It Takes You AwayBookmark and Share

Thursday, 6 December 2018 - Reviewed by Marcus
 It Takes You Away: The Tardis, The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) (Credit: BBC Studios (Simon Ridgway))
Writer: Ed Hime
Director: Jamie Childs
Executive Producer: Chris Chibnall
 
Starring: Jodie Whittaker

BBC One (United Kingdom

First Broadcast: Sunday 2nd December 2018

It Takes You Away is not what we expected. The trailers, synopsis and preview clips had built up our expectations for a proper spooky episode of Doctor Who. All the prerequisite ingredients were present - creepy house in the middle of nowhere, intriguing mystery involving mirrors, monsters in the woods…basically all the calling cards for a potentially intense and terrifying ghost story. But upon watching the episode, it soon becomes clear that the episode has other ideas about where to go.

Things certainly start off in the way of most horror films, with our heroes finding a deserted cabin in the Norwegian woods, a blind teenager fearing for her life, and strange monster roars coming from the forest. But as events move along, the episode soon changes tact altogether. What the episode ultimately becomes is a story about loss and love, a story about rejection and doomed romance.

Ed Hime’s story has all the makings of a proper scary story but doesn’t utilise these elements in a way that is scary at all. Granted, there’s plenty of doom-laden atmosphere to proceedings, but by-and-large, there’s little in the way of creepy moments or jump scares. The closet we get is the appearance of the slimy alien Ribbons (played here by Kevin Eldon) and some flesh-eating moths, but both are largely inconsequential to the main plot (the threat of the moths is quickly forgotten about during the climax, with the main characters almost oblivious to them). Even the title is misleading – no one actually gets ‘taken’ anywhere!

Of course, there’s little point in reviewing an episode for what it isn’t. What it ultimately is is definitely decent. Easily one of the more emotional episodes we’ve had this season, It Takes You Away deals with grief and loneliness in a unique and moving way. Doctor Who is always adept at subverting genres and going in unexpected directions instead, and what we have here is no different. There’s no greater example of this in play then with THAT particularly surreal scene near the climax. You know the one. The one with the talking frog!

As moments go, it’s undoubtedly one of the most bizarre visual moments in the show’s fifty-five year history, with an unmistakeable Douglas Adams-esque vibe to it. It’s an idea some viewers will undoubtedly dislike, what with it being so ridiculously silly, but it certainly matches the tone of the episode and plays the idea straight enough. The CGI is a little bit dodgy, but it’s Jodie Whittaker and Sharon D. Clarke who sell it, with Whittaker in particular going for broke in terms of her performance.

The idea of a conscious universe kept separate from our own is also an interesting development, and the manner in which the writer conceptualises it is clever and emotionally resonant. The return of Sharon D. Clarke as Grace is a nice touch, and once again Bradley Walsh gets the chance to really show-off what a cracking actor he is. The scenes between Graham and Grace are some of the most heart-breaking scenes we’ve had all year, and both actors deliver the goods in a beautifully understated but saddening manner.

Of course, as much as there is to enjoy, the episode never quite hits above average, no matter how compelling the human drama is. Like most of the stories this year, there’s a complete lack of a decent villain, which would be fine, had the majority of the episodes this season not done the same thing. The idea of a mirror universe is such a great sci-fi concept with lots of great visual possibilities, but the director and writer never utilise said-concept in ways that visually stand out or befit the story (aside from a few T-Shirt logos being flipped). 

Worst of all though, the guest characters pretty underdeveloped, which unfortunately renders a lot of scenes empty and defunct. Ellie Wallwork is decent in her respective role, but the character of Hanne barely gets much to do aside from pout and cry. Worst of the bunch though is her father, Erik (Christian Rubeck), whose actions here are so deplorable it’s amazing the character doesn’t get more of a telling-off from the Doctor. It’s this aspect that feels tonally-off, and really feels like the writers just forgot to add some kind of consequence for Erik’s actions. Instead, his daughter is happy to have him back, even though he lied, manipulated, and abandoned her. Frankly, he gets off pretty lightly.

As expectations go, It Takes You Away dashes them, but it at least has the decency to dash them quick and serve up something else that just about satisfies. Some big science fiction ideas gel nicely with some relatable human drama, resulting in some fantastic turns from the lead cast-members. Even though the concept isn’t as engaging as what we were originally promised, the episode still has plenty in terms of great ideas, visuals and performances – as we always expected it would!





