Doctor Who Review: Series 11 Overview

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

It wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doctor Who Review: Resolution

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Not even Netflix?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

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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 Review: The Tsuranga Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

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

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Doctor Who Review: Arachnids in the UK

doctor who arachnids in the uk review spiders jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill chris noth chris chibnall sallie aprahamian

Now if you’re so great, explain this.

Again, I’m confronted with the need to change my approach to these reviews.

Broadly speaking, there’s a familiar structure I tend to follow. The reviews are divided into three sections, meaning I tend to talk about three ideas: acting, writing, and directing; two strengths and a weakness; two weaknesses and a strength; themes, concepts, and symbols. I try, too, to write them in the first person, to be a little more casual and conversational about it in contrast to the articles I write for Yahoo (in my mind, there’s something very different between an article and a review) – it’s meant to be, I guess, a piece that’s not a million miles away from having an actual discussion with someone, either in person or on a forum or something.

More or less, I think this usually works. Not entirely; more often than not, I tend to feel like I’ve missed something, as though there was some observation I’d have liked to make but didn’t quite manage to fit in. That’s not really the end of the world, though – better to have too much to say than too little. Which is, of course, the time when these reviews really don’t work, and I end up posting them more out of a faint sense of obligation than anything else.

If you hadn’t worked it out by now – an opening along these lines, which I refer back to more often than I should, tends to be a bit of a giveaway – I don’t really have a lot to say about Arachnids in the UK.

I enjoyed it! It was mostly a fairly good and entertaining piece of television; I’ve watched it twice now and didn’t feel like I was wasting my time on either occasion. Jodie Whittaker remains wonderful, as do Tosin Cole (wasn’t that shadow puppet bit brilliant?), Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh. It improved on certain things I’ve found frustrating so far – I really enjoyed Sallie Apraheim’s direction, I think it was the best of the series so far – and managed to generally maintain the level of quality the show has so far. There are critiques I’d make, certainly – one big one in particular – but for the most part, this was a good episode of Doctor Who.

(I really, really do want to stress that, particularly as I’m realising that, as I write the rest of this review, it’s probably going to be a fairly negative one – I did enjoy Arachnids in the UK, I would watch it again gladly, and it’s actually been one of my favourites of the series so far.)

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So, I want to talk a little about Jack Robertson, the Trump analogue who’s arguably one of the more memorable aspects of the episode.

Immediately, there’s something interesting about the way he’s positioned as a Trump analogue – not just a diegetic equivalent, a way to talk about Trump while still talking around him, but established as a counterpart and a rival, another blustering American businessman and arch-capitalist with presidential ambitions. Presidential ambitions specifically prompted by Trump’s own, more to the point.

It strikes me as potentially quite a compelling way for the series to actually engage with real world politics – if nothing else, it’s interesting to see that this sort of engagement is something Chibnall is willing to do. It’d have been easy to ignore Trump (as the series appears to be ignoring Brexit, probably for quite obvious reasons) so the fact that there’s a willingness to foreground him as a villain speaks volumes; it is, I would maybe even argue, actually somewhat more telling of the aims and concerns of this era than Rosa is, which felt, at least a little, somewhat neutered through its conspicuous lack of reference to the present. The character doesn’t always work, not exactly – his big villainous moment, shooting the spider, falls flat, and I’m not entirely convinced the episode does the best job it could have of conceptualising his wealth and his evil (see here) – but Chris Noth gives a great performance, and Robertson will be quite interesting as a new type of recurring character we’ve not quite seen befo-

Recurring character?

Ah, yes. So that brings me to the main issue I had with this episode: it just sort of stops, rather than ending. Robertson shoots the spider (in what’s probably the most poorly directed sequence of the episode – does the Doctor, like, try and stand in front of it? Does she do anything other than tell Robertson not to shoot the spider? There’s a lack of clarity that hurts the scene), and then walks off, his petard thoroughly unhoisted. There’s no resolution to Robertson’s story, or indeed the story as a whole – the next scene is some time later, the companions about to leave again, basically suggesting that after Robertson shot the spider everyone just walked away, leaving the big spider corpse in the ballroom and the smaller (but still big) spiders in the downstairs panic room.

