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

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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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

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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.

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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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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Next Doctor

doctor who the next doctor review david tennant david morrissey jackson lake russell t davies cybermen series 4 2008 christmas special

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

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Doctor Who Review: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

doctor who the battle of ranskoor av kolos review series 11 finale chris chibnall jamie childs jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill kevin eldon ux stenza mark addy

Ranskoor Av what?!

For about as long as I’ve been doing these reviews, I’ve entertained myself with the idea of eventually posting a piece that’s just a sentence or two, in contrast to the usual thousand plus. Maybe a sarcastic rhetorical question or an expletive or a very matter of fact description. “This is an episode that definitely happened. It was certainly fifty minutes long. It starred Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, you can’t argue with that.”

I always hold back, though, mainly because it feels like the sort of trick you can only pull once, to really get the full impact. (Plus, I feel like it’d mess with the blog formatting a little, and I’m a little obsessive about that.) Actually, I nearly did it with Kerblam! a while ago, actually, but I held off, opting to break another one of the informal ‘rules’ of the blog at the end of the review instead.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is, I think, very much an episode that would be deserving of this treatment. It is definitely an episode of Doctor Who. It was certainly fifty minutes long. It aired on the 9th December 2018, and it starred Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, and Tosin Cole, with a cameo appearance by Mandip Gill. These are all true facts about the episode. One might argue that they are probably about as much as can be said about the episode, too, given how largely empty it was, and devoid of any interesting ideas. A dry, factual summary is perhaps the best you can reasonably expect. (Not that that doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the piece, though – “a Chris Chibnall script directed by Jamie Childs” is a factual detail that tells you more about the relative merits of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos as an hour of television than any review, and far more succinctly too.)

Thing is, though, I’m still inclined to make a go of writing a review ‘properly’ – I’m not even going to give up and do a scattered collection of bullet points, something else I often consider, though if you’re interested I did recently do a lengthy twitter thread with moment by moment thoughts on each slightly rubbish aspect of the episode. It’s not because I think the episode deserves the attention, per se; to be honest, I already feel like I’ve devoted more thought and attention to it than anyone involved in the actual production.

No, like I said – I think a consciously, deliberately empty review is the sort of trick that you can only pull once. And, as bad as The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos actually is, I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s still not quite the worst the Chibnall era is going to have to offer.

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Morally, the episode was… well, to call it “confused” would be charitable, but it’s emblematic of a series that has struggled to stake out its moral positions since its very first episode. Attention is drawn to the Doctor’s inconsistencies and conflicting rules, but little is made of it – a shame, really, given that those internal contradictions could prove interesting to interrogate. Certainly, they have before.

Insofar as the episode had a main idea, though, it’s a moral debate about whether or not to kill Tim Shaw (as a quick aside: giving your villain a mocking nickname works when he’s the slightly rubbish antagonist in the series opener, less so when the dramatic weight of a series finale is resting upon him entirely), but the fact it’s grounded in such a superficial and ultimately unexamined moral stance means that the debate never really amounts to anything. Here the Doctor’s relationship with violence is shaky and ill-defined – indeed, this Doctor’s relationship with violence always has been – leaving the episode with nothing to do but fall back on old clichés and tired ideas.

All of which leaves the episode in a difficult place, because it never quite seems to have any conviction to its moral statements. Any equivalence drawn between Graham and Tim Shaw, whether they both want vengeance or not, is demonstrably a false one, and that’s surely going to be clear to any audience member – but because of a need to maintain the episode’s central drama, however contrived it is, Graham never gets to offer the obvious counterargument. The eventual choice to imprison Tim Shaw – with the same means of incarceration Graham had earlier used to justify killing him, incidentally – doesn’t come across as a moral victory or a better choice particularly, because… well, because the episode doesn’t have any real inclination to interrogate these moral choices, just to gesture at them. Which isn’t to say, of course, that the death penalty is more or less moral than eternal solitary confinement, more that The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos positions itself as having something to say, and then just sort of… doesn’t.

Arguably, though, it was never going to be anything else. Series 11 as a whole has had a confused morality, and never quite taken a firm stance. It’ll say one thing and do another; The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is just the apotheosis of that, the endpoint of an approach that never really worked. Even if the specifics of the finale’s failings couldn’t quite be guessed, that these failings would manifest was inevitable – in short, there really is nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality.

