Posts Tagged With: science fiction

Review: The Power of the Doctor

There was a reason why I didn’t do a write-up for the Easter special. It’s partly because we were in Liverpool, plaque-spotting on Mathew Street and taking ferries to Birkenhead and noting that when Dan and Diane left the museum in the first episode of Flux, they did so by the fire exit. But it’s mostly because it was incredibly dull, the tale of swashbuckling sea adventure turning out to be a bit of a damp squib. It wasn’t outrageously terrible, but it wasn’t very good, either. It was just mediocre. The inclination to write paragraphs about why this was an outrage – something I’d have done in a heartbeat back in 2015 – is more or less gone these days, and if it’s mediocre, I no longer care.

And yet here we are, some six months down the line in a tour-de-force that takes in active volcanos, dastardly schemes and more old faces than a DVD retrospective. Running just shy of ninety minutes, it serves as a swansong both for Whittaker and the departing showrunner, a target of so much internet vitriol it’s astounging he’s stuck it out this long. Perhaps the most potent criticism of Chibnall’s reign, aside from his inability to write dialogue (something that hasn’t improved) is a supposed refusal to acknowledge the past, whether it’s the absence of classic villains in Series 10 or the whole Timeless Child debacle. Thus, with the plethora of famous faces popping up during ‘The Power of the Doctor’, he seeks to answer his critics. “You want nods to the past? Fine. Have this one. And this one. And this one.”

Nostagia sells. This is an anniversary story – not the show, but the BBC – and the buildup to Whittaker’s regeneration is steeped in the desire to look back, so much so that the Doctor scarcely sees the proverbial (and, eventually, literal) cliff until she’s about to step over the edge. It reads like a love letter to times past, a sort of ‘Day of the Doctor’ lite, the style flapping over substance like one of those Top Gear supercars that look better than they drive. Against all odds, and thanks to some genuinely crowd-pleasing moments, it works. If nothing else it’s a relief to get it out of the way so that we can finally sift through the tabloid rumours – media abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any information the press and the fan pages have had to create their own notes on speculative casting, with everyone from Bonnie Langford to Matt Smith mooted to be somehow involved.

Smith doesn’t show; neither does Capaldi – but they did manage to get most of the others. They play their cameos to a tee, perched atop the edge of a metaphysical abyss like wizened, BBC English gurus; platitudes and received pronunciation. Of the surviving Old Legends, only Tom Baker is absent, which should surprise no one who saw ‘The Five Doctors’. Crucially no obvious effort is made to de-age any of them. which is probably down to budget more than anything else, although it doesn’t stop Chibnall putting in a few lines about how their physical appearance reflects the desire of former companions to watch them growing old. It suffices, at a stretch, but it’s awkard, calling to mind that horrendous clay monkey from the end of Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ video. “This is how I see you…”

But nostagia works like an anaesthetic – or at least a potent variety gas and air, bringing on a euphoric fit of giggles that serves to mask the frantic cutting and squeezing going on down below. This was a story about spectacle, in which we’re expected to applaud first and ask questions later, And thus the sight of McGann alone is almost enough to forgive the writer for thrusting ‘Orphan 55’ upon us a couple of years back (almost, if not quite). Who cares if they got old? We all did. Bringing back former Doctors also allows for closure with their respective companions, the holographic projections washing in and out of the screen like ghosts. It’s a touching moment, although the nod to Ace’s feud with the Doctor has a bit of posturing about it, feeling like a half-hearted attempt at rebuffing all those people who claimed Chibnall didn’t know his Who. He may have been well-intentioned, but this is likely to simply confuse people whose knowledge of Aldred stops in 1989. (And which feud, anyway? There were so many of them.)

Structurally, the whole thing holds up like a house of cards. The opening set piece (an attack on an interstellar bullet train that echoes the opening of A New Hope, including a white-gowned Princess Leia) is there purely to introduce a McGuffin and get rid of a companion – Dan, for whom a cracked space helmet is one brush with death too many. And so they drop him on Granger Street, where his house is still missing (anyone who’s actually visited Anfield will understand why this is funny), in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, and it’s back to a life of food banks, doomed romance and abject poverty. His departure is as swift and awkward as we’ve come to expect over this run, and indeed his entire involvement in the story is a cynical piece of audience-baiting, with Bishop’s general absence from the trailer giving rise to the theory that he would be granted an on-screen death that never came.

In the absence of Dan, the old guard steps up – and it’s to Chibnall’s credit that the involvement of Ace and Tegan extends to something more than a token appearance. Fielding fends off an army of Cybermen: on the other side of the world, Aldred dusts off her jacket and hits a Dalek with a baseball bat. Chibnall also elects to bring back Vinder, simply because he can. The final gambit, on a choked and dusty Cyber-planet that resembles an industrial quarry, is a straight lift from series four, with every available character holding down a different lever, but we have just seen Kate Lethbridge-Stewart saved in the nick of time from forced Cyber conversion, so you don’t notice until the dust settles.

In the midst of all this, there’s a plot of sorts, although it is largely an excuse for general silliness. The story revolves around the Master, who has come up with a convoluted scheme involving seismic drilling, reversible tissue compression (yes, honestly) and a series of Photoshopped artworks that serve no purpose except to act as a Tumblr blog in waiting. The central conceit – stolen bodies, extraneous cosplay – is half Face/Off, half ‘Logopolis’; this was almost certainly deliberate, given Fielding’s involvement, and would be outright preposterous were it not for the performance of its central antagonist. Dhawan deviates between calm, hypnotic resonance during the St. Petersburg scenes and a Joker-like mania just about everywhere else – although the episode’s narrative high point sees him cavorting around the winter palace to the melodic strains of Boney M, in a move that will please Fortnite fans everywhere, even if it perplexes everyone else.

Whittaker bows out on a cliff, having seen off the enemy before getting zapped by a planet-shearing laser, carried into the TARDIS by her doe-eyed companion. The scenes with the Doctor and Yaz are as strained as they ever were, and it’s almost a relief when that ice cream is finished – although we do get a beautiful shot of the Earth from space, as the two friends sit on the roof like Wayne and Garth. And then it’s a flash and a bang (Whittaker’s final words are, pleasingly, a reference to a playground game, emphasising that above all else this is a show for children) and in comes David Tennant, in a scene that everyone saw coming – everyone except my thirteen-year-old, whose eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.

Cue the unanswered questions. Why did the Master go to the trouble of butchering all that art when he could have made a simple phone call? Why would you ship a planet-powering energy source on a high speed train with minimal security? Does the fob watch still lurk at the bottom of the TARDIS? Why does Tennant have a five o’clock shadow? And just why is it called ‘The Power of the Doctor’, anyway?

But then Chibnall never was the show’s greatest writer. Not for him the subtlety of Moffat’s arc twists, or the urban kitchen sink drama that Davies made his own. His dialogue is still clunky, characters still lecture, characterisation is still inconsistent (the scene where Yaz is told to train a gun on the Master is bound to ruffle feathers) and it still feels like Whittaker – doing the best she can – has saved the world more by accident than by design, as if the Doctor is allowing things to happen. But against all odds, and after a rollercoaster couple of years, it was an exciting and fitting send-off for both of them. And for all its structural inadequacies, cringeworthy exchanges and narrative cu-de-sacs, I was left with a warm, fuzzy feeling, a glow that lasted the evening and is still lingering now, like the vestigial reserves of regeneration energy. I honestly can’t remember the last time I got that from Doctor Who.

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We hold these truths to be not exactly self-evident

Well, that came out of the blue.

I think everyone was pegging their hopes on the 14th. It made sense for any number of reasons, not least because you’ve got that sweet spot between the FA Cup Final and Eurovision. Where was the song and dance, the flurry of trumpets, the countdown, the slow reveal? Instead we got a random Tweet that had everyone back and forth across the internet like chickens crossing a road for the five minutes we all spent trying to work out if the official Doctor Who account had been compromised. When it emerged that it hadn’t, the BBC website crashed, and the reactions began in earnest.

It wasn’t a bad decision. There is a thing that happens when you build up the anticipation to a fever pitch: the balloon instantly deflates, the disappointment palpable – “What, them?” It happened with Whittaker; it even happened with Capaldi, although no one remembers. At least this was a bit of a surprise. Dropping us on it the way they did there was no chance to feel let down.

I’ve spent the last twenty-four hours, on and off, trying to get my thoughts in order. And here they are, in a sort of order. You will not agree with all of them. That’s fine. It’s why we have comments.

1. I’d never heard of Ncuti Gatwa. I don’t watch Sex Education, although I gather it’s very well thought of. That’s fine, although it’s going to take a while to get used to writing out his name. “We say the same about you.”

