Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Beast Below

doctor who beast below steven moffat andrew gunn matt smith karen gillan starship uk omelas

Once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.

In the months leading up to Twice Upon a Time, I had this idea that I should write a short piece about each Twelfth Doctor episode, publishing one a day until the actual regeneration. I didn’t, in the end, in part because of my awful time management skills, but also because I could never quite work out where to begin. Deep Breath was the obvious choice for obvious reasons, but maybe I should start with The Day of the Doctor, because that was Peter Capaldi’s first appearance as the Doctor? Except, of course, the story of the Twelfth Doctor is as much the story of Clara Oswald as it is anything else – so maybe I should start with Asylum of the Daleks?

Eventually I decided that the most sensible starting point for a series of articles about the Twelfth Doctor was, obviously, The Beast Below. (The idea made me laugh, but it’s also a large part of why I never actually got around to doing it.) The thinking, anyway, was that this story introduced a lot of those ideas about names and identities that came to be such a huge part of the Capaldi era – “and then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor anymore”, seemingly just a stray little aside, containing within it most of the next seven years. Obviously, one of the things that was most striking to me about last week’s episode was how many of those ideas and concepts arrived fully formed from the start (my sense is that what this series is going to demonstrate, more than anything else, is quite how thematically coherent Moffat’s writing actually is), but even still, The Beast Below feels like it’s secretly the key to understanding Steven Moffat’s take on Doctor Who. It’s got a long legacy: it’s not exactly that you can feel its influence on The Day of the Doctor, on Kill the Moon, on The Doctor Falls, so on, but rather this episode is where a lot of those ideas crop up for the first time.

Which isn’t a surprise, really – The Beast Below is as much redefining what Doctor Who is and can be as The Eleventh Hour was, not only as the first episode Moffat wrote of his own accord (i.e. not writing to a premise offered to him by Russell T Davies), but also as the first “normal”, non-event episode of the show since Midnight. First and foremost, The Beast Below is an attempt to establish a whole new register for Doctor Who.

One thing that’s striking about The Beast Below is how it repositions Doctor Who as a fairytale, finishing the reinvention of the series that began with The Eleventh Hour – the show is no longer, as it was under Russell T Davies, so wholly and entirely at home in the television schedules. Moffat, for all his strengths, would never think to write the evil television shows of Bad Wolf; instead, Doctor Who is grounded in a different vocabulary, and it’s to be understood and approached from a different lens. It’s not a populist drama in touch with the zeitgeist anymore (or, at least, not in the same way) – it’s framed in terms of a different type of storytelling now.

That’s all over The Beast Below: Amy has her Wendy Darling moment; Sophie Okonedo is a storybook Queen by way of Star Wars; the Doctor is at his most Sherlock Holmes; even the nominal villain of the piece is the Demon Headmaster. What’s more interesting, though, is that recurring motif of the poem to introduce and close the episode. It’s a device Moffat will get a lot of use out of over the next few years (sometimes more successfully than others), but here it’s essential – establishing the story as something to be retold and recounted, like a fairytale or a fable or a myth. (The whole ‘world’ of Starship UK is constructed that way, really – not strictly a coherent setting, but an abstraction, all leading to that final reveal.) That’s what the episode hinges on: it’s all about which stories are told, by whom and to what end, which are remembered and which are forgotten, and which should be accepted, which should be rejected, and which should be rewritten. Much has been written about how The Beast Below compares to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (this piece in particular is one I’d recommend). That story, as part of its thought experiment, asks if a utopia might be made more credible by the necessity of suffering, but it concerns itself primarily with what happens next – The Beast Below is rejecting that story, and insisting against the necessity of that suffering.

That’s how The Beast Below offers the key to the Moffat era. It’s the next evolution of that idea in The Eleventh Hour – not only to say that the Doctor and Amy and their world are stories, but that you can choose which stories to tell. It’s not just a case of making it a good story, it’s a case of making it a better one. It’s Amy that notices that, insightful enough to understand what the Doctor doesn’t, a clever repositioning (and advancing) of the Davies era “companion as the Doctor’s conscience” conceit.

What’s interesting, then, is where else The Beast Below applies that lens, to this idea of national myths. In a way it’s surprisingly daring, pointed and angry in a way Doctor Who often isn’t but could stand to be more – an episode about how any idealised fairytale Britain is a myth built on the back of suffering, one that consistently chooses ignorance over reckoning with its sins. (Incidentally, contrast that with The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, where everyone knows the truth about the suffering – in The Beast Below, there’s this conscious decision to forget rather than just regret.)