Perhaps that’s to set Robertson up as a returning character; I admit, I am kinda intrigued by the idea of “Doctor Who does the West Wing” in series 12, with Robertson as a villainous president. It wasn’t, though, my immediate thought – because actually, when you think back on it, The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument both had sort of the same issue.

So maybe it’s not a problem with Arachnids in the UK, it’s a problem with series 11 – and a problem with Chris Chibnall.

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Back when Chibnall was announced as the new Doctor Who showrunner, I was a lot more positive about it than other people were – I liked Broadchurch, generally speaking, and his Doctor Who episodes previously. And that positivity felt validated in the run up to the new episodes – the female Doctor, the marketing campaign, it all spoke to an era that I felt like I was really going to enjoy.

And I am enjoying it. It’s Doctor Who, of course I enjoy it, and I’m kinda always going to enjoy it irrespective of things like “quality”, or “basic dramatic structure”.

The redemptive reading, as some people have put forward, is that the Doctor’s inability to stop Robertson is much like her inability to stop racism last week – a suggestion that there are certain structural problems that a fantasy hero like the Doctor can’t combat, that her role is different. That’s something that seems genuinely fascinating to explore, depending on what “her role” eventually turns out to be; if nothing else, it’d be a new way of articulating that character that’d form quite a stark contrast to both Moffat and Davies’ takes on the Doctor.

I am not wholly convinced that’s the case. Even if it was the case, there’s still a certain sloppiness to Arachnids in the UK and its almost conscious lack of any meaningful resolution. The fact that the Doctor hasn’t technically stopped or defeated any of the villains yet doesn’t seem intentional, it seems like the same sort of oversight that saw the first three episodes in a row involve implanted technology, or that whole mess with Pythagoras’ sunglasses in The Ghost Monument, or Ryan using a gun (a space gun, but still a gun) in Rosa.

I don’t know. I am enjoying the new series of Doctor Who! I really am; I wouldn’t be writing about it if I wasn’t, even if some of these reviews have, so far, trended a little negative.

But I’m also not wholly enjoying it, or enjoying it with caveats, to the point that I’ve devoted a fair amount of space in a review of an episode I mostly liked to criticising the series as a whole. It’s not that I don’t like it – I’d just like to see it be a little more ambitious, to finally have an episode that’s an outright classic, a genuine 10/10.

7/10

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Doctor Who Review: Rosa

doctor who review rosa malorie blackman chris chibnall rosa parks vinette robinson mark tonderai

All this basically kicked off the US civil rights movement. See? I’m not totally ignorant.

Going into this, there was, obviously, a lot to worry about.

This is self evidently the sort of story Doctor Who should tell. It’s the sort of history Doctor Who should engage with, the world it should take place in, the message it should impart.

That’s something I’ve been saying for a long time; that Doctor Who should have a more international reach, that it should engage with the real world, that it should be more diverse and inclusive in its ambitions and its reach. In 2018, a Doctor Who episode about Rosa Parks (and, implicitly, about racism) is exactly the sort of story it should tell.

But it’s also the sort of story that could very easily go wrong, the sort of episode where it’d be easy to make mistakes. The potential pitfalls of Doctor Who and Rosa Parks vs the Space Racist is, to put it mildly, concerning; it’s the sort of thing where “that’s a little white saviour-y” feels almost like the best you can hope for. And at that point you start to wonder if, perhaps, this is the sort of thing where it’s better not to have tried at all than to try and fail so egregiously.

Certainly, I was worried. Not massively, not at first; Malorie Blackman’s writing credit was a huge positive sign (and in hindsight, one that really wasn’t made enough of – she’s probably the most significant guest writer since Neil Gaiman, both in terms of her own vast achievements and reputation, and in terms of Doctor Who having its first ever female writer of colour) but the fact that Chris Chibnall had co-written the episode was a little concerning. And, to be honest, the closer to the time it got, the easier it seemed to imagine ways this could go wrong. Krasko worried me, the fact Graham was a bus driver was worrying me, the idea of the Doctor giving Rosa Parks a rousing speech to inspire her into action was worrying me. For all that I’d argue in theory that it’s a story worth telling, I think there’s an argument worth making that this is the sort of history that’s a little too complicated for a children’s show to handle.

The fact that it actually mostly didn’t go wrong seems, in retrospect, both fait accompli and something of a miracle. But I do think it is actually fair to say that it mostly didn’t go wrong.

