Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Planet of the Dead

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The aristocracy always survives.

One of the more interesting things Steven Moffat has said about Doctor Who – one of the things that’s informed my own thinking about the programme, and what I expect from it – came in 2014, as part of the promotion for Capaldi’s first series. Moffat, talking about Danny Pink’s role as a foil to the Doctor, as well as Robot of Sherwood, “a high-born nobleman, used to wealth and privilege, who decided to come down among us lot and help out. He thinks he’s one of the guys, but never stops assuming that he’s in charge and that people will make him tea”.

Since I read that, and indeed across the Capaldi era and some of the more frustrating aspects of Whittaker’s opening series, it’s struck me as one of the more compelling points of tension to the character. (Actually, it could perhaps be a particularly compelling lens to approach Series 11 from, given Whittaker’s Doctor seems less inclined to take charge of a situation in the way her predecessors would – how much of that is down to an evolving position on the Doctor as an autocrat, can it simply be ascribed to her gender, is there anything more engaging to consider beyond dismissing it as the limitations of Chibnall’s writing? Admittedly, the answer to that last question might just be “no”, but you know.)

It was on my mind again watching Planet of the Dead, in case that weren’t already clear. The quote often feels particularly applicable to Tennant’s Doctor, actually – much as I do genuinely love this take on the character, and much as I am willing to defend it to its detractors – but it seems especially relevant to Planet of the Dead. Not because of any egregious excesses on the part of the Doctor here (this episode is, for the most part, an almost self consciously ‘business as usual’ piece, very much the light episode that comes at the start of a series), but his almost-companion this episode: Lady Christina.

Christina is embarrassing, frankly. There was something more than a little uncomfortable about the bourgeoise cat burglar, from Michelle Ryan’s cloyingly self-satisfied performance (which, in fairness, is exactly the right way to pitch the character) to her dismissive jokes about the other characters, and indeed the still-recent financial crash. One imagines the latter would’ve played somewhat worse in 2009, but even now it’s hardly endearing.

What’s embarrassing, though, isn’t simply that the character is so obnoxiously, so aggressively bourgeoisie – rather, it’s embarrassing to see Doctor Who hold this character up as a perfect foil to the Doctor. More than that: the ideal companion.

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If Planet of the Dead can be said to have any particular throughline – and it is, otherwise, a remarkably slight affair – it’s how the episode parallels the Doctor and Christina.

It’s far from subtle, certainly: she’s a Lady and he’s a Time Lord; they’re both always prepared for any eventuality, both always looking for adventure; he’s a thief just like her, revealing I think for the first time in the new series that the Doctor stole the TARDIS. The point is screamingly obvious – they were made for each other, as the dialogue even declares. It’s hardly unique to this episode; as a way to introduce a new companion, overtly paralleling them with the Doctor is one of the more obvious options to pursue. (Indeed, it’s why I spent most of Series 11 caught between surprise and relief that Chibnall never really drove home the Yaz-is-a-policewoman/the-Doctor-lives-in-a-police-box angle.) The last time Davies introduced a companion as an almost-Doctor figure (he tended to be less fond of it than Moffat), though, it was Martha – a resourceful medical student, a character as clearly from the Doctor’s same sci-fi milieu as Rose was separate from it. There’s something a little similar to Lady Christina – she does, arguably, trade on a lot of adventure fiction staples that recur throughout Doctor Who – but there’s a vast difference between Martha-as-perfect-companion and Christina-as-perfect-companion. (Perhaps particularly considering how obviously attracted the Doctor is to Christina, and how he very much wasn’t to Martha.)

Another version of this story wouldn’t have been quite so positive about Lady Christina; there’s a version of this story, a more interesting one I suspect, that uses the parallels as a way to complicate the Doctor, to question his privilege and to question his actions. It’s the sort of story Tennant’s Doctor might have benefitted from, and surely would’ve fit well within the examination of his hubris and arrogance that forms the bulk of this gap year. (Or, at least, I recall forming the bulk of the gap year; Planet of the Dead, and indeed Waters of Mars, are quite plausibly the episodes I’ve rewatched least.) It also, of course, very much isn’t the sort of story I’d expect Gareth Roberts to write; openly bigoted and openly conservative (and openly Conservative, insofar as that can’t be assumed already), one struggles to imagine him writing an episode that questions the Doctor along those lines. (Davies, for his part, probably would be more inclined too, but he’s much too enamoured with the aesthetic of the rich cat burglar to actually do it – and, I suspect at this point, basically content with having a comparatively throwaway victory lap episode that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.)

No, instead the point is to show that the Doctor, despite meeting the perfect companion, turns her down. It’s a story about how much he’s struggling after losing Donna; it’s about the deliberate refusal for Planet of the Dead to be the first episode of Series 5, turning down the prospect of thirteen episodes with Lady Christina.

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Christina, of course, is the wrong character to tell this story with. It’s difficult not to think it might be considerably more effective with another Lynda-with-a-y type character in Christina’s place, someone closer to the Tracy Flick type envisaged as an alternative to Christina. The version of Planet of the Dead that sees the Doctor reject, you know, Daisy Evans, or a similarly botanically named character, would likely go a long way towards underscoring the actual point of the episode.

Granted, it’s likely just a personal thing – my own general disinclination towards a character like Lady Christina, and the sort of self-critique I’d like to see Doctor Who occasionally offer. (As an aside, though, I’m largely convinced that Michelle Ryan thinks you’re supposed to dislike Christina too; the way she delivers the line about getting people-dust in her hair is markedly different to how Catherine Tate might have read a similar line, part of a wider disinterest in making Christina especially sympathetic.) It’s not difficult to imagine people liking this episode, and liking Lady Christina – if Big Finish is anything to go by, there’s apparently a market for a Lady Christina spin-off, so. Maybe there’s an appeal to the character I just don’t understand.

Nonetheless, though, I’d still maintain that Daisy Evans is the better character for a story like this – if the point is to shut down Tennant’s next series, to deconstruct the conventional opening episode we’ve become so used to, a character more straightforwardly evocative of previous companions is likely the more effective way to demonstrate that. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine a version of this episode that’s much more obviously structured as such; there’s potential, for example, to introduce Daisy’s version of Jackie or Mickey on the bus alongside her, the life she’s forced to go back to after seeing her first alien planet, her first alien species. That, surely, is an episode that’s much more important to the broader interrogation of the idea of the Doctor alone.

As an episode, this story is altogether less ambitious than the series openers it models itself upon – showy and arrogant, a programme so convinced of its own strengths that it doesn’t actually get around to displaying any of them. Planet of the Dead amounts to little more than a shrug, in the end; if this is the beginning to the end for the Tennant era, it’s also the most obvious indicator that there’s nowhere left to go.

4/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Filmmaker Tom Byrne on Reanimated: What’s it like to crowdfund the end of the world?

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One of the first things we asked ourselves was can we do this? And more importantly, can we do this well? We looked at our resources, skill sets and experience and the answer was yes, we had a lot to work with. If we ended up cutting a few effects or shocks here and there the story was solid enough to shine through. Which is great, but not good enough.

Because then you have to always have to ask how can we make this better? Which is a much scarier question, because the answer is almost always about the budget. With more funds we could do everything we wanted to when we first talked about this freaky idea. Not that much more, comparatively speaking, but just enough for us to reach even further. We’ve also factored in a bit of contingency into the budget too, which allows us to focus on the terrors on screen, rather than the terrors of running out of money because something goes wrong.

So, this is a good one! Tom has been a friend of mine for a few years now, and he’s currently working on a short film – an adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s Herbert West stories. That, to me, sounded pretty interesting, so we had a bit of a chat about that – about why Lovecraft’s work still resonates today, the challenges of realising the infamous Miskatonic University in 2019, and, most interestingly of all, what crowdfunding a movie is really like on a practical level.

Hopefully Tom will be able to raise the funds to make Reanimatedif you’d like to donate to the kickstarter, here’s a link.

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Russian Doll is the first meaningful contender for the best show of 2019

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The immediate reaction when you hear about Russian Doll is “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Groundhog Day?” – or, indeed, “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Happy Death Day?” – but this latest Netflix offering isn’t as derivative as that first impression might suggest. Working within a premise that’s fast becoming a genre unto itself, Russian Doll has a genuinely impressive capacity to surprise – most obviously in the fact that it’s become an early contender for the best show of 2019.

