Doctor Who Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

doctor who review ascension cybermen chibnall magnus stone whittaker ashad timeless children dhawan master

If it gets worse, I’ll call the doctor.

Not a lot actually happens in World Enough and Time, on a purely technical level. The plot, if you distill it right down, is fairly easy to describe in a sentence or two; it’s not exactly the most involved or convoluted episode Doctor Who has ever done. Rather, it’s much more of a mood piece, a fifty-minute statement of intent: here’s why the Cybermen are scary, this is what’s engaging and compelling about them, this is why they’re going to matter next week. It works – The Doctor Falls benefits a lot from following World Enough and Time, with all the momentum and mounting dread it offers.

Ascension of the Cybermen, then, is Chibnall’s attempt at the same. A lot of this is just part of the DNA of the new series (when do we stop calling it the ‘new’ series, by the way?) two-parters: they’re all chessboard episodes, moving the pieces into position, an hour of set-up ready for next week. Almost invariably, then, they’re difficult to discuss and engage with on their own terms – it’s difficult to talk about Act One without knowing how it’s going to resolve in Act Two. A lot depends on The Timeless Children. Often, I’m inclined to be kinder to the first episode of a two-parter, because of the difficulty in judging them in isolation – but Ascension of the Cybermen shows the limits of that inclination. All this episode does is move pieces into position for next week, an hour of Chibnall spinning wheels. There’s action but not drama, plot but not story; you could pare most of this back to a cold open without really losing anything. (I think the only thing I’d miss is that lovely transition to the title sequence from within the Cyberman’s eye, which is one of my favourite shots of the year.) Often, it feels like the televised equivalent of procrastinating – the extended sequence of the Doctor and the companions setting up and explaining anti Cyberman weapons, only for the Cybermen to shoot at these weapons before the Doctor turned them on, felt particularly egregious.

But then, that illustrates the other, far greater, flaw afflicting Ascension of the Cybermen. When Chris Chibnall sat down to write that scene, he surely wasn’t actually just trying to fill five minutes of screentime, even if it felt that way; the point of that scene was to show off the Cybermen. All your defences are useless: there is nothing you can do to stop them. Much like World Enough and Time, Ascension of the Cybermen is a fifty-minute statement of intent. This is why the Cybermen are scary. But where its predecessor – and, actually, by the way, I’ve criticised Chibnall a few times this year for lifting directly from Russell T Davies’ work, but I cannot imagine what prompted him to want to do a finale with the Cybermen and the Master so soon after Steven Moffat wrote two Cybermen/Master finales that are each among Doctor Who’s best. But, anyway, where World Enough and Time was invested in an almost post-austerity sort of body horror, Ascension of the Cybermen thinks the Cybermen are scary because they’re brutish, sci-fi robots from in a grimy space war. Nothing in Ascension of the Cybermen holds a candle to the nurse turning down the volume dial as a partially converted patient screams in pain – which rather undercuts this grand statement of intent.

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To be clear, I enjoyed Ascension of the Cybermen, more than I enjoyed a lot of episodes this year (and across Series 11 too). It’s a cut above a lot of Chibnall-era episodes in terms of sheer competence alone: Yaz gets a nice, decent role; there are a few moments where Jodie Whittaker gets to be angry and frustrated; it’s capably directed, avoiding a lot of the mistakes The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos made even as it indulges in a similar aesthetic. (Plus, there’s a handful of bits where, surely by accident, Chibnall seems to be setting up the idea that Yaz has a crush on Graham, which is just really, really funny.) More to the point, though, it has a certain momentum to it – Chibnall is spinning a lot of plates here, and there’s an intrigue to it borne of not knowing what’s coming next.

But it faltered on rewatch. I can’t imagine Ascension of the Cybermen is going to age especially well; familiarity blunts that momentum, all those big explosions and expensive Cyberman action feeling like little more than a cheap thrill in the end. Up to a point, I suppose that’s just my own lack of patience for Cybermen that are trying so hard they actually have spikes – it doesn’t emphasise any of the concepts I find interesting about them, a reinvention that leaves them feeling generic rather than distinct. Clearly, it worked for some people, but I’d be lying if I said I understood exactly why: few of the action set-pieces made much impression, relying on spectacle that Jamie Magnus Stone proved unable to provide. It’s functional rather than memorable.

What’s frustrating is that when the episode does offer something compelling, it largely languishes in the margins, never given the chance to graduate beyond the peripheral. I noted last week that The Haunting of Villa Diodati “offers an interesting spin on the Cybermen, with this half-converted, Cyber-zealot, it does little to uncouple it from the stompy robot archetype that so often holds them back”; Ascension of the Cybermen, in much the same way, is littered with interesting ideas that never quite cohere. (Incidentally, Ascension of the Cybermen does a relatively poor job of following The Haunting of Villa Diodati on its own terms – why do we need an episode establishing the Cybermen as a significant threat if that was the point of last week? Certainly, it exacerbates the sense that this episode is just procrastinating the finale.)