There’s something admirably blunt about doing this story – about a government committing torture and a population that ignores it, prioritising their comfortable lives over the harm that causes – in the weeks before an election. It’s perhaps being charitable to call the story radical, but there’s an awareness and a potency to it that doesn’t always surface in Doctor Who, and leaves The Beast Below feeling genuinely quite sharp in places; I suspect the series today would be in a much healthier place if it took a few lessons from The Beast Below. Not, of course, that those lessons were entirely understood at the time, which is particularly obvious as we lead into next week – Doctor Who spends forty minutes here puncturing national myths, then slips into one itself. I’m yet to rewatch Victory of the Daleks, though I suspect it’ll make an interesting-if-not-flattering comparison piece to The Beast Below, especially with a decade’s worth of hindsight.

In a way, though, that’s The Beast Below all over. As much as it finishes the reinvention started by The Eleventh Hour (you could almost argue they form a two-parter together, really), at the same time it doesn’t quite stick. It might be the key to the Moffat era, but it’s also an oddity within it, sitting awkwardly and never quite replicated. It’s a shame: there’s a vision of Doctor Who here that really, genuinely works.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Sophie Rundle on Rose: A Love Story, the final series of Peaky Blinders, and more

rose a love story sophie rundle interview matt stokoe peaky blinders gentleman jack jamestown

“Matt [Stokoe, Rundle’s partner] wrote it, just for the exercise of writing and wanting to explore that genre,” she continues. “He very flippantly said ‘oh, do you want to be in it?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ thinking, ‘Oh god. I hope it’s good!’”

“But then when he sent it to me, I just loved it. It’s such a clever take on a genre and a style that we’re so familiar with, the vampire story – you sort of think ‘well, I don’t know how you could put a fresh spin on that’, but then when I read his script, I just thought it was so smart.”

“It was so clever to frame it as this couple, one of them dealing with this life changing illness that’s all consuming. I hadn’t thought about that before, and I thought it was so tenderly drawn and it was such a beautiful musing on a relationship and what the burden of illness can do to a couple. I just loved it. So, he sent it to me and then I said, ‘Well, no, actually I’d really like to be in it’”

New interview! Spoke to Sophie Rundle about her new film Rose: A Love Story, coming to the end of her time on Peaky Blinders, and what she’s going to do next. This is another one for the Radio Times’ The Big RT Interview series, so that’s pretty neat too.

This is actually the second time I’ve interviewed Sophie (making her the first person I’ve interviewed more than once!) – the first was a couple of years ago now, about her Sky One historical drama Jamestown. Always really nice to speak to her, very thoughtful interviewee both times.

You can find more of my interviews here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this piece – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Eleventh Hour

doctor who eleventh hour review matt smith karen gillan apple lens flare adam smith steven moffat

To hell with the raggedy. Time to put on a show!

By all rights, this should not have worked.

Which is easy to forget! Over a decade on, The Eleventh Hour is one of five (or seven, if you like) debut episodes for a new Doctor, and – more importantly – one of three inaugural episodes marking the transition to a new creative team behind the scenes. Hindsight obscures, in this case, making The Eleventh Hour look like something resembling routine, just Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who always did. It almost is, but not exactly, and it certainly wasn’t in 2009, and not with a reinvention quite so stark as this. The most obvious antecedent, The Christmas Invasion, hardly compares at all – recasting Christopher Eccleston aside, there’s a real (deliberately and consciously created, but real) sense of consistency to that episode. Part of that is because The Christmas Invasion was ‘only’ replacing the co-lead, where The Eleventh Hour had to reintroduce the programme’s main character – you could make the case, actually, that The Eleventh Hour has more in common with Smith and Jones than with The Christmas Invasion, but even then the scale doesn’t quite compare.

What makes it more unusual is the fact that more-or-less the entire behind the scenes creative team has changed. Which, again, feels almost routine in 2021 – three years into the Chris Chibnall era, over five year since Steven Moffat announced his departure, and about nine years since people started demanding he leave – but, at the time, was huge. For the most part, that just doesn’t happen: if the three executive producers and the star are leaving the show, the expectation is not that the show carries on without them. Yes, Doctor Who had form for that with the classic series, but the new series existed in a different context – the 2005 revival was largely (if admittedly not entirely) driven by a desire to do Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who specifically, rather than an appetite for Doctor Who generally. The show was hugely popular, sure, but it had also seemed to reach a natural endpoint – it’s not a massive surprise that there were conversations at the BBC about just ending the show, or that there was an expectation it might’ve failed. It could’ve! If it’d been anything less than perfect, it would’ve been abandoned in droves.

