Another piece for the Radio Times! This has been in the works for a while now, actually – I think this piece might’ve had one of the longest durations between arranging the interview, conducting the interview, and publishing the interview? Worth the wait, anyway, I’m quite pleased with how this turned out.
Omari’s great in It’s A Sin, too – he really deftly handles what is, narratively, quite a deceptively complex role? Looking forward to seeing what everyone makes of the show; it’s quite unlike anything Russell T Davies has done before, I think. (In some ways, anyway, there’s a lot of it that’s absolutely of a piece with his other shows.)
I will shortly be suing Chris Chibnall for plagiarism.
That’s a joke, obviously, but let me explain. About a decade ago, I wrote an episode of Doctor Who. (Yes, I am and have always been exactly as cool as you thought.) It was called Legacy of the Daleks, and it was about a politician using Daleks as state police – not real Daleks, but fake, robot ones, cobbled together out of hollowed out and abandoned Dalek shells. The idea was that the imagery and iconography of the Dalek alone – the concept of a Dalek – was enough to create this culture of fear and suppression. It doesn’t last, anyway, because the Doctor shows up, and shortly after that so do the real Daleks, here to clean up the mess.
I was so pleased with this that I printed it all out and posted it to BBC Wales. (Like I said: I am, and always have been, exactly as cool as you thought.) Some months later I got a letter back in the post, with a signed picture of Matt Smith – signed by Steven Moffat, I think, though I was never clear – and an explanation that, for legal reasons, they couldn’t read any old rubbish someone sent them in the post, in case an episode they put out later had any resemblance to it whatsoever. Which struck me as basically reasonable, anyway, and I went about my life otherwise, only ever thinking about Doctor Who an appropriate and healthy amount from that moment on. (Um.)
What I didn’t realise then, of course, was that they were playing a long game, waiting a decade before brushing the cobwebs off the script and recycling it for Revolution of the Daleks. So, like I said: lawsuit pending, I want my 10%. (Again, I’m joking – they did say I wasn’t allowed to sue them, after all – but genuinely, this is the best idea I’ve ever had, and they beat me to it! I’ve been going silently feral since the first promotional pictures of Daleks with the police dropped. Sigh.)
In fairness, I will grudgingly concede that after Chibnall found my work down the back of a sofa, he did bring a few good ideas of his own to it. Legacy was set on a colony world in the far future; Revolution moving it to present-day London, with thinly veiled analogues for Theresa May and Donald Trump, is plainly a marked improvement. With the layers of metaphor pared back, the imagery of Daleks alongside police, using tear gas and water cannons to quell protestors, is all the more potent and striking than it might’ve been otherwise.
Granted, I’m not convinced Revolution of the Daleks actually did a great deal with that imagery. It’s a genuinely great concept, the best idea anyone’s had for the Daleks in about a decade – well, I would say that – but it’s just imagery. The sheer frisson of Daleks as border guards and police officers goes a long way, but I want it to go further: what does this episode have to say about fascism or about policing, what does it have to say about authoritarianism and security, what does it have to say about government use of force? Ultimately, I think Chibnall just isn’t actually especially interested in my his idea here; it’s a clever trick to contrive some Dalek infighting, as opposed to anything deeper. (Even setting aside the politics, he struggles with what it would mean for his characters: is Yaz still a police officer?) So, what fills that space instead? If this isn’t an episode Daleks, fascism, the surveillance state, and the contested aesthetics of each – sounds good though, right? – what is Revolution of the Daleks about?
Well, this and that. Like all the best Chibnall episodes, there’s a lot going on here; Revolution is reliant on, if not momentum exactly, certainly the fact that a lot of plates are spinning all at once. Where one aspect falters, there’s always the chance to cut to something else – the special is always moving, at least, a bit of structural sleight-of-hand that goes some way towards papering over the more obvious cracks. Not much insight with the Daleks? Cut to Chris Noth chewing scenery (brilliantly, in fairness). Bored of that? Here’s John Barrowman doing all his old jokes again. Heard it all before? Well, let’s see what Jodie Whittaker’s up to at the moment – more than last time, hopefully?
On one level, this is nominally a story about the Doctor finding herself after The Timeless Children. Revolution was always going to find itself in a difficult spot there, caught awkwardly between a need to function as a special for a general audience, and a need to follow-up on the series’ most insular, inward-looking plotline since 2005. As is so often the case with Chibnall’s scripts, there’s the shape of something that might almost work: the Doctor, lost and insecure, redefining her identity against the Daleks. He revisits something I really liked about Resolution, too, this sense that being around the Daleks drives the Doctor to be wildly more reckless than she would be otherwise – last time almost throwing Aaron into a supernova, this time ringing up the Daleks and calling for more (in my version, they turned up on their own; there was a joke about copyright infringement).
