The Lives of Captain Jack Volume 3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 21 June 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
The Lives of Captain Jack: Volume 3 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Guy Adams, Tim Foley and James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Starring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Alex Kingston (River Song), Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler), Jacob Dudman (Snorvlast), Paul Clayton (Pilot), Samantha Béart (Passenger), Jonny Green (Passenger)

Released by Big Finish Productions - March 2020
Order from Amazon UK

Try as they might to mine all of Captain Jack Harkness’ infinite timeline across their various Torchwood ranges, Big Finish have in reality barely scratched his impeccably chiselled surface over the past five years since 2015's The Conspiracy. Therein lies the thrill of their three-strong The Lives of Captain Jack range, though – shifting their focus away from his ongoing exploits (and surrounding cast ensemble) in Cardiff / Victorian London affords them ample opportunity to explore Jack’s other unseen life experience, be it during his early stint in the Time Agency, his centuries spent on Earth awaiting the Doctor’s return, or even his donning another Doctor’s rainbow coat instead. The possibilities for fresh stories are quite literally endless, albeit their frequency governed by John Barrowman’s ever-densifying work schedule.

This time around we’re privy to three delightfully eclectic adventures in the good Captain’s eternal lifespan, each of which showcases the fleeting but treasured friendships which he ignites with undervalued mothers, overexaggerated fiends of myth and an unlikely equal alike. True, there’s still plenty of ground for Big Finish to cover beyond what Volume 3 achieves in the space of three hours (and indeed what its two predecessors cumulatively managed in six); as will become apparent below, though, its riveting contents can surely offer copious escapist entertainment to while away some lockdown time – a welcome prospect indeed given how our global predicament has justifiably limited other means of escapism of late…


“There are other people on the Estate, some of them call themselves friends. But you wanna know how to be really invisible? Be a widow, be single, be alone – people hate that.”

Amongst Big Finish’s greatest strengths as storytellers in the Doctor Who universe has always been their ability to transform lesser-seen characters from the TV shows into well-rounded protagonists (or antagonists) with every ounce as much psychological depth as the Doctor, his companions or most notorious rogues. Take Jackie Tyler: although Russell T. Davies wisely found time in Rose’s Earth-bound storylines to glimpse her mother’s loneliness sans Pete and growing fears over her daughter’s survival amongst the stars, the relatively fleeting nature of her screen-time meant that we as viewers only formed so much of a lasting attachment before zipping back into the TARDIS to other places and times.

Enter Volume 1’s more introspective entry “Wednesday for Beginners”, which simultaneously afforded us far greater insight into Jackie’s social isolation (now all the more topical for us as listeners, of course!) while revealing that she and Jack struck up something of an electric rapport in Rose’s absence from the Powell Estate. That storyline naturally opened the door for future NSFW romps between the pair, so it’s a wholly welcome development to see Guy Adams kicking off Volume 3 with one such reunion, albeit in a rather different setting. Whereas previously Jackie hosted Jack at her Estate, now she’s joined him for an intergalactic luxury cruise…only to instead find herself aboard a tightly-packed replacement bus, rife with murders and passengers who’ll glare down anyone making a single noise.

If this discomforting public transport experience sounds at all familiar, then the aptly-named “Crush” and its scathing (anti-)social satire should lie right up your metaphorical street. Presumably Adams himself must’ve stood in one too many claustrophobic, headphoneless-tablet-laden, kindness-devoid carriages prior to pitching his latest Big Finish script, since this often depressingly realistic outing perfectly captures the constrained huddling, torturous suspense as to who’ll emit the next sound and yearning for oft-absent human connection – all sensations felt by the passengers and drivers alike, in fact. Indeed, his script takes remarkable pains to ensure our empathy with each apathetic party aboard the vessel, forcing listeners to question their own assumptions regarding fellow travellers’ mindsets (e.g. their religious beliefs or mental welfare) in a way that many other less confident playwrights mightn’t dare broach.

Anyone who’s heard Paul Clayton’s work at Big Finish to date will already attest him as an ideal frontman for such a biting social commentary’s supporting cast. Better known to us as Mr. Colchester in the post-Miracle Day Torchwood audios, Clayton gets to put his trademark sardonic wit to altogether different use here as the bus’s altogether indifferent robot driver, pitching him as constantly a deadpan automaton to marvellous (or perhaps Marvin-lous for Hitchhiker’s Guide fans) effect whatever the character’s dialogue. Keep an eye (or ear in this case) out too for cameos from some other Torchwood audio regulars like Samantha Béart and Jonny Green, whose voices you might just hear among the passengers as they start to pipe up later on in the narrative.

But by far the most effective aspect of “Crush” – ironically for a Lives of Captain Jack yarn – is how effectively it validates Jackie’s return to the franchise. As ever, Camille Coduri effortlessly recaptures her character’s ludicrously inappropriate humour, brash ignorance of social etiquette and volatile temper 1.5 decades on from her TV debut. And more impressively still, she’s fully embracing of the more vulnerable direction in which Adams strives to take Jackie as the hour progresses – her charmingly bubby delivery seems in many ways a façade to mask the still-painful trauma wrought by losing Pete to death, her daughter to the Doctor and her friends to their inability to comprehend widowhood. By striking this extremely taut balance between her long-running construct’s brazen exterior and the all-too-familiar self-doubt lying just beneath the surface of his psyche, Coduri crafts a truly engrossing performance, one sure to impact the average socially-distancing commuter just as much as it does a listener struggling with their own personal challenges.

All of this isn’t to say that Adams’ instalment lacks any scope for improvement whatsoever; certain sound effects might’ve benefitted from more focus to ensure our full immersion – for instance, distinguishing a set of near-silent deadly projectiles regularly fired at passengers from the vessel’s general hubbub often proves easier said than done. Yet as is so often the case with Big Finish’s productions, those qualms seem borderline irrelevant when put into the wider context of a thoroughly compelling first instalment like “Crush”, hence it’s still earning our full endorsement.

“Mighty and Despair”:

“Okay Persis – if you’re not about to kill me…”

“Never, your majesty!”

“Then the stories better be true. Let’s find this hidden planet – let’s find this Captain Jack.”

A lot of our experiences with the aforementioned Captain to date have admittedly taken the form of 19th-21st century narratives – primarily since the Torchwood Institute only started life in Victorian times and its eponymous Doctor Who spin-off centred on his team’s present-day missions. But Tim Foley’s ambitious contribution to Volume 3, in stark contrast to its 2000s space bus-based predecessor and timeline-hopping successor, plunges headfirst into uncharted territory, instead jumping forward to confirm that Jack’s fears (as expressed in “Last of the Time Lords”) of someday exhibiting “the odd grey hair” were wholly warranted. There will come a moment when this aesthetic bastion’s age starts to show, his boisterously fun-loving lifestyle gives way to that of a reclusive hermit and his (literally) undying capacity for hope fades into bitter resentment after losing everyone dear to him. It’d take a miraculous series of events involving warring royal siblings, unrequited romance or festive hijinks to restore our hero to his former glory – and even then that mightn’t prove enough.

