Tuesday, 8 January 2019

D.I.Y. Of The Daleks

Doctor Who
2019 New Year's Day Special

Daleks.  Oh, go on then.  (And don’t say you weren’t warned, because 1) I’m a week late and 2) the BBC ruined it in their own trailer – but only by chucking an “Exterminate” in there, not in a big or showy way that might actually have helped the ratings.  Truly, the current Doctor Who wing of the BBC couldn’t advertise a piss-up in the proverbial.)

Sure, you can have too much of a good thing, and there’s only so much you can do with shouty pepperpots.  But the only iconic thing in Series 11 was the TARDIS, and they managed to make that look like a rotten honeycomb filled with fingers.  After ten middling episodes where none of the main cast get hurt and nothing is complicated, a recognisable and dangerous monster is a sight for sore eyes.

Go on then: what are "cosmic fireworks"?
No remotely sci-fi explanation here, of course.  That would be weird.
To his credit, Chris Chibnall gives us a slightly different Dalek.  Initially without its famous casing, the creature inside attaches itself to Lin, an archaeologist, and promptly sends her on a mission to get a message to the Dalek fleet and conquer Earth.  It’s a boringly simple plan – this is Chibnall – and it essentially shadows Rob Shearman’s (obviously superior) episode, Dalek, where one Dalek runs amok and tries to get the band back together.  But hey ho, it’s a creepy journey to get there.  The Dalek hides under Lin’s coat and gives her instructions only she can hear, literally puppeteering her.  It’s nice seeing Daleks out of their element, and not trying to merge their DNA with humans or somesuch.  Nothing else the Dalek does is particularly interesting, but that opening – up until, say, it starts chatting to the Doctor – is pretty gnarly.

Plus the episode has a fun start even before we get to the Dalek.  Centuries ago – in locales signified with great big place-names, aww – a mysterious menace was defeated, just barely, and its body was separated into three bits.  These were buried on “opposite sides” of the Earth (can you have three opposite sides?), with a guardian sitting to watch each piece, and their descendants after them.  It’s suitably Lord Of The Rings prologue-ian, including the bit where one of them gets haplessly taken down by an arrow.  (Bad luck, mate: you beat a Dalek, and this is how it ends?  His assailants don’t even take his one obviously valuable possession.  He got murdered by morons!)  Cut to 2019 where two archaeologists (Lin and Mitch) discover the hapless guardian’s bones, and his quarry which incredibly wasn’t touched or stolen in all this time.  (Maybe it snowed a lot, immediately?)  Lin and Mitch are likeable enough, in that strange way of everyone who isn’t a main character (not including Graham) in Series 11; they’re one-note, but real enough that you’d miss them if they immediately carked it, which it feels like they’re going to.  Before this can happen, Chibnall handles their dialogue about a kiss on New Year’s Eve with his usual aplomb, i.e you’ll wish a Dalek would enter screen left and take them both out, but they do their best.  Lin is the best “new” thing here, with Charlotte Ritchie slipping smoothly between her good and bad selves.  Whereas Mitch doesn’t amount to much besides Bloke Who Fancies Lin And Owns A History Book.  Pretty soon he’s a fuzzy bit in the background, Yaz-style.

My interest really began to sag with the arrival of Team TARDIS.  Sue me: it’s been a long ten episodes, and while lovely Graham has made every scene he’s in a lot better, glimpsing the rest of them is like running into bubbly workmates you hate outside of work, and fatally making eye contact.  The Doctor promptly arrives, lists her three best mates and sends the archaeologists packing, allowing Yaz to do the only policeman-like thing she’s done in ages: sound like a policeman when she sends them out.  Suck it up, it’s also her only contribution to the episode.  Apart from this absolute side-splitter, delivered in earnest: “Hi, it’s Yasmin Khan.  We met in the sewers earlier.”  And to be fair, she does her usual bit of asking inane questions – “Where’s it going?  What’s it doing?”  Actual, consecutive dialogue there – but at this point, I seriously wonder how good the pay must be that Mandip Gill keeps coming to work.  Save yourself, Mandip.  This.  Is.  Not.  A.  Part.

Faring much better is Tosin Cole, because it’s that time at last, as Ryan’s dad shows up.  It’s just about plausible that this happens on the same day a Dalek gets loose, as his dad is doing a new year / make amends thing, and the Dalek is uncovered on New Year’s Day for gossipy, kissy reasons established earlier.  Anyway, Cole is really good in the scenes with his dad, gazing in disbelief at the nerve of the man.   Daniel Adegboyega seems suitably fish-out-of-water as Aaron, although their scenes do come with a free gift – specifically, a microwave oven he lugs around hoping to sell.  Neither Ryan nor you are safe from his sales pitch, which tells us 1) Chris Chibnall only just found out about microwave ovens, and he is SUPER PSYCHED, you guys!  And 2) THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER.  They might as well have had those words flash on screen.  But before we get to the amazing, fantabulous microwave oven invention of 2019, a word for Bradley Walsh’s scenes with Aaron, which is: also brilliant.  Okay, two words, but Graham’s had more of an arc than anyone this series, and his pride at finally having Ryan’s approval (even if it came all of a sudden one week ’cos, sigh, Series 11) translates into some very believable anger at Aaron.  It’s also hilarious when he calls the Doctor and demands to be picked up, because there’s only so long before righteous indignation becomes awkward boredom when you’re stuck with the guy.