An almost religious Cyberman is a genuinely interesting idea – not least because of how it might bring them back in line with Kit Pedler’s original idea of the Cybermen as Star Monks. Similarly, Ashad’s voluntary conversion is a neat way to complicate our idea of the Cybermen; his talk of resurrecting a dead empire, alongside his angry outbursts, have an obvious potency. Even the flying Cyberman heads have a germ of an interesting idea to them, actually. After all, if the Cybermen were solely about preserving life, they’d be digital: you’d upload people to the cloud, or something similar. For the Cybermen to exist, on some level there’s got to be a fetishisation of image, of shape – which ties neatly to that idea of reaching for an abandoned imperial past, and my own preferred take on the Cybermen as a sort of forced heteronormative, patriarchal conformity. Of course the Cybermen would use drones with that particular shape! (That said, though, imagine how neat it would’ve been if the Cyberheads didn’t just shoot lasers, but – like in The Pandorica Opens – tried to latch onto and convert the remaining humans.)

Little of that made an impact, though – because, in the end, that’s just not what this story was about.

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If, then, there’s not a whole lot to say about this episode – and if I’m still determined to write these reviews in three sections, which I am – then let’s devote some time to speculation. I never really do this, but hey: Ascension of the Cybermen is written essentially as a fifty-minute trailer for next week. I think speculating is exactly what we’re meant to do at this point.

Which brings us to Brendan, the nominally Irish police officer, and the most interesting part of Ascension of the Cybermen. I say “nominally-Irish” because I’m convinced that these scenes aren’t actually taking place in Ireland – rather, they’re on Gallifrey (or at least some sort of visual metaphor for it), the punchline to that old joke about how “Gallifrey is a place in Ireland”. Brendan, I assume, is the Doctor somehow – a policeman, not unlike how the Doctor travels in a police box, “sorting out fair play across the universe”. Brendan being found as a baby is, presumably, how Chibnall intends to reinvent the Doctor’s origins – not a Time Lord, just raised by Time Lords, instead an adopted (Timeless?) child from another world. “Everything you think you know is a lie, Doctor” – you’re not a Time Lord at all. (Is the Master? Dunno – but I do like the idea of him being so invested in the Doctor that he’s treated this as a much bigger, more personal, revelation than it actually is.)

The question that poses in turn – “If not a Time Lord, what is the Doctor?”, or more simply, “Doctor Who?” – is a neat way to turn the series on its head. You can see, suddenly, the dramatic engine of Chibnall’s five-year plan, a sweeping change that offers stories both intimate and epic. It’s the sort of thing Doctor Who should embrace, I think; there’s little benefit to being beholden to decades-old canon if it prevents you from telling new, compelling stories today. Plus, there’s something very neat about Chibnall scrawling over Doctor Who’s mythology with his own ideas in an episode that borrows a key scene from Broadchurch.

Admittedly, the danger is that what’s compelling about these stories is walking up to the line, flirting with the idea of crossing it, indulging in the blasphemy of it – but its rare that these questions might have a satisfactory answer. The Doctor isn’t a Time Lord. She’s a human.  She’s a Cyberman. She’s a Timeless Child. She’s half-human on her mother’s side. She’s a Slitheen. She’s something we’ve never heard of before, from a race that… looks human and can regenerate. Hmm. Best case scenario, The Timeless Children is 2020’s answer to The War Games – more likely, it’s going to be akin to The TV Movie, and we’ll all just sort of ignore whatever happens next week the same way we all sort of ignore the half-human thing. (That said, there’s a get out; if Time Lord is a rank, the Doctor can still be a Time Lord but not a Gallifreyan, and a happy ending reclaiming an imperial birthright is… well, we’ll see.) In any case, Doctor Who might be about to quite radically reinvent itself: I’d be lying if I said I thought Chibnall could pull it off.

Equally, I could be entirely wrong – it’s surely not a coincidence that both Ashad and Ko Sharmus are played by Irish actors, after all. Suppose we’ll see!

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

doctor who review haunting villa diodati maxine alderton emma sullivan mary shelley lili miller lone cyberman ashad patrick o kane modern prometheus

What happened? They get bored halfway through or something?

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Cybermen.

They’re the classic monsters you bring back when you want to bring back a classic monster, but you can’t use the Daleks: always defined by, and stuck in, that second place slot. Certainly, they’re interesting at times, and there’s more than one great idea at the heart of the concept – even if, by and large, Doctor Who tends to avoid the best of those ideas because Star Trek did it better with the Borg – but, for the most part, the Cybermen themselves rarely improve a story on their own terms.