What better moment could there be, then, for a deposed vampiric queen and her faithful servant to crash-land near Jack’s extraterrestrial temple in the hope of finding salvation, not to mention for us to hit Play amidst our already-demoralising real-world challenges? Thankfully there’s much more in the way of inspiration and solace than moroseness here for lockdown listeners, Foley’s uplifting tale quickly demonstrating how our bonds with friends, family and strangers alike will ultimately give us the strength, compassion and determination to see out any challenge. This rather timely notion manifests with particular poignancy via a brilliantly-paced Christmas montage in Act 2; over the course of decades, we gradually see Jack (whose voice Barrowman imbues with touching self-pity, misplaced venom towards vampires and world-wearied wisdom), said monarch Carla (whose resounded defeat Jessica Hayles subtly transitions into long-forgotten warmth) and her aide-turned-admirer Persis (portrayed with earnest yet defiant aplomb by Joanna Van Kampen) ease their joint exile by rediscovering the joyful spirit, generosity and love inspired by December 25th. “Halfway out of the dark” indeed.

If anything, “Mighty and Despair” would’ve thus easily justified Volume 3 releasing around the festive season last year (rather than a mere two months ago), although its clear message of hope’s triumph over near-endless adversity equally couldn’t have come at a much better instance than the current global circumstances.


“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in front of the Holy Modem to witness the union of Captain Jack Harkness and River Song.”

So it’s finally time. Time for the titanic crossover which fans have demanded ever since both iconic characters made their debut in modern Who. Fighting in the left corner: the Boeshane Peninsula’s most renowned Time Agent recruit. In the right corner, newly resurrected: Klom’s most renowned entity-consumer, the Abzorbaloff hims-

What’s that? Only this reviewer craved such an epic confrontation, whilst everyone else yearned for Jack to cross paths with the Doctor’s wife instead? Fair enough, then – fortunately Volume 3’s final chapter centres on precisely that collision course, with James Goss doing justice to the long-awaited event in a manner only possible for a scribe of his immense calibre. Most crossovers are usually content to simply provide a zany caper for their subjects to blaze through, all the while carrying no lasting effects for their respective character arcs; Goss’ stupendous “R&J”, however, takes quite the opposite approach, exploring events from throughout the two near-eternals’ Who timelines where we’d never have previously guessed the pair would clash. From Jack’s earliest encounters with the Ninth Doctor to River’s regular dates with his successors, from the Torchwood Three leader’s darkest hours to Melody Pond’s desperate stabs at happiness and agency in a chaotic pre-determined timeline, virtually no stone is left unturned over the course of the hour.

Of course, as satisfying as these call-backs might be and as vividly as the various worlds (from lively markets to hauntingly silent wastelands) are rendered by the sound design team, a mere greatest hits tour would likely start growing old fast. Yet our assured playwright abundantly recognises that risk from the outset, hence his remarkable endeavour to turn each chance encounter between our (anti)heroes into a key cog in their joint character study. For every madcap prehistoric race atop dinosaurs, there’s a personal discussion of immortality’s shortcomings (as Jack espoused in “Mighty and Despair” too); for every war over the Doctor’s affections (or his survival amidst River’s attempted assassinations), a more grounded debate over whether his reckless lifestyle of “never looking back” is a healthier match for River than the (comparative) normality offered by a romance with someone living day-to-day-to-century like Mr. Harkness. Such is the profound emotional resonance and relatability struck up between these oft-outrageous constructs here that you might genuinely find repeat viewings of the “R&J” coupling’s respective TV outings informed, nay enhanced by the extra context; that’s something which can rarely be said of the more high-octane crossover events in comics or any medium, regardless of whether or not they’re “the most ambitious of all-time”.

As for our esteemed leading performers, from the outset you can tell that John Barrowman and Alex Kingston - effectively gifted a two-hander to do with as they so please a la “Heaven Sent” - must have had an absolute riot with this one in their respective recording studios (though goodness knows how Jacob Dudman kept a straight face on supporting duties, since the behind-the-scenes tracks reveal that he read Alex’s lines whilst working alongside Barrowman!). Bringing their undisputed charisma to hilarious standoffs with scorned lovers and each other alike, the pair equally evoke pathos aplenty in their honest deliveries of grief amidst loss (striking a chord all too poignant in these times), yearning for true requited love and contemplation of roads not taken as millennia pass them by. Doubtless both will continue to appear in their own Big Finish ranges going forward, as well as making cameos elsewhere on occasion, but were this to mark their final collaboration, then these two rightly-adored thespians – not to mention Goss – could still rest assured that it’s among their finest work to date, as indeed is Volume 3 for everyone involved with this spectacular audio trilogy.


Doctor Who 12.3 - Orphan 55Bookmark and Share

Monday, 13 January 2020 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Orphan 55: The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall))
Written by Ed Hime
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker 
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Laura Fraser, James Buckley
Gia Re, Julia Foster, Amy Booth-Steel, Will Austin, Col Farrell, Lewin Lloyd, Spencer Wilding

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 12th January 2020
Running time: 46.33 (source: BBC iplayer)

In an odd piece of publicity, BBC America suggested that viewers would need to watch this episode to the very end, prompting immediate speculation about another potential reveal (so soon after SpyFall Part One?). Would Orphan 55 somehow be related to the "timeless child"? As this story rocketed along at a breakneck pace, I started to wonder instead whether the irradiated, orphaned world of the title might even turn out to be Gallifrey, with those monstrous Dregs regenerating constantly to adapt to laser fire, and so representing the last, lethal remnants of Time Lord civilisation. Because going into this episode, one other fact had been widely trailed -- here be monsters, and really, properly scary ones (with promo photos of a Lovecraftian tentacle stretching into the TARDIS proving to be yet more solid misdirection). But I'd fallen prey to a classic fanboy category error; neither the "watch to the very end" encouragement, nor all the "these monsters are genuinely scary" stuff, were about the new story arc or Doctor Who lore -- rather, both were about this era's burgeoning relationship to the politics of the day (most certainly not without precedent, but still powerfully front and centre here, and all the better for it). And as for my in-episode speculations: right twist, wrong planet.


Valuing the Dregs?


Sure enough, the Dregs were a brilliant piece of design and realisation, intelligently shot and smartly directed by Lee Haven Jones so as to maximise their sense of threat. Often captured in tight, slavering close-ups rather than shown interacting with the main cast, the potential for generic 'men in rubber suits with masks on' was greatly reduced, and the Dregs' apparent alienness was suitably emphasised. At the same time, the slang naming of these creatures by Kane (Laura Fraser) constantly called to mind that judgemental, awful phrase "the dregs of humanity". As it turned out, of course, the linguistic prompt was more than apt, and the call to watch to the very end was one to heed the episode's environmental warnings, as the Doctor (and the show itself, by closing on an image of a roaring Dreg) effectively dematerialised the fourth wall altogether and spoke directly to its audience. Little could the production team have realised that this story's ashen-graded imagery of a ruined world would arrive hard on the heels of dystopic news images featuring red-hued skies from a dengerously, tragically burning Australia. Orphan 55's warnings about one future timeline where ruling elites had done the paperwork and cleared off, only for a new breed of terraforming disaster capitalism to creep in, could hardly have been more timely.

