The Battle of Ranskoor Av KolosBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 11 December 2018 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (Credit: BBC Studios)
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Jamie Childs
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens

Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Phyllis Logan, Mark Addy, Percelle Ascott, Samuel Oatley, Jan Le

BBC One (UK)
First broadcast Sunday 9th December 2018

The title for series 11's finale might be something of a tongue twister, but it's of a piece with Chris Chibnall's world-building, where despite TARDIS translation, human and alien cultures find one another's worlds and identities difficult to say. Yaz's exchange with Paltraki about his home world is similar to related dialogue in 'The Ghost Monument', for instance, while 'Tim Shaw' is itself a mangling of the Stenza's actual name: Chibnall consistently stresses the alien-ness of humanity to other races, and vice versa. Ranskoor Av Kolos isn't just sci-fi gobbledygook, then,  it's a reminder of the constant possibility of misunderstanding and failed empathy ("Ranskoor Av - what?") whilst time-travelling. Perhaps the real battle in this episode is between genuine understanding and communication breakdown, whether psychotropically driven or not.

And for a phase of Doctor Who that's so patently invested in the ensemble of 'Doctor plus three' -- arguably a way of managing any anxieties about the reception of Jodie Whittaker by casting audience identification across a range of options, an older male figure included -- it's striking that this finale also offers up an ensemble of aliens to combat, in the form of a Stenza-Ux team-up. At first, it seems as though Paltraki's unit might be a distorted mirror for team TARDIS (commander-plus-three), but this possibility isn't really developed. Instead, it's the lone Stenza 'god' and Ux duo species that represents a malformed version of our time-travelling "fam". The Ux are being dangerously misled, whilst we're shown from the outset that their culture and faith depend on "experience" rather than "understanding" -- it's not that their religiosity is undermined, or that they're somehow idiotically stupid, but rather that their priorities are in need of realignment. Sure enough, by the episode's end they set off in pursuit of newfound "understanding" over and above pure experience, something that Graham, Yaz and Ryan have already grasped thanks to their time with the Doctor.

Jodie Whittaker again turns in a strong performance, with her Doctor being less of a melodramatic 'Legend' than some previous incarnations, and more of a softly-spoken mentor. She's firm with Graham, warning him of the consequences if he gives in to a desire for revenge. But there's not so much sense of an 'Oncoming Storm' here, a magically powerful if not near-omnipotent walking myth; instead, the thirteenth Doctor wants to synthesise "the best elements of everyone", as she puts it. We are given a facilitator in place of a pseudo-Godlike Time Lord, as the 'bad' ensemble of Stenza and Ux is fractured and converted into a new Ux-TARDIS "supergroup" or force for good. It's surprising that Whittaker's portrayal has sometimes been criticised for a lack of distinctive characterisation, when in terms of scripting and performance there's a strong through-line of mentoring which this episode again brings to the fore.

The 'Battle' of the title might capture an aspect of Chris Chibnall's vision for series 11, but it's also more than a little misleading, promising epic scale and SF spectacle yet remaining off-screen and (perhaps) outside budgetary constraints. As a finale, this also represents a second level of fan denial. Mystery and build-up are expertly wrangled as the mists of Ranskoor Av Kolos atmospherically swirl, raising one's hopes of a big reveal (will it be Davros? The Daleks?). In addition, this episode wasn't made available in advance to TV critics, also building anticipation of a major twist. But narrative mechanics and spoilerphobic brand management rebound a bit here, given that the reveal is, eventually, of a single character encountered once before at the start of the series. This story is structured, actually very effectively, as if it's leading up to something Properly Massive, an epic and unexpected showdown, only to deliver exactly what Chris Chibnall has promised all along -- the 'jump onboard' accessibility of no truly old monsters, and the emotional development of character arcs rather than 'mythology' story arcs. Consequently, 'Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos' feels like it's teasing and tantalising a moment of unpredicted fan service, the option of which is then rejected and batted away. Like the unseen spectacular battle, fans are again denied -- but this time, it's the emotional resonance that can be represented by a returning villain/monster that's rejected. 'Classic' monsters can embody a kind of emotional time-travel for dedicated audiences, taking them back through memories, past enjoyments or scares, and knowledgeable appreciation; perhaps the term 'classic' really stands in, partly, for all this Proustian fan sentiment. For a series so focused on the emotions of character arcs, at least for Graham and Ryan, long-term fans' emotional remembrances of past Who are not significantly summoned up. Yes, 'The Pirate Planet' lingers behind some plotting, in a way, and I wondered whether the mineral design of the segments was also meant to remind long-term viewers (or DVD collectors) of the segments of 'The Key To Time', but this was seemingly just a design echo. 