Let’s start, as the show does, with Natasha Lyonne – indeed, in a sense Russian Doll begins and ends with Lyonne, who’s not only star but also co-creator, frequent writer, and director of the stellar finale. If any show could be described as a star vehicle, it’s this one; it’s difficult to think of a recent programme that achieves as much on the strength of its lead performance as Russian Doll does. Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a woman caught in an endless (and, yes, Groundhog Day-esque) loop, dying and reliving the same night over and over again – the night of her 36th birthday party. Lyonne is caustic and abrasive as Nadia, but deeply, deeply funny; Russian Doll delights in her idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, as well it should. (A whole article could be written specifically to celebrate the way Lyonne pronounces “cockroach”, enunciating it as a three-syllable word.) There’s a certain clomping psychicality to her performance too, an awareness of motion and body language that anchors the character with a certain leaden weariness: it’s obvious that Nadia is carrying something with her as she moves through each successive loop.

The first three episodes of Russian Doll revolve more or less entirely around Nadia, an exercise in establishing a premise and pushing its boundaries (although the first episode does include a vital link to the second half of the series). It’s a testament to the skill of all involved that this doesn’t feel like a show spinning its wheels right out of the gate – Russian Doll even manages to avoid the characteristic pacing problems Netflix shows so often suffer from. No, those first four episodes are a necessary piece of groundwork, and an excellent showcase for Lyonne’s knack for physical comedy; an extended sequence of Nadia trying and failing to go down the stairs safely is one of Russian Dolls best recurring jokes. (One of Russian Doll’s less obvious strengths, in fact, is a keen awareness of repetition as a comedy tool – of both its potential and how best to use it.) It all adds up to four episodes of television that are genuinely very funny, if not necessarily something that would be remembered as one of 2019’s standouts.

It’s the third episode cliffhanger, though, where Russian Doll really starts to sing.

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Within a premise like Russian Doll’s, the supporting cast could very easily be thankless roles – resetting with each loop, stuck repeating different variations on the same lines over and over. It’s worth noting the quiet, understated skill of the wider supporting cast that Russian Doll largely avoids this; within relatively little televisual real estate, as it were, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley and Yul Vazquez, amongst others, are all able to quickly define their larger than life roles.

Nonetheless, though, one of Russian Doll’s key twists on the familiar premise is in giving Nadia a companion in her repetitions – Charlie Barnett plays Alan Zaveri, also continually dying and reliving a single night. Introduced at the close of the show’s fourth episode, Alan is, in many ways, the perfect foil to Nadia; Barnett gives a mannered, controlled performance as an individual who’s so insecure and nervous he seeks refuge in the strict routine of the loop. Alan is just as neurotic as Nadia, ultimately, it just manifests in different ways. Lyonne and Barnett complement one another well – it’d be dull to suggest that a female character’s story becomes more interesting with the addition of a male one, but that’s not what’s happening here anyway. No, it’s simply the case that giving a talented performer a similarly talented foil elevates the show – a rising tide lifts all ships, in this case.

The relationship between Nadia and Alan is ultimately key to Russian Doll’s spiky story of self-destruction, the heart of a character study that’s like a matryoshka doll in more ways than one. Across the latter half of the series, Russian Doll gradually pares back the layers of its lead characters as it moves from dark comedy to existential angst – there’s a rising intensity that comes with it, a result of touchingly introspective reflection. In a finale with more than one impressive directorial flourish, Russian Doll makes a bold declaration of intent; a move away from Nadia and Alan’s tragically isolated solipsism at the beginning of their loops, and towards a quiet embrace of what they share. At the heart of this Russian doll, there’s not one person, but two – and that makes things better, a little bit.

And with that, Russian Doll becomes the first meaningful contender for the best show of 2019.

Related:

My Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

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Screenwriter Luke Davies on Beautiful Boy, masculinity, and ‘manipulative’ filmmaking

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Well, all film, including good film, is manipulative. The word has negative connotations when what it means, I think, is that ‘manipulation’ has an agenda that is deceptive and buried. Ultimately, I can support and I live with this film because the agenda is not deceptive. The books are incredibly moving and I can vouch for the fact, as an ex-addict myself, I vouch for their authenticity and their power. And as an ex-addict, or let’s say an addict who is 29 years clean and sober, I believe in the message of the film, which is not even hitting you on the head with a hammer, but which to me says there are no clearcut, black and white answers, but that love is at the centre of the answer and that there’s no guarantee that your loved one will survive the traumatic chaos of addiction.

We can’t hold your hand, but we can show [a story with] the kind of message that is you keep showing up no matter what. As filmmakers, what we tried to do was to not be morally judgmental, to not make one of those movies that is hitting you on the head with a hammer. Ultimately, yes, all films are manipulative, but I prefer the gentle flow of Beautiful Boy, which tells the story, much of which is very distressing, and gets to a point of ambiguous resolution with father and son scene at the end.

First interview I’ve done in quite some time, this! I didn’t realise it’d been so long, actually – about six months since I spoke to Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn about A Quiet Place – but it’s a good one to come back with, I think. I’m really pleased with this piece; it goes a lot deeper, I think, than a lot of previous interviews I’ve done, and hopefully sets a new standard to try and reach in future.

In theory, I’ll have a review of Beautiful Boy up on the site in a few days time – I, admittedly, wasn’t a massive fan of the film. (That said, though, it’ll be interesting to watch the film again with this interview in mind – I wonder how much it’ll influence my opinion?)

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Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

brexit uncivil war benedict cumberbatch dominic cummings james graham toby haynes channel 4 hbo vote leave take back control film review

Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, Brexit: The Uncivil War is a film caught between two contrary instincts, unable to quite work out what it wants to be or what it wants to do.

On one level, Brexit is trying to be a character study, an attempt to shine a light on Dominic Cummings – a man most of the film’s audience is unlikely to be aware of. At the same time, though, the film also wants to be a process story ahead of anything else, delving into the idiosyncrasies of a political campaign of near unprecedented significance. It wouldn’t be impossible to be both, of course, but ultimately Brexit is neither – there’s a certain tension borne of this, as the film struggles to find an identity, leaving a rapidly forming sense that none of the major figures involved were quite on the same page throughout.

Screenwriter James Graham, clearly, is most interested in Dominic Cummings – not a huge surprise, given Cummings is apparently the sort of brash genius that so often fascinates writers. Whether Cummings genuinely falls prey to every cliché-ridden convention of the brusque political operative, speaking only in self-consciously lofty references and aphorisms is another question: it’s difficult to tell whether this an accurate account of Cummings’ real-life eccentricities or an artifice on Graham’s part. If the latter, it’s worthy of quite the eye-roll; if the former, then it’s easier to understand why Graham was quite so fascinated by Cummings, but does rather leave the impression that Graham bought into Cummings’ own hype, which is… another problem, to say the least.

That said, though, Graham isn’t helped by Cumberbatch’s visible lack of interest in Cummings. If 2018 held the best performance of Cumberbatch’s career in Patrick Melrose, then Brexit: The Uncivil War is unfortunately a sure example of one of his weakest. In Patrick Melrose, Cumberbatch carved out a space within his established milieu of isolated eccentrics, injecting it with a bracing vulnerability that elevated the performance far above the rest of his filmography. In Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cumberbatch does almost entirely the opposite – he’s sleepwalking through the film, coasting on a reputation for playing irreverent geniuses earned on Sherlock. (There’s reasonable critique to make, on that grounds, that Cumberbatch brings too much baggage to the role – simply by putting him on screen in this role, there’s an implicit suggestion that Cummings is a Sherlock-esque figure.) Cummings, here, is a caricature of ‘a Benedict Cumberbatch role’ – so of course the character study fails. It doesn’t matter what Graham was trying to achieve if Cumberbatch doesn’t show up.

Absent its star, Brexit renders Cummings a cipher around which the Leave campaign as a whole can be – not ‘interrogated’, that suggests a far robust and uncompromising look at events than the film offered – viewed. In that sense, Brexit does reasonably well, finding flair in the mundanities of the campaign trail from focus groups to slogans. It isn’t quite as good as, say, the average episode of The West Wing, but it works – an extended look at the subtleties that set “take control” apart from “take back control” makes for one of the film’s better sequences, for example. Similarly effective is Brexit: The Uncivil War’s look at how the Leave campaign relied on developing social media targeting – which is to say, it works, but it’s nowhere near as good an articulation of the concept as when it formed the fourth act plot twist of an episode of The Good Fight.

