So… what did I think of The Church on Ruby Road?

Posted on December 27th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

Frustratingly, but very deliberately, Russell holds the new Doctor back a good long while. Knowing that this could be many viewers’ first episode of Doctor Who, and having successfully cut ties with so much of the show’s baggage, we begin – as we did in 2005 – with an ordinary young woman whose life is about to become extraordinary, and we see the Doctor through her eyes.

Like the Auton invasion in Rose, this is a relatively simple problem for the Doctor to solve, and a relatively easy monster to despatch. Unlike Rose, which needed to promise the old fans in the audience that this was the same old show while simultaneously recruiting a whole new legion of devotees, Ruby Road was determined to present things we’d never seen before – a Doctor who raves, who cries freely, who celebrates family, who comments that he was adopted. And a Doctor who fights baby-eating foot-stomping goblins in their great big sky ship.

Silly? Yeah. But you have to be wilfully stupid to assume that this was some kind of accident. Arguably, these four shows together have had it as their mission statement to show in the shortest possible time the sheer breadth of the show’s possibilities, from near-literal comic book adventure, to claustrophobic psychological horror, to wild exuberant fantasy, to now storybook villainy which owes more to The Brothers Grimm than Terry Nation or Robert Holmes.

What makes this work, more than anything, is the stunning pairing of Millie Gibson and Ncuti Gatwa. I’ve not seen more than ten minutes of Sex Education, and I’ve never watched Coronation Street, so as far as I’m concerned, they are Ruby Sunday and the Doctor, and I can barely remember a double debut as confident (possibly Matt Smith and Karen Gillan) and while this is explicitly designed as a “jumping-on” point that confidence extends to lots of little teases for future storylines, adding to the pile of little clues from the other three specials. I even didn’t mind Davina McCall.

But there are a few problems. Returning director Mark Tonderai’s shot assembly is somewhat haphazard in places, with the Doctor’s big hero jump composed of three different mismatching shots optimistically but unconvincingly cut together as quickly as possible; I never had any sense of the geography on board the goblin ship, and it isn’t even clear what’s happening in the big spire-through-the-belly climax on first watching. The Sunday’s flat also appears to be bigger on the inside, as Ruby comes to the end of the corridor, turns left to go through her front door, and then turns right into the expansive kitchen, which would seem to me to put her outside the building.

There are also some pacing problems, to do with a big effects scene involving the Goblin King inside the flat which was cut at the eleventh hour – thus, also, the odd 55-minute running time. The result is that the air goes out of the balloon following the rescue of baby Lulubelle and there’s too much standing and talking. However, the second half of that standing-and-talking is what this whole episode is really about. With a nod to A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, the Doctor – and we – get to see what Carla’s life would be like without Ruby. And it’s a cold, hard, bleak, cynical existence, without joy or warmth or love – Michelle Greenidge is astonishing here. And it reduces the Doctor to tears. Wow. Just wow.

Those pacing and directing problems, plus the fact that it’s such a trivial problem mean I can’t give this more than four stars, but I’m tremendously optimistic for the future, and this is a wonderful introduction to an incredible TARDIS team.

4 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of… wait, what?

Posted on December 10th, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

Well, that was unexpected!

The first forty-odd minutes of this, I unequivocally loved. The creepy opening with Neil Patrick Harris, born to play the Toymaker, connecting the sixtieth anniversary of the show to the birth of television itself via a spooky-ass puppet doll. The glimpses of the same Toymaker pirouetting as Camden (and we learn, the world) disintegrates under the weight of endless what-about-ism. UNIT’s Avengers-style HQ featuring the return of Melanie Bush. The (no doubt shortly to be revealed as evil) Zovirax or whatever the hell making little blinking upper arm doo-dads to keep everybody sane. A quick flash of a very much not-sane Lethbridge Stewart. The chase through the cave of traps, with Donna beating a puppet to death, because fuck that puppet, that’s why. And most gloriously of all, the Toymaker’s “Spicy” re-entry into the story.

And RTD’s commitment to this-is-all-one-big-story continues with shout outs to Mavic Chen, Sarah Jane Smith and more besides, and the Toymaker recapping the non-RTD years and totting up the fatalities (which did feel a bit like the returning showrunner marking the homework of the last two showrunners). Well that’s all right then!