2. All right, yes, he is a bit young. So was Matt Smith. I was completely wrong about him. I was also wrong about Catherine Tate. I’ve learned, over the years, that I can’t understand the inner workings of the BBC writing team any better than you all can. Sometimes things happen behind closed doors in the heady process that is auditioning and we don’t get to know what they are.

3. At least they had auditions. I think Chibnall said he did for Whittaker’s casting but I also think he’d probably made up his mind before they did the read-throughs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with casting a mate because he impressed you at a wedding, provided you know what you’re doing, but the fandom is under this irritating misconception that Doctor Who production needs to be some sort of democracy and that they should get a say about how it’s done, so maybe this will shut them up.

4. I like Jodie Whittaker. I always have. I wrote ‘liked’ in the first sentence and then went back and changed it. Anybody else been doing that? It’s very easy to write her off the moment the casting is announced. At least let her finish her arc in peace. We’ve still got Ace and Tegan, remember?

5. I’ve spent years defending Chris Chibnall, and I’m tired of it. The unfortunate truth is that his dialogue stinks. I don’t have an issue with even the more controversial aspects of those story arcs, but he can’t write a believable conversation, and as far as the other week is concerned I can’t defend a turkey. We were in Liverpool when ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’ was broadcast; I managed to watch it but didn’t have a chance to review it until the following week, by which point I realised I had absolutely nothing interesting to say about it, because there was absolutely nothing interesting about the story. Doctor Who shouldn’t be dull, and I shouldn’t be bored. But here we are.

6. When you think about it, casting a male Person of Colour was the most likely and sequentially logical direction for the BBC to take, and frankly none of you should have been surprised. I wasn’t.

7. Be careful, too, of the “Oh but I wanted Idris Elba” trope. Because most of the time that’s shorthand for “He’s the only really famous black actor I can name”. Idris Elba, versatile as he is, would have been a diabolical choice. (He’s quite good in Sonic The Hedgehog, though.)

8. It doesn’t matter that Gatwa is an unknown, or famous for comedy, or younger than you. From what I can gather, the kids love him. And like it or not, they’re the future of the show. Not you. Not me.

9. Here’s the thing. A healthy degree of skepticism is absolutely fine. Honestly. If you’re examining Gatwa and saying “Hmm, wouldn’t have been my choice”, go ahead. I did the same with Smith. I was wrong – he had me within two minutes of stepping out of the TARDIS – but it’s quite natural to shrink in bafflement when you hear about a casting choice. Doesn’t mean it’s racist, except when it is, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

10. There is a famous meme that does the rounds. I include it here for posterity:

Processed all that? Good, now forget about it entirely. It’s bollocks. Well-intended, but still utter bollocks. Some people never get past that first stage (that’s the one on the top left, for those of you who were wondering). We need to allow for that. I have never been a huge fan of Eccleston, but that’s probably my southern middle class privilege talking, and I own that.

11. Speaking of ownership: the outright criticism of Gatwa’s casting on the grounds of box-ticking is bigotry, and I will defy anyone – anyone – to prove me wrong. It’s offensive. It does him a disservice as an experienced actor (and winner of several awards). It also does a disservice to Russell T Davies, who – if you remember – was billed as the Second Coming (no pun intended) when his return was announced last September. And now you’re giving him a hard time because he’s cast a gay Scot with Rwandan heritage? Piss off.

12. If you’re wondering why point number 11 was so emphatically worded, it’s because (and you’ll love this) most white people are at least a little bit racist. It’s not a nice thing to talk about, and if you bring it up they’ll be down on you like a ton of bricks, with the likes of “I DON’T HAVE A RACIST BONE IN MY BODY”. Well, yes you do. I know you do, because I do. We can’t help it. You react differently to people who look different, at least when you don’t know them. There are preconceptions about diets, about religious beliefs, about lifestyle choices. If your son or daughter brought home a girlfriend / boyfriend of a different race, your reaction wouldn’t be the same as if they’d been white. You’d hopefully get used to them, but there would be an adjustment period. It’s partly societal, partly upbringing: we take on the values our parents had. And if you’re really about to tell me I haven’t got a clue about what you believe and how you feel, think about the last time someone told you an off-colour joke. Think very, very hard.

13. The question of whether people of colour can be racist is too long and complicated to address here, but I will go so far as to say this: all people harbour prejudice. You can call it racism, or something else entirely, but I don’t care what your skin colour is – if you’re a functional member of society, you have it, in some capacity or another. About men, women, those who have children, those who don’t, the rich, the poor, the East, the West. Don’t shy away from it. It’s what makes us human.

14. Let’s assume that you’ve read 11 through 13 and are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. How do we move forward from this? Because from one perspective I’ve just said it’s OK to be racist. It isn’t – but it is OK to accept your limitations. Inherent racism is a shackle from which you will never be truly free, but (and here’s the point) it is vital that you recognise it. Recognising it is the first step in tackling it; ask any addict. Ask yourself: where does this come from? Why am I reacting this way to this bit of news? No, really? Why does supposed box-ticking irritate me so much? Why was I really angry at Whittaker giving the brush-off to Graham’s cancer fears? Is it because it was callous? Or is it because I’m socially conditioned to expect women to be caring and empathetic? How would I have felt if it were Capaldi?

Only you can answer that one. But you do have to be prepared to ask the question. And many people won’t. Because it involves getting to know yourself a little better, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned these last two years of trauma, stagnation and poor mental health, it’s that we don’t like digging in the dirt.

15. Darren Grimes can, in general, go and f**k himself. From what I hear, he’s quite good at it.

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Doctor Who: Flux – The Executive Summaries (part 1)

You remember this, don’t you? The silliness that comes between stories; those miniature reviews knocked off in cafes and spare moments that evolved, gradually, into skits and songs and random observations. Pack ’em up, parcel ’em off and lo and behold, the editor at The Doctor Who Companion rolls his eyes and pastes them into this week’s communal writeup.

It didn’t start out this way. There was a time when I was trying to do this properly, to give decent opinions that reflected how I actually felt about an episode, all neatly packaged into condensed three-paragraph summaries. Somewhere along the line, I got bored. Or just fed up. Or a combination of both. It’s not easy, being one of the few DWC writers who actually enjoys the show at the moment. You feel like you do in primary school when they ask the class to vote for an end-of-term video, and you stick your hand up for The Famous Five while everyone else votes for Labyrinth. It’s not that you’re wrong, you’re just a minority.

This time around, I elected not to actually share my opinion of the stories, at least not with any transparency. Oh, certain things slip through. You can feel the scorn, particularly when it was something I really didn’t like. But there are advantages to hiding behind a metaphor: you can just tell people that you’re having a laugh, and to take everything with a grain or two of salt. Besides, it’s far more fun being a little creative. “Are we poor?” my children sometimes ask me. “No,” I tell them. “We’re bohemian.”

These are quite long, so I’ve elected to give you the first two today and the rest in a future installment. There are links to the communal write-ups on the DWC website, if you wanted to read something more sensible, or something that affiliates with your own views. But before we do that, we need to drop in on Matt Strevens’ office.

The Halloween Apocalypse

“Right, Chris. What sort of state are we in for the new series?”

“Matt! Matt, I was thinking. Do you think you could ever make a Zygon sexy?”

“I – I don’t – “

“I mean they’re sort of very distinct, aren’t they? They have a peculiar shape. It’s a bit phallic. But I’m just remembering Coneheads, that Saturday Night Live sketch with Dan Aykroyd, and I was wondering, if you got a Zygon to lounge in just the right way – “

“Chris – “

“I’m just remembering the Katy Manning photoshoot, and – “

“Chris! Can we focus?”

“Fine, yes, sorry, yep. Series 13, then.”

“Series 13. What are we planning?”

“Right. I thought in episode one we’d blow up the universe.”

“Okay, so high stakes. Like it. I presume you mean some sort of threat that overshadows the whole series and that the Doctor deals with at the last minute?”

“No, we actually blow it up.”

“…Right, and then?”

“Don’t know. Something.”

“It’s kind of a narrative cul-de-sac, isn’t it?”

“Only a little bit. And besides, we introduce a bunch of other stories and characters first. I’ve got scenes in the Arctic, scenes in Victorian London, scenes in a desolate alien prison that looks like the edge of hell – “

“Where are we planning on filming that?”

“Swindon. Then we’ll bring in all these new people and have them dig tunnels and stuff. And there’s this woman who knows the Doctor but they haven’t met yet.”

“That’s kind of been done to death, Chris.”

“Yes, but she gets touched by an Angel. And then there’s this fella, Dan. He works as a formula one driver.”

“That sounds prohibitively expensive.”

“All right, he works in a food bank.”

“Better.”

“And he’s kidnapped by a six-foot dog. From the North.”