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Again, though, it doesn’t quite land – a result, most likely, of the fact that the process story was never meant to be the main focus of the script, merely inadvertently accentuated by the vagaries of Cumberbatch’s performance. In turn, it leaves Brexit: The Uncivil War as a drama divided, a film at war with itself – it’s no surprise that film doesn’t have the impact it could’ve. (Director Toby Haynes, who might have been able to stitch the two instincts together, instead offers a third – the equivalent of “well, let’s just be a bit like Norway”. Haynes tries to emphasise the absurdity of it all, presumably angling to satirise right-wing pomposity – but instead directs with a certain baroque pretension, another element that fails to cohere.)

In the end, this adaptation prompts much the same question as the real-life source material: why bother?

Not even three years on from the vote, accusations that Brexit: The Uncivil War has come too soon hold an obvious weight. 2019 is too early for Brexit to have been historicised; indeed, it’s still a palpable part of the present, if the events of this week are any indicator. In the time between Brexit’s Channel 4 debut and this review being written, Theresa May’s prospective deal suffered an unprecedented defeat in parliament; what will happen in the time between writing and publishing the review remains to be seen, let alone in the time between publishing the review and Brexit’s nominal 29th March scheduling.

That isn’t to say, though, that Brexit shouldn’t have bothered because they don’t know how it’ll end. Rather, while the broader ramifications of the event are still ongoing – and while the campaign at the heart of the film is still subject to ongoing criminal investigation – there’s argument to be made that a fictionalised narrative is irresponsible filmmaking. By virtue of being the first major attempt to tackle Brexit on film, Brexit: The Uncivil War is also going to be – for a time, at least – the definitive account of that campaign. What James Graham and company emphasise – and, more crucially, what they omit – is going to have a greater hand in shaping public understanding of the Brexit campaign than any news report or documentary. Looking beyond their depiction of Cummings, there’s little sense that there was any awareness of this responsibility behind the scenes. Arron Banks and Nigel Farage are blustering and foolish, not insidious and dangerous; Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are trepidant and cautious, not self-serving and morally negligent; the Leave campaign’s illegal overspending is little more than a footnote. Maybe waiting a few more years would’ve stopped them getting it wrong, maybe it wouldn’t, but the mistakes would likely have mattered a little bit less.

Ultimately, if Brexit: The Uncivil War was meant to hold a mirror up to society, it is instead a far better reflection of James Graham’s interest – and Benedict Cumberbatch’s apparent disinterest – in one man, rather than offering any meaningful commentary on the state of a nation.

5/10

Related:

Who is America? Who cares?

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Doctor Who Review: Series 11 Overview

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Arguably, Doctor Who series 11 was poised to be the programme’s best. Certainly, in the weeks prior to its debut, it looked set to be bold, vibrant and new – a confident step forward into a new era, exactly what the series needed.

It wasn’t.

In fact, it was probably the weakest run of eleven consecutive episodes across the past fourteen years – even the genuine highlights diminished by dint of the stories nestled around them. Watching Doctor Who week on week was a demonstration of the rapidly shrinking potential of Series 11; the contours of the Chibnall era became increasingly well-defined with every passing episode, serving at least to dull the blows of each new disappointment. It was frequently messy, routinely uninspired, and impressed only in terms of how unimaginative it so often was. All that potential amounted to little more than a shrug, in the end – there’s a sense that Doctor Who was a piece without any real direction or drive, but eleven hours of television content to simply just… be.

Yet that drab adequacy was so frustrating because the distance between what Series 11 was and what it could’ve been was, in many ways, aggravatingly short. It so very nearly was bold, vibrant and new; the building blocks were all there. The bigger picture got a lot right – smaller, moment to moment details left a lot to be desired, and in turn ultimately meant that bigger picture never quite came into focus. My central critique of Resolution was its inability to quite cohere into the story it thought it was; if I was going to try and distil Series 11’s faults into a single sentence, that would quite possibly be it.

Reviewing the episodes was difficult – for the most part, they were broadly entertaining to watch, but considerably less so to write about. The reviews quickly began to trend negative because – well, in no small part because I was growing steadily less enthused with the series generally, but chiefly because the episodes were more easily understood in terms of what almost worked rather than what actually did. By the end of the series, I was a lot more casual (and condemning) with the score afforded to each episode; they’re usually a little arbitrary anyway, because I’m inclined to resist reviews that can be simplified that much (but I still include them for individual episode reviews because, well, I always have). Here, in any case, is a reminder of each episode’s rating:

  1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth | Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  2. The Ghost Monument | Chris Chibnall | 6/10
  3. Rosa | Malorie Blackman & Chris Chibnall | 9/10
  4. Arachnids in the UK | Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  5. The Tsuranga Conundrum | Chris Chibnall | 8/10
  6. Demons of the Punjab | Vinay Patel | 9/10
  7. Kerblam! | Pete McTighe | 2/10
  8. The Witchfinders | Joy Wilkinson | 6/10
  9. It Takes You Away | Ed Hime | 8/10
  10. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos | Chris Chibnall | 3/10
  11. Resolution | Chris Chibnall | 6/10

Immediately, some stand out as egregious – much as I do enjoy The Tsuranga Conundrum, it is terribly basic – and there’s an obvious point where my patience runs out. (And, as already noted, they were fairly arbitrary scores – Resolution was very close to being a 4/10 until I changed it on a whim I’d struggle to justify.) In any case, that leaves the traditional graph (my favourite part of these series overviews) in a bit of a tricky spot – it’s always based on fairly spurious data, but this year even more so. To try and supplement it a bit, I’ve also included a preferential ranking, worked out using this website – again, I’m not entirely sure how accurate I’d say it is, but it strikes me as worthy of inclusion.

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Again, some choices stand out – I’d have expected It Takes You Away to have been higher, though I have admittedly soured on the story since watching it the first go around. (My rankings the weekend immediately following The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos had It Takes You Away in fourth and, oddly, The Witchfinders in second.)

Really, though, what stands out about this list of episodes is… this list of episodes. Each series, of course, has had its high points and its low points; that Series 11 holds episodes that are amongst the very best and very worst of the post-2005 series is a rather more significant feat. Something like Rosa is going to define Doctor Who in the public eye for a long time (rightly or wrongly, I’m struggling to think of anything in the Capaldi era that’s going to have the same staying power within the zeitgeist), but something like The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is a strong contender for the single most bland and boring hour of television that’s gone out under the Doctor Who name since 2005. Granted, that comparison obscures the impact of the series as a whole – as would several other comparisons, probably most obviously Demons of the Punjab (one of the best episodes of the past decade plus) and Kerblam! (which is borderline evil in many respects). For all that Series 11 might seem eclectic in its compulsions and interests, there is in fact a stilted uniformity to it all – perhaps because of how the same problems recur again and again, or the lack of any sense that the series built towards anything (that the majority of the episodes could play in any order speaks volumes). Equally, it may simply be a result of the fact that Chibnall wrote over half the episodes in this already reduced series. It’s unclear, beyond that, exactly how much influence Chibnall had as showrunner in comparison to Moffat or Davies; confused rumours of an American style writers’ room in the leadup to broadcast served to obscure Chibnall’s involvement and exactly how intense it was.

In a sense, though, that speaks to something of a wider anonymity surrounding Chibnall’s involvement – as a showrunner and as a writer, he’s considerably less of a personality than Moffat or Davies were. Obviously, Chibnall loves Doctor Who – it’s very much the sort of job you’d have to love to actually want to undertake it, that much has become clear over the years. And, of course, he’s got deeply embarrassing fan credentials of his own stretching back to the 1980s, starring in what’s got to be one of the most awkward and uncomfortable pieces of Doctor Who ephemera ever. Despite that, though, whatever love Chibnall presumably feels for the show seems decidedly… non-specific. If there’s an affection, it’s a broad, sweeping one; series 11 gives little sense of exactly what it is that fascinates Chibnall about Doctor Who, what draws him in and compels him to keep writing. Moffat and Davies both, very obviously, had their own idiosyncratic and personal interpretations of the show – their respective eras are very heavily authored in contrast to the Chibnall era. (Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, though, there was also a greater sense of variety within that authorship – the stilted uniformity of the Chibnall era is tied keenly to its anonymity, one suspects.)

Charitably, you could chalk that up to an attempt to get out of the way of new voices, even if it didn’t quite work – and I’ll concede, too, that the distance of a few months might mean I’m not remembering things quite right. More cynically, though, Series 11 feels constructed rather than conceived – a piece of television that doesn’t aim higher than being very popular. It achieved that, for a time, but contributes to a sense that there’s just not a lot going on this year.

