Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Eight Legged Friends

Doctor Who
Arachnids In The UK
Series Eleven, Episode Four

Hmm.  There’s something very familiar about all this.

The new series has been to space and to the past, so in Week Four it obligingly drops us back home for a breather.  Series 1 and 4 did the same thing.  (If it ain’t broke, etc.)  But Arachnids In The UK goes a bit further down memory lane with anthropomorphic monsters threatening home and hearth, and an Evil Capitalist sneering at everybody.  It’s practically a Russell T Davies tribute act.

Not that that’s a bad thing per se, as RTD knew how to tell a fun, modern monster story and Chibnall – at his best – can ape that reasonably well.  But Arachnids reins in the wackiness you might expect, as well as most of the fun, while keeping in the little character moments.

"What's that?  Oh my god!"
Popular writer in da houuuuse.
The Doctor is potentially losing her new friends the moment she gets the destination right, and there’s a lovely, funny scene of her clearly hoping someone will invite her in for tea first.  Even better is Graham going back to an empty house, seeing Grace in little visions but never for long enough.  Bradley Walsh is the Series 11 MVP so far; he doesn’t disappoint whenever a script needs him to be quiet, humble and pained.  It’s a joy to watch him alongside Ryan, patiently trying to solidify their relationship without forcing it.  This must be why Ryan is here – because otherwise it’s Week Four of the Too Many Companions balancing act.  There’s not much call for dyspraxia storytelling so far, and when exactly is Yaz going to do something resembling police-work?  (There’s a running bit on the Doctor Who Facebook page where she investigates the weekly monsters and whatnot.  The bloody Facebook page remembers to address it!)

In true RTD style we’ve got to meet the family – specifically Yaz’s.  They’re well-acted and fun, but still not much to write home about, although Yaz does eventually decide they’re annoying enough to escape for a while via the TARDIS.  Which is normal for Doctor Who, except for the Doctor’s oddly portentous warning that this life will change them all, they won’t be the same when they come back, and so on.  Which is a bit weird considering they’ve already had travels in the TARDIS and aren’t noticeably dead or insane yet.  Calm down, Doc.  Anyway, Graham has the best reason to get away.

I’m not sure what this story does that convinces them that the Doctor’s way of life is better.  I’m not saying it isn’t – obviously it’s more fun than going to work on Monday.  But Chibnall’s RTD-ish plot misses the feeling of making a difference that would normally send companions scurrying into the TARDIS afterwards.  They just continue to hang around with the Doctor while things happen around them.  This has been a consistent problem not just with three companions, but with marooning them in this version of the show, which barely has a pulse at the best of times.  Episodes just drift along, with hardly anyone taking ownership of the plot.

A scientific research team have been trying to harness spider abilities for… science reasons, and they have inadvertently disposed of enhanced spider carcasses amid some toxic waste.  Except that’s not really an issue – the dead ones anyway.  One of the carcasses maybe wasn’t dead, and that one’s been breeding, and the toxic waste has… helped it grow, Green Death style, I guess?  Except wasn’t it already capable of growing, because of Mad Science?  Anyway, the “toxic waste” they keep going on about is actually landfill under a hotel, which is improperly stored and everything but still, the Doctor’s making a leap to say “That there’s toxic waste!  Presto, giant spiders!”  (God, this whole plot sounds like the author’s first, bumbling go at sci-fi.)  There’s much standing around and yacking on about spiders going mad everywhere – with awkwardly funny lines like “Something’s wrong with the spider eco-system in South Yorkshire” not given the arch nudging they deserve – but it never feels like, well, anarchy in the UK.

Sooo... you've got scientists creating super-spiders...
and no one makes a joke about Spider-Man?
There’s no feeling of people on the street being aware of all this, despite the bizarre “reports of unusual spider behaviour”, and with pre-titles sequences seemingly a thing of the past (boo) there’s no immediate chance for the spiders to make an impact.  The episode is confined to Yaz’s block of flats and a hotel where some of the spiders are massing.  And that can’t be all of them, surely?  At the end, aren’t there still some out there?  Didn’t Graham say the one he found had shed its skin?  What about the one the Doctor trapped with some vinegar (hmm) and then said she’d come back to?  Whoops.

The spiders aren’t exactly on the rampage, so there isn’t a ticking clock apart from the observation that they’ve webbed up the hotel all our characters are in.  (Does that stop them getting out?  There are several scenes of the Doctor ripping webs apart with her bare hands.  And curiously, no scenes of people getting stuck to anything...)  Our heroes are free to amble about and guess their way through the problem – again.  It’s made clear that, although they’re morbidly oversized, the spiders are just confused and out of their element.  They don’t actively murder anybody, though a few people suffocate in their webs.  They’re quite sweet, really.

That’s not a dig at how they look.  The CGI and even the sound design are fantastic, especially compared to some of Doctor Who’s earlier arachnids.  But the episode’s sympathies are with the spiders by default.  I wondered why the Doctor didn’t make a thing out of arachnophobia and how silly it is.  (Seriously folks, why not get a glass and a bit of card?  Or just leave ’em alone to deal with all the flies…)  Which makes the ending all the more odd, as the Doctor seemingly goes along with a plan to lock them in a room and starve them to death.  Conversely a villainous character suggests shooting them instead, and is practically booed for it.  Aren’t we killing them in either case?  Is there really no other option?

The Doctor suggests “herding” the biggest one “out”, and that’s about as far as her plan goes; it turns out the creature is dying so there’s no need for follow up questions.  (Such as, where the hell is “out”, then?  Off to meet the who-knows-how-many other ones left outside?)  Then when the resident Bad Guy shoots it, he receives the standard You Didn’t Have To Do That line from the Doctor.  But you were happy to kill all those other ones, and this one’s about to die, so why are you on your high horse about it?

