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.                                                                                   





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.

 




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.

 




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.                                         






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!