“Yorkshire or Lancashire?”

“Is there a difference?”

“I – never mind. Are you going to explain who all these people are and what they’re doing?”

“No! That’s the brilliant part. We just leave the audience to figure it out.”

“And then fill in the blanks later.”

“If I remember, yeah. The thing is, they’re always complaining I’m too heavy-handed and obvious. This’ll really fox ’em.”

“The thing is, Chris, you’re not exactly good with dialogue.”

“I know! That’s the joy of it! We throw enough ideas at people, they won’t even care. Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle. How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”

“Chris! Sit down. This really isn’t the time for a soft-shoe. And my office isn’t big enough.”

“Sorry.”

“Anyway. You need to have some​ dialogue. How are you going to cover for your complete inability to string a sentence together?”

“We turn up Akinola and blame it on poor post-production.”

“I’ll have to smooth things over with the sound editors, but all right.”

“Meanwhile I’ve got this big bad villain who escapes from his cell and dissolves people.”

“Please tell me he doesn’t snap his fingers.”

“No, but I had this idea about a PELVIC THRUST OF ANNIHILATION, and – “

“Chris!”

“Right. I’ll redraft. So there’s a bit of a chase and there’s the bit where Dan discovers the TARDIS and Yaz and the Doctor have a bit of banter.”

“And then we blow up the universe.”

“Precisely, Matt. Precisely.”

“I assume we keep this a closely-guarded secret so people’s jaws drop when it happens?”

“No, not at all. I’m planning on telling everyone in all the interviews.”

“Won’t they be disappointed?”

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

“You’ve obviously never met Lance Armstrong. Fine, I think we’re done here.”

“Brilliant. Are there any Smarties left?”

“No. You ate them all.”

“Really? I hadn’t even noticed.”

“I had.”

DWC write-up

War of the Sontarans

From: First Corporal Erskib, Location Scout for 14th Noble Batallion of the Outer Southwest Fringes of the Great and Indomitable Sontaran Empire

To: Brigadier General Prazan, Central Command

Subject: Field Report

Brigadier General, 

I trust this report finds you well and in rude health, and that the war against the Rutans is going swimmingly. I am sure you have awaited this write-up of what the Sontaran Press have already dubbed ‘Wokgate’ with interest and anticipation, and I am hopeful that my thorough investigation of things will shed some light onto exactly what happened during the latest failed conquest of strategic withdrawal from the planet known as Earth.

Before we go any further, I feel I must apologise for the incident with the cat. I honestly didn’t know it would explode. Had I been aware of this, I would certainly not have inserted the probe until you yourself had moved from splattering distance. No words have actually been said about the matter, but I am of sufficiently sound mind to determine that it was this unfortunate upset that has led to my recent demotion and subsequent reassignment to this backwater hellhole. No matter: I have learned my lesson. Res fiunt, as we say on Sontar – or, as the Judoon might have put it, ‘Ko Blo Ro So Fo Jo No-No’.

Investigating incidents on Earth is, you are aware, fraught with complications. Chief amongst them is the fact that we have been here before, on multiple occasions, and that it has never ended well. There are rumours that one deserter may still be living here in a time period we have yet to identify. We do not know precisely where he is, but there is a trail of confectionary bills. However, on this occasion, the mess was not difficult to spot: Commander Riksaw, for reasons of his own choosing, opted to begin his establishment of Operation: Outpost Earth in 19th Century Europe, supposedly because he had developed an affinity for the local wildlife. We have a word for people like that on Sontar, but sadly the inbuilt censorship filter will not allow me to use it in this missive.

It was all going swimmingly until the irritating human known as the Doctor blundered onto the scene. She used to be a girl, and now she’s a boy. I simply can’t understand how it all works and why things can’t stay as they are. One woman – sorry, one man on his own should not have been able to penetrate our defences, let alone muster enough firepower to blow them up. Where on earth did they get enough dynamite? How did they move it? My investigation has revealed that there was some help at hand: two humans, one of whom has the unenviable job of performing puncture repairs to the skins of wounded humans. Surveillance footage from the black box recording has revealed she has some spunk about her: sadly the human military general that accompanied her was about as interesting as a freshly-plastered wall, and about as two-dimensional.

I have seen the footage of the battle in a Crimean field, and this at least was a glorious day for the might of Sontar. Sadly our excursions some years later seem to have gone rather awry, owing to the antics of a rogue native who managed to knock out half a platoon with a cooking implement. This is the price you get for landing in Merseyside. We should have gone to Tijuana; at least that has a beach. I would also raise questions, Brigadier General, as to how half a dozen troops can empty their magazines from ten feet away without landing a single shot on target. The onboard ship’s computer – a sentient model I have named Angela – recommended a piece of Earth culture entitled Star Wars. After watching this piece of drivel I know more and understand even less. 

My recommendations:

  • Up the border security on the secret military encampments – we’re a clone army; surely they can spare a few people to watch the perimeter
  • Mandatory shooting range exercises to be introduced daily for all troops
  • Can we please, please get the scientists to do something about the probic vent? Honestly, it’s embarrassing. I can’t even stand at a urinal without having to crane my neck every couple of seconds.

Signing off now, Brigadier General. While I wait for the dropship I am examining a little more of Earth culture, particularly its cuisine. I have learned of a local creature known as a poodle. I hear they’re delicious.

Sontar-HA!

Cordially yours,

First Corporal Erskib, Mrs.

DWC write-up

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Review: Eve of the Daleks

We spent New Year’s Day in the Usk Valley. Emily’s family try and have a seasonal get-together every year, although last December, like most of the country, we were hunched over a Zoom window, watching out-of-sync Muppet films and screwing up our eyes to see what presents people were showing off. This year the meet was back on, and there was no backing out, so at half past six I turned off my phone and made a point of avoiding social media until we’d got home the next evening.

The upshot of this little slice of family life is that this is not going to be a straight review. I really don’t have the inclination or the energy to deal with people who tell me I’ve got it wrong. And that’s how it’ll go. Because I watched yesterday evening, thought “Yeah, that was all right” and then immediately hopped onto Twitter where I was categorically informed that no, it was not all right, it was a pile of horse shit. “I would rather sell my own family into slavery,” wrote one disgruntled Twitter user, “than watch that inexorable heap of bollocks again. We should burn down the BBC with Chris Chinballs still inside it.” I may be making that up. You decide.

Instead, this is a list of notes: things I spotted, things that jumped out, musings from the rest of the family. We haven’t done one of those in a while, although BuzzFeed does them all the time. It is my vain hope that this one will be faintly interesting, or at least a little less obvious than throwing in GIFs and the words “WOOO! THE COPS CAN’T HANDLE HER!” (something they did during their recent Matrix write-up). The eldest and I spent a weekend last October at a songwriter’s workshop hosted by Martyn Joseph; the key takeaway, at least for me, was “Don’t add to the noise”. So I’m trying very hard not to.

Here we go, then…

02:33 – I used to have that edition of Monopoly. I think everybody did, but ours was just as battered as the one Adjani Salmon has plonked on the table. My mother always used it as a prop in one of the stories she’d repeat ad nauseum, one that made her look both a little smug and also borderline anti-Semitic (which is ironic, given that we’re Jewish by birth). The only mystery bigger than why Nick is dropping it off at a lock-up at ten to midnight on New Year’s Eve is how Sarah could possibly think that cardigan could work. Seriously, it’s a disaster. It’s like being in a 1970s MFI showroom.

09:42 – The opening credits roll. “Oh,” says Emily. “That was a short one.”

The realisation that this is going to be Groundhog Day territory hits my family when the TARDIS crew show up in the basement, miraculously alive. Quoth Thomas: “Oh. It’s going to be one of those episodes, is it?”

As everyone else takes this in, I’m reflecting. The last time Doctor Who did a loop story, the loop itself was the big reveal. ‘Heaven Sent’ works precisely because we didn’t know, until not long before the end, what the Doctor had rediscovered and then forgotten over and over. It strikes me that the reaction of the fandom to new stories and Doctors is its own particularly toxic loop. I’m also musing on the prospect of this particular loop going on for four billion years. Neither thought is comforting.

14:09 – It’s official. I’ve Googled, and can find absolutely no reference to a product called ‘Beef N Beans’. Either they printed thousands of labels on these tins, or they’re so low-end market the internet doesn’t want to know. I’m not sure I want to know. Maybe it’s a dark web thing. That’s somehow more appealing than the prospect that Chibnall made this up in his own head.

15:58 – Dan is arguing with the Dalek. Emily shouts “God! Where’s he been the last few years? Why doesn’t he watch Doctor Who?”