It’s around here that the plot just stops.  It hasn’t been resolved – we’ve no idea what the scale of the problem even was, and as above we know there are still some mega-spiders out there.  But the episode’s had enough of worrying about them.  What was it all for?  If Arachnids was trying to say something about the environment, and how pollution is bad, it says nothing that isn’t immediately obvious.  Except, well, chucking an already mutated spider on a big pile of rubbish probably isn’t going to trigger the end of the world, but I suppose this is Doctor Who.  As a monster story, then, it’s dull.  As a people story?  Hmm.

"I love a conspiracy!"  But why is he keeping a load of shit in his house?
All the companions get a little character work, Graham with his grief, Yaz with her family, and Ryan with his deadbeat dad trying to get back in his life.  All good stuff, though with that much going on the Doctor disappears a bit, again.  Jodie Whittaker’s doing her damnedest, but there just isn’t much of a Thirteenth Doctor to play at this point – which she weirdly highlights by saying she’s still figuring herself out.  Arachnids reminded me that the writers weren’t told the new Doctor is a woman.  What would be unique about the character if she wasn’t, though?  The goony enthusiasm and light quirks are all David and Matt.  There’s the odd genuinely funny line – I loved the one about Ed Sheerhan – and a disappointing inability to come up with a really good plan, but I’d hesitate to describe her otherwise.  (Anyway, look at me talking about other writers on the fourth episode in a row written or co-written by Chibnall.  Sod off and let someone else have a go!)

What else have we got?  Well, there’s a Trump caricature so witlessly written that he loathes Trump, but apparently hasn’t noticed he embodies him… and nobody else notices it or points it out either, so it probably isn’t even deliberate.  We just get a string of pompous eccentricities like firing people for no reason, American stereotypes like announcing that guns can solve everything, and random notes that I don’t even know what they’re there, like scheduled bathroom breaks and a need to show Yaz’s mum around the hotel after firing her.  (No thanks, my lift’s here.  WTF.)  It’s obvious Chris Noth is a coup as he’s in the episode so much; he’s game and everything, but the character’s got nothing to give.

First time watching this, the vague whiff of the RTD era made it seem quite fun.  Second time around, it’s pretty obvious I was remembering what fun used to be like.  Arachnids is a creaky recreation of something the author isn’t very adept at.  I’d suggest he farm out some of the workload before we all nod off, but apparently Series 11 was written in a kind of American writers’ room.  It’s just one with his name all by itself on most of the scripts, and all of them sound like it.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Doctor Who Discovers Racists

Doctor Who
Series Eleven, Episode Three

Duck and cover, everyone.  This could go wrong.

Mind you, it’s not like an episode about race is a bad idea – if anything, where the hell has it been all these years?  When Martha raised some pretty sensible concerns about visiting Elizabethan England, the (extremely white) Doctor told her to strut around like she owned the place, since it works so well for him.  (Facepalm.)  We got a bit more tension later when she had to be a maid in the early 20th century, and even more recently when Bill bumped into a Regency racist, whom the Doctor obligingly clocked.  It’s a sad thing to have to staple onto your whimsical sci-fi show, but staple you should: if you’re a non-white character travelling through time, you’re going to encounter some twats.  It’s refreshing to meet that head on for once.

But like… really head on.  With snarling 1950s racists slapping one of the companions, and Rosa Parks doing her bit for history, and a Martin Luther King cameo.  Rosa ain’t half-arsing it on the race front.  Little kids watching may be unpleasantly surprised, but they might learn a wee bit of history.  Didn’t that used to be the point of Doctor Who?

This is an area I rather expected them to balls up.  It’s easy to insert Doctor Who into history, but to justify it there always has to be some alien threat.  It’s just as easy to insult the history you’re telling us about by saying that the whole thing only happened because of Alien X or Robot Y, or because the Doctor’s so flipping wonderful.  To my surprise, it isn’t like that this week.

For one thing, she doesn't give up her seat on buses. Rude!
Rosa only has the teeniest bit of sci-fi going on.  A guy from the future is trying to nudge history off course: stop Rosa taking her fateful seat on the bus, set back progress by who knows how many years.  The Doctor and co. promptly set about keeping history on the rails, and that’s it.  They work as a team to get the right people in the right place.  There’s no exploding spaceship or alien menace sending the whole thing up, just a very determined git who wants to make things happen differently.  (The Time Meddler told a similar story 50+ years ago, but the villain in that was far less clear cut than this one, and hence loads better.  We’ll get to the crap one in a minute.)

Most deliciously of all, the Doctor is keeping history on track because that’s how it should be, it’s progress, it’s right.  And not, tediously, because the universe will go floop and everything will explode into time glorbicles if she doesn’t.  I don’t exactly love Series 11’s determination to keep things simple – the Doctor explains at least three damn times that a certain number of people need to be on the bus in order for the Rosa thing to happen, we get it folks – but in this instance, the heart is totally in the right place.

It’s definitely a good day for Jodie Whittaker.  The Doctor doesn’t have any apologising to do this week, and she faces off against the quietly bastardly Krasko without a care.  She even gets a few little idiosyncrasies in there, like the way she sneaks back and scans Krasko with the sonic, and her cheery snipe at Graham about killing the vibe.  Probably best of all is the difficult decision to stay on the bus and contribute to the problem in order to make Rosa decide – for once, helping in an unconventional and even painful way.  You don’t expect that kind of choice from a character whose considered response to most things is “I really like it!” or “Brilliant!”  She also makes it clear – as, tiresomely, this Doctor makes everything clear – that Rosa’s stand has not solved racism, or even guaranteed Rosa an immediately better life.  It’s all a little more thoughtful than we’ve seen so far.  Definitely my favourite turn from Whittaker yet, and the most Doctorly.