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Really, though, it’s just… boring. It’s boring and flat and somehow manages to boast not only a paucity of ambition but a lack of skill to match even the little ambition it did display.

Graham’s character arc is something we’ve seen hundreds of times before; Ryan’s character arc, such that it is, was only really in service to Graham’s, and Yaz didn’t even get that. Mark Addy’s character has no narrative role beyond the occasional spot of exposition. The Ux are lifted out of Star Wars. The production design team either didn’t read the script, or have a very idiosyncratic and counterintuitive understanding of what a building might look like if it “felt alive”. Tim Shaw is a decidedly bland villain with a painfully generic plan. The story circles ideas about faith that could be interesting, but holds off on actually letting them be. There’s still a level of directorial incompetence leading to shots that shouldn’t have been allowed to see transmission. The mind-altering properties of the planet prove ultimately irrelevant. Ideas are introduced and forgotten about on a moment to moment basis. It’s drab and dull and, after watching it three times (!), I can’t help but feel I’ve given it more thought and attention than anyone involved actually cared to.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is such an inessential shrug of a story that it’s difficult to give it a mark out of ten. Certainly, it’s difficult to care that Doctor Who won’t be on in 2019, outside of Resolution on New Year’s Day – an episode that, incidentally, for all it might be the true finale to series 11, looks like it’s going to continue to suffer a lot of the same flaws of the episodes that preceded it.

In the lead up to series 11, I was thinking about not doing these reviews. Confident though I was in Chibnall – or at least more confident than most people – I did consider the possibility that, actually, I wouldn’t like it very much. I didn’t want to be someone who was spending hours each week writing negatively about the first female Doctor; for all that I’ve always said that I love Doctor Who and that’s why I think it’s worthy of criticism and engagement, there’s a point at which it’s not always productive. And I think that, despite liking a lot of the series, the fact that these reviews have tended towards the negative more often than not does make me wonder if I should’ve stopped writing about the series some time ago.

We’ll see, I guess. I’ve come this far, so I’m not going to stop now; I’ll write about Resolution, and do a series 11 roundup after that. And I’ve got a couple of ideas for broader articles I want to write, to try and understand the series a little better. So, I don’t know. Equally, it’s long enough until Doctor Who is going to be on again regularly that I’m not going to have to think about it – or at least this version of it – for quite some time.

And maybe that’s for the best.

3/10

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Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: It Takes You Away

doctor who it takes you away review ed hime jamie childs chris chibnall jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill tosin cole

There’s me thinking the day had no more surprises left.

It Takes You Away is very good. I liked it a lot. I am, however, somewhat of the mind that a big part of this is because of where it is in the series, and indeed the series it’s in – after a run of episodes that don’t quite live up to the standards I’d have liked them to, this one feels better than it actually is by contrast. I’m not entirely sure if the Series 10 version of such would’ve had quite the same level of impact (though actually, and I recognise it sounds counter-intuitive, I think this episode might well have been improved had the rest of the series been better – more on that shortly, though).

On paper, there’s a lot to like. Conceptually, It Takes You Away is throwing around a lot of genuinely great ideas – not just the frog, but actually particularly the spin on the haunted house offered at the beginning. I really liked that, personally – that sort of character driven, quieter approach felt like some of the more emotionally sophisticated storytelling we’ve seen all year. Erik faking the monster to keep Hanne inside while he’s in the other world with his dead wife? That’s a brilliant idea, it really is, and there’s a neat resonance too with Ryan’s own dad and his experience of abandonment. Quite possibly it could’ve sustained the episode on its own terms, or at least gone a long way towards it with a little bit of work.

But, of course, that wasn’t the case, and there were plenty more interesting ideas and concepts being thrown out across the course of It Takes You Away – I think it’s probably fair to say that, of the nine episodes we’ve seen so far, this one had the greatest density of new ideas and… not plot twists, per se, but plot stages, certainly. There’s a willingness to engage with and indulge in the strange in a relatively straightforward way that I quite appreciated – the frog is absolutely bizarre, but it’s also the best part of the episode, and one of those things that probably only Doctor Who could do. (And, a little more cuttingly, one of those things that has been absent from Doctor Who for a little too long.)