After the gloriously bonkers 'It Takes You Away', 11.10 was 'It Brings You Right Back... To The Widely Predicted', making it somewhat less satisfying than I'd hoped for. Having said that, there were a number of notable strengths on display here, chief among them the blend of production and effects design, Jamie Childs' direction, and the always impressive use of locations. Those faceted, mineral-like stasis chambers in sickly yellow looked amazing, as did the Doctor's initial confrontation with Phyllis Logan's Andinio, whilst the approach to the 'Edifice' was another visually compelling sequence, demonstrating what a high standard Childs' direction has consistently achieved this year.

In the episode's dying moments, a shock cliffhanger into 'Resolution' would have been welcome. But as things stand, the New Year's Day story looks very promising indeed. Perhaps it will act as the real culmination of this run of episodes, as its title implies on one reading, complete with a major reveal and a 'classic' monster at last ("does it have a name?"). If so, 'Battle' may come to be seen as a deliberately faux finale, in the final analysis.

And if -- *if* -- we bridge from here into a powerful 'Dalek-meets-Quatermass-and-the-Pit' vibe, then I suspect Chris Chibnall's brave decision to hold off on the show's icons for 2018 will ultimately be thoroughly vindicated. Under those circumstances, it will have the effect of making a 'Special' feel genuinely special, lending significance to the pepperpots of old on January 1st 2019. Fingers crossed for another 'R... of the Daleks' in the weeks to come, and hence for a re-evaluation of the role and place of 'The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos'.





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...





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.





The Ghost MonumentBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 October 2018 - Reviewed by Matt Dennis
 The Ghost Monument: Yaz (Mandip Gill), The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Graham (Bradley Walsh) (Credit: BBC Studios (Coco Van Opens))

 

BBC One (United Kingdom)
Broadcast on: Sunday 14th October 2018
Running Time: 50 minutes

There are spoilers in this review - so if you haven't seen the episode yet, and want to stay in the unspoiled, please come back later.

With the major festivities of that exciting and fresh-faced first episode well and truly out of the way, it's time for Doctor Who to settle in properly and get back to business. Of course, with a new head-writer in the driving seat and a whole new production team bringing a fresh approach to the show, business, as usual, could mean pretty much anything at this point. Judging by The Ghost Monument alone, it seems to mean both entertainment and frustration.

Like with the Doctor's other recently-regenerated incarnations, this second episode crash-lands our new hero onto an alien world (in this case, literally), before setting off with the herculean task of setting a tone for the new Doctor and her companions by testing their mettle. We’ve seen it done before in episodes like The Beast Below or Smile – throw the new companions into a completely alien environment and see how they cope.

Here, the marooned time-travellers must join the surviving participants of an interstellar race to survive the hostile dead planet of Desolation. By doing so, they stand a chance of finding the Doctor's lost TARDIS. But the planet holds a secret, and enemies are lying in wait.

For the most part, the episode has its charms and isn't without incident - there are some cracking ideas here that merit further exploration. But Chris Chibnall’s script is handicapped early on by a severe lack of momentum, with the episode spending too much time merely chauffeuring the characters from point A to point B. The main monsters of the episode - the ribbon-like Remnants - only make their presence properly felt in the final few minutes, and when they do show, it's largely underwhelming.

The big reveal of the alien world being weaponised by kidnapped scientists is a solid idea, but it's only mentioned briefly towards the end and never utilised in a manner that benefits the drama. Even more jarring is how the plot suddenly hints at a connection to the Stenza, last week's human-hunting aliens, only to forget about the whole thing altogether. Clearly, this looks set to be a continuing story arc thread running through this series (which is certainly welcome), but the reference feels clumsily forced here.