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In my review of Resolution, I described the episode as “little more than a collection of remixed and rehashed beats from prior stories, with little thought paid towards how those beats might cohere in this story”. That aforementioned anonymity to Chibnall’s writing leaves Series 11 as a whole feeling much the same – a half-hearted return to a Davies-style format, lacking in much identity of its own. Particularly – and heartbreakingly – this applies most obviously to the Doctor herself. There’s a certain difficulty to critiquing this Doctor, because of how easily one might get lumped in with certain crowds who, to say the least, aren’t arguing in good faith. A caveat, then – one I’d hope is obvious, but feels worth repeating anyway – Jodie Whittaker was a brilliant, necessary choice for the Doctor, and she’s often the best part of any given episode.

Again, though, there’s a sense that the character has failed to meaningfully coalesce across the past eleven episodes. Often, the Doctor plays like a cynically conceived, populist minded Tennant/Smith tribute act, caught between a collection of empty quirks that don’t quite add up to anything on one hand, and character beats transposed without thought on the other. Her rebuke to Karl at the end of The Woman Who Fell to Earth recalls various scenes throughout the Tennant era, without a consistent (or intentionally inconsistent) sense of morality to back it up; Resolution lifts a line of dialogue wholesale from Daleks in Manhattan, of all episodes, and tries to position the Thirteenth Doctor as the type of character who says things like “I learned to think like a Dalek a long time ago”. To say its unearned would be quite the understatement. It’s not necessarily the end of the world; with each new Doctor, there’s a period where lines are still scripted for the previous incarnations while everyone gradually works out how the new actor will approach the part. It goes further here, admittedly, in terms of basic characterisation, and it’s exacerbated by the noticeable absence of anything even vaguely resembling a character arc for the Doctor. Broadly, it’s an easy fix – but it’s frustrating that it’s even necessary at all, given how close the Thirteenth Doctor actually is to working. Indeed – and it might be vastly overreaching to say this, but I’ll do it anyway – this Doctor could easily have been the most introspective and nuanced take on the character we’ve seen so far.

When I reviewed The Ghost Monument – an episode I’ve seen four times now, and liked less and less each successive time – I spent a little while talking about the Doctor’s suddenly very defeatist attitude when the TARDIS hadn’t appeared yet. Rather than seeing it as unearned, it struck me as an interesting character note:

That level of self-doubt – and more to the point, very sudden self-doubt that the audience understands as unfounded – feels like something we’ve never actually quite seen before. It’s a take on the Doctor that emphasises a certain vulnerability and insecurity […] and it’s obvious where Jodie Whittaker is going to do some of her most interesting work with the Doctor: carving out a space for subtler, quieter emotions, and in turn evoking the interiority of the part in a way we’ve not seen before.

I’d hold to that, even now, and maintain that was true of Whittaker’s Doctor across the rest of the series – even if, at this point, it’s obviously more down to her portrayal than anything as scripted. This Doctor is most compelling when she’s gleefully taunting Krasko as he tries to kill her; when she quietly apologises to a dead body; when she’s desperately searching for justification to destroy a Dalek, and almost kills Aaron as collateral. Again, there’s something frustrating to the way these threads don’t coalesce into a single character – but it’s obvious, as she gives the Doctor an interiority beyond what the script grants, that Jodie Whittaker makes the role bigger on the inside.

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Of course, if the Doctor is thinly characterised at best, it does beg the question – what about her friends?

Well, actually, let’s start there. One of the more interesting things to note (well, interesting if you’re inclined to pick over every small detail and language choice) about the marketing for Series 11 is the way it tried to position Yaz, Graham and Ryan not as ‘companions’ but as ‘friends’. Ultimately, it was about as reflective of the actual content of Series 11 as… well, as the rest of the marketing for Series 11 (if only it had genuinely been that colourful!) but it’s interesting in how it speaks to intent. Again, it’s an unfulfilled intent: there’s a certain sterility to the relationships between the TARDIS crew this year, and little resembling actual friendship. I’ve touched on it a few times, but theirs is a very impersonal relationship – that none of them paused to ask the Doctor where she’s from is, to my mind, still a huge flaw. It’s particularly obvious at the end of Arachnids in the UK, when Yaz says the Doctor is “pretty much the best person she’s ever met” – what? Really? (It’s a bad scene generally – after a space desert that nearly killed them and a harrowing experience in segregationist Alabama, it’s pretty much inexplicable why they’d want to keep travelling in the TARDIS at all – so the fact that line sticks out is indicative of just how egregious it is.)

But then, it’s perhaps to be expected with a regular cast as crowded as this (to say nothing of the strangely counter-intuitive insistence on stacking each episode with guest characters too). Of course, the relationship between Doctor and companions feels oddly impersonal – there’s not enough time to make it work. There’s only just enough time to introduce them all as individuals, and in turn establish the dynamic between Ryan and Graham. Eleven episodes in, and it’s difficult not to think that making a four-person regular cast work in modern Doctor Who is impossible… though at that point one would be inclined to note all the ways it might have been easier. Perhaps a version of Series 11 that didn’t have multiple guest stars with their own emotional arcs in each episode would’ve fared better; perhaps a version of Series 11 that gave each character their own focal episode would’ve fared better. (Quite how difficult it is to imagine a Doctor-lite episode lead by Yaz speaks volumes, I think.) There are ways to make these three characters work, even if Series 11 doesn’t exactly manage it.

Or, maybe more accurately, “there are ways to make these three characters work better” – because they do work, up to a point. Certainly, Graham and Ryan do; theirs is a thinly sketched arc, but it’s something, at least. It helps that the pair are good actors, too; Bradley Walsh has an obvious confidence as a performer that goes a long way, and Tosin Cole is obviously well equipped to rise to the material when the opportunity presents itself. Yaz, admittedly, is more of a problem – it’s difficult to tell whether Mandip Gill is a weak actress, or if she’s just not a good enough actress to make the sheer paucity of material she’s given work. I go back and forth on what I think of that, really; the only thing I’m certain of, when it comes to Yaz, is that a 30-year-old woman is too old to play a 19-year-old, and dressing her in pigtails and primary colours doesn’t make a difference. (This is something I do think is deserving of more critique than it received, actually.)

It’ll be interesting, in any case, to see what the response to these characters is like a year later – when the version that exists in people’s memories and headcanons and memes is far more well-defined and specific than the version that eventually returns to screen.

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Drawing this to a close, now, there’s a lot that could still be said of Series 11. There are lines of criticism I’ve neglected, like the often borderline incompetent direction, and very real rebukes to the arguments I’ve made so far – if nothing else, there’s surely a genuine, material good to the series that goes renders a couple of dull episodes effectively irrelevant? Surely it doesn’t matter how boring The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was, if the sheer fact it starred Jodie Whittaker rather than Kris Marshall offers some tangible real-world impact? That’s a genuine question. I’m not sure how much I agree with the premise of the question – even though I posed it – and I think if it was a stance I’d adopt myself, it’d have to be a heavily caveated one.

Mainly, though, I keep thinking about the end of Rosa. It’s the scene that cemented Jodie Whittaker, and I suspect will also be the scene that defines the series in the public eye for a long time to come – certainly, it’s going to have a staying power in the zeitgeist far longer than anything since the 50th anniversary. The Doctor has to sit and watch as something awful happens, something ugly – suffering she’s ultimately complicit in. It’s powerful and meaningful because it’s so different from what we’re used to in the realm of Doctor Who; the fact it’s necessary here speaks volumes. It’s such a stark contrast from everything that’s gone before it.

But not, notably, what comes after it – a complacent and often complicit Doctor is the new normal across the rest of Series 11. Jack Robertson gets to walk away; Kerblam gives its workers two weeks pay and closes for a month; the Doctor walks away from the violence of partition, rather than bearing witness with the Thijarians; a woman dies in the witch trials because the Doctor hesitates over saving her.

Something, somewhere, went wrong with this series, for that to be the new normal.

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: Resolution

doctor who review resolution of the daleks jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor tosin cole daniel adegboyega wayne che yip charlotte ritchie chris chibnall nick briggs mandip gill bradley walsh

Not even Netflix?

It’s obvious enough what Resolution is reaching for. It’s trying to be big and bold and impressive, a confident and sweeping holiday special that’s both a reminder of why you’ve liked Doctor Who for the past year, and why it’s going to be worth the wait until next year. Unfortunately, though, the only thing that’s impressive about Resolution is how shockingly, stunningly vacuous it is.

