Doctor Who Review: Can You Hear Me?

doctor who review can you hear me chris chibnall emma sullivan charlene james yaz mandip gill ryan tosin cole

I didn’t know who to say it to, so I thought I’d say it to you.

[Note: this review, like the episode itself, touches on themes of mental illness/depression.]

Let’s start with the most striking detail of this episode: Yaz, for a long time the most anonymous and vaguely drawn Doctor Who companion of the past decade, was here revealed to have a history of depression. Not just that, though: three years prior, she ran away from home, intending to commit suicide.

Can You Hear Me? stops slightly short of making this explicit, admittedly, but it’d be understating it to call this subtext. Yaz is running away, yes, but note the framing: Sonya is “worried you’ve left and you’re gonna do something stupid”, the policewoman is trying to convince her that “there’s so much ahead of you”, and coming home is “better than the other way”. Running away isn’t the issue; it’s what she might do next that’s cause for concern. The episode avoids saying the word “suicide”, yes, but you don’t have to read into the episode very far to see what they’re getting at – if nothing else, an anniversary meal to commemorate the day Yaz didn’t run away doesn’t quite fit the way the characters actually talk about this.

It’s worth asking, perhaps, how effective it is to frame it this way – and I mean that less in terms of whether the episode should’ve used the word “suicide” or not (Vincent and the Doctor uses it far fewer times than you’d expect and got the point across), but rather the metaphor of running away specifically. Granted, at this point it begins to get into questions of children’s TV, and what exactly is appropriate where; my sense, personally anyway, is that a line like “grades have gone a bit wonky, parents don’t get what’s up” is going to come across as patronising rather than striking a chord. (Actually, that’s a wider thing I’ve wondered about for years – does it do a disservice to young people to talk around the issue like this? Do, say, anti-cyberbullying campaigns, that frame the worst bullying as “you’re a loser” style taunts, give the wrong impression of how severe these things can be? Is that why so many people think it is as simple as just turning off the computer and walking away? Not a clue, but it’s been an ongoing idle thought over the years.) But, that said, you never know, and as is it’ll surely mean a lot to someone.

Even outside of that, though, there’s a bit of a sense that the episode was holding back a little. That’s come up before, a little, in The Witchfinders, the last time we noted that Yaz has a history of being bullied. Implicit-but-unsaid then, as now, is the idea that it was specifically Islamophobic bullying that Yaz was experiencing. There’s been an odd reticence, actually, to address Yaz’s faith across the series – Demons of the Punjab exists, yes, but I’d argue that episode was often more about Yaz’s family than Yaz herself. Interestingly enough, actually, we know that Juno Dawson, who wrote a Doctor Who novel about faith and religion, was told by the BBC not to dwell on Yaz-as-a-Muslim – for whatever reason, this era of the show, which has often engaged with religion in a way Doctor Who rarely has before, is strangely reluctant to admit to the faith of one of its leads. That’s not to say, for what it’s worth, that I’m suggesting Doctor Who’s first Muslim companion should’ve been driven to suicidal thoughts because of racist abuse – just that, in telling this story, they’re still perhaps a step or two away from anything resembling character specificity.

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Which gets at one of the more obvious faults in this episode – it really, really should’ve aired last year. As it is, there’s a sense that someone in the production office realised that Mandip Gill was probably going to be leaving at the end of the year, in turn prompting a slightly-too-late attempt at giving Yaz some interiority. It’s not ideal: Can You Hear Me? would have benefitted a great deal from having something to build off of, or at least more than a throwaway reference to bullying in one episode. (After what Mandip Gill has been saying about a big plotline for Yaz this year, her secret finally revealed, it does make me wonder slightly if she felt it was always building up to this, or if that’s just PR-speak.) But, you know, equally, for the past few weeks now I’ve offered that caveat, suggesting these episodes are better when judged in isolation – perhaps after a few weeks of “this would be better if the episodes around it were better”, it’s time to concede that maybe things are starting to work?

Certainly, Ryan’s nightmare this week is, I think, the closest that a particular vision of the Chibnall era has ever come to working: it feels grounded and character-driven in the way that Doctor Who has clearly been intended to be but fallen short of in recent years. That Ryan’s worst fear is, essentially, a form of climate grief – cleverly tied back to Orphan 55, and the sense he’s missing his friends’ lives – is sublime. That’s a deft bit of character work, letting the science fiction resonate emotionally in a way it hasn’t in quite some time; between Orphan 55, Praxeus, and this, Series 12 is actually starting to feel not just incisive but almost vital in its engagement with that growing cultural sense of environmental anxiety. (It even goes some ways towards redeeming the clunky ending of Orphan 55, for me at least – it’s now consciously unresolved, that “you can still do something” speech having a degree more weight to it because it now seems like Ryan actually will.) Tosin Cole again is doing stellar work: of the four leads, it’s him who’s impressed me most across Series 12. Perhaps it’s a case of him getting better material than last year; maybe he’s just a better actor now. Either way, I’m now quite determined to watch 61st Street, the American drama he’ll be in next year.

And, again, Graham’s storyline basically works – with none of the same caveats I might offer about Yaz or Ryan’s. Given Chibnall’s Doctor Who has always been more interested in him than the other two companions, there’s more for Can You Hear Me? to work with – his cancer is long-established at this point, and Grace’s cameo has a weight and significance that Tibo’s appearance can’t sustain. (It’s sort of odd, isn’t it, that Grace has essentially entirely become Graham’s supporting character, and very rarely has any relevance to Ryan’s plotlines? Again, I can’t help but feel that it should’ve been Ryan reunited with Grace in It Takes You Away rather than Graham – here, at least, it’d make her appearance in Graham’s nightmare all the more poignant.) It’s not the standout moment of the episode, albeit with one exception I’ll get to in a moment, but it works: something that all involved are very good at, have done very well before, and are doing very well again here. I suspect few people would’ve expected Bradley Walsh’s performance to be the most consistently and reliably good bit of any given Doctor Who episode, but hey, it’s hard to complain too much.

doctor who review can you hear me jodie whittaker bradley walsh graham cancer chris chibnall charlene james emma sullivan

Unexpectedly, then, Jodie Whittaker was the weakest part of this episode. Much like last week, actually – if you’d said to me at the start of the series that two weeks running that Mandip Gill as Yaz would leave a greater impression than Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