Comparisons to The Mysterious Planet were obvious enough, but there was also a touch of The Pyramids of Mars in the Doctor's closing speech -- surely an iconic moment for this era and Jodie Whittaker's Doctor. For this bit of time travel was seemingly different to the usual Who set-up, where we assume that future events are 'objective' (in the story universe), and so have happened/will happen in the way shown. The time, though, planetary disaster seemed to have become unfixed, and so it could be undone or avoided. This tension between 'Whoniverse' continuity and real-world resonance is probably unavoidable. Either the programme shows a ruined future, in line with its standard continuity of time travel, and risks encouraging fatalism about our real-world present (or accusations of treating a deadly serious issue as a mere backdrop to franchise entertainment), or it drops standard continuity in favour of pursuing clear, resonant lines between the here-and-now and its fictional state of affairs, using this as a potent call-to-action. And as Orphan 55 demonstrates, the latter choice is a dramatically powerful strategy. Just as it jettisons typical time-travelling norms, so too does this story forget about the whole Ravolox thing, as well as neglecting debates over "fixed points" in time etc etc -- arguably, all of this would have simply got in the way of telling the story that this team wanted to tell. And hurtling our heroes into an Inferno-style parallel reality probably would also have cued the twist too strongly for fans, again dampening its impact and lending the tale an air of 'well, it's all safely sealed off as a what-if'.    

Surely one of the Chibnall era's key themes, there's once again a full-on Enlightenment sense of science as a valuable source of facts; the Doctor is keen for viewers to pay attention to scientific warnings, and learn from the facts of our climate emergency. All of this may hark back to elements of 1970s Who, yes, but back then our hero was a 'Scientific Adviser'; now she's had to become more of a 'Scientific Proselytiser' (and given next week's scenario, I'd expect more of the same there too). 


Doctor Who: The Next Generation


So, how do you transform didactic eco-horror into family entertainment? For one thing, there's an overload of child-parent angst freighted into the Orphan 55 mix, not just via Bella (Gia Re) and Kane, but also through the mildly comedic mirroring of Nevi (James Buckley) and Sylas (Lewin Lloyd) -- a story strand which largely wasted a performer of Buckley's standing, but still. Parents needed to recognise their children rather casting them adrift, or failing to recognise their developing skills. Both in Kane's (repeated) sacrifice/redemption and in Nevi's eventual welcoming of Sylas's assistance as a "proper mechanic", cross-generational understanding was the dominant flavour of story resolution. Even the Dregs had to come to terms with their intergenerational inheritance in this rich, rapidfire episode (which really would have benefited from an extra ten minutes of runtime, so that there could have been more character-focused moments to counterpoint against the ratcheting up of story speed).

The Doctor's message to the Dregs was passionately unequivocal -- "be better than what made you!" Previous generations had failed, and this time round the Dregs needed to be smarter than any of their forebears, and by implication smarter than 'our' version of humanity who, in snap-edited, mind-melded flashback, had wrecked the planet. Whilst this episode's visibly human children might have needed love and understanding, its monstrous, distorted and metaphorical children -- aka its scary monsters of the week -- needed to wise up and heed the Doctor's words. As such, and despite the episode's attempts to eliminate all subtext in a whirlwind of on-the-nose eco-literalisation, there remains a curious doubling at work here: younger generations of viewers, or those of any generation minded to heed an environmental message, are threatened with becoming the post-human monsters in the Doctor's very final word ("Or...") and at the same time are subtextually addressed through the Dregs: "be more than what made you!" Be better than the systems and elites who have brought our planet to the verge of environmental tragedy; be the humanity in the Dregs rather then becoming 'the dregs of humanity'.

And this is a strange ambivalence at the twinned hearts of Orphan 55, complicating its professed message. We are its monsters, no doubt, but we might simultaneously draw power from a fantasised, subtextual identification with these (momentarily) humanised creatures and their capacity to learn, as well as being rightly terrified of the future that they represent.


Where's Benni?


This episode's strangeness and brilliance are somewhat marred by other kinds of ambivalence, however, including in the realm of production design. It is surprising that while so much effort has clearly been expended on making the Dregs realistic and convincing, some of the other alien designs are, at best, highly artificial. Hyph3n (Amy Booth-Steel), Nevi and Sylas seem to have been crafted in a completely different tone meeting to pretty much everything else (was there a tone meeting? The campaign starts here: bring back tone meetings!). It's as if Doctor Who only has a finite amount of contemporary genre-based realism per story, and having used this up on Alien-esque not-quite-aliens, there wasn't enough left over for "hyphen with a three" et al. Or perhaps these brightly coloured, cartoonish versions of the alien are meant to reassure younger viewers, partly drawing the sting out of the really scary monster work? 

Given the proliferation of characters, not everything has a chance to land. The marriage proposal intended by Benni (Col Farrell) is interrupted when Yaz wanders over, rapidly shifting poor Benni away from existing at the centre of his own story, and towards becoming just one subplot amongst many in the lives of the Doctor and her companions. Benni's tale never quite gels -- sure, he has an oxygen supply, and the Dregs are supposedly "playing" by abducting him, but this always feels like it should pay off more, provoking some fuller plot point in the main storyline. Instead, we are treated to Vilma's (Julia Foster) many pleadings to find her Benni. This is an unexpected masterclass in how many different line readings can be offered from just two syllables, but is nonetheless in danger of becoming almost absurdist through excessive repetition.              

On the face of it, green hair and all, Orphan 55 remains less surreal than It Takes You Away -- there's nothing quite like that frog, more's the pity (full disclosure: I loved The Frog. For me, it was a superb, mad, wonderful encapsulation of Doctor Who's artful collision of the ordinary and the fantastical). But Ed Hime's skill as a writer shines in a different light here. Orphan 55 may feel overloaded -- "where's Benni?" -- and overly cranked-up at times, but on reflection, its overt, heart-on-sleeve message is embedded in a far more layered tale of generational conflict, and what we might take away from images of dystopian monstrosity.                                                                                   

FILTER: - Doctor Who - Series 12

Doctor Who 12.2 - Spyfall: Part TwoBookmark and Share

Thursday, 9 January 2020 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Spyfall: Noor Inayat Khan (Auror Marion) (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall))
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
Executive producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Sacha Dhawan, Lenny Henry
Sylvie Briggs, Aurora Marion
Shobna Gulati, Ravin J Ganatra, Bavnisha Parmar
Mark Dexter, Blanche Williams, Struan Rodger

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 5 January 2020
Running time: 61 minutes (source: BBC iPlayer)

Spyfall Part Two was comfort Doctor Who for trying times. It appealed to a folk memory of Doctor Who, and the twenty-first century series in particular, while injecting the episode with several concerns peculiar to the Jodie Whittaker era. Women's achievement is obvious, but also present is an acknowledgement of contemporary culture and the need to express ownership of it in some form, however small, in the face of corporate behemoths. The localised 'radical helplessness' (as one review dubbed it) of Kerblam! was embedded in a time-traversing tale of selective interventionism.

Timey-wimey stuff

Having distanced himself from Steven Moffat's interpretation of Doctor Who in his first year, Chris Chibnall now presents something of a homage to Moffat's Doctor Who complete with locale-leaping narratives and aliens among us for centuries. The Doctor's recorded message to her friends as they are trapped on the plunging plane is probably one of the most accessible borrowings, recalling so fondly admired an episode as Blink. It helps confirm to long-term viewers that the Doctor is still the Doctor, and anticipates the temporal origami of the remainder of the episode. There's a more direct reference to a much earlier period of the programme too, as the Paris sequence surely acknowledges City of Death as a precedent for an alien conspiracy across time periods.