So, yes, It Takes You Away had lots of interesting ideas and concepts, and it was all very good and entertaining, and I mostly enjoyed it. All well and good.

On paper.

doctor who it takes you away review jodie whittaker solitract soletract frog grace thirteenth doctor mirror ed hime

In practice, I think, the episode struggled somewhat. A few reasons, none of which are especially interesting ones – I think largely my problem is the antizone section, which struggled to impress me.

It’s not that it was filler, exactly – argument could be made that it was, I suppose, but I’m not wholly convinced that was the problem with it. No, I think the problem was largely down to the direction. I’ve been less than impressed with Jamie Childs’ efforts on the series so far generally, but I think the antizone section from this episode is probably the weakest stretch he’s directed so far. (Not that the rest of the episode was brilliant, exactly, but here’s where it was most damaging to the overall story, I think.) Those caves should’ve felt strange and unfamiliar to the point of being dangerously disorientating – in actual fact they were just a bit generic. Granted it’s been a while since we’ve seen Doctor Who do caves (or, at least, I’m struggling to think of a recent example – arguably sections of The Eaters of Light, maybe?) but this wasn’t exactly a compelling argument to suggest they’re worth doing. Putting a bit of a red light on something isn’t enough to make it look interesting, particularly when the stuff that would’ve heightened the distinctness of the setting (flesh balloons!) were entirely undersold.

So, what we’ve got, then, is a mostly flat section of the episode that isn’t quite realised very well, and in turn feels like it’s being focused on at the expense of other, more interesting aspects of the episode. It’s difficult not to argue, to my mind, that It Takes You Away would’ve been better with greater focus on the world on the other side of the mirror (and greater focus on the frog!) – there’s not quite enough time spent there to convey the sense that this might genuinely be anything other than a trick, or indeed enough time there to suggest a genuine friendship between the Doctor and the frog.

That this section was a little weak didn’t, actually, bother me that much. On the first viewing it still worked, more or less, and on repeat viewings… well, while it feels clear to me that that section with Ribbons is basically superfluous, there’s just enough going on there that it didn’t especially overstay its welcome. So, much as I would’ve liked to see a little more attention devoted to the more interesting aspects of the story, this somewhat-less-engaging aspect wasn’t a particular obstacle to my enjoyment of the piece.

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What has, admittedly, rankled somewhat is a realisation I had a few days later: it should’ve been Ryan who went with the Doctor and Yaz to the other universe and saw Grace, while Graham stayed behind with Hanne.

It struck me while I was thinking about that final “granddad” moment towards the end. It was more than a little unearned, of course, but that’s not really the fault of It Takes You Away – there’s simply a need for more character work to have been done outside this episode. (That’s what I meant about the episode functioning better had the series been better – a rising tide lifts all ships and all that.) While it functions nicely on its own terms, a moment about Ryan trying to extend Graham some kindness, I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been more effective coming after Ryan had been forced to say goodbye to Grace again?

Certainly, it’s not difficult to imagine the shape of the episode had it been structured that way. The scene where Grace tells Graham to forget Ryan doesn’t, to my mind, entirely work – the ending more or less presents itself fait accompli at that point. But if Grace is telling Ryan to forget Graham – something he would actually, on some levels, once have quite liked to hear – it takes on a different tone, I think, a stronger emotional beat.

It’s not that the scene didn’t work as presented in It Takes You Away – it just feels like the specifics of Bradley Walsh’s contract are, once again, taking oxygen away from the other characters, in this instance taking what surely should’ve been one of Ryan’s key emotional beats for the series. (I would also posit that it’s more interesting for Graham not to see Grace again than it is for Ryan not to, but still.) So that was a little frustrating. But you know. Not the end of the world.

Ultimately, then… it was good. I liked this episode. I don’t think it was quite as creative or strange as people have suggested – between the generic antizone caves and the “tempted by a fake dead relative” thing that’s been done in science fiction hundreds of times before, from Star Trek to Class, of all things, It Takes You Away perhaps doesn’t have as much to offer as it might have initially seemed.

But then, you know, there was the frog. And it really was a pretty great frog.