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Immediately, I think, it’s worth emphasising how deft a script this is, how smart and subtle some of its choices are – it’s obviously the best episode of series 11 so far, and I suspect it’ll be able to make a genuine claim to the best episode of series 11 full stop. There’s the obvious, of course, and I’ll talk about that in a second, but it’s not just the big, climactic ending of Rosa that matters; it’s Yaz and Ryan behind the dumpster, it’s the Doctor confronting a policeman, its Graham’s pride calling Ryan his grandson. Rosa does a much, much better job than its predecessors at bringing these characters to life, and the episode is immensely better for it.

I mentioned above that one of my worries ahead of this episode was that we’d see the Doctor, or indeed her companions, inspire Rosa to take action – a speech about why she matters, how brilliant she is and the impact she has on the future, or something along those lines. Even in the moment, I was worried there’d be some stolen glance between Rosa and Ryan. That it didn’t happen is a relief, frankly; it’s somehow both the most glaring mistake the episode could have made, and indeed could very realistically have made, as well as being the sort of thing that self evidently needed to be avoided.

In turn, then, Rosa’s refusal to stand and subsequent arrest was the most powerful moment of the episode – not only in preserving her agency, in actually allowing her to make her stand (or not, as the case may be), but in making the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham simply watch, unable to help, indeed, even complicit. Everything about the moment works – from Vinette Robinson to Bradley Walsh to that music (it’s not out of place, it’s pitch perfect) – and there’s a sense that yes, actually, Doctor Who told this story and told it well, and that’s something that really, genuinely matters. On the strength of that moment alone, Rosa is going to be an episode that people cite and refer back to for a long, long time – it’s perhaps set to be the defining episode of the Chibnall era full stop, something that’ll be held in the zeitgeist for far longer that The Unquiet Dead or Victory of the Daleks might have been.

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When I rewatched this episode, though, ahead of writing this review, I did start to wonder: was I so worried about it being absolutely disastrous, and in turn so relieved that it wasn’t, that I didn’t hold Rosa to other standards I otherwise would have?

The answer, I suspect, is yes.

Rosa falls very much into the ‘great man of history’ tradition, an idea I’ve increasingly come to dislike of late – of course it does, though, being that it is a Doctor Who celebrity historical. Just look at the title; this was always going to fall under a certain type of episode. At the same time, it’s quite a… not sanitised, exactly, but comparatively safe version of history, very much in line with the prevailing Rosa Parks narrative, the accepted version of the story. I tend to go back and forth about how much that sort of thing bothers me. Jamestown, for instance, is a historical drama, and it’s probably very easy to point out flaws in terms of historical accuracy; I’m not really convinced that matters, though, because Jamestown isn’t about history, it’s about the present. The same tends to apply to Doctor Who, to my mind, with the actual factual details of history mattering less than the point the story is working too.

Here, though, I’m wavering. There was something that felt a little intellectually dishonest about Rosa, and the way it purported to be an educational piece while not actually holding true to a lot of the facts. Presenting the Montgomery bus boycotts as the result of, essentially, random chance, a series of small coincidences that lead to one woman making a spur of the moment decision that changed everything simply isn’t true; suggesting that was what happened doesn’t sit entirely well with me. The story gestures at Parks’ role in the NAACP, but I’m not quite convinced it does enough. Given how accurate a lot of the rest of the story is (right down to the dialogue), the way the story sidesteps this feels like a fairly notable exclusion.

I don’t know. It is, obviously, a very safe piece; a Rosa Parks story is an obviously ‘safer’ piece than a Martin Luther King or Malcolm X piece would have been, and I suspect a story about American racism is inherently ‘safer’ than one about British racism would’ve been. (But that’s a whole other question, really.) Part of me feels like it’s deserving of criticism for that; part of me feels like, if it is, it’s not deserving of that criticism right now from me.

If nothing else, Rosa is self-evidently the best episode of Doctor Who series 11 so far. It gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. It’s a vast improvement over The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument, both technically and creatively; it’s a vast improvement over previous historical episodes politically, if that’s the qualm I want to raise.

I really, really liked it, I’m just not sure how comfortable I am liking all of it.

9/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Ghost Monument

doctor who the ghost monument review chris chibnall mark tonderai jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill tosin cole

Alright, anyone can focus on the negatives.