You can feel the panic onscreen, sometimes: The Eleventh Hour is fraught in a way Doctor Who hasn’t been since Rose. Most of the time, though, you don’t notice it – because the episode more or less almost just about is, in fact, perfect.

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So, at a point when the need to impress people has never been greater, that’s exactly what The Eleventh Hour does. It’s a sixty-minute showcase, an exercise in swagger and panache, demonstrating not only the confidence to insist on your attention but also the skill to back it up too. (To pick two examples of several: Murray Gold offers some career-best compositions, and Adam Smith’s direction raises the bar visually for the entire series going forward.) You can see how that grows from Moffat’s comedy background, actually, with so much of the episode almost acting like a sleight of hand – writing one of his most difficult scripts, he’s fallen back on something he’s familiar with, writing The Eleventh Hour essentially as a farce about a man whose day keeps going wrong. It’s a huge part of how – and why – The Eleventh Hour works, with those huge strides it takes to reinvent the programme, all the different plates that are spinning throughout, grounded in something that Moffat can do in his sleep.

It gives the episode space to take more risks in turn. Again, there’s an undeniable panache: not in choosing to build the episode around Matt Smith (they were always going to have to; the approach taken by The Christmas Invasion or Deep Breath wasn’t available here, for obvious reasons) but in building the episode around the default assumption that everyone will like Matt Smith as the Doctor. Or, no, actually – that they’ll love Matt Smith as the Doctor. It all relies from his charms, from his quirks, from his skill as an actor, from his chemistry not only with Karen Gillan (more on whom in the coming weeks, but she’s brilliant), but also Caitlin Blackwood. (It’s easy to forget what a remarkable stroke of luck it was that Gillan not only had a cousin who was the right age for the part, but also one that could actually act, and act well. So much of this episode – and the next three years, really – is reliant on how good Caitlin Blackwood is as the young Amy, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine the Moffat era without her.)

And it works, of course, because he genuinely is that good. One of the more common criticisms Smith receives is that he plays the part too similarly to Tennant – which is a superficial read of them both, obviously. You can see Smith redefining the part as the episode goes along, building an entirely new take on the part by the time it finishes – there’s individual line reads Tennant might’ve done similarly, sure, but not many. One that stands out in particular is his reaction to Prisoner Zero’s taunts: you can imagine Tennant playing “no, she’s dreaming about me because she can hear me” much more defiantly, the big moment of triumph. Smith is quieter, faster, there’s a note of insecurity – he’s not dismissing the taunt, he’s denying it, and suddenly the character feels so much bigger on the inside.

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What’s really striking, though, is how much of the next seven years is already there on screen – not all of it, not yet fully formed, but the shape of it is there.

One of the key themes of the Moffat era is this idea that the Doctor isn’t a person, the Doctor is an idea, somewhere between a character to perform and an ideal to aspire to. You can pick up on it a lot during Capaldi’s tenure (particularly in, say, The Witch’s Familiar or Hell Bent, but most obviously in Extremis, which finally makes it explicit) but it’s right here too. The Eleventh Hour pares back the iconography of the Davies era – no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, Matt Smith spends most of the episode wearing a version of David Tennant’s costume – but that’s not just about reinventing the programme, it’s more than “this is recognisably the show you love, just not how you expect”. It’s about deconstructing the character to demonstrate how much of it is just posturing – that’s why the big hero moment, the confrontation with the Atraxi, the moment where the character finally becomes the Doctor, is explicitly about “putting on a show”.