It helps that the script is pulling its weight a bit more this week.  I can’t help it: you spotted the second author’s name at the start, right?  It would be foolish to guess which bits Chris Chibnall was responsible for and which bits Malorie Blackman wrote, because you never know, but it sure is noteworthy that this week’s is better written than Chibnall solo.  It’s still playing in the Chibnall Era sandbox, of course, with companions standing around and asking what’s going on, and plans needing to be spelled out ad infinitum.  But they all get something to do this time, and there are enough character moments to go around.  Ryan’s dorky enthusiasm about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King is well played when he says their names a little too reverently; Yaz brings up the rear again, but gets to bond with Rosa a little.  Graham has some beautifully acted moments as he confronts the worst version of how people might have reacted to him and Grace.  Bradley Walsh is understated throughout, playing a simple man who really doesn’t want to stay on the bus and make things worse.  It’s everyone’s best episode so far.

I like the way none of the regulars dignify a cruel comment with an agreement – “I don’t know anyone who fits that description” – and the Doctor actually makes a few deductions for once about Krasko.  Hooray, she’s possibly smarter than the audience!  The Banksy joke was funny, and can you believe the one about Elvis’s mobile phone came back, and it served the plot?  Saints preserve us.

So… why was I worried it would suck?  Well, context helps.  Doctor Who isn’t something you’d want a Very Special Episode from at the best of times.  Also this subject is virtually impossible to do with subtlety, because, well, it’s not a subtle subject.  Look at Quantum Leap: an adorable, but sometimes rather pious show about making things better, there were a couple of episodes about race that went from gently upsetting Driving Miss Daisy reference to full-on violent horror show you wouldn’t watch twice.  (It also had a hilariously silly arc about “Evil Leapers” that go around ruining everything, which come to think of it is the plot this week… hmm.  Moving on.)  Rosa splits the difference by being gently fun but also having people behave abominably towards Ryan and Yaz, as well as the other two when it’s obvious they get along, or god forbid, are related.  But there are also some worthy, obvious bits.

Ryan and Yaz’s conversation behind the bins is going to trigger eye-rolls just from the PSA tone, let alone the ridiculous notion that Ryan doesn’t think Yaz has ever taken any shit from people on the street.  And then there’s the ending, where the Doctor cutely lectures her mates with a reminder that things turned out all right in the end, with a black President and everything!  (Except hold on, who followed him?)  Yeah, they’re over-egging it.  And if anyone can explain to me how naming an asteroid after Rosa Parks helps, or even references racial equality then thanks in advance for the otherwise random ending.  (She’s undoubtedly cooler than you or me for having an asteroid named after her, and she deserves to be remembered.  But what, specifically, does this have to do with what she achieved?)

Sorry, I stopped listening.  Too distracted by the
what were they thinking TARDIS design.
The message is mixed a little further by the villain of the week.  Krasko is interesting in that he only wants to distort history a little bit – he can’t physically hurt anyone, so he has to use other means.  All good so far, and Josh Bowman smoothly underplays every scene.  The wheels threaten to come off when you consider that the Doctor and co. are dumbly running around putting out his fires instead of doing something about him; Ryan has to use Krasko’s time-displacement gun to do away with the bugger (until next time, Gadget!), which the Doctor then doesn’t really pick up on.  But then there’s the real problem – his reason for all this.

He’s doing it because… he’s a racist!  A proper, 1950s-style, old-timey racist.  And he’s from the 79th century, which farts in the face of the Doctor’s “Yay, progress!” speech.  (Guess what, Ryan and Yaz: there are twats now, there were twats then, and what doth appear on the horizon?  Why, tis future twats!)  In any other episode, Krasko’s motivation would be laughably lazy.  Here it’s incredibly on-the-nose for the story they’re telling, and it muddles the ending.  They should have just left it up in the air.

But hey, think positive.  I’m still grateful that they kept the McGuffins to a minimum, and let history be the important bit.  It’s almost a pure historical – hip hip bleedin’ hooray!  Vinette Robinson is excellent as Rosa, though Segun Akinola leans worryingly close to Murray Gold territory with her theme: it sounds like she’s going to safely get our boys back from the moon.  If on-the-nose music choices aren’t your thing, the song at the end might be a problem.  I didn’t hate it, since the Doctor Who theme would have been a marginally weirder choice after all that.  But yeah, it’s a pretty obvious way to go with that ending.

There are bum notes, certainly, but the story is small enough to let its good moments stand out.  Besides, I think there’s a certain bluntness that comes with telling this kind of story, however you do it.  Doctor Who should still be allowed to try.

NB: If Im honest, they had me at the TARDIS doesn’t work properly.  Hartnell Era FTW.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Death Stroll 2000

Doctor Who
The Ghost Monument
Series Eleven, Episode Two

And, breathe.  Now that all the stress of The Inaugural Episode is out of the way, and with it the burden of introducing everybody – which ended up being neither terrible nor worth getting very excited about, yaaay I guess? – Doctor Who can get on with just telling stories.  And The Ghost Monument certainly gets on with it, going right from last week’s incredible cliff-hanger to a brisk and exciting opening.  In the time it normally takes to blow the steam off your tea there are two separate rescues in space and a crash landing.  I’m a bit mystified that they put the titles before this, as it has the makings of a really good pre-title sequence.  Oh well.

A very expensive art project getting flushed down the loo.
The Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan (come on guys, we can remember all the names) get separately rescued by the last contestants (and possibly, survivors) in an intergalactic race.  One is a misanthrope out for himself, the other is determined to rescue her family with the winnings.  Their task is to get across a desolate planet to the Ghost Monument, which you may or may not guess is actually a blue boxy sort of thing with a light on it.  First one there wins.  It’s going to be dangerous with a toxic atmosphere, deadly water and miscellaneous uh-ohs, but the Doctor and co. follow along anyway as it’s their only way out of here.