Lasering the Tennant Doctor through the tummy is certainly an arresting way of bringing about a regeneration, but a lot of what followed really didn’t make a whole lot of sense and – if you’ll pardon the expression – I could feel the writer’s hands pulling the strings to make the story work. There’s nothing here I’m fundamentally opposed to. I’m not here celebrating MY RIGHT TO BE RIGHT ABOUT WHAT OTHER PEOPLE WRITE. Sure, let the Doctor split in two if he wants. Sure, let the old Doctor retire and eat curry in a garden if he wants. Sure, let’s despatch the most powerful villain we’ve ever seen with a game of catch – bathos is kind of the point. But are these all necessarily changes for the better? Would something less daring, more predictable, more running on rails actually have been more satisfying? I dunno. Maybe.

Is the Toymaker’s presence connected with the double Doctoring? Not clear. Russell’s stated reason for this bi-generation is that he was fed up of regenerations being tragedies, being sacrifices. But if victories are too easily-won, they cost nothing. And it was odd that the Toymaker’s plan to face a different Doctor having backfired, the fact that it was two against one in the game of catch at the end didn’t seem to factor in. The Toymaker just fumbled his last catch because he did. And if we are to believe that Ten/Fourteen’s Lonely God has finally tired of all the running, shouldn’t that have been layered in just a little more?

But my biggest problem with all of this is that, having decided to strip out the pain of losing a Doctor, having decided to have the Toymaker easily defeated, having decided to let the retiring Doctor have his TARDIS and eat his curry too, there isn’t a lot to be invested in at the end of the story. The climax comes at the 47-minute mark. The rest is just calm, pleasant, measured story admin. Still at least the angry fans who know what an anniversary special looks like and want only that got the multi-Doctor narrative they had been furiously clamouring for.

Reading that back, it all sounds rather harsh, and actually that wasn’t my experience of watching this at all. Those first 46 minutes are staggeringly good, with “Spice Up Your Life” possibly being my favourite sequence since the Osgood Boxes. And the remaining 15 minutes aren’t bad exactly, they’re just odd, and oddly dramatically inert. But you can’t say that about Ncuti Gatwa’s first few minutes on-screen. He blazes onto the set, full of fire and energy and gusto. Not for him a whole episode wandering around the TARDIS impersonating his predecessors, or sleeping through an invasion in his dressing gown, or going bonkers and strangling passing American botany students. The new Doctor arrives fully formed, and oh honey, I can’t wait for Christmas.

4 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Wild Blue Yonder?

Posted on December 3rd, 2023 in Culture | No Comments »

In Doctor Who’s second-ever serial, commonly known as “The Daleks”, the episode consists only of the regular characters getting to know each other and exploring their environment. Partly, this is an exercise in making sure that writer Terry Nation had enough story for seven 25-minute scripts. But the focus on the core cast so early in the run is very advantageous. And there’s something fascinating about seeing what you can do with just your core team. The exercise was repeated in the first of the four episodes of The Space Museum a few years later, and for the first ten or so minutes of The Wheel in Space, before – magnificently – Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter took their first trip in the TARDIS together and spent a whole episode on their own in The Ark in Space. Writer Robert Holmes may have had this in the back of his mind when he left the Sixth Doctor and Peri largely to their own devices on an abandoned space station for around 20 minutes’ worth of The Two Doctors, albeit this material was in the context of a 45-minute episode and intercut with other plot strands.

It’s hard to imagine a modern showrunner attempting anything like this in the fast-cutting, multi-coloured, Disney-funded, post Star Wars, post Marvel, post Barbie era. Heaven Sent comes to mind, but – as fabulous as that is – it’s not quite the same. And yet, with only three opportunities to put the Fourteenth Doctor on-screen, Russell has chosen to follow the dash and colour and joyful silliness of Beep the Meep with this spooky, introspective, grindingly psychological game of cat and mouse in which it’s the David and Catherine show for almost the entire running time.

I loved it.

The tension is ramped up slowly, as first the TARDIS leaves them to it, then they find themselves in a preposterously long (and brilliantly-realised) corridor, before finally, the game of doppelgangers begins. And if fucked-up psychodrama isn’t your thing, sit tight because we’ve got goofy body horror along for the ride. Sitting somewhere between Cronenberg’s The Fly and Looney Tunes, some of the images conjured in this episode may never leave me. And – shades of Image of the Fendahl – there’s much which is left unknown at the story’s conclusion. Who is that horse-headed pilot who gave her life to protect the universe? We will probably never know.