Resolution wasn’t lacking in ideas – just the conviction to follow through on any of them. As a piece of television, it’s quite staggering how much time is devoted to establishing its premises, simply to abandon them in favour of the next idea. There are ways that can work, obviously, but it doesn’t here – it’s not the madcap whirlwind of Moffat era narrative substitution, one idea rolling into the next with dizzying intensity. No, instead Resolution is just an exercise in moving from one set-piece to the next, with little heed towards internal consistency or any economy of storytelling. There’s a real sloppiness to, say, the way Resolution establishes and then discards the Order of the Custodians, but probably more indicative of the story’s overall failure to cohere is the emphasis it places on the Dalek assembling itself anew out of a bunch of farmyard scraps… before revealing it also has hidden missiles still.

The Dalek is an interesting throughline to approach Resolution from, actually, indicative both of the episode’s ambitions and its failure to meet them. Positioning the special within that tradition of periodically refreshing the Daleks and scaling them back as a reminder of their significance was, in all fairness, a good move – it’s not wrong to point out that there hasn’t been a ‘proper’ Dalek story since 2014, but they’ve still felt present in such a way that a reintroduction was an obvious necessity. Hence an episode that’s consciously designed to, if not ‘make the Daleks scary again’, certainly to remind audiences of what it is they like about the Daleks. It’s a shame, then, that Resolution takes such a superficial approach to the Daleks – it seems that, to Chris Chibnall anyway, the most interesting thing about a Dalek is the explosions that come along with it. There’s a focus on being cool more than anything else, obvious in the way the camera lingers on those explosions, or in giving the Dalek a claw rather than the traditional plunger. (Surely if the Dalek has been made out of scraps, the obvious joke – much funnier than call centres or conversations – is giving it an actual, genuine toilet plunger for once?)

Again, the frustrating part is that Resolution isn’t lacking in ideas – it’s not even lacking in good ones. Deconstructing the Dalek, taking it out of its shell, is a neat idea; combined with the possession storyline (even if it very obviously should’ve been given to Yaz rather than Lin, no matter how good Charlotte Ritchie was) it had the potential to really sing. There’s something particularly potent, in 2019, to the idea of a long-buried evil reconstituting itself, borne from scraps, and extending tendrils to corrupt and control. It’s not an idea that Resolution does a lot with, though; granted, argument could be made that those ideas wouldn’t suit a holiday special, but if you’re ruling out the fascism angle after already opting against Christmas of the Daleks (self-evidently the best Dalek holiday special), then Resolution is already being forced to work with, at most, the third best idea available. As a Dalek episode, Resolution is little more than a collection of remixed and rehashed beats from prior stories, with little thought paid towards how those beats might cohere in this story.

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Indeed, the general lack of coherence makes one wonder if Resolution’s most interesting sequence was an accident – the mirroring between the Dalek constructing a new casing here, and the Doctor constructing her sonic screwdriver back in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. It is, surely, too specific a parallel to be an accident. Again, though, there’s a messiness to it, because it’s a parallel that never broadens, never really goes anywhere.

That feels particularly noteworthy with this incarnation of the Doctor, though – or at least, this incarnation of the Doctor, after a series that’s pointedly avoided framing the lead character in terms of wider mythos points like Daleks, Time Lords and Time Wars. (Not that that’s a bad thing, particularly – indeed, it’s probably a good thing – though it is admittedly odd the Doctor’s new friends never thought to ask basic personal questions like “where are you from?”.) There’s a strange disconnect between how the Dalek is understood by the audience, and by the characters; it leaves moments like the Doctor reflecting that she’d learned to think like a Dalek a long time ago feeling oddly unearned. It harkens back to Eccleston’s Doctor or Tennant’s Doctor, where the Time War and that history with the Daleks is never very far from the surface – with this Doctor, it feels like an attempt to tap into a darkness that just isn’t there.

And yet! The shape of something interesting lurks in the subtext. It’s easy to read the Doctor’s attempt to kill the Dalek at the end not as going wrong unexpectedly, exactly, but an act of sheer recklessness and desperation to the point that she’s willing to sacrifice Ryan’s dad to make sure the Dalek dies. That would be thinking like a Dalek, with all the destructive drive and determination that it implies, and it could be the springboard for a much-needed effort to add some nuance to this incarnation of the Doctor. It’s a long-held truism that any Doctor is defined by their first clash with the Daleks (literalised in Into the Dalek), but the Thirteenth Doctor might be the first one that doesn’t quite hold true for – the character is hardly manifestly different, or understood in some new light, by virtue of this meeting of foes. If any interpretation of the character was particularly crying out for that meeting, it was this one; after ten weeks of moral leanings best described as “confused”, something to more starkly define the character against would’ve been welcome. (Plus, it would’ve been neat to have the Dalek immediately recognise her as the Doctor, recalling Power of the Daleks, but no dice on that one too. In its own small way that’s almost the biggest missed opportunity of the piece.)

It’s not, of course – and this really does bear repeating – that Jodie Whittaker is in any way a weak performer. In some sense, it’s the opposite; she’s realising a weak role well. Or, no, not a weak role – that’s too simplistic a way to describe it. Rather, eleven episodes in, the Thirteenth Doctor feels like a collection of disparate threads that haven’t quite been brought together – an unfinished join-the-dots picture where you can just about make out the overall shape, if not quite the finer details.

doctor who review resolution jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill tosin cole dalek daniel adegboyega charlotte ritchie nikesh patel wayne yip chris chibnall gchq wifi conversation a

The same is true, still, of the companions. For all that this series has tried to position Yaz, Graham and Ryan as friends rather than companions, the relationships between them this year have felt like the most distant and detached across the past decade; there’s still very little familiarity, very little interiority, to these characters and how they interact with one another. It’s a problem. A problem generally, obviously, but here particularly, in an episode that’s supposed to act as the culmination of the year’s emotional arc with the return of Ryan’s dad.

Notably, though, it’s actually the same set of constraints and limitations that affected Resolution’s Dalek plotline – the return of Ryan’s dad is little more than a collection of remixed and rehashed story beats. (There’s something almost reassuring about the consistency of the issues inherent to Doctor Who at the moment, because that at least implies a simple solution, albeit perhaps not an easy one.) Tosin Cole does an admirable job with the material he’s given – arguably, in fact, Cole has been the strongest performer all year – and much the same is true of Daniel Adegboyega as Aaron. But what’s admirable about their performances is how they elevate the material, taking scenes that could easily have been very flat and turning them into scenes where you can at least say “well, the acting was decent”. Once again, it’s a case of ideas with unfulfilled potential; there’s a version of Resolution that, for example, draws parallels between Aaron and Graham, both running as far and as fast as they can because of their grief, only one able to do it in a TARDIS. There’s a version that reaches a spikier, more difficult resolution between Aaron and Ryan, not as simple as a catch-all panacea in the form of a near-death experience – if the episode is going to end by postponing the majority of the eponymous resolution anyway, it’s difficult not to wonder what it might have looked like if Aaron had actually died. It’s not that killing characters is always or even often a particularly compelling narrative choice, but it might have helped here a little to dispel the nagging sense that, at almost every turn, Resolution opted against the more interesting decision.

But then, that’s nothing new with this series of Doctor Who, or even particularly unique to Ryan and Aaron’s plotline. (It really does bear repeating: this episode would’ve been vastly, vastly improved if Yaz had been possessed by the Dalek, rather than Lin.) All of the same foibles and flaws that that you could track across Series 11 recur here – killing off a side character immediately after they mention they’re gay was egregious bordering on parodic, and deserves much more criticism than its got from certain quarters – and even escalate in some cases. What’s particularly damning, though, is that Resolution is probably still one of the better episodes of Series 11. There’s a confidence to it, a certainty, and by comparison to its immediate predecessor, it’s difficult not to concede the point. Wayne Yip is the best director the series has had all year; Charlotte Ritchie does give a great performance; the Dalek redesign does look alright, actually.

As the episode that closes Doctor Who series 11, Resolution is probably perfect – a microcosm of the all the year’s flaws and some of its strengths. As the episode that closes Doctor Who across the past decade… well, it hardly even makes the case that there’s much to miss until 2020.

6/10

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Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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On 2018

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The annual tradition! Fourth time I’ve done one of these year-in-review pieces now, and I don’t think I’d ever have really imagined writing this 2018 piece back in 2015. (Not because I didn’t know the order of the years, but, well, you know.) So it’s neat to think I’ve made a least a little nominal progress.