More important, though, is what's new. The fam of four are split up for most of the episode. While the Doctor improvises short cuts through human history, Graham, Ryan and Yaz become the three investigators, running through scenarios at extremes of the comedic and the morbid. The Bondian flavour of Jamie Magnus Stone's first episode had largely evaporated, with new director Lee Haven Jones, perhaps, treating the gadgets which were part one's legacy as the source of cartoonish slapstick. That the security officers couldn't be mown down by Graham's laser shoes underlined the problem of arming the Doctor's close friends and making them aim their weapons at other people. The scene was designed to be played for a laugh, but could not deliver on the carnage these hi-tech absurd action movie gadgets would seem to promise. The call was the right one, however, as within the narrative, carnage has been established as the Master's way, and despicable; the tonal balance of the episode also demands that the three friends’ quest is largely presented as light relief to the Doctor’s, often literally given how evocatively the episode realises the dark rooms of nineteenth-century London and especially the dust and fog of wartime Paris.

Light and dark

The coding of light and dark works too as an illustration of the Doctor’s outer and inner lives. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is cut off from the three people through whom the audience has seen her and instead we have to see her reshape her identity as the Doctor of hope. Chibnall ‘apparates’ the Doctor amidst a meeting of experimental philosophers displaying their inventions, a gathering which echoes that intended for sabotage in The Mark of the Rani written by his supposed bêtes-noirs Pip and Jane Baker, but which has at least one earlier Doctor Who precedent in 1976’s The Masque of Mandragora. In Spyfall, fetishisation of technological progress is secondary to the Doctor’s recovery of hope through human creativity. Not all the inventions are benign. Ada’s deployment against the Master of a device probably inspired by Jacob Perkins’s steam machine gun emphasises Ada's independence of character, but perhaps anticipates the devastation which she is about to visit in the Paris of 1943. This is historical Doctor Who for the internet age, which assumes that viewers will be on their phones looking up not only Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage but also the Adelaide Gallery and the inventions exhibited there. (Deeper digging and they might find that Ada was known publicly before her marriage as Miss Ada Byron or Miss Ada Noel-Byron - I’ve not found an example of her being Miss Gordon yet outside this episode’s script...) Perhaps this is intended to encourage viewers to think that the restoration of the Doctor’s hope comes with awareness of its price. The steam gun was supposedly rejected by the British army’s commander-in-chief, the duke of Wellington, for its destructiveness. The Doctor is enthused by and proud to ally with Noor Inayat Khan, but that pride would be lessened if she tried to prevent her capture and death.

These are inferences rather than a description of a cohesive argument, but there’s something about Chris Chibnall’s goals for Doctor Who here. The Doctor becoming a godlike figure who wants to walk the world with the lightest footstep, whose bonhomie conceals an unwillingness to reveal very much about her background and abilities. In this series, perhaps, rather like the Ninth Doctor in much of Series One, the Doctor will be primarily an enabler and encourager of others and will lead only in extremis. There’s more than a touch of the Tenth Doctor’s ruthless compassion in the wiping of Noor’s and Ada’s memories of the Doctor after they have been trained up to be her assistants; the Doctor talks as if she is restoring Ada’s agency and doesn’t give Ada the chance to disagree. Where the Twelfth Doctor’s liberal paternalism was put in its place by Clara and Bill, the Thirteenth has rediscovered it without awareness of irony. This seems a conservative remodelling of the twenty-first century series, but not necessarily one which has yet proved its worth.

A possible difference between the Tennant and Whittaker Doctors is that where the Tenth always had delusions of godhood, the Thirteenth instead acts on the cracks of light glimpsed even in the darkest moments of cruelty, human or otherwise. I enjoyed the double subversion of the Silver Lady, Babbage’s symbol of the beauty of natural philosophy, first as conduit for the Kasaavin and then as their nemesis. Nevertheless, I felt we didn’t see enough of the prop itself, both to underline its importance to the climax and a symbol of imagination’s defeat of uniformity, whether that uniformity is the light-forms of the Kasaavin or the erased genomes of humanity.

The Master

To many viewers, though, the most tantalising prospect for this episode would have been further exposure to Sacha Dhawan’s Master. His performance didn’t disappoint, from brooding red-lit demon restless at what should have been his moment of triumph, to screaming defeated prisoner in the Kasaavin’s universe. In-between and after were a variety of notes which suggest a clear vision for the character, someone who needs to feel dominance but is less happy that they also require pity. The sequence at the Adelaide Gallery, where the Master compels the Doctor to kneel and call him Master, only for him to end up on the floor too, set this up well. The demonstration of the Tissue Compression Eliminator and the curious reference at the Eiffel Tower to ‘Jodrell Bank’ (we presume we know the story that we are meant to think of, but of course the Doctor and the Master have never been seen to meet at Jodrell Bank…) suggest a Master who is ‘doing classic’, but despite the absence of overt references, there are through lines to the twenty-first century too. The outfit in which the Master recorded his message to the Doctor is promoted outside the narrative with photographs which suggest that this purple-jacketed look is now his definitive costume. Its colours and texture owe a lot to Missy’s wardrobe. However, the contemporary resonance is more important, the cut of the trousers is reminiscent of the Doctor’s culottes and something about the whole mirrors the Doctor’s clothes in general. Whether this larger-than-life, very emotional outfit enhances or diminishes the visual impact of the Master as a threat remains to be seen.

The Master’s appearance in the Second World War perpetuated the idea of him as a chameleon who can prosper malevolently in a range of environments, reintroduced in the previous episode. His embedding in the Nazi regime, however, raised questions of false equivalence - is it too easy and lazy a shorthand to present the Master as a Nazi? - and led to the unnecessary decision for the Doctor to use the race ideology of the Nazis against him. I am with the commentators who think that the Doctor using the Master’s appearance against him was a misjudgement, and undermines the Paris segment’s force.

Blowing up the world (again)

The travels of Graham, Ryan and Yaz - plain-speaking, practical and a team, and worth watching as a group - serve adequately to keep the Daniel Barton half of the conspiracy in focus. Any warmth towards Barton generated by Lenny Henry’s psychopathic-millionaire-next-door performance is demolished by his callous murder of his mother; Barton is far less personally needy than the Master, and potentially the more challenging villain. More important for the episode, and the series going forward, must be the three friends’ re-evaluation of their relationship with the Doctor. How far something needs to be repaired after the Doctor’s part-explanation of where she comes from, without the Master’s revelation about Gallifrey’s destruction at his hands and his reasons for doing so, will be something for subsequent episodes. Destroying Gallifrey again can be defended in terms of restoring the essence of Doctor Who in folk memory terms; the audience who grew up watching the series this century presumably remember Gallifrey as being absent and so a familiar scenario is brought back. However, this storyline risks Doctor Who seeming to run backwards. Nevertheless, the telling of the story was well-planned with rich visuals of a ruined Capitol and depressive TARDIS interior. If this indeed sets up a Timeless Child arc for this series - and it would be strange if it didn’t, though audiences were wrongfooted last year - then the decision to destroy Gallifrey (less totally than seemed in 2005-13, admittedly, though the presumably radioactive shell of a city is a nod towards the Hiroshima which indirectly followed Paris) will be justified by how successfully this arc plays out, and by what follows it.

