Segun Akinola on scoring Doctor Who, composing music during lockdown, and more

doctor who segun akinola series 13 theme music score composer lockdown chibnall silva screen soundtrack revolution daleks

Series 11 was all about having its own sound. It’s a completely different sound and a very different approach. It’s moving around musically, but also there is a series sound to it. With Series 12, it was not about changing the overall direction, but making sure that just as the story was developing and the characters were developing, the music was also developing. You could look back on Series 11 and hear something and think “That’s Series 11, not Series 12”, but [the new music] doesn’t sound out of place or like the direction is completely changed.

Here’s my interview with Segun Akinola, Doctor Who‘s current MVP – even as I’ve been frustrated with other aspects of the show, I’m never not impressed by his music. Some of the most memorable moments of Series 12 are down to his score, to my mind: his James Bond-esque motif does a lot of heavy lifting for Spyfall, the score for Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is brilliant from start to finish, and I did really love that arrangement of the theme tune in The Timeless Children

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Interviews Index

Doctor Who Review: Series 12

doctor who series 12 review chibnall whittaker revolution daleks news rumours captain jack harkness

I wrote half of this a few weeks ago, before the world caught fire; feels a little silly to publish it now, a million years after the end of Series 12, but you know, gotta keep doing content.

This is a post-script, dotting each i and crossing every t. I approached my review of The Timeless Children as though it could be my final word on the Chibnall era – I don’t expect things to change much, and those episodes were often a chore to watch. I’ve always said, of the Jodie Whittaker era, that if it got to the point I didn’t particularly enjoy them, I’d simply stop writing about them; if nothing else, I don’t particularly want to be one of those people, you know? There are better, more positive things to direct energy towards, and I never want to get to the point where I’m just sick of Doctor Who entirely. That review of The Timeless Children felt like a good one to go out on, if necessary.

But, you know, I’d have been sad if I didn’t get to do the traditional graph. Love the graph.

First, a reminder of the ten episodes that made up Doctor Who Series 12, as well as the scores out of ten that I gave to each on Rotten Tomatoes. Given that those are always a little arbitrary, never not feeling at least a little wrong in hindsight, I’ve also included two preferential rankings – one compiled before rewatching the series, and another afterwards.

  1. Spyfall (Part One) | By Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  2. Spyfall (Part Two) | By Chris Chibnall | 4/10
  3. Orphan 55 | By Ed Hime | 5/10
  4. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror | By Nina Metivier |7/10
  5. Fugitive of the Judoon | By Vinay Patel & Chris Chibnall | 8/10
  6. Praxeus | By Pete McTighe & Chris Chibnall | 7/10
  7. Can You Hear Me? | By Charlene James & Chris Chibnall | 8/10
  8. The Haunting of Villa Diodati | By Maxine Alderton | 5/10
  9. Ascension of the Cybermen | By Chris Chibnall | 6/10
  10. The Timeless Children | By Chris Chibnall | 1/10

That comes to an overall score of 58/100, or 5.8/10, which rounds to 6/10. (The maths has gotten a lot easier now Doctor Who has ten episodes to series.) While I am as always inclined to quibble some of those scores in hindsight – Spyfall (Part One), Fugitive of the Judoon, and Ascension of the Cybermen each feel a little too high, and I have the sense I was unfair to Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – on aggregate, I think that’s about right. (Though I do wonder if I should’ve tried to weight the finale a little more, somehow, given that one did rather overshadow the rest of the series.)

doctor who series 12 review jodie whittaker chris chibnall sjw cancelled 13 bradley walsh timeless child morbius gallifrey master praxeus

By way of comparison, Series 11 got 65/100, or 71/110 if you include Resolution – so that’s 6.5/10, or… oh, actually also still 6.5/10 if you include Resolution, which is kinda neat. Let’s round that to 7/10, then – a whole point higher than Series 12. It’s not necessarily exactly what I’d have expected, but it makes a degree of sense – where I think Series 12 was, on the whole, perhaps a more confident and sure-footed piece of television, Series 11 benefitted from the momentum of a new Doctor (and, probably, a patience on my part that’s since vanished). Series 12 also lacked, I’d posit, any proper ‘classics’ in the same sense that Series 11 had them – there’s no obvious equivalent to Rosa or Demons of the Punjab this year, or even It Takes You Away. Even in its best episodes, there’s a certain awkwardness – the consensus favourite, Fugitive of the Judoon, pales in comparison to Vinay Patel’s previous effort, the episode’s character drama struggling in the face of its obligation to double as a trailer for the series finale.

Otherwise, the numbers don’t offer a massive amount of insight – I can’t really compare, say, episodes on Earth vs episodes on alien planets, because save for the finale they were all on Earth. There aren’t really enough repeat episodes from individual writers either – of those who returned, Pete McTighe improved most, perhaps unsurprisingly – though it’s notable that Chris Chibnall’s cowrites are, across the board, more highly rated than his sole credits.

In terms of the preferential ranking, the biggest change is Spyfall (Part One) falling four places – on rewatch it was just deeply, painfully dull. A really turgid hour of television, probably the greatest struggle to get through of the ten – which surprised me, actually! I’d remembered it being basically fun, but no. (I did notice, actually, that it’s quite obviously written as a classic series four-parter, each instalment roughly sixteen-minutes long; I can’t help but wonder, though, if the two parts might’ve been better off edited together and cut down to an eighty-minute movie special. Part Two has a better cliffhanger, if nothing else, so you might’ve kept a few more viewers.)