The WitchfindersBookmark and Share

Thursday, 29 November 2018 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
 The Witchfinders: Yaz (Mandip Gill), The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Willa Twiston (Tilly Steele) (Credit: BBC Studios (Sophie Mutevelian ))
Written by Joy Wilkinson
Directed by Sallie Aprahamian

Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall
Producer: Alex Mercer

Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole
Alan Cumming, Siobhan Finneran, Tilly Steele, Tricia Kelly
Stavros Demetraki, Arthur Kay

A BBC Studios Production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 25 November 2018
Running time: 46 minutes 31 seconds (source: BBC iPlayer)
 

The Witchfinders is Doctor Who's third foray into history this series, and on first acquaintance it's the closest to the model introduced with The Unquiet Dead and seen almost annually thereafter until (arguably) Robot of Sherwood. The Doctor and friends find themselves in a period setting familiar from school or heritage sites, but where the details aren't congruent with the record. There is a famous historical figure involved, presented in a knowingly self-conscious manner. An alien or aliens turn out to be behind events. There is an effects-laden climax which is cathartic for the historical personality concerned. Human history as known to the Doctor and his companions is guaranteed. While following this precedent, The Witchfinders follows hard on the heels of Demons of the Punjab and Rosa; and where the historical adventures of Doctors Nine to Twelve often revelled in subverting history, The Witchfinders carries forward the educative function of its predecessors this series, though in less direct a fashion. 

Like Vinay Patel before her, Joy Wilkinson has posted a picture of some of the books she used to research her story on Twitter. There are differences in that where Patel's choices were squarely set in historical scholarship and the literary novel, Wilkinson's have ranging roots, from books she read when growing up - such as Arthur Douglas's accessible, well-researched and unsensationally readable The Fate of the Lancashire Witches (1978) and Robert Neill's novel Mist Over Pendle (1951) - to modern scholarly discussions of what the Lancashire witch trials meant at the time and how they have resonated since, and James VI and I's own Demonologie. Writing at greater distance from her subject than the authors of Rosa and Demons of the Punjab were from theirs, Wilkinson inevitably takes account of the centuries of transmission which have seen the Lancashire witch craze find many meanings for successive ages. While not necessarily less immediate than Doctor Who's depiction of Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, or the partitioned Punjab in 1947, time leads to fragmentation and the ways in which the TARDIS 'team, gang, fam' relate to events and characters are consequently more diffracted. As Wilkinson's sources indicate, the episode is as much a response to fictionalization, mythology and a mood struck by witch trials in the collective imagination as it is to the judicial pursuit of supposed witches in Lancashire in the reign of King James.

No specific date is given for the events in The Witchfinders, and there is no mention by the seventeenth-century characters of the historical Pendle witch trials. Only Graham (Bradley Walsh) relates the setting of Bilehurst Cragg to the Pendle Witch Trail which he's walked. Presumably the story is set not long after the trials of 1612; or is it set earlier, and are we being asked to imagine that the persecution initiated by Becka Savage is the erased context for the historical accusations levelled against Alizon Device and her family in Pendle in 1612?  

The presence of King James in the story might suggest an earlier date. Following his visit to Norway and Denmark to marry their king's sister Anna in 1590, James VI had become obsessed with witchcraft, finding guilty several accused from North Berwick in East Lothian (presumably inspiring the 'Berwick' referred to in this episode) guilty of using sorcery to try to sink his ship on the way home. The James of The Witchfinders expresses his belief that he is protected by God against extraordinary adversity, and his survival of a satanic plot against his own life, his wife's and the possibility of their having descendants encouraged this well before the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. However, during the 1610s the king became increasingly sceptical about witchcraft and wary of condemning accused witches. It's possible that one might look at a post-1612 setting for The Witchfinders, with the king here being confronted by his own fears and (with his agreement to suppress the memory of Bilehurst Cragg) learning to move past them even if this means a continued degree of personal and political repression.

Beyond specifics about dates, The Witchfinders follows the pattern of other post-2005 pseudohistoricals by finding authenticity in impressionistic use of detail. Having witchcraft allegations arising within a family echoed the Lancashire witch trials of 1612, but its relation to female social mobility mirrored the case of Joan Flowers, one of the Belvoir witches of 1619. Where Becka Savage's status had risen by marriage, Joan Flowers's fell on her widowhood; before we learn that Becka has been infected by the Morax, her accusations of witchcraft, frequent duckings and horse-shootings invite the rationalist assumption that she has instigated a reign of terror in order to defend a precarious social position. Meanwhile her grandmother and cousin represented a power which could complement or oppose that of the local lord, that of the 'cunning woman' (sometimes cunning man) who in benign cases practised healing by seeking to bring the sick back into alignment with the four classical elements of earth, fire, water and air. The chanting of these elements as an invocation by Old Mother Twiston (Tricia Kelly giving a rounded performance in a few lines so we can believe in her as someone to mourn when in the earth and possessed by it) before her ducking encourages the viewer to see the Twistons as potential wielders of magic forces, with vague echoes of Shakespearean ambivalent or malign magic, but it's also a transmission of social identity within the village collective, with Willa (a forceful and grounded Tilly Steele) taking over her grandmother's role. In Doctor Who terms one might think of the assumption of Panna's identity by Karuna in part four of Kinda. In The Witchfinders it serves as a reminder that women were accepted as the gatherers, keepers and conveyors of useful knowledge in this period. The discussion the Doctor and Yaz have with Willa at the Twiston family home about her grandmother and magic incline the viewer to see Willa as the nearest the setting has to a rationalist, showing sympathy to the Doctor's unbelief in Satan; she crumbles before James and Becka soon after the Doctor explodes that if she was a man she'd have no problem furthering her investigation.