8/10

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Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Witchfinders

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We’ve got to do something, Doctor.

I actually didn’t especially like the opening scene of this episode.

It put me in mind of Thin Ice a little – an episode I love – or indeed the start of The Beast Below. The insistence against interference becomes set up for a joke (“this requires tact and diplomacy”, before immediately punching Lord Sutcliffe) or a character moment (no interference, until you see a child cry) – or indeed both, actually, in each case. There’s never really any serious consideration of non-interference; the suggestion is raised and shot down more or less immediately, the point being to make it obvious just what sort of character the Doctor is.

That’s not quite what The Witchfinders does, though. For all that it’s worth celebrating the fact that the Doctor is finally being positioned as a more active character, it’s worth noting how much emphasis is placed on the indecision of the moment – the tension comes from the fact we’re supposed to believe that the Doctor genuinely would leave the woman to die in a witch trial because of it’s more important not to interfere. It’s a far, far cry from the way non-interference was treated across the Moffat era (or indeed the Davies era).

And I don’t like that especially. I don’t like a vision of the Doctor as a character where they look on at someone being attacked, and you can see the conflict play out on their face as to whether or not to do something. I’ve said already, I think, that one of the benchmarks for each new Doctor is how they – and it’s difficult to imagine this Doctor’s immediate predecessors prevaricating in the same way about saving someone.

What I can’t tell, of course, if is this has been part of a deliberate character arc. I’m a little unconvinced, to be honest; I’m still fairly sure I read that this episode was originally placed earlier in the series, which would mean that any apparent shift towards a more actively interventionist stance on the Doctor’s part since previous historical episodes is just a quirk of scheduling. Frankly, the relative lack of character arcs for the other main cast members doesn’t exactly make me think we’re seeing an international development here: instead, it’s simply the case that the Thirteenth Doctor is the sort of character who probably would leave a woman to die in a witch trial. It’s a far cry from “if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s when people need help, I never refuse”.

To coin a phrase, that’s just not my Doctor.

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That’s not to say I didn’t like The Witchfinders. I would say I mostly did? Going into it, certainly, I was feeling fairly disinterested about the whole thing – I think this is probably the most “whatever” I’ve felt about an episode of Doctor Who going into it, after the mess that was Kerblam!, coupled with the creeping suspicion that Doctor Who was about to go “well, actually, maybe the witch trials weren’t so bad after all”.

Thankfully, though, that was mostly avoided! And the episode was lots of fun! I enjoyed myself quite a bit, and I think this episode stood up quite well to a subsequent viewing. Probably, in fact, it stood up to this subsequent viewing better than previous ones have – certainly it did in comparison to something like The Ghost Monument, which just sort of fell apart the second time I watched it. There’s enough going on here that it’s perfectly and pleasantly diverting for a second time.

Again, though, there’s the sense that maybe none of these episodes are aiming for more than – or are going to hit more than – a generally competent level of “yes, that’s basically fine”. We’re looking at an entire run of episodes that are about as good as the average midseason episode – not a series of filler, exactly, because I’m not massively keen on the word and its implications, but certainly a set of ten essentially middle of the road stories. They’re defined by that, I think – much as Alan Cumming was wonderful, and is surely a strong contender for second best guest star of the season (I really did love Shane Zaza’s performance in Demons of the Punjab that much), the episode struggles to get its actual monsters up to task. I’ve watched it twice now, and I don’t think I could tell you very much about them – they’re deeply generic to the point of being anonymous, and it hurts the last third of the episode too. (Really, of course, there shouldn’t have been any monsters at all – the episode was doing so well with those ideas of repression and deflection, the way we externalise internal fears – introducing mud monsters to it all sees those interesting ideas just tumble down.)

But you know. Alan Cumming really is very good. And I suspect complaints about the quality of the series are almost missing the point, and remind me again why I am not massively fond of reviews as a format. It’s fine, you know. That’ll do. It basically pretty much works. It’s an entertaining enough way to spend my time on a Sunday evening. Whatever.

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It is odd to think that we’re eight episodes into a ten episode series – after tonight’s episode, there’s just a week left. It doesn’t… feel that way. Which is perhaps a silly observation to make, but that doesn’t quite mean it’s any less true; there’s none of the sense of build up that accompanied previous years, none of the anticipation.

