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.

" 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.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Pop Til You Drop

Doctor Who
Series Eleven, Episode Seven

Here’s one they made earlier.  Like Arachnids In The UK, Kerblam! could have fallen down the sofa during the RTD era.  This approach makes sense for a season trying to hit the “populist” button and get away from the continuity-sodden Moffat era, although it risks making you wish you weren’t in this era either.  Kerblam! is like one of Rusty’s old filler episodes, only in the Series 11 mould, for better or worse.

For example, this year we don’t get any bits before the titles.  I don’t know why they got rid of them: they’re useful when you only have 45 minutes to set up and deal with a problem, and they hold the viewer over until the threat picks up again, which is usually about 10-15 minutes later.  (Nearly 20 here.)  Now they’ve taken out the pre-titles and left in the wait, which might explain why so many episodes this year just seem to amble along.  These bits weren’t needed in Classic Who as the episodes were half as long – the actual stories continued for several weeks and you could fill up on scares along the way, with a cliff-hanger every week.  Contrast that with Kerblam!, where it takes a good half an episode to determine what the problem even is.  (And 40 for the bad guy to put the Doctor out of her misery and explain what he’s doing.)

This is "the Home Zone".  Holodeck?  Park outside?  Dream sequence?
Despite all my moaning it gets off to a nice start, though I may just be intoxicated by the exciting time vortex effect.  (I still hate the TARDIS – does she really start it off by twirling an egg timer?  It’s supposed to be a machine, not just random bollocks in a room!)  While jaunting through the vortex (phwoar), the TARDIS (yuck) gets a delivery from Kerblam!, aka space-Amazon.  (It’s a fez.  Shut up, you’re crying.)  Attached to this is a literal cry for help, so the Doctor and co. promptly visit Kerblam! HQ and get jobs so they can investigate.  She even uses the psychic paper to get in.  Feel the RTD vibes.  They soon meet some lonely people who help make up Kerblam!’s 10% human workforce.  The 90% are creepy robots.  They couldn’t possibly malfunction and kill everyone, could they?

To its credit, Kerblam! answers this with a cagey “…no?”  Even better, online shopping is a smart setting for a sci-fi show, and given Series 11’s interest in right and wrong it makes sense to slyly examine Amazon and its shady treatment of staff… oh, we’re not doing that?  Huh.  (Is it just me who thought they’d go there?)  If anything Kerblam! comes away with a slightly muddled message that more people should work jobs that are “really repetitive”, but we’ll get to that.

The episode is very interested in the people who work at Kerblam!, and its strongest scenes are the ones focusing on them.  (Some more Series 11ness for you: come for the guest stars, tolerate the regulars.)  Lee Mack generates more than enough laconic charm for his few scenes as a dad missing his daughter – although his comment about a necklace outliving him is a wee bit on the nose.  Best is Julie Hesmondhalgh as the company’s “Head of People”, a bright and slightly downtrodden worker who seems genuinely to want the best for everybody.  Of the regulars, Graham predictably shines, having been marooned with cleaner’s duties and trying to cheer up his young, lovesick comrade.  Graham has the best journey here, seeing the place from the ground up and ultimately getting a bit heartbroken by the villain, but still encouraging him to get out of harm’s way.  Bradley’s killing it again.  And gosh, I’m a broken record this year.  (Is Graham the best one?  The answer might surprise you!)

It’s a good one for Jodie Whittaker, although I’m mostly talking about one scene: the bit where the Doctor sticks up for another worker is one of the most Doctorly scenes she’s had to work with, and she gives it just the right mix of flippancy and do-not-mess-with-me.  The script overdoes it later, with her repeatedly telling the Kerblam! higher-ups to be worthy of their position or they’ll have her to deal with and so on.  I mean, there comes a point where you have to back this stuff up.  (“Or you’ll have me to deal with!” didn’t cut much ice with the Pting, did it?)  She mostly does her usual, plodding around and trying to figure out what’s wrong, which is improbably difficult.  “I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner, there’s too many things going on, too many variables.”  Really?  She makes a few wrong guesses along the way, of course.  Seeing a list of missing people she immediately assumes the man keeping the list is behind it all.  So why aren’t there any non-missing people on the list?  Is he done now?  Similarly, Ryan makes a “He’s the baddie!” call about Charlie the cleaner, because his crush is trapped in a sound-proof room and a mysterious package is teleported in there with her, and Charlie is visibly concerned.  It turns out he’s right, but I’m calling dumb luck here: Charlie, Ryan and Yaz were all concerned about what was going to happen, and probably so were you.  Maybe we all dunnit.