Spyfall Part Two works by pace and suggestion. It’s less breakneck than Part One, assembling a series of set pieces which largely impress, but they also encourage a reflective mood which the episode doesn't entirely reward. The Doctor's statements of faith in hope and humanity might convince less in dark places, though this surely wasn't the intention. However unlikely the idea of using humanity as cloud storage (leaving aside whether this notion is scientifically feasible, surely all life on Earth could have been used in this way instead, just to increase the apocalyptic stakes), the episode still calls for people to be like Ada and Noor and be more aware of how they use technology, and not to do evil when they do unlike Daniel Barton. It’s a conscience-raising homily for complicated and unhappy worlds, both ours and the fictional inner life of the troubled Doctor.


FILTER: - Doctor Who - Series 12

Doctor Who 12.1 - Spyfall: Part OneBookmark and Share

Thursday, 2 January 2020 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Spyfall (Credit: BBC)
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Executive producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Sacha Dhawan, Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry
Shobna Gulati, Ravin J Ganatra 
Bavnisha Parmar, Buom Tihngang
Sacharissa Claxton, William Ely, Darron Meyer
Dominique Maher, Struan Rodger

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Wednesday 1 January 2020
Running time: 59 minutes 45 seconds (source: BBC iPlayer)

So, Chibnall-Strevens-Whittaker Phase Two begins, and the initial signs suggest that those of us who wondered whether Chris Chibnall and team were playing a longer storytelling game than we were used to might have been on to something. This episode is presented as part one of a two-part story, but the change of setting and director next episode suggest an opening out rather than a wrapping-up. Spyfall: Part One ostentatiously reconnects Doctor Who with its mythology, while keeping faith with the viewers the 2018 run hoped to engage through its minimal engagement with its pastIt’s presumptuous to make such a statement, of course, but part one of Spyfall might be looked back on as a transitional episode, bridging a lighthearted, uncomplicated, even disengaged Doctor Who with a series where the stakes are apocalyptically greater. This might seem a little unfair; after all, the fate of the universe was brought into question in The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos. In that case, though, the threat to the fabric of reality was incidental to the villain’s plan; T’zim-Sha wanted revenge on Earth, while this episode’s villains - if we can take them on trust, which is questionable - want to conquer the universe. Our reality is being deliberately overwhelmed by external forces (the Kasaavin? Or is this an individual being’s name? The cast list is unclear and the episode gives us no guidance) which we can’t see unless they choose, which feels comfortingly and old-fashionedly subversive in its blend of spycraft, optical technology and magic.

It would be misleading to exaggerate the differences between Spyfall Part One and Series Eleven. Spyfall demonstrates Chris Chibnall’s commitment to presenting the Doctor as part of an ensemble of characters. If we assume the audience’s eyes to be those of her friends, then the Doctor is reintroduced as the quirkily mysterious one - the young unorthodox inspector, if we take this as a police procedural - who is responsible for odd happenings. She indulges her own affectations like repairing the TARDIS in an MOT garage as if it were a car, a saccharine note which made me wince. For old hands like (I expect) most of the readers of this review, the Doctor’s declaration that she isn’t remote-controlling the MI6 car seems superfluous - lots of entities in the universe of Doctor Who could have done so. Graham, Ryan and Yaz have by that point been reintroduced with the slightly obvious tooling of the skilled craftsman. Their backgrounds are expanded a little in a manner which was missing from the last series. However, even after several tours with the Doctor, they still seem slightly naïve travellers, as if the Doctor has played too much to the conceit that she is always in control of their environment, putting on a show as an expanded, interactive version of the illustrated lecture at the end of Rosa

In response, Spyfall returned to one of the mantras of the Russell T Davies era - the Doctor can’t necessarily keep you safe, and if you travel with them you need to look to your own resources. The Doctor sending Yaz and Ryan on an espionage mission has something of the school exercise about it.  At least one of the pair lacked confidence in their abilities, and their conversations during their nighttime raid on Daniel Barton’s office as they respond to their predicament in contrasting ways lend their characters some weight. Developments to come will tell whether they can convert loan into purchase. Both of them, and the Doctor, are out of their depths in a way not seen in this period of the series so far. Ryan performs best in the Barton raid, even though it goes badly wrong, because he is most conscious of his underpreparedness; the Doctor ends up worst in the episode because her assumptions about her role as seen in the last series don’t prepare her for this. The Australian security agent who told the Doctor to go and do her job and let the agents do theirs also anticipated the worst in a way the Doctor does not. The episode convincingly leads the Doctor of hope into a position of isolation and despair.

Both outside the narrative and within it, Spyfall was an episode of homages, and this made perfect sense. Revisiting old plot devices and images drew both on Chibnall’s precedent for revisiting old Doctor Who ideas in new contexts - such as the shrunken planets held in status in The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos, which didn’t hide its debt to The Pirate Planet - but in hindsight might have suggested to the audience that there was an author of a story within the story who wanted their genius to be recognized. O seemed to be a calmer version of the in-universe security service Doctor fan, but one who sublimated his obsession behind professional cool. Once the plot was revealed as a set-up, I enjoyed explaining the episode to myself as an elaborate piece of fan fiction, with its nods to The Invasion and Tobias Vaughn, the gradual materialization of the Vardans in The Invasion of Time and the Cybermen in Army of Ghosts, with Barton’s backstory perhaps being a comparable fiction to the successful creation of a history for Harold Saxon in The Sound of Drums. As a creation of the Doctor’s greatest admirer, O himself is a studied hybrid of several people we’ve met before. As well as fitting into a tradition of UNIT operatives like Malcolm and Osgood, he offered to give Graham a tour of his files on the Doctor much as Clive gave Rose. James Bond exists in the Doctor's universe (cited, to my immediate recollection, in Robot) and the Master has surely been reading Ian Fleming or watching the films, as the Doctor and friends are led into the Bondian locale of the casino - or, appropriately for the story’s artificiality, a house party pretending to be a casino - before a chase scene across an exotic locale. (Yes, I think I’d assume I was playing Snap too, and the Doctor would deliberately do so out of sheer love of the childlike frame of mind.) I’m told there are nods to John Le Carré too, and X-Files fans were charmed and alerted by O’s borrowings from Fox Mulder. 

As I’ve mentioned the character now, O of course turned out to be a persona performed by the Master, and playing the Master was Sacha Dhawan - carefully edited from prepublicity pictures and missing from cast lists. I suspect that on further viewing, I’ll enjoy Dhawan playing the Master as an actor within his own scenario in this episode, as much as I enjoyed Dhawan’s O. Dhawan has a very expressive face and he moved from starry-eyed innocence to hellish malevolence with shocking ease, while filling all the levels of ambivalence in-between as we saw both the Doctor’s prize correspondence course pupil whom she wanted to indulge, and hints of unsavouriness and narcissism within - “Oh, God,” indeed. Dhawan was in those final moments a huge contrast with Lenny Henry's compelling but laid-back everyman millionaire villain Barton. I was reminded somehow of this era’s most vindictive and possessive fan critics too, rejecting this version of the series as false Doctor Who just as the Master insists everything the Doctor knows is a lie.