Back when Chibnall was first announced, there was a lot of talk about an intensely serialised version of the programme, each episode leading immediately into the next – not a million miles away from a Netflix show, or, the more obvious comparison under the circumstances, Broadchurch. It felt like, and probably would’ve been, a bad idea for a couple of reasons, but at the same time… there’s a part of me that sort of wishes that actually is what we got. The current “no arc” approach didn’t sound so bad on its own terms at first, but chiefly because it sounded like “there won’t be anything like Bad Wolf or Torchwood or the disappearing planets”, which, you know, is fine, it’s been a while since we’ve had that anyway, and it’s not like references to ‘the Hybrid’ weren’t deeply clunky most of the time anyway.

But, man, it seems to me that “no arc” in fact means “you could watch these episodes in literally any order, and it wouldn’t make a difference”. It feels like they’re being written with one eye on syndication, frankly, along the same lines as the average episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It’s not the plot arc I miss, it’s the character arcs, and it’s making all of these episodes feel like less than the sum of their parts – it’s difficult to appreciate a perfectly competent episode like The Witchfinders because it struggles under the weight of series-wide flaws.

So, you know. Okay, sure, fine, whatever.

6/10

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Doctor Who Review: Kerblam!

kerblam doctor who review chris chibnall pete mctighe

The systems aren’t the problem.

So, let’s talk about Kerblam! – or rather, let’s talk about “Kerblam”.

“Kerblam” is a great big online shopping service. The biggest retailer in the galaxy, in fact. It’s got massive warehouses, it does special deliveries, and relies on a group of human workers.

The workers are closely monitored in terms of their productivity while processing packages. At “Kerblam”, the workers have to hit targets of three hundred items an hour. Some of them have been known to have panic attacks if they don’t make those targets. Three hundred items an hour works out as one item every nine seconds, give or take, across a ten and a half hour working day from 7:30am to 6pm. Their breaks are carefully monitored too – workers pee in bottles to avoid taking bathroom breaks.

Of course, that’s not the only thing workers have to deal with at “Kerblam”. They’re not treated especially well by their immediate managers; workers are encouraged to bluntly criticize employees’ ideas in meetings, and performance reviews included half-hour lectures about unfulfilled goals. They’re expected to be accessible all the time, beyond the realms of the eight-hour weeks they already work.

“Kerblam” also give the employees work bracelets – the Group Loops – to keep track of what work they’re doing, how efficiently they’re doing it, and how well they’re doing it. This makes sure everyone keeps to high standards – unreasonably high ones, “Kerblam” would no doubt proudly boast. If you don’t keep to the high standards, you’re going to be let go. There are “annual cullings of the staff — “purposeful Darwinism,” one former “Kerblam” human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover”.

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All this means, of course, that “Kerblam” is doing extremely well. It’s making vast, vast profits. Its owner is the richest man in the world. As is well deserved, of course, because of the sheer effort and labour that he personally puts into “Kerblam”.

The system works.

The systems aren’t the problem.

Obviously.

It’s the people who exploit the systems that are the problem. A system like the one at “Kerblam” is absolutely fine. It’s the sort of thing that develops entirely in isolation and leads to entirely fair and equitable treatment of all the works. As we’ve seen above.

The system works. The systems aren’t the problem.

Of course, people can exploit the system, and that’s not great. You don’t want people to exploit the system. If the system is just left as is, that’s fine. Its people interfering that leads to problems in the system. Just leave it be, and we end up with a system that works perfectly fine, where the workers get to see their family twice and year and there obviously isn’t a problem with that.

And why would there be a problem? The system works. The systems aren’t the problem.

The systems aren’t the problem. It doesn’t matter what happens at “Kerblam”, because anything that is happening – and, let’s be honest, it’s not really all that bad anyway – is clearly just a one-off quirk, the result of an individual actor exploiting.

The system isn’t bad. The system would never kill someone; that’s only when people exploit the system.

Obviously.