Becka (a believable woman of faith and fear in the hands of Siobhan Finneran) imagines that the Doctor's authority is that of a witchfinder-general and does not scoff at what the psychic paper tells her. The arrival of King James, with his prejudices about male superiority and his belief that God works directly through him, disturbs the equilibrium of this corner of 'Merry England' as much as the witch-duckings displace the time-honoured Sunday ritual of apple-bobbing. Even assuming the early cultivation of different strains of apple which ripen at different times of year, and the maintenance of cold cellars for storage, I'm not sure that there would have been enough apples to bob every Sunday in a year, but the line (even if revisiting the scene 'this' is probably only the Sunday 'party') was a good way of suggesting that this was a time when long-established patterns of life were being disturbed. 

There were no witchfinders-general in the time of James VI and I, nor did the king maintain a witchfinding hierarchy. The use of the title appeals to what the viewers might think they know - the spurious office is associated with Matthew Hopkins, who was active in the 1640s, a probable three decades after events here - but it also places The Witchfinders in a tradition of fictional accounts of seventeenth-century witch hunts which would take too long to explore here. However, the identification of the Doctor and her friends as the episode's eponymous witchfinders is a neat confirmation of the Doctor's complicity in events. Where the Doctor interfered in Rosa to correct the distortion of history, to the extent of not intervening in Rosa Parks's defence when ordered to surrender her seat on the bus, here her sense of what is right compels her to attempt to rescue Willa's grandmother, but fails. The Doctor's dilemma is played, shot and edited well, encouraging the sense that the Doctor's preaching of non-interference has been leading to this point. Interference means feigning friendship with a mass murderer. Although brought into the heart of local and then national society by their proximity to both Becka and the king, the Doctor is still acted upon as much as she acts upon other people. More than in any episode so far, the Doctor's freedom of action is constrained by her gender. It's been widely remarked upon that this is the first episode of the series where the Doctor explicitly identifies with womankind, and the first where she notes that she wouldn't have had this trouble when she was a man. James only regards her as a potential equal once she is accused of witchcraft: God's representative facing the Devil's. 

On first viewing I found Alan Cumming's portrayal of James VI and I problematic. I was apprehensive following a report of his claim that he'd based his accent on Conservative politicians Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Forsyth - "from Scotland, but trying to pretend they’re from England with this strange hybrid accent" - which imports current debates about the politics of Scottish identity into a Doctor Who story which already promised to have much to carry. Whatever one thinks of James (or for that matter Rifkind and Forsyth) he never pretended to be from England; but what we had was a more generic 'Morningside' accent which worked as a parallel for a Scottish king seeking acceptance by the English elite. Choices in Cumming's establishing scenes made me sympathetic to observers who thought it an overly mannered, even homophobic performance and for a while I was one of those who thought this James would turn out to be an impostor. On the other hand Cumming emphasised the king's love of drama, acknowledged in the script; the characterization was strong, with 'modern' characters in Ryan and the Doctor inspiring some very twenty-first century therapeutic conversations to provide background to what one could already infer from text and performance. James's confrontation with the Doctor shows him to be a worthy adversary, able to turn the Doctor's interrogation against her in defence, but his attack on the Morax queen makes him a less than worthy ally, the divisions in his identity still unreconciled. Slaying a dragon as the sovereign of the Garter and bearer of St George's cross might be fitting, but in doing so James mistakes the nature of his foe, lets prejudice betray his claims to empiricism, and removes both the possibility of the queen's redemption and the recovery of Becka from possession (not entirely closed off by the insistence of the queen that nothing remains of Becka). The Arthurian echoes in the imprisonment of the Morax, a king with a mighty army sleeping under a hill, mocked the historical James's barely fulfilled wish to make Arthurian legend real as king of a unified Britain, just as the Morax queen and her court of corpses mock this James's fragile masculinity by intending to 'fill' him with their king. The latter too draws from M.R. James's treatment of seventeenth-century witch-hunting in The Ash Tree, as a wronged woman blights a landed dynasty of men over generations.