Hey, where is the Doctor, anyway?  Well, with Lin making her way to a weapons storage facility the Dalek found online, where a Dalek weapon is helpfully right on top of a pile of stuff, and murdering several policemen on the way – two of them on dash cam, Lin’s car in full view – the Doctor has got to find it.  So, she… stays in the TARDIS, doing that horrendous hot-footed-wobble thing Jodie Whittaker does when she’s saying something important (or busting for a pee), and trying to figure out what to do.  And it’s here I need to mention another reason you should be glad to see the Daleks: they’re a litmus test for the Doctor.  In some ways, an actor hasn’t really been the Doctor until they’ve faced the Daleks.  It’s the worst of the worst, and they’ve got to step it up.  No Doctor has ever needed a kick up the personality as badly as Jodie, who even now is giving it the mouth-gaping, snort-frowning, magic-wand-sonic hot-foot-wobble bullshit that has come not so much to define her, as fill the void.  A Dalek should be a test, and she should come out of it finally sounding, or for the love of god at least looking like the boss.

Chibnall has heard criticisms that his version of the show isn't funny.
Not to worry: he brought Dad jokes.
Does she?  Well what do you think this is, a magic lamp?  Of course the Doctor in Resolution is the same useless moron she’s been for ten episodes.  The people making the show like her this way.  So, when finally getting the Dalek on the blower, she orders it to let Lin go.  For no particular reason, with no threat of retaliation if it won’t, just, let her go please, or else nothing.  And it laughs at her.  (Yes!  I said they’d do that!  Vindicated!)  The Doctor promptly reveals that she’s stalling for time – aha! – because the Dalek effortlessly shorted out the TARDIS’s navigation.  (In fact it’s worse than that: it doesn’t know this is a TARDIS, so the Dalek shorted out the TARDIS’s navigation without trying.)  And afterwards, the Dalek merrily on its way (three dead by this point), the Doctor goes into hot pursuit!  Only the Dalek shoots out the traffic cameras on which she was relying (?), leaving her up a creek.  Oh.  But don’t panic, she can call for help!  (Really?)  And this scene is probably meant to cough “Brexit” none-too-quietly, as a bored operator tells the Doctor that UNIT are suspended due to funding problems.  Hilarious use of dead air, this.  The Doctor, disheartened, tells her gang that they’re on their own.

For crying out loud, right?  This is the Doctor.  She didn’t suss that it was a Dalek – to be fair all she saw was some goo on a wall, but she’s seen all the goo – she didn’t stop the Dalek at any point, and the script takes time out to inadvertently mock her for needing help from UNIT, then for failing to get it.  It’s even a bit hilarious that they have to go to all this trouble to stop one Dalek, when a bunch of medieval dudes managed it centuries ago without any technology.  So much for a more advanced kind of Dalek, right?

You can argue Chibnall isn’t trying to make his hero look like complete garbage, but he’s doing an awful lot of it by accident.  Thank goodness though, because they eventually locate the Dalek in a shed somewhere, and land in a field nearby.  Body #4 has dropped by this point, good job there.  The Doctor finally meets the Dalek, which improbably has built an entire new casing with shed parts – Chris Chibnall apparently believes you can manufacture literally anything in a shed, including rocket boosters, missiles and sonic screwdrivers.  She promptly tells it she’s the Doctor, because… nope, not sure why she wanted to paint an extra bullseye on herself, but I guess it’s de rigeur.  And what does she do then?  I’ll let the Doctor explain: “I slightly riled it and let it get away.”  Head.  Desk.  Head up.  Desk again.

After a spot of effortless army swatting, the Dalek whizzes off to GCHQ – don’t worry if you don’t know what it stands for, they really got you covered – hoping to send its message.  At this point you’re hoping the Doctor will unveil some sort of plan, and don’t panic, she is.  But panic a bit, because you seem to have forgotten who you’re dealing with.

Step 1: Politely ask the Dalek to go away.  Give it no incentive to do so and offer no tangible threat to stop it from staying and accomplishing its mission.
Step 2: Try to contain your surprise when it tells you to go exterminate yourself.
Step 3: RUNREALLYFASTSLIDEONTHEFLOORANDHOPEITDOESN’TSHOOTYOU, and best of luck with that as Daleks have 360 degree vision.  Except kidding, it’s crap at targeting now, you’ll be fine.
Step 4: Microwave oven time!  Hell yeah!  Why so stingy with the microwave oven action, Chris?  As we all know, when in doubt, disassembling a kitchen appliance and cobbling it together over an angry Dalek without a plug socket will… do something, probably.
Step 5: Bang.

By this point, Aaron is hanging around the TARDIS – which everyone else is constantly doing so it’s only fair he gets a turn.  As much as fans long for an episode set in the TARDIS, it’s the depths of the TARDIS they’re talking about, all the funky rooms full of weird stuff.  Not the console room, from which Jodie Whittaker barely strays all episode.  It’s contained.  It’s safe.  No one is in any danger, except all the hapless extras outside.  It’s also a time machine, for god’s sake, so they can comfortably take as long as they like working stuff out – knowing Jodie, weeks – and return in time to stop it.  Not that Chibnall has any interest in time, of course, as complications might put off the Eastenders crowd.