Part of this is because she’s found herself stuck with a plotline that doesn’t quite work, running around and doing quirks at the latest iteration of a generic Doctor Who space god. Zellin and Rakaya – more consonant heavy names from Chibnall – don’t make much of an impression, Ian Gelder’s performance aside. That’s more of a dialogue issue than anything else: that sort of eternal being type character is hard to get right at the best of times, and Zellin’s dreary monologing was very much not “the best of times”. The detachable fingers is a nice image (though surely they should’ve gone into the ear the other way up?) and the animated sequence is a genuinely lovely experiment of the sort I wish Doctor Who would do more often, but really the best thing that can be said of Zellin and Rakaya is that their plotline is introduced and resolved in about twenty minutes. Even if they had been a little more interesting, though, the Doctor would still have been a little disservice by the nightmare plot – her worst fear is, uh, a teaser for an arc we still don’t quite understand? I get what it’s going for, but it’s plot over character, and it doesn’t particularly work. It’s not unlike how one of the duller parts of The Time of the Doctor was revealing what was in the Doctor’s room in The God Complex. You’d think, if it absolutely had to be an arc thing, that a flashback to Jo Martin’s Doctor might’ve been a bit more appropriate.

It gets at a wider problem, though, which is that I’m not actually sure anyone involved has a sense of this Doctor as a character. There’s a personality, yes, and a voice, a collection of quirks and tics and attributes… all of which, to my mind, still fall a little short of a character. This, admittedly, is often something that’s difficult to articulate – in part it’s a question of range and of flaws – but, handily, there’s actually quite a good example of this in the episode. A little surprisingly, the ending to Can You Hear Me? – the Doctor’s “I’m actually still quite socially awkward” response to Graham opening up about his cancer – has proven quite controversial, to the point that the BBC actually issued a statement about it. Some people love it; some don’t. What I found interesting about it though is that there’s certainly a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that is socially awkward, that would say something like that, and it could still read as touching. But at the same time, there’s a version of Whittaker’s Doctor that’s more keenly, openly empathetic than her predecessors – there are two competing and contradictory versions of this character, the writing has never quite cohering. It’s no wonder Whittaker is starting to struggle with the part.

Ultimately, despite its flaws – which I spent longer on than I’d perhaps intended at first – I really, really liked Can You Hear Me? I’d quite confidently say it’s one of the best of both Series 12 and the Chibnall era as a whole – but it also points, quite clearly, to some improvements that will have to be made across Series 13.

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Doctor Who Review: Praxeus

doctor who review praxeus jamie magnus stone chris chibnall pete mctighe jodie whittaker mandip gill

Seven billion lives. Separate, and connected, from the edge of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean.

It says a lot about how little I trust Pete McTighe after last time that those opening lines had me worried the Doctor was suddenly going to start advocating Malthusian population control measures. But she didn’t! Sure, the framing monologue itself was rubbish – it’s only nominally connected to the actual content of the episode itself, probably more befitting a butterfly-effect narrative a la The Pyramid at the End of the World – but, given the Doctor didn’t explicitly come out in favour of anything actively evil this go around, we can probably call it a wash.

I joke, of course, but that sort of “well, yes, but” despite itself sentiment largely prevails across the episode – a story which, caveats aside, is actually I guess probably one of my favourites of the Chibnall era, and certainly of this series. Which I can’t say I was expecting after Ker-blam! (There’s an obvious comparison to be made between another debut episode I disliked, and the same writer’s subsequent offerings that I rather did, but I’ll elide that for the moment. Points if you can guess what I have in mind though, I suppose.) Anyway, damning with faint praise or not, I was reasonably fond of Praxeus. As with Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, I imagine I’d be inclined to be more critical of it any of it any other year – for the moment, though, there’s a lot to appreciate about an episode that manages to get the basics right.

For the most part, Praxeus is an episode that’s comfortable in itself, one of the first episodes that feels like a ‘year two’ piece in a meaningful sense. Where Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror or Orphan 55 might quite easily have found a spot in a twelve-episode Series 11, there’s a sense about Praxeus that some lessons have been learned. The growing pains are gone: it balances the large guest cast that is, for some reason, a staple of the Chibnall-era better than most; it’s more assured in its exposition (no small feat – contrast the Doctor just showing up in each location, accompanied only by the TARDIS sound effect, with the level of hand-holding needed to explain each sci-fi contrivance in any other given episode); it manages to be touch on modern concerns, and indeed actually be about something, without relying on awkward, almost extra-diegetic proselytising. There is, perhaps, something to be said for McTighe’s own showrunning experience here – he’s a writer who, if nothing else, very much knows what he’s doing.

(Which, incidentally, raises an interesting question about Chibnall’s cowriting credit. McTighe is exactly the sort of experienced screenwriter that Russell T Davies wouldn’t have rewritten at all – a Steven Moffat, Matthew Graham, Stephen Greenhorn, and indeed Chris Chibnall type screenwriter – so it’s not, presumably, simply Chibnall being more inclined to take a credit for the work his predecessors did unrecognised. At the same time, though, there are no obvious moments – or wider, arc-related signifance – that stands out about Praxeus; it’s a fairly easy bit of archaeology to assume that Chibnall wrote the scenes with Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon, and provided at least a steering hand on the Jo Martin scenes. So, anyway: curious.)

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Granted, though, that comfort obscures some flaws. Sometimes, clarity is sacrificed for momentum – not a huge problem when it’s fridge logic plot details like how exactly Adam texted Jake, but rather more so when it’s a question of emotional clarity, like Gabriela mourning her friend’s death right up until she seemingly just sort of forgets about it. The environmental message is fumbled somewhat when the blame is placed on an alien pathogen rather than human action. It’s difficult to care about Jake’s almost-sacrifice, given how trite and contrived that trope so often is. The direction lets the episode down, never quite managing to really push the idea that this is what a particularly frantic day looks like for the Doctor, trying to be everywhere at once. Jodie Whittaker is mostly on autopilot; every Doctor has an episode like that, and she more or less manages, but there are a few moments where it really stands out. When she eventually leaves the part, I don’t know that we’ll be sad her tenure is over, but that rather that it never really began – I can’t quite think of what we might point to as Whittaker’s Dalek, The Girl in the Fireplace, The Doctor’s Wife, or Heaven Sent. That’s a shame, really, no matter how you look at it.

