Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 9)

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We’ve only been here five minutes!

So, this one was reasonably good actually.

Is anyone who’s reading these actually familiar with The Infinite Quest, when it’s broken down into the different parts? I probably could have given you a brief overview of the premise, if not necessarily what happened week on week – so it occurs to me that it might be worth explaining what, exactly, happens in this one. If nothing else, it’s a good way for me to start to fill in some of the wordcount.

In this one, we see the Doctor and Martha arrive on Volag Noc – a prison planet that’s been discussed before, and is perhaps not entirely dissimilar to Star Trek’s Rura Penthe. It’s sketched out quickly – of course it is – but it does benefit from having been spoken about before; there’s a certain weight and significance attached to this place already that couldn’t have been established simply within one episode. On a broader level, though, this has been something that The Infinite Quest has been good at generally – creating a diverse set of planets that, while simple, do have a sense of character to them. The breadth of locations has been a good way to keep this feeling like something new each week, all while still following the single plotline.

Immediately after arriving, the Doctor is arrested and Martha is taken to the governor’s office for further questioning. It’s a good way to split the pair of them up, allowing the plot to develop across two separate strands. In some respects, it feels quite a lot like the first twenty minutes or so of a normal episode, albeit played out at remarkable pace. That’s quite a good thing, actually; it’s nice for The Infinite Quest to be able to more closely mimic the structure of a Doctor Who episode, and makes this particular instalment feel a little more ‘whole’. Plus, there are some rather nice jokes about library fines (and a version of the Doctor that wouldn’t have felt at all out of place in 2013, which is nicely prescient).

It’s soon revealed, though, that the governor Martha met with is a fraud – the real governor has been imprisoned, and the Doctor is his new cellmate. The pair work on an escape, and the episode ends on a cliffhanger that implies the Doctor and the real governor have made their way to Martha and the fake governor. It’s a nice twist, and as mentioned before, it’d feel quite at home in a television episode of Doctor Who. The constraints of the format do show through a little bit, admittedly; the twist has to be dropped in quickly, and through that “character accidentally says something they shouldn’t” trope I’m not so fond of. (Though, admittedly, while thinking about that trope recently I realised it’s something I actually do in real life quite a lot, so I probably shouldn’t complain too much.)

Overall, then, this was actually one of the better ones. And I think it’s probably fair to say that this was one of the better reviews. I’ll probably have to stick to this format going forward.

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What will Arrested Development look like under a Trump presidency?

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A family of real estate moguls. Corruption, money problems, and a border wall with Mexico. Promising to achieve things quickly and then failing anyway. Gaudy displays of wealth, from a family who weren’t actually as wealthy as they said they were. Possible incest. Potentially shady deals and unethical agreements. Unsuccessful product lines. A ‘yuge’ mistake. Sound familiar? 

Ooft.

So, I’ve updated my blog to host it on WordPress rather than tumblr; part of what that means is that I’m going through every old post to reformat it and just sort of spruce it up a bit. Happening on this one – exactly a year after I first wrote it, on 28th May 2018 – it has very much not aged well.

A year ago, I didn’t think that my interest in Arrested Development season 5 would drop like a stone after some pretty horrific interviews that suggest, frankly, the Trump similarities don’t stop on the screen. Which, you know, just of course. Of course. Ugh.

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Doctor Who Review: Extremis

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You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor.

I used to have this rule about not reading any reviews of an episode until I’d finished my own.

The idea was, basically, that it might when I did get to writing my reviews (in the good old days where they’d be finished on Sundays, or Monday at the latest!) it’d be ‘pure’ in a sense – my own opinion, essentially unaffected by any outside factors or influences.

But as it began to get to this point, where it’d routinely take me a week to get around to writing about the episodes, I’ve started to read reviews again. You wouldn’t expect me to not read about and discuss it’d routinely take me a week to get around to writing about the episodes, I’ve started to read reviews again. You wouldn’t expect me to not read about and discuss Doctor Who for a whole week, would you? That’s a bit extreme. Indeed, I think it’s started to help with the reviews themselves, in that I’ve contextualised each episode better, and considered different interpretations – and, of course, I can steal other people’s clever ideas. (On my website, I only ever use the best original ideas – just not necessarily my own!)