The episode is bookended by sequences which feel like they belong to different stories. The opening gag with Isaac Newton is very silly indeed and I don’t know whether to be pleased or crestfallen that Donna’s interaction with England’s finest ever scientific mind results in the language being re-written. The tone of this opening was so at odds with the rest of the episode, I’m going to knock off half a star for it. Rather more smooth was the modulation into the final special, with Bernard Bloody Cribbins there to ease the transition, and the dedication to him at the end was delightful.

Another triumph then, ably demonstrating the full range of possibilities of this uniquely flexible format, and even managing to retrospectively make a scintilla of sense out of the Flux, which is impressive by anyone’s standards. And we have two more episodes to go this year, which is absolutely thrilling.

4.5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of The Star Beast?

Posted on November 26th, 2023 in Culture | 1 Comment »

(Spoiler free – ish, but watch the episode first.)

Generally when I’m writing these reviews I like to start the process with some sort of thesis mind – especially if I’m intending on writing anything more than about a paragraph. As I’m watching – whether it’s a film, TV episode or anything else – I’m turning over different angles in my mind. What does this amount to? How does it develop what came before? Where does it point to? I don’t really know where to start with The Star Beast. I don’t have a thesis, or a list of discussion points, or any real way into taking my reaction and turning it into a piece of writing. I’m just grinning.

This is the show which roared back into delirious life in 2005, now revved up once again for 2023, having learned every lesson it’s possible to learn along the way, including the most important one of all – don’t be afraid to take some risks. It’s a giddy confection, taking inspiration from a well-remembered 1980s comic strip, connecting it to the Doctor’s past and boldly setting out for what looks to be a frankly incredible future.

The conclusion of Donna’s story in Journey’s End was, in its way, perfect, but it was also ghastly, and the awful tragedy of the Doctor having to not just witness but enact the erasure of something as coruscatingly brilliant as the Doctordonna was heartbreaking. It was clear in The End of Time that this was an itch which Davies still wanted to scratch, and when Catherine Tate and David Tennant made it clear that they were up for a reunion, he seized the chance. That means that this episode had a lot to accomplish. It had to re-establish David Tennant as the Doctor, catch up new viewers with events which were broadcast back in 2008 (before some younger viewers were even born), establish what Donna’s life had been like during those 15 years, resolve the issue of the meta-crisis Doctor so that Donna could go on more adventures – oh and do Beep the Meep.

But unlike some of those eighties adventures with their “shopping lists” of criteria (Planet of Fire, The Five Doctors) this never felt over-stuffed, over-hurried, box-ticking or rote. It unfolded beautifully and like a true genius, Davies spotted one repeated word from his earlier script and stirred it back in here in a blindly fresh context which brought a gasp to my breath and a lump to my throat. Everyone’s on top of their game here – Tennant and Tate are superb of course, but the entire cast is faultless from the zappified soldiers to “Dame” Miriam Margolyes on Meep voice duty. And the production is exemplary, with Murray Gold’s music lending huge grandeur and scale to the thing once more.

Quibbles? Sure. The opening titles are very brief and rather anonymous and having Donna and Rose be able (and willing!) to simply let the meta-crisis go seems like a bit of a cop-out. But if I was tempted to knock off even half a star for those tiny indiscretions, then it immediately goes back on for that incredible TARDIS interior which has instantly vaulted to the top of my list of favourites time machine sets. It’s absolutely gorgeous and I can’t wait to see it again.

So, returning Russell’s game plan becomes a bit clearer now. Firstly, make sure that the show isn’t just the show but have it surrounded by a whole galaxy… a Doc-uverse… a Whotopia (we’ll workshop that) of other content, from in front of the camera and behind the scenes, from the show’s past, from its future and – in the case of the Da-glo Daleks story (don’t worry, I loved that too) – both combined. Second, celebrate the sixtieth using a favourite modern Doctor returning for a victory lap, taking the pressure off the new boy. Thirdly, we’re back on Saturdays, we’re back to rollicking adventure stories, and we’re back on Christmas Day baby.

I’ve scarcely ever enjoyed an hour of TV more. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sit down and watch the whole thing again. And then listen to the official podcast. And watch the behind-the-scenes YouTube clips. Life is good. Welcome back, Doctor. I’ve missed you.

5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of The Power of the Doctor?