What’s interesting, though, is that the past few years have seen a quiet reinvention of the Cybermen, an attempt to reposition them, not the Daleks, as Doctor Who’s main enemy, for lack of a better term. Part of that I suspect is down to the individual writers’ idiosyncrasies – where Russell T Davies clearly loved the Daleks, I’m less sure Steven Moffat did, typically treating them as big, blockbuster threats for a series opening, rather than the main villains of a series finale. (Even then, look at the two Dalek episodes Moffat wrote – The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar are really more about Davros than the Daleks, and Asylum of the Daleks is arguably the greatest Cyberman story never told.) It doesn’t take a particularly close analysis of Moffat’s work to see that he found the Cybermen a more compelling foe than the Daleks; between Resolution and this closing trilogy of Series 12, it rather looks like Chibnall feels the same way.

As something of an established cyber-sceptic, I am… yet to be entirely convinced by The Haunting of Villa Diodati. Undeniably, there’s some genuinely fascinating stuff in there; if nothing else, this Lone Cyberman – Ashad, a named Cyberman for the first time in a long time – is different to what we’ve seen before. Sure, the partial conversion is just Doctor Who finally conceding and stealing from the Borg (maybe not a surprise; I’ve long got the vibe that Chibnall is a Voyager fan), but it works, as does such an emotional Cyberman. The Cyberman picking up the baby and whispering to it? That’s sublimely perverse.

Admittedly, I’m inclined towards caution still. “Beware the Lone Cyberman, don’t give it what it wants” was an already fairly dull warning – I mean, are there times you shouldn’t be wary of Cybermen? Without specific instruction, would you otherwise typically give Cybermen what they want? Still, though, this feels like a less-than-interesting follow up to an already less-than-interesting tease: Fugitive of the Judoonconjured an image of a beguiling, persuasive Cyberman, maybe even a sympathetic one, and the Doctor being tricked into some Faustian pact. Not quite, in the end; for all that The Haunting of Villa Diodati offers an interesting spin on the Cybermen, with this half-converted, Cyber-zealot, it does little to uncouple it from the stompy robot archetype that so often holds them back.

doctor who review haunting villa diodati lone cyberman ashad patrick o kane frankenstein mary shelley modern prometheus maxine alderton emma sullivan

The Haunting of Villa Diodati also offers what is self-evidently the most obvious Doctor Who celebrity historical, even moreso than Dickens and alien ghosts, Shakespeare and alien witches, and Agatha Christie and, uh, an alien wasp: Mary Shelley and Cybermen. There’s something irresistible about it, obviousness aside – sure, there’s an argument to be made that setting the story later in Shelley’s life, after she’d written Frankenstein, might have been more interesting, but it’s hard for me to begrudge them this. Mary Shelley and the Cybermen, on the night that science fiction was invented? Sometimes your first idea really is your best idea.

The trouble is you can only really do this once – Big Finish notwithstanding – so it’s a shame, then, that The Haunting of Villa Diodati executes this premise so poorly. In part, that’s because it gets derailed by its obligations to set up the finale; even Fugitive of the Judoon functions better on its own terms than this. (Which raises, incidentally, an interesting question – how come Chibnall didn’t take a cowriting credit on this one?) Chiefly, though, it’s because The Haunting of Villa Diodati just isn’t particularly interested in Mary Shelley; there’s a case to be made, in fact, that it’s the Celebrity Historical least invested in and committed to its Historical Celebrity. (Well, that or Let’s Kill Hitler.)

Time after time, the episode fails to centre Mary in the narrative: she has little agency or impact, often sidelined in favour of Byron, Polidori or Percy, and there are times where it’s difficult to distinguish her from Clare on a scene by scene basis. (A related thought: does this episode pass the Bechdel test? I think it does, but I can’t say that with as much confidence as I feel like I should.) Even on a more basic level, there are flaws that betray a lack of understanding of or engagement with her body of work – perhaps the most glaring being when Mary calls the Cyberman “a Modern Prometheus”, which isn’t at all what that phrase meant in Frankenstein anyway. It’s a real, real shame. There’s an argument, perhaps, that I’m judging this episode by something it never set out to be – that it was never meant to be a Mary Shelley episode, but a broader, Romantic-era writers episode – but, well, if that’s the case, I’m not sure that “Byron meets a Cyberman and also Mary Shelley is there” is an episode worth making.