All of which is to say that, actually, when I finished watching Extremis I didn’t quite get it. Not in a conceptual way, but moreso that I didn’t connect with it – watching it felt more like a process of saying “yes, there is Doctor Who in front of me right now, that is a thing that is happening” rather than one in which I engaged with the episode particularly. I suspect that part of that is a result of what I spoke about with Human Nature yesterday; for an episode that hinges around its central twist, I wasn’t giving it room to surprise me. Weeks of reading about Moffat’s last experimental episode where he pushed the show as far as he could for the last time had left me excited about this in a really specific way – the weight of my expectations were working against me once more.

Across the week, though, as I was beginning to read different reviews and internet comments and so on, I started to get it a little bit more; I started to gain a deeper appreciation of what the episode was doing, and how it worked, and why that was worthwhile. (I should probably do it more often, really; I suppose that’s what I do with my Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor posts, because those all come with a decade’s worth of thought attached to them.)

I’m glad I did, really; certainly, when rewatching it for this review, I got a lot more out of it than I did previously. In fact, I rather loved it.

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Certainly, it’s a clever premise – the idea that the world isn’t real. It’s surely something that everyone has considered before, at some point or another. Am I real? Is this all in my head? Does what I believe in actually exist? It’s a classic staple of science fiction, religion, and teen angst. (Or is that just me?) The episode does a good job with these ideas. Not a perfect one, no; often the emotional reaction to this news is quite muted, so the despair doesn’t quite land – but at the same time, the explanation is held off long enough to maintain the right balance of discomfort and intrigue for the broad strokes of the subject to work.

Of course, for those long-term readers of my work (there’s probably at least two of you, right?) it’s going to be obvious which bit of this episode I came to love most. Likely it’ll even be obvious to the particularly short-term readers, given that I used it at the start of this review.

“You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor.”

Within the episode itself, it’s a real moment of triumph. Tricking the monsters into their own trap and beating them at their own game, even if you’re part of the game itself. But on a broader scale, it’s actually doing more than that – embracing the fiction of Doctor Who, but refuting the idea that it can’t matter. (Indeed, for a moment or two, I thought the simulation referred only to the programme itself – the real world was ours, rather than there being another ‘real world’ of the programme.)

Naturally, I’m going to love that. I’ve been banging on about this show for years, and why it matters; to firmly take the stance that it can, does, and will continue to effect material change in the real world is brilliant. Especially the week after an episode that so resoundingly denounced capitalism, and indeed in a wider, post-Brexit post-Trump world.

Again, it’s the wider resonance that’s why I clicked so much with the episode (you know, after a little bit of thought and consideration). In the end, it’s about why fiction matters – why stories matter. How they can impact the real world, and how we respond to them. Of course I was going to love that. I’ve basically built my life around that idea!

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Admittedly, it still wasn’t perfect. Not everything worked for me as well as that wonderful line and the themes it evoked.

Certainly, the Missy storyline felt a little superfluous. There’s a bit of a link through the dialogue, and it’s clear how it’s meant to tie in… but I’m not entirely convinced it worked. Lots of little niggles associated with that one, actually. I know the inconsistency with The Return of Doctor Mysterio will bother me, and I’m not wholly clear on why exactly the Doctor would still guard Missy’s body if he’s not going to kill her – why is the Oath binding? Who’s he protecting her from? There’s likely not a huge chance they’re going to go into these things much. I’ll try not to let it bother me. That’s a sign of maturity, I suppose.

More seriously though, the episode’s use of suicide… bothered me somewhat. In a sense, it reminded me a little of the problems people have been having with Thirteen Reasons Why – suicide isn’t just being presented as a way out, but essentially the correct and only response to existential angst and shock on a huge scale. That’s not great. It was more nuanced than that, yes, and there’s room to argue about the motivations (it’s the only way they knew to fight back against the machine and save the real world from the coming demon), but no matter how you look at it, that’s an episode that has a lot of references to suicide in it. It’s an episode that’s actively asking to be adorned with trigger warnings – necessary ones at that. After all, you can’t spend an episode making the case that fiction matters, and that fiction impacts the real world, without also considering what the negative impact of an aspect of your episode could be. The ball was dropped there, unquestionably.