That’s a good start.  I love stories that cut out all the “Where are we and what’s going on?” stuff, though… okay, The Ghost Monument still sort of does that, because Series 11 has a serious thing about characters announcing that they don’t understand what’s going on.  (As well as the Doctor apologising.  It’s only been two episodes, but seriously, stop it.)  I’ll bet it’s their way to underline just how Normal And Relatable the companions are, but even the Doctor gets in on it sometimes.  “Why would you need robot guards on a deserted planet?”  Because the planet’s part of a deadly race and you’ve been told to expect difficulties, dipstick.  Jodie Whittaker gets her teeth into this one a bit more, regardless of how well shes written, and she has plenty of opportunities to politely or angrily shoot down the monotonously friendless Epzo.  She even rips him for one of the crappier lines of dialogue – “Maybe I don’t play by the rules.”  “Did you practice those lines in the mirror?” – which almost-but-not-quite excuses having it there in the first place.  Hey, if even Chibnall can recognise the crap bits, maybe that’s a start?

So far, the show hasn’t found a lot of ways to make the Doctor seem clever, which is another worrying trend after the rousing choruses of We Don’t Understand It, Guv.  A heroic rescue using an EMP blast is one such excuse, but she pretty much stumbles on a robot with a built-in EMP button, which sort of takes care of that.  She fails to spot that a room full of cardboard human-shaped targets is… stay with me… a shooting range.  She announces that their air supply has been cut off and theyre all in imminent danger, in a gigantic corridor that surely has buckets of air stored, before promptly urging them all into certain danger outside.  (Why not wait and have a think?)  More than once she points the sonic screwdriver at stuff and just hopes aloud for a solution to show up.  The script ain’t helping: a surprise attack with a lit cigar and a cloud of acetylene gas would come as more of a surprise if Epzo hadn’t loudly announced that his cigar lights with the click of a finger – gosh, do you think that might come back?

I think Whittaker does have a better time this week than The Woman Who Fell To Earth, because there’s none of that wobbly First Episode-itis and she can just be the Doctor.  But, random stupidities aside, they more than cock that up at times: when they arrive at the finish line hoping to the see the TARDIS, but don’t right away, the Doctor laments “All this way, for nothing.”  Eh?!  Her companions try to buck her up, but its no use: “We’ll be dead within one rotation.”  She laughs this off when the TARDIS shows up, but come on, that’s bollocks.  It’s so out of character for somebody otherwise gleefully stomping ahead, all “Let’s get a shift on” and “Get out of my head!” (in a heroic way, not the did-we-just-become-best-friends way).

But hey, whoopsie-pooh characterisation swerves are a hallmark of Chris Chibnall.  He arguably manages a good one earlier in the episode, granting Graham a no-nonsense spine he didn’t seem to have last week.  Bradley Walsh rises to it, so just go with it.  I mean it’s not like we’re getting anywhere with Ryan.

Alas, Ryan.  Three companions is a big ask, but you would hope their creator would have plenty to draw from.  Is anyone here for this guy?  All Ryan does is complain – understandable in a life-or-death situation he just fell into, but it’s all the time.  When he isn’t quivering at the prospect of climbing a ladder, which looks as rubbish as it sounds, he’s inexplicably firing off crack shots with a space rifle while running.  “I play a lot of Call Of Duty” is Chib’s excuse for that little get-out-of-dyspraxia-free card, but I’m not buying it.  As for character work, we do have the ongoing thing about Ryan Not Calling Graham Granddad, but that just feels a bit binary.  At some point, he’ll stop being such a twonk and he will call him Granddad.  I don’t massively care either way, though Graham’s likeable enough that you want to thump the other little git.

Sorry, Doc: the best thing about robots
is that they can't shoot straight.
And Yaz?  Ahh, she’s nice in’t she?  And that about wraps it up for Yaz.  (Wait, isn’t she a police officer?)

Character-wise, it ain’t much, besides a strangely more grounded performance from Bradley Walsh and more action for Jodie Whittaker.  A scene where some killer CGI bandages are suddenly psychic and drop portentous Hints With A Big H about something to do with the Doctor is as painful as it sounds.  (It almost – almost – makes you miss certain departed showrunners, who at least had more practice with this kind of thing.)  Both the contestants get some background stuff, Epzo about his terrifyingly misanthropic mum, and Angstrom about her family on the run from the Stenza.  (The blue, face-full-of-teeth people we met last week.  Seeing them again is not a thrilling prospect.)  It’s all pretty straightforward for their character-types, but it’s well acted.  And the game’s originator, played by a leisurely Art Malik, has glorious fun dismissing the needs of the Doctor and her friends; I loved his cheery refusal to teleport them off the planet, even if I didn’t buy his sudden caving to Epzo’s threats after he refuses to grant a joint victory.  And yeah, the let’s-do-it-together ending is a hard sell, which just might be why they decide to do this off-screen.

Epzo and Angstrom make it damn clear how much they’ve done to get this far and how much winning means to them, so it’s bizarre that they’d chuck away half of it now.  Sure, this planet sucks, but this can’t be their first reminder that other people get killed, or that maybe helping others is a good thing.  They must be harder than this to even be here.  On the other hand, the minute they arrive they seem quite enamoured with each other – one way, anyway – and they spend almost the entire “race” idly strolling along beside one another.  Epzo even goes for little naps, apparently confident the rest of them won’t ditch him.  It’s not very life or death, is it?  By the time they reach the end of what must be, surely, not the most exciting lap of this race, its almost a shrug to actually finish the thing.

But hey, that’s one of the problems with producing a script like this.  You can talk up the planet’s pitfalls and terrors all you like but the budget is the budget.  We get a great looking landscape, an eerie empty structure, some robots and the aforementioned (quite creepy when they shut up) CGI bandages.  “Toxic water” is conveniently cheap – take regular water, say it’s toxic, then nobody is stupid enough to get in it – the “toxic atmosphere” is mentioned but never seems to be an issue, apart from some apparently isolated acetylene fields.  As for “killing machines and creatures inhabiting every corner,” ehh, no.  Stay out of the robots’ way and don’t go to sleep next to some rags and you’re pretty safe.  No one even gets thirsty or hungry en route.  Several naps are had.  Wake up!  This is supposed to be exciting!