Outside of that, things were largely consistent: Can You Hear Me? took the top spot from Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, pushing Praxeus down one as well, but I’d say the three are largely interchangeable in terms of their quality – equally as good as one another, just at different things. I don’t know that any of them would’ve been standouts in any other year – Can You Hear Me? feels like an admirable failure in the same vein as Sleep No More, worth celebrating for trying something new even if it wasn’t brilliant at it – but I suppose it’s just the case that you’ve got to take what you can get in the Chibnall era.

doctor who jodie whittaker thirteen sonic screwdriver chris chibnall judoon gallifrey vinay patel time lord tecteun

As ever, Chris Chibnall remains difficult to understand; his compulsions and his idiosyncrasies continue to elude me, and I’m yet to entirely grasp why he thinks Doctor Who stories are ones worth telling. Casting his eye across the long arc of Doctor Who’s history, Chibnall apparently saw a Möbius strip: Doctor Who that mattered because, and only because, it was Doctor Who. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine The Timeless Children airing a decade ago and being met with the same acclaim as any of its predecessors – the issue isn’t simply that Doctor Who is has been on television for fifteen years and that’s just what happens, but that Chibnall’s vision for the show is inherently insular and uninviting, a far cry from the mass populist beast Doctor Who once was. Increasingly, I’m convinced that whoever replaces Chris Chibnall shouldn’t be – needs to not be, in fact – a fan of the same generation as Davies, Moffat and Chibnall. In fact, they almost shouldn’t be a fan at all: we’ve reached the natural limit of that approach now, I think. Time for new ideas. Having an opinion on the Morbius Doctors should almost disqualify you from the job really.

I suppose it is worth noting – if only because I so often give him a hard time – that Chibnall is in fact quite talented as a producer. It shows on screen: I’m not quite convinced by claims that Doctor Who looks better now than it ever has before, but certainly it impresses in terms of its location shoots, and how often it’s able to take advantage of overseas filming. Similarly, note how Doctor Who accommodates Bradley Walsh’s ITV commitments; he’s taking a week off during the production of each episode, but it rarely feels that way. Indeed, they’re quite clever about it sometimes – hiding inside the Cybermen in The Timeless Children is a great conceit, but the only reason for it was so that Bradley Walsh could ADR his lines without actually being on set.

Otherwise? Those inclined to argue Chibnall is privately quite conservative, only writing Doctor Who as superficially progressive because he thinks that’s in vogue at the moment, will have picked up a few new talking points this year. Not just in terms of the obvious – yes, the Doctor is now a Chosen One, made special by her genetic inheritance; yes, the white Doctor did say she was genetically better than the Indian Master, and turn him over to the Nazis as well; yes, being a billionaire is something to aspire to, and it’s a shame Tesla never got to be one – but subtler things that only stand out on a full rewatch. There’s this interesting recurring language choice that keeps cropping up, this idea of being “offended”: the Doctor in Spyfall (“I hate being inside livers. People always get so offended”), Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon (“Anti-theft attack system? Oh. Well, now I’m offended”), and Graham in The Timeless Children (“You’re doing the whole human race proud. Sorry. I haven’t offended you, have I?”). They each jar in isolation, but taken together – especially alongside the “conversion-shame” quip – they suggest a certain worldview of middle-aged contempt on Chibnall’s behalf subtly bleeding through.

doctor who series 12 review praxeus jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor chris chibnall timeless child jo martin jack harkness

Jodie Whittaker, meanwhile, is perhaps starting to struggle with the part. I think she’s brilliant, for what it’s worth, and I feel the need to stress that first and foremost: Whittaker is an excellent actress, and in many ways was a really clever casting choice for the Doctor. Equally, though, it’s hard not to feel as though she’s not being given enough to do with the part, and – even now – is struggling to define the role in that absence.

Most instructive in that regard, I think, are Praxeus and Can You Hear Me? – two of the best episodes of the series, yes, but also two of Whittaker’s weakest performances. In Praxeus, she’s on autopilot; in Can You Hear Me?, she’s caught between two interpretations of the character, the socially awkward Doctor or the emotionally aware Doctor, neither quite cohering. It’s this, as I said at the time, that I suspect prompted such an outburst over the Doctor’s response to Graham’s cancer; there’s a version of Whittaker’s Doctor, from episodes like Arachnids in the UK or Orphan 55, who is socially awkward. But there’s also a version who’s quietly insightful, and keenly empathetic: the Doctor who apologises to Yaz, Graham and Ryan when they see a dead body in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, for example, or connects with a grieving Mabli in The Tsuranga Conundrum, or officiates a wedding in Demons of the Punjab. Sometimes those two depictions cohere, and sometimes they don’t, but Can You Hear Me? revealed an interesting pressure point – reactions were quite so polarised because people each favoured different visions of the character.

When Whittaker eventually leaves the role – which at this point is surely sooner rather than later – and moves on to pastures new, I wonder which episode will endure as her great acting showcase piece. It’s relatively easy to point to the highlights of her predecessor’s performances; Eccleston had Dalek, Tennant Human Nature, and Capaldi of course had Heaven Sent. It’s hard to think of a recent episode of Doctor Who that seems to set out to challenge Whittaker, to let her deepen her interpretation of the Doctor, to push her outside her comfort zone. (In The Writer’s Tale, Russell T Davies deliberately conceived of an episode like that for David Tennant – granted that episode ended up being The Doctor’s Daughter, so they’re not always going to be winners, but at least Midnight was still coming up.)

