not-a-girlfriend pop up again (mam and dad are forgotten) and we get that ping of “Oh, she was in the first episode” which is what takes the place of actual narrative catharsis when you have to resort to telling your story in the wrong order because it would be deathly dull if you told it so that it was easy to follow. Or even possible to follow.

Almost none of the other arbitrary floating bits of narrative really come alive. As noted, seeing Jacob Anderson, Mandip Gill and John Bishop pretending to be space marines wouldn’t be all that interesting even if they were much, much better at pretending to be space marines. But when you’re given dialogue which requires that you explain to your platoon how your equipment works as you’re deploying it, frankly there’s not much even the best actors can do. And they’re incredibly dumb, again and again and again attributing their leader’s loopy behaviour to Temporal Haze (I love their early stuff, especially on vinyl).

Vinder’s crisis of conscience might mean something to someone – who knows? – and it’s Mandip Gill’s turn to re-enact Blink this time because, sure. That Victorian tunnel-botherer pops again, because, well, we’ve paid the actor now. But all of this is basically gibberish, and because none of it means anything or relates to anything, it’s also incredibly boring despite all the pretty lights and colours. When the Doctor tells us that she’s “hiding you here” while she “tries to get the Mori into place” what does that look like? What does it feel like? What’s hard or easy or costly about it? What does it mean? What is she actually doing?

There are crumbs of interest along the way. Although I have zero interest in the timeless children, it’s cool to see Jo Martin again. Yet again, the Whittaker Doctor has to passively sit and watch Doctor Who before she knows how to resolve the situation. It’s a bit of a cheat (and a swizz!) that most of the time it isn’t Martin on-screen, and Jodie cos-playing the Fugitive Doctor isn’t a noticeable upgrade. But although I despaired at how easily-killable all those Cybermen were (gosh little Chrissie has got all his action figures out of the play-box today!) there is some genuine depth of feeling in that little scene where that fierce wee woman tells a dying tin-plated foe “Love is the only mission. Idiot.” Where has this story been hiding amid all of this nonsense? And will we get to see more of it soon?

Someone else who manages to blast away the cobwebs as soon as she sets foot on the set is blessed, indomitable and Very Peculiar Barbara Flynn who classes up the joint no end in her cameo as the White Guardian / Omega / God / The Terrible Zodin. Something else that this episode made me realise is that, for whatever reason, the post-Moffat years have been a bit of a desert when it comes to really strong guest stars. Billie Piper, Jenna Louise Coleman, Freema Agyeman, Pearl Mackie and especially Karen Gillan have gone on to have huge careers. I can’t somehow see the same happening to Mandip Gill or Tosin Cole.

And the series also showcased early performances from the likes of Andrew Garfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Carey Mulligan and Felicity Jones as well as attracting stars like Bill Nighy, Anthony Head, Diana Rigg, Frances Barber, Ian McKellan and many more. When the current team goes shopping for a big name celebrity they come back with Mr Big from off of Sex and the City, or John bloody Bishop. And the featured roles like Racist Fonzie in The One with Rosa Parks go to bland actors who fade from my memory while I’m watching them. Where have all the good actors gone? What’s happened behind the scenes to screw this up?

But look what happens when somebody really fucking good like Barbara Flynn turns up. Yes, she’s yet again undercutting the Doctor (Chibnall never wavers from this mission – even the Ravagers tell Jodie “We brought you here, knowing what you would do”) but by god she’s doing it with some style.

The end of the episode feels oddly perfunctory. Last week’s cliffhanger has been resolved with an almost-literal “and with one bound, they were free.” Dan and Yaz haven’t done anything in the real world (Have they? Did they?) so they just blithely soldier on, unaffected by the narrative as usual. Vinder – whose backstory we’ve sort of had explained to us (just not in a way that either makes sense or impacts the ongoing story) – is now dropped off on a desolate Survivors version of his home planet – why does the Doctor abandon him there and why does he want to stay? – and is mooning after Cyberkiller, which is nice. And next week it’s going to be more chances to re-enact Blink. Maybe this time, they’ll remember that if you look away from the Angels long enough to, say, unplug the Playstation then they’ll get you. Or maybe they won’t. Does it matter? Does anything really matter?

So… what did I think of War of the Sontarans?

Posted on November 8th, 2021 in Culture | No Comments »

That was… better. Good? Not really, but better. Beginning the episode with a problem and ending it with a solution gave it a more satisfactory shape (almost as if Doctor Who works better as an anthology series, gosh) although it wasn’t the Sontaran plot I was ultimately most interested in.