Even outside of that, though, I’m not convinced by The Haunting of Villa Diodati as a piece of spooky, gothic horror. To my mind, at least, the direction felt leaden and numb rather than atmospheric and evocative, muddling through familiar tropes with muted enthusiasm. Certainly, I hardly got the sense that there was something profoundly evil about the Villa, or even really that it had any bad vibes – a failure, I think, given how much of the first half of the episode hinges on that sense of wrongness. This, in fairness, might be a wider structural problem: that sense of wrongness won’t convey, no matter how good the direction is, if it hinges on the fact that Mary Shelley hasn’t written Frankenstein yet only seven minutes into the episode. The characters – who only wrote these stories as a fun competition anyway – just hanging around and dancing doesn’t really suggest time is wrong and out of balance. If Mary and Percy’s roles had been reversed, however, it might’ve gone a long way to fixing that problem (because we’d absolutely notice Mary Shelley being absent, and that would feel wrong), as well as giving Mary quite a bit more to actually do in the final confrontation.

doctor who review haunting villa diodati mary shelley lili miller byron jacob collins levy cyberman ashad patrick o kane

What The Haunting of Villa Diodati finally does, though, is something I’ve been calling for for a while now: it gave Jodie Whittaker something to do. At this point, that’s more of a victory than it should be – imagine “finally, David Tennant has something to do” after Gridlock, his seventeenth episode – but this is after two weeks in a row of Jodie Whittaker being the weakest part of an episode, so we’ll take what we can get.

Whittaker has long struggled with underwritten material, and an underdeveloped character; whether it’s been down to a lack of skill on Chibnall’s part, or a conscious decision about how to write for a female Doctor, this incarnation of the Time Lord has skewed positive in a way few of her predecessors have. At times, it’s felt like Chibnall has been writing a Tennant tribute act, shorn of the arrogance and darkness that counterbalanced that take – leaving Whittaker to play enthusiastic quirks and eccentricities, and not a lot else. It’s not that Whittaker is a bad actress by any means, and she’s often doing a lot to improve a script (where she can, anyway; she’s never been great at exposition, and that shows again this week) – rather, the writing rarely plays to her strengths, and rarely pushes the character to new places.

This week, at least, gave Whittaker something new to do – The Haunting of Villa Diodati is the first time in a long time we’ve seen her Doctor genuinely angry, admonishing and confronting her companions when faced with a difficult choice. It’s something we’ve seen hints of before (again, Fugitive of the Judoon springs to mind, but I’ve also always been fond of the way Whittaker described Tim Shaw as “obscene” all the way back in The Woman Who Fell to Earth) but The Haunting of Villa Diodati commits to it in a way previous episodes didn’t, in effect building the entire episode around this confrontation. Surprising no one, Jodie Whittaker is excellent at it; I wonder, perhaps, if writing this Doctor as such an upbeat enthusiast was perhaps a misreading of Whittaker’s career so far. Nonetheless, it’s great to actually deepen both the character and her dynamic with the companions this way – more likely than not, Yaz, Graham and Ryan will probably be leaving at the end of this year, but hopefully whoever comes next will benefit more from this sort of writing.

It’s just a shame, though, that this conflict is predicated on something so insubstantial. In the end, it’s just another trolley problem, rooted in nonsensical time travel mechanics rather than character – Tosin Cole does his best (and in fact has another excellent week here generally) but when have we ever seen Ryan be that coldly utilitarian before? There’s also an aggravating Great Man of History vibe to it all – isn’t it enough to just want to save a life, regardless of how important his work will be? (Although again, the episode is curiously disinterested in the actual content of these words – I’ve since learned that Percy Shelley wasn’t just a poet, but was also an early proponent of nonviolent resistance, whose work inspired Gandhi amongst others. There’s surely some resonance that could be drawn out between Percy and this almost faultlessly pacifist Doctor?) It’s hard, in any case, to feel particularly invested in this particular dilemma – the drama is entirely flat, and so too is the Doctor’s outburst.

You could reasonably accuse me, I suppose, of not having reviewed this episode as it exists, but rather comparing it to the episode I wish it was – and, in fairness, I don’t know what I’d say to that. Maybe I have! Certainly, for all that I did enjoy – Tosin Cole, the production design, the Valet, that excellent title – I’m struggling to muster the enthusiasm that others have. But, hey, that’s my loss in the end.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Can You Hear Me?

doctor who review can you hear me chris chibnall emma sullivan charlene james yaz mandip gill ryan tosin cole

I didn’t know who to say it to, so I thought I’d say it to you.

[Note: this review, like the episode itself, touches on themes of mental illness/depression.]

Let’s start with the most striking detail of this episode: Yaz, for a long time the most anonymous and vaguely drawn Doctor Who companion of the past decade, was here revealed to have a history of depression. Not just that, though: three years prior, she ran away from home, intending to commit suicide.

Can You Hear Me? stops slightly short of making this explicit, admittedly, but it’d be understating it to call this subtext. Yaz is running away, yes, but note the framing: Sonya is “worried you’ve left and you’re gonna do something stupid”, the policewoman is trying to convince her that “there’s so much ahead of you”, and coming home is “better than the other way”. Running away isn’t the issue; it’s what she might do next that’s cause for concern. The episode avoids saying the word “suicide”, yes, but you don’t have to read into the episode very far to see what they’re getting at – if nothing else, an anniversary meal to commemorate the day Yaz didn’t run away doesn’t quite fit the way the characters actually talk about this.