I’ve liked this less and less each time I watched it. And I’ve watched it three times now.

Something about this episode has the feel of a first draft about it; there’s a sense that the concepts within it haven’t been entirely considered, that the individual interesting moments don’t really add up to one coherent whole.

Consider what we’ve got. The final stages of a deadly space race. A planet made cruel. Our three companions on their first alien planet. Time and time again, though, The Ghost Monument proves underwhelming: there’s little sense of pace, of genuine haste and competitivity between Angstrom and Epzo; the cruelty of the planet, from the toxic atmosphere to the dangerous water, amounts to little more than an unfired Chekhov’s fun; Yaz, Ryan and Graham have, for the most part, a fairly muted reaction to leaving Earth for the first time.

It’s aggravating, of course, because so much of it feels like an easy fix – certainly, something another draft would’ve solved. Take the cruel planet, for example, a concept that never quite coalesced with a genuine sense of place. I can’t quite get past the little things, the lack of emphasis on different details – they’re in a desert, but they never take their jackets off, they never sweat, they don’t look particularly uncomfortable. They get a boat across a toxic river, but no one’s ever in danger of falling in. Every living organism is dead, they say, trees clearly visible in the background.  For all that this planet is, judging by the dialogue, meant to seem strange and spiky and dangerous by virtue of its mysteries, that never quite lands – if nothing else, “empty” feels like the default state for a desert, rather than something that screams mystery to be solved. The premise of the planet stands up to very little interrogation.

I’m loathe to attribute it to laziness, because that’s such a reductive accusation to level, but there is a certain sloppiness to proceedings in The Ghost Monument; look at that early bit of ADR, clearly inserted late in the day, to explain why the Doctor had Pythagoras’ sunglasses in the coat she bought from the charity shop just a few hours ago. In isolation, it doesn’t say much at all – only really that Bradley Walsh wanted some sunglasses and presumably no one believed Graham would own a pair of his own. But, considering The Ghost Monument as a whole, it can’t help but feel emblematic of an episode where someone took their eye off the ball.

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It’s also aggravatingly superficial as an episode. It’s dense with plot, but very short on story; there’s a lot of A to B and back and forth, but little in the way of subtext.

What’s the episode about? On paper, it’s about the team coming together for the first time – learning to work together, learning to be Doctor Who companions rather than Doctor Who guest characters. In a broader sense, that’s presumably meant to be reflected in Epzo and Angstrom gradually starting to work together – the episode, as a whole, is a rebuke to Epzo’s speech about his mother earlier on in the episode. But, well, it’s a fairly simplistic idea, isn’t it? Or, rather, its realised in a fairly simplistic way – that speech about Epzo’s mother was staggeringly unsubtle, for one thing, and as dialogue more generally it’s just a bit weak. Which is an issue with The Ghost Monument, if not series 11 as a whole so far; the dialogue has been fairly pedestrian, every other line a question, often fairly perfunctory.

Arguably more damning, though, is that Chibnall seems to be struggling to balance the cast, and give them all equal attention. It’s not really a problem if the dialogue is a little generic; after all, they’re all sci-fi characters with broadly similar aims and motivations, so up to a point Yaz, Graham and Ryan are going to have somewhat similar thoughts and reactions and opinions. At the moment, though, Yaz is suffering – the vast proportion of lines are going to Bradley Walsh, leaving her feeling seriously under-utilised. Indeed, Graham is the only one who does feel like a coherent character at the moment, practical and observant, and realised by a genuinely impressive performance. (I really, really like The Chase. I am a little sad we didn’t get some variation on “the race is on” in this episode, but you know. Maybe later.)

I’m hoping, in any case, that future episodes start to get a little more depth. I’m confident they will; if nothing else, there’s some obvious potential to Graham and Ryan as characters (“young man who has trouble processing emotions learns to come to terms with his grief because the first female Doctor Who shows him the stars” is, if nothing else, an idea that could prove fascinating) and I’d be genuinely very surprised if Yaz doesn’t get a focal episode sooner rather than later.

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I said last week that Jodie Whittaker has consistently been the best part of everything I’ve seen her in. This is still true. Part of this is that her performance elevates the material as written; it was true in, say, Trust Me, and it’s also true here.