She is shifting a little bit in the armchair to get comfortable. I think the sling is chafing. Emily is wearing a sling because she fell over at Warwick Castle three days before Christmas. It’s her left arm, and it’s only a hairline fracture, so it could have been worse, but she’s in perpetual discomfort. I think she might have been put off ice skating. I tell her that the average age of people with skating limb fractures is 33, so she’s in good company.

“Sorry to hear about your fall,” said her mother, when she found out – to which Emily replied “It wasn’t a fall, IT WAS A SPORTING INJURY!”

16:30 – This time around, the clock reads 23:53. “Ah! Look at that,” I say.

“What?” says Daniel.

“When they restarted before, it was eight minutes to midnight. Now it’s only seven. I think the loops are going to get progressively shorter.”

Sure enough, Whittaker soon confirms this, everyone is faintly impressed at my insight and I nod and smile and don’t let on that I read it in Den of Geek several days ago.

21:09 – I have to say, Aisling Bea is killing this episode. I’ve never been so invested in a supporting character. I want her to come out of this intact. I don’t care about Nick, who is nice enough in a vaguely stalkerish sense but could probably make a heroic sacrifice at the end of the story in order to save everyone else. That would be very Doctor Who. But Sarah is wonderful. I want her in the TARDIS, complaining about the lack of seating in the console room and bombarding Cybermen with sarcastic banter until their heads explode.

34:56 – How many deaths is that? Three? Four? This is basically Chibnall doing a Shatner, isn’t it? Because in Generations, Kirk got to die twice, and then die again in The Return, and then come back to gallivant around the universe with Spock in the fanwank trilogy they threw out in the late 1990s. We’ve seen the Doctor get shot by Daleks before, but it’s never been fatal before now: if a thing is worth doing, it seems, it is worth doing multiple times.

As a side note, it’s curious how the Daleks have a brilliant aim when a target is still but are absolutely shit when someone’s on the move. Don’t they have tracking of some sort?

40:47 – Oh God. The Doctor’s doing her big speech. I can feel the rest of the family inwardly cringing. The problem with moments like this is that Chibnall can’t write them and Whittaker can’t deliver them. She’s a perfectly good actress and a good Doctor, and I like her a lot, but she can’t pull this off simply because the confines of the character she’s created don’t allow for it. It’s like watching an awkward supply teacher reading out a task description left by a far more capable teacher. Please don’t use the word ‘humans’, Jodie. Please don’t – ah, shit.

44:30 – A tear rolls down Mandip Gill’s cheek as John Bishop points out the thing that everyone else has already figured out. We kind of saw this coming but I imagine all the people who shipped her and the Doctor are feeling somewhat vindicated. Apparently they dropped in that term during an interview with Jodie Whittaker recently and she had to admit she didn’t know what it means. I didn’t either. I only put it in here so it’ll show up in the search results.

50:03 – I read on the internet, after the fact, that people were bothered by the ‘fact’ that Dan and Nick get to do the heroic self-sacrifice thing this week while the women stand around being selfish and / or useless. Is that what was happening? Because I honestly don’t know how I feel about that reading, and get the feeling that as a man I probably have an unconscious bias, so I’m not sure I should weigh in. I’d be interested in what female viewers think.

55:00 – This is almost done and we have yet to see the mysterious cameo they mentioned. Somehow I’m wondering whether the elusive Jeff will turn out to be Jeff from ‘The Eleventh Hour’. That’d be a random thing to do. No, wait, there’s a guy filming the fireworks on his mobile. He’s – hang on, who is that? Is that the chap from ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’? The one on the crane who was being targeted because Tim Shaw drew his name out of a hat? And what was his name, anyway? I squint during the credits and find out it was Karl, which I’d completely forgotten. I’d say it’s nice to see him, except there seems to be absolutely no reason for him to be here except to generate a bit of SEO interest. Which is a cynical outlook, but I don’t think I’m wrong.

55:15 – The TARDIS has had a refit! It’s…I literally can’t tell the difference.

57:50 – And we’re done. Nick and Sarah cop off in a taxi while the TARDIS flies overhead. The credits roll and then there are pirates, and oh look, it’s the Sea Devils. Well, there’s a bit of excitement. Although we really need Jon Pertwee, opening his eyes wide and muttering about galactic yo-yos. That wouldn’t have been a bad way to finish.

Still. It strikes me that we’ve just watched a compromise episode, on just about all fronts. When you’re filming in a pandemic, there need to be concessions, and for a one-set, one-gimmick self-contained oddity this one just about clung together. It felt like they could have done more with the story, but perhaps as a bit of lighthearted silliness, it wasn’t quite the trainwreck it could have been. Plus the Jodie-haters got to see her blasted multiple times, and her supporters got to see her cheat death. Just this once, Rose, everybody wins.

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Review: Flux Part Six – The Vanquishers

My family and I are big fans of The Goes Wrong Show. A TV spinoff from long-running West End hit The Play That Goes Wrong, each week sees the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society tackle a new work, ‘live’ on the Beeb, only to be hindered by missized sets, exploding props and actors who don’t seem to understand the concept of stage directions. It’s rip-roaring family entertainment, ridiculous and physics-defying and occasionally very touching, but it’s the opening episode of series 2 I wanted to discuss: tired of the group’s continual failings, the bombastic Robert (Matt Berry meets Brian Blessed) stages a successful coup and then directs a period drama called ‘Summer Once Again’, insisting on perfection throughout. When the opening scene inevitably falls apart, Robert stops the action and asks for a reset: this happens over and over and by the time we actually finish it, most of the show’s running time has already elapsed and the actors have no choice but to frantically hurry through the rest of the play. Scenery flies in and out in an instant, dialogue is rushed or omitted entirely, and seasons change in a flurry of falling leaves and fake snow until the curtain falls on the breathless and deeply unhappy troupe.

The last time we saw the Doctor, things didn’t look good – but sometimes, particularly when your back’s against the wall, you have to cut a corner or two. ‘The Vanquishers’ has a lot of loose ends to tie up, and it manages by cheating, as well as a certain amount of economisation. After an abrupt and somewhat disappointing conclusion to last week’s cliffhanger (the Doctor evades certain death at the hands of Swarm by diving out of the way), we’re back at invasion central: Yaz and Dan and Jericho are cornered by marauding Sontarans, Kate Stewart’s left UNIT in the hands of the Grand Serpent and the Doomsday Clock has ticked another second closer to the heat death of the universe. So much to resolve, and so little time.

The only solution to such a conundrum, of course, would be if the Doctor could be in three places at once. And this week, for the express purposes of plot, that’s exactly where she is: split assunder between three different locales, phasing in and out as per the story’s needs, usually at the most inconvenient of moments. It plays rather like the Star Trek: TNG finale, ‘All Good Things…’, in which Picard has to navigate both his past and (imagined) future in order to deal with a spatial anomaly and get Q off his back. So while Doctor the first is gallivanting round a Sontaran base with Karvanista and Bel, Doctor the second is reunited with Yaz and Dan, where they deal with the threat of alien invasion and the imminent destruction of the universe by bribing a Sontaran with chocolate. It’s quite as ridiculous as it sounds: there is no reason for its presence other than the fact that it’s funny (to varying degrees; Moffat really handled this stuff rather better) and the sight of a wide-eyed Dan Starkey goggling over a bar of Dairy Milk is destined to be memed to death, which was presumably exactly what Chibnall wanted. There are probably worse ways to be mark your place in Doctor Who’s history. If you’re going down, at least go down fighting.

Meanwhile, Doctor the third is stuck at Division Centre, with a disinterested Ood and a couple of psychopathic killers for company. At least we assume they’re psychopathic. To be honest my entire assessment of Swarm and Azure is built on assumptions. They’re merciless guardians of entropy from a period we glimpsed only in flashback and only when there were dozens of other stories going on at the same time. Chibnall gives us enough to join the dots – just – but at the risk of mixing metaphors, the picture that results isn’t so much a bucket and spade as it is a Rorschach inkblot, or the fuzzy scribble that hounded Rose in ‘Fear Her’. Oh, there’s an enjoyable conversation between Azure and the Doctor – Whittaker at her most intense, sparring with a smirking villainess who thinks that all life is futile and deserves to be snuffed out (as I recall Judge Death aspired to a similar philosophy, though he at least had more impressive teeth). But this is a meagre banquet, a scrap of development here and there, a sliver of empathy amidst the gloating. Both Azure and her brother retire from this mortal coil (disintegrated by the demigod they have supposedly resurrected) no further fleshed out than the bronzed skeletal bodies they’ve inhabited since episode one: all sneer, no substance. We don’t really know what they’re up to, or why, and we don’t particularly care either.