The Witchfinders succeeded at creating mood, with its mists, winter berries, cold grey water and wet earth. I might have wished for more oppressive dark to accompany the shuffling of the mud-filled corpses, though perhaps this might have been thought too directly drawing upon latterday zombie television for an early evening audience. I'd thought of this series as made of spaces and silences, but here Segun Akinola's score suggested that there was something in the silence, knocking on wood to seek form, whispering in the wind. There were touches of the uncanny in ordinary design, too - the stylized ducking stool seemed oddly fashioned but hinted at the revelation that this was alien technology. Transformed into the Morax queen, Siobhan Finneran's make-up suggested a woodland creature as much as a mud entity, with a little of Rupert Bear's forest sprite Raggety about her. 

The 'flat team structure' of the current Team TARDIS is evolving well, with this episode showing the roles of the different characters to advantage. Ryan's empathic side was brought out by the quietly assured Tosin Cole, Graham was authoritatively avuncular, and Yaz (a determined and energetic Mandip Gill) was professionally investigative but also humane in her treatment of the bereaved Willa. The Doctor has increasing room to display her edge, too, with Jodie Whittaker unquestionably in command of a chastened and reflective King James in the final scene. The regulars are enduring a slow build and makes me wish the series had more time, both with some more minutes to show off the abilities of the regulars and more episodes in which to get to know them. 

There's so much more that could be unpicked in this story, so many layers did it invoke. The Witchfinders was an accomplished and very enjoyable episode on the whole - but why, Doctor, that dig about pockets? Seventeenth-century women apparently enjoyed more of them about their clothing than their twenty-first century successors do...





Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor #1 (Titan Comics)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 7 November 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Doctor Who: Thirteenth Doctor #1 - Cover A - Babs Tarr (Credit: Titan )

Writer: Jody Houser
Artist: Rachel Stott
Colorist: Enrica Eren Angiolini

38 Pages

Published by Titan Comics 7th November 2018

 

 

 

After Titan's long build up, their new Thirteenth Doctor ongoing comic book series has finally, officially, begun.  They of course teased the series with the rather lame "Road to the Thirteenth Doctor" 3-issue mini-series, which each had a random adventure of the Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctors (respectively), and then had a short comic printed in the back of each that actually fulfilled the "Road to..." premise in the least interesting way possible. This tease basically amounted to each of these Doctors seeing a crazy swirling beam of light and a hand reaching out (though I guess technically the Eleventh Doctor missed it entirely).  This mini-series was then followed up by this issue's immediate predecessor, "The Many Lives of Doctor Who," or Issue 0 of this series. That book at least felt like a real build up to this new Doctor.  All her previous lives and adventures have lead her to this moment, and she will now become this new Doctor, the first female incarnation.  

 

***While there isn't a ton of plot and is really just the start to a story, this Review DOES contain SPOILERS of the First Issue, Reader Beware....***

 

This first issue picks up on the Hand coming out of a beam of light thread, and does so surprisingly early.  I figured that wouldn't really come into play for this new comic book line until an issue or two in...but they get cracking right away on that.  It involves a couple of thieves who are traveling through time, stealing art and artifacts, and then giving this stuff to some devious alien being in exchange for some kind of medication for the girl.  

The Doctor and her crew are exploring the wonders and beauty of the universe when they see the beam of light and the Hand coming through.  While the Doctor remembers seeing this before, she finally has a moment to deal with it, so they travel through time and space following the signal of this strange thing's origin, and she is able to stabilize the temporal anomaly just long enough for her friends to pull the hand through. They get the male thief coming out the other end...but before they can ask him too many questions about what exactly is going on...they are quickly surrounded by armed guards! Classic Doctor Who cliffhanger.

It's a promising start to the series.  The writing is fun, they've captured this new TV team's voices pretty perfectly, which is impressive considering how little their still is to go on (even with some advanced knowledge and previews of the show, there is a maximum of 10 episodes that have been produced so far...and I highly doubt Titan was given full access to all 10. At any rate, like usual, Titan has managed to capture the spirit of whatever Doctor, Companions, and era that they attempt to adapt for the page. So far, there isn't a ton of story explored yet to delve into, but with some snappy dialogue and great art, I look forward to seeing how the team behind this series adds to the Thirteenth Doctor's story. 