And that’s all over the episode – look at Prisoner Zero, shapeshifter, inhabiting different roles; look at Jeff, on call to the experts, pretending to know what he’s talking about – but it’s most obvious with Amy. That as much as anything else is what makes her a Doctor Who companion: she’s solving problems in the same way he does, assuming a role, improvising. It fits nicely with the fairytale aspect, too – she’s still a child playing dress-up, in a roundabout sense, and so is the Doctor, his heroism the same kind of make believe. It’s deliberately framed in those terms – that idea of the Raggedy Doctor as her imaginary friend, someone she used to draw cartoons of, someone she made Rory dress up as and pretend to be – and based in those same questions of identity. Is she Amy, pretending to be a policewoman, or is she Amelia, the lonely child? There’s an implicit (if uncomfortable) equivalence drawn between her as a policewoman and his police box – so there’s traces of Amy-as-a-Doctor-figure, which is the same idea explored more deeply with Clara in Series 9, The Eleventh Hour again echoing the future of the Moffat era. At the same time, that lonely child is how Moffat wrote the Doctor in The Empty Child and The Girl in the Fireplace, calling back to the past. “Look in the mirror,” the Doctor texts. It’s not just a reminder of her uniform, it’s highlighting how similar they are to each other.

That’s The Eleventh Hour, then: the Moffat era, putting its best foot forward, and showing exactly where it’s going right from the first step. Anywhere in time and space, anything that ever happened or ever will. Where do you want to start? Well, right here – it’s hard to think of a better place to begin.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Inspired by Real Events: The Serpent, The Investigation, and true crime drama

serpent investigation review tahar rahim charles sobrahj jenna coleman tobias lindholm kim wall borgen netflix

“No-one’s said or written a word about him in years. Someone so vain must hate that. He pulls a stunt like this, and the world remembers his name.”

The Serpent, Episode 8

“Maybe it’s because the more civilised we become, the greater is our need to stare into the darkness.”

The Investigation, Episode 6

The Serpent and The Investigation each represent different extremes for true crime fiction. The former, a co-production between BBC One and Netflix, dramatises a series of murders committed by Charles Sobrahj in Southeast Asia during the 1970s; the latter, a piece of Nordic noir broadcast by BBC Four and HBO, depicts the police investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. They make for interesting comparisons to one another – in part simply for being released in tandem, but largely for all the ways in which each stands as a rejection of the other.  Where The Serpent (named for its lead) places a charismatic killer at its centre, The Investigation (named for its process) refuses to feature or even name Kim Wall’s murderer, instead focusing solely on the slow and painstaking work leading to his eventual conviction.

On an immediate level, at least, it’s obvious why The Investigation’s approach holds an appeal. There’s always a certain tension inherent to any true crime project, be it documentary or dramatization – an underlying ethical murkiness, the discomfort that comes from treating real trauma and suffering as a type of entertainment. Arguably dramatization is worse: there’s no academic remove, no pretence made that this might be on some level informative or educational. Instead it’s lurid, even voyeuristic; it’s perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that true crime drama in the vein of The Serpent glorify the killers they centre, but it’s not that simplistic. Actors are hailed for their transformations, glowing profiles are written about how they confronted a darkness within themselves to evoke whichever celebrity murderer they’ve been tasked with portraying – there’s an assumed prestige to it all, a glitz and glamour (look at how much money was clearly spent on The Serpent, look at its prime-time BBC One New Year’s Day slot) that cuts against the inherent griminess that can’t help but pervade. That’s very much the model The Serpent operates in, seemingly almost despite itself: the non-linear structure, skipping back and forth between different perspectives on Sobrahj, is a clever conceit that could offer a route to interrogate his crimes without granting him protagonist status – but the series always returns to Tahar Rahim as Sobrahj, never quite able to break its gaze, forthright about who and what it finds most compelling about this story.

Watching The Investigation¸ the difference is palpable. There’s no attention-grabbing stunt casting, no recognisable actor made to look eerily (or vaguely) similar to the murderer – who is, pointedly, only ever referred to here as “the accused” – it’s all decidedly, pointedly low-key. Tobias Lindholm, who wrote and directed all six episodes, said he wanted to tell “a different kind of story here, not just another tale of a “fascinating” man who killed a woman […] a story where we didn’t even need to name the perpetrator. The story was simply not about him”. The Investigation is quiet and careful, as methodical in its writing as the process it depicts, and it’d be difficult to seriously argue that it’s particularly sensationalist or sleazy – compared to The Serpent, it’s aseptic. In lieu of focusing on the suspect, or depicting the crime itself in any detail, Lindholm centres the people affected (or tries to, at least).