At least it looks pretty. You might accuse Doctor Who of being top heavy when it comes to CGI, but it seems churlish to complain when we’re being granted the spectacular vistas we’d arguably been denied during the scaled down stories we witnessed in series 11 and 12. Dalek fleets explode in dazzling panorama. Sontaran fleets loom over Rio de Janeiro and Paris (we know it’s Paris, of course, because you can see the bloody Eiffel Tower). And the Doctor wanders through a black and white flashback of her own childhood, as the mysterious floating house drifts in and out of existence with a wave of Swarm’s gloved hand – he and Azure providing the only pigmentation in an otherwise drab monochrome, like the girl in Schindler’s List, or the video for ‘Wonderwall’. Ironic, seeing as they themselves are so utterly bereft of colour.

The discussion we had last week – concerning past lives and forgotten history – becomes a McGuffin of sorts for the Doctor, or perhaps an obstacle. There simply isn’t time to actually delve that far, not when there are so many other plot strands to resolve. Tecteun is given only the most cursory of mentions; this has now become about stopping the Flux. Learning about the past, we are assured, is a distraction, and when the whole thing is dangled quite literally in front of the Doctor’s nose in the shape of a fob watch she wisely elects to hide it in the dimensionless depths of the TARDIS, safe from herself and future showrunners, “unless I really ask for it”. The implication, surely, is that we’re moving on, at the very least until New Year’s Day, although I suspect that fans will not let it rest that easy.

But while Swarm destroys and rebuilds the floating house, you can’t help but feel mildly disappointed that the Doctor never enters it. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mystery; nor are we necessarily done with this story arc, the question of what’s behind that rotting wooden door merely postponed, rather than shoved back into Pandora’s box right before it’s thrown into the sun. There’s no reason we couldn’t go back – all the same, having come this far, why couldn’t we have ventured a little farther? Seen the experiments in the cabinets; cast our eyes over a series of bizarre objects; glimpsed a dozen unknown figures who may or may not have been prior incarnations, like the screen in Morbius’s lab? (Question: is it Division? Or The Division? Because the definite article seems to have gone walkabout this year, and it’s not down the back of the sofa, because I’ve looked.)

Whittaker herself is affable and watchable, whether she’s giggling on a torture rack or flirting with herself (often in the same scene). Time and again she’s shown herself to be an expert at the frivolous remark – “What this ship really needs,” she mutters, faced with someone else she doesn’t know, “is lanyards” – but while she possesses Tennant’s facetious light-heartedness we don’t really delve much beyond that, save a couple of brooding remarks and (god save us) an actual tear during a final not-quite conversation with Yaz. There is none of the fire that lit her during ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ – it’s mostly down to the script, but you wish she’d reacted to the genocide of the Lupari with a little more emotion. Even a dual appearance as the personification of Time, dour-mouthed and serious and sporting a different coat, is largely wasted.

The companions have their own journeys this week: Dan’s takes him to the TARDIS (by way of the museum we saw him exploring in episode one); Vinder and Bel wander straight into each other’s arms, electing to wander the cosmos with Karvanista. It’s all a bit Guardians of the Galaxy, without the tree – although Bel still hasn’t had that baby, and it’s been in there for years, so who knows what she’s actually growing? As for Karvanista, the bushy sidekick is given the nearest thing we get to character development, angrily declaring his backstory with the Doctor off limits (reliving the memory, it turns out, will literally kill him) but giving us hints that the pair were closer than we’d realised. “There was a time I’d do anything for you,” he glowers from the neon haze of a Sontaran prison cell. “But you left me.”

It is Jericho who is granted a hero’s death, bowing out in a literal blaze of glory after proving rather too trigger-happy defending Claire from an oncoming Sontaran patrol. It was inevitable: Kevin McNally does a good line in indignant pomp, and you find yourself nodding and smiling as he introduces himself as ‘Scourge of Scoundrels’, before noting – just before he’s incinerated by the blast – that it would have been a brilliant title for his autobiography. My children were upset, but that’s all part of the fun. It’s not proper Doctor Who unless you lose a supporting character you actually like. (No, Adric doesn’t count.)

And yet it feels rushed. This, you sense, is what happens when you film an ambitious storyline in the height of a pandemic. There is enough material here to fill a series of ten episodes, possibly more if they stretched out the camerawork. Instead we’re plagued with enough jump cuts to make the cafe scene in Bohemian Rhapsody look like a Ken Loach film. I’m not asking for pages of dialogue. I’m just asking for the chance to pause for breath. Because when McNally died on that ship you really feel he ought to have had a little more time. When Bel and Vinder collapsed into that embrace, they needed another minute or two – enough time, at least, for Vinder to process the fact that he was going to be a father. And if the not-quite relationship between Dan and Diane deserved a little more closure than a bit of mumbling about restaurant bookings – or if nothing else a little more than a single wistful stare. Flux manages, at the very least, to give a decent send-off to the Grand Serpent, who is fittingly exiled (by Vinder and Kate) to an isolated rock in deep space, where he can have the rule of authority he always craved, in complete solitude. Be careful what you wish for.

There is a sense of frustration about it, because Flux feels like the series Chibnall always wanted to make: grandiose, world-changing and with a sense of finality, a set of water cooler moments to rival Tennant diving through the hatch of an open spacecraft, Eccleston’s defiant “I’m coming to get you,”, or Capaldi’s four billion year wall punch. Certainly there have been scenes and segments that we’ll be talking about for some time: the Angel freeze-up at the end of part four, the heist on Atropos, the literal destruction of the entire cosmos at the end of the first instalment. Even the Sontaran in the corner shop, although not every word said about it will be praiseworthy.

But it’s hard not to feel a little cheated, just as the programme itself cheats in order to (more or less) finish its narrative on time. There is nothing untoward about the bending of physics or the narrative trick used to get the Doctor back into the universe in order to save it, except that it feels rushed, hastily implemented, skirted around in order to Get The Story Done. And it is for this reason that ‘The Vanquishers’ epitomises, on many levels, everything that’s been both good and bad about this year. It’s fun and bold and often exciting; these are all good things, and to be treasured, because we don’t have enough good things these days. But it’s like wolfing a McDonalds on your way back to the train station – you feel like you’ve experienced something hot and mildly satisfying, but you can’t really tell what it was. There is a sense of things being unfinished, of time being wasted, of opportunity squandered. For all its good qualities, it is hard not to view Flux as a breakneck scramble for the finish line, an ensemble of confused players rushing through the final act before the credits roll, yanked up at speed with the same indecipherable intensity as the drama that preceded them.

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Review: Flux Part Five – Survivors of the Flux

I imagine there are a number of very disgruntled Doctor Who fans ranting and raving on social media at the moment. Not that this is in any way new. The internet is pockmarked with zits of anger and boils of rage – all directed at a show these people profess to love – and it is impossible to travel very far, wherever you happen to be going, without running into pustules of self-righteous indignation, seemingly desperate to be lanced or popped. Getting angry at Doctor Who is very fashionable. I should know; I’ve done it myself.

But this week’s anger is liable to take a specific form, and comes as we learn, more or less unambiguously, that two particular fan theories from the last couple of years have basically fallen at the wayside. The first (and by far most popular) is that the Master’s revelation halfway through ‘The Timeless Children’ was an outright falsehood. For a number of people (I’m not going to say ‘many’, because I suspect they’re probably just a particularly vocal minority) the prospect that Gallifrey’s public enemy number one was lying through his teeth was a far more appealing one than the likelihood that Chibnall genuinely wanted to see this through to the bitter end, even if it meant rewriting history. “The Master lies,” we’re told, over and over. “You can’t trust him”.

Well, no. You can’t. As far as unreliable narrators go, he’s up there with Keyser Soze. But…really? Is that something you’d honestly see Chibnall doing? Inserting new Doctors – including the first person of colour to land the role, if you don’t count Lenny Henry – only to turn round and say “Sorry, folks, this doesn’t count”? Or “We said there were loads of Doctors, but we were only pulling your leg”? Not only is it the sort of negligent trolling I don’t think even he’s capable of, it discards everything we’ve seen over the last three years; it also severely undermines the BBC’s (admirable) diversity agenda, and hence it isn’t the sort of trick he’s about to pull. I mean, Davies might. But that’s entirely up to him.

The other theory that has now failed to bear fruit is an expanded version of this: that Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor inhabits a parallel universe, and is most likely herself a parallel Doctor. Hence everything that’s happened over the past few years, from angry Ptings to mysterious to TARDISes buried near lighthouses, has been a series of adventures chronicled by another set of adventurers. You know, a different Doctor. Not ours. Not the real one. And thus the timeline may be restored without prejudice and everybody’s happy (and by ‘everybody’, I mean that small-but-vocal contingent I previously mentioned). Capaldi regenerates into someone else and series 11-13 were only a dream, an imagined memory, half-human on its mother’s side. Isn’t it brilliant when you can strike the stories you hate from the continuity?