Indeed, across the course of series 12, it’s often felt as though the Doctor is written with little consideration for Whittaker as an actress, or what she’s good at; this Doctor’s earnest optimism is worlds away from the guarded secrecy of Trust Me, or the raw emotion of Broadchurch. Whittaker is better, I think, at playing characters who are less secure, often with something to hide, but there’s little of that being written for her. Oddly, hiding Gallifrey’s destruction, smartly cribbed from Gridlock, would’ve been a great chance for Whittaker to actually engage with these emotions; instead, Chibnall does little more than gesture at this (see the opening of Orphan 55), simply asserting character in flat, listless dialogue rather than letting his actors actually, well, act it.

doctor who yaz mandip gill series 13 tosin cole ryan leaving 61st street amc revolution daleks chibnall whittaker review companion fam

What’s most frustrating is that Doctor Who is still so close to working – it’s struggling, yes, but the potential is there (and even when it does fail, it often still fails in interesting ways that suggest scope for improvement). There genuinely is a lot to appreciate, even if it is pushed to the margins at times: Tosin Cole is a brilliant comic actor, Bradley Walsh is always reliable, and Mandip Gill finally got something to do. Indeed, Yaz came much closer to working as a character this year; I wonder, idly, if her two best episodes (Praxeus and Can You Hear Me?) had been spaced out across the season a little more, it might’ve done some of the heavy lifting for episodes that didn’t quite find space for Yaz.

It’ll be interesting to see what Series 13 looks like – particularly if, as rumoured, Ryan and Graham both depart at Christmas, with Yaz staying on alone. It’d be a welcome change to the dynamic, and indeed probably a necessary one: three companions has never quite worked, and shedding two of them would give the remaining characters a lot more space to breathe. (Could three companions have ever worked? It’s hard to say.) Somewhat concerning is the persistent, and plausible, suggestion that John Barrowman might join Doctor Who as a regular companion alongside Mandip Gill; he makes a certain degree of sense as a longer-term replacement for Bradley Walsh, in terms of their respective star-power, and it rather feels like exactly the kind of ill-conceived decision that Chibnall might make.

Otherwise? At a certain point, I’m almost reduced to saying “just be good”, or “don’t make basic mistakes”. If you have four regular characters, and a new setting each week, you shouldn’t also have quite such a large guest cast (and they probably shouldn’t have names like Bescot, Yedlarmi and Fuskle). Try and find something for each of those four regular characters to do every week, if you can. Your midseries centrepiece episode should probably have a function beyond plot exposition for the finale – and your finale should definitely have a function beyond plot exposition for next series. These, I think, are reasonable expectations to have of a television drama in 2020. There are other things I’d like, sure – it’d be nice if the show actually was as leftist as its worst detractors seem to think, for one thing – but, you know, first things first and all that.

I’ve long thought that it’s more instructive to think of Doctor Who as several television programmes, rather than just one. There are two television programmes called Doctor Who I really like; at the moment, there’s a television programme called Doctor Who I don’t particularly. Maybe I’ll like it next year, maybe I won’t. Fair enough.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

William Shaw on The Rings of Akhaten, the surprising similarities between Neil Cross & Chris Chibnall, and more (Part Two)

will shaw doctor who rings akhaten black archive 42 neil cross farren blackburn chris chibnall jenna coleman leaf matt smith merry

Probably my favourite thing about Chibnall’s Doctor Who [is] that we seem to be moving away from the rigid atheism of a lot of the show’s history. I think some of it is a continuation of trends from the Moffat era. Davies was at times very influenced by New Atheism, and there’s a real softening of that through Moffat and then Chibnall. The Thirteenth Doctor has clearly learned the lessons the Eleventh Doctor doesn’t quite get in The Rings of Akhaten; that religion is more complicated than just this evil parasite that poisons society. I feel very lucky to be releasing the book now, because there’s a really interesting conversation developing about these topics.

Some more thoughtful comments from William Shaw today! Unsurprisingly, they’re still largely about Doctor Who, but we move a little further afield from The Rings of Akhaten today – take a look at Will’s thoughts on Series 12 and its depiction of faith, a ‘what if?’ scenario where Neil Cross took over from Steven Moffat instead of Chris Chibnall, and more.

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Interviews Index

Doctor Who Review: The Timeless Children

doctor who review timeless children chris chibnall gallifrey morbius destroyed canon hartnell jamie magnus stone

I see how you got there, but it lacks vision. Right, what if we, um, workshop this? You know, kick it around a bit? I have notes.

It’s the 1st March 2020. Chris Chibnall is fifty years old. The Timeless Children, his second series finale as Doctor Who showrunner, has aired. Watching it, you get the sense that this is what it’s always been leading up to, where it’s always been going – not for Doctor Who, of course, but for Chibnall.

What the BBC was after was risk and boldness. I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it.

— Chris Chibnall, 2017

After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall could have done anything. The ITV crime drama was, put simply, a huge hit, a piece of television that sparked a genuine cultural moment. It was the sort of success that would have guaranteed Chibnall any commission he wanted. Certainly, it’s no surprise that the BBC wanted Chibnall to take over Doctor Who, nor that they went to such lengths to accommodate him; for all the critical success of the Peter Capaldi era, Doctor Who’s ratings had dwindled, long removed from the dizzying heights of its unimpeachable imperial phase. After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall was exactly the sort of populist writer needed to reinvent Doctor Who once again, to move it away from a vision oft-criticised as being too convoluted, too insular, catering solely to dedicated fans rather than general audiences. It was clear, in the dying days of the Moffat era, that Doctor Who needed Chris Chibnall.

It’s the 22nd January 2016. A little under two months shy of his forty-sixth birthday, Chris Chibnall is announced as Steven Moffat’s successor, taking on the dual role of Head Writer and Executive Producer on Doctor Who.

“I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was four years old, and I’m relishing the thought of creating new characters, creatures and worlds for the Doctor to explore.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2016

Crucially, though, Chris Chibnall did not need Doctor Who. Why would he? In terms of his own career, he’d never been more successful – the expectation, surely, was that he’d follow Broadchurch with another original drama of his own. It’s not that Doctor Who was a step backwards for him, per se, but certainly it represented a degree of commitment and an intensity of work markedly different from his own professed preference for doing different things and frequently moving from project to project.