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Immediately, obviously, The Investigation seems more respectful – more ethical – than The Serpent. Certainly, it’s clear that Sobrahj is the star of The Serpent, but that’s not the real contrast between them. They’re both true crime fiction, but they’re operating in different modes: The Investigation is a procedural, but The Serpent is a thriller, its dramatic engine predicated entirely on tension and suspense. Cliffhangers are built around capture and escape, the camera lingers on violent images; whatever else The Serpent might be, it’s not trying to be about Sobrahj’s victims in the same way The Investigation aims to be. You get the sense it almost was, or almost could’ve been, about Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) primarily, with Sobrahj a more marginal figure, but it’s as though the fascination with the eponymous killer was too great to ever really leave him. In turn, there’s something that feels almost exploitative about it, as is so often the case with true crime drama.

However, there’s an argument to be made that The Serpent at least is aware of what it is and honest about it, while that The Investigation – for all the praise its received – isn’t, in fact, quite so ethical as it seems. The Investigation doesn’t name Kim Wall’s murderer, quite pointedly so, but it strains to do so: it feels artificial. Worse, it almost feels as though the series is still mythologising him, because it doesn’t eschew the sort of cheap psychoanalysis that typifies the most lurid true crime – the suspect is offscreen, but talk of his serenity, of his temper, of his sex life, doled out via interviews with his friends and colleagues, only serves to position him as a figure of intrigue. (Perhaps notably, most discussion of the series has still focused on the killer, with some reviews affording more detail to describing the brutal crime than engaging with the show itself.) It’s as though The Investigation doesn’t believe in its own premise, leaving that central conceit feeling less like an innovation of the form and more like a marketing gimmick.

More to the point, it’s not like The Investigation isn’t still fundamentally a piece of entertainment built on a trauma. First and foremost, it’s a crime procedural: it’s not really a show about Kim Wall’s parents, who are supporting characters at best, their emotional lives an afterthought in comparison to the painstaking, glacial investigative work that makes up most of the series. Notably, the series approaches Wall’s parents by contrasting them with lead detective Jens Møller (Søren Molling, previously of The Killing and Borgen), framing their loss in terms of his strained home life – which is, reading between the lines, seemingly an invention on part of Tobias Lindholm. (In those moments, The Investigation resembles nothing more than a string of ITV true crime dramas, at this point almost a subgenre unto themselves, which all seem to be made with the same script.) That clichéd dysfunction is the weakest part of the series, and if the only way the series can engage with grief and trauma is through such tired, overwrought stereotypes, can it actually be said to be engaging at all?

The Serpent is the better piece of television, to be clear. It’s not perfect – the first half of the series struggles with glacial pacing, and its non-linear structure is presented in a needlessly confusing fashion that takes a while to get used to – but it’s more engaging than The Investigation ever manages to be, an actual drama series rather than an extended intellectual exercise. The series is well cast (much will be said about Coleman, Howle, and Rahim, and with good reason, but even the supporting roles impress, Amesh Edireweera in particular proving magnetic throughout) and it remains, in spite of itself, very watchable. There’s something to be said, too, for its story of an increasingly desperate, low-level civil servant investigating crimes the local law enforcement had been happy to ignore; it’s a stark contrast from the explicitly pro-policing approach taken by The Investigation. (Which isn’t to suggest that The Serpent is, for lack of a better word, ‘unproblematic’ – the patina of orientalism to its depiction of Southeast Asia makes that clear enough – merely that it offers a more complicated narrative than crime drama tends to, and to note that The Investigation doesn’t necessarily have the straightforward moral clarity it purports to.)

What’s striking about both series, though, and it’s something they share, is the sense that they’re both a little uncomfortable in themselves. The Investigation makes a laughable gesture towards psychoanalysing its audience, suggesting that if one is too happy or secure, they’re drawn to the catharsis of true crime – almost looking to the camera to insist it really is okay to treat a recent murder as ballast for television schedules, in fact not just okay but necessary, as though struck by the sudden insecurity that it might not be enough to just avoid naming the killer. There’s no attempt to understand that on a deeper level, to engage with the sensationalist journalism that drove interest in that particular crime: in the end, The Investigation proves superficial. Meanwhile, The Serpent ends by condemning the attention given to Sobrahj, insisting that he was doing it all for attention – all seemingly without noticing the irony of that insight being offered by this show.