How much does it harm the episode? Well. Having just written it down now, it’s bothering me more than it previously did, before I articulated it. It’s not great, however you look at it.

But… well, personally speaking, while still acknowledging that failing, the episode managed to be entertaining, do something entirely new within the framework of Doctor Who, and emphatically state that fiction matters. There’s a lot to like there.

8/10

Related:

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Human Nature

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I dream I’m this adventurer. This daredevil, a madman. The Doctor.

Here’s another one I remember primarily in terms of my own early viewing experience. Which is convenient, really, because it’s also a difficult episode to write about – the opening episodes of two-part stories often are.

Certainly, I recall – not the twist, because that’s not quite the right way of describing it – the premise, in particular the pre-credits scene, being quite a shock. Even then I was reading as much as I could about the series, albeit in a fairly limited and constrained way – Doctor Who Adventures magazine was pretty much my limit. I don’t think I’d discovered the internet yet. (Don’t you all wish I never had? So do I, sometimes.) In any case, then, the only descriptions I’d read where to the effect of “When John Smith’s dreams start to come true, where is the Doctor?”, or something like that – there was no analysis of how this was probably an adaptation of Paul Cornell’s novel from the 90s or suchlike.

That was nice, actually – I sometimes wonder if, in becoming so plugged in, I’ve lost something of the actual viewing experience. Not just in terms of Doctor Who, but television in general; simply by virtue of how I approach it these days, with the analytical mind and the keen interest and so on, the actual watching isn’t quite the same. I don’t mean this in the way that people sometimes decry critics for – the inability to ‘just switch off and watch it’, because I wouldn’t want to just switch off. I love the analysis, and I do get more from that.

But at the same time, I can’t help but feel I bring a real baggage and weight of expectations to a lot of what I watch these days. Be it Doctor Who, where I’ve been reading the magazine (I’ve graduated to the ‘grown up’ one now, but its counterpart will always hold a special place in my heart) in advance of the episode for months, or indeed any other television show, where I’ve been reading message boards and tumblr and news websites ahead of time. There’s less surprise to television now, I suppose. (On that note: I think perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve been loving The Good Fight so much is because it’s consistently surprising to me in just how good it is.)

I guess that that, then, is what I associate with Human Nature primarily. A real sense of surprise. It’s not fair to say it’s an integral part of the episode, per se – though certainly there are a few moments where it could have swerved off into something unpredictable, it does begin to start feeding us information (very effectively) quite early on.  But for a few moments at the beginning, it does (or did) genuinely shock me, and I’ll always love the episode for that.

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Obviously, as a Paul Cornell episode, it’s really well written – absolutely lovely throughout. That’s something I can comment on, even though this episode is existing just on its own until next week.

The entire piece just sings, really – it’s very well done. From the absolutely lovely development of John and Joan’s relationship, to ensuring that John Smith is a charming character in his own right yet still fundamentally of his time, with all the human faults and foibles we don’t normally see of the Doctor. It’s a quick but deft sketch of two characters, but an entirely necessary one – so much of next week’s episode is going to rely on these two characters working and working well, and the setup here is absolutely fantastic.

While I’m mentioning the character work, a quick word on Jenny and Baines. Minor characters, yet, but never caricatures; in their own way, they both feel real, in such a way that when they are taken over by the Family of Blood, there’s something meaningful about it. Certainly, Jenny’s death is genuinely sad, and it’s difficult not to feel for Baines too – despite his priggish nature, it’s the moment of fear that sells it. Seeing the characters in their element and then taken out of it entirely, undercutting any confidence or defence mechanism they’ve built up. It’s fantastic stuff, and it’s to the episode’s credit that it takes the time to make these characters work as characters first, before they’re possessed.