“Doctor Who makes you feel like no other show does. It makes every viewer feel that childlike wonder and like you’re eight years old.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2020

It’s the 17th January 1976. The first part of The Brain of Morbius airs. Chris Chibnall is six years old.

Not quite yet eight, but close enough.

doctor who brain morbius doctors timeless child chibnall hinchcliffe holmes harper jo martin hartnell first tectuen boundary

It’s the 1st March 2020. I am twenty-something years old. The Timeless Children, Chris Chibnall’s second Doctor Who series finale, has aired. Watching it, it isn’t the sort of episode I ever thought Chibnall would write – but I do get the sense that perhaps I should’ve seen it coming, representing as it does the culmination of all of Chibnall’s worst instincts.

“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.”

— Me, reviewing Spyfall (Part One), 2020

Fundamentally, I’m of the belief – and have been for some time – that references to the past are best used sparingly in Doctor Who. There’s a certain weight to its mythology, bound up as it is in over fifty years of history; something like Gallifrey and the Time Lords exert a narrative gravity that can easily distort and distract from new, original ideas. Sure, it can be intoxicating, and I understand how; I’m deeply, deeply invested in all this myself. Still, though, it’s hard not to look at The Timeless Children and be genuinely baffled by the lack of restraint on display, an episode that’s about as far from a popular reinvention of Doctor Who aimed at the general public as is possible. Often, it’s like something out of a bad piece of fanfiction, or an easily forgotten bit of expanded universe fluff – a novel or a comic or something, the sort of story you could read, review, and then forget about entirely until some years later, at which point you realise you’ve written about so much Doctor Who there is some Doctor Who you’ve forgotten writing about. In any case, it’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d ever expect Bradley Walsh to star in on prime-time BBC One.

 “Uniting two kinda crap villains – yes, the Cybermen and the Time Lords are a bit rubbish – for a continuity entrenched tale is unlikely to ever be a groundbreaking piece of fiction.”

— Me, reviewing Supremacy of the Cybermen, 2017

It’s the 9th December 2018. I am still twenty-something years old, albeit a little less so. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos airs on television. It was – and still is – awful. But it’s remarkable, looking back, for its lack of classic Doctor Who villains. That’s the first finale you could say that of since 2012 – since then, the show has relied on Daleks, Time Lords, the Cybermen, and the Master, often all at once, sometimes a few times in a row. There’s something to celebrate about its willingness to take a step away from recognisable Doctor Who iconography: in a sense, despite quite how small scale it was, it’s actually a more ambitious piece of television than The Timeless Children.

“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.”

— Me, reviewing The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, 2018

It’s the 29th February 2020. I am, unsurprisingly, twenty-something years old. I rewatch The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

It’s aged better than I thought it would. Better, in fact, than I’d realise.

doctor who timeless children cybermen cyber master gallifrey time lord supremacy rassilon comic panopticon

It’s the 5th December 2015. Hell Bent airs. It’s my favourite episode of Doctor Who. (At the moment, anyway. My favourite episode of Doctor Who had previously aired on the 17th June 2006, the 23rd November 2013, the 1st July 2017, and, I’d like to think, at some point after that too.)

“Gallifrey isn’t the part of the story that matters – it’s the Doctor and his companion, the relationship at the heart of the show, just as it should be.”

Me, on why Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best Doctor Who episode, 2017

With hindsight, it’s interesting to reflect on quite how much The Timeless Children is the Hell Bent’s opposite – if Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who has so far been a cracked mirror reflection of the Russell T Davies era, then this is apparently Chibnall’s take on his immediate successor’s finest hour. Where Hell Bent was an exercise in narrative substitution, promising a spaghetti Western by way of Gallifreyan epic but delivering instead an intimate character drama, The Timeless Children has a rather different set of priorities. The point of Hell Bent is the Doctor and Clara’s conversation in the cloisters, their almost-goodbye in the TARDIS, or when the Doctor play’s Clara’s theme in the diner. The point of The Timeless Children is Sacha Dhawan saying “Panopticon”, a Cyberman in front of the Seal of Rassilon, or airing a clip of The Brain of Morbius on BBC One after Countryfile and before Call the Midwife. One is concerned with character, with emotions, with relationships; the other is a leisurely scroll through a newly updated Wikipedia page, largely devoid of any particular flourish or intimacy. There’s something oddly funny about Steven Moffat emphasising that the Hybrid doesn’t matter, and Chris Chibnall writing an episode where a Hybrid of two warrior races stands in the ruins of Gallifrey, having broken a billion billion hearts to heal its own.

“It’s tricky going back and watching old episodes now, because I think emotionally there’s very little there.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2007

This, perhaps, is the issue – or one of them – with The Timeless Children. It’s Doctor Who that demands we care about it simply because it is Doctor Who; not because it offers new creatures, new characters, new worlds, but because it never dares look away from the old ones. No, not even that; it doesn’t see a value. It’s Doctor Who for people who catch the references to the Leekley bible, who could tell you that Douglas Camfield, Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Banks Stewart were three of several Morbius Doctors, who know about the Other and Penelope and Ulysses and Soul and Zezanne. Hell Bent is for those people too, yes – but not exclusively so. Not like this.

“Probably gonna end up watching Doctor Who on a half-hour delay or so. Kinda weird to think you’re all gonna know that Bradley Walsh is the Other, Yaz is Rassilon, and Ryan is Señor 105 thirty minutes before I do.”