That’s fine. I really don’t think I have any more to say. I thought I might have, to be honest, but I just… don’t. I don’t care! I don’t care. “Kerblam” is fine. There’s nothing wrong with the system. The system isn’t bad. It’s just the people who exploit the system. They’re the problem. All the things you’ve seen so far? Not a problem. That’s just the system. And the system is fine. Why do you have a problem with the system? Are you a terrorist? Some young terrorist who has a problem with the system? Well, you’re just naïve, aren’t you?

The system isn’t the problem. The system works. The problem is people who exploit the system. Exploitation of the system is a very distinct thing from the system itself, because the system, as we know, works. The system is fine.

The system isn’t the problem.

The system isn’t the problem, according to Doctor Who.

Fucking hell.

2/10

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Doctor Who Review: Demons of the Punjab

doctor who demons of the punjab review vinay patel chris chibnall jamie childs jodie whittaker shane zaza mandip gill tosin cole bradley walsh

This is us. Forever. Our moment in time.

Airing this episode on Remembrance Sunday was, as many people have already pointed out, something of a stroke of genius.

In isolation, Demons of the Punjab was already a mature and thoughtful episode; there’s something quite affecting about its quiet consideration of personal history, in contrast to the broad sweep of celebrity historicals we’ve seen before. It harkens back to Father’s Day in some ways, with a poignant and intimate story about Yaz’s family – much like the earlier episode, it’s quiet and sensitive and deeply concerned with its characters. Even if Demons of the Punjab had aired three weeks later as episode nine, as I understand had been originally planned, it’d still be able to make an easy claim to being the best of series 11. There’s simply a degree of confidence and understanding to this episode that marks it as something special more or less immediately.

But contextualised in terms of Remembrance Sunday it became something altogether more resonant.

Much of the story is about remembrance – that, in effect, is what the Thijarians do when they bear witness, when they mourn for the forgotten dead. The forgotten dead, in this case, of partition, and of the victims of British colonialism and its consequences. It’s quite a story to tell as part of Doctor Who’s first substantive engagement with non-Western history. And airing the episode on Remembrance Sunday, when (despite everything) so many of these forgotten dead stay forgotten lends Demons of the Punjab an even greater degree of significance. In that sense, it’s one of the first episodes this series that really manages to be about something, to have substantive ideas worth real and genuine engagement – not just because of the quirk of its airing, of course, because all those ideas were still in the episode regardless. But it’s difficult not to notice the way this accentuates and emphasises so many of the ideas that Demons of the Punjab was already invoking.

There’s a vision of history to Demons of the Punjab that feels vital, that feels like something Doctor Who should commit to much more wholeheartedly, especially now as it begins to pivot back towards a more educational programme – a vision of history that includes the forgotten dead, that looks beyond the traditional narratives.

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Hence, then, why it’s so interesting to see the episode parallel the Doctor and the Thijarians.

It’s not a straightforward, one-to-one match – they aren’t, after all, identical. But there’s a link drawn between them, and it’s reinforced repeatedly across the episode in myriad ways. A lot of these connections are small, subtle ones. Consider the fact that the Thijarians are travellers who’ve lost their home, not entirely unlike the Doctor; Jamie Childs, offering much stronger direction this week than in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, reinforces that idea through a scene transition from the Thijarian ship to the TARDIS. It’s not so much that they’re identical, exactly, but there are echoes – echoes that resonate in the face of the fact that, in the end, the Doctor and the Thijarians do the same thing. They remember forgotten history.

It also, perhaps, speaks to what’s still one of the wider problems of the series – something that isn’t quite a problem in Demons of the Punjab, though it’d still be worth commenting on, but is certainly part of a frustrating trend. Once again, there’s an episode that ultimately relies on the Doctor’s passivity and non-interference – she gets involved, yes, but ultimately very little. At the end, she simply walks away.

Like I said – on its own, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Indeed, in the context of Demons of the Punjab, it almost makes a degree of sense, though admittedly I’d have preferred if the Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan had stayed to bear witness to Prem alongside the Thijarians.

But taken as part of the series as a whole, it’s a little troubling – it’s strange and unsettling that a character who’s always been defined by the way she interferes and the way that she’s active rather than passive is now being depicted as quite the opposite. At this stage, it feels clear enough that it’s a conscious choice – as of Arachnids in the UK, it felt a little more akin to a recurring scriptwriting weakness, but now I’m starting to feel like there’s something a little more deliberate going on. Perhaps we are building up to a broader point about how difficult it really is to interfere in the face of such broad, structural problems like historical racism or the effects of imperialism.