What I want to point to particularly – because, much as I’d like to do a line by line commentary noting every time she’s great, it’s probably easier to just tell you to rewatch the episode – is a moment towards the end, just before the TARDIS arrives. It’s something that a lot of people have pointed to as a flaw on a structural level; we know, obviously, that they’re going to find the TARDIS, so the Doctor’s sudden defeatist attitude is unearned.

I’m not entirely convinced by that, though. There are some problems, certainly, associated with that moment (Angstrom and Epzo suddenly falling out of the narrative doesn’t work, though little about them does anyway) but I’m not convinced that “we know the TARDIS is coming back, so the Doctor doubting it doesn’t work” is entirely true. Or, at least, it doesn’t work in terms of making us doubt the TARDIS isn’t coming back (nor the companions), but I’m not convinced that’s what it’s meant to do.

It’s more interesting, to me at least, to consider what that suggests about the character. 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 difficult to imagine Capaldi, Smith, Tennant or Eccleston playing the scene the same way. More to the point, it casts other, more familiar Doctor-ish traits in an interesting new light – the improvisation, the keenness to make friends, all of that feels slightly different. Coupled with certain standout scenes from last week (describing Tim Shaw as “obscene”) 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. There is, of course, a boring explanation for why this is. The truer explanation, I suspect, is that that’s simply the sort of actress she is.

Ultimately, then, I’m still not entirely sure what I thought of The Ghost Monument. There’s a lot to appreciate about this story; there’s a lot that’s disappointing about it (it’s increasingly apparent just how good at his job Michael Pickwoad was, for one thing). If The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt strange and unfamiliar, The Ghost Monument was perhaps too familiar – a vision of Doctor Who that wasn’t quite ambitious enough. (Though even saying that feels too harsh, or perhaps harsh in the wrong way.)

I don’t know. Perhaps on a fourth watch I’d appreciate it more.

6/10

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Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Right now, I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts. Shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine. In the end. Hopefully.

There is, I think, something a little strange about this episode.

Or rather, not strange, not exactly – unfamiliar. Consciously and deliberately so. That, admittedly, isn’t entirely surprising, given that this is the first episode of Doctor Who after a huge change both in front of and behind the camera. If it wasn’t different, it’d be something of a missed opportunity.

But then it’s not just that it’s different. Consider, after all, The Eleventh Hour, which is the most obvious point of comparison for The Woman Who Fell to Earth. For all the changes made in that episode, from the obvious ones down, it still felt like a version of Doctor Who we were all basically familiar with. With The Woman Who Fell to Earth, there’s something that is, like I said, a little strange and unfamiliar.

Take the way this episode strips back all the usual hallmarks of the programme. No sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, no theme tune or opening credits. There’s an obvious logic to it, foregrounding the characters and giving them some space to develop, essentially building the show around them – we start with Ryan’s direct address to camera, then crash the Doctor into their world. It’s neatly done, a clever way to introduce us to the new cast of characters, and immediately foregrounds this era’s priorities.

Even then, though, it’s not just as simple as a shake up in the iconography: the style is different, not just the substance. The pacing, the music, the sense of humour – it’s undeniably the same show, yes, but the subtleties to the shift in approach are vast in their impact. (The change in the sense of humour is an interesting one actually, because, if nothing else, it probably should’ve been expected; Karl’s self-validating refrain of “someone wants me” in the face of an alien hunter who wants him as a prize isn’t a million miles away from how Broadchurch used to follow cliffhangers with a long, sweeping shot of actual cliffs.) So, for all that The Woman Who Fell to Earth is easily recognisable, there’s also something just a little discomforting about it, a little strange, something that’s difficult to entirely work out.

Certainly, I found that to be the case. I enjoyed it, definitely, even outside the basic “it’s Doctor Who and I always love it” of it all – but there was something about it I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something I didn’t quite get. The second time around, though, I understood it better, and I enjoyed it more – and I’m looking forward to next week, to becoming more familiar with the grammar of this version of Doctor Who, to learning to love it.

doctor who the woman who fell to earth review jodie whittaker tosin cole mandip gill bradley walsh sharon d clarke chris chibnall jamie childs tim shaw

Worth discussing, then, is the characters – like I said above, there’s an obvious attempt to foreground them here, and they’re certainly the most interesting part of the episode.