There’s really not a lot going on, which is already becoming a Chibnall era trope – relax, you won’t hurt your brain – and it’s never as thrilling as it seems to think.  But it starts with a bang, looks brilliant, and the dialogue doesn’t clunk as resoundingly as I’ve come to expect.  It’s also slightly shorter than last week’s, which helps with the pace.  Backhanded compliments and little victories, I admit, but this here’s Chibnall Town, and you takes what you can get.

NB: That new TARDIS, though.  It looks like they shrunk the cast down and stuck them in a bee hive with a rotting sweet in the middle.

The giant dead fingers are a lovely touch.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018


Doctor Who
The Woman Who Fell To Earth
Series Eleven, Episode One

Okay, don’t panic.  Doctor Who is back and there’s been a big change and people are going to flip.  I’ve been a bit concerned about this for ages, because for all my moaning I do like Doctor Who, and this...  Does.  Not.  Bode.  Well.

Yep, it’s Chibnall time.  The guy who wrote Cyberwoman is running the show.  A writer with popular acclaim, thanks mostly to Broadchurch (haven’t seen it, I’ll take your word for it), he has a spottier track record on other shows such as UK Law & Order, Life On Mars, Torchwood (I’m still having flashbacks) and, oh yeah, that other one.  With the TARDIS in it.

"There's no such thing as aliens."
To be fair, he was in hospital for some of the invasions.
But come on!
His Who episodes were never exactly terrible.  They just lacked spark.  Loves a tired turn of phrase, does the Chibbenator, and he’s quite fond of ideas you’ve seen a thousand times before.  Alien monster?  Yeah, it should pick folk off one by one.  (Whoa there, we can’t have one of them not observing aloud that “It’s picking us off, one by one!”)  Got a robot?  Get it singing the “Daisy” song from 2001.  Got Silurians, whose entire history in Doctor Who up to that point was the same story told over and over again?  Get a brew on, son, we’ll do the bloody thing again then.

When Steven Moffat got the top job in 2008 it made sense: he’d run shows before and he wrote stand-out Doctor Who.  The best thing about Chib’s episodes was They’re Not As Bad As His Torchwood Episodes, although they did contain the same badly judged tone shifts.  (Remember when the characters felt really sad about a dead triceratops, then cheered about making velociraptors extinct?)  Just be thankful he wasn’t pitching his dialogue to the Bad Sex Awards.

Ah well, he’s head honcho now, get over it.  So how’s it going?  As you might expect the focus is shifting away from complicated plots, not to mention complicated dialogue, with a view to getting the fabled Casual Viewer back in the room.  Moffat had many strengths, but his never-ending quest to dazzle us with his wit and intelligence also led to a lot of introverted, no-stakes bollocks where nobody dies and nothing goes anywhere.  The Woman Who Fell To Earth isn’t hard to follow.  The jokes (such as they are) don’t require a comprehensive knowledge of Doctor Who.  Characters in this have normal lives and, can it be?!, actual jobs, and some of them get properly killed with no fairytale take-backsies in sight.  There’s sci-fi stuff obviously, but not too much – there’s no TARDIS, no mention of time travel that I noticed, and no Doctor Who theme yet.  Even the music isn’t in-yer-face any more, since they’ve swapped out Murray Gold for newbie Segun Akinola.  (Alas Murray: he made great music to listen to on its own, but on TV it was like an orchestra tap-dancing in close up during every scene.)  It’s all very “I don’t bite!”  The Doctor even tells Graham that it’s okay to be frightened of new things.  There there, newbies.

“New things”, though?  Okay, it’s original to leave the new Doctor out of sight for 10 minutes, without a recap or a title sequence to get you in the Who mood.  The focus on people is a genuine relief – not to go on about it, but Moffat didn’t give a hoot about what people did for a living and they didn’t seem to really exist outside of the TARDIS.  You can’t entirely say that for Yaz (a police officer sick of answering minor calls), Ryan (a mechanic in training with troublesome dyspraxia) and Graham (Ryan’s step-grandad, ex-bus driver and cancer survivor).  And there’s Grace, Ryan’s adventurous open-minded nan, who is noticeably not on the promo material for Series 11...  (Ahem.)  These people aren’t flashy or desperately in need of adventure, and to be honest they’re not terribly interesting.  But you get the impression they have lives which would carry on just fine if this episode didn’t happen to them.  (Well obviously, as there’d be a lot less death.)

"But what if there's no one stupid enough to grant permission?"
"Duh, it's the planet of the SmartPhones."
They don’t even sign up with the Doctor at the end – it’s a total accident.  Which is a nice little throwback to how the show started, with none of that moony-eyed “Rescue me from working in a shop!” desperation that started with Rose.  It makes the-Doctor-and-companion less of a ritual, more of an adventure.  Great stuff.  To top that off, the Doctor’s accidental group outing gives us the best cliff-hanger Doctor Who’s had in years.  Hope it’s the first of many.  (Of course they follow it with the weirdest Next Time trailer I’ve seen in years – literally just a list of actors.  Oh wow, you got actors?  Are there, like… stories too?)

The group approach is interesting, though it has a significant drawback.  Who gets the spotlight?  Fans will expect the old “companion saves the Doctor” bit where they earn their place in the TARDIS, and they sort of do that but… all of them at once.  (Actually I’m not sure about Ryan.  Yaz drove the crane, Graham threw a switch, Grace poked an alien…?)  By the end of The Woman Who Fell To Earth, no one stands out much.  They’re all nice enough and sort of helpful, but… ehh?