Aaron and Ryan’s scenes have been pretty good up to this point, microwave oven adverts notwithstanding, but they don’t exactly marry up to the plot.  We just cut limply between Ryan and his dad struggling to get on – or Graham and Ryan’s dad struggling to get on – and the Doctor and co. struggling to work anything out or do anything in the TARDIS.  The Dalek almost makes it through the episode unmolested.  (So to speak.)  At the end, we finally marry up the threads, with the mutant taking poor Aaron for a spin.  And, single note of relief here, they don’t do the heroic sacrifice bit you can hear lurching towards you.  But with the Doctor’s spectacularly stupid plan of opening the TARDIS doors on a supernova and hoping the air tunnel will suck the mutant, sans Aaron, out to its doom (?), we get pretty bloody close.  Yes, the Doctor miscalculates and Ryan has to save his dad.  Chris, you do understand the value of the Doctor, don’t you?  That we’re supposed to be impressed, a little perplexed, and ultimately able to rely on her?

"Not bad for a kid with dyspraxia, eh?"
Bit of a plot hole, this.  He's never mentioned having dyspraxia before.
Ryan forgives his dad because he thought he was going to die, and not because he meaningfully made amends.  Which is great.  (The useless bastard had to ask Ryan what he needed him to say.  It’s SORRY, you complete ass-hat.)  Then the Doctor and co. confidently strut off to “everywhere”, which here sounds like “I couldn’t think of an exciting location to send them to at the end”, and Lin and Mitch are left back at the dig – which is nice, except Lin is on at least one camera murdering police officers, they’ll have her registration number and her car even if they didn’t catch her face, and she murdered several other folks too.  No ramifications at all here?  Uhh… best give Mitch a quick kiss before the fuzz arrive, Lin mate.

Honestly, I didn’t hate Resolution.  It’s just that there aren’t a lot of positives.  Creative start?  Tick, though it’s a weird choice to lose the title sequence.  (Always be selling the show!  For god’s sake, are they deliberately tanking it?)  The Dalek is a bit different in some ways, and it gets a steampunk-y redesign which ought to go down well, even if it just looks like Thanos squashed its top half.  Graham and Ryan are really good.  But it’s not Graham Who, it’s not Dalek Who: the Doctor, once again, is the least impressive thing here.  (Unless you count Yaz, holding the coats in the corner.  Ah, shit, she’s dropped them.)  Attempts to make the Doctor funny mostly come off awkward, and attempts to make her impressive die on their backsides.  Her dressing down of Aaron specifically for failing Ryan as a parent might be fair, but it’s about as alien and Doctorly as watching Corrie on the regular.  I’m out of patience with the way she’s written and performed, and right now I don’t know what’s worse: Chibnall deliberately writing her as a useless, unremarkable dunderhead, or him doing that by accident.  No, a new scarf doesn’t make all the difference.  (More weird advertising from the Beeb.  ERMAGERD, A SCARF?  WHY DIDN’T YOU BREAK THAT OUT EARLIER?!)

There’s something quite sad about giving up the Christmas slot.  Steven Moffat even stretched out Doctor Twelve’s regeneration to keep it.  Yes, it must be a tremendous strain writing something “Christmassy” every single year – although come on, you can just bolt a bit of snow on at the end, can’t you?  What’s Christmassy about the festive Eastenders episode, where someone always dies, or the festive Mrs Brown’s Boys where you wish you would?  But seriously, Christmas is a big deal for TV scheduling, it’s a prestige thing, and Doctor Who just gave it up.  Chibnall couldn’t write one of the things.  Instead he sets it on New Year’s Day, a day people are generally too hungover to care about and, evidently, aren’t that bothered about what’s on TV either.  There are a few half-hearted references to New Year here – including the Doctor’s “resolution” to find and stop the Dalek, but aren’t resolutions more of a “work on it all year” thing?  Oh right, never mind – but evidently there’s bugger all interesting to say about this day either.  At least we’ve finally seen a Dalek again, and it was quite nice, really.  But on balance, I’d be happier if it won.

Monday, 10 December 2018

The Tooth Fury

Doctor Who
The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos
Series Eleven, Episode Ten

That’s a wrap on Series 11.  Did they save the best for last?  Guess.

There have been some odd production choices this year – and you have to hope they are choices, rather than concessions.  (Though that just makes them odder.)  We’ve maintained near-radio silence on what the episodes are about; cut down Next Time trailers appear after each one telling you practically nowt; we’ve lost two episodes a series; shifted it to Sunday nights; given up the Christmas slot; and oh, look at that, there’s no series at all next year.  Wizard!  Perhaps their next brilliant innovation will be to turn the show invisible.

Besides which, there’s no arc.  This is nice for people who fear tuning in mid-run, though they must be in the minority in an era of streaming and binge-watching, in which Doctor Who presumably wants to survive.  It doesn’t exactly stoke the folks who are already watching it each week; shouldn’t you try to keep them hooked?  What happens when you get to the finale, and there’s nothing to wrap up?

"We're gonna have to carry this one, aren't we?"
"Like a couple of removal men, cockle."
Er, this happens.  The same expectations apply and you have to finale regardless, and because you have to wrap something up it just becomes a question of what you’ve got to work with.  Because of another “helpful” production choice – no returning monsters, stuff your Dalek Radio Times covers – Chris Chibnall has Tim Shaw, tooth-faced alien git from the pilot episode, who teleported away to fates unknown.  (There was also Krasko the space racist, but they’re presumably saving him for Series 12.)  Tim wasn’t very enrapturing the first time, but them’s the brakes – problem though.  How can an ease-you-in-gently first episode baddie be retooled into a finale threat?  (Spoiler: dunno.)