Yet I’m finding it hard to summon the enthusiasm to stick the knife into Praxeus particularly. Yes, any other year, this episode is going to be something like The Idiot’s Lantern or Knock Knock – the middle of the road piece where, you know, there’s certainly something to be said of them, but they’re never going to be the most compelling, or most polarising, of their respective series. It’s the 6/10, ‘pleasantly surprising when you rewatch it a few years later but nothing special’ episode. Which is fine! Not every episode can be Love & Monsters or Hell Bent – and I’ve been deliberate in choosing episodes that I know some people will have quite different opinions on. No, it’s not great that it looks like Praxeus is going to be one of the highlights of Series 12 is, almost by default. But I wrote a review bemoaning the wider state of Series 12 a few weeks ago; I don’t need to write another. (Especially because I suspect I eventually will, so the longer I can put that off, the better.) I suppose, had Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and Praxeus been swapped in the running order, I’d have been decidedly more positive about the former, and more inclined to criticise Praxeus.

And, hey, there’s still a lot to like about Praxeus. Tosin Cole in particular had a good week, offering a more confident, mature take on Ryan – the slightly Doctor-ish, three-quarter length coat an especially nice touch to reflect that. It’s a neat premise too: I love it when Doctor Who is big, expansive, and worldwide, and outside of New Earth we’ve not really done alien viruses in the new series. The romantic plotline between Jake and Adam was surprisingly touching, too, and a welcome effort from an era that’s really struggled with its promised LGBT representation. And Bradley Walsh’s quiet, wordless smile on the beach in that scene with Jake is surely some of his best work on Doctor Who yet. Plus, a lot of the jokes are good too. So, sure, why not.

doctor who review praxeus mandip gill yaz bradley walsh graham warren brown pete mctighe plastic jamie magnus stone chris chibnall

Of course, it’s not just Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh who did well in Praxeus – let’s just pause for a moment and imagine Mandip Gill reading the script for this episode, a single, solitary tear rolling down her face, overjoyed and (ironically) speechless that Yaz, finally, miraculously, at last has something to do.

Embarrassingly, actually (though you be the judge as to whether I should be embarrassed, or Chibnall et al) when Yaz displayed a hitherto unseen personality this week, I assumed it was a function of the plot – like, the computer panel was exerting some alien influence on her, and we were supposed to notice her sudden flash of independence and see it as cause for concern. Not so, thankfully, but it says a lot that, for a moment at least, that felt like the natural reading of that scene. So rare is it for Yaz to actually have something to do, and for Mandip Gill to play a line as anything other than earnest, that Praxeus arguably might well be a better story for the character than her nominal spotlight episodes, Arachnids in the UK and Demons of the Punjab.

Yaz has always been a bit of a problem companion – not particularly connected to Grace’s death, the catalyst for Series 11’s emotional arc, nor the big name actor everyone’s keen to write for (or, alternatively, who has a contractually obliged number of lines per episode) – and Mandip Gill, unlike Tosin Cole, isn’t a strong enough actor to make an impression despite being underserved by the material. At times, actually, she’s been such a non-entity it’s felt like there’s some merit to the occasionally vaunted idea that Yaz wasn’t part of the initial plan for Series 11 – either added later when Chibnall realised the gender balance of the regulars was a little off, or when Vinay Patel pitched a partition episode. It’s unlikely, of course (though perhaps notable that ‘Yasmin Khan’ shares a name with a prolific partition era historian), but it speaks volumes that the character plausibly could be excised without making much difference.

Little about Yaz’s role in Praxeus feels like it follows on from her presence in prior episodes – I mean, certainly, “independent and resourceful” is something you might expect of Yaz, given her introduction in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, but it hardly chimes with The Tsuranga Conundrum or Resolution. But then, you know, who cares? Praxeus feels like a glimpse into another universe – the middle of the road episode from a genuinely very good series, where Mandip Gill got to play this version of the character all the time. As it is, this middle of the road episode feels like something genuinely quite significant by virtue of the stories around it – and, after complaining so much about how little Mandip Gill gets to do, it’d perhaps be remiss of me not to celebrate Yaz finally starting to resemble an actual character.

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Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jo martin ruth doctor chris chibnall vinay patel nida manzoor

Doesn’t time fly when you don’t have all the answers?

I am, I think, finally starting to understand Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who.

That’s been a point of contention for a little while now, something I’ve spoken about in my review of each part of Spyfall; there’s been, to my mind, a frustrating almost-anonymity to Chibnall’s Doctor Who work, leaving a lot of it feeling like a weak, Davies-era tribute act. I’ve never entirely understood what exactly drives Chibnall, what he thinks Doctor Who is for, what he loves about it. “Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who” has never felt as coherent a concept as “Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who” – much as the latter is often misunderstood, there’s an obvious set of easy to appreciate personal idiosyncrasies that the former very much lacks.

But! I recently read quite an interesting interview with Chibnall (in a magazine, otherwise I’d link it) which I think sheds some light on it all. He described series 12, in contrast to series 11, as “a journey deeper into Doctor Who” – where series 11 was about setting the stage, this is Chibnall finally getting towards doing what he actually wants to do with the series.

Which, actually, makes a lot of sense. Granted, I’m inclined to question just how well series 11 functions as an introduction to how good Doctor Who can be – given that it, uh, was rarely as good as Doctor Who could be – and I’m more than a little suspicious of how in tune his populist instincts actually are, but it makes sense. Series 11, in that sense, almost starts to look like Chibnall’s version of series 10 – not quite treading water, exactly, but a prologue inspired by a popular predecessor in the same way that was an epilogue. Series 12 is what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who should be – as he put it in the interview, “all the treats of the Doctor Who universe and then some”. That, immediately, is much more interesting to me than the (deliberately) simpler, less overtly authored series 11.

Granted, I still don’t know exactly how I feel about this vision – it’s perhaps a little too rooted in established canon and continuity call-backs, even for me – and, more to the point, I’m still not entirely sure where it’s going. Jo Martin’s Doctor is fascinating, though, and introducing her character feels like the most ambitious the show has been since… well, I suppose since casting Jodie Whittaker. For the first time in a long time, to me at least, the series feels genuinely quite compelling – and that’s a pretty nice feeling, actually.

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Which isn’t to say, though, that it’s necessarily actually any good. Honestly, there’s a case to be made that Fugitive of the Judoon is scarcely an episode at all – just an hour of set-up, moving the pieces around the chess board so that they’re ready for (presumably) the finale.