(And, as a quick aside, I don’t think this is a particular departure from previous iterations of Doctor Who – you’re not going to catch me proselytising about bus drivers vs Impossible Girls, or whatever – but I would argue it’s a bit more overt here. If nothing else, The Woman Who Fell to Earth holds back the Doctor’s first appearance much longer than Rose or The Eleventh Hour did.)

As an introductory piece, it works. There’s obviously limitations, because in an hour you’re not going to be able to flesh everyone out – Yaz is suffering from this the most at the moment – but as a starting point, there’s clear potential. They all take to their roles well (I love Bradley Walsh and will not hear a word against him, thank you), forgiving the occasional rough patch, and they’re each endearing in their own ways; there’s also, of course, a lot to appreciate in the way the ensemble has been built, from their existing connections to one another and the diversity between them. Indeed, in terms of the latter there’s a lot to admire; this is the sort of thing Doctor Who should always be doing, and I’m glad that it’s doing it now.

What’s interesting, though, is the way they all feel built around the Doctor, not just each other. There’s plenty of subtle parallels between them together – everyone’s already commented on how the episode positions Grace as a Doctor analogue, from the YouTube video to her job to the title of the episode, but it’s similarly true of the others. We learn that Ryan wants to be a mechanic; this is one of the first episodes in a long time that emphasises the Doctor building things, with that extended sequence of her creating the new sonic screwdriver. Graham is a bus driver, so it’s not difficult to construct a parallel between that and the TARDIS. And that line about “sorting out fair play across the universe” isn’t a million miles away from Yaz sorting out the parking dispute at the beginning, is it? (Absolutely dreading the inevitable police discourse that’s going to erupt when Yaz comments on the TARDIS being a “police box” tonight, though, damn.) In any case, though, it’s easy to see how they’re all going to gel together as a group, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this ensemble forms around the Doctor.

Speaking of – as if I’d forget – there’s the Doctor. Who is, of course, wonderful. That’s not a surprise, particularly; Jodie Whittaker has pretty consistently been the best part of everything I’ve seen her in, and as expected that still holds true. She’s charming and idiosyncratic and fun, and just generally a joy to watch. There’s a couple of rough moments, true, but even then “rough moments” feels like overstating it a bit – it’s the same ‘roughness’ you see at the start of every Doctor’s tenure, during that time before the part is being written to their performance entirely. That’s the sort of thing that’s going to iron out soon enough, and when so much of it is absolutely pitch perfect, why worry?

doctor who the woman who fell to earth review jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor outfit charity shop sheffield chris chibnall

There are bits that don’t work in the episode as a whole, admittedly. Fewer than I thought since rewatching it – like I said, some of the differences did trip me up a bit – but a couple all the same.

I wasn’t, admittedly, entirely keen on Tim Shaw (I’m certain I’ve heard that joke before?) – I know, of course, that these episodes aren’t the ones that tend to have, or even really should have, particularly deep or interesting monsters, but even so, a character straight out of 90s Star Trek is a little lame. The teeth was an interesting quirk, certainly, but even so – I’d have liked something a little bit more visually or conceptually engaging. Not even necessarily more complex – the Autons worked because of how simple they were – but perhaps just a little bit more interesting. Speaking of Tim Shaw, actually, the final resoluation felt a little messy – from that clunky line about “sorting out fair play” to “you had no right”, it doesn’t quite work. Particularly in the case of the latter; it’s an obvious call back to Tennant’s first episode, but doesn’t quite work conceptually here. If nothing else, poor Karl lashing out at Tim Shaw after the Doctor already tricked Tim into detonating the DNA bombs (which is hardly fair play!) doesn’t really make that much of a difference – it’s not really obvious what character point “you had no right” is meant to be making, not in the same way “no second chances, I’m that sort of a man” did all those years ago.

One that I am actually less inclined to criticise the episode for is the fridging of Grace – contrary to my usual stance, since that’s typically one of my biggest bugbears when it comes to television drama. No, in this case, while it did manage to be both deeply lazy and eminently predictable, I’m thinking it’s best to hold off on criticism, at least for the time being. At the moment, I’m convinced we’ve not quite seen the last of Grace – but perhaps that’s wishful thinking, motivated only by how engaging Sharon D. Clarke’s performance was, and my own hope that Doctor Who wouldn’t make such a dull move in this episode, of all episodes. (It’s particularly disappointing, I think, coming after the Moffat era, where deconstructing fridging and providing ‘better’ narratives for the Doctor-analogue characters was something of a recurring theme; if this does turn out to be as simple as looked, then yeah, it’s very much deserving of critique.)