Keen to find out, the TARDIS team follow a series of distress calls to Ranskoor Av Kolos.  (“Ranskoor Av what?” says Yaz, like “Kolos” is the weird bit.  But she’s right that it’s a stupid name.)  I was hoping this would separate them so they could investigate on their own, but no, they all troop over together to a crashed spaceship.  There they meet a troubled amnesiac played by Mark Addy; his crew has been kidnapped by Tim Shaw, who is keen to recover a mysterious object from the ship.  Team TARDIS must rescue the crew, so they bring the object along with them (do you think that’s wise?), and along the way Graham tells the Doctor he’s going to kill Tim if he gets a chance.  The Doctor tells him “if you kill him, you become the same as him.”  (Hmmm.)  All the while, the planet is emitting psychic waves that rob you of your memory and cause (among other things) mood swings.  (Literally, she lists three things and “change moods” is the third one.  Oh no, not mood swings!)  Luckily the Doctor has a bunch of neural balancers that cancel it out, but she urges them to keep them on at all times.  Remember that, everyone, it’ll be important later!

Despite the lack of build-up earlier in the series, there are interesting points here.  I’ve not even mentioned the opening: two people, the Ux, are on a (quarry!) barren alien world practicing some kind of mind-powers on the rocks (it’s a quarry!) when a strange alien arrives (in a quarry!).  Then we cut to 3,407 years later – a Moffaty trope so old, it’ll blow dust right into your eyes, though its sort of novel now.  Aliens with weird mind-powers, a planet that attacks your moods, crashed spaceships, audacious time cuts, and later on some plot elements right out of Douglas Adams.  Yeah, you could do something with this.

Who’s the episode by, again?

Your first little warning sign is how long it takes everybody to get to the action.  But that’s Series 11 all over: when in doubt, plod, plod, plod until something takes pity on you and happens.  It’s all written with Chibnall’s usual sci-fi panache, e.g. “I think I’ve found the on button!”, or “These panels must do something!”, or this shining intellectual moment for Yaz: “I think that’s the rest of them.”  “So there’s four in total!”  She’ll be counting in her head, next.

Still, the best bits are in the plodding.  Bradley Walsh plays a typical blinder again, being coldly determined when he talks to the Doctor, then eye-rolling with self-justification when Ryan tries to nag him out of killing Tim Shaw, then reassuringly human when he can’t do it after all.  An obvious arc, certainly, but well sold.  His and Ryan’s scenes are where the funny lines have been hiding out: “You see anything?  “Of course I can’t see anything, I’m looking at the same things as you.”  And their scenes escalate cleverly, with Ryan pointing out that he played the “Granddad” card last week.  (And Graham moaning that it took too long!)  Ryan’s “I love you” is so embarrassed and awkward that it’s utterly genuine, and really funny.  Graham on his own is brilliant; Ryan on his own is mostly pointless, but paired with Graham, it works.  If I had to recommend The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos for one reason, it’s this.

"But... how can he know you?"
Why is that such a sticking point?  He's basically god to them.
Isn't it weirder that she knows him?
Which isn’t to knock the rest of the cast, but let’s face it, “amnesiac” doesn’t give Mark Addy much to work with.  (He tries to make a meal out of “I still remember how to take down robots,” but it turns out all that involves is Shoot Them With A Gun.  Uh, well done?)  Then you have the Ux, stars of the pleasantly weird opening scene.  The two aliens that enable Tim Shaw’s current scheme, it’s hard to sympathise with or care about them.  In 3,000 years it never occurred to them that their pet psycho isn’t the one their prophecies spoke of?  How did he convince them?  (And if they can build anything with their minds, why are they so amazed by teleporters?)  Tim is his usual charming self every time we see him; does he put on a terribly convincing God act when we’re not looking?  It only takes the Doctor a couple of conversations to convince them of the truth.  “You are a couple of awesome Ux,” says the Doctor going for maximum cringe.  A couple of highly dangerous and award-winning morons, more like.  See also: when Tim is defeated and the Doctor leaves Mark and the Ux to get along and explore the universe, aren’t we forgetting all the broken spaceships and dead people?  The Ux helped that happen.  You’re just going to ignore that then, despite earlier telling Graham he’s as bad as Tim Shaw if he kills him?  Righty ho, then!

Because oh right, the plot.  Weirdly, it has elements that feel like they belong in a finale, even if the episode doesn’t feel like it is one.  Tim is using the Ux to collect and shrink planets that have wronged him – you could do something with that in earlier episodes, and while that would have felt like a Stolen Earth rip, what we get here is definitely a Pirate Planet rip.  (Imagine if The Pirate Planet was really, really, reeeeeeally not written by Douglas Adams.)  Sure enough the next planet is Earth, and the Doctor must stop the Ux (who are totally awesome and not a danger to everyone in the universe, nuh uh!) from helping him.  Her only option, which she thinks of only after much clomping around (and only once Yaz has thought of it too, and probably Timmy Thicko in the back row as well) is to put the neural balancers on the Ux!  But wait, you say – what will that do to the Doctor and Yaz?!  I’ve been waiting for this since they set it up at the start!  Aaaaand, it does nothing at all.  It totally works, the Doctor gets a slight headache afterwards and then asks for her neural balancer back.  You couldn’t make it up.  Achievement Unlocked: Ineptitude.