But we return to the same problem we often do – dialogue that doesn’t play to Jodie Whittaker’s strengths, continuing to hold the Doctor at a strange remove from the narrative, character writing that’s inconsistent at best. For all that the script gestures at the idea of the Doctor having an identity crisis, she doesn’t really… do that. So maybe there’s more going on with our companions?
Again, Revolution is caught trying to meet two demands, not quite managing either: it has to serve Ryan and Graham’s final episode, while also re-centring Yaz, leaving her character ready for more dramatic weight going forward.
There’s a sense, watching these scenes, that Chris Chibnall has little recollection of his own era. So much of Revolution of the Daleks is reliant on groundwork he hasn’t laid, character development that’s simply never happened. The moment Yaz pushes the Doctor, for example, is genuinely quite exciting – but it shouldn’t be? Mandip Gill is doing some of her best work here, to be clear, and I’m excited to see where that goes; between this and Can You Hear Me?, there’s a thread starting to develop that posits being a Doctor Who companion essentially as an unhealthy coping mechanism. The thing is, though, this is Gill’s twenty-third episode as Yaz – far past the point where something like that push be notable, let alone remarkable. I’m not sure Chibnall quite realises that though, clearly hoping – or worse, believing – Revolution can stand on the strength of its character writing.
Similarly, look at that heart-to-heart conversation between Ryan and the Doctor. We’ve noted before how rarely the two of them share scenes together, leaving what arguably should’ve been the core dynamic of the show feeling thinly sketched at best; Revolution relies on a relationship that simply doesn’t exist. Tosin Cole (reliably the most interesting actor of the main cast, and the one I’ll miss most) plays the scene as though he’s trapped talking to an acquaintance he doesn’t particularly like, and it’s hard to blame him. His and Graham’s exit worked well enough, at least; I appreciated that Chibnall didn’t kill either of them off, as it looked like he might at times. I can’t say I cared particularly for the “maybe we’ll fight aliens” part, which feels less interesting than the climate activist/community organising thread hinted at last year. (Really, this episode needed Tibo to pop up again – as written, there’s not enough sense of Ryan newly established in a life he doesn’t want to leave anymore.)
And that’s that! We’ve turned the page on a particular chapter of the Chibnall era, Revolution of the Daleks in many ways the equivalent to Doomsday and The Angels Take Manhattan before it. Whatever returns, whenever it returns, is going to be manifestly different from what came before. I enjoyed this episode well enough (even the bits I didn’t write!), and I’ll miss Cole and Walsh going forward, but it’s hard not to welcome a change – any change – at this point.
I’m starting to wonder, right, if I might be allergic to New Year’s Day. This year and the last I’ve spent throwing up, without any particularly obvious cause the day before to point to as a prompt. So, clearly an allergy then, I suppose.
Anyway, 2020. Easy to strike the wrong note with this one – too glib, too superficial, whatever. I’m conscious also that my experience of the year was a fairly insulated one, on the whole; I never caught the virus, the people I know that did catch it didn’t catch it especially seriously, so on, so forth. On the whole: not the best year of my life, certainly not the worst. (That’d be a toss-up between 2018 and 2019, I guess.) Basically, it was a middling one, which is something I am quite lucky to be able to say. Still, let’s set that aside for the moment – I have no particular insights to offer on those aspects of 2020, and anyway, it’s not like those aspects of 2020 are limited to that calendar year. So, you know, maybe next year I’ll have some thoughts on the pandemic. Maybe even with the benefit of hindsight!
Instead! The usual year in review. Looking back on what I wrote this time last year, about 2019, it’s striking to see how much I was on the cusp of winding everything down. Not unsurprising, exactly; like I said, 2019 was a mess, and if at any given point I don’t want to give this all up and retire then it’s likely been a pretty good fortnight. Still, it’s interesting to see it written out like that, because it’s usually a much more ephemeral, indeterminate thing.
The question at the end of that piece: how can I make this all work, what does it mean for this to work? By any reasonable metric, I think 2020 worked. Several of my highest profile interviews ever; I covered two film festivals (for this website, too, rather than another outlet, which confers a degree of legitimacy onto the whole thing); I wrote more, in terms of pure volume, and I was much happier with most of it as a general rule; I started doing some work with a new website, the Radio Times; I was a guest on my first podcast; this wordpress hosted version of my blog is finally starting to take off in terms of traffic. (Also think I had about a thousand more twitter followers by the end of the year compared to the start, which, you know.)