Ultimately, then? Sure, there’s flaws – the direction is a little choppy and underwhelming at times, some of the character beats don’t quite land, Tim Shaw is a bit naff – but in the end, they don’t matter too much. The Woman Who Fell to Earth is, if nothing else, an entertaining and engaging piece of television, and a fine start to an era that’s obviously bursting with potential.

And Jodie Whittaker really is pretty brilliant.

7/10

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Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who: Everything we learned about Series 11 at SDCC 2018

doctor who series 11 sdcc 2018 news thirteenth doctor jodie whittaker the universe is calling sonic screwdriver yasmin khan graham o'brian chris chibnall matt strevens

As the Doctor puts it in the trailer, “all of this” is new to her – and it’s going to be new to the audience, too.

Chris Chibnall said that “this year is the perfect jumping on point for that person in your life who has never watched Doctor Who. I want you to go out there and SIT them down. There is no barrier for entry this year”. Nonetheless, though, Chibnall also specified that “it’s a continuation […] All the things you love about Doctor Who are in there” – as new companion actor Tosin Cole put it, “it’s still Doctor Who, just with a little sauce on it!”

Of course, while Chibnall emphasised in a recent interview with the Radio Times that we’d see “all-new stories, all-new monsters, all-new villains”, it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between “all-new” and “all new” – so don’t discount appearances from, say, the Daleks just yet…

An article on all the news about series 11 that we heard at SDCC! There’s a lot of very exciting stuff here, I genuinely can’t wait for Doctor Who to return (whenever that may be).

It did get me thinking recently, actually, that a lot of Series 11 stuff seems to be pretty perfectly pitched to my taste, and where I think Doctor Who should be right now (not just in terms of what we know about the plot, but also in terms of the way it’s marketed and the publicity materials and so on) – which is also, actually, what I thought about Series 8.

So what I’ve been wondering, basically, is whether or not I’m just remarkably prescient and on the ball, or if Doctor Who just leads my thoughts and tastes very specifically. Probably a bit of both, I guess.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: 42

doctor who 42 review chris chibnall title sequence david tennant tenth doctor martha jones freema agyeman

Burn with me

I wonder if this is how it felt to watch The Empty Child back in 2009. I suspect not, admittedly, because The Empty Child was quite a bit better than 42.

It is somewhat similar, though – because, much like The Empty Child, 42 is an episode that’s taken on a lot more significance because it marks the Doctor Who debut of our next showrunner – Chris Chibnall. At this point, he’d already written a lot of Torchwood’s first two seasons, and was, functionally speaking, the showrunner over on Torchwood anyway. It’s that that got him the Doctor Who gig, essentially. I’m hoping, across the next few months – and certainly in the lead up to Chibnall’s first series of Doctor Who – to take a look through Chibnall’s back catalogue of Doctor Who, Torchwood, Broadchurch, and even Law and Order: UK, in an attempt to try and discern what Chibnall’s time as Doctor Who showrunner might be like.

For now, though, we’ve got 42. Admittedly, it’s not an amazing debut – certainly, it’s not The Empty Child. The benefit of hindsight means we know, of course, that Chibnall can and will do better, so this isn’t the end of the world – and even then, there’s something a little unfair about judging someone so harshly on a script that’s over a decade old. Indeed, a lot of the complaints I’d make about this episode (and will, in a moment) are ones that I know Chibnall can do better with – indeed, what’s lacking here proves to be amongst his best strengths on Broadchurch.

But even so, there’s something a bit disappointing about this script. I think it was Elizabeth Sandifer who pointed this out, though I’m sure lots of other people commented on it too – this is an episode that promises to offer a 24 pastiche by way of Douglas Adams, and then fails to live up to that potential. When it comes to that sort of possibility, to fail to meet it – well, there were times when I almost felt like they should have cut out all the references to the time and just renamed the episode The Fall of the Pentallion or something suitably mundane.

It’s competent and entirely average in terms of its quality. There’s not exactly any particular spark to this episode, nor any particularly interesting concepts (or, perhaps more accurately, no well utilised interesting concepts). And, I must admit, that’s my chief fear about the Chibnall era of Doctor Who – that what we’re going to get will be just about average, rather than anything special.