But there are other perils here, surely?  Well sure, there’s those planets – but by all accounts, they’re all restored to normality at the end.  No harm, no foul?  There’s certainly no reaction from anyone on Earth when the whole planet changes colour for some reason.  Hang on, though – SniperBots!  Yes, it’s a bit pathetic that that is the level of “Remember me?” monster we’re getting this year, and it’s just weird that Tim has coincidentally made a bunch of the same robots we saw in Episode 2; it’s also puzzling why he didn’t just send the damn robots to retrieve his planet-rock from the harmless amnesiac dude at any time.  But still, SniperBots!  Who, at one point, come up on Ryan and Graham and then blast each other to bits because Ryan and Graham ducked.  Worth it.

Oh, but come on.  There’s Tim!  Who among us wasn’t counting the days?  Setting aside the curious notion of anyone wanting to see him again, Tim isn’t any scarier because of his Big Bad Scheme, he just does a lot of his usual standing around and snarling – and maybe or maybe not dying when he’s without his mask, it’s not really clear.  In the end, Graham easily subdues him with a gunshot to the foot, then locks him up forever.  So he was just a daft monster-of-the-week… except in 3,000 years, no one managed anything similar?  What kind of horrendous luck were all those guys having?  (Oh right, the wonderful Ux kept killing them.  Yay Ux.)  The best thing about Tim’s return is him blaming the Doctor for sending him here in the first place, and therefore causing all this, but need you ask, they do bollocks all with that.

"Hi, Creator?  It's me, the Ux.  Just... just wondering about the teeth, really."
The stakes aren’t exactly high, are they?  This is the finale, but it feels like a wet Sunday afternoon.  But that’s the playing field with this Doctor.  No, Chris, endlessly repeating that she’s “clever” does not make it so; we all know a gee-I-hope-this-works magic-wand-point when we see one.  Yet again, the Doctor doesn’t seem to know anything.  She’s forever badgering people for answers or flapping about until they independently come to her.  She even tries to torture the I-know-nothing bit into a sign of great intelligence.  “I don’t have to answer all these questions.”  “That’s what my teachers used to say, just before they quit teaching.  I’ve got so many questions.”  (Asking questions is a sign of an enquiring mind, but it would be nice if it helped her ever come prepared.)  At one point she even says “We’re really clever,” meaning her and Yaz!  Yaz, who bumbles around looking utterly bewildered by basic conversation.  Is Chibnall incapable of writing an intelligent character, or is he deliberately talking down to his audience, or both?  Because dude, people won’t run screaming if the ancient genius in the title role knows something they don’t.

Screw it, ten weeks is enough to know, isn’t it?  Worst.  New Who.  Doctor.  At this rate, she might be at the bottom of the fifty-year pile.  The quest to make her as relatable as possible has meant a supposed genius who mustn’t outsmart the audience.  Everything sounds like a guess, and each one comes as easily as a mammal laying eggs.  No wonder she’s crashed back to relying on the sonic.  We still get some of the random eccentricities that New Who uses for “alien” shorthand, but there’s nothing to back it up.  Case in point, the bit where she mutters to herself about wellies (and having half invented them) just sounds like an actor riffing in desperation.  Whittaker plays every script dead straight, throwing out fewer variations than “Press 1 for brooding, 2 for angry” Tennant.  At least he gave it some welly.

The Doctor is the linchpin of the show.  He or she is the bit you can rely on, even if the script stinks.  Look at Peter Capaldi and Matt Smith rescuing terrible material on the regular.  It’s part of the job!  And to be fair to Jodie, they didn’t just have workmanlike dross to work with.  They had Eleventh Hours and Heaven Sents, too.  But god, what is she doing to lift any of this up?  The same hand gestures, the same restless wobbling back and forth, the same weird lip curl, the same generic excitement that could come from anyone at CBBC.  It’s truly not her fault that the scripts are less interesting than an instruction manual, but you’d hope for something unique in her performance to set it apart.  Maybe for the first time, it’s not happening.  Out of the four main characters, I’d rather spend a scene with Graham.  I’m glad there haven’t been any Daleks, as they’d just burst into uncharacteristic laughter and blast her before she even figured out what she was looking at.  The Doctor is out.

Oy, it’s been a rough series.  Remember that this is Chibnall’s first, and what it was like when Russell and Moffat started – a starburst of ideas each, with hits and misses to be sure, but hits.  They each set out a vision for the show, one an irreverent fast-paced sci-fi drama with a lot of heart, the other a clever fairytale in space.  Few of these episodes are truly ghastly, as admittedly some of Chibs’ predecessors’ were, but the bar is so low now.  The plots sit patiently and wait for you to catch up, even if you’re there already.  The characters spout dialogue in turn, but they don’t often grow or relate to each other, unless they’re Graham, or a combination of people that involves Graham.  They certainly havent made the Three Companions thing actually work, although they have made it significantly harder to have a big guest cast.  There are good episodes to be found here, but the good bits tend to belong to characters who don’t travel in the TARDIS.  For all the Doctor’s random speechifying at the end, about how amazing the universe is and how it can surprise you, there don’t seem to be many surprises in Doctor Who as it stands.  Perhaps they needed the year off to figure out why they’re doing this in the first place, and why it seems like such hard work for so little.

Monday, 3 December 2018

I Wanna Be Like You

Doctor Who
It Takes You Away
Series Eleven, Episode Nine

Well that was… interesting.