One moment I’d like to highlight as a personal favourite is the bit with the piano and the cricket ball – you know the one I mean. That’s something else I specifically recall from the first broadcast; it made quite the impact on me. I remember watching Confidential after the episode, and Russell T Davies and Charles Palmer (I assume, I’ve not checked) were discussing how difficult the scene was to achieve – but ultimately also how essential it was, to demonstrate that the Doctor was still in there, beneath the layers of John Smith. That’s exactly why I love it so much – not only is it a wonderful set piece, but it’s such a wonderful example of the ingenuity and panache and indeed, yes, heroism that (to me, at least) defines the Doctor. It’s moments like this that make the character matter, really. That’s something Paul Cornell understands, and has always understood, innately and intuitively.

Got to love a Paul Cornell episode. Been meaning to read the original novel for some time now – I’d hoped to get a review of it to go up some time over the next week, but that’s not going to happen now – and to get into some of his original novels. Chalk looks quite good. Still, though – I know you said you were sticking with your original work from now on, and that’s genuinely quite admirable, but (selfishly speaking)… come back and give us another Doctor Who episode, please? You’re damn good at it.

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I’ve spent quite some time gushing over this episode – which in turn begs the question, was there anything I didn’t like? Well… in some cases, it was almost too good for its own good.

I criticised The Shakespeare Code some time ago for its historical treatment of race, and recently celebrated Thin Ice for much the opposite. Human Nature occupies a rather lovely middle ground in that respect – it’s a deft and subtle handling of how Martha’s race would impact on her experiences in 1913, leaving it implicit yet at the same time very direct. There’s something really impressive here; in some ways, I’d argue that it paved the way for Thin Ice’s success later on, demonstrating acutely that Doctor Who can handle historical racism in a nuanced and sensitive way.

But like I said – it’s almost too good. Because it’s so, so damning of the Tenth Doctor in a way that’s almost staggering to behold. There’s the moment where Martha laments the fact that he didn’t consider what would happen to her if he fell in love with someone, and like, yeah, sure – but did he not also consider the months of racism, abuse, and servitude? Damn. There’s an implicit cruelty here that’s difficult not to lay at the Doctor’s feet, which I was struggling to come to terms with. Why 1913? It’s a lovely setting and Paul Cornell does some great work within that, so I’m not inclined to argue it particularly – but from a Watsonian perspective, as it were, what on Earth was the Doctor thinking? Why not go to 2007, and stay with Martha’s family, Lodger style? It almost feels like there’s a need to throw in a line about sending the TARDIS to a random location in Earth’s history, just to absolve the character of some of the responsibility he’s putting on Martha.

It’s not a huge dent on the episode. It’s a lovely episode. In some regards, it’s a good thing – I almost feel like that questionable discomfort is part of the point, particularly given what I recall of next week’s episode. But still, it’s a bit of a sticking point.

Ultimately, though, this is a really good episode – one that proves why Paul Cornell is so good, and why we should be praying for his return. Thankfully, though, even if he doesn’t come back – we’ve still got next week’s!

8/10

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The woman behind Star Wars: How Marcia Lucas gave us the Original Trilogy

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On the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, it’s worth taking a moment to remember someone who’s been largely forgotten – but deserves to be celebrated.

An article I wrote a little while ago, for the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, commemorating Marcia Lucas for her involvement in the trilogy. She is, I’d wager, the most important yet least recognised architect of Star Wars as we know it.

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Why the Star Wars Prequels are much better than everyone thinks

It’s become something of a truism to say that the Star Wars Prequels are pretty awful films. They’ve become concepts that slipped into popular culture and never really left. Even the people who don’t like Star Wars, and have never seen the films, know that these productions are the bad ones.

And yet, this critical consensus is in fact rather unfair.

Sure, the Star Wars Prequels are imperfect – no one’s ever going to really argue that they aren’t – but there’s still a lot to like about them. And when it comes down to it, they’re actually a lot better than people give them credit for.