Still, though – that’s over a year to go at this point. For now, let’s focus on 2007 again.

doctor who 42 review martha jones freema agyeman escape pod chris chibnall graeme harper

The big thing I want to talk about is the real-time conceit. Is it particularly unfair to say it doesn’t work?

42 should have been the tensest episode of Doctor Who ever – by all rights, that’s the only way it can actually work. We need to feel the countdown with every passing moment; all the circumlocution and digression can’t just feel like standard ambling Doctor Who – it need to be deeply distressing, because they’re running out of time. That moment when Martha’s mum is struggling to plug in the mouse USB shouldn’t be annoying, it should be terrifying! The classic Doctor Who angle of making the mundane frightening – having to flip over the USB several times to make it fit the computer becomes the scariest thing in the world when every second counts! Right?

Well, no. It just doesn’t work. The real-time conceit is ultimately just a piece of throwaway fluff; you could edit out the few lines of dialogue that reference it and the occasional shot of the countdown clock and the episode would be entirely unchanged. It doesn’t use the concept of a real-time episode particularly well – in the end, it’s just a bit of set dressing, and very little more.

Admittedly, I’m not sure how to fix it. One of the big things that would have helped, actually, would have been a timer on screen – not so dissimilar to how Mummy on the Orient Express did a countdown for the Foretold attacks. The cuts to the countdown clock at random intervals are too disconnected, too divorced from the actual episode itself for them to work – and I’m not actually convinced they match up in real time anyway. Having an actual timer on screen would, if nothing else, really emphasise just how much time they had left – and stop it from feeling like just any old episode.

But then, there’s actually more to it than that, because 42 is written like it’s just any old episode. It’s paced as though they’ve got the same amount of time as usual; the characters aren’t really responding to how little time they have left. 42 should have been much more frenetic, and broken the characters up a bit more. It’s actually a real problem that we never got much sense of the geography of the place, and how easy it is to run from one area to another – how big is the ship? It should get to the point where the Doctor can’t just run to the medbay to help out there, because he doesn’t have enough time – that’s an interesting idea to create some tension, surely?

Unfortunately, though, it just doesn’t work. The episode isn’t terribly stunted for it, but it certainly isn’t as successful as it could have been for not fulfilling this potential.

doctor who 42 review david tennant tenth doctor burn with me chris chibnall graeme harper

Functionally, 42 takes the shape and format of a base under siege episode – and these are the sorts of episodes that live or die on the basis of their supporting cast. Which begs the question: is the supporting cast of 42 actually any good?

Well, um, no.

That’s largely down to Chris Chibnall’s writing, though – there’s not much of an attempt to particularly flesh these characters out. Some fare better than others, obviously; Kath and Riley, by virtue of being the ones that the Doctor and Martha play off of, get a bit more depth. Riley is interesting, actually, by virtue of being something of a romantic interest for Martha… which feels unearned, admittedly, and is only going to stick out like a sore thumb later on given that Martha’s interest in the Doctor is maintained.

On which note – the Doctor is a little insufferable in these episodes too, isn’t he? Well, I say a little, I mean a lot. I’m beginning to understand, in a very immediate way, why people don’t like the Tenth Doctor. I think it’s diminishing my enjoyment of the series, to be honest – and even just from my recollection of what’s coming over the next few weeks, I’m concerned about how much worse it’s going to get.

This feels like a bit of a stunted review. My own fault, admittedly; last week I was in a rush to finish it before going out in the evening, before realising I had an extra week because of Eurovision. And now, tonight, with a few more paragraphs to go, I’m finding myself largely out of things to say.

Perhaps that’s just indicative of the episode itself though. Perfectly functional, entirely competent… difficult to get much analysis from. I suspect that’s why it’s easy to criticise this episode, and indeed why I did – because the things it is good at are things that are difficult to write about extensively. It’s easy, though, to criticise the episode, even if that is essentially for being something that it’s not.

Certainly, it’s worth noting, if nothing else, that I did enjoy it. It’s perhaps unfair to ask more of the episode – but if we’re looking forward to years of “enjoyable Chibnall episodes that are difficult to write lots of words about”, this blog is in trouble!

6/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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