But as we saw in ‘Survivors of The Flux’, the Doctor really is the Timeless Child, and this really is our universe – something that’s not just a passing observation but a major plot point. The moment comes at the midway point in what is essentially a fifty-minute infodump. After a visually striking (if pedestrian) opening scene where the Doctor walks through a field of Angels, she then spends the rest of the episode confined to a single room where a middle-aged woman dressed like a post-apocalyptic Amelia Earhart fiddles with a set of controls and sneers at her. There is an Ood in the corner, who is there for no reason other than the fact that Chibnall clearly wanted an Ood, and whose reasoning the Doctor is able to affect in thirty seconds flat. She gets it on side by explaining that the universe it’s about to blow up contains other Ood, and that killing them is murder. How the Ood was unable to reach this conclusion on its own is left unexplained, but we should probably be used to that by now.

That the mysterious woman turns out to be Tecteun, the Doctor’s long lost mother, turns out to be no great shock. Nor are we surprised when she tempts Whittaker with a set of restored memories, presumably detailing all the times she was stomping across the universe doing Division’s dirty work. Nor do we care when the Doctor turns the offer down flat. Even the cliffhanger, in which Swarm and Azure pop up out of nowhere just in time to disintegrate Tecteun out of existence, is something you could see coming a mile off. The net result of this is that a series of uninteresting twists are heaped together in an attempt to make the whole more than the sum of its parts, in which respect it fails miserably. This is a wobbly tower of nothingness: reveals are dumped on top of reveals until they cease to have any impact, a layer cake where every layer is jam.

It’s as if Chibnall sat down to write this week’s episode having woken up in a panic in the realisation that he had ninety-four minutes of screen time left and enough unexplained material to fill about six hours. The only answer is to dump it all into a single speech and leave the audience to fill in the gaps. Which I wouldn’t mind, had it been even slightly entertaining – but most of the exposition is as dry as a desert. “Colossal,” beams Tecteun when the Doctor asks about the extent of Division’s influence. “Across space and time, its influence is unparalleled. Its reach is unlimited. All from the shadows. It achieves its aim beyond our wildest dreams.” It reads like a BBC press release. Barbara Flynn does the best she can with the dog’s breakfast she’s given, but when your job is primarily to tell everyone what’s been going on, how much life can you really inject?

There were good things. Craig Parkinson oozes venom (quite literally) as the treacherous Prentis, a sliver of white in his hair and a snake living on his back. His rise to the top of UNIT might almost be Machiavellian were it not for the fact that we’ve seen him before, in a very different setting, and it is clear that this is probably the same man, either immortal or carrying a TARDIS (or a working vortex manipulator). He manages to off anyone who gets in his way, with the notable exception of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, who lights up the screen in what is the episode’s single best scene, before vanishing into the darkness as UNIT is defunded and her house is blown up. It’s all good fun until you realise that Chibnall’s effectively turned a Brexit gag into a significant plot point, but Jemma Redgrave is always fun to watch, so perhaps it’s churlish to complain.

Then there’s the companions, who mercifully have a bit more to do this week, having spent the last three years backpacking round the world in search of artifacts that might help them predict the year of the coming apocalypse (spoiler: it’s 2021); Around The World In Eighty Days with touches of Indiana Jones. They even get their own montage, hiking to Nepal (presumably Wales), red dotted lines charting their progress as the music swells in the background. All this is before they realise that what they were searching for was right under their noses the whole time, which really is a bit Wizard of Oz. Still, it’s nice to see more of Kevin McNally, who slides into the role of temporary sidekick with aplomb, sparking well with Bishop and Gill, whether he’s running from an obviously-placed stick of dynamite or shoving a corpse over the edge of a boat. The scene with the farquhar is likely to split the fandom. Personally, I was chuckling.

Four years ago Emily and I were watching series three of Twin Peaks. It was twenty-five years in coming and in retrospect I wonder whether the sense of anticipation led us to overlook some of its shortcomings. For every wonderful, crowd-pleasing moment (when Kyle MacLachlan looks to camera with a reassuring smile and declares “I am the FBI”, it’s difficult not to cheer) there are moments of unfulfilled promise: James Hurley’s half-visited storyline; the scenes with Ed and Norma and Nadine that basically come out of nowhere…it’s a mess. A god-awful glorious mess, but still a mess.

And the reason it works, despite being a mess, is that we’re dealing with pre-conceived characters we knew well. Lynch knew he’d told us all he really wanted to about these people, when we lived their lives and visited their homes in the early 1990s. All that remains is to drop in a coda (in the case of Audrey Horne, an interrupted cadenza). We don’t need to see any more of Ed and Norma, because we know their story and they deserve the happy ending they’re given. This isn’t the case with Flux, where Chibnall slingshots around a host of new and vaguely-connected characters in different times and places, offers the flimsiest of sketches and the barest character development the running time allows, and then ties them all together at the eleventh hour with string so old and frayed it could snap at any minute. There’s still at least one episode to go (possibly more, if he elects to draw this out into the specials) but it’s become apparent that this year’s Big Event is a story where plot is directing character, rather than the other way round: where they decided to wipe out the universe and stick in a bunch of half-formed people to see how it would affect them. Which is par for the course in Doctor Who, at least some of the time – but when it’s been hyped up so much, and when it’s all the new content we’re getting, you can’t help wishing they’d managed something a little more substantial.

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Review: Flux Part Four – Village of the Angels

Early June, 2007. Emily and I are coiled on the sofa, watching Carey Mulligan stumble through the cracked remains of an old building – “You live,” says Finlay Robertson, erroneously assuming that the mansion in which they’ve gathered is her permanent residence, “in Scooby Doo’s house”. There is a fizz of background noise on DVD, as a bespectacled man from a film shot forty years ago mutters a warning. In the shadows, statues lurk. Until you turn your back. Until you blink. And then…

Well, then you get to go back in time a few decades and live out the rest of your life in the village where you grew up, before meeting yourself as a young child. Which isn’t such a bad way to go, really. We could think of worse. Drowning, electrocution, live burial. Over-exposure to the theme from Barney. And this is why the Angels only really worked in one story, where the novelty was enough and where the stakes were raised by the Doctor’s warning about what would happen if they managed to get hold of a TARDIS. When all is said and done, that’s the extent of their appeal. Everything else – the neck-snapping in the wreck of the Byzantium, the makeshift factory farm at Winter Quay – is merely commentary.

Having actually got hold of a TARDIS in last week’s finale, the Angels elect not to switch off the sun (something the Tenth Doctor had feared), but instead dump the battered old police box in 1960s rural England so they can pick up a stray. Because it turns out that not all Angels are wrong ‘uns, if we can really say that any of them were. Some of them have tired of their work with the Division and have gone on the lam, where they can hide out on Earth, ensconced within the mind of a young woman who –

Sorry, wait a minute. Back up. Slowly. Stand clear; this vehicle is reversing. Say that again. They do what? Angels have jobs? With the Division? How does that even work? How do you arrange a performance review for a direct report when you can’t make eye contact with them? Is remote working an option given that every time you arrange a Zoom meeting they accidentally pop out of the monitor? What about salary? Do they zip back in time to deposit their pay packets into hundred-year-old accounts and then live off the compound interest? What happens at the Christmas party when it’s time to form the conga line? These are all serious questions, and I think we should be told.

But unanswered questions are par for the course this series. And there are loose ends a-plenty this week, and most of them concern the Doctor. In the sort of bait-and-switch that Chibnall has made one of his staples, she turns out to be the target the Angels were looking for all along, ending the story on the mother of all cliffhangers, frozen like a Medusa victim as Yaz and Dan look on helplessly from sixty-six years ago and twelve feet away. Quite why the Angels weren’t able to do this earlier in the story is anyone’s guess, but we may assume that it’s because the image of Jodie Whittaker turning to stone in a graveyard stuffed full of statues looks ridiculously cool, so perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it. And while it’ll be undone in a heartbeat, there is something captivating and utterly chilling about that final image. Bet B&M are lining up the figure rights as we speak.

‘Village of the Angels’ is the sort of haunted village horror story that 70s Who managed brilliantly, only with the pacing cranked up to eleven and the pathos at a big fat zero. I know we’re supposed to care about poor Peggy, who vanishes from the home of her irritable great-uncle and his long-suffering wife (played proficiently, if with a certain shallowness, by Vincent Brimble and Jemma Churchill), only to be discovered by a displaced Yaz and Dan wandering around Medderton in 1901. But it’s difficult to care too much when she radiates the same level of glacial calmness displayed by one of the Midwich children in Village of the Damned. There’s something freakish about her. She barely even breaks a sweat when her hapless great-uncle crumbles into rubble (I was going to say she barely even blinks, but let’s not go there). Instead she merely stares at the spectacle, and then notes “He was never kind to me”. We should have seen it coming: an earlier scene has her seated at the table in a seemingly abandoned farmhouse, chickens pecking at the butter and the gramophone still running, lit from behind in a serene halo, like a divine child. You might even say an angel.