— Me, tweeting about Doctor Who, 2020

It’s the 1st March 2020. In hindsight, Time Hunter might’ve been a better punchline.

doctor who timeless children hell bent classic tardis peter capaldi jodie whittaker rachel talalay jamie magnus stone

It’s the 6th March 2020. The BBC complaints department, for the second time this year, have had to put out a statement about Doctor Who – addressing, on this occasion, The Timeless Children’s attempt at a new Doctor Who origin story.

“I don’t necessarily want all the gaps to be plugged. Kids out there are making up their own stories about how Missy escaped that place and regenerated into Sacha. They’re doing their own version of it. And that’s much more exciting.”

— Steven Moffat, 2020

Perhaps it’s a little uncharitable to say that The Timeless Children added nothing new to Doctor Who; after all, that’s what everyone was up in arms about the other day. No longer just a mad woman in a box, the Doctor is now a Chosen One, the Original Time Lord – not important because of what she does, but what she is, with all the uncomfortable implications that holds. It doesn’t, obviously, change what’s gone before in any meaningful sense – Peter Capaldi was no more playing a Timeless Child than William Hartnell was playing the First Doctor – but it does feel like, going forward, it’s all a little bit… less.

“You mean you’ve changed time? Was it the reason you left your home?”

— Barbara to the Doctor, in a fanfiction I wrote in 2012

Part of the fun, surely, of something like the Morbius Doctors, or how old the Doctor is, or what her true name is, is the debate, the argument, the theorising. The not knowing. Why did the Doctor leave Gallifrey? Because they were bored. Because they were scared of the Hybrid. Because they changed time. Because of Omega. Because Irving Braxiatel warned them of a plot against their life. No, actually. None of that. In fact, the Doctor was once a secret agent on an ill-defined mission for the Time Lords, somewhere between James Bond and Jason Bourne; despite having their memory wiped and being turned back into a child, the Doctor was always destined to be the Doctor again, to run away from her own people in a rackety old TARDIS, disguised as a police box.

Oh.

Not knowing, surely, invites greater creativity and affords more storytelling opportunities than The Timeless Children. It doesn’t open up new avenues; it imposes a shape onto ones that were already there. It’s not an infinite set of possibilities: it’s a forty pound Big Finish boxset called Timeless, starring Jo Martin in an adventure with Krillitanes, Daleks, and an amnesiac Paul McGann, written by the same four people as usual, each of whom will inevitably struggle against the Jason Bourne of it all and opt to tell fairly typical Doctor Who stories instead.

It’s certainly not the progressive victory some have chosen to read it as, by the way. Diegetically, yes, we know the ‘first’ Doctor was a young Black girl, and had a series of different female and non-white incarnations before they ever looked like William Hartnell. But look at what’s actually on screen: each of these female, non-white incarnations were tortured to death (because all female characters, the Doctor now included, get a backstory of abuse) before another eight white guys were newly canonised, and this information leads to a white woman telling a South Asian man she’s genetically more than him. It used to be that you didn’t need to be real to be the Doctor; now, however, you need an inherited birthright.

The Timeless Children is not an especially forward-looking piece of television (even if, of course, it is guaranteed that Tecteun, the Doctor’s Wicked Stepmother, will return by the 60th anniversary). It’s a series of set-pieces building up to a montage of archive footage and very little else. Frankly, it’s no wonder the episode is so heartbreakingly disinterested in Jodie Whittaker, in the here and now. The Timeless Children is an hour of Doctor Who that has no greater aim, nor believes it needs no greater justification, than to gesture at the trappings of Doctor Who; indeed, it might as well quote directly from stories past, so derivative and self-referential is its writing. (Ahem.) Chibnall’s vision, his promised risk and boldness, his ideas are so insular, so inward looking in both ambition and approach, that it ultimately renders Doctor Who smaller on the inside.

“It doesn’t seem to have much to it. It could have been a lot better; it could have been slightly better written, especially the last story.”

— Chris Chibnall, 1986

It’s the 8th March 2020. Thinking about it, actually, Chris Chibnall might have a point there.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

Doctor Who Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

doctor who review ascension cybermen chibnall magnus stone whittaker ashad timeless children dhawan master

If it gets worse, I’ll call the doctor.

Not a lot actually happens in World Enough and Time, on a purely technical level. The plot, if you distill it right down, is fairly easy to describe in a sentence or two; it’s not exactly the most involved or convoluted episode Doctor Who has ever done. Rather, it’s much more of a mood piece, a fifty-minute statement of intent: here’s why the Cybermen are scary, this is what’s engaging and compelling about them, this is why they’re going to matter next week. It works – The Doctor Falls benefits a lot from following World Enough and Time, with all the momentum and mounting dread it offers.

Ascension of the Cybermen, then, is Chibnall’s attempt at the same. A lot of this is just part of the DNA of the new series (when do we stop calling it the ‘new’ series, by the way?) two-parters: they’re all chessboard episodes, moving the pieces into position, an hour of set-up ready for next week. Almost invariably, then, they’re difficult to discuss and engage with on their own terms – it’s difficult to talk about Act One without knowing how it’s going to resolve in Act Two. A lot depends on The Timeless Children. Often, I’m inclined to be kinder to the first episode of a two-parter, because of the difficulty in judging them in isolation – but Ascension of the Cybermen shows the limits of that inclination. All this episode does is move pieces into position for next week, an hour of Chibnall spinning wheels. There’s action but not drama, plot but not story; you could pare most of this back to a cold open without really losing anything. (I think the only thing I’d miss is that lovely transition to the title sequence from within the Cyberman’s eye, which is one of my favourite shots of the year.) Often, it feels like the televised equivalent of procrastinating – the extended sequence of the Doctor and the companions setting up and explaining anti Cyberman weapons, only for the Cybermen to shoot at these weapons before the Doctor turned them on, felt particularly egregious.