It’s worth asking, perhaps, how effective it is to frame it this way – and I mean that less in terms of whether the episode should’ve used the word “suicide” or not (Vincent and the Doctor uses it far fewer times than you’d expect and got the point across), but rather the metaphor of running away specifically. Granted, at this point it begins to get into questions of children’s TV, and what exactly is appropriate where; my sense, personally anyway, is that a line like “grades have gone a bit wonky, parents don’t get what’s up” is going to come across as patronising rather than striking a chord. (Actually, that’s a wider thing I’ve wondered about for years – does it do a disservice to young people to talk around the issue like this? Do, say, anti-cyberbullying campaigns, that frame the worst bullying as “you’re a loser” style taunts, give the wrong impression of how severe these things can be? Is that why so many people think it is as simple as just turning off the computer and walking away? Not a clue, but it’s been an ongoing idle thought over the years.) But, that said, you never know, and as is it’ll surely mean a lot to someone.

Even outside of that, though, there’s a bit of a sense that the episode was holding back a little. That’s come up before, a little, in The Witchfinders, the last time we noted that Yaz has a history of being bullied. Implicit-but-unsaid then, as now, is the idea that it was specifically Islamophobic bullying that Yaz was experiencing. There’s been an odd reticence, actually, to address Yaz’s faith across the series – Demons of the Punjab exists, yes, but I’d argue that episode was often more about Yaz’s family than Yaz herself. Interestingly enough, actually, we know that Juno Dawson, who wrote a Doctor Who novel about faith and religion, was told by the BBC not to dwell on Yaz-as-a-Muslim – for whatever reason, this era of the show, which has often engaged with religion in a way Doctor Who rarely has before, is strangely reluctant to admit to the faith of one of its leads. That’s not to say, for what it’s worth, that I’m suggesting Doctor Who’s first Muslim companion should’ve been driven to suicidal thoughts because of racist abuse – just that, in telling this story, they’re still perhaps a step or two away from anything resembling character specificity.

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Which gets at one of the more obvious faults in this episode – it really, really should’ve aired last year. As it is, there’s a sense that someone in the production office realised that Mandip Gill was probably going to be leaving at the end of the year, in turn prompting a slightly-too-late attempt at giving Yaz some interiority. It’s not ideal: Can You Hear Me? would have benefitted a great deal from having something to build off of, or at least more than a throwaway reference to bullying in one episode. (After what Mandip Gill has been saying about a big plotline for Yaz this year, her secret finally revealed, it does make me wonder slightly if she felt it was always building up to this, or if that’s just PR-speak.) But, you know, equally, for the past few weeks now I’ve offered that caveat, suggesting these episodes are better when judged in isolation – perhaps after a few weeks of “this would be better if the episodes around it were better”, it’s time to concede that maybe things are starting to work?

Certainly, Ryan’s nightmare this week is, I think, the closest that a particular vision of the Chibnall era has ever come to working: it feels grounded and character-driven in the way that Doctor Who has clearly been intended to be but fallen short of in recent years. That Ryan’s worst fear is, essentially, a form of climate grief – cleverly tied back to Orphan 55, and the sense he’s missing his friends’ lives – is sublime. That’s a deft bit of character work, letting the science fiction resonate emotionally in a way it hasn’t in quite some time; between Orphan 55, Praxeus, and this, Series 12 is actually starting to feel not just incisive but almost vital in its engagement with that growing cultural sense of environmental anxiety. (It even goes some ways towards redeeming the clunky ending of Orphan 55, for me at least – it’s now consciously unresolved, that “you can still do something” speech having a degree more weight to it because it now seems like Ryan actually will.) Tosin Cole again is doing stellar work: of the four leads, it’s him who’s impressed me most across Series 12. Perhaps it’s a case of him getting better material than last year; maybe he’s just a better actor now. Either way, I’m now quite determined to watch 61st Street, the American drama he’ll be in next year.