Cinematography seems to have lifted again this series, with some stunning composition throughout, not only on Earthly locations but in the studio-based unplace to which first Yaz and then the Doctor are transported. The imagery helps tease an expansion of Doctor Who’s cosmology. With the audience familiarized with multiple realities by His Dark Materials, it might be time to explore parallel worlds again and find new stories to tell. The Master is an unreliable narrator, but at the end of the episode he’s the nearest to an authority we have, and he is telling the Doctor that everything she - and we - know is a lie. How deep do the foundations go, and what use are they if built on shifting sands? Just how many narratives has the Master built up over time, so that there are always several traps sprung for successive versions of the Doctor? For previous Doctors, a helpful shop assistant working through Clara (The Bells of Saint John, Death in Heaven); for this, a best WhatsApp friend. This Tissue Compression Eliminator-using Master harks back to elements of the twentieth-century Masters not seen before in the twenty-first century, and while Jodie Whittaker’s delivery of “You can’t be” can be heard as someone struggling to accept that the work of their previous life was for nothing, I’m not surprised that many speculate that the Dhawan Master is from an earlier point in the Master’s personal history than any Master we have seen so far since 2005. 

At the cliffhanger, the Doctor is presented as trapped in an alien environment which is at once brain, computer, engine, forest, metafictional Stranger Things-like Upside Down and C.S. Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew, with something of Doctor Who’s own Matrix. The question is, of course, not whether she will escape, but how quickly and how interestingly. Both the questions the Master poses and the many possible meanings of this otherworld offer a host of avenues for the inevitable escape. Spyfall Part One repeated many familiar devices and routes, but reliability is not to be scorned. As the episode’s dedicatee (and how fitting was the use of Futura in the captions) once told an audience, clichés are clichés because they work. It’s how you use them that matters, and the episode acquitted itself capably.


FILTER: - Doctor Who - Series 12

The Diary of River Song - Series 5Bookmark and Share

Monday, 13 May 2019 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Slipcase for The Diary of River Song (yoWritten by Jonathan Morris, Roy Gill,
Eddie Robson and Scott Handcock
Produced by David Richardson
Script edited by Matt Fitton
Directed by Ken Bentley and Jason Haigh-Ellery
Stars: Alex Kingston, Michelle Gomez, Geoffrey Beevers,
Eric Roberts, Derek Jacobi, Jacqueline King, Tom Price
Big Finish Productions, 2019

Sometimes I like to look back through my diary, to remind myself, to keep things in order. Sometimes I go all the way back to when I was first locked away in the Stormcage, back when the Doctor was “dead” and spending his afterlife treating his assassin to dinner – discreetly, of course. The first of my 12,000 consecutive life sentences … Only it was never just him I had to keep track of. Sometimes I’d find myself removed from custody for entirely different reasons. You see, when you marry someone like the Doctor, you take on his baggage as well …

River Song, The Diary of River Song: The Bekdel Test

Having all but exhausted her tour of the classic TV series Doctors – in reverse order, from Paul McGann to Tom Baker – in the first four volumes of The Diary of River Song, Alex Kingston’s intrepid and mischievous archaeologist and adventurer now rubs shoulders with multiple incarnations of another Gallifreyan renegade – the Doctor’s intellectual rival and the psychopathic Time Lord/Lady universally known as the Master (or latterly Missy).

Unlike earlier boxsets in the River Song series, which were episodes with a predominant story arc, this latest offering is an anthology of self-contained stories, each set at different points in River’s professional career (she is Dr Song in the first instalment, then professor in the others). The only linking theme is the character of the Master, albeit in different but otherwise lethal incarnations, eg Michelle Gomez’s madcap mistress of mirth, Derek Jacobi’s theatrical and manipulative genius, Geoffrey Beevers’ cadaverous yet still keenly intelligent and crafty persona, and Eric Roberts’ surprisingly subtle yet calculating father-figure.

The first instalment The Bekdel Test introduces River to the character’s female persona from the get-go. It is by far the best and most fun of the four episodes, thanks to the strength of the writing and dialogue, and great performances from Kingston and Gomez, who just chews up the scenery as Missy and literally steals the limelight from Kingston.

Author Jonathan Morris (as he indicates in the behind the scenes commentary) closely follows the Steven Moffat playbook of witty dialogue and banter to help drive the story along. The River/Missy dichotomy simply could not work without the pithy exchanges and the underlying sexual tension over the other’s relationship with the Doctor. For the listener there are plenty of amusing barbs and insults traded between them, even as they are forced to work together against a common foe:

Missy: I’ve been following your career with great interest – and some amusement, and a lot of envy. You see, you’ve just done the one thing that I never quite managed to do …

River: And what’s that?

Missy (raising her voice): You killed the Doctor!

River (mournful): Yes, and I will never forgive myself for it!

Missy: Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself, dearie. [Pointed remark] I’ll never forgive you for it either!

River: What?

Missy (expressing mock hurt): I wanted to do that!

Morris’s script is well conceived and paced, with plenty of action and self-deprecating humour. Most importantly, the reason the two protagonists have been brought together is entirely plausible. Even with two alpha females striving for the spotlight, there are some other fascinating, albeit largely underused characters that liven up the narrative – from the Bekdel Institute’s nameless, yet smug Director (Laurence Kennedy) to Darial Cho’s (Richenda Carey) taste for “creative homicide”.

Perhaps Morris and Big Finish ought to consider revisiting these characters in future River Song instalments. It seems pretty clear from his description who the Director’s “silent partners” are, so perhaps there’s not really much more to add to his character development. However, Darial Cho is creepy enough that she could take centre stage in a tale of her own.

The second episode in the set – Animal Instinct – pits River against Geoffrey Beevers’ emaciated version of the Master (although it’s uncertain if it is Beevers’ incarnation pre-Keeper of Traken or post-Dust Breeding – it doesn’t really matter in either case, listeners can take their pick). Roy Gill’s script cleverly turns the tables on both characters in its prologue – following an ancient prophecy, River breaks the seal on a sarcophagus, expecting to rescue the Doctor, but instead frees the Master who set up the casket as a lure to snare the Doctor in the first place! The “crispy” Master and the Doctor’s wife soon become uneasy allies as they journey to a lunar colony where the Master was once worshipped as a god. The problem for the touring party is that the inhabitants of Cheska Minor – hyper-intelligent, feral werecats with sun goggles! – have rebelled against their god and are determined to remove the satellite array that the Master installed to keep their world in endless daylight and suppress their savage instincts.

Animal Instinct is an entertaining chapter, even if it does bear some superficial resemblance to the final classic Doctor Who TV serial Survival. That tale, too, featured the Master (portrayed by the late Anthony Ainley) lording it over a colony of feral werecats – the Cheetah People – in the ruins of a dying world. The difference, thanks to River’s presence, is that Animal Instinct is a lighter, less angsty tale – no teenagers trying to prove a point here, just archaeology student Luke Sulieman (Timothy Blore) trying to prove he is made of the right stuff to his mentor.

While he doesn’t steal the show from Kingston as Gomez does, Beevers’ performance is more urbane; his voice has lost none of that mellifluous tone that carries undercurrents of menace and guile. Gill not only contrasts this version of the Master to River but also expertly highlights some disturbingly similar characteristics. For example, River recognises that a wounded member of their exploration party will have to be sacrificed if they are to escape a werecat; the Master follows through on this without the slightest compunction and then remarks later that he can tell River would have done the same had the situation escalated.