Of course, whilst the main crux of the plot is merely a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas (were the random robots really necessary?), Chibnall's script does deliver in terms of sound character moments, both for the main characters and guest cast alike. Jodie Whittaker is just as watchable and captivating as she was last week – ever-evolving in her portrayal of the Doctor, here showing off a bit of the Doctor's more judgemental, authoritative tendencies, but still the delightfully mad and upbeat character we met previously.

The Ghost Monument: Epzo (Shaun Dooley), The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) (Credit: BBC Studios (Coco Van Opens))Guest stars Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley benefit from Chibnall's script as well, each of their respective characters getting a fair portion of the drama, with some excellent insights into their pasts and their motivations for partaking in the deadly space race. Chibnall’s strength clearly lies in his ability to identify and write the relatable aspects of a character, no matter the setting/situation.

Unfortunately, the companions are not all served by the script as well as they should. Tosin Cole's Ryan continues to get the most to do, whilst Bradley Walsh again provides the episode with plenty of heart (and a few banging comedy one-liners). Better yet, the previous episode’s major tragedy isn’t forgotten, which leads to a touching scene between the two bereaved men. However, Mandip Gill’s Yasmin still remains hugely underdeveloped, and oft-times her character feels severely inconsequential to proceedings. Of course, there may be more chance for her to shine in future episodes, but at this point, there isn’t a lot here for us to go on. Three companions plus a new Doctor may be a bit too much for the show to handle. Hopefully, this concern will be proven wrong soon enough.

Of course, the big talking point of this otherwise so-so episode is the big reveal of the new TARDIS interior. We only see it for a bit, slowly teased out to us as the Doctor enters, and it’s a lot to take in when we do. A slight return to the more organic look of the Davies era set, albeit with a more crystalline aesthetic as opposed to coral, first thoughts are mainly that it looks a bit cramped around that console and the lighting doesn’t quite do its grand size justice. However, it’s interesting and visually stunning enough to warrant more screen time in the future. Yet another box ticked for this new era.

Frustrating as the main alien plot is, there's still much to admire in The Ghost Monument - the direction and cinematography are both slick and sumptuous to behold, the new Hartnell-influenced opening titles look amazing, the cast is excellent, the ideas are imaginative and Chris Chibnall clearly has a talent for creating relatable characters in extraordinary situations. But the more pedestrian pace proves the biggest detriment to an otherwise decent episode, with both the monsters and any actual incident included as if they were merely an afterthought.

Entertaining but instantly forgettable, The Ghost Monument is nowhere near terrible, but for an episode that centres around a race to the finish line, it's ironic that it chooses to crawl instead of run!





Doctor Who - The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield - Vol 4: Ruler of the UniverseBookmark and Share

Sunday, 16 September 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Doctor Who - The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield - Vol 4: Ruler of the Universe
Director: Scott Handcock

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)

First Released: September 2017

Running Time: 5 hours

 “Well, you did find something! So what’s the problem?”

“You are, Mr President! You are!”

“Don’t call me that – you know I hate being called that! I’m the Doctor ...”

“No, that’s the problem, you’re not – not anymore!”

The “Unbound” Doctor and Bernice Summerfield

 

As this month marks 20 years since Professor Bernice Summerfield (Lisa Bowerman) made her audio debut with Big Finish, it seems only fitting ahead of BF’s birthday celebrations for Benny later this month to review her most recent set of adventures which occurred in a parallel, “Unbound” universe.

In Volume 3 of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, Benny found herself stranded in another universe with a completely different version of her (and our favourite) Time Lord – one of the “Unbound” Doctors (brilliantly portrayed by veteran David Warner). To compound matters, this variation on the Doctor Who universe (or Whoniverse) was on the brink of total collapse.