Right, so, 2018. What did I get up to?

Let’s lead, as I did last go around, with my favourite interviews of the year – I actually did these in January, or thereabouts, so they’re as good a choice as any to start a reflection on 2018.

Even if it weren’t for their particular significance, I’d be very pleased with these interviews – certainly, I think among my work they’re in the top tier, with a genuine level of substantive engagement in the questions, a nice level of introspection about the programme, so on and so forth. These interviews in particular, though, are made all the more notable by the fact that they were the first – and actually still only – interviews I’ve ever done in person! That was slightly terrifying, actually, but a lot of fun in the end, and I’m extremely glad that first in-person interview experience was with a group of people who were so attentive and so committed to talking about their work.

In terms of broader writing, there are maybe fewer pieces I’d highlight than I previously would’ve – not because I didn’t write lots of things I’m terribly proud of (I’m proud of them all in their way, even the rubbish ones), but just because I’m trying to be a little bit more exacting in these things. Higher standards, year on year. Hopefully, I’ll still be able to meet them.

My best three of the year, in any case, I think were all pieces for Yahoo (though I think that’s historically always been the case):

They’re not articles about my favourite shows of the year (though A Very English Scandal did make the list) – no, I just think these are the best pieces of work I’ve actually done, in some cases in terms of the actual literal prose, and in others in terms of actually having a good point to argue. (At some stage during the year, I read some writing advice to the effect of “it’s not enough to have an opinion, you have to have a point” – I don’t know how often I was falling foul of that beforehand, but since reading it it’s something I’m a little more aware of.)

Particularly, I suppose, that’s the case with the A Very English Scandal and Genius: Picasso pieces, where I think I’ve got articulated an interpretation of each that no one else did (or at least an interpretation I didn’t see anyone else offer). A few other articles could make the cut – off the top of my head, some others I was very pleased with include this on The Good Fight, this on House and The Good Doctor.

I’m glad, in any case, to have written some articles for Yahoo that I’m genuinely really pleased with, and I think should stand the test of time; my regular contributions there have come to an end, after three great years, and I’m glad to have gone out on something of a high. Well, I say that; in a move I find hilarious in hindsight, I wrote a deeply self-indulgent and mostly awful article about endings, a thinly veiled reference to my own departure. About three weeks later, I returned with the above article about Killing Eve, so it clearly wasn’t that definitive an ending! Still, though, given this is probably going to be the last time in a while I get a chance to talk about Yahoo, I do just want to mention quite how much I benefitted from that position; all this writing stuff has grown into something I never really believed it would, or indeed conceived that it could, and that’s entirely down to Yahoo.

In terms of my own blog, I’ve tried to put a bit more focus on getting some articles on there that I liked. It’s still a work in progress; it’s important to me to try and have ‘exclusive’ content on here, for lack of a better term, so that’s something I’m gonna try and make work again across 2019. (I feel like I’ve said this every year now.) Still, though, there were a couple of good pieces I put onto this blog across 2018 – the most obvious, I think, is when I attempted to engage with Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? and ultimately found it lacking.

Of course, it’d be remiss of me not to link back to Five Years On, the other big reflective piece I did this year. Because 2018 wasn’t just any year, but the fifth year I’ve been doing this nonsense in a row. Still strange to think about that. Not sure I have a lot more to add since the actual anniversary itself; the same thanks still apply – all of them, even to you – and I think they always will. I’m glad I got to five years, anyway. I really hope I make it to ten, in some shape or form.

So, 2018. Let’s try and draw this to a close and properly square it all away. It was… an odd year, broken up into two halves (well, two thirds and another third, I guess) in more ways than one. Again, I’m coming up against my own reluctance to talk much about my actual real life here; most of what defined the year went on around and outside the blog, as you’d expect, but I think spilled into it in a lot of key ways. Ways that’d be obvious from the outside, but not so much the inside. For what it’s worth, though, I think for all the associated nonsense that’s come of certain big choices, I’d probably still make them again.

(Certain big choices, but not all of them. I wouldn’t do that again, good grief.)

Right. That’s about that then. I used to like to set myself some targets for the next year, but I think I’ll opt against that this year.

Better to work it out as I go along.

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My Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

I was trying to work out, before I wrote this post, how many television shows I’d actually watched all year. I am not completely sure the final tally was correct – my memory is awful, and it’s been a long year with a lot of television – but I think it came out to around 60 or so. (That’s mostly new shows, or new content at least, I didn’t include the programmes I rewatched. No idea how many it’d be then.)

Hoping to watch about 75 new programmes across 2019. That feels broadly achievable, I think – even if it’s still only going to be a fraction of the amount of actual television that’s put out. There’s so much of it! It’s like I’m drowning. In a good way, though. Or at least as good a way as drowning could feel, I suppose.

Anyway. Before we get into the 2018 list, here’s a quick recap of my 2017 list, since I never wrote a blog post about it in the end:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale
  2. The West Wing
  3. American Gods
  4. The Good Fight
  5. Doctor Who
  6. Legion
  7. The End of the F***ing World
  8. Babylon Berlin
  9. Yes, Minister / Yes, Prime Minister
  10. Motherland

The eagle-eyed among you will notice a couple of shows that didn’t premiere in 2017, but that’s when I first watched them, so it counts. (The inverse applies to The End of the F***ing World and Babylon Berlin, both of which had their debut in the UK in 2017 rather than 2018 – hence being on that list rather than this one.)

Looking back, I still feel basically alright with all of these choices. Legion surprised me a little bit, actually, but I suppose I did enjoy it quite a bit at the time, especially while I was still watching a lot more superhero television. And, actually, I’m a little uncomfortable with the inclusion of Motherland, much as I did love it, because of Graham Linehan’s involvement with it.

Anyway. Here, then, is the list of my favourite television shows of 2018.

10). Derry Girls

At the time, I was going to write an article about authenticity, and about how Derry Girls has such a strong voice, and that’s why it was quite as funny as it was. I never did get around to that piece in the end (as long-term fans who can recite everything I’ve ever written surely know) but now… well, it’s true, obviously. But I wonder if perhaps that doesn’t overemphasis certain aspects of the show, over-simplifying its strengths and making it seem as though the jokes are only good because of the accent they’re delivered in.

No, Derry Girls was – and is – so good because of the strength of its ensemble, the precision of its structure, and often quite how willing it is to push a joke and keep going. Granted, you could probably argue that it’s first and last episodes were the most impressive and memorable, with the stretch in the middle never quite hitting those heights – but then, that last episode is home to one of the best TV moments of the year, after all.

(The accents do help, though.)

9). Save Me

save me lennie james suranne jones stephen graham sky atlantic jason flemyng

It’s not a show I necessarily expected to put in my top ten at the end of the year, actually, but when I came to compose this list, it was difficult not to include Save Me, I quickly realised. It’s the only straightforward crime drama on the list, and the only missing child programme, in a year when I watched (and wrote about) quite a few of them – just off the top of my head, Innocent, Kiri and Safe all spring to mind. Each of those shows had their strengths, but none of them were particularly special – I gradually lost interest in that sort of crime drama across the year, really.

Save Me stands apart because it managed to do what I didn’t think was entirely possible – it took that basic standard of the crime drama, the missing child premise, and executed it with such confidence and such skill that it made the whole thing feel new again. There was no deconstruction of the genre, no attempt to juxtapose it with something different, just a ruthlessly well-constructed drama, set apart only by its building intensity. I’m looking forward to the next series – I’ve got my doubts, admittedly, about Save Me’s potential as a long runner, but I was so impressed by Lennie James in this that I’ll be paying attention to whatever he does next.

Here’s what I wrote about Save Me at the time.

8). Flowers

flowers will sharpe olivia colman sofia di martino julian barratt daniel rigby channel 4 seeso mental health depression best tv 2018 top 10

I watched each of Flowers‘ two seasons this year, across the course of about a week. It’s difficult to capture exactly what’s so good about Flowers, I think – it’s a show that very much has to be seen to be understood, in a way I think quite unlike everything else on this list. “Olivia Colman is brilliant, Julian Barratt is brilliant, and Will Sharpe is brilliant” is true, of course, but not in a way that necessarily tells you a lot. “This is a brilliant crime drama” conveys a certain understanding of what a piece of television is and what it’s good at – it’s difficult to even explain what Flowers is exactly without being deeply reductive.

