The worst thing you can do when you’re composing any sort of review – the cardinal sin all writers are in danger of committing if they’re not careful – is to make it all about you. It’s such an easy thing. An anecdote here, a bit of fan snobbery there and before you know it you’ve got a sixteen hundred word vanity puff piece which says nothing at all. I have done this, on more than one occasion, and I have paid the price, usually in the comments box. Hell hath no fury like the fan who has had to wade through the ramblings of an unchecked ego.
But what choice do we have, sometimes? What other resort, what alternative route out of the quandary when there is so much subjectivity? Because Doctor Who inhabits a vacuum. It has done ever since Twitter arrived. Here, for the first time, we were able to see what people thought, in graphic, extraneous detail, in a real-time sense, and the mirror that we held up showed nothing but ugliness. Twitter amplifies. Facebook is no better. I’ve already been driven to despair this evening by some of the comments – about Chibnall’s abysmal writing, the needless retcon, the realisation that the show has gone well and truly down the toilet. And these were the people who hadn’t even seen it yet, and who were refusing to watch it out of principle. When friends sign up for Twitter and ask me for advice about how to survive on it, my response is invariably the same: “Delete your account now, and walk away, before you get sucked in to all the idiocy.”
You are reading this, I hope, after you have seen the story. And if you have seen the story you already have your own opinion and you do not need mine. I typically provide it for the sake of completion – I’ve reviewed everything on TV since ‘The Snowmen’, even when said review takes the form of a recipe or a laundry list of tropes. (Seriously, don’t read the ‘Akhaten’ one. It’s not one of my better efforts, as Jim took great pains to tell me eighteen months after I wrote it.) I wish I could say my aspirations are noble. I would like to hope that I can write reasonably coherently and fluidly, with the insight of a fan but the clinical detachment of a journalist, even though sometimes I feed the wrong wolf. You need people who can keep things balanced, at least some of the time. That middle ground – the barren, endlessly parched terrain between the two extremes of sycophancy and hatred is such a cold and lonely place but I walk it because I must, because it is the only place that feels comfortable.
I watched this story with my children. I can hear them, now, in the bath, exploring the possibilities Chibnall offered this evening. I can hear them ruminating about where Jo Martin sits in the order (they do not and hopefully never will refer to it as a canon). There’s not a word about series 6b. They’re just saying “Well, we don’t know, and that’s kind of a good thing because we can make it up.” There is a sense of acceptance there – not blind acceptance, as you would have seen if you’d witnessed them scoffing at the end of ‘Orphan 55’ – but there is a realisation that this is a television show and that it doesn’t really matter if it’s good or bad, as long as you try and enjoy it. I don’t think you have to have children to have this worldview; I’m not even sure it helps. But it’s something they’ve grasped, with no help from me. If they can get it, why can’t the fans?
So you know what? I’m not doing this. Because it doesn’t matter what I think. Honestly, it doesn’t. I could talk about the inconsistencies in the structure, the slow, laboured beginning. The relief I felt when the supporting characters were thinned, allowing us to concentrate on the leads. The slight sense of frustration that the Doctor spent most of the episode WiFied to the Matrix, tempered by an appreciation of the visual flair. The annoyance I felt when the Doctor wouldn’t press that switch – now that would have been a way to finish an episode. How the predictable eleventh hour sacrifice of Ko Sharmus was alleviated by Ian McElhinney’s impeccable acting. The elegant silliness of hiding inside suits of armour coupled with a chilling near miss with Ashad, in a sequence that effectively fuses Scooby Doo with Alien. The conspiracy theories that are bound to erupt from Yas’s description of Graham as a ‘human’. The ongoing speculation that Graham is still the Doctor, thanks to the can of worms that Chibnall has ring-pulled open. The sense that he has changed everything but also changed nothing, and that we are, perhaps, in a better and stronger position than we have been in years – the past, like the future, having become an open book. The delight in the disguised TARDIS that pops up on the housing estate like so many newly erected houses on empty plots in my neighbourhood. The moment Whittaker stepped out into a quarry.
It wouldn’t sway you. As it shouldn’t. Reviews like this are at best an echo chamber and at worst a stick for the hornet’s nest. There is nothing that people like less (and nothing which is more likely to make them hit the share button) than telling them what they do not want to hear. You will have your own highlights and lowlights and I welcome them with open arms, but you will not cause me to re-evaluate, and I hope the reverse applies in equal measure.
Here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to tell you what the boys think. Because I wonder, perhaps, whether their opinions count the most – more than yours, and certainly more than mine. Perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps this ridiculous war of words over a computer screen, this mess of unkind people saying unkind things, and who have more love for the show than they seemingly do for humanity, has gone far enough. Perhaps it is time we drew it to a close, at least until the current crisis has passed. And thus I hand you over to my children, who do not yet inhabit the bubble. I pray they never will. I pray there is a better path for them.
We’ll start with Daniel. “It was good,” he says. “I thought there would be more surprises. I didn’t get many mind-blowing things. I think the episode with the Judoon had a bit more in the way of surprise. But I liked it. I liked that you could see inside the Matrix and see what was going on. And I like the Master and how he’s always one step ahead of the Doctor.”
What’ll happen next? “All the Doctor’s companions will go back to their normal lives. They won’t forget about the Doctor but they’ll all move on. Then someone will take over the world and the Doctor will come back and save the day.”
Josh is next. “I liked it, personally. I thought that the Cyber Time Lords looked ridiculous. But I thought it was interesting how the people from the very distant future went back to the twenty-first century. Presumably the Cyber War is still going to happen, so they have to go through life knowing it’s inevitable and there’s no way to stop it. The Master was really good. The bit where he absorbed the Cyberium was strange.”
Anything else? “I thought it was weird how when we saw the traveller experimenting on the Doctor the children seemed to be getting older each time but the Doctor just goes through random ages. I don’t think it means anything. It’s just how they show time passing.”
Finally, Thomas – wonderful, brilliant, baffling Thomas, who bore out an obsession when he was in year one and who gradually learned to love story as much as he loves details; who can solve a Rubik’s cube in a few seconds flat; who is battling his own personal demons that are far more important to me than this tinpot science fiction kid’s show.
“Flash Gordon is better than Star Wars,” he says.
“It brings a whole new meaning to Doctor Who,” he says. “It gives us a new history that changes the way we see it. And I liked Graham and the hat.”
So did I, Thomas. So did I.