When Volume 4 opens, Bernice has returned to her roots and is undertaking an archaeological dig on an ancient world, hoping to uncover evidence of the Apocalypse Clock, a mythical device that could halt this universe’s imminent demise. The Doctor, meanwhile, has resumed his role as president of the universe (after initially shunning the responsibility) and is finding himself increasingly burdened in the day to day affairs of state – much to his and Summerfield’s chagrin. He is therefore happy to visit Benny to inspect her progress on the dig as a little bit of PR and to escape the trappings of office.

The City and the Clock, the opening instalment in this quadrilogy, is the straightest and most conventional of the four serials which are, for the most part, quite satirical and madcap. Unfortunately, it’s also a quite plain drama, lacking the tension and suspense that you would associate with a tale about mummified, undead creatures stalking the ruins of their ancient city at night. Indeed, if it weren’t for the introduction of the infamous clock that is a recurring theme in the box set, the story would be redundant.

It’s saying something when the memorable moments of this play are the cleverly written dialogue, exchanges and interplay between Benny and the Doctor (“What possible interpretation of the words ‘first’ and ‘class’ include having Karfel’s Next Top Model played at you? I wanted to confess five minutes in and I hadn’t done anything!”). A balloon ride over the ancient ruins also has Warner’s Doctor waxing philosophically:

The Doctor: It puts things in perspective, rather doesn’t it? Seeing it from up here – a whole ancient town, once a thriving community, people living lives, sleeping, eating, loving and dying under all those roofs and then …

Benny: The dust of ages, layer by layer, burying it from sight …

The Doctor: You’d think travelling in time, I’d get used to it – the idea that we’re all nothing more than temporary fixtures, walking bones, but I don’t! Everything we’re doing at the moment – all the plans, all the panic, all the meetings, everyone thinks it’s important because nothing’s ever more real than now. The people that lived down there thought the same thing – look where it’s got them! Nothing matters, not really. We’re all just waiting for the dust to bury us!

Benny: Well, I’m so glad you popped by – you’ve cheered me up no end!

Otherwise, aside from terrific dialogue, the plotline of The City and the Clock – and the premise behind the clock – is entirely forgettable. It’s a pity because writer Guy Adams clearly devises the story to put Benny back into her element – yet the tale, which is slow from the get-go, never builds to a dramatic crescendo, and Benny doesn’t get to employ the smarts that make her such a terrific archaeologist.

Strangely, after the “drama” of the first instalment, Asking for a Friend is a more character-based and pensive piece, as Benny and the Doctor grapple with the dilemmas of having to make compromises in a dying universe to save the hundreds of civilisations that fall outside the clock’s sphere of influence. This includes diplomacy with tyrants and zealots, and false promises to the needy. Indeed, Benny’s disappointment in the Doctor is apparently so great that at her suggestion the Time Lord ends up seeing a therapist (played by the wonderfully ebullient Annette Badland, famous for her portrayal in the first season of the modern TV series as the Slitheen Margaret Blaine). Of course, conducting therapy sessions with someone as complicated and self-absorbed as the Doctor is never going to be easy (he himself remarks it’s like “a mosquito scratching at a continent”!) – and that’s before you factor in time travel as well!

James Goss, the other writer of this boxset, provides a quite compelling tête-à-tête between Guilana the therapist and the Time Lord, as they verbally spar to pry sensitive information from the other. Attention to detail is required of the listener, as each new session between the two hints at subtle, new elements from the last scene between them (in the CD extras, Goss admits that he has “borrowed” an idea from former executive producer Steven Moffat that he used not just once but twice – notably in the TV serial A Christmas Carol, and a short story called Continuity Errors from way back in 1996!). When the consequences of these sessions finally come to a head, it is only then that you perhaps fully appreciate just how alone and isolated – and hopelessly disconnected – the Doctor must be in this – and in any other – universe.

In turn, put a solitary character like the Doctor in charge of executive government, and it’s little wonder that in the next serial Truant, he returns to his adventuring of old. The pre-titles sequence to this third instalment is highly amusing, as the Doctor’s attempts at heroics against amateurish evildoers and ne’er-do-wells are thwarted by their cowardice and his own reputation for being a champion (“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Is there nobody with a backbone in this stupid universe?” he moans at one point).