And, again, Graham’s storyline basically works – with none of the same caveats I might offer about Yaz or Ryan’s. Given Chibnall’s Doctor Who has always been more interested in him than the other two companions, there’s more for Can You Hear Me? to work with – his cancer is long-established at this point, and Grace’s cameo has a weight and significance that Tibo’s appearance can’t sustain. (It’s sort of odd, isn’t it, that Grace has essentially entirely become Graham’s supporting character, and very rarely has any relevance to Ryan’s plotlines? Again, I can’t help but feel that it should’ve been Ryan reunited with Grace in It Takes You Away rather than Graham – here, at least, it’d make her appearance in Graham’s nightmare all the more poignant.) It’s not the standout moment of the episode, albeit with one exception I’ll get to in a moment, but it works: something that all involved are very good at, have done very well before, and are doing very well again here. I suspect few people would’ve expected Bradley Walsh’s performance to be the most consistently and reliably good bit of any given Doctor Who episode, but hey, it’s hard to complain too much.

doctor who review can you hear me jodie whittaker bradley walsh graham cancer chris chibnall charlene james emma sullivan

Unexpectedly, then, Jodie Whittaker was the weakest part of this episode. Much like last week, actually – if you’d said to me at the start of the series that two weeks running that Mandip Gill as Yaz would leave a greater impression than Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

Part of this is because she’s found herself stuck with a plotline that doesn’t quite work, running around and doing quirks at the latest iteration of a generic Doctor Who space god. Zellin and Rakaya – more consonant heavy names from Chibnall – don’t make much of an impression, Ian Gelder’s performance aside. That’s more of a dialogue issue than anything else: that sort of eternal being type character is hard to get right at the best of times, and Zellin’s dreary monologing was very much not “the best of times”. The detachable fingers is a nice image (though surely they should’ve gone into the ear the other way up?) and the animated sequence is a genuinely lovely experiment of the sort I wish Doctor Who would do more often, but really the best thing that can be said of Zellin and Rakaya is that their plotline is introduced and resolved in about twenty minutes. Even if they had been a little more interesting, though, the Doctor would still have been a little disservice by the nightmare plot – her worst fear is, uh, a teaser for an arc we still don’t quite understand? I get what it’s going for, but it’s plot over character, and it doesn’t particularly work. It’s not unlike how one of the duller parts of The Time of the Doctor was revealing what was in the Doctor’s room in The God Complex. You’d think, if it absolutely had to be an arc thing, that a flashback to Jo Martin’s Doctor might’ve been a bit more appropriate.

It gets at a wider problem, though, which is that I’m not actually sure anyone involved has a sense of this Doctor as a character. There’s a personality, yes, and a voice, a collection of quirks and tics and attributes… all of which, to my mind, still fall a little short of a character. This, admittedly, is often something that’s difficult to articulate – in part it’s a question of range and of flaws – but, handily, there’s actually quite a good example of this in the episode. A little surprisingly, the ending to Can You Hear Me? – the Doctor’s “I’m actually still quite socially awkward” response to Graham opening up about his cancer – has proven quite controversial, to the point that the BBC actually issued a statement about it. Some people love it; some don’t. What I found interesting about it though is that there’s certainly a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that is socially awkward, that would say something like that, and it could still read as touching. But at the same time, there’s a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that’s more keenly, openly empathetic than her predecessors – there are two competing and contradictory versions of this character, the writing has never quite cohering. It’s no wonder Whittaker is starting to struggle with the part.

Ultimately, despite its flaws – which I spent longer on than I’d perhaps intended at first – I really, really liked Can You Hear Me? I’d quite confidently say it’s one of the best of both Series 12 and the Chibnall era as a whole – but it also points, quite clearly, to some improvements that will have to be made across Series 13.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Oscars 2020 Predictions

oscars 2020 predictions 92nd academy awards joaquin phoenix 1917 bong joon ho parasite renee zellweger laura dern brad pitt once upon a time in hollywood

Admittedly, I am historically not very good at this; last year, I got twelve out of the twenty-four correct. This, I suspect, is mainly because while I do follow the awards season narrative each year, I don’t actually retain a lot of it – so I’ve got a broad sense of where momentum has built, but you’d have to be quite charitable to call these predictions ‘educated guesses’, basically.

Still, though, it’s fun, and I figured since I’d probably draw up these predictions either way, I might as well get a blog post out of it. Incidentally, worth noting what the bracketed entries mean – I do these with a friend each year, and it’s three points for your first guess, two for second, one for third. So the brackets are what’s next-most-likely, from my ill-informed vantage point. (A lot of them are just guesses, and a lot of the guesses are based on stuff like “the title of this is neat”. It’s a fairly low-stakes set of predictions. I put money on them once. Won’t be doing that again.)