That discomfort raises the question, ultimately, why either series actually exists. There’s a sense that each one stumbles around and just misses being a better programme: if they’d opted to be about something more than just one man (or his absence), if The Investigation put more emphasis on a media circus it only briefly acknowledged and if The Serpent had delved more closely, and more delicately, into the conditions that allowed Sobrahj to thrive. True crime is best when it uses its real-life subject as a lens to interrogate a much broader set of themes – something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace is surely the benchmark here (as well as being one of the few such series that could make a genuine, and convincing, case that it centres the victims). As it is, though, The Serpent and The Investigation taken together don’t just represent different extremes of the true crime genre, but are also a stark demonstration of its limits.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Views Our Own (Episode 8)

views our own sophie kiderlin mischa alexander alex moreland journalism careers advice

I recently guested on the Views Our Own podcast – it’s about journalism and careers in media and all that sort of thing, and the idea that I might perhaps be someone worth imitating or learning from on some level. (No, I know, I thought so too, but really!)

I’ve embedded the Spotify link here, just because that’s the easiest to do on WordPress, but you can also find the show on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts too.

That was a fun show to do, anyway. Nice to get the chance to talk about the past five years, and reflect on a handful of different things within that – how I started out, advice I’d give people, that sort of thing. Couple of fun things too, like who I’d invite to a dinner party, whether I prefer cats or dogs, so on.

Big thank you to intrepid hosts Sophie and Mischa, who not only did a very good job of hosting the show, but (I’m reliably informed) also editing my rambling nonsense into something halfway approaching coherent. If I make any sense at all, it’s largely thanks to them!

You can find more of my writing about film and television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed listening to this podcast – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

WandaVision is an escapist fantasy, but there’s no freedom from Marvel’s machine

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WandaVision wasn’t meant to be Marvel Studios’ first television show. That was supposed to be The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: an action-driven piece branching off from Marvel’s most popular movies, the most straightforwardly sensible pick for the franchise’s Disney+ debut. Production on the latter wasn’t finished in time, though, with filming delayed because of the novel coronavirus, in turn meaning that WandaVision was brought forward.

WandaVision also wasn’t meant to be the first Marvel content released in over a year: with twenty months between it and 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, WandaVision’s arrival marks the end of the longest Marvel drought in a decade. Again, plans were disrupted because of the global pandemic, with Black Widow and The Eternals removed from their scheduled 2020 release dates. As a result, WandaVision took on a significance it was never intended to bear – but the series makes for an unexpectedly appropriate return, though.

Structured as a collection of sitcom homages, each new episode of WandaVision (with a few notable exceptions) has advanced through the decades of comedy history – the series began by mimicking The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched, and in more recent weeks modelled itself on Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family. The tension at the heart of WandaVision is the push-and-pull between these sitcom trappings, and a much more recognisable set of tropes drawn from the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: Elizabeth Olsen imitating Mary Tyler Moore or Julie Bowen is intercut with Randall Park going through the motions of a Clark Gregg/Cobie Smulders role.

On one level, this is a little less unusual for a Marvel property than it necessarily appears – those films have always, at least ostensibly, styled themselves as different genres. That’s part of the appeal, and a big part of how they sell themselves: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is nominally a 70s style political thriller, Ant-Man is loosely a heist film, Spider-Man: Homecoming is broadly a John Hughes movie, so on and so forth. Exactly how well they live up to those inspirations almost doesn’t matter – changing the surface level iconography and applying a different aesthetic sheen to each film, even if they can be all be reduced down to something functionally very similar underneath that, is what sustains the MCU. (Or, put another way, you can make Iron Man twice if the second go around he’s a magician.) WandaVision goes further with this, a much more faithful recreation of its inspirations than its predecessors are of theirs, but it’s still operating in the same milieu as the rest of the Marvel universe. In and of itself, arguably the only innovation WandaVision has introduced is to literalise that question of genre, the puzzle box structure asking “what is this show, really?” being applied to something usually left only as subtext (or, if you prefer, marketing speak).

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What’s perhaps most striking about WandaVision, then, is essentially an accident. As many people have noted, the idea that Wanda is seeking refuge from her grief and pain by throwing herself into the television she loves is especially resonant now – it’s exactly what a lot of the audience will have spent the past twelve months doing themselves. (A stray reference to quarantining in the seventh episode takes on an odd resonance; WandaVision is about a traumatised woman who has to stop binge-watching sitcoms and face the real world, here defined as a Marvel movie, but it might as well be an instruction to the viewer at home.) After over a year without any new Marvel content, the franchise’s big return is a show about, on one level at least, the Cinematic Universe eating sitcoms from the inside out: the superhero genre dominating and subsuming that which thrived without it, demanding you pay attention to it again.