Perhaps the point of contrasting the Doctor and the Thijarians is to say that the real radical act of interference – the sort of thing we can genuinely do in real life, especially today, on Remembrance Day – is to carve out a space for the forgotten dead and remember them.

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Outside of that, I think there’s little to find fault with in the episode – and, even then, that’s not so much a fault with Demons of the Punjab as it is a fault with the stories around it. The same could be said of other flaws I’d be inclined to highlight – there are still some struggles with balancing the cast, but to be honest this episode does a much better job of any other so far, so it’s difficult to criticise too much. (I suspect part of the reason Demons of the Punjab does so well balancing the cast is the fact that Vinay Patel paired Yaz with Graham for a while – and in turn she got caught in his narrative gravity for a while, and finally got given something to do. It’s still not ideal, especially in what’s meant to be Yaz’s second focal episode, but again, I don’t think it’s worth criticising Demons for the faults of series 11 as a whole.)

Indeed, I’m generally really pleased with Demons of the Punjab. It is, as I’ve already said, my favourite episode of the series so far – but it’s also been my favourite one to write about so far. In a few of these recent reviews, I’ve been despairing a bit (and it’s shown) over how little I’ve been able to find to say – or, maybe more accurately, how little I’ve been able to say that goes beyond a more superficial bullet point list of sloppy aspects and technical mistakes. I’m glad I’ve been able to do more than that here with this one; if nothing else, Demons of the Punjab is certainly the first episode so far where I feel like I’ve still got lots of positive things to say, rather than negatives I’m holding back on.

(Like, how amazing was Shane Zaza as Prem? In a just world, he’d be getting all sorts of awards for this episode, and would certainly be remembered as one of the stand out guest performances in Doctor Who over the past decade. If ever they’re looking for a man to play the Doctor again…)

So, yes. Demons of the Punjab has left me feeling really quite reassured about series 11 – it’s perhaps overly optimistic to make this judgement, but maybe it’s simply the case that all the more interesting episodes in series 11 have been positioned closer to the end. That’s the hope, anyway; I suppose we’ll find out in a few hours in Dr Who vs Jeff Bezos.

9/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Tsuranga Conundrum

doctor who the tsungara conundrum chris chibnall jennifer perrott pting tim price jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole

In my review last week, I mostly threw Arachnids in the UK under the bus, despite actually mostly liking it.

The reason for that was, enjoyable though the episode mostly was, Arachnids in the UK was the fourth episode in a row that was essentially basically fine. It was good, it was decent, it was entertaining, and it was a perfectly diverting way to spend an hour. Asking for anything more than that is, I suspect, maybe a little unfair. But I’m used to more than that from Doctor Who – the basically fine is the exception to the rule, I think, albeit not a rule where quality is the norm exactly – and I’ve been hoping for more than that to manifest itself.

Largely the same was true of The Tsuranga Conundrum, an episode which I’d actually be inclined to say was my favourite of the series so far. It was good, it was decent, it was entertaining, and it was a perfectly diverting way to spend an hour. Indeed, it was a perfectly diverting way to spend two hours, given I rewatched it ahead of this review, in the hopes of finding lots of things to say.

I am not sure I did find lots of things to say. Or, at least, not a lot of things to say beyond a series of bullet points – Bradley Walsh was excellent in that bit, I quite like the P’Ting, we’re clearly still struggling to balance the companions properly, and isn’t it a relief that – as far as I can judge, anyway – the episode wasn’t especially transphobic? That’s the sort of thing that you’d put together in a twitter thread, or maybe a general bullet point roundup on a forum thread.

What the episode was was good, decent, entertaining, and a perfectly diverting way to spend an hour. What it so far isn’t is especially conducive to a thousand odd words of discussion and consideration and dissection each week. And, hey, maybe that’s more to do with my limitations as a reviewer rather than anything else – there’s certainly plenty of them, after all, and it’s not like I’ve ever found reviewing particularly interesting or engaging exactly. It’s not my preferred style of writing, as evidenced by how often I’ll write around the topic when I’m trying to review something rather than actually engaging with it, and trying to review something as… superficial is the wrong word, because it sounds more critical than I mean it to… trying to review something like Doctor Who of late, which has become a very “does what it says on the tin” programme, is a little frustrating.