The opening shot was one of the most striking in the series’ entire history. I can’t remember a black-and-white scene since the first few seconds of The Two Doctors and the grotesque Terry Gilliam-esque house on legs is a remarkable piece of design work. What does it mean? I couldn’t tell you, but I liked it.

Readers will recall that the previous episode ended with the universe-ending Flux sweeping through star systems, laying waste all before it. As the new episode starts, the universe-ending nature of the titular menace seems to have been somewhat overstated, since in all three main areas of activity for the story, the universe seems absolutely fine. Maybe there was an escape pod? There often is.

What happens next suggests a writer not wholly in control of the narrative world. What we need is to have Dan back on Earth, going to wok on Sontarans, the Doctor in the Crimea palling up with Mary Seacole and Yaz at the Temple of Atropos. Not for the first time in Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, an apparently deadly force turns out to be merely a taxi service instead (not that he innovated this trope) and so the doomed central characters are not obliterated but just deposited in a new location. Isn’t that what the TARDIS is for? But rather than actually take people where they need to go, Dan and Yaz both take a detour via Sevastapol. Luckily the TARDIS is there so the Doctor can follow them. Unluckily, the door has vanished. Luckily, the door reappears once the Doctor’s bit of plot is finished. Is any of this remotely justified? No, stuff just happens because it needs to. Character in the wrong place in the story? There you go, have some pixels.

From this point on, we follow each central character on their own journey. This is an improvement over the lunatic ADHD treatment of the previous episode. Let’s take them in order from worst to best. Handily the stupidest and least interesting section is the Doctor in the 1850s. There’s one quite nifty bit of business, which alas we’d already seen in the trailers, where Jodie Whittaker has to point to Yaz and Dan with her hands up. It’s the kind of thing which I can imagine Matt Smith doing, but he would do something like that six times an episode, whereas Whittaker does something like that twice a season. But it was fun.

The rest of the time, the panicky, uncertain Doctor who gets things wrong all the time is back. She has no clue what has happened to Yaz and Dan, and basically forgets about them until the Sontarans are vanquished. She fails to notice the biggest word on not a particularly big map for many seconds. She relies on Mary Seacole to tell her basic facts about Sontaran anatomy which she must already have known from previous encounters (and ignores the fact that Mary Seacole’s observations of the captive Sontaran disprove the assertion that they will die if they don’t regularly return to their ships to recharge) and the whole stupid plot relies on every Sontaran going for a lie down at exactly the same time. Have they never heard of shifts?

Mary Seacole is a fascinating individual, but just as with historical figures from recent episodes past, she doesn’t do anything except recite her biography at us. Her particular skills and traits are never used and she doesn’t accomplish anything which the Doctor shouldn’t have been able to do in five minutes. Instead, the episode is almost over before the Doctor finally springs into action and then she’s outwitted by Colonel Blimp, an incredibly one-dimensional caricature with no nuance whatsoever.

To be fair, I did chuckle at “I wanted to ride a horse,” and the Sontarans, while not cast in a particularly new or interesting light, are not actively screwed up. But there’s a sense here that the ideas in the script are far bigger than the stories they are being used to tell. For Russia never to have existed, Sontarans must have been on Earth for generations (Peter the Great ruled from about 1682 – almost 200 years before the Crimean War) so why does General Cliché doubt that the Doctor has ever fought them? And what have they been doing for the last couple of centuries? Polishing their armour?

And if Sontarans have been squatting in Eastern Europe for hundreds of years, what effect will that have on 21st century Liverpool, where Dan is? Seemingly none whatsoever. Nobody in our time has ever seen or heard of them before. I would say – perhaps this will all be resolved in a future episode, but on past form I doubt it.

So, on to Dan’s adventures in occupied Wirral. This was better – cleaner lines of action for the main characters, a clearer sense of threat and a solution which makes marginally more sense. But it’s incredibly frustrating that given the first episode’s insistence on meeting absolutely everybody that the whole six episode saga was ever going to include, we had never met Dan’s parents before. Why are we bothering spending time with Dan’s not-really-a-girlfriend and his mate at the foodbank and that idiot trick-or-treater when we could have been establishing a family unit which was going to be the focus of his storyline?