Posted on October 23rd, 2022 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Well, where to start with this one? Series 11 seemed to me to be characterised mainly by sluggish pacing, lots of walking, endless scenes of the baddies wanting nice chats with the Doctor instead of enacting their evil plans, and a general air of torpor. What was mildly refreshing was the insistence on having nothing from the Doctor’s past. Series 12 massively reversed course, giving us return appearances of the Master, the Cybermen, Captain Jack, and tying the continuity of the show into a five-dimensional-hyper-pretzel with alternate versions of the Doctor whose presence makes zero sense even once explained. And Floox doubled down on all of the above, only with a hefty dose of ADHD, just in case anyone was nodding off at the back. What was lacking throughout these stories was any meaningful character interactions. The over-full TARDIS crew generally just stood on the sidelines watching the adventure happen. Occasionally, guest characters would get something resembling an arc, but not often. There was a glimmer of something with a bit more depth and texture in Eve of the Daleks but not a single particle of that promise made it through to the incredibly poor Legend of the Sea Devils.

This one didn’t start well. We begin in the thick of the action with a ship of some kind under attack. Immediately, it’s all the usual problems. Action and visual whirr in place of story. Bland, functional dialogue. Hey look, Cybermen. ARE YOU HAPPY, FANS? The revelation that the “cargo” is a sweet little girl made me stop and take notice. Okay, I thought, the teaser might have been witless, leaden, epilepsy-inducing eye-candy, but that is a neat twist. I wonder who she is? I needn’t have bothered, we don’t ever find out. (Possibly she was some species of Timeless Child? I neither know nor care.) Dan is written out on the thinnest of pretexts. Why was he there at all? It’s a centenary special. Everyone is invited. Why is Yas written out at the end? What’s Graham doing in that volcano? Where’s Ryan? Well, do there always have to be reasons for things?

Chris Chibnall’s most divisive episode to date is almost certainly The Timeless Children. Among the many things this was criticised for were the fact that the Doctor spends much of the middle of the episode trapped in a limbo space talking to herself, the fact that the Master’s evil plan is to show her the PowerPoint Presentation of Doom, and the fact that a nice old man blows himself up so that she doesn’t have to sacrifice herself to wipe out the new generation of Cybermen. Well, in this episode, the Doctor spends much of the middle of the episode trapped in a limbo space talking to herself, the Master’s evil plan is to roll out the PR Campaign of Ultimate Evil, and in case you were worrying about that nice old man, turns out his death was completely pointless, because all those Cybermen he died to eliminate are absolutely fine.

Hey look, it’s Ace. ARE YOU HAPPY FANS?

Hey look, it’s Tegan. ARE YOU HAPPY FANS? ARE YOU??

DALEKS AND CYBERMEN IN THE SAME STORY. ARE YOU HAPPY FANS? SAY YOU’RE HAPPY. SAY IT.

Hey look, it’s Rasputin. For some reason.

ONLY JOKING. IT’S THE FUCKING MASTER. BE HAPPY. BE HAPPY FANS. EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED IN ONE EPISODE. BE HAPPY!!

IT’S DAVID BRADLEY AND PETER DAVISON AND COLIN BAKER AND SYLVESTER MCCOY AND PAUL MCGANN AND JO MARTIN AND BRADLEY WALSH AND ASHAD AND VINDER AND KATE STEWART AND THE CLOISTER BELL REMEMBER THE CLOISTER BELL AND BONNIE LANGFORD AND KATY MANNING AND WILLIAM RUSSELL AND NITRO NINE AND ACE SAYS WICKED. HAVE YOU CUM YET FANS. HAVE YOU?

I’m 50 years old. I remember all (well, most) of these faces from the first time around. Chris Chibnall is 52. He’s an old fan, writing for other old fans. Sadly for him, I hated it. What did the ten-year-olds make of it?

And apart from being a bad idea, this is also a colossal mess. Characters and villains and ideas come and go, like brightly coloured soup sloshing in and out of various tureens, but none of it goes anywhere or means anything. Ashad loses anything which made him interesting in any way and he’s now just another goon. Ace and Tegan stand around and comment from the sidelines, because that’s what companions do in this era of the show. The Master cos-plays as the Doctor, announces he’s going to trash the Doctor’s reputation (Way to raise the stakes! Trash her reputation! Tremble!) but never gets around to actually doing it. Lasers bounce off holograms, you know, the things that are famously insubstantial. There are missing paintings, but don’t worry about it, nothing comes of it. Vinder is here, for some reason. One Dalek betrays the rest. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s all part of the Master’s plan. Or maybe it isn’t. The Master needs an army of Daleks and Cybermen to stand around him while he whammies the Doctor because if they aren’t there, then, well, I dunno, but it wouldn’t look as COOL.