Seriously, there’s a lot to be said for interesting.  Series 11 can be aggressively uncomplicated: it’s hard not to imagine the writers being like Jodie Whittaker, hopping from foot to foot, flapping their arms up and down and hoping the next scene will write itself.  It Takes You Away is the first episode that seems genuinely mysterious, with plot developments not altogether guessable from the outset.  The script has ideas – plural!  And while Rosa and Demons of the Punjab did things a little differently from most of the New Who you’ve seen, this one feels eerily apart from everything else this season.

Which is all very nice, and worth celebrating.  I really hope there’s more like it to come.  But oh, wouldn’t it be nicer if it worked.

Apropos of nothing - certainly none of her other behaviour - this is
the most unfluffy, alien thing this Doctor has done.  I love it.  More pls.
For a while you’re spoilt for choice.  The TARDIS arrives near a mysteriously empty cottage in Norway – and the Doctor has to check where they are by tasting soil, which is legitimately funny but wow, look what happens when you replace all the TARDIS tech with sweetie-dispensers, doodads and bits of old honeycomb.  I’ve long wanted a TARDIS you can’t steer properly, but pairing that with an already intellectually-challenged Doctor just makes her look even more useless – also, doing that with the first female Doctor is… yeah.  Talk about whoops.

Anyway!  Noticing what appears to be someone inside, they barge in and “investigate” (no input from Yaz here, even though a police officer might have an interesting POV, oh well) and they find Hanne, a blind girl whose father is missing.  A monster is stalking the woods at night, and it may have made off with him.  Before they can really investigate this – although seriously, the Doctor’s spidey-sense should have gone off by now, how much of a monster expert is she, she has ears, I mean come on – they discover a mirror in the house showing no reflections, on and off.  A quick peep of the sonic and it turns out this can be paused (?), and the mirror is actually a portal to somewhere else.  This is a horrible cave world full of flesh-eating moths, dead rats and a very rotten-looking Kevin Eldon.  It’s not clear how he’s managed to survive here or if anyone else has, or if the place is any bigger than a particularly craggy corridor, but anyway, it’s time to see what’s on the other side of the mirror: a whole mirror universe!  In it are some of our dead loved ones, and all they want is for us to stay.

Monsters, weird monstery-places and dead loved ones in a backwards world – there’s loads of potential here (and just plain loads, generally), but there’s a reason it’s hard to suss what’s going on.  I’m guessing these elements all came about independently, since the “monster” doesn’t inform the cave world at all, and the cave world has no deeper relationship to the mirror world than it happens to link it to ours.  Why get excited about Kevin Eldon’s weird little character and his idiosyncrasies?  It’s all padding to get us to the mirror place, which is what the episode probably should have been about in the first place.  Unless you think they should have really gone to town on the Norwegian Cottage In The Woods, which is fair enough – I’d watch that.  (I’m not sure Walking With Flesh Moths has legs.)  There probably is more to say about the cabin story, what with the dad deliberately using fake monster noises to keep his blind daughter indoors, honestly rationalising that she’s a teenager and there’s food in the fridge.  But no, we leave those two together at the end, almost no questions asked.  All good?  Off we pop then.

The focus, and certainly the lasting impact of the episode is on the mirror world, and not wanting to leave people behind there.  It’s a shame Hanne’s dad is already in our bad books, as it makes it harder to empathise with his need to stay with his “wife”.  But that’s where Grace comes in, causing Bradley Walsh to have some more impactful scenes that Yaz and Ryan probably wish were getting shared out at this point.  (Yaz might as well go already: her whole job is underscoring the obvious with inane questions, or asking incredibly stupid ones like “So is it a good thing or a bad thing?” after the Doctor loudly says “OH NO.”  Jesus Yaz.  What do you think?)  The Graham stuff is good, although Grace – even a fake one – is such a monotonous presence that it’s all on him.  It’s poignant watching him cling to his experiences with the Doctor as the reason he should keep an open mind here.  But the whole thing is distinctly wobbly because the Doctor, not to mention the script, can’t quite decide if there’s an antagonist present.  In one scene she says Grace and Hanne’s mum aren’t aware of what they’re doing, in another scene she says they are.  By the end it’s pretty clear there’s no harm intended.  The deadies spend most of it just looking bewildered.  It’s all a bit too shrug to be properly creepy or truly heart-rending.

"...like reverse the polarity or something."
Sure, I can buy Yaz plucking this out of nowhereYAZ.
A lot of this, as is so often the case with Series 11, is the script.  There’s a point around 30 minutes in where the Doctor is doing what she always does to work things out – flail her arms about and think no faster than she can speak.  And the script, having given us no prior clues to work any of this out, sees no alternative and goes for broke.  The Doctor, on the spot, unprompted, remembers a story her gran told her about the Solitract, a dangerous force that once existed in our universe only to get exiled.  And this is probably it, she’s guessing.  (Needless to say, Yaz follows this with “Hang on, are you saying we’re on the Solitract plane?”  YES, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE YAZ, HOW HARD IS IT TO KEEP UP.)  And this is the Doctor for the rest of the episode: when faced with the dead loved ones, she tells them they probably don’t know they’re involved.  Then tells them they are.  Then tells them they “want the same thing you’ve always wanted!” before spelling that out, too.  No one seems to have any agency here, it’s just the Doctor showing up, guessing what’s going on, shrugging, then insisting that’s what’s going on.  It’s an avalanche of telling rather than showing, all megaphoned by a character that sounds like a kid making it up as she goes.