The Tsuranga ConundrumBookmark and Share

Monday, 5 November 2018 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
 The Tsuranga Conundrum - Jodie Whittaker / Suzanne Packer (Credit: BBC Studios)
Writer:  Chris Chibnall
Director: Jennifer Perrott
Series Producer: Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens

Starring Jodie Whittaker. Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Suzanne Packer and Jack Shalloo

A BBC Studios Production for BBC One

First broadcast Sunday 4 November on BBC One
Running time: 50 minutes

Warning: this review contains spoilers from the outset   

 

Treated as a traditional 'base under siege' story this may seem a little disappointing, but taken as a deliberate attempt to do something different with the well-established template, it comes into focus as an intriguing and largely successful entry into the emerging Chibnall oeuvre. Perhaps the biggest divergence lies in the form of the singular Pting threat, created by Tim Price in a 'writers' room' session. Where usually one might expect uncanny robots, or even oversized insect-like creatures in the style of the Wirrn (not something that would work particularly well so soon after last week's giant spiderfest), here we instead get a toothy yet cutesy miniature troll or gremlin who drifts away at the end, blissed out after a hearty meal. It's a tonal shift that questions our expectations about the appearance of monstrosity -- something that 'The Woman Who Fell to Earth' failed to do, with its generic depiction of the Stenza as a terrifying, blue-skinned warrior race. However, constituting a "chalice"-level threat -- this story borrows its take on futuristic language as absurdist from the Russell T Davies playbook -- there can be no doubting the danger posed by the Pting.

And if this threat is unconventional, so too is the Doctor's ultimate solution, something which the dialogue rams home for long-term and new viewers alike: "funny, I'm normally the one defusing the bomb". Add to this an extremely unusual opening, where the thirteenth Doctor proves to be fallible against a sonic mine, and this proves to be a story repeatedly taking the less trammelled path rather than pursuing well-worn story beats, even down to the sonic screwdriver being (temporarily) incapacitated. Pleasingly, a cliched 'awww, you named him after us' moment once Yoss has given birth is also thoroughly undermined, and the otherness of 67th century male pregnancy is re-asserted, up to a point, in the face of pure 'relatability'. At the same time, the episode features plenty of predictable corridor action and presumably redressed/re-lit sets, allowing the Tsuranga to take on a greater scale than the budget might otherwise have allowed for. Traditional production techniques underpin the less trad storytelling.

Doctor Who has always drawn inspiration from the real world around it, and this tale is no different on that score. One strand of Chibnall's world-building concerns the Tsuranga's automated systems and how its passengers will be treated if they declare the Pting presence. This very much felt like a comment on today's 'smart' computer systems, along with algorithms that reult in experiences of 'computer says no', and operating systems that pester their users for updates and upgrades. The Tsuranga's automatic set of decisions -- "who designed that?" -- creates an ever more restricted set of possibilities for the Doctor, making this not just a 'base under siege' variant but also a kind of 'base (remotely) attacking itself' story, as well as supplyng the raw material for Chibnall's eventual twist and the Doctor's puzzle-solving (something that felt slightly under-motivated by Durkas's brief mention of energy).  

The very final sequence reminded me slightly of 'Gridlock', whilst the playfulness surrounding a male pregnancy aboard the Tsuranga offered more of the (retro) 'public service Who' that previous weeks have delivered via inclusions of dyspraxia, cancer, and, of course, a critique of racism. This week's family entertainment talking point revolved around issues of reproduction, and one can imagine conversations productively being sparked about how men could have babies, and for that matter, what not taking "precautions" might mean. This re-gendering of pregnancy continues Chris Chibnall's interest in not just riffing on the RTD era's investment in emotional realism, but also in returning to a re-tooled sense of how Doctor Who can remain distinctive -- as vibrant SF spectacle with an educative mission statement for its much younger viewers. Likewise, the Doctor's homily about imagination, and her delight in response to the anti-matter drive as a scientific achievement, add to the educational balance sheet via a smart sense of Doctor-ish passion. Jodie Whittaker gets most of the best lines, and doesn't waste a single one, as her depiction of the ages-old Time Lord continues to impress.

The Tsuranga Conundrum: Durkas Cicero (Ben Bailey-smith), Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer) (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall))But if some of this makes 'The Tsuranga Conundrum' sound overly worthy, it's just as well as to recall that the episode works effectively in a series of other ways. The 'conundrum' of the title ostensibly refers to the problem of how to defeat the Pting, given that it can't be killed or even touched, and will eventually eat its way through the entire spacecraft that the Doctor, her friends, and assorted patients are all trapped on (the script makes a suitably big show of denying the Doctor her TARDIS, along with any teleport or life pods). There is another conundrum on show, however -- how can the story combine 'base under siege' tension with character asides and moments of personal development that might seem better suited to the 'slow(er)' TV drama of something like Broadchurch? This is a tricky balancing act, and I sometimes wanted more of a sense of the alien creature's approach or deadly progress to keep tension levels up via an extra Pting cutaway. On the whole, though, character beats and the main plot are interwoven via different protagonists' skills (such as neuro-piloting) that need to be used, along with the occasional bit of misdirection (I was convinced that Ronan, Eve Cicero's android consort, would come into play as a non-organic character who could handle the Pting and thus sacrifice himself).