I was pretty frustrated at the way in which Flux, which went to great pains to remove the Doctor from the action, was resolved only by having multiple versions of the Doctor in different places, which felt like a massive cheat. Here again, the Doctor is comprehensively taken off the board, and then pops up again in multiple guises. The Peter/Janet and especially the Sylvester/Sophie scenes have a speck of something greater – this would love to be School Reunion with Lis and Ten, but it never comes close. The rest is just lights and noise and shouting. And the script not paying attention to itself. Thirteen comes back to life, Jo Martin fades away, announcing that the hologram AI has served its purpose. Until it suddenly pops up again in front of Tegan.

If you aren’t convinced that this was incompetently assembled by a writer whose MO is just to occupy characters with busywork because he’s only got enough plot for about twenty minutes, let’s look a bit more closely at what happens with Ace, Tegan and Kate. Kate summons Tegan and Ace and they all meet the Doctor. But they don’t go with her, so they don’t get a chance to influence the plot at all. They stay behind at UNIT and move upstairs when Cybermen invade a middle floor. Kate wants them to leave the building so Ace and Tegan go up to the roof. Tegan then decides she doesn’t want to leave, so she goes all the way back down again, returns to her original position with Kate, and they argue about this. Ace stays in place while many other scenes happen. Then she finally jumps off the roof with a parachute., something she could presumably have done from the middle floor if she’d opened a window. Cybermen shoot at her and damage the parachute, so now it’s the same as if she jumped off the roof without it. Yas (somehow!) foresees all this and positions the TARDIS underneath her, putting her back into the TARDIS which is where she needs to be – the same TARDIS she could have got into twenty minutes earlier.

Now Kate reveals that there is another way down to the basement and so Tegan – who has already gone up to the roof and back down again – now goes down to the basement, which is where she actually needs to be. Kate says “I’ll trade you my life for the lives of my troops,” does nothing to ensure the safety of her troops and just surrenders, and then Tegan makes it to the basement and does the thing with the thing. Ace (and Graham for some fucking reason) meanwhile has to destroy the Daleks with Nitro Nine so that when the Doctor freezes the volcanos from the TARDIS, they… she… it’s… no, I’ve no idea, sorry.

It’s all so convoluted, meaningless and messy. None of it clicks together, none of it reveals character, and much of it is blitheringly stupid: Tegan just letting go when Cybermen start shooting through the walls at her, and surviving just because. Kate and Tegan standing two feet in front of an enormous building which is being demolished behind them and not being crushed by tons of falling masonry. Fatal tissue compression that works in reverse. The Master dancing to pop music like he did in that other good episode that everybody liked. DID YOU LIKE IT WHEN YOU SAW IT AGAIN? DID YOU? DID YOU LIKE IT?

What I think is worth saying is that I was initally very struck by Sacha Dhawan’s Master and really felt like in Spyfall he put a very new spin on a very old character, even if the writing reverted him back to the John Simm version. But in later appearances, it got more and more tired, and what was once a tour-de-force performance became bland and predictable. Here, though, with no help from the script whatsoever, he works miracles. He’s unpredictable, sinister, operatic, charming, silly, savage, vulnerable and somehow knits all of that together into a consistent characterisation. The hosts of excellent podcast Flight Through Entirety have observed that in the classic series, the real threat that the Master poses is that he’ll be so charismatic and funny that he’ll steal the show from the Doctor. That idea is taken to its logical conclusion here, and while I won’t miss very much about this era, I do feel we were denied seeing this exceptional actor as the Doctor and he’s really the only reason this is worth watching at all.

Oh, and I did quite like “Tag, you’re it.” “Introducing David Tennant” I assume was Russell T Davies’s gag.

1.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make it stop. Please, just make it stop.

But – hey! – Ace and Tegan are back.

Cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this the longest story ever?

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

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

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

The Daleks Masterplan (October 1965 – January 1966)

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

The War Games (April – June 1969)

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

The Key to Time (September 1978 – February 1979)

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

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

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

Flux (October – December 2021)

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

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

So… what did I think of The Vanquishers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a fucking shame.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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