A Star Wars article for Metro. I have something of a complicated relationship with the prequels, I guess. Obviously, they are not necessarily brilliant movies – in many ways, they range from dull and turgid to just straightforwardly bad. At the same time, though, they’re the Star Wars movies of my youth, and the ones I have a (slightly) more personal connection to, I suppose.

I’d argue, though, that there is a lot about them that’s very good – they’re genuinely creative in a way that sets them apart from the majority of the other Star Wars films, and I think the story they struggle to tell is a more interesting and engaging one than the story the original trilogy tells successfully. And the sequel trilogy, arguably, though I don’t think the sequel trilogy has an obvious overarching story yet.

Anyway, so, yeah. Here’s a bit of an attempt at defending the prequel trilogy, with a few thoughts as to why they’re a bit better than the reputation they have (which is more often than not a repeated meme rather than genuine critical engagement).

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 8)

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So, what’s next?

This is actually the one I remember best, as it happens. Not because of any particularly memorable aspect of the episode in and of itself – no, it was because in this one Barney Harwood (who was one of the presenters of Totally Doctor Who) made a cameo appearance, so they did a whole feature on him going down to the recording studio and so on as part of that week’s episode. He was also an extra in Love & Monsters – you can see him hanging around behind Mrs Croot in the street scene – and they did a thing on that at the time too. I was quite fond of Barney Harwood back then, he was a good presenter. He has a silly haircut now, but I assume he’s still similarly good at his job.

Still not actually a lot to say about The Infinite Quest.

I’m impressed by the fact that these stories are maintaining something of a… I suppose a political angle? That’s perhaps an inaccurate way of describing it, but it’s nice to see that thread about oil shortages and what have you being maintained across this little instalment. It gives the impression that they’re reaching for something wider, something grander, than just a treasure hunt. There’s a feeling that actually this story has a bit of meat on its bones; it’s not quite as insubstantial as one might think. Admittedly, there’s no real way to tell if that’s true or not, because of how spaced out it is – but perhaps the omnibus edition will prove to be a powerful anti-capitalist polemic? (Hahaha.)

I also quite enjoyed the resolution to the problem, with the Doctor surrendering on the behalf of the Mantis Queen. It was a little rushed, and I don’t know that they could pull it off exactly like that in a real episode, but it was actually a very clever idea – it’s a great way to quickly wrap up the plotline and move it forward. Quite possibly that’s an idea I’ll steal one day and try to pass it off as one of my own. (Sorry, Alan Barnes.)

There’s also a nice little callback with the Doctor’s “oh no, no, don’t do that” moment to Martha. Would be interested to know if that’s in reference to Tooth and Claw or to The Shakespeare Code. Presumably the former, but possibly also the latter. It’s difficult to find much in the way of production details about The Infinite Quest, which is actually a little bit of a shame – I’m sure there’s some quite interesting stuff to learn about the commissioning process, how it was viewed internally, so on and so forth. It was pointed out once that Dreamland is never mentioned in The Writer’s Tale, suggesting something about how important it was considered by Russell T Davies – I can’t help but wonder if it would have been broadly similar with The Infinite Quest.

Ultimately, it’s another instalment of The Infinite Quest. That isn’t missing an adjective, much as you may assume it is. This is just another one. Yep. Yeah. That’s the case.

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Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

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Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits!

This episode, much like Thin Ice before it, feels very keenly relevant to 2017. Admittedly that’s perhaps more of a reflection of myself and my own perspective; the themes inherent to this episode are largely universal. But by the same token, an overtly political Doctor Who episode feels at home in 2017 – indeed, required in 2017 – in a way it wouldn’t necessarily have in the years prior. And, certainly, it’s something I’m more able to appreciate now than I would have previously.

Admittedly, there’s a part of me that almost has trouble calling Oxygen “overtly political”. Surely, it’s not, is it? It’s a well written and engaging thriller that also just so happens to make the point that capitalism is bad. There’s some nice incisive lines and so on, but it’s not exactly arguing a point. Right?

