Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Planet of the Dead

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The aristocracy always survives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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New Star Trek is becoming more like old Star Trek, but that’s not necessarily a good thing

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Star Trek: Discovery’s first season was often uneven, not infrequently messy, and rarely introduced one new idea when three would do instead. It’s not that it wasn’t good – sometimes it was great, and there’s a not unreasonable argument to be made that Discovery had the best debut season of any of the Star Trek shows – but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t concede that there was room for improvement.

The second season has seen something of a course correction, though watching it each week it’s difficult not to feel as though perhaps the wrong lessons were learned from Discovery’s early growing pains. Picking up from last year’s cliffhanger ending that saw the sudden appearance of the USS Enterprise, Discovery has been consciously positioning itself as much more in line with the rest of the Star Trek franchise – from classic style uniforms to throwback storytelling, but most obviously with the introduction of Anson Mount as Captain Christopher Pike.

Pike, actually, is particularly interesting in this regard. He’s a character taken from the original Star Trek series, but not in the same sense as, say, Harry Mudd, who appeared in Discovery’s first season played by Rainn Wilson. Rather, Pike – then played by Jeffrey Hunter – was Captain of the Enterprise and lead character in the original Star Trek pilot rejected by NBC; the show was heavily retooled ahead of its second pilot, by which point Hunter had been replaced by William Shatner, playing the younger, more dynamic Captain Kirk. Footage from the original pilot was eventually used in Star Trek as a cost-saving measure, establishing Pike as Kirk’s predecessor within the fiction of the show too; Pike is referenced from time to time in other Star Trek spinoffs, and appeared in the JJ Abrams movies played by Bruce Greenwood.

In that sense, Pike is something of an ur-Captain – there’s a certain mythic weight to him as a character, a foundational ‘first Captain’ figure within the context of Star Trek. He’s all iconography, with relatively little in the way of actual characterisation to maintain fidelity to. Invoking Pike offers Discovery the chance to recontextualise the entirety of the franchise in a way unlike any other character would; Kirk has too much baggage, Archer doesn’t have the same connection to the show’s beginning, and Robert April is really just a fun trivia answer. With Pike, Discovery has a chance to scribble in the margins of the franchise and declare some broad, sweeping truths about what Star Trek is, and what it should be – exactly the sort of thing Discovery should be doing to make Star Trek vital and fresh in 2019.

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Rather than treat Pike as an opportunity to recontextualise the wider world of Star Trek, though, he’s instead positioned as the spectre of the 1960s, come to set things right – come to bring Discovery back in line with more traditional Trek. Continuity here is nostalgic and backwards looking; it’s not the basis for something new and more compelling.

It’s not, notably, that Pike doesn’t work as a character – for the most part, he does. Anson Mount is a genuinely charming screen presence as Pike, and it’s difficult not to enjoy the sheer charisma of his performance (a far cry from his role as Black Bolt in Marvel’s Inhumans, but the less said about that the better). Sometimes, in all fairness, that’s all a side character like Pike needs to be – fun and engaging and entertaining to watch. Equally, it’s also perhaps a little early to comment on Discovery’s use of Pike – one recent episode implied Pike was a religious man, and that’s exactly the sort of writing that would prove an effective use of the character, complicating Star Trek’s ongoing relationship with matters of faith and rationality.

Nonetheless, though, it’s telling how much screen time is being devoted to bringing Discovery in line with more acceptable, known elements of Star Trek. Scenes grind to a halt to explain why the Klingons have started to grow their hair again to look more like their Original Series and Next Generation counterparts (including one Fu Manchu style moustache – some things should be consigned to history, irrespective of ‘canon’); the same exposition is repeated and emphasised over multiple episodes to explain why the Enteprise doesn’t use the same holographic communicators seen in Discovery’s first season. The most recent episode opens by panning up reverentially to Number One, another character from the unused Star Trek pilot alongside Pike – though this was surely lost on anyone not only already familiar with said unused pilot, but also the news that the character had been recast for Discovery as well.

Which, ultimately, is the problem – a problem that goes beyond Pike, even if he is a neat representation of the opportunities open to but not taken by Discovery. Season 2 is catering primarily to a narrow segment of traditional Trek fandom; it’s looking backwards, not just obsessing unnecessarily over minute continuity details, but retreading old Trek norms. It’s a fannish instinct that could only ever limit the show – more concerned with being Star Trek, than redefining what Star Trek can be. Indeed, it’s the sort of limitation that would’ve curtailed some of the best of the Star Trek that already exists – Deep Space Nine wouldn’t exist at all – and it’s difficult not to wonder what Discovery might look like if unburdened from those restraints.

Star Trek: Discovery’s first season wasn’t perfect, no – but it was, in many ways, a more compelling programme than Discovery’s sophomore effort. It was a more confident programme, a more challenging one, and clearly much more willing to boldly go somewhere new.

Related:

Star Trek isn’t Game of Thrones, and it shouldn’t try to be

Why Star Trek: Discovery must deal with the legacy of Janice Rand

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

russian doll netflix review natasha lyonne leslye headland amy poehler greta lee yul vasquez charlie barnett elizabeth ashley jamie babbit chloe sevigny

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

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

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

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

russian doll netflix natasha lyonne nadia vulvokov charlie barnett alan zaveri leslye headland the way out ariadne a warm body alan's routine elevator lift cliffhanger

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

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

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

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

Related:

My Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

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Doctor Who Review: Series 11 Overview

doctor who series 11 review poster overview criticism jodie whittaker chris chibnall bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill jamie childs

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.

doctor who series 11 review ranking rating jodie whittaker chris chibnall tsuranga ranskoor av kolos punjab woman witchfinders resolution jamie childs graph bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill

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.

doctor who series 11 review thirteenth doctor tardis ghost monument jodie whittaker chris chibnall

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.

doctor who series 11 yaz yasmin khan mandip gill ryan sinclair tosin cole graham o brien bradley walsh the woman who fell to earth companion jodie whittaker chris chibnall

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.

doctor who series 11 review the witchfinders joy wilkinson sallie aprahamian chris chibnall jodie whittaker mandip gill bradley walsh tosin cole

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

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

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

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

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: Resolution

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

Not even Netflix?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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My Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10). Derry Girls

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

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

(The accents do help, though.)

9). Save Me

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

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

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

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

8). Flowers

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

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

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

7). Superstore

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

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

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

6). The Good Fight

the good fight christine baranski audra macdonald rose leslie cbs

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

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

Because it really, really is just that captivating.

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

5). Succession

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

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

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

4). Wanderlust

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

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

3). The Assassination of Gianni Versace

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

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

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

2). A Very English Scandal

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

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

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

1). Patrick Melrose

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

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

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

Honourable Mentions, Runners Up, and Notable Omissions

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

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

Disappointments

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

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

What I’m looking forward to in 2019

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

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

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

Have a wonderful 2019, everyone.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Next Doctor

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

doctor who review the witchfinders joy wilkinson chris chibnall alan cumming jodie whittaker

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 Series 11 reviews

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