"Hi I'm Ryan, do you have a moment to talk about me having dyspraxia?"
*promptly high-fives someone behind him on a fast-moving conveyer-belt*
I’m going to be a broken record again: the crowded cast makes it difficult to move things along at speed, as they’ve all got to find something to do and at some point, just take turns talking.  (And stand in a line – an amusing go-to for most of the directors this year, what with there being few other ways to get the Doctor and all the bloody companions in shot.)  While there are some really fun touches, like the aforementioned Kerblam! workers and the creepy robots, it’s another episode that plods along looking for its ending.  We barely see anything odd going on and nothing tying Charlie to it, so all that seemed a bit left-field to me.  Could a robot really have forced Lee Mack’s character to pop some deadly bubble wrap?  Why does he care about the explosions being localised, since he’s all right with murdering people in the first place?  Does Charlie really think that killing hundreds (thousands?) of people with Kerblam! robots is going to bring about a more human-led workforce, and not just sink the company?  Hell, if he loves humans so much, why is he offing them?  After his plan back-fires (and him along with it), the Head of People announces she’ll try to get more humans working there after all.  You mean he could have just asked?

The whole dénouement is rather botched, with the slightly-too-sudden reveal and the Doctor realising the Kerblam! System was the one calling for help – it’s been fighting back all along!  Which is all very sweet, except the System also murdered Charlie’s would-be girlfriend to “show him how it felt.”  Christ!  And the Doctor says the System isn’t the problem?  It’s a problem, isn’t it, if it’s able and willing to murder people?  And you’re just going to leave things like that?  Okay then.

Kerblam! is occasionally charming and old-school, and it has some fun ideas, especially the killer bubble wrap.  I wish it executed them better, like getting the killer bubble wrap involved in the first half of the episode.  At least it shows that Chris Chibnall doesn’t have a monopoly on ploddy plots.  It’s a nice-enough and likeable episode, probably in the top half of Series 11 so far thanks to some enjoyable scenes and well-judged performances – even the manager the Doctor shouts at, Callum Dixon, manages to get across that his heart isnt really in yelling at people – but mostly I think it underlines what a knack there is to this sort of episode, and that they don’t have it.  History again next week – now you’re talking.

Monday, 12 November 2018

We Can Remember Them For You Wholesale

Doctor Who
Demons of the Punjab
Series Eleven, Episode Six

Praise the lord – or the magic David Tennant that can hover and be transformed by wishes if you’re so inclined!  We have temporarily escaped the scripted clutches of Chris Chibnall!

Of course it would be wrong to pretend this can fix some of the more fundamental problems of Series 11.  For instance, the TARDIS is absolutely minging and no amount of clever direction can hide that.  (This week I spotted those giant fingers / insect legs actually moving when the ship’s in flight.  Euw!)

"Christ... okay, just pull focus on the actors."
"But you've got to show the TARDIS some ti-"
More importantly, there are too many characters.  Three’s a crowd, four is just a bunch of people standing around.  Okay, you can still do something with that – Doctor Who has managed it, including when it began in 1963 – but it helps to set up relationships and motivations between them first.  Graham being sad about his dead wife and Ryan being a bit of a twat about it isn’t enough – especially as most of the time Ryan just stands there looking on.  (All the really juicy bits go to Graham instead, a trend that continues here.)  Even worse, there’s barely anything tying these people to the Doctor.  Case in point, the inciting incident for Demons of the Punjab.

Yaz is curious about her grandmother’s history so she asks to go back in time and sneak a peek.  You may recall the similar plot of Father’s Day, where the Doctor reluctantly agrees to let Rose be with her dad when he dies.  There’s a danger of disturbing time by allowing this but his feelings about Rose get the better of him and he says yes.  It was one of the really striking early episodes of New Who, showing off the character-driven nature of the show.  Now, Yaz’s gran (not dead) doesn’t go into quite enough detail during a family chat, so Yaz nags the Doctor and the Doctor says fine, try not to set fire to anything.  Isn’t it obvious how this might go wrong?  The dangers of time travel were sort of instilled in Rosa, but keeping history on a famous course isn’t the same as having no idea what happened in the first place and standing around to watch – or worse, mucking in and meeting all the main players.  The whole setup is weirdly complacent for Doctor Who.  Why not, it says?  I can think of several reasons why not.