Perhaps surprisingly for a base-under-siege tale, visual flair is a cornerstone of the episode’s construction, Robin Whenary’s cinematography working in a delicious tandem with Jamie Magnus Stone’s tight direction, emphasising angles and corners and the feeling of being under constant surveillance. The troubled Claire grows a pair of wings in a mirror, delicately foreshadowing the story’s finale, before facing off against the Doctor on the other side of a windswept beach (in quite unsuitable footwear), the sky a turbulent maelstrom. Closeups are abundant, and the stony denizens scream out of the darkness with a lustre and ferocity we haven’t seen in some time. It doesn’t all work: the Scribble Angel and Fire Angel are supposed to breathe new blood into old enemies, but there is a certain silliness about them, a gimmick that serves little purpose beyond a brief visual cue. Perhaps I was just thinking about ‘Fear Her’.

Still, the best scenes in ‘Village’ occur in that poorly-defended house, the doors rattling as unseen fists pound and blank-eyed faces loom at the window like a dozen extras from a Romero film. It’s terrific stuff, and it almost seems a shame when we have to leave it behind for 1901, in which Dan and Yaz have a bit of a wander and a chat and do not a lot else. Maxine Alderton managed to keep everyone busy during ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’, but she struggles here to find substantial roles for the Doctor’s companions, beyond having Yaz yell out “No!” at opportune moments, something Mandip Gill admittedly does rather well. Faring better is Thaddea Graham (Bel), saving the life of an ungrateful refugee on another decimated planet before hopping off into the stars, reappearing for a cannily placed credits scene. She’s tremendous fun to watch, and whatever the murky truth behind this inexplicably lengthy pregnancy, the romance between her and Vinder is genuinely touching, and you really do hope they manage to survive the universe’s implausibly lengthy destruction.

It’s wobbly and a bit uneven in places, but as a whole it works. For every magical reforming picture or jarring snatch of audio (Brimble’s scream when he is first zapped by the Angel is particularly unnecessary) there is a feast of dimly lit churchyards and frantic, elegantly composed set pieces. Guest performances, too, are largely sound – Kevin McNally and Annabel Scholey excel as stuffy academic and frightened woman out of time respectively – and there is a cohesiveness to the story that survives beyond the oddities; a mesh bag, crammed full of rocks, a few rough edges poking through the holes, but essentially intact. Chibnall’s run on Doctor Who hasn’t been without its problems, and the jury is still out on whether Flux is going to pan out as successfully as we’ve been promised – but this week he made the Angels scary again. That, in itself, is something of a triumph.

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The inevitable Doctor Who / ABBA thing

God Is In The Detail is taking a break this week. I’m sorry, I simply don’t have the energy. Events have worn me out. Sometimes you need to put things down, rather than going through the motions for the sake of completion. This week is one of those. Besides, I don’t think many people actually read it these days. There are so many outlandish fan theories doing the rounds that it just falls between the cracks, another victim of Poe’s law, dropping into the filter alongside all the crackpot ideas about grandparents and necklaces.

Let’s do something fun instead. We’ll have a bit of ABBA, shall we? ABBA are great. My love affair with them began in the early 1980s when we had a couple of their albums (at least one of which was a compilation) on vinyl. There was a record player in the bottom of the wardrobe, and whenever I heard the heavy, almost claustrophobic bass that opens ‘The Name of the Game’ I was convinced that they were hiding in the back somewhere behind the coats. (I was four; I think that’s a reasonable excuse.)

Fast forward – literally – a few years, to the video we bought from Smiths and which I watched nigh on every Saturday for about a year, wherein I learned about the joys of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Eagle’ and the unremitting sobfest that is ‘The Winner Takes It All’. I tended to stop when it started talking about ‘One Of Us’. For one thing I didn’t care for Agnetha’s perm. For another it was getting uncomfortable to read, the band walking away into the sunset during the final fade for ‘Under Attack’. Was it my first brush with divorce? Probably. You could feel the pain and the hurt in those lyrics – “I don’t wanna talk,” Agnetha sang as she stood looking out at a river with the wind blowing in her face like someone researching their family tree in Who Do You Think You Are? “‘Cos it makes me feel sad.” And by the end of the record, it made me feel sad too. Every single time it came on the radio. Job done, I suppose.

Comebacks and reunions are always ripe for scrutiny – can they still pull it off, after all this time? – and it was inevitable that for every cheering Mamma Mia fan there’d be at least a couple more wondering why they’d done it. And yes, the new album is occasionally patchy and has some pretty terrible lyrics. That’s vintage ABBA. Seriously, go and listen to ‘Two For The Price Of One’. Or ‘What About Livingstone’. Or ‘Dum Dum Diddle’, if you can stomach it. Or ‘On And On And On’. I could go on (and on). They’re Swedish, for pity’s sake; give them a bit of credit for writing stuff we can at least understand, even if there is at least one moment every album that make you cringe. On Voyage it comes in the form of ‘Little Things’. “Little things,” sings Frida (or is it Agnetha? Seriously I can’t tell these days) playfully. “Like your naughty eyes / You’d consider bringing me a breakfast tray but there’s a price…”. Ouch. Still, at least she’s not too old for sex.

Anyway. I took a bunch of ABBA lyrics and stuck them into Doctor Who stills, because…well, it was fun. And because Voyage, for all its quirks and oddities, is a bundle of infectious joy, and god knows we need more joy in this crazy, broken world. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I spent years feeling sad that they ended their original run on what was both a career high and a personal low – The Visitors was great, but the (apocryphal) image of Agnetha sitting in the darkened studio creaking out the final vocals to ‘The Day Before You Came’, as the rest of them all sit not speaking to each other, is just a little too much to bear. And for years that was it. I used to have a thing: for years, whenever anyone used to post a ridiculous (and frequently problematic) pipe dream, I’d say “That’s about as likely as an ABBA reunion.”

And it’s a shame I can’t use that one anymore, but it’s a price worth paying.

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Review: Flux Part Three – Once, Upon Time

I’ve just noticed something rather unfortunate. The problem with reviewing a series of single over-arching stories like this is that the reviews are rather difficult to title. You can’t do it without mentioning the ‘Flux’ thing, which leaves you with various syntax difficulties. I’m using a colon and an em dash as well as that strangely placed comma and I don’t really like it very much. And it came up in my thought process because this very week Rockstar Studios released Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, which is nigh-on impossible to say, let alone write down. There are far too many ‘the’s, for one thing. Oh, and as it turns out the GTA remaster was dreadful, largely because they mashed up the controls, ruined the Switch port, locked up the PC launcher, turned all the character models into Roblox knock-offs and took out the fog. Hence Metacritic’s average rating is (at time of writing) a whopping 0.6, which is both unprecedented and awkward.

I suspect that there were a lot of angry people on Twitter last night, both gamers and otherwise. For example, a fair few of us are trying to work out what on earth Chris Chibnall meant when he had one of his characters mutter “No one calls them video games” during the middle of a clumsy plug-that-wasn’t-a-plug-but-kind-of-was for The Edge Of Reality. Yeah, we do. I mean not all the time; ‘games’ is a perfectly appropriate shorthand. But if we’re talking to people who aren’t gamers (which does happen, honestly), we call them video games, just like we call him ‘the Doctor’ if we’re talking to people who watch the show, and ‘Doctor Who’ if we’re talking to people who don’t. Everyone does that, right? Right? I am right about this, aren’t I?

To be clear, I get that Yaz wasn’t playing The Edge of Reality. I also don’t think that having a Weeping Angel invade your video game like that could be seen as anything other than a nod, given the timing. Even if it wasn’t (and it almost certainly wasn’t). This is the problem when you immerse yourself too deeply in Doctor Who lore; you start seeing the patterns everywhere. For example, why does Vintner’s love interest (you know, the one who isn’t Yaz) talk about him ‘looking different’ when she’s chatting to her Tamagotchi-that’s-actually-a-foetus? Why else, unless he’s got some kind of regenerative ability? Which would presumably make him the Doctor’s father, of course. Or he isn’t and it’s simply another ridiculous fan theory, the way that people misinterpreted Dan’s “Had a mate with one of these” from episode one and turned it from a simple joke into obvious foreshadowing for a prior encounter that he’s keeping very secret, in all likelihood from the rest of us. Which is…oh, I don’t know, minimally plausible, even though it suggests to me that most of these people simply don’t understand British humour, or indeed humour full stop.

