Doctor Who Review: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

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

Ranskoor Av what?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe that’s for the best.

3/10

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Doctor Who Review: It Takes You Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

On paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Witchfinders

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

We’ve got to do something, Doctor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

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Doctor Who Review: Kerblam!

kerblam doctor who review chris chibnall pete mctighe

The systems aren’t the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The system works.

The systems aren’t the problem.

Obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously.

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

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

The system isn’t the problem.

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

Fucking hell.

2/10

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Doctor Who Review: Demons of the Punjab

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

This is us. Forever. Our moment in time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Tsuranga Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

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

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Doctor Who Review: Arachnids in the UK

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

Now if you’re so great, explain this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recurring character?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

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Doctor Who Review: Rosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer, I suspect, is yes.

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Ghost Monument

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

Alright, anyone can focus on the negatives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s more interesting, to me at least, to consider what that suggests about the character. That level of self-doubt – and more to the point, very sudden self-doubt that the audience understands as unfounded – feels like something we’ve never actually quite seen before. It’s a take on the Doctor that emphasises a certain vulnerability and insecurity, and it’s difficult to imagine Capaldi, Smith, Tennant or Eccleston playing the scene the same way. More to the point, it casts other, more familiar Doctor-ish traits in an interesting new light – the improvisation, the keenness to make friends, all of that feels slightly different. Coupled with certain standout scenes from last week (describing Tim Shaw as “obscene”) and it’s obvious where Jodie Whittaker is going to do some of her most interesting work with the Doctor: carving out a space for subtler, quieter emotions, and in turn evoking the interiority of the part in a way we’ve not seen before. There is, of course, a boring explanation for why this is. The truer explanation, I suspect, is that that’s simply the sort of actress she is.

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

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

6/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jodie Whittaker really is pretty brilliant.

7/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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