But it is brilliant, in its own idiosyncratic and distinctive way. Of the two seasons, I think the second was my favourite – after however many years of watching more and more television, and trying to watch and engage critically, I’ve become more and more attracted to the stuff that’s unlike anything else on television. Flowers series 2 is definitely that, a more confident elaboration on its predecessor, and an obvious choice for one of the best TV shows of the year.

Here’s what I wrote about Flowers at the time.

7). Superstore

superstore nbc america ferrara colton dunn ben feldman nichole bloom justin spitzer best tv 2018 top ten the office community season 4 5 cancelled renewed march return

I started watching Superstore years back, actually, when it first aired – NBC put the first three episodes on YouTube for three, which I thought was a really clever way to draw eyes to the show, but then there was no way to watch it here in the UK. It’s finally turned up on ITV 2, though, and I absolutely loved those first three episodes, so obviously I made sure to sit and watch it each day it was on.

There is a lot to be said about Superstore, I suspect, and how and why it’s so good – like America Ferrara and the jokes (its second series had a better Brexit gag than any British show across the past two years can lay claim to) and the chemistry between the cast and the tone it strikes each week and the way it takes corporate America to task in a way, I suspect, rather unlike a lot of other workplace comedies.

For me, though, what’s probably the defining memory I have of watching Superstore is coming home in an absolutely foul mood and all of that just falling away, because Superstore is just so good and so wholesome and so wonderful.

6). The Good Fight

the good fight christine baranski audra macdonald rose leslie cbs

Perhaps most notable, in this context at least, as the only show from the 2017 Top Ten to survive into the new year – indeed, and I hope I’m not jinxing it by saying it, I’d be very surprised if The Good Fight didn’t also make it onto the 2019 Top Ten. But I’m getting ahead of myself there.

The Good Fight is, in a joke I’ve tried to avoid making before, really, really good. There’s an elegance and a confidence to it, and it’s so much fun to watch. Christine Baranski is inimitable, Sarah Steele is a treasure, and Rose Leslie is so good I feel bad every time I remember she’s a Tory. (Zing!) I’m hoping 2019 is the year I finally get around to watching The Good Wife, but more than that, I’m really looking forward to Series 3.

Because it really, really is just that captivating.

Here’s what I wrote about The Good Fight at the time.

5). Succession

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I’d like to say I was an early adopter for Succession, appreciating it from the start, unlike the droves of people who abandoned it and then returned to it later. Of course, it didn’t air in the UK until months after that narrative had already formed in America, so I was going into the show expecting to dislike it at least a little initially. So, technically, I can’t quite say I was there for the show from the start.

I’m pretty sure I would’ve been, though, because I loved that first episode, and Succession had me in the palm of its hand till the end. And what an ending it was! Oh man. I sort of wish it had aired in the UK at the same time as it did in America, because I would’ve loved the chance to write about the whole series at the same time when everyone was still, you know, actually talking about (one of the more frustrating things about being a critic based in the UK is how totally America still drives the pace of the cultural conversation) because the way that series concluded was… well, there’s a few reasons why this show made it to the Top Ten, but that ending is the reason why Succession is as high up on this list as it is.

Here’s what I wrote about Succession (well, nominally about Succession, at least) at the time.

4). Wanderlust

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Wanderlust started on BBC One in the same week as Press, and I watched them both on the same day. I watched Wanderlust first, because I was expecting to like Press more – the general premise of Press being far more my ballpark than Wanderlust’s, my familiarity with Mike Bartlett and how much I’d enjoyed Trauma, and there were a few actors I liked in Press as well. Plus, Wanderlust seemed to be in the same vein as a lot of recent BBC family dramas (dramas about family, that is, I would hate to have watched Wanderlust with my family) that never quite gelled for me. In the end, I suspect I probably would’ve liked Press quite a lot more than I eventually did if it hadn’t been airing alongside Wanderlust, because the comparison was not at all flattering.

Part of why I watched Wanderlust was the expectation that it’d probably be unlike most of what I usually watched – an expectation that was met and surpassed, because Wanderlust blew me away. It was touching and charming and Toni Collette gave one of the best performances of the year (I know there’s some talk of awards nominations for Hereditary, but she really should win something for Wanderlust – several somethings, really). Not only that, Wanderlust probably also boasts one of the single best episodes of television of the year; I’m still thinking about the fifth episode and its central conceit, even now, months later.

3). The Assassination of Gianni Versace

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I think maybe people didn’t like this one that much? They’re all wrong, of course, but I was surprised to note that, because the strengths of this seem so self-evident to me. Darren Criss was brilliant, the script by Tom Rob Smith was brilliant, Cody Fern was brilliant in a supporting performance that really wasn’t celebrated enough. It was intense, and it was difficult to watch, and to be honest I doubt I’ll ever sit and watch it again – but by the same measure, I’m so glad I did, because it was such a standout series.

Genuinely, I think if you’re someone who likes television (and indeed movies and visual media and so on) and you went through 2018 without watching The Assassination of Gianni Versace, your experience of television this year was incomplete. That’s a big, big omission, and it’s worth going back to watch it as soon as you’re able – you won’t regret it.

Here’s what I wrote about The Assassination of Gianni Versace at the time; I put this piece in my portfolio as well, if you’d like to check that out, but I should probably get around to updating it sooner rather than later.

2). A Very English Scandal

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As is often the way with a Russell T Davies programme, this was obviously one of the best of the year pretty much as soon as the first episode finished airing. (I don’t wholly remember what was on at the same time as Cucumber, but I’m fairly certain it would’ve been one of the best of that year, too.) But, you know, don’t just take my word for it if you don’t want to – though I can’t think why you wouldn’t – it’s been appearing on plenty of year in review best lists for a while.

Rightfully so, because this is brilliant. It’s fun and anarchic and clever and I can keep listing adjectives, but honestly, it wouldn’t do it justice. I’m fairly sure it’s still on iPlayer – go, search it out. Watching these is a much better way to spend the next three hours than whatever you’ve already got planned. For even more fun, read Davies’ script at the same time as you watch the show; I did that with the third episode, and that really highlighted the strengths of the piece in a new way.

Here’s what I wrote about A Very English Scandal at the time, which I think is quite plausibly one of the best things I’ve ever written, and certainly one of the best of this year.

1). Patrick Melrose

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I’m still annoyed I didn’t find the time to write about this as it aired. I wasn’t expecting a lot from it, actually; the trailers in the week leading up to it gave the impression that Cumberbatch would be doing a sort of quasi-Sherlock caricature, which didn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the show.

When I watched it, though, I was blown away. It’s surely the best performance of Cumberbatch’s career – faintly reminiscent of Sherlock in a few clear ways, yes, but what Cumberbatch does with the material is far more complex than any comparison might suggest. “Benedict Cumberbatch’s best work” is a high selling point on its own, but that this performance was found in such a stylishly directed character study – a piece about love and loss and addiction and trauma, and coming to terms with them all as much as is possible – as Patrick Melrose is genuinely quite something.

If you’ve not seen it, seek it out; it’ll become very clear very quickly, I think, why I thought Patrick Melrose was the best TV show of 2018.

Honourable Mentions, Runners Up, and Notable Omissions

There are a few different programmes that are worthy of note, even though they didn’t quite make the top ten.

  • Chief amongst them are Sharp Objects and Black Earth Rising, both of which I loved; the only reason they didn’t make it onto the list, frankly, is the fact that I still haven’t actually had a chance to finish them.
  • (I preferred Black Earth Rising to Sharp Objects generally; Amy Adams would definitely be among the top ten performances of the year if I was making a list like that.)
  • I should probably also include Killing Eve here; I wasn’t quite as enamoured by it as everyone else was, but it was still obviously a highlight of the year. Oh, and I was also rather more enamoured by Westworld than everyone else was.
  • On the comedy front, I’d mention Stath Lets Flats, a very odd little show on Channel 4 that I enjoyed despite (and because of) how very odd it was, and Everything Sucks, which was so wonderfully charming. I was really disappointed when it was cancelled. Also, thinking about it, Brooklyn 99, which I’ve only really gotten into properly over the past few months; I was very pleased when it was un-cancelled.
  • And watching Riverdale is consistently one of my favourite things to do each week, because it’s just so mad, and so much fun because of it. No, I will not be taking any comments on how much I love Riverdale, this is my final word on the matter, thank you.

Disappointments

What disappointments were there in 2019? Well, I can think of a couple in my personal life, but let’s sidestep those and stick to the stuff that matters. And the stuff that we’ve been talking about for the past thousand words.