But then, that illustrates the other, far greater, flaw afflicting Ascension of the Cybermen. When Chris Chibnall sat down to write that scene, he surely wasn’t actually just trying to fill five minutes of screentime, even if it felt that way; the point of that scene was to show off the Cybermen. All your defences are useless: there is nothing you can do to stop them. Much like World Enough and Time, Ascension of the Cybermen is a fifty-minute statement of intent. This is why the Cybermen are scary. But where its predecessor – and, actually, by the way, I’ve criticised Chibnall a few times this year for lifting directly from Russell T Davies’ work, but I cannot imagine what prompted him to want to do a finale with the Cybermen and the Master so soon after Steven Moffat wrote two Cybermen/Master finales that are each among Doctor Who’s best. But, anyway, where World Enough and Time was invested in an almost post-austerity sort of body horror, Ascension of the Cybermen thinks the Cybermen are scary because they’re brutish, sci-fi robots from in a grimy space war. Nothing in Ascension of the Cybermen holds a candle to the nurse turning down the volume dial as a partially converted patient screams in pain – which rather undercuts this grand statement of intent.

doctor who review ascension of the cybermen earthshock saward spikes chibnall ashad patrick o kane jamie magnus stone ko sharmus

To be clear, I enjoyed Ascension of the Cybermen, more than I enjoyed a lot of episodes this year (and across Series 11 too). It’s a cut above a lot of Chibnall-era episodes in terms of sheer competence alone: Yaz gets a nice, decent role; there are a few moments where Jodie Whittaker gets to be angry and frustrated; it’s capably directed, avoiding a lot of the mistakes The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos made even as it indulges in a similar aesthetic. (Plus, there’s a handful of bits where, surely by accident, Chibnall seems to be setting up the idea that Yaz has a crush on Graham, which is just really, really funny.) More to the point, though, it has a certain momentum to it – Chibnall is spinning a lot of plates here, and there’s an intrigue to it borne of not knowing what’s coming next.

But it faltered on rewatch. I can’t imagine Ascension of the Cybermen is going to age especially well; familiarity blunts that momentum, all those big explosions and expensive Cyberman action feeling like little more than a cheap thrill in the end. Up to a point, I suppose that’s just my own lack of patience for Cybermen that are trying so hard they actually have spikes – it doesn’t emphasise any of the concepts I find interesting about them, a reinvention that leaves them feeling generic rather than distinct. Clearly, it worked for some people, but I’d be lying if I said I understood exactly why: few of the action set-pieces made much impression, relying on spectacle that Jamie Magnus Stone proved unable to provide. It’s functional rather than memorable.

What’s frustrating is that when the episode does offer something compelling, it largely languishes in the margins, never given the chance to graduate beyond the peripheral. I noted last week that The Haunting of Villa Diodati “offers an interesting spin on the Cybermen, with this half-converted, Cyber-zealot, it does little to uncouple it from the stompy robot archetype that so often holds them back”; Ascension of the Cybermen, in much the same way, is littered with interesting ideas that never quite cohere. (Incidentally, Ascension of the Cybermen does a relatively poor job of following The Haunting of Villa Diodati on its own terms – why do we need an episode establishing the Cybermen as a significant threat if that was the point of last week? Certainly, it exacerbates the sense that this episode is just procrastinating the finale.)

An almost religious Cyberman is a genuinely interesting idea – not least because of how it might bring them back in line with Kit Pedler’s original idea of the Cybermen as Star Monks. Similarly, Ashad’s voluntary conversion is a neat way to complicate our idea of the Cybermen; his talk of resurrecting a dead empire, alongside his angry outbursts, have an obvious potency. Even the flying Cyberman heads have a germ of an interesting idea to them, actually. After all, if the Cybermen were solely about preserving life, they’d be digital: you’d upload people to the cloud, or something similar. For the Cybermen to exist, on some level there’s got to be a fetishisation of image, of shape – which ties neatly to that idea of reaching for an abandoned imperial past, and my own preferred take on the Cybermen as a sort of forced heteronormative, patriarchal conformity. Of course the Cybermen would use drones with that particular shape! (That said, though, imagine how neat it would’ve been if the Cyberheads didn’t just shoot lasers, but – like in The Pandorica Opens – tried to latch onto and convert the remaining humans.)

Little of that made an impact, though – because, in the end, that’s just not what this story was about.

doctor who review ascension of the cybermen jodie whittaker chris chibnall jamie magnus stone cybermen ashad timeless child brendan

If, then, there’s not a whole lot to say about this episode – and if I’m still determined to write these reviews in three sections, which I am – then let’s devote some time to speculation. I never really do this, but hey: Ascension of the Cybermen is written essentially as a fifty-minute trailer for next week. I think speculating is exactly what we’re meant to do at this point.

Which brings us to Brendan, the nominally Irish police officer, and the most interesting part of Ascension of the Cybermen. I say “nominally-Irish” because I’m convinced that these scenes aren’t actually taking place in Ireland – rather, they’re on Gallifrey (or at least some sort of visual metaphor for it), the punchline to that old joke about how “Gallifrey is a place in Ireland”. Brendan, I assume, is the Doctor somehow – a policeman, not unlike how the Doctor travels in a police box, “sorting out fair play across the universe”. Brendan being found as a baby is, presumably, how Chibnall intends to reinvent the Doctor’s origins – not a Time Lord, just raised by Time Lords, instead an adopted (Timeless?) child from another world. “Everything you think you know is a lie, Doctor” – you’re not a Time Lord at all. (Is the Master? Dunno – but I do like the idea of him being so invested in the Doctor that he’s treated this as a much bigger, more personal, revelation than it actually is.)