In fairness, we did find out this evening that Dan’s hung around with the Doctor before. It’s just he was a dog. And of course it’s not really him at all; there’s a projection thing going on. The Doctor figures this out just after she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror that makes her look several thousand years younger, and perhaps a little taller. She’s in the middle of a ramraid on the planet Time, which is one of the Division’s illicit projects, and one that temporal terrorist Swarm is in the process of exposing. It leads to a standoff in which Jodie Whittaker is reading out the Fugitive Doctor’s lines in her own voice, which basically means she cranks up the intensity just a notch and shifts her body language. It does, at least, put paid to the season 6b theory, more or less. Probably less.

Still, it’s nice to see Jo Martin back for another stint – even though we mostly get snatches of her, the camera cross-fading between her and Whittaker like a crap version of Keanu Reeves’ scramble suit in A Scanner Darkly. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) the impact is lessened by the fact that the mirror scene occurs in the midst of a giddying series of time-jumping fragments, as characters dip in and out of conversations they haven’t had yet or might never have, experiencing memories of each other and stories that some of them would rather forget. Yaz gets bored in a patrol car and smashes a Nintendo Switch (these are two separate events, just in case you’re worried about where your tax money is going). Dan has a coffee with his not-quite girlfriend, reminiscing moodily about getting dumped. And Vinder is exploring a murky past and a disastrous career move when he stuck to his principles and tried to expose – we presume unsuccessfully – the slippery Grand Serpent (Line of Duty alumnus Craig Parkinson, as corrupt in an interstellar penthouse as he was in AC-12). As for the Doctor, she’s darting around between timelines, swapping identities at random and trying desperately to get the gang back together before the universe implodes around her.

You will have gathered, even if you haven’t looked at the Twitter feeds, that this is love-it-or-hate-it TV. There are compelling arguments for both. It’s nonsensical from the get-go. That’s what happens if you tease out a largely metaphysical cliffhanger resolution for an episode’s entire runtime (bar a couple of frustrating minutes at the end when Vinder lands on his home planet, which looks like Constantinople after it’s been sacked, and the only emotional reaction he can muster is a slight pout – the sort you’d do when Greggs has run out of cheese and onion bakes). This is a story that isn’t a story, framed by the meandering poetic voiceovers from a woman who spends most of her time giggling at emojis. The exploits of Bel (Thaddea Graham) may be a distraction from the main narrative, such as it is, but at least she’s fun to watch, when she’s not pushing buttons on that wretched screen.

Still, you wonder. What would Moffat have made of this? Because that’s clearly the line that Flux is taking: the multi-stranded time-hopping magnum opus that the previous showrunner knocked off almost effortlessly. It’s all there, more or less – the characters with hidden backstories, the revisited scenes that shed new light on old moments, the connections that don’t become apparent until the final reel. The Doctor floats in a vortex with three white gods and then has a conversation with someone who may or may not be a Guardian. A few minutes later we’re watching a full-fledged TARDIS invasion. Moffat, you sense, would have been a little more restrained, a little more structured, and I’d probably have been bored. Chibnall knows his number is up, and wants to go out with a bang. You can almost picture him in the BBC bar, knocking back a few drinks with Matt Strevens. “I know it’s all over the place,” he says. “And people will probably hate it. But hey, at least they’ll remember it.”

I’ll tell you why I’m thinking about Moffat. There’s a scene halfway through where Bel is fighting off Cybermen. “Love is not a mission,” says the last one as it lies motionless on the floor, having asked Bel what she’s doing in this neck of the woods. “Love is an emotion. Emotions are not missions.” Bel barely skips a beat before she puts another blast through his cranium, noting “Love is the only mission, idiot”. It’s utter garbage, and it’s exactly the sort of utter garbage Moffat would have written had he still been in charge. We ignore revelations like this at our peril: people rail against Chibnall’s dialogue, and with some justification, but let’s not forget where we were and, more importantly, what it was actually like. Doctor Who fans spend most of their waking hours looking back at the hill they just climbed or peering at the one that’s just over the horizon, and it is always assumed that the hill they’re currently occupying is the most arduous of the lot. Never does it occur to them that it’s all a matter of perspective.

And it is perhaps for this reason, more than any other, that I adored last night’s installment. Because it was all over the place. You couldn’t work out what was real and what wasn’t. We jumped in and out of Liverpool and in and out of time in a whirlwind of cameos and flashbacks and flash-forwards and confused half-explanations. Daleks – awful CGI Daleks – swum into view in a scene that practically screamed “Contractual obligation” (and yes, I know that’s a myth, but really, that’s the sort of cameo that gives the myth its potency). Characters and motivations vanished up the creek faster than a spinach-infused Popeye off to rescue his girlfriend. It was audacious. It was ridiculous. It didn’t make sense. And I enjoyed every mad second of it. Sometimes, madness makes for TV gold. It’s not a hard and fast rule (see ‘It Takes You Away’), but some of the best Doctor Who stories are the ones that are thinking outside the box. On that basis alone, ‘Once Upon Time’ is an outrageous masterpiece – preposterous and absurd, but captivating from slow-motion teaser to high-octane conclusion. Bravo, we say, sir. Bravo.

Now: if you’ll excuse me, I really fancy a Marmite sandwich.

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God is in the detail (13-02)

Well. Since you ask me for a pile of intrigue, a meticulously curated collection of theories and rumour, I shall oblige. Pay close attention, dear reader. For this week we bring you that selfsame list of VERY IMPORTANT CLUES AND SIGNS from ‘War of the Sontarans’. Now sit up straight and pay attention. We’re in for a rough ride, and we’re not even going via Birkenhead.

We open at the beginning – to be precise, that moment they materialise (without explanation) in the Crimea and the Doctor has another one of her freak-outs. The first thing she sees is a floating house, which mysteriously isn’t being held up by balloons.

So far, so generic. There’s something a bit Harry Potter about it, isn’t there? Is this a good time to point out that we’ve got fifteen visible windows there, corresponding TRANSPARENTLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY with the fifteen canonical Doctors? The fact that the Doctor’s childhood home was alluded to in the ‘Heaven Sent’ / ‘Hell Bent’ two parter?

Yes, but why am I bringing that up? I want you to look at that layout. It’s not an accident. To a layman, the design is merely idiosyncratic. To someone prepared to look a little deeper, those splintered rafters and protruding boards hide a wealth of symbolism. All right, that’s pushing it. They hide letters. Six, to be precise.

From left to right: E-N-E-V-H-A. Which we might rearrange to form…ooh, I don’t know, ‘Heaven’? A word that features twice in Peter Capaldi’s run? Look me in the eye and tell me that’s a coincidence. Go on. And don’t blink.

Numberplates next. I love a numberplate.

The ancient Volvo dates from December 1978 (the year I was born, no less) but if we break down the content of this plate we find something very interesting. For a start, GGF is a transparent reference to the Glass and Glazing Federation (you see what I did there), and whose headquarters lie on Rushworth Street in Southwark – a district used in ‘The Shakespeare Code’, ‘The Lazarus Experiment’, and ‘The Bells of St. John’. In other words, the Carrionites are back, only this time they’re in the WiFi. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Episode 736? ‘The Fires of Pompeii’. Oh look; it’s Capaldi again. As if this weren’t enough of a clue, take a look – no, a good look – at the framing of this shot, because it’s not an accident. You have fence posts littered along the left hand side – nine of them, to be precise, before the car obscures the tenth. Note two things: the post that appears to be awkwardly slotted between the first and second, just over the back, but which actually pertains CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY to the Ruth Doctor. Also note the puddle. The reflection. You know, the mirror. In other words, the parallel universe in which this is all taking place.

Lastly, we’re taking a look at some pen marks.

I know, I know. I know what you think it means. It’s the world’s least convincing bumper sticker, isn’t it? Or t-shirt design. Or, I don’t know, something that Yaz has scribbled on a hand she presumably never washes, probably the same one she uses to pick her nose.

But think about something. Specifically, let’s think about Scrabble. Because if you translate these letters into their respective Scrabble points a curious thing happens: assuming that a W is worth four points, a D two points and a T solitary point, the number sequence you get reads 44122. Which, coincidentally, is the zip code for Beachwood, Ohio – birthplace of Samuel Glazer (Glazer!), who co-founded the legendary Mr Coffee brand. As seen here.

And also here. And here.

So here you have three films. One has an eccentric time traveller who’s also a doctor. The others both feature John Hurt losing his abdomen AND THE FIRST TIME THIS HAPPENED PETER CAPALDI’S DOCTOR SAID IT WAS REALLY OFFENSIVE. I don’t think you need a degree in rocket science to see where this is going, do you?

There’s more. Total the tiles together and you get 13. I swear; these things just jump out at me.

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