Sometimes Doctor Who offers a warm glow of familiarity for long-term fans, and sometimes it chooses to unfold in less predictable ways. I didn't feel that 'The Tsuranga Conundrum' was 'bad' Who for an instant, but it was very deliberately and knowingly different Doctor Who -- hardly surprising for a new showrunner's opening season, I would argue. Will Whittaker's Doctor continue to display fallibility rather than ever-present, superheroic and legendary brilliance? (Her initial modesty over the Book of Celebrants giving way to an irrepressible boastfulness was another lovely Doctor-ish moment among an episode jam-packed with them, Hamilton fandom included).  

This year looks set to carry on inspiring audience debate via thoughtful portrayals of cultural identity and history; we have the Indian Partition and 'The Witchfinders' to come, along with what will no doubt be a broadly satirical commentary on "the galaxy's biggest retailer" (warehouses the size of a planet?). But whether it is tackling a surprisingly cute alien or a sometimes inhospitable hospital ship, Doctor Who is surely in the rudest of health right now.       





Arachnids in the UKBookmark and Share

Monday, 29 October 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
 Arachnids In The UK: Ryan (Tosin Cole), Graham (Bradley Walsh) (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall))
Writers: Chris Chibnall
Director: Sallie Aprahamian
Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Chris Noth

A BBC Studios production for BBC One

First UK broadcast Sunday 27 October on BBC One
Running time: 50 minutes

SPOILERS MAY BE AHEAD - READER BEWARE

 

The Doctor gets her friends back home to Sheffield, as promised, but finds it a bit difficult to say goodbye right away.  She joins Yaz and Ryan for tea, as Graham heads home to face the emptiness of his home without Grace, and while at Yaz's flat...they run into a new problem (I know...shocking), this time it is big spiders.  Events lead the TARDIS team to a yet to be opened hotel owned by a miserable American businessman played by Law & Order's Chris Noth, and there they find that the big spiders are numerous and some are even larger than a human being. 

As a simple monster of the week, it's a fairly enjoyable episode. The spiders are big and scary, but they aren't defeated with the most interesting of  climaxes. The businessman who longs to be President is a pretty generic baddie, but Noth does play him with plenty of gusto.  As I've come to expect, I think our new TARDIS team is quite enjoyable to watch.  We get a bit more depth for Yaz this week, a little bit of character building for Ryan, and some really lovely character stuff for Graham. 

Really, what I am enjoying about this season hasn't been so much the plots or the villains (other than last week's Rosa), but I've been far more interested in the character stuff with all of our new leads.  Whitaker really works as The Doctor, she plays the part in her own way but still owns the room like all her predecessors.  And her new Team TARDIS is a good group, and I'm enjoying getting to know them each week.  This episode sufficiently builds up their characters just enough to make you believe them when they tell the Doctor they'd like to continue traveling through time and space with her. 

Chibnall has been writing almost all of the episodes of the season so far, co-writing last week's with Malorie Blackman.  I'm assuming much of the episode was written by her, and he punched it up for his long term season plans or something.  But at any rate, he has had been a credited writer on everything this season, and while his stories aren't blowing me away with their originality, his character stuff has been top notch.  I'm enjoying his stuff, and while I am looking forward to seeing some episodes written by other writers (which will have to wait until after next week it seems), I think he has done a good job of reinventing the show over the first half of his first series as showrunner. 

This is a fairly generic Monster of the Week which has just enough character stuff to keep me interested.  It isn't perfectly executed, but I am finding myself loving the new cast enough that I like spending an hour with them each week. 





RosaBookmark and Share

Monday, 22 October 2018 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Rosa: Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) (Credit: BBC Studios (Coco Van Oppens))
Writers: Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall
Director: Mark Tonderai
Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall
Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole
Vinette Robinson, Joshua Bowman, Trevor White

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First UK broadcast Sunday 21 October, 6.55pm, BBC One
Running time: 50 minutes

"A pure historical," said my friend.

"Almost," I replied, "Certainly the closest we've had in the twenty-first century," I added, and might have further suggested "Since The Highlanders", but that would have opened a debate about Black Orchid for which it was not the time then, nor is it now.