Notably, Dan and his folks seem to figure out how to take care of Sontarans far more quickly and efficiently than the Doctor does, and those two earlier problems are still here. Through various plot contrivances, Dan has been taken from his Liverpool home, to a Lupari ship, to the TARDIS where he’s witnessed the not-quite-as-universe-ending-as-we-were-led-to-believe Flux, to the Crimean War and now – back to Liverpool again. Do these adventures better equip him to handle the alien invasion? Not really. As noted, his parents have to show him the ropes. So, the point of him taking this long journey to get back where he started was… er… um…

And here’s another idea bigger than the story it’s being used for. Facing certain Sontaran death, Dan is saved at the last minute by his doggy mate Karvanista who has sworn to protect him. Okay, fine. That does sort of look like set-up and pay-off if you squint. But the concept was that every human on the planet has their own personal canine bodyguard. Earlier in the episode, Dan evaded a gang of Sontarans blasting laser fire at him by the method of running away from them in a straight line, which did much to diminish their threat. Maybe because of this, the script includes a rather upsetting scene in which Dan is forced to watch three innocent humans be executed by firing squad, a massacre he’s powerless to prevent. Can I suggest that rather than needing one of these scenes to balance out the other, we would have been better off with neither (which would also have helped get this flabby episode back under 50 minutes). But also – where are the Lupari defenders of those humans? Were they too busy fetching a stick to come and help?

The Doctor and Dan have a long catch-up after which they both do the thing there were going to do anyway, but all of these grumbles aside, Dan’s adventures on Earth generally did feel high-stakes, interesting and I’m slowly starting to warm to him as a character. But, slightly to my surprise, it’s Yaz’s adventures on Space Planet Temple of Doom which worked the best.

Russell T Davies was at great pains to keep Doctor Who grounded when it first came back. There are no alien planets in the whole of Series One and when we do finally visit one with David Tennant, it’s called “New Earth”. The Temple of Atropos on the Planet Time sounds like ridiculous made-up science fiction nonsense, but there’s an integrity and an attention to detail in these scenes which is missing elsewhere. I’ve always liked Mandip Gill and been perpetually frustrated that she gets so little to do. That little detail of WWTDD written on her hand, Swarm’s use of it to undermine her, and the reaction written in Gill’s eyes, rather than spelled out in lumpen dialogue, speak vast volumes about who she was and who she has become – volumes that hours of previous stories haven’t been able to grapple with. It doesn’t hurt that MVP of episode one, Jacob Anderson, is here too (and so is that Victorian tunnel-botherer, but so what) and that Sam Spruell is having the time of his life as Swarm. I don’t know what is happening to these four figures, but this feels like a mystery rather than just confusion and the sight of Yaz taking her place on that dais feels apocalyptic the way that Donna Noble being saved did, or Bill having a visible hole blasted through her mid-section.

Again, the Doctor doesn’t really do anything except panic and ask questions, but this time she’s got something to panic about. The final moments really felt like the series was beginning to live up to its “epic” billing, so despite a laundry list of grumbles and nit-picking, I’m actually left with a bit more optimism than usual.

So… what did I think of The Halloween Apocalypse?

Posted on November 1st, 2021 in Culture | 1 Comment »

It’s a different experience watching these episodes knowing that the end is in sight. But just as it’s hard to judge a multi-episode serial on the basis of a single episode, it’s hard to know where to begin this review. Was it a satisfying fifty minutes of television? Not really. Did it know that it was functioning primarily as set-ups for half a dozen or more plot threads? Clearly. Is that a good idea? Probably not.

Let’s go through this, most obvious element, first. This is essentially – what if modern Doctor Who but ADHD? We leap from character to character, setting to setting, without ever getting the time to be invested in any of them. Other than sheer novelty, what is the point of giving the Victorian engineer, the Sontarans and the woman going “the long way round” tiny little introductions in episode one, when any or all of them could be saved until a point in the longer story where they actually have something relevant to do?

But the team is determined to go all out and leave the thirteenth Doctor with a bigger crisis than any she’s encountered before. So, the first episode ends with a threat to the entire universe. Does this colossal raising of the stakes actually make the story more engaging? Not necessarily. On balance, the battle of Canary Wharf is better drama than Davros’s reality bomb because the emotional stakes in Doomsday are sky-high whereas the main threat in Journey’s End is rarely more than word peril.