Obviously, there’s caveats and concerns and plenty of individual frustrations on a day-to-day basis – it still doesn’t pay as much as it used to, let alone as much as it should, for one thing – but, on the whole… 2020 worked, for me, in this one particular way that I’d hoped it would. Which is good!
Going into 2021, I think what I want to work out now is how to do this job – writer, critic, grudgingly maybe at a push “journalist” I suppose – in a way that feels consistent with and reflective of my own kind of personal-moral-ethical-political-whatever framework-and-or-outlook, as it were. I don’t mean, like, “Riverdale’s subtle polemic against the prison industrial complex, my latest for Tribune” – though, you know, if they’re interested – but more… More in terms of everything else, I guess: not just the content I’m writing, but the editorial lines it’d sit alongside, the chain of ownership it’s situated in, the voices it jostles up against. (You’ll be able to guess I suspect that I have quite specific ideas in mind, but I don’t quite want to commit them to writing yet.) I also want to try and be more helpful, I think; I’ve been doing this all for ages now, and I figure I know enough that I might be of some use to people who haven’t been doing it for ages. So, I’ll work that out too, somehow.
Anyway, preamble aside, here’s the bit I’m sure you’re all really interested in: a selection of my best/favourite/other pieces of work from across the past year, arranged broadly chronologically rather than due to any particular preference.
January was quite a big month, with a run of several interviews. It’s interesting to look back on the interview with Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx – figuratively, I mean, I’ve never been able to bring myself to actually watch it – because I don’t think that’s the sort of thing I’ll get the opportunity to do again for a long time now. (Who’s going to want their celebrity to sit in an unventilated room for hours while a queue of people traipse in and out?) Glad I got the chance to do it while I could, anyway.
Through the first few months of the year, I was reviewing Doctor Who Series 12; I think my piece on The Timeless Children was very good, being a bit more structurally creative than I usually am with these things. That’s something I’d like to do a bit more of, I think.
Honoured to guest on the wonderful Galactic Yo-Yo podcast in October; lots of fun for lots of reasons, not least the chance to talk to another person for an hour or so after not really doing much of that for most of the year.
My film festival reviews, which you can find here and here – the actual writing is all over the place, I suspect, but I was glad to have covered a film festival anyway. Two of them, in fact!
Finally! This interview with Mandip Gill, which was special a) because it was my first piece with the Radio Times, and b) because she was lovely. The nicest person I’ve ever interviewed, I think.
And, hey, let’s also include a couple I would’ve done differently, because that’s always pretty interesting too.
Segun Akinola was a very nice guy – I’ve nothing but good things to say about him, both on an individual level as someone to talk to, and on a critical level as the composer for a television show. My interview with him, though, was perhaps not my best. I’d planned lots of specific questions about the more granular details of his creative process, but across our conversation it became clear that he approaches his work more instinctively – I don’t think I did a great job of responding to that in the moment, to come up with new questions more well-tailored to what was saying. Still a reasonably solid interview, I think, but I wouldn’t say I was really able to draw out any particular insights from him.
The Spitting Image piece is an odd one. Any 2020 roundup I might do would be incomplete without it – that article is the most viewed piece on my website, after all. I’m a little hmm on it though still; in part because I didn’t ever think it was brilliant (I nearly didn’t publish it at all), but also because I was a bit overzealous in sharing it. Hard to resist – I can spend a couple of hours sharing links on different forums across the internet to a couple of hundred views max, but link that piece in the replies to a Spitting Image tweet and suddenly I’ve hit nearly a thousand clicks in an hour – but I suspect a bit undignified at times. (As some people felt the need to say!)
Something to learn from it, mind, in that I think a big part of the reason it did so well was that it was the first substantive left-wing critique of the show to publish. Worth thinking about while I try and work out how to do all this going forward, I suspect.
Anyway! That’s that for this year. No idea what 2021 holds, exactly; more interviews, more reviews, ideally more publications. I’m still trying to be as productive as I used to be, hitting multiple articles a week, which might just be too ambitious these days (in my old age!) – worth a try, though. Be good to try and rack up a few more bylines, maybe do some more podcasts. Hmm.
Tell you what I did work out, though. December 2020 was five years since my first piece was published at Yahoo (and January 2021 is four years since my first piece was published at Metro). In that time, I’ve written – give or take – four hundred professional articles (so, anything not on this website), which is roughly equivalent to an article and a half for a week. That’s pretty neat, I reckon. Pleased with that.
(Oh! There was another question at the end of the 2019 piece, I realise. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to figure out how to make it fun again.” I did, I think. Not consistently so, not quite yet, but there’s been an improvement. Pleased with that, too.)