WandaVision is a show about its own impact on popular culture, and in a sense that’s what makes it such an inadvertently perfect piece to re-establish the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a period away. Where the past year saw a paucity of Marvel content, the coming year brings a flood: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will air later this March, with Loki, What If…?, Hawkeye, and Ms Marvel to follow, while films Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home are all planned at least to see release too. Without really meaning to do so, WandaVision ended up setting the stage for that return – decades of television history slowly turning into the latest Avengers spin-off, diegetically as well as literally.

On its own terms, WandaVision is best when it commits to its central conceit, when it embraces the idiosyncrasies that made it so distinct; the show loses that sense of verve and flourish when it’s focused instead on spinning six different MCU plates all at once. There’s a marked contrast between the earlier episodes and the later ones – the WandaVision that ties into Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel 2, and Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is dull and flat and lifeless compared to the WandaVision dedicated to exaggerated hijinks and slapstick humour. (You can feel that on screen, sometimes; Kathryn Hahn is a delight as nosy-neighbour Agnes, but it’s obvious she wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about playing Agatha Harkness.) It’s hard not to wish WandaVision had gone even further with its sitcom stylings – mimicking late-2010s dramedies like Fleabag with its eighth episode, putting a little more emphasis on jokes at the beginning – but by the point the show devolves into a blurry CGI mess, it’s easy to appreciate the time the show did spend as a comedy homage.

WandaVision loses something when it becomes so entirely of a piece with the rest of its franchise; a little less focused on character, a little less emotional clarity, a little less sense of its own identity. It’s a shame, not least because of how good Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany were when given the chance to do something new. It wasn’t exactly a surprise: the sitcom homage turns into a superhero film, just like the political thriller and the John Hughes movie did before it. For the most part, WandaVision has done what it was always expected to, sacrificing its charm and quirks in favour of an obligatory reversion to a familiar mean – but it’s hard not to read into the metanarrative there, as Marvel reasserts itself in the real world by telling a story about Marvel reasserting itself in a fictional one.

Or, put another way, what is WandaVision if not the Marvel Cinematic Universe persevering?

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Why is This a Podcast? Episode 21

kerean watts alex moreland why is this a podcast

Last week, I sat down with Kerean Watts to record the twenty-first instalment of his interview series Why is This a Podcast? – we spoke about my writing career, how that started, how the pandemic has shaped my approach to it and some of the practicalities involved, so on and so forth. We also spoke about film and television more broadly: I shared a few recommendations, and spoke a bit about what I’ve been watching over the past year or so during each lockdown.

You can find the video here, and I’ve also embedded it below:

Big thanks of course to Kerean for inviting me onto his show, and for all the very kind things he said about my work. Had lots of fun with this! Hope you enjoy it too, if you give it a watch.

This is a relatively rare on-camera appearance for me! Wearing the same shirt I always do for these things. Different glasses, though (I can’t find my other pair). As ever, anyway, I quite enjoyed the opportunity to ramble on a bit, so if you happen to be the host of a podcast and you need someone to be a guest, I would be very happy to do that!

You can find more of my writing about film and television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed listening to this podcast – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Omari Douglas on It’s A Sin, moving from stage to screen, and more

omari douglas it's a sin roscoe babatunde russell t davies aids channel 4 boys stephen fry olly alexander red interview radio times

One thing that’s clear about Douglas is how much he values collaboration, how important that is to his creative process. Asked about his biggest influences, he doesn’t highlight a particular childhood inspiration as many actors often do, but instead talks about how much he’s learned from the people he worked with. “I was learning as I went on. I was surrounded by so many brilliant people – I was inspired every day just seeing the work of my friends, the people I was acting alongside.”

“But then wider than that,” he elaborates, “just the craftsmanship that goes into putting a piece of this scale together, so many different departments coming together. There are hundreds more people working on a television production than you’d find in theatre, but it was [just as] collaborative. And I was really grateful for that, I felt supported. I felt invigorated and inspired every day.”

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.)

You can find more of my interviews here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this piece – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Doctor Who Review: Revolution of the Daleks

doctor who revolution of the daleks review chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker john barrowman bradley walsh chris noth police

When have I ever let you down before?

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

Related:

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You might also be interested to take a look at Will Shaw’s review of the episode, over at his website, or Tom Byrne’s review of the episode from an alternate universe, over at his new substack.

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

On 2020

on 2020 year in review end of year writing blog pandemic twenty twenty mmxx

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.

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.)

You can find more of my writing here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. (Though I imagine if you’ve read this post you probably know both of those things already anyway.)