So, it’s probably worth discussing Jack for a moment. On a production level, it’s more or less inevitable that the character would end up returning – he’s the most easily revisited Davies-era character, for one thing, and certainly one of the most popular (like, I’d love to see Martha back – the only other character you could bring back without having to tie yourself in knots to explain how they’ve returned – but I can’t imagine many people are really clamouring for that). Even setting aside the Davies-era nostalgia, though, Jack was always going to return because John Barrowman is something of a household name. In 2005, he was a theatre actor, with a couple of small film roles; now, he’s been on I’m a Celebrity, he’s a judge on Dancing on Ice, he’s hosted game shows and talent contests and he’s a talk show regular. John Barrowman is, if you like, Bradley Walsh after the watershed – of course he was going to return in Chibnall’s Doctor Who. And, you know, John Barrowman aside, I do basically like Captain Jack, as indeed I like, well, everything from Doctor Who when I was 10. Yes, it’s pretty much entirely nostalgia, but it just about worked for me (even if, structurally, it was a bit of a mess).

What was interesting, though, is how much his sheer force of personality – for better or for worse – nearly entirely overshadowed the other companions. There’s something fundamentally really, really strange about Yaz sharing screentime with Jack – the difference between caricature and character writ large in a Bristol Cathedral dressed as a spaceship. Yaz, of course, was already poorly served by this episode, which was already especially egregious given it was the alien space police episode, but Jack’s return threw it into even sharper relief.

Granted, I don’t actually think Jack was especially well-served by Chibnall’s writing either – often feeling more like a memory of the character’s quirks, and too reliant on technobabble that was never Barrowman’s strong suit anyway – and structurally, his involvement in the episode was a mess. (You couldn’t have given the three companions something to do within this – helping Jack somehow, rather than just watching?) But it highlights, I think, the limits to Chibnall’s skill, even now, as we’re starting to get a better understanding of just where he wants to direct that skill.

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jodie whittaker jo martin doctor ruth gloucester

On the plus side, though, Jodie Whittaker had one of her best weeks yet. So that was nice.

As I noted last week, Whittaker has always done best in the role when she’s had to play against a strong guest actor; the reason, I think, is that it draws out her otherwise fairly passive take on the character. Pushed to the margins, she’s forced to try and reassert herself over the narrative – so in that sense, pairing her with another Doctor is sublime. Here, the challenge to her place as lead is, by necessity, much stronger that it ever is with Tesla or King James – because Jo Martin, and Jo Martin’s Doctor, offer a very different vision of what the programme could be. It’s not a huge surprise that there were people left sort of wishing the series stayed with Martin at the end – that means it’s working!

(Although, of course, I suspect the two Doctors will eventually find themselves a little more closely aligned by the end. It’s surely not a coincidence, after all, that the Ruth Doctor evokes Grace – who was very consciously, explicitly paralleled with the Doctor in The Woman Who Fell to Earth.)

In places, yes, I do still wish Jodie Whittaker was being given more to do. She’s plainly capable of so much, and the show is often so close to giving her things to do – that confrontation with the companions at end, where she brushes them off and insists they don’t know her, has a bitterness and an edge to it that’s almost entirely unlike anything she’s got to do so far. That’s brilliant! I’d love to see more of that! But it was resolved, so, so quickly, it didn’t really go anyway. A shame.

At the end of my review of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – an episode that, I think, is actually probably better than Fugitive of the Judoon – I commented that it’s perhaps not a good thing that it was the best Doctor Who could do. This week, though, I welcome the ambition on display – even if it doesn’t always add up to much, it feels like Doctor Who has regained a certain sense of momentum. I’m really, really glad of that.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

doctor who review nikola tesla's night of terror nina metivier chris chibnall nida manzoor jodie whittaker goran visnjic

The present is theirs. I work for the future. And the future is mine.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is, immediately, one of the best five episodes of the Chibnall era – which perhaps says altogether more about Doctor Who of late in general than it does about this episode in particular.

The trouble with reviewing Chibnall’s Doctor Who – or, one of the issues I’m starting to have, anyway – is that I’m never quite sure how much to approach a given story in terms of what’s going on around it. Does Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror demand to be read in isolation, or should it be contextualised by the rest of series 12?

The answer, I suppose, is surely ‘both’, but I can’t help but feel the latter places a certain unfair weight on the story. As ever, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is a dismal episode for Yaz; the occasional flash of charm aside, poor Mandip Gill is given such utterly thankless, banal lines I continue to feel sorry for her. (“It’s sensing it’s surroundings, like a scanner” has to be one of the more egregious bits of Chibnall-era hand-holding exposition: for all that the series emphasises scientific thinking and curiosity in its current iteration, there’s an odd unwillingness to trust in its audience’s ability to understand a concept the first go around.)

I’m not wholly sure, though, how much Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror deserves critique for that. Clearly, it’s an endemic problem – the issue is with Doctor Who as a whole right now, not this episode in and of itself alone. Any other year, it likely wouldn’t even warrant a mention; it doesn’t matter particularly that Rose is a little underserved in The Long Game, because Dalek and Father’s Day fall on either side of it. There are a few episodes in Series 9 where I wish Jenna Coleman was given a little more to do, but I’m more or less inclined to forgive them given quite how good Face the Raven and Hell Bent are for Clara. If Spyfall or Orphan 55 had found more space for Yaz, then it wouldn’t matter quite so much that she’s sidelined here – but they don’t, so it does.

Yaz isn’t the only issue you could highlight, of course; generally speaking, few of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’s problems are uniquely its own. Perhaps, I suppose, it’s time to stop drawing attention to them. (Or, you know, less so – you can probably take it as read that Yaz is underserved by an episode, so it doesn’t always need to be mentioned, but if she’s still side lined in Fugitive of the Judoon, it probably warrants a mention.) Still, though, at a certain point I think there’s a need to forgive Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, or any given episode really, for being part of Series 12, and just take them on their own strengths.

And, freed of the obligation to be a good episode of series 12, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror ends up being… well, basically quite enjoyable actually.

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Tesla, of course, is self-evidently a good idea for a Doctor Who celebrity historical – “brilliant Victorian inventor”, after all, is exactly what the Doctor is half the time. If you’re inclined to position the celebrity historical as a way to interrogate your lead characters, it’d hard to think of a character better than the archetypical eccentric inventor. He’s particularly a good fit for this iteration of the Doctor, who is (nominally speaking) an inventor herself – and, although they didn’t touch on it, Tesla’s slightly idiosyncratic view of women might’ve been an interesting thing to draw on as well.