  • I think if I were inclined to be deliberately inflammatory, I might include Killing Eve here – not because it was bad, because it obviously wasn’t, but after Fleabag (one of the best television shows ever, frankly) and quite how rave the reviews were in America, I was expecting a little more. But, you know, that’s just being difficult, and unnecessarily so, frankly. Killing Eve was great.
  • No, in terms of disappointments there’s a couple of obvious contenders. Difficult not to talk about the two shows that fell out of the rankings from last year – The Handmaid’s Tale and Doctor Who, both of which were, unfortunately, vast steps down from their prior offerings. (I’ve not had a chance to catch up on Legion series 2 yet.) I wrote a little about The Handmaid’s Tale at the time, and I never really shut up about Doctor Who.
  • There’s also Jessica Jones, another programme that was a big step down from its stellar first season – indeed, the first series of Jessica Jones is one of the best pieces of ‘superhero’ media there is, and the second is… really not. I suspect the third season is going to be the last. I am not sure I’ll even watch it.
  • And, of course, there’s Who is America, the Sacha Baron-Cohen thing, which was just a load of nonsense really.

What I’m looking forward to in 2019

Let’s not end on a negative note, though! Positivity is a much better way to try and end the year. So, here’s a couple of shows that I’m looking forward to in 2019; I will, almost inevitably, forget something. Probably the one I’m looking forward to most, actually.

  • First and foremost, each of the various returning shows from this list – and my 2017 list, come to that. Quite a few of them will be back – The Good Fight, Derry Girls, I think Save Me, and hopefully Superstore series 4 will turn up on UK television sooner rather than later. From 2017’s list, the main one jumping out at me is American Gods; given all the nonsense that’s gone on behind the scenes, I’m more than a little worried about this series, but part of me is still really looking forward to it, however cautiously.
  • New shows! Gentleman Jack springs to mind first, because – since meeting her – I look forward to anything with Sophie Rundle in it. Otherwise, there’s MotherFatherSon, which I’m interested in because it’s written by Tom Rob Smith, who was also behind The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Plenty of others too, I’m sure.
  • I also, looking back through this list, probably need to try and branch out a bit more. It’s a very white list (and, actually, a pretty male one too) – not getting around to Atlanta this year and not finishing Black Earth Rising definitely didn’t help, but equally, that’s still only two shows. So, yes, something to try and pay a little more attention to over 2019.

Of course, there’s also plenty of stuff from this year I still want to catch up on, like The Long Song or Little Drummer Girl or This Country or Homecoming or Maniac or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or… oh, man, there is just so much TV, isn’t there? So much.

Have a wonderful 2019, everyone.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Next Doctor

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Time Lord, Tardis, enemy of the Cybermen. The one and the only.

Divorced from its original context, The Next Doctor is something of an odd beast.

It’s meant to be read, of course, in terms of the Tennant era winding down and Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor on the horizon – not that we knew quite yet, when this aired, that Matt Smith would be the next Doctor, but the announcement wasn’t far off. The episode is playing on that speculation, brazenly invoking that paratextual resonance and running with it. Was the episode title teased at the end of Journey’s End? I forget, and I am too lazy to look it up, but I’m fairly sure it was – and at the height of the Davies’ era’s popularity, it must have been quite something.

I, admittedly, don’t actually entirely remember the experience of watching this one particularly well. The subsequent Matt Smith announcement, a week and a half or so later, I remember quite well – I decided, fairly impromptu at the start of the special as it discussed a few rumoured candidates, that I wanted Matt Smith to be the Doctor, basically on the basis that he’d been in the Sally Lockhart show previously. Not that I’d watched it, of course, but I’d read the books and that was… enough to decide he’d be a good choice for the role, at the time. I was pleased when Matt was announced, anyway. (It was a few weeks later when a friend of mine tried to get me to sign his petition calling for Matt Smith to be fired and David Tennant to stay on. I think the suggestion was that Smith was too emo. I didn’t sign it, is the main thing.)

But, as I was saying, I don’t remember a lot of the build-up. How invested was I in the idea of David Morrissey as the Doctor? Not a clue. (Though I do recall very pedantically correcting a lot of people in the months after the special, explaining that the next Doctor was Matt Smith and not David Morrissey. Of course now, a decade older and a decade more mature, I would still maintain that’s entirely justifiable pedantry.) I was, I think, probably very excited by the idea of the Cybermen – moreso than I was now, I’ve cooled on them considerably over the years.

Ten years on, anyway, it’s harder to appreciate the episode in its original context – we know that David Morrissey wasn’t the Eleventh Doctor, and we know how the Tennant era eventually concluded. So does it still stand up outside of that context?

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The answer, I think, is sort of.

It’s a good concept for an episode – or, at least, the central mystery of Jackson Lake is a good concept for an episode, wedded to a more than slightly by the numbers Cyberman plot. Certainly, there’s room to explore it from various angles, from broad comedy to a more psychological approach, and to its credit The Next Doctor manages to touch on each of these angles across its hour-long runtime.

What surprised me, though, is how largely disinterested The Next Doctor actually is in Jackson Lake’s identity, dispensing with the actual mystery about 25 minutes in. Part of this comes down to the fact that Russell T Davies wasn’t especially interested in writing it as a mystery – apparently there was a draft of the script that revealed Jackson Lake’s identity after 15 minutes, with the Doctor taking his pulse – reasoning that most of the audience wouldn’t be especially invested in a mystery they’d ‘know’ was false. I wonder, idly, how true that actually is; I suppose it’s the same reasoning behind describing children in the audience as wise rather than cynical for knowing Rose Tyler wasn’t dead in Army of Ghosts, understanding how television works. But I’m not sure this occupies the same place – arguably in late 2008, with David Tennant leaving, there perhaps was scope to convince a lot of the audience that David Morrissey was going to be the next Doctor.

It’s interesting to consider what this premise might have looked like under different circumstances – if Davies had written something along these lines in place of Midnight, one of those late-season experimental pieces, or perhaps as the Doctor-lite episode for a season. (Or, indeed, if Steven Moffat had written something along these lines as one of his Christmas specials – imagine The Next Doctor in place of The Return of Doctor Mysterio, with Capaldi and Sophie Rundle taking on those roles.) Certainly, there’s scope to push it further; it’s easy to imagine the story as a quieter piece, making a broader overarching point about what it means to be the Doctor. I’d have liked that, I think – something with a grace note more along the lines of Extremis’ “You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor”, perhaps?

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As it is, that’s not what The Next Doctor was – there’s no “You don’t have to be the Doctor to be the Doctor” type moment. Indeed, probably one of its more glaring flaws is the fact that Jackson Lake doesn’t get to save his own son at the end, reduced to a comparatively impotent figure next to the Doctor. It’s a bit of a shame, because it feels like the missing link in Jackson’s character arc – but it doesn’t matter too much, because David Morrissey is able to hold the whole thing together. (It’s a great performance from Morrissey, actually; he’s able to play the funny version and the quiet, struggling version of the character with ease, and knit them together into something coherent when the script can’t quite decide which one to stick with.)

Otherwise, it’s a fairly “this is an hour of Doctor Who” hour of Doctor Who. Cybermen in Victorian England, with a little bit of interesting capitalism/industrial revolution stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a driving idea in the episode. A female villain who, again, has some interesting stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a defining aspect of the piece. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwaway episode of Doctor Who, not quite here or there. I’d guess it’s probably one of the ones I’ve rewatched least, and I often found myself surprised by it – by its shape and its pace, the contours of the plot, the ideas that drove it and the eventual resolution it presented.

Given I’ve criticised the most recent series of Doctor Who in ways that could be likened to the above, it’s probably worth drawing that comparison – particularly given the fact there’s not been a Christmas special today, the first time the revived series hasn’t had one. If this is Doctor Who that’s slightly short on ideas, and doesn’t quite draw the ideas it does have together, then what sets it apart from the Doctor Who I’ve been complaining about lately? There isn’t an especially neat answer, admittedly; I think it’s just that, even as it is caught in an odd position, The Next Doctor manages to at least be consistently charming if nothing else. It’s an hour of Doctor Who made by a group of people coming off what’s arguably their most impressive achievement yet – coasting on charm has, at this point, been earned.

That, though, goes some way to explaining why The Next Doctor feels so odd. It’s not just that it’s coming as the Tenth Doctor era is coming to a close – it’s coming when the Tennant/Davies era has essentially already ended. This is just the slow start of a year-long victory lap.

8/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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