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This is actually the second draft of the review I’ve written – something of a rarity, because I tend to write these pieces with fairly limited revisions. (We can tell, I hear you cry.)

I had about five hundred words done, and the broad overview of the rest planned, before junking it entirely and starting essentially from scratch with the piece you’re reading now. There was an opening, essentially, about expectations, and how I’m starting to get to grips more and more with what the Chibnall era actually looks like, the shape and contours of his writing style. Because of that, then, little things like clunky exposition or awkward educational notes didn’t bother me as much, and I appreciated basic things like “the story has an ending” more than I would have otherwise.

It was a boring review, though. Boring to read, I assume, if only because of how boring it was to write. Like I said, I am not especially interested in reviews at the best of times – I think you should watch Doctor Who, I think it is a good way to spend your time if you’re someone who already likes Doctor Who, but if you don’t like it already this probably isn’t going to change your opinion on it. Spending ten minutes reading what I thought about it likely isn’t the best use of anyone’s time. Yes, I did really like the P’Ting. Yes, that scene where Ryan tells Yaz about his mum was nice, but the direction was weak and Mandip Gill really needs to be given some proper material very, very soon.

What’s frustrating isn’t that I’m not enjoying the current series, or that I don’t like it. Because I do! I really very much do. It’s just that the way I’m used to enjoying it doesn’t quite work anymore, because – and, again, I don’t want to seem like I’m being particularly critical, because I don’t mean or want to be – this isn’t an iteration of the programme that really rewards the level of introspection and consideration I’m trying to afford it. It’s a shame, because so much of it feels so specifically tailored to what I’d like to see from Doctor Who. Perhaps that, then, is the real conundrum here.

(No? Fine, fine, it was a bit of a crap joke.)

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Like I said, this is probably chiefly down to my own limitations. After all, they are vast and numerous, and responsible for a lot.

It’s not like, after all, Jodie Whittaker isn’t doing lots of genuinely interesting things with the role. Once again, much like in The Ghost Monument, she’s doing things I’d struggle to imagine Capaldi, Smith, or Tennant doing – the scene where she apologies to Astos is fascinating in its implications, even if there’s something admittedly at least vaguely concerning about the fact that it’s the first female Doctor who does things like apologise to the throwaway guest character. I wish it was the sort of thing that was being foregrounded a little more, to be honest, a focal point to actually unpack and engage with. It’d have been particularly interesting here, actually, to emphasise the Doctor’s injuries, because that’s not something we tend to see – there’s a version of The Tsuranga Conundrum which is, I think, a lot more compelling that it was. It’s just a few more drafts out of reach.

The same is true again of Tosin Cole; while Bradley Walsh is still probably the standout companion (a result of his sheer charm, and the fact his agent clearly negotiated for him to get all the best lines), Cole is doing a particularly impressive job realising Ryan. Granted, in saying that, I’m wanting to criticise a little bit again – I think at this point we’re yet to see “three companions” actually work, particularly given that Ryan didn’t have a line until about 19 minutes in and Yaz still has nothing to do – but that’s a little beside the point. It’s an impressive performance – more subtle and more nuanced than I think Cole is entirely getting credit for, actually, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this all resolves. The presumably inevitable return of his dad should, in theory, be something Chibnall writes really well, and it strikes me as being something generally unlike what we’ve seen from Doctor Who in quite some time.

Also, I really liked the P’Ting. I know it’s been fairly unpopular, but everyone who disliked it is actually wrong: it’s funny and charming and a pretty neat bit of CGI. I would very much like to see the P’Ting again, actually. Maybe a swarm of P’Tings. A P’Ting Dilemma.

Anyway. So, another episode that I quite enjoyed but didn’t exactly have a lot to say about. Hopefully Demons of the Punjab tonight will break that somewhat difficult streak – that’s the episode I’ve been looking forward to most, actually, since it was first announced however many weeks ago. So, very excited about that, and hopefully it’ll give me something to write about.

8/10

(Like I said, I really did actually enjoy this episode!)

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