Except, actually, that’s why in the end I do feel right calling Oxygen “overtly political”. It’s not moralistic, it’s not a screed – it’s not even really an angry polemic, though it certainly had the potential to veer into one. It is, however, a story with a very specific ideological bent, one that informs every aspect of the episode that grows out from it.  The monsters are a metaphor for the dehumanisation of workers, and the lack of autonomy afforded to them by a capitalist system. The faceless, bureaucratic enemies are motivated by their bottom line. The dialogue has that fantastic, angry awareness of everything that’s fundamentally wrong with the system.

Oxygen feels like a masterclass in how to handle a Doctor Who story like this; it’s built out of an awareness. It’s not a very special episode, but one that reflects its themes across every aspect of the text. Of course, I say all of that; I could be wrong. It might just be that Oxygen demonstrates one very good way of going about this, rather than the best or only way to do it successfully. I’d probably quite enjoy an angry polemic – particularly if it’s one that advances that same (correct) general position as my own.

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There’s a worthwhile comparison to make with 42, Chris Chibnall’s episode from the 2007 series of Doctor Who. It’s on my mind a little bit, given that it was the most recent episode that I looked at as part of my Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor series. Broadly speaking, you can see a lot of similarities between Oxygen and 42 – they’re both high-octane thrillers, set in space, with something of a political bent. (In that the ‘villain’ of 42 is eventually revealed to be the victim of a capitalist mining process, though I don’t think anyone would be inclined to argue this is a particularly successful aspect of 42 in comparison to Oxygen.)

One of the big failings of that episode, highlighted in my review, was the relative anonymity of its supporting cast. Few of them made any particular impact, relegated largely to a series of stock characters to be picked off one by one, and occasionally filling in the plot mechanics to keep the story moving. Oxygen, for obvious reasons, faced similar issues – and, arguably, falls into the same pitfalls to an extent. (An issue with Oxygen was the fact that the two men playing Tasker and Ivan did look a little alike, meaning it was easy to confuse the two of them – losing some of the impact when one of them died and the other had an emotional moment towards the end.)

However, Oxygen does manage its supporting cast of characters far more adeptly than 42 ever did. Part of that is in having a smaller and more manageable cast – but another part of that is the fact that each of them got a moment of focus and some time to shine. Dahh-Ren had a great comedy moment, Abby fills the role of critical antagonist well, and Ivan’s emotional moment is actually very well constructed. His final meeting with Ellie is a great payoff to the pre-titles sequence, and gives the episode a really nice grace note at the end.

More than that, though, this is a very good episode in terms of characterisation in general. Bill is excellent, as is the Doctor; there are some absolutely fantastic interactions between the two of them. That the Doctor’s rendered blind trying to save Bill is really effective, and the way it impacts their dynamic across the episode is great to see. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes across the rest of the series, for however long that might last. I’d like to particularly highlight Nardole, though. I was hesitant about his inclusion when it was first announced, but it’s fast becoming clear that there wasn’t a particular need to – there’s a real steel to Matt Lucas’ performance, and the inclusion of Nardole genuinely does enhance the episode. I can’t wait to see where the character goes from here.

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It’s not just on this political angle where the episode succeeds, though. It’s a taut and well put together thriller that’s genuinely very tense in certain places.

Part of the reason for this success is the opening sequence with the Doctor’s lecture – it’s an expert piece of exposition, and right out of the gate it establishes exactly what the episode is setting out to do. “Make space scary again.” It’s an opening that pays dividends across the rest of the episode, because we’ve got a very immediate frame of reference as to what’s going to happen to Bill – helped, of course, by Charles Palmer’s long and lingering direction, that really lets the danger sink in. The risk posed to each of our characters is always at the forefront of the episode; the audience is never allowed to forget about that. There’s no moment space seems like anything less than a threat – the final frontier is trying to kill you. It’s a villain in and of itself; the very setting of the episode, out to get them.

In a sense, there’s a contrast that forms against Knock Knock the week before; even though that was the episode self-consciously styled as scary, Oxygen is far more successful at actually being scary. A lot of that is down to the fact that Jamie Mathieson is a very talented writer, with a great eye for what makes a successful monster. The suits have a fantastic visual design, and tie into the rest of the episode particularly effectively. We’ve not really had any outright zombies on Doctor Who before – they’re usually couched within some other twist to the premise – but Oxygen takes us quite close to that, and does so brilliantly.