And he’s great here! It’s a depiction that really works – in no small part to the strength of Goran Visnjic’s performance, who absolutely nails the charisma needed to centre the episode. It really makes a huge difference to the rest of the cast, too, in giving them someone to actually play off – this is perhaps one of Jodie Whittaker’s best performances in the role (not entirely surprisingly; she’s always at her best when paired with a strong guest star). There’s a moment or two where it looked like it might start to riff on The Girl in the Fireplace. I’d love to see Whittaker given something like that, actually.

Perhaps my only qualm, though, is the way the episode tries to position Tesla as a great man forgotten by history. Bluntly, no, he’s not. Not as well known as Shakespeare or Churchill or Rosa Parks, no, but hardly someone whose achievements haven’t been celebrated. Sure, The Current War didn’t make much of an impact, and I suppose The Prestige – where Tesla was played by David Bowie! – is probably one of Christopher Nolan’s less famous films, comparatively speaking, but they’re very much just the tip of the iceberg in terms of pop culture depictions of Tesla. Even in his own lifetime, he didn’t cut an especially anonymous figure: TIME magazine celebrated his 75th birthday by putting his face on the cover and had a huge party in his honour. Einstein was there! Vincent van Gogh he was not, is my point.

Granted, there’s rarely much merit to picking apart these stories in terms of their historical accuracy – Rosa aside, that’s just not really what they’re for. (Which does I think create more of a need to pick Rosa apart, but that’s another matter.) I’m not even especially bothered by the way they elided some of Tesla’s more reactionary views; after all, if that’s the line of critique you’re making, the queue surely starts with Churchill.

There’s something a little off, though, about the narrative this episode tries to build around him. Because that’s just not true of Tesla! There’s a value to doing stories about great achievements forgotten by history – the Rosalind Franklin, Mary Anning types, for example, or even Ada Lovelace, who was much more than just Byron’s daughter even if Chibnall doesn’t realise it – but I’m not sure that “the white man who deserved to be a billionaire” fits this particular story.

doctor who review nikola tesla night of terror anjli mohindra queen skithra scorpion

Everything else, of course, is basically entertaining. It’s the sort of episode that I almost want to review in bullet point form, admittedly, covering individual clunky lines and particular highlights one by one – but they all largely balance each other out, anyway. The direction is a little flat at times, yes, but this TARDIS has genuinely never looked better (an impressive feat, considering the design). The Skithra are actually quite fun – I love how clumsy they are – and Anjli Mohindra is clearly having the time of her life, even if scorpion aliens maybe don’t quite cohere with the themes of the rest of the episode. In any case, both Nina Metivier and Nida Manzoor are surely due a return. (It’s a very alliterative episode I’ve realised, isn’t it? Nina Metivier, Nida Manzoor, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. That’s a nice little coincidence.)

Still, though. It’s taken me a while to write this one (I’ve backdated the post, shh), in part because… well, it’s unfair to say nothing is going on in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Indeed, for a genuinely quite compelling read on the themes, ideas and contradictions of the episode, I’d point you to this article here, on a website that’s routinely doing the most interesting Doctor Who analysis around.

Nonetheless, though, there’s something a little frustrating about Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Setting aside the fact that it has surely the best episode title we’ve seen in a long time, it’s hard not to think that at any other point in the past decade this would’ve felt average at best – something akin to Fear Her or The Curse of the Black Spot. Which, in fairness, isn’t necessarily indicative of much – I rewatched Robot of Sherwood recently, an episode that’s largely in the same vein, and loved every minute of it. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror certainly feels like it might age well in the same vein. (And, of course, I have little doubt that Fear Her and The Curse of the Black Spot are someone’s favourite episodes. Well, maybe not Fear Her, but someone other than Karen Gillan must love The Curse of the Black Spot.)

But if this is still the best we can hope for, if this is obviously and immediately one of the best episodes of the Chibnall era, then I can’t help but feel that Doctor Who is perhaps not at its healthiest.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Orphan 55

doctor who orphan 55 review ed hime tosin cole chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill

The people who used to have this planet could’ve changed, but they didn’t. So they lost everything.

I’m conscious, sometimes, that these reviews trend negative. I don’t entirely enjoy Chibnall’s Doctor Who, after all; it frustrates me deeply, and it’s often difficult to appreciate these episodes without caveats. I’m inclined to think my criticisms of this era are basically defensible – although, you know, I would – and I like to think I’m approaching it with the same consistency and the same critical eye as I do anything else.

Still, though, criticising a Jodie Whittaker-fronted episode of Doctor Who feels oddly like a statement, frankly more than it should. At a certain point, I worry that it gets a little #NotMyDoctor – there’s something that feels a tad odd about critiquing a work who’s most vocal and vociferous critics are, more often than not, the worst kind of people. I’m coming at it from an entirely different angle, of course, but there’s a sense still that I’m joining the same chorus of voices – and that isn’t something I’m entirely comfortable with, even as I’m convinced this Doctor Who deserves critique. There’s a point, I’ve often thought, where I’ll simply stop writing about Doctor Who entirely if it doesn’t improve, because I just really don’t want to seem like one of those people. (Which would be a little sad, I guess, for me if not anyone else.)

So! Let’s take a moment instead to just dwell on something – or someone – in this episode I thought was genuinely quite brilliant: Tosin Cole.

Ryan is an odd character, I think. There’s a version of this all where he’s much more explicitly the ‘main’ character – where The Woman Who Fell to Earth was called Ryan, where he was the character reunited with Grace in It Takes You Away, our viewpoint in all this, that sort of thing. Technically, yes, he is the main companion – but because Bradley Walsh plays Graham, and Bradley Walsh is a brand unto himself in a way another actor wouldn’t be, Graham exerts a lot of narrative gravity that Ryan would otherwise hold. Granted, it’s something all the companions have been victims of, and Ryan has certainly fared better than Yaz… but I’m still struggling to think of, say, big scenes he’s shared with the Doctor individually. What should arguably be the core relationship of the show is quite underdeveloped.

Still, though, when the character works, and I do think he often does, it’s down to Tosin Cole’s performance. What he’s especially good at – here and elsewhere, most memorably Arachnids in the UK – is little background details, broad physical comedy at the edges of the screen. It’s a genuinely emotive – genuinely funny – performance from Cole, the type he’s not had a chance to offer in quite some time. There’s a version of Ryan here I hope we get to see more often: there’s a case to be made, I think, that Orphan 55 is the character’s best episode yet.

doctor who orphan 55 review tosin cole ryan sinclair ed hime lee haven jones chris chibnall

It helps, of course, that Cole gets some great material here too – Ryan’s often quite cute interactions with Bella in particular. There’s a bit more personality to it for a change, and Cole has obvious chemistry with Gia Ré. (More than he seems to have had with Gill, anyway, although given quite how slowly the inevitable Ryan/Yaz romantic pairing is being introduced, perhaps the chemistry is still yet to come.)