And okay, I’ve got to get my baggage out now: it’s largely the script’s fault.  No one sounds very deep or interesting when their dialogue consists of asking what a weird thing is and concluding that “I’ve got no idea”, or even good old “Oh my god!”  It’s a bit too easy to tell us that Yaz yearns for greater things by having her flat-out tell her colleague that she yearns for greater things.  Dyspraxia seems like a visual enough disability to make it work on the telly, but all that means here is Ryan falling off his bike and getting nervous about going up a ladder.  (Graham says Ryan blames things on his dyspraxia… like what though, besides the bike?)  And Graham is older than most companions, so you’re automatically expecting someone a bit offbeat and fun like Wilf – it’s Bradley Walsh and everything – but he’s stuck with clunk-clunk signifiers like “Is he ever gonna call me granddad?  Three years, we’ve been married!” and zingers like “Why is she running at another alien?  Now you’re all running at it!”  When it comes to real people being funny, or even closely approximating that, Chibnall’s no Russell T Davies.  Most of the funny bits are crying out for someone with a better ear to come and shake them up.  (Or just try them out loud first.  “This city’s my own, and I’m not havin’ it being an alien battleground!” said a genuine human being?)  Probably the cleverest thing here is the title, but I may only be saying that because I missed the first five minutes, so can’t honestly say how obvious Ryan’s setup was.  (Yes, I caught up afterwards.)

The plot is just as likely to induce a shrug.  Weird things are occurring in Sheffield – two whole weird things.  A large blue pear-drop thing magically appears in front of Ryan, which is fascinating if you like looking at large blue pear drops that just sit there.  And a large metallic squid-monster attacks some people on a train.  Enter the Doctor, 10 minutes in, with a leisurely 50 minutes to guess her way to what’s going on, and variously poke things or throw herself at them or yell at them until they go away.  When the Doctor’s great plan involves moving one crane nearer another one and then moving it away again, you know we’re not in Timey Wimey Land any more.  Which I should be thrilled about – Doctor Who has been messily overcomplicated for years – but this plot just lumbers along.  There are no great layers to unravel.  The Eleventh Hour had a similarly pint-sized baddie to deal with and it also introduced a new Doctor, but that one was frontloaded with character development between an astonishing new actor and a charming kid.  None of the time felt wasted.  Not the case here.  (What was the point of kebab guy getting killed?)  The baddie, a gleefully murderous alien hunting a human trophy to prove his worthiness, tells the Doctor “You’re interfering in things you don’t understand!”  (Urgh.)  It’s actually pretty easy to sum up in a sentence, matey.

"Hunt who?" "Isn't it obvious?"
Yes. FFS, Ryan, you all literally looked at the guy's face just now.
Admittedly I don’t understand why The Most Dangerous Game repeatedly takes these aliens to Sheffield, or why it doesn’t involve anything more taxing than grabbing a random bloke on a train, or why that somehow needed the assistance of a robotic squid-thing with a people scanner.  It’s surprisingly-rural Sheffield, not Hong Kong.  (Isn’t anybody monitoring him?  Of course he cheats!)  Tim Shaw – not the alien’s name, but it’s like… kind of insulting to mispronounce it like that?  Ha, good one! – is evidently a dick.  But this doesn’t give him much to spar with the Doctor about when their inevitable showdown comes along.  And “inevitable” is the key word, as plenty of New Who Doctor tropes come out to play: the Doctor tells Tim he’s not taking anyone else (before he kills a few more anyway), then tells him to get off this planet (he doesn’t listen) and then uses his own weapons against him.  When he’s clearly already dying, his would-be victim kicks him off a crane – not to his doom, as he was about to teleport off anyway, no thanks to the Doctor.  But the Doctor still wheels out the old “You had no right to do that!” before the scene awkwardly cuts away and we never see the guy again.  If you’re going to go on about the Doctor’s moral compass, articulate it.  When you rush it like this, she just looks like a git with double standards.

Which brings us to the Doctor, and the other thing people have been worrying about.  For some reason.  Got a problem with Jodie Whittaker?  Fair enough, shes the lead actor so if you don’t enjoy her work that’s not a good sign.  (I’d only seen her in Attack The Block, where she is occasionally indistinguishable from the wallpaper.)  But as for the gender change, how many times does it need saying?  Doctor Who has frantically made up the rules of regeneration since 1966 and New Who has been setting this up (deliberately or otherwise) since 2011.  Moan all you want, but they’ve done the work and it doesn’t contradict anything.  I have zero sympathy for this.  For god’s sake, you’ll get another man one at some point.  And no, writing another strong female role isn’t good enough – why not make it this one?

Grrr.  No, it’s more important what the Doctor is like than what’s in his or her pants – which even now might be a yoyo and a pocket calculator.  The news on the what is she like front is… promising, but not surprising?  Jodie Whittaker gets it, obviously.  There’s the bright, enthusiastic attitude, the ease with making new friends, the wacky outbursts (“Biology!”), the zero-tolerance approach when the baddie’s pushing their luck – it’s obvious Chibnall has no intention of making the Doctor an uphill climb as it was with Peter Capaldi.  This is The Doctor 101, everyones new best friend.  But at the same time there’s no call for the kind of thoughtful acting choices Capaldi brought to it.  This Doctor’s an open book, and isn’t much more intelligent-sounding than her mates.  She also has a nasty habit of giving herself slogans.  (“When people ask for help, I never refuse!”  “I’m the Doctor – sorting out fair play across the universe!”  Ew.)  It’s a first episode so who knows how it’ll develop, but she pitches most of it at the same level – like she’s talking to kids.  Which I guess she is, to a large extent.  (And hooray for female representation, especially for the childeroids.)  Hey, it’s what the script called for.