And then we get the ending, which will be the bit people who seriously hate the episode open and close with.  The frog.  The Doctor tells “Hanne’s mum” that it’s not her husband she needs, it’s a Doctor, so then it’s just the two of them.  Only, because it’s a mixture of what Grace said to Graham about frogs, it’s now a literal frog on a chair, talking with Grace’s voice.  This is the Solitract: a sentient universe that wants to be a part of ours, only it can’t because it’s toxic to us.  (Exhibit A: the bit where Hanne shows up in mirror-world, and the Doctor promptly tells everyone that this probably means there are too many people now and it will all fall apart.  All power to the Guesstimator!)  All her wibbling about whether the Solitract means any harm is finally disarmed, as the Doctor convinces it immediately to let her go.  (“We’ll be friends forever,” she says before departing and having no idea if the Solitract survived.  Grand.)  It’s a weird enough scene, what with the frog, and Jodie acting to nobody again, arms-a-go-go, trying to make her tortured yackifying sound like an epiphany, before you get to the actual frog.  The rubbish, fake-looking frog that probably could have been bettered in ’80s Who.  The frog that can’t lip-sync properly.  (Why even bother?  It just flaps open and closed, Kermit-style.)  Did, seriously, nobody look at that and think, that’s a bit shit, better be careful it doesn’t detract from the already loopy ending we’re shooting here?

My favourite thing here, other than Graham’s sandwiches which are a great idea thankyouverymuch Ryan, is the discombobulating sense of weirdness the episode puts across.  Too many times this year just we’ve just plodded through the motions, and it’s oddly refreshing to look at stuff like a weird mirror world and think, huh?  On the other hand, I want to love the emotional baggage at the end, which is well acted, with Ryan finally calling Graham “Grandad” – sure enough it was pretty binary, i.e. Ryan has just decided not to be a tool now – but I don’t think the script makes a clear enough case for what these phantoms actually are, and how hard it is to leave them behind.  (Especially as being there at all is probably going to kill you.)  I feel like there’s a better episode buried in here about grief, with that probably being the thing that takes you away, but there’s so much going on that it doesn’t quite resonate.  And there goes the weirdness, as the script has too many separate parts and no idea how to organically weave information between them.  It Takes You Away has some hallmarks of a standout episode, certainly against this motley lot, but sorry.  By the end I was just bored again.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Mud Lark

Doctor Who
The Witchfinders
Series Eleven, Episode Eight

Who’s up for more history?  The current series seems to work best when it’s set in the past, so it’s a yes from me.  Even if it’s not a pure historical.

Yeah, I know it’s not gonna happen.  Sort of.  In any other year that would be a crazy thing to expect, but Series 11 has come tantalisingly close, hasn’t it?  The only sci-fi thing about Rosa was time travel, which you get just by having the Doctor turn up.  Demons Of The Punjab went a bit further and had bona fide aliens in it, only surprise, the story wasn’t about them and you actually just watched a programme about history!  Sucka!  So I think it’s reasonable to hope The Witchfinders will finally throw off the New Who scaffolding that comes with historical episodes, and just have a bit of period drama with a TARDIS in it.  There is no rule anywhere that says this has to be boring, or that it can’t also be a great story for the regulars.

Hey ho, it’s not a pure historical – and it would be unfair to criticise an episode for what it isn’t.  (Maybe next year for pure history.  Or next series, whenever the hell they make it.)  As for what it is, The Witchfinders is the most recognisably New Who-ey historical episode we’ve had this year, tropes ’n’ all.  When Kerblam! fell out of a wormhole to the Tennant era, there’s a good chance this one came with it.  But it makes good use of some Series 11 stuff, which sets it apart nicely.

"Now we have no way of knowing if Mother Twiston was a witch or not!"
Er, well she's dead.  That's a pretty big vote for no, isn't it?
After decidedly failing to arrive at the coronation of Elizabeth I, the Doctor and co. discover a witch trial in ye olde Lancashire.  After her usual “don’t interfere” spiel the Doctor of course interferes and ingratiates herself with the local witch-finder, hoping to settle things down on the mob-violence front.  I’m not sure at what point they’d have left in the normal run of things, as it’s one of those historical situations where they have no local knowledge – Graham says he knows all about the area and never heard of any witch trials – so they get a free pass, I guess?  One of the quirks of Doctor Who time travel: ignorance is your ticket to interfere.

The psychic paper cuts through any awkwardness here, which is an annoying shortcut (that the show largely did away with until recently), but events soon put the Doctor back in the hot seat.  And I quite like that.  The whole point of the psychic paper was to cut through the accuse-the-Doctor-of-the-crime-because-he-showed-up-when-it-happened rigmarole, which the show had plenty of time for when it wasn’t done in 45 minutes.  But doing that also cuts out the need to use personality and authority to win people over.  Rely too much on it and you get, well, the Tenth Doctor; all “LISTEN TO ME-AHH” followed by people slapping him.  It’s strangely rewarding to have the Doctor’s easy power grab flit away to nothing.  Sometimes you’ve got to put the work in, and with all due respect to Thirteen, authoritah isn’t her strong suit.