Rosa didn't need jargon about fixed points or the sanctity of the web of time to tell its story; Malorie Blackman hasn't before and doesn't now. Causality was real, and fragile, and human; and the consequences for people were closer to the focus of the story than the conscience of a Time Lord, though that was by no means forgotten. There was for the first time in years a sense that circumstances had trapped the Doctor and their friends in a historical moment which couldn't be ignored, and that a series of personal obligations confined them there until wrongs were righted, or in this case ensured to happen so that a good outcome could be predicted. Everyone's psychology is in play, not only the Doctor's - Graham and Ryan and Yaz all have to cope with how their exposure to Montgomery, Alabama at the turn of December 1955 changes them. A screencap of Jodie Whittaker, neck muscles tensing as the Doctor not only fights her wish to interfere on the side of someone she admires for doing right, but also her shame at being in a privileged position in this society, has understandably been widely shared online since broadcast. Segun Akinola's score evoked the celebration of American commonality in the work of Aaron Copland while contrasting with the realities of inequality endured by the citizens of the United States.

The episode tackled historical racism more directly and more believably than any Doctor Who story since Human Nature/The Family of Blood. While Thin Ice offered a cathartic statement of disgust in the Doctor's violently punching Lord Sutcliffe after he insulted Bill, here the systematic persecution of 'coloureds' was made plain from the opening. The staging of the first encounter of Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) with James Blake (Trevor White) in 1943 (not, as I first thought, dramatic license, but a historical event) skirted a little too closely to presenting Parks's later action as some kind of feud, although this was mitigated initially through Blake's uniformed institutionalised identity, and later through Blake's conversation with Graham over pool. Blake is conservative man complacently attached to how 'the way things are' protect him at the expense of the rights of others, of a piece with the way he feels threatened by Ryan's blackness, asserted or not.

Events in this story reject any conception of the Doctor's travels into the past as jolly historical tourism. As soon as Yaz declares that "time travel's awesome!" her euphoria is undermined by the assault on Ryan. Good manners - as Rosa Parks enforces upon Ryan - are a matter not only of courtesy but of self-defence in Montgomery. Casual behaviour towards others, including strangers, becomes a mark of progressive tolerance on one hand but also of the privilege of living relatively secure from fear of another. The Doctor and Graham come close - but not as close as they could - to experiencing the police as if they were black when under the intruding eye of Officer Mason (Gareth Marks). Mason can rudely barge into a private room because he has the monopoly of force, and compel the Doctor and Graham into outward conformity to social norms so their friends can escape arrest. One of the many notes of humour in an unflinching tale (though family-friendly - no on-screen lynchings) was Whittaker's portrayal of the Doctor's reaction to Graham putting a husbandly hand on her shoulder; this is a world which inhibits her Doctor-ness through gender expectations. Meanwhile Ryan and Yaz in turn conform by briefly living in an alley behind bins. It's a powerful sequence, as the script acknowledges how little agency Yaz and Ryan have in Montgomery. Their dialogue offers straightforward contrasts in their experience: Yaz still excited that history is taking place around them, enabled somewhat by the difficulty Montgomery's racial classifications have in dealing with her appearance, while Ryan is miserable and angry. Yaz's remark that America will have a black president in fifty-three years time is presented as part of a progressive narrative, but Ryan's doubt about her optimism is surely shared by many in her audience given the pandering to white racism by many elements across government in the present-day United States.

This is a Doctor Who for an age where politicians have done well out of banter and wit and celebrity charisma, overcoming the hindrance of policies absent, incoherent, contradictory or widely unpalatable with personality. Jodie Whittaker's often curiously understated performance here underlines this, especially when contrasted with Joshua Bowman's Krasko, whose flippant attitude to his murders suggests someone who believes he can joke his way out of trouble but dreams of using force. Chris Chibnall's Doctor Who which doesn't oversell its symbolism, so Krasko isn't orange or blond as some productions might have made him. Bowman plays Krasko as a wolf guarding his territory; the Doctor's puncturing of his alpha male pretension by describing him as 'neutered' isn't enough to stop him prowling off with a swagger, outwardly certain of victory. He's despatched in a way which seems in the short term to vindicate Ryan's predilection for shooting at things, but Ryan's action this time is not condemned. Kraskos's return later in the series at first seemed to me a reasonable expectation, but after reading other views and considering how self-aggrandizing a thug he is, perhaps allowing him to gain status in the programme as a primeval proto-racist thousands of years in prehistory would be too generous to him.