The question that poses in turn – “If not a Time Lord, what is the Doctor?”, or more simply, “Doctor Who?” – is a neat way to turn the series on its head. You can see, suddenly, the dramatic engine of Chibnall’s five-year plan, a sweeping change that offers stories both intimate and epic. It’s the sort of thing Doctor Who should embrace, I think; there’s little benefit to being beholden to decades-old canon if it prevents you from telling new, compelling stories today. Plus, there’s something very neat about Chibnall scrawling over Doctor Who’s mythology with his own ideas in an episode that borrows a key scene from Broadchurch.

Admittedly, the danger is that what’s compelling about these stories is walking up to the line, flirting with the idea of crossing it, indulging in the blasphemy of it – but its rare that these questions might have a satisfactory answer. The Doctor isn’t a Time Lord. She’s a human.  She’s a Cyberman. She’s a Timeless Child. She’s half-human on her mother’s side. She’s a Slitheen. She’s something we’ve never heard of before, from a race that… looks human and can regenerate. Hmm. Best case scenario, The Timeless Children is 2020’s answer to The War Games – more likely, it’s going to be akin to The TV Movie, and we’ll all just sort of ignore whatever happens next week the same way we all sort of ignore the half-human thing. (That said, there’s a get out; if Time Lord is a rank, the Doctor can still be a Time Lord but not a Gallifreyan, and a happy ending reclaiming an imperial birthright is… well, we’ll see.) In any case, Doctor Who might be about to quite radically reinvent itself: I’d be lying if I said I thought Chibnall could pull it off.

Equally, I could be entirely wrong – it’s surely not a coincidence that both Ashad and Ko Sharmus are played by Irish actors, after all. Suppose we’ll see!

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

Doctor Who Review: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

doctor who review haunting villa diodati maxine alderton emma sullivan mary shelley lili miller lone cyberman ashad patrick o kane modern prometheus

What happened? They get bored halfway through or something?

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Cybermen.

They’re the classic monsters you bring back when you want to bring back a classic monster, but you can’t use the Daleks: always defined by, and stuck in, that second place slot. Certainly, they’re interesting at times, and there’s more than one great idea at the heart of the concept – even if, by and large, Doctor Who tends to avoid the best of those ideas because Star Trek did it better with the Borg – but, for the most part, the Cybermen themselves rarely improve a story on their own terms.

What’s interesting, though, is that the past few years have seen a quiet reinvention of the Cybermen, an attempt to reposition them, not the Daleks, as Doctor Who’s main enemy, for lack of a better term. Part of that I suspect is down to the individual writers’ idiosyncrasies – where Russell T Davies clearly loved the Daleks, I’m less sure Steven Moffat did, typically treating them as big, blockbuster threats for a series opening, rather than the main villains of a series finale. (Even then, look at the two Dalek episodes Moffat wrote – The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar are really more about Davros than the Daleks, and Asylum of the Daleks is arguably the greatest Cyberman story never told.) It doesn’t take a particularly close analysis of Moffat’s work to see that he found the Cybermen a more compelling foe than the Daleks; between Resolution and this closing trilogy of Series 12, it rather looks like Chibnall feels the same way.

As something of an established cyber-sceptic, I am… yet to be entirely convinced by The Haunting of Villa Diodati. Undeniably, there’s some genuinely fascinating stuff in there; if nothing else, this Lone Cyberman – Ashad, a named Cyberman for the first time in a long time – is different to what we’ve seen before. Sure, the partial conversion is just Doctor Who finally conceding and stealing from the Borg (maybe not a surprise; I’ve long got the vibe that Chibnall is a Voyager fan), but it works, as does such an emotional Cyberman. The Cyberman picking up the baby and whispering to it? That’s sublimely perverse.

Admittedly, I’m inclined towards caution still. “Beware the Lone Cyberman, don’t give it what it wants” was an already fairly dull warning – I mean, are there times you shouldn’t be wary of Cybermen? Without specific instruction, would you otherwise typically give Cybermen what they want? Still, though, this feels like a less-than-interesting follow up to an already less-than-interesting tease: Fugitive of the Judoonconjured an image of a beguiling, persuasive Cyberman, maybe even a sympathetic one, and the Doctor being tricked into some Faustian pact. Not quite, in the end; for all that The Haunting of Villa Diodati offers an interesting spin on the Cybermen, with this half-converted, Cyber-zealot, it does little to uncouple it from the stompy robot archetype that so often holds them back.

doctor who review haunting villa diodati lone cyberman ashad patrick o kane frankenstein mary shelley modern prometheus maxine alderton emma sullivan

The Haunting of Villa Diodati also offers what is self-evidently the most obvious Doctor Who celebrity historical, even moreso than Dickens and alien ghosts, Shakespeare and alien witches, and Agatha Christie and, uh, an alien wasp: Mary Shelley and Cybermen. There’s something irresistible about it, obviousness aside – sure, there’s an argument to be made that setting the story later in Shelley’s life, after she’d written Frankenstein, might have been more interesting, but it’s hard for me to begrudge them this. Mary Shelley and the Cybermen, on the night that science fiction was invented? Sometimes your first idea really is your best idea.

The trouble is you can only really do this once – Big Finish notwithstanding – so it’s a shame, then, that The Haunting of Villa Diodati executes this premise so poorly. In part, that’s because it gets derailed by its obligations to set up the finale; even Fugitive of the Judoon functions better on its own terms than this. (Which raises, incidentally, an interesting question – how come Chibnall didn’t take a cowriting credit on this one?) Chiefly, though, it’s because The Haunting of Villa Diodati just isn’t particularly interested in Mary Shelley; there’s a case to be made, in fact, that it’s the Celebrity Historical least invested in and committed to its Historical Celebrity. (Well, that or Let’s Kill Hitler.)