One of the other comparisons (which is also inferred in in this boxset’s other instalments) is the “obsession” that the Master/Missy has with the Doctor – that is, the desire to impress or kill him (or in some instances both). The Beevers Master’s exclamation of outrage and disbelief when River reveals that she married his arch nemesis (implying that she beat him to it!) is an almost priceless moment.

The Lifeboat and the Deathboat is notable for reintroducing Eric Roberts, who reprises the part of the Master for the first time since the ill-fated 1996 TV movie (his dialogue was recorded in Los Angeles while the rest of the full cast recording was completed in London). Perhaps it’s partly down to Eddie Robson’s writing but Roberts’ performance is subtler and less hammy than it was on television. Indeed, Roberts shows in this episode why he was once an Academy Award nominee – he delivers an almost understated performance as an apparent doting father to a teenage daughter Alison (Lucy Heath). His performance is so convincing in the first 20 minutes that you’re left wondering if he is playing yet another hapless character (in the vein of his paramedic Bruce and Anthony Ainley’s Tremas) who will become another vessel for a disembodied Master. The truth, though (as River discovers), is literally stranger than fiction …

The only drawback to this more subtle, “human” portrayal is that Roberts’ voice seems too tender and easy-going – to the point that it lacks the resonance and authority you’d usually associate with the Master. Perhaps this is just a side effect of conducting separate recordings across two continents but it does intrude on the listening experience. Nonetheless, when Roberts is in full Master mode, there is an underlying menace and cold-bloodedness in his tone that takes you back to his 1996 portrayal.

The serial features quite an extensive supporting cast, considering it is mostly set aboard time/space flotsam in the time vortex. Alison is a moody, anxious teenager with a secret that not even she’s aware of, Admiral Eno (Sasha Behar) and Ayrton Valencia (Himesh Patel) provide an intriguing juxtaposition between confident soldier and hapless engineer, and their quarry Kaliopi Mileska (Eleanor Crooks) exudes enough “crazy” to be a convincing threat to everyone in the  time/space machines that have been cobbled together.

Further, only in a Doctor Who tale – or a Who-related spin-off – could a simple VHS video cassette of a rubbish 1980s US teen comedy feature be a catalyst for the chain of events that River encounters. It’s a reminder of how quirky and weird Doctor Who can be – but it’s also a perfect example of why we as fans love and adore it so much.

It’s also interesting that the Roberts Master’s fate – along with that of Mileska – is left open-ended. While it’s highly unlikely that this combination of psychopaths could get their own spin-off series, there’s a certain appeal to seeing what other havoc they might together wreak upon the rest of the universe.

Then again, the Master/Missy has often caused havoc quite comfortably on his/her own, and it’s doubtful the character would ever really enjoy being part of a psychotic, Natural Born Killers-type of couple. That’s definitely the impression you get from listening to the great Sir Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of the Time War-era Master in the fourth and final serial Concealed Weapon. The Master in this tale enjoys his subtle manipulation, torture and murder of the supplementary characters far too immensely to ever let anyone else in on the fun. There’s almost a Hannibal Lechter-style levity, glee and mischievousness to Jacobi’s performance that rivals Gomez’s turn as Missy in The Bekdel Test.

However, whereas much of Missy’s antics are written to comical effect, the War Master’s humour is overtly more sinister because it occurs against a backdrop of claustrophobia, homicide and betrayal. All the while, Jacobi still comes across – through his jovial voice – as comely, polite, charming and paternal. The performance is even more powerful (and disconcerting) for this writer, considering he has endured several years of his two- and four-year old daughters being reared on the BBC children’s program In the Night Garden – in which Sir Derek is all of those qualities as a benign narrator!

Scott Handcock’s script is very clearly – and unashamedly – a “love letter” to Ridley Scott’s original Alien film (with a nod as well to its inferior prequel Prometheus). There are certainly parallels - a deep space exploration crew that (like the hapless members of the Nostromo) emerges from hypersleep; an ill-fated French-accented captain (played by Jacqueline King, formerly Sylvia Noble, Donna’s mother on TV!) with a name reminiscent of one of the Nostromo crew; an airlock sequence; a homicidal maniac; and a highly dangerous nascent creature that said maniac wants to exploit and weaponise.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of originality in the premise, Handcock still conveys an atmosphere of dread and impending doom, particularly through the emotionless, relaxed tones of Torchwood’s Tom Price (the former PC Andy Davidson). Price is the only other male voice in the serial – apart from Jacobi himself – and does an outstanding job of playing the ship’s computer Hugo, which is hijacked and reprogrammed by the Master. There is a cold and calculating manner to Hugo even as it maintains a veneer of cheery friendliness and helpfulness that strongly evokes the cold, emotionless candour of the title characters in the classic Tom Baker serial The Robots of Death.

The mostly female supporting cast is very good and highly convincing, even as it becomes clear that they are nowhere near as harmonious or altruistic as they seem. Indeed, some of them harbour hidden agendas that ultimately doom them all – and leave their flanks horribly exposed to the Master’s machinations.

It’s particularly effective that the Master is also sparingly used in the tale – indeed (although we as listeners know it has to be the Master), for River, all the hints point to an incarnation of the Doctor being present. The fact Jacobi has only half the airtime that his successor and predecessors have in the preceding instalments makes his performance all the more impressive.

Throughout this review, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m talking about a Master boxset and not a River Song one, given all the praise lavished on the four actors who play the Master/Missy. Nevertheless, Alex Kingston continues to impress as River Song, and clearly enjoys the broad quality of the scripts on offer, as well as the ability to work with Gomez, Beevers and Jacobi. The character clearly holds her own against three of these “masterly” incarnations – but is clearly unnerved by the War Master, who strikes a decisive blow against her colleagues.

Concealed Weapon, if it is not the best of the four serials, certainly runs second to The Bekdel Test as amongst the best offerings of this latest River Song boxset. Overall, the quality of all the serials is extremely high, with only The Lifeboat and the Deathboat perhaps being the weakest of the four (even then it’s still superior to quite a few of the serials in the earlier River boxsets). Indeed, this is probably the best of the five River Song boxsets to date – and it has been (dare I say) a “masterstroke” by BF to pair River with different incarnations of the Doctor’s greatest “frenemy”, and not just the classic Doctors.

It also acts as a great primer for the final Ravenous boxset at the end of this year, when all four of these incarnations will square off with Paul McGann’s Doctor (and presumably each other) as that story arc reaches its conclusion. For future River Song releases, it would still be great to see a few more stories in the vein of The Husbands of River Song (in which River gets up to mischief without the intervention of different versions of renegade Time Lords) but for the most part, River’s adventures have gone from strength to strength as they have combed the depths of Doctor Who’s rich history. Although I favour a more long-term approach, I wouldn’t say “no” to more rounds between River and Missy or the War Master – nor to Professor Song eventually crossing paths with John Simms’ Master, and even Alex Macqueen’s and James Dreyfuss’ portrayals. There is a rich seam still to be tapped!