The climax is carefully orchestrated, building up to a dull and sorrowful realisation that it is impossible for the Doctor and friends to escape complicity, whether they are the privileged Doctor and Yaz, Ryan seeking to be unobtrusive, or the awkward white man standing, Graham, in whose cause therefore Blake seeks to force Rosa to the back of the bus. The beats familiar to anyone who has read up on historical events then play out, as Blake calls his supervisor, the police arrive and escort the arrested Rosa off the bus, accompanied by Andra Day's 'Rise Up', a song of liberation in perseverance. Rosa Parks's collective activism was quietly played, but it was shown in the evening meeting at her house and given context not only in colour prejudice but in a struggle to be educated which many working-class women would recognise. While the Doctor's awestruck behaviour on meeting her was placed directly in the comedic tradition established by the Ninth Doctor in The Unquiet Dead, it's Ryan who gets to meet Martin Luther King (Ray Sesay) and respond in a way which though performed with a little exaggeration feels from Tosin Cole an entirely natural reaction to meeting historical figures who have been exemplars in Ryan's upbringing.

Grace's memory is an even stronger presence than it was in The Ghost Monument. Grace herself is an absence triangulated with the presence of two dead icons alive in visitable history, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Ryan can't admit his grief to Graham or perhaps to himself, but comes closest when in King's presence at the Parks household. Other threads of continuity go further back, Chris Chibnall's series being keen to show that this is still Doctor Who even when told in a new voice. In doing so new layers are brought to old stories. Stormcage was a laughably permeable prison for River Song with little thought to the nature of her fellow inmates, but there is no redemptive narrative for Krasko. The mechanics of Rosa are speeded by the Doctor contacting her 1950s American acquaintances, giving a practical purpose to namedrops of the past and subsuming the Doctor's celebrity networks into purposeful determination. Artron energy is reintroduced, explained and dramatized. Casting, as often, offers layers: Morgan Deare appears as a frightened and angry old man, where thirty-one years ago in Delta and the Bannermen he was a stupid CIA agent whose behaviour embodied British caricatures of Americans while young Britons made American pop culture their own. Where the 1987 story celebrated 1950s America for its lack of barriers, its 2018 successor acknowledges the divisions on which the economy which exported that culture in part relied. The origins of Malcolm Kohll, Delta's writer, in apartheid-era South Africa, juxtaposed with the post-apartheid South African locations for this story only accentuate the parallels and contrasts which have accumulated.

Indeed, the treatment of history in this story offers a plainer authenticity than the series has seen for a very long while. The Girl Who Died presented a rounded view of Viking life - raiders yes, but farmers and dreamers too. It was set in a much more heightened reality than this, though - just as The Woman Who Lived which followed it made an alien out of royal iconography for a story set during the mid-seventeenth century English republic. Rosa is set in a less romantically mythologised past than either. Its decision not to challenge legend by exploring the detail of the discussions which led to the decision to begin civil disobedience against racial segregation on buses recalls the treatment of horned helmets seen in The Girl Who Died, but nuance points in a more didactic direction here - that the detailed reasons why Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery on 1 December 1955 are less important than that she did, and that circumstances and consequences made the act heroic. 

This Doctor Who past is one which recognises today's centrality of identity politics. The era just passed, where the fictionalised past of Europe was populated by non-white minorities, while rightly acknowledging historical diversity and saying that everyone had the right to claim the court of Versailles, the legend of Robin Hood or Victorian London as their own history, perhaps obscured the recently won battles and the ongoing conflicts over the rights and roles of minorities in modern Britain and other countries with a historically privileged imperial majority constructed as white. The basics here are re-addressed. The hybrid of re-enactment and invention in a highly symbolised past gives way to sober restatement of essentials with little room for ambiguity. The moral situation is clear, and reflection on what it might feel like to be out of one's time and an unwilling actor in the past is not easy. The myth is present but shapes what is selected and how that is prioritised. It's a pity that the Doctor was given the line that Rosa Parks changed the universe and then pointed to the asteroid 284996 as evidence, because the naming of the asteroid surely more specifically represented how Rosa Parks changed how people viewed the universe around them.

Rosa was accomplished television, claustrophobic and epic at once. I'd have liked more exposition about the civil rights movement in Montgomery and was disappointed in some minor points of presentational detail - specifically the changing signs on the bus seats and the modern typography - which undermined the otherwise beautifully crafted setting. Nevertheless there was much less preaching at the audience than I feared and what there was mostly came at moments when it was justified by drama and character. Vinette Robinson delivered a Rosa Parks of quiet strength exasperated at becoming the straight woman for the British visitors at a time of crisis and pointing out the limits to the Doctor's freedom of action where her business was concerned. A Doctor Who which advertises its introversion a lot less than in recent years might still be erring too far in assuring the audience that they are not being excluded from a private joke. Threat was always present in a thinly charming but soon all too apparently hostile environment. Rosa was confident but still a little anxious contemporary Doctor Who , tapping firmly on the nose, indignant at injustice and individual failures but ending in the hope for positive change the thirteenth Doctor's arrival presaged.