Still, for me The Witchfinders is Jodie Whittaker’s most consistent episode yet – and she does get some authoritah later on.  The Doctor tries to rescue someone from drowning (and fails, but welcome to Thirteen), robustly faces down her own witch-ducking, and has a number of don’t-mess-with-me moments that actually resonate.  When she’s about to get ducked (sorry, I know it looks like an AutoCorrect) and lays into Becka the witchfinder, it’s like one of the properly grumpy Doctors back on patrol.  The whole ducking thing (sorry) is a ruse, since she’s good enough at escapology to get out of it, but she wants to find out more.  That’s good stuff.  Even better, this is the first episode (that I noticed) where she’s inconvenienced because she’s a woman.  King James cheerfully refuses to believe she could be in charge of her group, and the Doctor suddenly remembers what she looks like.  It’s a nice little nod to realism in history, like Yaz and Ryan suffering in 1950s Alabama.  Admittedly they over-egg it with the Doctor saying “Becka was right, these are hard times for women!”, but over-egging is one of Thirteen’s super-powers.  It gives her something to react against, anyway.

It’s not long before some sort of alien doodad rears its head (and the pure historical disappears like a dream upon waking, boo), and it turns out it’s… mud.  Like Kerblam!, the explanation turns up in the last ten minutes via a hasty info-dump.  There’s not enough information to figure it out earlier; sci-fi tends to fail as a mystery, as it’s entirely possible the villain will be a mutant blob from Planet Fleb and you’re never going to guess that.  The Witchfinders at least gets some creep value out of resurrected women, who look disturbingly Evil Dead-like and behave suitably disgusting when they’re hungry for more mud.  As with the creepy postmen in Kerblam!, though, they don’t really do anything, and they humourously leave the Doctor and co. unharmed and unconscious while they pootle off to do something else.  The whole sci-fi side of the script gets suddenly pedestrian when we find out they’re really the Morax, imprisoned aliens guilty of crimes unknown who fill your body with Morax mud and want to take over the world and blah blah blah.  What does any of it matter this late into the episode?  And New Who strikes again: aren’t witches much more interesting when they’re actually Blorgs from planet Blarg, and they only look like witches?  Er, no, actually.

The Doctor actually says "According to my calculations."
Pictured: calculating.
The Doctor pieces a lot of it together as a best guess, since she’s spent the episode picking up pieces of information, but then the solution manifests as “burn bits of their tree prison, point the sonic screwdriver at the burned bits, point those bits at the tree and abra cadabra it’s all fixed,” and you can feel the average IQ of the room drop.  It all feels very, “This is the sort of thing you get at the end, right?”, complete with King James offing a witch that refuses to be imprisoned.  This handily saves the Doctor from figuring out what to do with her, and may or may not be worse than imprisoning her for all eternity, which was the Doctor’s plan.  She gives the King the cold shoulder for Doing A Bad Thing, obviously, because these things are binary.

As a sci-fi story, The Witchfinders is pretty much a dud.  As a historical, it’s no documentary.  But fortunately there’s other stuff here.  Siobhan Finneran gives Becka buckets of self-belief; she’s actually quite nice when you’re on her side.  (Admittedly no one asks how, if all 35 witch trials have ended with a drowned innocent woman, they’re still drawing crowds, but I guess people do keep watching Most Haunted.)  Alan Cumming will probably divide a few fans with a performance that is, let’s just say not shy, but I enjoyed it.  Cumming is playing a comedic King James and no mistake, with enough witty emphasis that you know he’s going to say “Satan!” again and you’ll probably laugh.  (Well, did.)  I’m not entirely sure this episode needed a funny turn, but every scene was more enjoyable because of it.  Best of all, he flirts outrageously with Ryan, which gives Ryan something to react to, thank god.  In another “Welcome to 2018” nod, this is played exactly the same as if he were a female companion.  There’s no embarrassing nudge-wink about a man having the hots for Ryan – although there is a wry glance from everybody when King James asks him to stay at the end.  Ryan is, if anything, respectful about the whole thing.  (But maybe don’t say things like “I feel ya”?)  Elsewhere, Yaz at least sounds like a police officer when she goes to comfort the granddaughter of a murdered “witch”, and Graham gets to play policeman (sort of) as a witch-finder in a spectacular hat.  For once some of the good bits are shared out between the three of them, as they’re all genuinely horrified by what’s going on.  This is one of the reasons I like historical episodes: they put the characters in context, which is something they badly need and don’t get from spaceships.  I don’t need to repeat that these aren’t the deepest characters the Doctor has known, but any help bulking them up is appreciated.

The script isn’t brilliant.  It certainly has some good stuff in it, like not letting the Doctor march around witch-trial England waving the sonic screwdriver without consequences – this sort of thing is why people take the piss, especially when you scan someone and unironically say “No magic,” like there’s a scan setting for that.  But you’ve also got odd little clunkers like “What’s going on here at Bilehurst Cragg?” (like last week’s “There’s something very wrong here at Kerblam!” – is the Doctor part-SatNav?), and a should-be-brilliant face-off between the Doctor and a gloating King James wobbles when she says “You wanna know the secrets of existence?  Start with the mysteries of the heart.”  (Is she reading that off a fridge magnet?)  As much as I love the Doctor not being cowed by Becka, I wish there was a better point for her to make than comparing it to Yaz’s experience with a school bully – which is largely Yaz’s contribution this week, and not a very well-developed one at that.

Hey ho.  First time around, I was disappointed that The Witchfinders didn’t do what I wanted.  Second time, I enjoyed Finneran and Cumming’s performances a lot more, savoured the Doctor stuff, didn’t want to shove Ryan off a short pier for once and tried to ignore the bollocksy bits.  Words like “runaround” come to mind, and that’s not always an insult.  It’s an entertaining, if uneven runaround.  This series, it’s probably best to pick your battles.