Ultimately, then, Oxygen is a really strong episode. It’s another great instalment from Jamie Mathieson – and, while he’s clearly positioning himself as a possible replacement for Chris Chibnall one day, it’s an episode that really excites me to see where he might take the show in the future.

9/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: 42

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Burn with me

I wonder if this is how it felt to watch The Empty Child back in 2009. I suspect not, admittedly, because The Empty Child was quite a bit better than 42.

It is somewhat similar, though – because, much like The Empty Child, 42 is an episode that’s taken on a lot more significance because it marks the Doctor Who debut of our next showrunner – Chris Chibnall. At this point, he’d already written a lot of Torchwood’s first two seasons, and was, functionally speaking, the showrunner over on Torchwood anyway. It’s that that got him the Doctor Who gig, essentially. I’m hoping, across the next few months – and certainly in the lead up to Chibnall’s first series of Doctor Who – to take a look through Chibnall’s back catalogue of Doctor Who, Torchwood, Broadchurch, and even Law and Order: UK, in an attempt to try and discern what Chibnall’s time as Doctor Who showrunner might be like.

For now, though, we’ve got 42. Admittedly, it’s not an amazing debut – certainly, it’s not The Empty Child. The benefit of hindsight means we know, of course, that Chibnall can and will do better, so this isn’t the end of the world – and even then, there’s something a little unfair about judging someone so harshly on a script that’s over a decade old. Indeed, a lot of the complaints I’d make about this episode (and will, in a moment) are ones that I know Chibnall can do better with – indeed, what’s lacking here proves to be amongst his best strengths on Broadchurch.

But even so, there’s something a bit disappointing about this script. I think it was Elizabeth Sandifer who pointed this out, though I’m sure lots of other people commented on it too – this is an episode that promises to offer a 24 pastiche by way of Douglas Adams, and then fails to live up to that potential. When it comes to that sort of possibility, to fail to meet it – well, there were times when I almost felt like they should have cut out all the references to the time and just renamed the episode The Fall of the Pentallion or something suitably mundane.

It’s competent and entirely average in terms of its quality. There’s not exactly any particular spark to this episode, nor any particularly interesting concepts (or, perhaps more accurately, no well utilised interesting concepts). And, I must admit, that’s my chief fear about the Chibnall era of Doctor Who – that what we’re going to get will be just about average, rather than anything special.

Still, though – that’s over a year to go at this point. For now, let’s focus on 2007 again.

doctor who 42 review martha jones freema agyeman escape pod chris chibnall graeme harper

The big thing I want to talk about is the real-time conceit. Is it particularly unfair to say it doesn’t work?

42 should have been the tensest episode of Doctor Who ever – by all rights, that’s the only way it can actually work. We need to feel the countdown with every passing moment; all the circumlocution and digression can’t just feel like standard ambling Doctor Who – it need to be deeply distressing, because they’re running out of time. That moment when Martha’s mum is struggling to plug in the mouse USB shouldn’t be annoying, it should be terrifying! The classic Doctor Who angle of making the mundane frightening – having to flip over the USB several times to make it fit the computer becomes the scariest thing in the world when every second counts! Right?

Well, no. It just doesn’t work. The real-time conceit is ultimately just a piece of throwaway fluff; you could edit out the few lines of dialogue that reference it and the occasional shot of the countdown clock and the episode would be entirely unchanged. It doesn’t use the concept of a real-time episode particularly well – in the end, it’s just a bit of set dressing, and very little more.

Admittedly, I’m not sure how to fix it. One of the big things that would have helped, actually, would have been a timer on screen – not so dissimilar to how Mummy on the Orient Express did a countdown for the Foretold attacks. The cuts to the countdown clock at random intervals are too disconnected, too divorced from the actual episode itself for them to work – and I’m not actually convinced they match up in real time anyway. Having an actual timer on screen would, if nothing else, really emphasise just how much time they had left – and stop it from feeling like just any old episode.

