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...





Kerblam!Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 18 November 2018 - Reviewed by Simon Moore

Kerblam! (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall))Writer: Pete McTighe
Director: Jennifer Perrott

Executive Producer: Chris Chibnall

Starring: Jodie Whittaker
Bradley WalshMandip GillTosin Cole
Julie HesmondhalghLee Mack


A BBC Studios Production for BBC One
First broadcast Sunday 18 November on BBC One
Running time: 50 minutes

Featuring a posse of murderous killer-automatons and more shelving than even the most successful American electronic commerce company could possibly afford, Pete McTighe’s fifty minute long investigation into the depository “moon orbiting Kandoka, and the home of the galaxy’s largest retailer: Kerblam!” must have struck long-time fans of “Doctor Who” that they were watching a disconcerting concoction of Chris Boucher’s marvellously Robophobic 1977 four-parter “The Robots of Death” and the much more recent “Big Finish” audio production “The Warehouse” by Mike Tucker. But whereas at least one of these two aforementioned ‘inspirations’ provided its audience with plenty of tension, suspense and mystery, it’s doubtful many viewers of “Kerblam!” felt that any of the lead cast were actually placed in any jeopardy whatsoever; most especially Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation of the Doctor, who seems to have developed an infuriating habit of waving her sonic screwdriver about at all and sundry during every scene in which she appears, and believing she’s entitled to lie to anyone in authority whilst simultaneously threatening them if she detects any dishonesty within them…

 

Disappointingly, Graham, Yaz and Ryan’s aura of invulnerability really does frustratingly come to the fore with this story, particularly at the broadcast’s beginning when the student police officer’s heart-warmingly brief interaction with Dan Cooper is infuriatingly almost immediately replaced with Miss Khan suddenly facing some of the storage site’s malfunctioning postmen. Unlike Tom Baker’s classic tale of the Seventies on board a claustrophobic sand-miner where Taren Capel’s emotionless robots at least had the decency to have glowing blood-red eyes when they ‘turned bad’, McTighe’s murderous machines arguably lack any sense of mechanical menace whatsoever, and despite a mighty effort on the part of this show’s musical arrangement to imbue them with an air of peril, many watching this scene were probably already waiting for Yasmin to simply duck through the shelving beside her before one of the smiling assassins even got close.

 

Perhaps this story’s biggest failing though, is in its seeming inability to actually determine who the villain of the piece actually is until its final confrontation. Throughout most of the story it seems that Jarva Slade is responsible for the numerous staff disappearances, even though actor Callum Dixon disappointingly doesn’t debatably exude the utter despicableness necessary for such an unpleasant role. However, having supposedly flat-footed the titular character by implying the Kerblam computer system is at fault, the real evil mastermind behind all the deaths and destruction is revealed to be a lone cleaner who just so happens to have majored in advanced robotics, programming and explosives. Successfully swallowing such a convenient gripe as Charlie Duffy’s dislike of robots outscoring humans in the job market will be a matter of personal choice. But it’s hard to stomach the Time Lord praising Kerblam’s mainframe for bringing her in to stop the madman’s plan, when just moments before the artificially intelligent processor has ruthlessly murdered the entirely innocent employee Kira, just to teach the bomb-obsessed maniac a lesson in emotional trauma.





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.