You can find the full list of nominees here, in case you’re curious about that. Otherwise, my predictions are as follows:

Best Picture 1917 (Joker, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

Best Director – Sam Mendes (Quentin Tarantino, Bong Joon Ho)

Best Actor – Joaquin Phoenix (Adam Driver, Leonardo DiCaprio)

Best Actress – Renee Zellweger (Saoirse Ronan, Charlize Theron)

Best Supporting Actor ­– Brad Pitt (Al Pacino, Joe Pesci)

Best Supporting Actress – Laura Dern (Florence Pugh, Scarlett Johansson)

Original Screenplay Parasite (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

Adapted Screenplay JoJo Rabbit (Little Women, The Irishman)

International FeatureParasite (Les Misérables, Pain and Glory)

Animated Feature Klaus (Toy Story 4, Missing Link)

DocumentaryAmerican Factory (For Sama, The Edge of Democracy)

Visual Effects The Lion King (1917, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

Film Editing Ford v Ferrari (Parasite, Joker)

Original Score Little Women (Joker, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

Original Song “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman (“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” Toy Story 4, “Stand Up,” Harriet)

Production Design Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (1917, Parasite)

Cinematography 1917 (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, The Irishman)

Costume Design Little Women (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, JoJo Rabbit)

Makeup and Hair Bombshell (1917, Judy)

Sound Mixing 1917 (Ford v Ferrari, Ad Astra)

Sound Editing 1917 (Ford v Ferrari, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker)

Animated Short Hair Love (Kitbull, Memorable)

Live-Action Short The Neighbour’s Window (Nefta Football Club, Saria)

Documentary Short Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if You’re a Girl) (St. Louis Superman, In the Absence)

I’ve seen far, far fewer of these than I’d like – I’d had plans, vaguely, to review each of the Best Picture nominees in the days leading up to the ceremony, but those plans did not pan out. (So, “who do you want to win” is a little hard to answer, though as ever I default to “give all the awards to Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig”.) If you’re interested, though, you can find what I’ve written about 2019 films here, and 2020 films here.

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Doctor Who Review: Praxeus

doctor who review praxeus jamie magnus stone chris chibnall pete mctighe jodie whittaker mandip gill

Seven billion lives. Separate, and connected, from the edge of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean.

It says a lot about how little I trust Pete McTighe after last time that those opening lines had me worried the Doctor was suddenly going to start advocating Malthusian population control measures. But she didn’t! Sure, the framing monologue itself was rubbish – it’s only nominally connected to the actual content of the episode itself, probably more befitting a butterfly-effect narrative a la The Pyramid at the End of the World – but, given the Doctor didn’t explicitly come out in favour of anything actively evil this go around, we can probably call it a wash.

I joke, of course, but that sort of “well, yes, but” despite itself sentiment largely prevails across the episode – a story which, caveats aside, is actually I guess probably one of my favourites of the Chibnall era, and certainly of this series. Which I can’t say I was expecting after Ker-blam! (There’s an obvious comparison to be made between another debut episode I disliked, and the same writer’s subsequent offerings that I rather did, but I’ll elide that for the moment. Points if you can guess what I have in mind though, I suppose.) Anyway, damning with faint praise or not, I was reasonably fond of Praxeus. As with Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, I imagine I’d be inclined to be more critical of it any of it any other year – for the moment, though, there’s a lot to appreciate about an episode that manages to get the basics right.

For the most part, Praxeus is an episode that’s comfortable in itself, one of the first episodes that feels like a ‘year two’ piece in a meaningful sense. Where Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror or Orphan 55 might quite easily have found a spot in a twelve-episode Series 11, there’s a sense about Praxeus that some lessons have been learned. The growing pains are gone: it balances the large guest cast that is, for some reason, a staple of the Chibnall-era better than most; it’s more assured in its exposition (no small feat – contrast the Doctor just showing up in each location, accompanied only by the TARDIS sound effect, with the level of hand-holding needed to explain each sci-fi contrivance in any other given episode); it manages to be touch on modern concerns, and indeed actually be about something, without relying on awkward, almost extra-diegetic proselytising. There is, perhaps, something to be said for McTighe’s own showrunning experience here – he’s a writer who, if nothing else, very much knows what he’s doing.

(Which, incidentally, raises an interesting question about Chibnall’s cowriting credit. McTighe is exactly the sort of experienced screenwriter that Russell T Davies wouldn’t have rewritten at all – a Steven Moffat, Matthew Graham, Stephen Greenhorn, and indeed Chris Chibnall type screenwriter – so it’s not, presumably, simply Chibnall being more inclined to take a credit for the work his predecessors did unrecognised. At the same time, though, there are no obvious moments – or wider, arc-related signifance – that stands out about Praxeus; it’s a fairly easy bit of archaeology to assume that Chibnall wrote the scenes with Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon, and provided at least a steering hand on the Jo Martin scenes. So, anyway: curious.)

doctor who review praxeus pete mctighe chris chibnal mandip gill jodie whittaker madagascar yaz betray doctor

Granted, though, that comfort obscures some flaws. Sometimes, clarity is sacrificed for momentum – not a huge problem when it’s fridge logic plot details like how exactly Adam texted Jake, but rather more so when it’s a question of emotional clarity, like Gabriela mourning her friend’s death right up until she seemingly just sort of forgets about it. The environmental message is fumbled somewhat when the blame is placed on an alien pathogen rather than human action. It’s difficult to care about Jake’s almost-sacrifice, given how trite and contrived that trope so often is. The direction lets the episode down, never quite managing to really push the idea that this is what a particularly frantic day looks like for the Doctor, trying to be everywhere at once. Jodie Whittaker is mostly on autopilot; every Doctor has an episode like that, and she more or less manages, but there are a few moments where it really stands out. When she eventually leaves the part, I don’t know that we’ll be sad her tenure is over, but that rather that it never really began – I can’t quite think of what we might point to as Whittaker’s Dalek, The Girl in the Fireplace, The Doctor’s Wife, or Heaven Sent. That’s a shame, really, no matter how you look at it.