Even when the Doctor eventually encounters a conspiracy he can get his teeth into, much to his frustration he realises he has arrived too late to overturn the appalling wrong that has been inflicted. Nevertheless, Truant is one of the highlights of the set, mixing the right levels of drama and humour, as the Doctor and Benny evade unprofessional and sloppy villains in the Silvans, who are as much incidental victims of the conspiracy historically as their purported victims. Only in Doctor Who could the titular hero convincingly pull off a getaway by stealing not only a vehicle but its effusive driver as well – or “interrogate” the chief villain over coffee and chocolate biscuits! Guy Adams’ script is probably still a little too wacky for TV, but it suits the BF audio format perfectly.

The boxset closes with The True Saviour of the Universe, as the Doctor upon his return to parliament is arrested and thrust into impeachment proceedings. Much to Benny’s suspicion, the arrest coincides with the sudden arrival of this universe’s incarnation of the Master (Sam Kisgart, aka Mark Gatiss) and the emergence of a hooded figure which has been offering parliamentarians incentives to oust the Doctor from office since the events of The City and the Clock. Are they connected? Does the Master have designs on the presidency, so he can hijack the Apocalypse Clock? James Goss’s clever script challenges and upturns all the listener’s expectations while poking fun at all of Doctor Who’s conventions.

Goss jokes that The True Saviour of the Universe is “a remake of Logopolis involving Cthulu and singing nuns” – which, despite sounding far-fetched, is an apt description. The Sisterhood of Beedlix, like the Logopolitans, can influence the fabric of the universe through songs and prayer that recite the power of numbers. The appearance of the “old ones” at the gateway to another universe at the climax is an old riff on the nineties New Adventures novels, which regularly pitted the Doctor and his companions, including Benny, against “ancient evils from the dawn of time” – to the point of overkill.

Further, Goss has fun challenging the many clichés that fans have come to associate with the Doctor and the Master over many decades. For example, when Benny asks the Master how he survived his execution at the Emporium in the closing chapter of the Vol 3 boxset, his response is simple yet curt - “Don’t be boring!” – a subtle nod to eighties Doctor Who, in which no explanation was ever given for the Master cheating death or escaping from tight scrapes. Other quotations and dialogue subtly homage Logopolis and The Daemons, as the Master seeks to harness the power of the “old ones” to seize control of the universe. Of course, the joke is very much on the Master – and in the most unexpected way …

The production qualities of this boxset, like next to all of BF’s input, is first class – as are the performances of the first tier and supporting casts. Warner and Bowerman are a fantastic Doctor/companion combo and Kisgart/Gatiss is charming, urbane and oily as the Master (although Gatiss has far too much fun as his Kisgart persona in the CD extras for my taste). The flirtatiousness of the Benny/Master combo also puts an unusual spin on the usual antagonism between Master and companion.

As mentioned above, Badland is outstanding as the Doctor’s therapist, while Catrin Stewart (Jenny Flint of the Paternoster Gang) puts in an understated appearance as the aide-de-camp to the wimpy Silvan leader (Jonathan Bailey). Most notably, Hattie Hayridge (better known as the female Holly in Red Dwarf) delivers a terrific performance as the Doctor’s press secretary, deftly diverting and deflecting the tough questions about her President’s leadership in exchanges with Guy Adams’ hard-hitting journalist.

Volume 4 of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield is an entertaining boxset which isn’t afraid to be tongue-in-cheek about Doctor Who’s conventions and show a strong sense of humour and fun. It isn’t constrained by the continuity of the regular series, so it can afford to be more audacious and satirical. This means it won’t necessarily be for every fan who prefers the more no-nonsense style of the TV series adventures, or even some of BF’s regular Doctor Who output – but if you’re a long-term fan of Benny (who as a character herself isn’t above taking the piss), then you’re in for a treat.

Indeed, the set ends on an upbeat note and with a paradox to boot. I won’t say what that paradox is (spoilers!) but if BF isn’t already sorely tempted to exploit the potential for a run-in with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in the future, then clearly the company’s heart isn’t in the right place! We’ll perhaps have a better idea of how this oxymoron may be addressed later this month in Volumes 1 and 2 of the next Benny series The Story So Far.