Unfortunately, though, it’s difficult to say this for the rest of this week’s guest cast. It felt like Voyage of the Damned by way of The Infinite Quest – constantly moving forward, constantly reinventing itself (the reveal that Bella is Kane’s daughter comes almost exactly five minutes after Bella first mentions her mother), but lacking any space to breathe. None of these character moments work, because, well, of course they don’t – it’s much, much too busy.

Orphan 55 has momentum, yes, but that momentum is built at the expense of clarity. There are quite a few wrinkles I wish were better explained – how conscious are the dregs, how intelligent are they? Did they torture Benni, imitate his voice, or did he mutate into one of them? Whichever it was, I suspect it changed between scripting, filming, editing and transmission. Are the dregs the villains or the victims of the piece? After all, they’re presumably the descendants of the people who weren’t rich enough to escape the Earth. (This raises another interesting question, though – if those aren’t first-hand memories of the apocalypse, then it’s information that has been conveyed to the dreg – which suggest intelligence, society, some sort of recorded history?)

If Kane is terraforming Earth, isn’t that a good thing? Orphan 55 touches on some interesting ideas about colonialism and capitalism, both of which are easy to tie to environmentalism; when the tourism resort is revealed as a front to fund the terraforming project, it could be read as a satirical swipe at how environmentalism flounders under profit incentives. Except, well, why is the resort a bad thing if they’re terraforming Earth – essentially a sci-fi version of cleaning up the environment, undoing the damage wrought before? The thinly sketched personal motives to Kane/Name’s conflict seems to be the reason why the resort is bad – but then, isn’t “I was only doing it for her” less about flogging real estate, but restoring a home, a sort of environmental stewardship?

It harms the episode, in the end, and it’s difficult not to think that at some point there should’ve been more substantial rewrites. I wonder, idly, if this is an Ed Hime problem more broadly – It Takes You Away wasn’t quite so overstuffed, but it had a whole set piece removed in the middle. That episode might’ve felt a lot more like this one if it weren’t for those edits, perhaps.

doctor who orphan 55 series 12 review ed hime chris chibnall jodie whittaker environment too pc global warming

More likely than not, this episode will be remembered for its ending. An ending which, interestingly, was specifically hyped up by BBC America – “you don’t want to miss this ending”, both inviting the question “which ending do we want to miss” and ultimately proving more than a little anticlimactic.

I didn’t love it, personally. Setting Orphan 55 on Earth is a clever conceit – sure, the time travel makes no sense, and I think technically the TARDIS should translate the Russian, but who cares, it’s largely a good enough idea to be worth doing anyway. Certainly, it’s more resonant than it ever would’ve been if it was a colony on the planet Zog. The episode’s heart is clearly in the right place, and that’s more than can be said of most of the Chibnall era, right?

Well, yes. And yet… it made me bristle. I mean, I’m speaking as someone who wants Doctor Who to be more openly political, who wants it to be more openly lefty, who’s been critical of Chibnall Who’s more reactionary impulses. This, though, felt too didactic – the Doctor openly moralising to the camera. Which, well, in theory I’m not even against necessarily, I’m sure there’s ways to do it well, but here it felt tepid and flat. In the end, I don’t know that it actually meant anything. Which, well, is the problem with a lot of this episode – it moves so quickly it can only really gesture at ideas (like the “listen to the youth” angle, with the vaguely Greta Thunberg-esque child mechanic) without ever really exploring them properly.

I said on twitter a few times that this lacks subtlety (I’d argue it’s less subtle than Aliens of London and Ker-blam!), but that’s not the problem, in fact. It lacks grace – it’s just clumsy, and not even especially incisive. A nebulous, “you can still do better” would’ve been fine a decade ago, but it’s not enough now. Indeed, perhaps the most damning thing you can say about Orphan 55 is the fact that Primeval, of all things, was more coherent and more condemning in its environmental messaging back in 2009. Good message and all – a little meaningless, but good. Doesn’t change the fact it’s pretty poorly written though.

Tell you what, though, it might not even matter anyway. In one of my favourite bits of Doctor Who writing, and I think the one that’s stuck with me most, a left-wing journalist interviews a right-wing politician about their shared love of Doctor Who – because this journalist was absolutely baffled by the fact that this politician found anything to enjoy in Doctor Who at all.

They talk about a few things – the politician, George Christensen, opposes same-sex marriage, opposes abortion, supports Donald Trump – but the bit I always remember is when they’re talking about global warming. Christensen doesn’t believe in global warming, but cited that as something the Doctor agreed with him on, very excitedly referring to a throwaway line of dialogue from The End of the World. “You spend all of your time thinking about dying, like you’re gonna get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible, like maybe you survive.” That was enough for this guy to think Doctor Who’s official stance on the matter, its message insofar as it might have one, was one of climate change denial. Orphan 55 might even have been too subtle for him – no doubt, if he watched it, he happily dismissed global warming as a fate for another timeline.

I suppose in the end I just wish Orphan 55 had had just a little more finesse.

Related:

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Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part Two)

doctor who review spyfall part two chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker sacha dhawan gallifrey timeless child

A little chaos is a wonderful thing.

A few days ago, I asked just what Chris Chibnall’s vision for Doctor Who was. I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.

The answer, it’s starting to seem, is “exactly the same stories Russell T Davies was telling a decade ago”.

I think everyone always assumed, more or less, that Chibnall would owe something of a debt to Davies as showrunner. In fact, that’s exactly what I said when it was first announced that Chibnall would take over from Steven Moffat – forgive the needlessly dramatic headline, I was still working a lot of this out – although it was hardly a unique observation on my part. After all, it was an easy enough prediction to make from his Doctor Who work – especially something like The Power of Three – and his working relationship with Davies on Torchwood. To say nothing of his work outside of Doctor Who: I’m inclined to suspect, though it’s an admittedly slight assertion, if you asked Moffat and Davies to write a drama about a murder in a small coastal town, Davies would write something more closely resembling Broadchurch than Moffat would.