But then, there’s actually more to it than that, because 42 is written like it’s just any old episode. It’s paced as though they’ve got the same amount of time as usual; the characters aren’t really responding to how little time they have left. 42 should have been much more frenetic, and broken the characters up a bit more. It’s actually a real problem that we never got much sense of the geography of the place, and how easy it is to run from one area to another – how big is the ship? It should get to the point where the Doctor can’t just run to the medbay to help out there, because he doesn’t have enough time – that’s an interesting idea to create some tension, surely?

Unfortunately, though, it just doesn’t work. The episode isn’t terribly stunted for it, but it certainly isn’t as successful as it could have been for not fulfilling this potential.

doctor who 42 review david tennant tenth doctor burn with me chris chibnall graeme harper

Functionally, 42 takes the shape and format of a base under siege episode – and these are the sorts of episodes that live or die on the basis of their supporting cast. Which begs the question: is the supporting cast of 42 actually any good?

Well, um, no.

That’s largely down to Chris Chibnall’s writing, though – there’s not much of an attempt to particularly flesh these characters out. Some fare better than others, obviously; Kath and Riley, by virtue of being the ones that the Doctor and Martha play off of, get a bit more depth. Riley is interesting, actually, by virtue of being something of a romantic interest for Martha… which feels unearned, admittedly, and is only going to stick out like a sore thumb later on given that Martha’s interest in the Doctor is maintained.

On which note – the Doctor is a little insufferable in these episodes too, isn’t he? Well, I say a little, I mean a lot. I’m beginning to understand, in a very immediate way, why people don’t like the Tenth Doctor. I think it’s diminishing my enjoyment of the series, to be honest – and even just from my recollection of what’s coming over the next few weeks, I’m concerned about how much worse it’s going to get.

This feels like a bit of a stunted review. My own fault, admittedly; last week I was in a rush to finish it before going out in the evening, before realising I had an extra week because of Eurovision. And now, tonight, with a few more paragraphs to go, I’m finding myself largely out of things to say.

Perhaps that’s just indicative of the episode itself though. Perfectly functional, entirely competent… difficult to get much analysis from. I suspect that’s why it’s easy to criticise this episode, and indeed why I did – because the things it is good at are things that are difficult to write about extensively. It’s easy, though, to criticise the episode, even if that is essentially for being something that it’s not.

Certainly, it’s worth noting, if nothing else, that I did enjoy it. It’s perhaps unfair to ask more of the episode – but if we’re looking forward to years of “enjoyable Chibnall episodes that are difficult to write lots of words about”, this blog is in trouble!

6/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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King Charles III is a Shakespearean epic for the modern age

king charles iii windsors mike bartlett bbc two shakespeare blank verse tim pigott smith hd

The central conceit of King Charles III is to posit a world in which Shakespeare survived to satirise a modern monarch in much the same way he did with Richard III or Henry V. Bartlett’s King Charles III is firmly rooted within the Shakespearean tradition, drawing on familiar aspects of the Bard’s work – Diana appears as a ghostly spectre akin to Hamlet’s father, while Kate Middleton fills the role of Lady Macbeth.

But this goes beyond simply remixing familiar archetypes and applying a modern veneer to Shakespeare’s existing work. King Charles III mimics the style of Shakespearean language, written in blank verse; such use of iambic pentameter, rarely seen on television, allows a grandeur of scale that positions the play firmly within a Shakespearean style, but allows it to seek out its own innovations and find a fresh outlook. In turn, then, King Charles III isn’t a ‘greatest hits’ compilation that aims to imitate Shakespeare, but rather a play that seeks to stand among his work.

A piece of King Charles III, the TV adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play. I really enjoyed it!

In response to the obvious: no, when I wrote this I had not seen or read very much Shakespeare. Yes, I’m aware it shows. No, I haven’t read or seen a great deal more since, but enough to find the above faintly, albeit endearingly, embarrassing. Yes, I intend to read and watch more Shakespeare.

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