Time after time, the episode fails to centre Mary in the narrative: she has little agency or impact, often sidelined in favour of Byron, Polidori or Percy, and there are times where it’s difficult to distinguish her from Clare on a scene by scene basis. (A related thought: does this episode pass the Bechdel test? I think it does, but I can’t say that with as much confidence as I feel like I should.) Even on a more basic level, there are flaws that betray a lack of understanding of or engagement with her body of work – perhaps the most glaring being when Mary calls the Cyberman “a Modern Prometheus”, which isn’t at all what that phrase meant in Frankenstein anyway. It’s a real, real shame. There’s an argument, perhaps, that I’m judging this episode by something it never set out to be – that it was never meant to be a Mary Shelley episode, but a broader, Romantic-era writers episode – but, well, if that’s the case, I’m not sure that “Byron meets a Cyberman and also Mary Shelley is there” is an episode worth making.

Even outside of that, though, I’m not convinced by The Haunting of Villa Diodati as a piece of spooky, gothic horror. To my mind, at least, the direction felt leaden and numb rather than atmospheric and evocative, muddling through familiar tropes with muted enthusiasm. Certainly, I hardly got the sense that there was something profoundly evil about the Villa, or even really that it had any bad vibes – a failure, I think, given how much of the first half of the episode hinges on that sense of wrongness. This, in fairness, might be a wider structural problem: that sense of wrongness won’t convey, no matter how good the direction is, if it hinges on the fact that Mary Shelley hasn’t written Frankenstein yet only seven minutes into the episode. The characters – who only wrote these stories as a fun competition anyway – just hanging around and dancing doesn’t really suggest time is wrong and out of balance. If Mary and Percy’s roles had been reversed, however, it might’ve gone a long way to fixing that problem (because we’d absolutely notice Mary Shelley being absent, and that would feel wrong), as well as giving Mary quite a bit more to actually do in the final confrontation.

doctor who review haunting villa diodati mary shelley lili miller byron jacob collins levy cyberman ashad patrick o kane

What The Haunting of Villa Diodati finally does, though, is something I’ve been calling for for a while now: it gave Jodie Whittaker something to do. At this point, that’s more of a victory than it should be – imagine “finally, David Tennant has something to do” after Gridlock, his seventeenth episode – but this is after two weeks in a row of Jodie Whittaker being the weakest part of an episode, so we’ll take what we can get.

Whittaker has long struggled with underwritten material, and an underdeveloped character; whether it’s been down to a lack of skill on Chibnall’s part, or a conscious decision about how to write for a female Doctor, this incarnation of the Time Lord has skewed positive in a way few of her predecessors have. At times, it’s felt like Chibnall has been writing a Tennant tribute act, shorn of the arrogance and darkness that counterbalanced that take – leaving Whittaker to play enthusiastic quirks and eccentricities, and not a lot else. It’s not that Whittaker is a bad actress by any means, and she’s often doing a lot to improve a script (where she can, anyway; she’s never been great at exposition, and that shows again this week) – rather, the writing rarely plays to her strengths, and rarely pushes the character to new places.

This week, at least, gave Whittaker something new to do – The Haunting of Villa Diodati is the first time in a long time we’ve seen her Doctor genuinely angry, admonishing and confronting her companions when faced with a difficult choice. It’s something we’ve seen hints of before (again, Fugitive of the Judoon springs to mind, but I’ve also always been fond of the way Whittaker described Tim Shaw as “obscene” all the way back in The Woman Who Fell to Earth) but The Haunting of Villa Diodati commits to it in a way previous episodes didn’t, in effect building the entire episode around this confrontation. Surprising no one, Jodie Whittaker is excellent at it; I wonder, perhaps, if writing this Doctor as such an upbeat enthusiast was perhaps a misreading of Whittaker’s career so far. Nonetheless, it’s great to actually deepen both the character and her dynamic with the companions this way – more likely than not, Yaz, Graham and Ryan will probably be leaving at the end of this year, but hopefully whoever comes next will benefit more from this sort of writing.

It’s just a shame, though, that this conflict is predicated on something so insubstantial. In the end, it’s just another trolley problem, rooted in nonsensical time travel mechanics rather than character – Tosin Cole does his best (and in fact has another excellent week here generally) but when have we ever seen Ryan be that coldly utilitarian before? There’s also an aggravating Great Man of History vibe to it all – isn’t it enough to just want to save a life, regardless of how important his work will be? (Although again, the episode is curiously disinterested in the actual content of these words – I’ve since learned that Percy Shelley wasn’t just a poet, but was also an early proponent of nonviolent resistance, whose work inspired Gandhi amongst others. There’s surely some resonance that could be drawn out between Percy and this almost faultlessly pacifist Doctor?) It’s hard, in any case, to feel particularly invested in this particular dilemma – the drama is entirely flat, and so too is the Doctor’s outburst.

You could reasonably accuse me, I suppose, of not having reviewed this episode as it exists, but rather comparing it to the episode I wish it was – and, in fairness, I don’t know what I’d say to that. Maybe I have! Certainly, for all that I did enjoy – Tosin Cole, the production design, the Valet, that excellent title – I’m struggling to muster the enthusiasm that others have. But, hey, that’s my loss in the end.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

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.

doctor who review can you hear me yaz yasmin khan mandip gill emma sullivan sonya charlene james zellin depression suicide

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.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

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.)

doctor who review praxeus pete mctighe chris chibnal mandip gill jodie whittaker madagascar yaz betray doctor

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.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

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.

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jo martin jodie whittaker jack harkness john barrowman vinay patel nida manzoor chris chibnall

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

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

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.

doctor who review nikola tesla jodie whittaker goran visnjic nida manzoor nina metivier chris chibnall

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

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index