Associated Products

GUIDE: Diary of River Song: Series 5 - FILTER: - Doctor Who - Audio - Big Finish - River Song

ResolutionBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 2 January 2019 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Resolution: The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER) (Credit: BBC/James Pardon)
Writer: Chris Chibnall 
Director: Wayne Yip
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens

Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Charlotte Ritchie, Nikesh Patel, Daniel Adegboyega and Nick Briggs

BBC One (UK)
First broadcast Tuesday January 1st 2019

It may have displaced Doctor Who's Christmas Day tradition, but the "spatial shift" in TV listings for 'Resolution' made this story no less of a gift. With sections of fandom wanting a return of old monsters, and with some arguing for stronger narrative threats for Jodie Whittaker's Doctor to face off against, 'Resolution' delivered in spades. And though it might be a truism to suggest that no new Doctor is truly forged in steeliness until they have faced the Daleks, it's a piece of lore that's extremely well borne out here.

And what a Dalek! Given the presence of a lone reconnaissance scout, this immediately had the feel of 2005's Rob Shearman-penned story, albeit reworked through the distinctive filter of Chris Chibnall's vision for Who. A steelpunk Dalek neatly recapped the sonic screwdriver's new origin story from S11.e1, with Chibnall again deciding to cast his showrunner's remit to 'make it new' into the narrative universe, having both Doctor and Dalek recreate their own remembered versions of the show's icons. At first, I was concerned by the DIY Dalek's design -- it reminded me of unofficial replicas and assorted fan builds seen over the years -- but on reflection, there was just the right blend of RTD-era industrial vibe, innovation (including the red-lit section set within the outer casing) and clanking homespun realism, given the story's clear justification for all this. The resulting 'Sheffield steel dalek' will likely prove to be a one-off boon to merchandising ranges, but Chibnall astutely mined Dalek mythology for some striking images and pay-offs; the mutant-on-the-back recalled iconic imagery from 'Planet of the Spiders' more than previous Dalek tales (and was occasionally a touch unconvincing, for my money), whilst the use of Dalek 'bumps' as housings for rocket-launchers was nothing less than inspired.

This may have felt more like 'trad' Doctor Who at times, but it was also full of surprises and brilliant bits of imagination. Having the Doctor confront this Dalek inside GCHQ was probably my favourite moment of series 11, combining a realist/spy-thriller version of how a lone Dalek might actually try to seize power in today's Britain with the inventiveness of Doctor Who at its very best. There was an air of inevitability about the scenario, once you realised where the script was going, but it fused the ordinary and the fantastical in a perfect way for a post-Snowden culture. Likewise, removing all wifi -- no Internet and no Netflix! -- made the Doctor's arch-enemy a resolutely contemporary menace, even if the 'family cutaway' struck a slight misstep in terms of its broad comic intent and clunkiness.

Another inspired moment, however, was the way that UNIT's non-involvement was tackled. Undoubtedly well aware of old-school fan complaints along the lines of "why weren't UNIT called in?", the showrunner dispatched these mercilessly. But the presence of a call centre operative reading off her computer screen put UNIT's demise squarely into the context of government efficiency savings, as well as implicitly evoking Brexit-style wrangling over international funding. Any long-term fans pondering how UNIT could have been so savagely undone via these real-world resonances might want to additionally consider the extent to which UNIT perhaps belongs properly and organisationally to the age of 1970s' public services and internationalism -- a world now undermined by decades of neoliberalism (traversing both major UK political parties). The scene may be strongly satirical, but its commentary remains perfectly evident: we can't have nice things like UNIT via any current politics of austerity or isolationism. Instead, extraterrestrial-incursion security has seemingly been privatised, resulting in MDZ's feeble defence of the former 'Black Archive' (you can't imagine Kate Stewart or Osgood allowing a Dalek scout to wander off with weaponry and propulsion systems).              

Resolution: Daniel Adeboyega (Credit: BBC/James Pardon)This was very much a two-pronged 'Special'; a sort of double-A-side seeking to combine Dalek shenanigans with the emotional weight of Ryan's father reappearing. Perhaps these strands didn't always rest side-by-side as comfortably as the features of Aaron's combination oven, but on the whole 'Resolution' was a successful hybrid. It followed a textbook pattern by uniting its main plot threads at the denouement, both thanks to Aaron's engineering specs, and via the sting-in-the-tentacle of the Dalek's desperate final attempt at human possession. The thirteenth Doctor remained characteristically fallible, mind you, with her Dalek showdowns never quite going according to plan, and her "squid-sized vacuum corridor" expanding to human-sized proportions with almost fatal consequences. All of this allowed 'Resolution' to re-articulate Chris Chibnall's mission statement for Who -- that the Doctor's "fam" should be just as important as the Doctor herself. And so it is Aaron and Ryan who, acting together through forgiveness and love, finally overcome the Dalek's tenacity. In one strange moment, it even feels as though the script is reaching towards a parallel between family and monstrosity -- just as family is more than DNA and a name, as Graham tells Aaron, then so too is the Dalek more than a DNA identification and a matter of naming. Both Dalekhood and fatherhood hinge on behaviour, meaning that just as Aaron has to prove his status to Ryan then the Dalek is equally required to prove its nature to new viewers and new fans. This it duly does, the episode being jam-packed with gloriously retro extermination effects and Dalek ruthlessness. And though monstrosity and family are eventually opposed, with the "extended fam" predictably defeating the monster of the year, it is striking, in an episode where the Dalek's identity is initially a matter of DNA testing and naming, that the familial and the monstrous should ghost across one another.  

This is a story firing on all machine-tooled cylinders. The direction from Wayne Yip is brilliantly kinetic and well-judged throughout, and the acting performances are uniformly first-rate. I'd especially single out Charlotte Ritchie, who does a lot of great work as Lin to really sell the Dalek 'pilot' concept, switching through various gradations of embodied Dalekness. In addition, Nick Briggs is on superb form, relishing the chance to do things such as providing maniacally extended and chilling Dalek laughter.

I still miss the pre-credits sequence, though. The response to Graham's much-trailed question, "does it have a name?", would have been intensified by immediately then crashing into the titles. OK, cutting the title sequence buys a little more story time, but a few judicious trims here and there could easily have made room for the titles, and for a more dramatic punctuation of the Doctor's reveal of the Daleks. I hope that pre-credits scenes are restored across series 12. And on this showing, the return of the Daleks -- plural and non-DIY this time -- would also be most welcome in 2020.

Regardless of how series 11 is packaged on DVD/blu-ray, it's difficult not to view this as anything other than the true finale to Jodie Whittaker's first season. The DNA of Chris Chibnall's vision for the show is coded right through it: fantasy plus grounded social/political resonance plus emotional realism, all added to an ethic of teamwork and elective family rather than Time Lord (super-)heroics standing front-and-centre. Yes, at times this Doctor seems more reactive or passive than in the past, as well as less torn by internal demons, and less shadowed by back-story mysteries. It makes the Doctor far less of a focal point, freeing up narrative space and time for at least some of the "fam", and reconfiguring Who in a more inclusive and mentoring mode than arguably ever before. Chibnall's work hasn't just been about bringing in new writers' voices, featuring new locales, and emphasising a renewed sense of Doctor Who's capacities to speak back to power. He has also resolved to give the Doctor a radical new stripe of narrative agency too, one less omnipotent, less certain, and more energisingly hopeful. And that, for me, is a resolution worth championing.