Yet I’m finding it hard to summon the enthusiasm to stick the knife into Praxeus particularly. Yes, any other year, this episode is going to be something like The Idiot’s Lantern or Knock Knock – the middle of the road piece where, you know, there’s certainly something to be said of them, but they’re never going to be the most compelling, or most polarising, of their respective series. It’s the 6/10, ‘pleasantly surprising when you rewatch it a few years later but nothing special’ episode. Which is fine! Not every episode can be Love & Monsters or Hell Bent – and I’ve been deliberate in choosing episodes that I know some people will have quite different opinions on. No, it’s not great that it looks like Praxeus is going to be one of the highlights of Series 12 is, almost by default. But I wrote a review bemoaning the wider state of Series 12 a few weeks ago; I don’t need to write another. (Especially because I suspect I eventually will, so the longer I can put that off, the better.) I suppose, had Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and Praxeus been swapped in the running order, I’d have been decidedly more positive about the former, and more inclined to criticise Praxeus.

And, hey, there’s still a lot to like about Praxeus. Tosin Cole in particular had a good week, offering a more confident, mature take on Ryan – the slightly Doctor-ish, three-quarter length coat an especially nice touch to reflect that. It’s a neat premise too: I love it when Doctor Who is big, expansive, and worldwide, and outside of New Earth we’ve not really done alien viruses in the new series. The romantic plotline between Jake and Adam was surprisingly touching, too, and a welcome effort from an era that’s really struggled with its promised LGBT representation. And Bradley Walsh’s quiet, wordless smile on the beach in that scene with Jake is surely some of his best work on Doctor Who yet. Plus, a lot of the jokes are good too. So, sure, why not.

doctor who review praxeus mandip gill yaz bradley walsh graham warren brown pete mctighe plastic jamie magnus stone chris chibnall

Of course, it’s not just Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh who did well in Praxeus – let’s just pause for a moment and imagine Mandip Gill reading the script for this episode, a single, solitary tear rolling down her face, overjoyed and (ironically) speechless that Yaz, finally, miraculously, at last has something to do.

Embarrassingly, actually (though you be the judge as to whether I should be embarrassed, or Chibnall et al) when Yaz displayed a hitherto unseen personality this week, I assumed it was a function of the plot – like, the computer panel was exerting some alien influence on her, and we were supposed to notice her sudden flash of independence and see it as cause for concern. Not so, thankfully, but it says a lot that, for a moment at least, that felt like the natural reading of that scene. So rare is it for Yaz to actually have something to do, and for Mandip Gill to play a line as anything other than earnest, that Praxeus arguably might well be a better story for the character than her nominal spotlight episodes, Arachnids in the UK and Demons of the Punjab.

Yaz has always been a bit of a problem companion – not particularly connected to Grace’s death, the catalyst for Series 11’s emotional arc, nor the big name actor everyone’s keen to write for (or, alternatively, who has a contractually obliged number of lines per episode) – and Mandip Gill, unlike Tosin Cole, isn’t a strong enough actor to make an impression despite being underserved by the material. At times, actually, she’s been such a non-entity it’s felt like there’s some merit to the occasionally vaunted idea that Yaz wasn’t part of the initial plan for Series 11 – either added later when Chibnall realised the gender balance of the regulars was a little off, or when Vinay Patel pitched a partition episode. It’s unlikely, of course (though perhaps notable that ‘Yasmin Khan’ shares a name with a prolific partition era historian), but it speaks volumes that the character plausibly could be excised without making much difference.

Little about Yaz’s role in Praxeus feels like it follows on from her presence in prior episodes – I mean, certainly, “independent and resourceful” is something you might expect of Yaz, given her introduction in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, but it hardly chimes with The Tsuranga Conundrum or Resolution. But then, you know, who cares? Praxeus feels like a glimpse into another universe – the middle of the road episode from a genuinely very good series, where Mandip Gill got to play this version of the character all the time. As it is, this middle of the road episode feels like something genuinely quite significant by virtue of the stories around it – and, after complaining so much about how little Mandip Gill gets to do, it’d perhaps be remiss of me not to celebrate Yaz finally starting to resemble an actual character.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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