This largely proved a sensible assumption across series 11. Granted, it was always a slightly superficial bit of analysis – sure, we saw Ryan and Yaz’s family, just like we saw Rose, Martha and Donna’s, and Demons of the Punjab definitely had some Father’s Day vibes, but beyond that there was an obvious gulf between what Chibnall and Davies did with their respective supporting characters. Still: whether consciously positioning himself that way or not, Chibnall did indeed have a lot more in common with Davies than his immediate predecessor. Spyfall suggests series 12 will be shaping up the same way. The first part of the story had plenty of what we might charitably call little nods to Davies throughout – the death-by-SATNAV set piece lifted from The Sontaran Stratagem, the Kasaavin owe an obvious visual debt to the Cybermen in Army of Ghosts, that sort of thing.

It’s not, obviously, that imitating Davies is a bad thing. He’s a talented writer who made huge creative contributions to Doctor Who: returning to and recontextualising those ideas anew holds a lot of potential. That’s not limited to Chibnall either, after all – The Pilot was quite clearly Steven Moffat doing Russell T Davies, so to speak, and that’s a perfectly charming series opener.

After Spyfall Part Two, though, it looks rather like Chibnall doesn’t actually have any ideas of his own to add to this – his vision for Doctor Who is increasingly looking like a weak cover version of what’s gone before.

doctor who review spyfall part two graham bradley walsh ryan tosin cole yaz mandip gill chris chibnall

Let’s take a sidestep for a moment and look first at Ryan, Yaz and Graham, if only because I largely neglected to mention them last time. But then, that’s understandable, I think: there’s still so little to say about them.

It’s difficult to articulate exactly what the issue is with the ‘fam’ – it’s something of an imperfect storm, I suppose. In part, I’m inclined to criticise the actors themselves: Mandip Gill, I’m increasingly convinced, puts on a voice as Yaz, the overly earnest intonation of a children’s TV presenter, drawing attention to quite how hard she’s acting without really evoking anything you might call ‘character’. But then, that feels a tad unfair – how else is she meant to ask “what’s the plan?” five times an episode?

There’s a moment in his book, The Writer’s Tale, where Russell T Davies is talking about The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and juggling the dialogue for each companion while still ensuring each character remains distinct. “They’re all sci-fi women on the side of good”, he says, or words to that effect, “so they’re all going to be giving broadly similar speeches”. Davies goes on to explain how Rose, Martha and Donna’s specific, individual character traits influence the rhythms and perspectives of those speeches, keeping the lines distinct, but you’d be forgiven for assuming that Chibnall’s version of the same would’ve cut that explanation short.

Yaz and Ryan are both still given largely interchangeable dialogue, veering between inquisitive and expository; Graham fares a little better, although that’s mostly down to the gravity Bradley Walsh exerts on the script.  Four companions was always going to be difficult to juggle. I’d assumed, wrongly, that there might be an effort to dedicate an episode to each companion – a Ryan focused piece, not unlike an American procedural drama, or something out of 90s Star Trek (which I’m convinced Chibnall is quite heavily influenced by, actually). At this point, though, it’s difficult to imagine that working: I don’t think for a second that Ryan, Yaz, or Graham could sustain a Doctor-lite episode like Flatline, Turn Left or so on.

I’m just not entirely convinced, I suppose, that anyone involved – actors or writers – have a particularly strong handle on who these characters are supposed to be. Dropping them into a more or less straight recreation of The Sound of Drums largely confirms this: Yaz gets the ‘Martha calls her family’ beat, but you’d think, perhaps, as a police officer in training she might have had a slightly different reaction to being on the run. They each have their moments, sure – Ryan has a few cute moments, and Graham’s laser tap dance was charming, if a little tonally off – but for the most part, they remain frustratingly anonymous, still little more than vague archetypes. It’s hardly encouraging at this point.

doctor who jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor gallifrey time war timeless child omelas chris chibnall spyfall

That, actually, is what gets at me about the Russell T Davies of it all: Chibnall isn’t actually particularly good at it. ‘Character focused’ is a fairly superficial reading of Davies – and more than a little uncharitable to Moffat – but you’d hope that if Chibnall was going to simply rehash what we’d seen before, he’d at least do it well.

But, no: the Bond parody falls apart, turning briefly into a repeat of The Sound of Drums before being entirely forgotten. Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton simply leaves, not unlike a lot of series 11’s villains; perhaps we’ll see him return to team up with Chris Noth’s President Robertson, in a toothless wannabe-satire that says nothing at all about right-wing politics or powerful tech companies. The Master, unfortunately, is a caricature rather than a character, an attempt to ignore Michelle Gomez and return to John Simm, with none of the personality that made Simm’s Master work. The series arc – Gallifrey’s mysterious destruction – is, in effect at least, an almost wholesale recreation of the Time War. Spyfall even lifts from Moffat, actually, with some timey-wimey back and forth drained of all the bravura and panache it used to have.

It’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for this when I can just open iPlayer and watch the better versions of the stories that inspired Chibnall.

Most striking, though, is that it just feels thoughtless. Deeply, deeply thoughtless. Which is fine – well, ‘fine’ – when thoughtless means recreating Simm’s Master without realising why he worked in the first place. It’s ‘fine’ when thoughtless leads to one of the most bafflingly erotic scenes in Doctor Who history, apparently without even slightly realising how intensely sexual it is. It is not fine when thoughtless means repeatedly introducing Ada Lovelace as Byron’s daughter, rather than in terms of her own achievements; it is not fine when the Doctor tells a woman the fascists never win, a few months before she dies at Dachau; it is not fine when the Doctor defeats the first POC Master by very nonchalantly sending the Nazis after him. There is at times something quite ugly about Chibnall’s Doctor Who – accidentally, I’m reasonably sure, but in a real sense it’s far more reactionary than anything that ever provoked the ire of the stfu-moffat crowd.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing these episodes a bit of a disservice with the rough wordcount I stick to. At some point, I suppose, I’d like to do a podcast, or some other more detailed breakdown of these episodes (yes, I am asking to be invited to your podcast or roundtable discussion or similar), because there are absolutely lots of little moments in these episodes that are worth celebrating and shining a light on, which I never quite find the time for in amongst the complaints. But also, well, ugh. What on earth was that?

In the end, I’m reminded of this joke – I think from Robert Holmes – that Doctor Who only ever uses the best original ideas, just not necessarily its own original ideas. Spyfall, I think, might just be the perfect illustration of a version of Doctor Who that only uses its own original ideas – long after they might reasonably be described as “original ideas”.

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Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part One)

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker chris chibnall sacha dhawan the master lenny henry wayne yip

I did say look for the spymaster. Or should I say spy… Master?