"Any thoughts on costume?"
"Well, if we can agree on one thing, it's that we don't need a hat."
In amongst all the obvious stuff – including a heroic death scene where the character a) immediately accepts they are going to die, b) delivers some caring last words off the top of their head and c) slips away quickly like Marion Cotillard – there’s some unambiguously good stuff.  The Doctor is sometimes really funny, like her enthusiastic response to wiping Ryan’s phone (“All my stuff is on there!”  “Not any more!”), and there’s a lovely scene where she describes regeneration as a moment when you think you’re going to die, and then you’re born.  This is very apt stuff, like my favourite scene in The Power Of Three – and this time there’s no possibility that Steven Moffat edited it!  I even like that flowery little line, “I’m not yet who I am,” which is the kind of glorious nonsense that only makes sense in this context.  It’s just a pity the Doctor’s vagueness re who she is is so, well, vague: she doesn’t remember her name.  Everything else, down to knowing she needs a sonic screwdriver for scrapes like this, is clearly present and correct from the minute she crashes through a train roof.  Like that awkward “You had no right to do that!”, and the nothingy scene of the Doctor choosing a new costume (spoiler, she goes to a shop), it’s just sort of there.

And that’s the episode for me.  It’s fine.  Chibnall has written some stuff I absolutely hate, but this is the most palatable thing of his besides Power Of Three.  (Yes, I know that’s just me.)  It’s unchallenging, it’s easy, it’s nice.  Apart from some people getting randomly killed, which is also sort of nice after New Who became so unwilling to kill anyone off.  It’s like The Eleventh Hour if you set it in the Russell T Davies era.  But, unsurprisingly?  Without the zing.  Enough to keep the show going?  Sure.  Enough to make young girls feel awesome?  I bet, and hooray.  Enough to make it really good going forward?  Er.  Who else is in the writers room?

Friday, 5 October 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #75 – Happy Endings by Paul Cornell

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Happy Endings
By Paul Cornell

Two books meet in a pub.  Who Killed Kennedy says “I dunno, mate – I think I’ve overdone it with the continuity references.  I’ve gone back over it and maybe you can have too many, y’know?  Like, we get it, Doctor Who stuff, well done, have a badge for mathematical excellence – damn it!  I’ve buggered it, haven’t I.  And Happy Endings says, “Hold my drink.”

Behold, the mother lode.  Happy Endings is on a mission to celebrate the New Adventures, and no one gets left behind.  Well, almost.  The fact that, for example, Apocalypse and Lucifer Rising only warrant tiny mentions is fannish in itself, since you’ll need an industrial strength anorak to sort the wedding guests from the couldn’t-make-its.  I’ve read every Virgin novel up to here, and when I reached the chapter written by all but one of the NA authors even I had to get my Google on.

It’s a 300 page panto walk-down.  It is utter, utter fanwank.  And... I sort of loved it anyway.  But how can that be?

Well, I think there are some important distinctions between Happy Endings and your more garden variety fanwank.  With the “bad” (okay, thats almost all examples of) kind, references for their own sake tend to come at the expense of something else, and they have little to do with the actually substantial bit.  Point being, there usually is one.  No Future, for example, goes full tilt at the 30th anniversary of Doctor Who, chucking in lots of familiar heroes and villains.  But it also has an interesting plot about social violence and it’s meant to wrap up a multi-book arc about interference in time and space – plus finally resolving the tension between two long running characters.  Instead it goes “Ahh, isn’t this nice?”, and ends up as probably the least substantial book in the arc.  It’s a jarring mix.

Whereas Happy Endings is a celebration from the outset.  Literally, since it concerns Bernice and Jason’s wedding.  It only exists to revel in how marvellous all this stuff is and all these characters are, and though it occasionally rouses enough interest to have a plot, that “plot” remains a subplot, low in the mix.  Frankly, too many machinations would spoil the party; it’s hard enough just keeping a head count.  You can do characterisation at the expense of plot – which isn’t exactly true of The Also People, but that remains the best example I can think of where plot gets measurably shorter shrift – but then Happy Endings doesn’t massively do characterisation either.  With so many characters, it isn’t really possible to tell a unified story with people, or with plot.  So everybody just gets a sort of sprinkling of progress.  A.k.a. some happy endings, fired cheerily in all directions.  An actual keeping-a-straight-face plot would just seem inappropriate.

Okay, so we do get something.  Bernice and Jason are getting married in Cheldon Bonniface – of Revelation and Human Nature fame – and the Doctor is determined to make it a wonderful occasion.  He’s inviting people he’s known since meeting Bernice, and one or two from before (just go with it), and soon a host of humans and aliens from the past and future are gathered.  Something sinister is afoot, although everyone’s generally too busy to notice.  (Which come to think of it, is the something sinister.)  The Doctor begins to worry that having all these aliens on a pre-first contact Earth will cause ripples in time, not to mention fights, and the tension wobbles both ways, from punch-ups to a (quite lengthy!) cricket match.  Bernice spends most of it wondering if Jason really loves her, because he’s acting strangely.  (Strangely, that is, for someone she’s known for hardly any time at all, as have we.)  And… we’re already pushing it, to be honest.  There are wedding jitters and there’s a slight mystery, and it all plods gaily along.

Part of my (perhaps improbable) enjoyment comes from lavishing so much attention – relatively speaking – on Bernice.  She earned it.  She was brilliant immediately, then got side-lined by a team of nervous authors with conflicting briefs (ahem), only to share the spotlight pretty much for the rest of her run.  Her enduring popularity makes perfect sense, as she jumps off the page with almost any author.  She’s that rare thing: a character invented by fans who isn’t an avatar, someone who adds meaningfully and refreshingly to who the Doctor is, and what the series can be.  I’m obviously livid that this is it for Bernice’s ongoing travels, save for a few return visits and her own (equally deserved) line of solo books.  But for a series that always wanted to try new things, there’s something admirable about not having too much of a good thing.

As for the relationship with Jason, sadly a lot of years have passed since Happy Endings came out, and I do know that the title won’t be accurate for long.  But that’s another story – and another very pressing question of why they made such a fuss about it only to undo it later, a-bloody-hem – so what of Bernice and Jason in this?  The latter appears at times to be a philandering jerk, which is only a slight exaggeration of the guy we met in Death And Diplomacy.  The plot does a good job of having its cake and eating it, and it’s heartening how happy all this ultimately makes Bernice, but I can’t honestly say I know who Jason is, or whether he’s a good match for Bernice.  (It’s difficult to separate opinion from foreknowledge on that front.)  Ultimately it’s a romantic comedy starring Bernice, and you pretty much just have to go along with it.  Hey ho.