On the flipside, this is historical Doctor Who – if you saw Rosa you know that’s a good place to start.  There’s (hopefully) less reliance on McGuffins and technobabble, and you might learn something.  For instance I didn’t know anything about Partition Day, or the kind of bitter feeling (and deaths) it caused in India.  It’s great to have an episode that educates, even if it’s Doctor Who so you automatically need to take any “facts” with large sacks of salt.  And okay, so we get more sci-fi doodads than we did in Rosa – just from the trailer it threatened to go full-blown “history, but only because of all this bollocks we made up”.  But writer Vinay Patel keeps the focus on the history, with the sci-fi bits merely a coincidence.  That’s two historical episodes now that strike a balance of story and people first, which in a way is a genuine improvement on a lot of Doctor Who.  So yeah – take that, Series 11 gripes!

On arrival in 1947 Yaz is confronted with a strange man who is not her grandfather, but who is going to marry her grandmother.  Meanwhile another man has been killed and aliens have been seen with the body.  The Doctor is curious and quickly realises these are Thijarians, famed assassins; also that Partition Day is about to happen, with deadly results across the country.  And really, there’s not a lot more plot than that.  The partition is going to happen, we learn more about the Thijarians, and history takes its course.  The episode almost seemed to drag the first time I watched it, not necessarily out of boredom but because there wasn’t a lot going on minute to minute.  Instead it revels in character, which is easy when it’s as well cast and well directed as this.  It’s cinematic and beautiful to look at, and the small cast are incredible, particularly Shane Zaza as the magnetic and hopeful Prem.  The episode gives him such a full character to play with, it’s just a pity his story is more involving than anything that happens to the regulars.  Seriously, Ryan doesn’t even phone it in any more – he asks a mate to text it in for him, while Graham gets several emotional moments to reflect on life and mourn death.  Bradley Walsh gets (and to be fair, sells the hell out of) more heavy hitting moments than Yaz, and this episode is about her family!  I would hope that certain actors are having words with their agents, but it just boils down to too many cooks.

Yaz: the reason they're going.
Graham: three funny lines in a row.
Ryan: "Yeah, I'm well up for it."
Still, it’s hard to mind.  The focus here is on Umbreen and Prem getting married, and the difficulties they will face on this unfortunately famous day.  It’s tense in that way that Rosa was, and so many episodes of Doctor Who are not – this is history, the things that happen matter, and real harm could be done here.  It’s here that the episode’s real coup comes about, as we realise the demons of the title are not the ones in the alien makeup.  The truth about the Thijarians is perhaps a little too familiar in Who terms, which is maybe inevitable in a long-running show like that.  Maybe Steven Moffat could have double checked upcoming episodes when he wrote Twice Upon A Time.  Where his glass aliens went around the universe downloading people’s consciousness into a form of technology afterlife, the Thijarians are compelled to be with people when they die alone.  (Which is also an echo of Father’s Day, where the whole reason to travel in time was to grieve for someone on their own.)  I find the latter more affecting and thoughtful anyway, and it’s an intelligent choice to air something like this on Remembrance Day.

As for the demons, they’re more insidious than any Doctor Who monster: ordinary people compelled to do awful things by what they believe.  In truth, I don’t think the episode sells this to the full because there aren’t that many people in it.  Prem’s brother Manish is our spokesman for everyday people twisted by ideology, and the rift between the brothers is heart-breaking, but it’s still a bit odd that we don’t hear from anyone else on the “bad” side, including the pointedly mute group who show up at the end.  I know I’m nit-picking, by the way: the second time especially, this episode packs a genuine punch as a very hurtful form of history exacts its consequences.  Again, like Rosa, there’s nothing the Doctor can do to prevent awful things happening in the past, or at all sometimes.  It’s a tad surprising that we’re going there twice this series, but the episodes do show history from different sides, one a triumph over dark times, the other a survival of them.

Among all this great stuff is the TARDIS team, aka a collection of gooseberries who don’t impact the plot very much.  The Doctor officiates a wedding and otherwise bumbles a bit and thinks a bit; she doesn’t come across as particularly useless and thick for once, and can be forgiven for not guessing about the Thijarians and their change of lifestyle.  The bit where her sonic screwdriver breaks is a bit of a red herring, especially two weeks running.  It’s too much to hope she’s learning to live without it.

As for Yaz, I’m not sure what she learned that isn’t obvious, and I’m not sure what she needed to learn.  But there’s nothing Vinay Patel can do to cheat character mileage, or make previous episodes set this stuff up the way Russell T Davies did with Rose.  The script does it all very well, it’s just unfortunate that we’re doing this stuff in dribs and drabs whenever a script randomly calls for it.  Demons of the Punjab is ultimately a gift horse episode: get involved in the story of these people, take note of the history, and if it’s not exactly brilliant as an episode about the cast of Doctor Who, well, what is these days.

Quality aside, what kind of person would I be if I didn't mention this line of dialogue:
"You could interfere yourself out of existence."
Ahem.  Maybe take another pass at that?