There’s something strikingly anonymous about this, as has been the case with much of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who work.

When Chibnall was first announced as the new Doctor Who showrunner, I spent a while reading some of the interviews he’d given over the years, trying to pick up on some sense of his taste, the eras of the show he liked and disliked, anything that might prove to influence him. There was surprisingly little, in the end – the exception, of course, being that infamous video of teenage Chibnall on Points of View complaining about Trial of a Time Lord. I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the whole thing – it’s too skin-crawlingly awkward – but, ironically enough, the excerpt I did watch acts as a fairly damning critique of his own first series, which, as we’ve established, never quite lived up to its potential.

Still, though. It’s not that having a history of hot takes about Doctor Who is a prerequisite for the job – at some point, it’ll probably become necessary to have a showrunner who isn’t a fan particularly – but that I never really got the sense that Chibnall had a particularly strong vision for the series. That, largely speaking, has been borne out on screen too: there’s something a little anonymous about it, a little impersonal. Compared to his predecessors, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, or the people who might once have held the top job instead of him, like Mark Gatiss or Toby Whithouse, it’s hard to get to grips with what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who is or what its for, or indeed what stories he’d like to tell with the show.

It feels, even now, fairly easy to describe what a Mark Gatiss-led version of Doctor Who would look like: quite traditional in many ways, motivated by a lot of Gatiss’ own idiosyncratic nostalgia, likely a few Gothic touches, so on and so forth. It’s much more difficult, though, to do the same for Chris Chibnall – even despite having watched a full series of the show under his stewardship. Yes, you can highlight the nods to the Davies era with relative ease, but it doesn’t feel especially as though Series 11 revealed much about Chibnall’s own individual concerns or interests – and Spyfall is much the same again.

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker james bond chris chibnall wayne yip lenny henry

It isn’t, for what it’s worth, anonymous in the same way that The Rise of Skywalker was: that was anodyne and hollow, cynically sycophantic in both content and construction. Spyfall is nowhere near so egregious – if nothing else, there’s actually a lot to like here, even if it is difficult to get to grips with it properly.

It’s better than a lot of series 11, certainly. The spy pastiche is a clever milieu to ground Doctor Who in, especially for what is at least nominally a New Year’s Day special; it’s a fun bit of genre-hopping, and crashing Doctor Who into a James Bond movie is self-evidently a good idea (much as I might’ve wished it had a slightly more coherent understanding of which sort of spying it was trying to be about – laser shoes are fun, extra-judicial assassinations are not). If nothing else, it’s more effective than its most obvious Capaldi-era antecedent, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, finding a lot more fun in the spy pastiche than Doctor Mysterio did with its comic book equivalent. Spyfall is well directed, too, featuring the debut of Jamie Magnus Stone, who’ll be returning once more later in the series. That said, though, it still feels wanting at times. For all the fun that Stone, Segun Akinola and Lenny Henry are clearly having with it, the episode is often oddly disconnected from the genre it’s aping – to the point that it drops out of the genre entirely in the middle, pausing to introduce the alien of the week without making a great deal of effort to tie the two plotlines together.

Spyfall seems, in short, as though it’s simply assembling a ticklist of tropes and signifiers into a series of set pieces, rather than presenting any meaningful perspective of its own. Yes, the episode gestures at the malign influence of multinational tech companies, but that never really registers as genuine critique or commentary. Undeniably, it’s better than Ker-blam! last year, but in the end it’s just throwaway: there’s no sense that Spyfall wants to be about something. Here, then, is how Chibnall’s Doctor Who feels anonymous and impersonal. Not because it’s constructed, especially – though it is much easier to pick up on Chibnall’s populist interests than his creative ones – but because it doesn’t especially feel like it has anything to say.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad, exactly, because it isn’t. Indeed, Spyfall is an episode of Doctor Who that feels properly at ease with itself in a way the series hasn’t for quite some time; it feels like the show has found its footing again, found its sense of humour. There are some genuinely nice touches – I loved that bit with the Doctor working on the TARDIS like a car at a garage – but those nice touches punctuate something that, as a whole, continues to be difficult to get to grips with.

doctor who review spyfall part one sacha dhawan master o missy michelle gomez chris chibnall wayne yip waris hussein

What’s perhaps most telling, with respect to questions of Chibnall’s vision, is that cliffhanger.

Series 11 studiously avoided references to the past, or the return of old monsters. That, I’m inclined to say, was probably Chibnall’s best instinct. This year, though, we’ve got the return of the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Judoon, and now the Master – and it’s surely not out of the question that there might be more we don’t know about yet. It’s such a complete turnaround it’s hard not to wonder what prompted it: genuine desire to engage with and reinvent old favourites? A belief that, actually, Doctor Who should always feature old monsters, but not immediately after introducing a new Doctor? Or perhaps throwing things at the wall to see what might stick?

Certainly, it feels early to be bringing back the Master. Yes, it’s been the better part of three years since The Doctor Falls, but in terms of the show itself, it’s only been about twelve episodes – there were forty-four episodes between John Simm’s last appearance as the Master in The End of Time and Michelle Gomez’ first in Deep Breath (or fifty-five, if you’re more inclined to count her first appearance as Dark Water). It feels early because it is early. Bringing the character back so soon – and, indeed, bringing the character back as a man, despite how exciting it might’ve been to see, say, Indira Varma or Ruth Wilson in the role – is, I think, reason for pause. So too is how much of a throwback the character seems here, worlds away from where Michelle Gomez’ arc as the Master ended. It speaks to a limited conception of the character on Chibnall’s part, if nothing else.

Nonetheless, I’m immediately inclined to like Sacha Dhawan’s Master. I like Dhawan as an actor – he’s one of the few male actors I’d be interested in seeing as the Doctor – and he acquits himself admirably here. It’s a great performance, with an impressive, erratic physicality to it; it’s also more than strong enough to hide some of the sloppiness of the reveal itself, Dhawan making it look like the Master is desperate to reveal himself to the Doctor, obscuring how contrived that dialogue about sprinting really is.

Ultimately, then, Spyfall suggests a stronger series its predecessor. It has a lot of the same flaws, yes – Mandip Gill still seems to be struggling to find a note for Yaz beyond earnest, and I wish they’d tried to tie her fear she’d died to her rarely mentioned faith – but there is a degree more confidence to it, there is a degree more wit to it, and I had a degree more fun with it. The real question, I suppose, is if we’ll ever get a clearer picture of Chris Chibnall’s vision – and what that vision will prove to be.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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