There’s something lovely, albeit small going on with the Doctor in amongst all this.  He said he was done playing games in Death And Diplomacy, and he – as well as the books – has been moving in a more positive direction lately.  Trying to orchestrate a successful mix of people, aliens and oblivious locals without any shots fired is an unusual twist on a Doctor Who setup, a conscious attempt to do things differently.  And he’s right to want to change, up to a point; an inevitable sneaky exit (so he can travel alone, plus Wolsey) is foiled by Bernice, sensibly pointing out that that’s a load of codswallop and he needs his friends in his life after all.  The Doctor, adorably denying tears, goes along with it.  I don’t know if I’ve loved this Doctor more than here, moving worlds to make Bernice happy.

As for everyone else… well, Ace gives her mum a hug, which is that endless well dry at last.  Chris lives to bonk again, which is his main reason to exist apart from being loveably over-enthusiastic in general.  (I’m honestly baffled at him now having two kids he doesn’t know about.)  Roz is utterly charmed by Sherlock Holmes, which is easily the happiest I’ve seen her, but she doesn’t have room to do much else.  Holmes and Watson repeatedly threaten to steal the spotlight, which is impressive in itself; Cornell reverts to the diary format of All-Consuming Fire for their bits, which naturally are where the book’s meagre plot spreads its wings.  What’s the point in including Sherlock Holmes, if he doesn’t have even a little mystery to solve?  (Mind you, it’s totally worth bringing them back just for the line: “I have become ‘with it,’ Watson!  But having Bernice’s increasingly cold feet point her towards Watson is an oddly charming detour.)

And the rest sees you into tick-off-that-hanging-plot-thread territory.  We open with Romana (hooray!  Be in more books!) resolving the stalemate of The Highest Science, not to mention becoming President of Gallifrey (oh, so that’s when that happened); Muldwych, the odd possible-future-Doctor from Birthright, escapes his confinement; Ace’s one-time love, Robin Yeadon, moves on at last, though he keeps it in the family; the Brigadier is getting on in years, and his story has a noble end, as well as a very sweet new beginning; and the Doctor gets his original TARDIS back.  One of the oddest decisions in the New Adventures, the TARDIS-swap has remained a thumping great non sequitur, as hardly any writers made light of the fact that we’ve been seeing a different one.  (Probably because it doesn’t make any damn difference.)  I’m glad it’s been tidied back to normal.  Odd that we didn’t tick off the feral Doctor and Ace from Witch Mark, since we’re in the market for random loose ends, but I gather they turn up at some point.

The infamous Everybody’s Welcome At The Wedding chapter is like a confetti cannon of mini-closures, with awkward goodbyes made less awkward on the second attempt, off-screen happy endings confirmed, and at least one random thing happening that doesn’t appear to mean anything.  (Neil Penswick?  You don’t say.)  It reads surprisingly well, including a self-deprecating jab at John Peel’s not-exactly-loveable Gilgamesh.  It’s just a shame Jim Mortimore wouldn’t participate.  I mean, fair enough, it is a hell of a gimmicky idea.  But come on, dude!  It’s a wrap party!  They even got Andrew Hunt back, and he was a vet by then!

That chapter is a good example of why the book, however improbably, works.  It’s a celebration of good work done by a host of different people, and everyone gets their due.  Although Paul Cornell naturally leans into his own books, particularly the tail-end of the Timewyrm saga (and adorably Saul, the spirit in the local church, whom I’ve missed), it never feels as smug as fan writing so often does.  It’s written with absolute love for every incidental character and every effort made to get these books into print.  And well done, that lot.  It’s also, as you might expect, frequently bloody hilarious.  It opens with a poem by Vanessa Bishop, which is all good but absolutely shattered me with: “And noticeably absent certain malicious pepperpots, who never go to weddings and have avoided fifty plots.  Captain Duranne from Shakedown, which co-starred Sophie Aldred, at one point stares quizzically at Ace and asks if they’ve met.  The Doctor gets several mock-dramatic moments, including “There will be no rehearsal here!”, and a reprise of his “If we fight like animals…” bit is amusingly curtailed.  The villain of the piece eventually shows up with a hilarious line that I mustn’t spoil, and at least one of the cameos is a deliberately crass false alarm that made me hoot.  Oh, and one of the chapters is titled “Blake’s Heaven”.  (Sue me, I like a good pun.)  It’s worth mentioning Cornell’s prose remains thoughtful and witty throughout all this; bereft of continuity, I loved the bit about the vicar feeling the eyes of the Bishop on her as she’s working: “The Bishop was sitting in the front row, which made Annie feel as if she was in the middle of some sort of ‘vicary’ test, like a driving test.  When the Bishop tapped on the pew, she’d have to perform an emergency sermon.

It works, though it isn’t perfect.  Obviously.  Such a critical mass of fandom is inevitably going to be hit and miss.  The urge to include everything, including the furniture if we can get it in the van, leads to a bit of simply not knowing who the hell he’s on about.  At first I thought Hamlet Macbeth (damn it, it’s HAMLET, not HAMISH, every bloody time) was the paranormal cop from Witch Mark, and I’d completely forgotten what he did to the Doctor; Bernice’s dalliance with Vivant Denon slipped my mind entirely; and while I recalled the books they were from, a fair chunk of the Group Chapter People scarcely made an impression the first time.  But given the purpose and the spirit of Happy Endings, by that point you’re fully aware of what you’re in for, and it’s oddly satisfying watching Cornell grab another New Adventure alumnus and cram them in the bag.  There’s a great deal to celebrate and be proud of, and although it’ll be sheer Sanskrit to anyone not well versed in these books, I suspect the sweet atmosphere would still carry it some of the way.  Everyone, after all, is welcome at the wedding.