Let’s take this section-by-section. Other than the Victorian engineers whose conversation is completely meaningless for now, The Weeping Angels and the Sontarans are the most disposable. Following the unexpectedly rapturous reaction to Blink, Steven Moffat, brought back the Weeping Angels as soon as he was installed in the big chair but he wrang new ideas out of their every moment. Chris Chibnall has a nasty habit of taking elements of Doctor Who which one or other of his predecessors has reinterpreted and returning them to their less-interesting earlier versions. So, after Missy completely reimagines what the character of the Master could be, Chibnall just goes back to writing him like the cackling maniac played by John Simm. Likewise, the Weeping Angel just reprises the scenes in Blink with zero variation.

And after the possibilities of the Sontarans were massively expanded in the form of Strax, here they just go back to being generic baddies – who are weirdly obsessed with each other’s personal appearance. You know, the way that cloned races would be. They also appear to be thirty trillion light years away, which is a neat trick in a universe which is only 90 billion light years across. So that’s only an error of three orders of magnitude. This took me ten seconds to verify on Google. Why does no-one on the production team care enough to do the same? Or is the whole tiresome mantra of this season going to be “Bigger! Better!”

The characters who actually had anything to do this episode were the regulars, Karvanista the dog, Dan the scouser and Swarm who’s a sort of cross between Tim Shaw and Ashad. Swarm does little except Be Evil and is dwarfed by the nexus-like universe ending wave of orange pixels. He also has a maddening habit of stopping the action to show Jodie Whittaker episodes of Doctor Who. Of all the things to copy from The Timeless Children, I really thought we’d seen the last of that.

There’s some very sloppy writing regarding that too. Yaz is written mainly as a dependable second-in-command but the Doctor announces that she’s had a weird “glitch” and Yaz, not unreasonably wants to know more. The rest of the scene plays out as if this is something that Yaz identified for herself and she is frustrated when the Doctor won’t explain herself. But the Doctor is the one who brought it up, completely unprompted, and who then becomes petty and precious, blaming Yaz for not being sufficiently grateful. Given that Whittaker still can’t think of anything to do beyond impersonating David Tennant, this adds nothing good to an already thin and weak incarnation of the Doctor. The episode never misses an opportunity to have her screw something up, get the wrong end of the stick, be in the dark or be inappropriately flippant.

To be fair, her getting the wrong end of the stick with Karvanista and his doggy chums is understandable given that nothing he does in the first part of the episode makes the slightest bit of sense given the reveal at the end of the episode. Why bother explaining to your own personal human that you’re there to keep him safe? Why would a race whose only purpose is to save humans work so hard to kill a human in a silly Batman style trap? And why would you leave a booby trap behind to slaughter other humans once you’ve saved yours? (See also Demons of the Punjab.)

That brings us to Dan, who as usual is a bundle of characteristics rather than a person. His devotion to Liverpool I doubt is ever going to be relevant again (like Ryan being a YouTuber) but the episode is determined to tell us what a nice guy he is, as he refuses to take any goods from the food bank home to his own empty fridge. The trick-or-treat supposed comedy sketch which follows in which a grown man, for no earthly reason, attempts to extract sweets from him is eye-wateringly bad. It wouldn’t be hard to fix the total lack of motivation – make him a parent of one of the children, a bit too eager to join in the fun, for example. But if the purpose of Dan’s introduction is to make us fall in love with him, surely he should be giving his last chocolate bar to this looper instead of being sarcastic at him.

The script is so determined to service him with would-be zingers that it robs the confrontation with Karvanista of any tension. We’ll shortly learn that Fido wasn’t trying to kill him anyway – breaking down the door with a great big glowing axe and not bothering to explain anything is exactly how you’d run a rescue operation if you had arrived hours early and had plenty of time to spare. And while we’re at it, do the Lupari really need one ship per human? Can they not send 70 million ships each of which can take 100 people? Sigh. Bigger! Better!

By this point, the fact that Dan’s front door regenerates between his kidnap by Karvanista and the Doctor’s arrival feels scarcely worth mentioning.

Amongst all the “will-this-do?” near-gibberish, a couple of things stick out. In an episode pointlessly overstuffed with characters, I was briefly diverted by the banter between the older and younger security guards and miffed to see them so casually bumped off. Jacob Anderson does much with little as Vinder, stuck talking to himself (because of COVID restrictions?). It is always nice to see Dan Starkey, even if the dialogue is poorer than usual and the shifting doors inside the TARDIS is a nifty mystery.

All of this might turn into a compelling saga with rich characters who come into fascinating conflict and a resolution which is as inevitable as it is unpredictable. But I doubt it, sorry. For all the breathless whirl and dash, this is more of the same and little else.