Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Splat

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 lead 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?

2 comments:

  1. Lovely review, and we agree with all of it. Despite that, we liked it a lot more than you did. Hmm. Why. We think it's that our expectations were exceedingly low, first as it's a regeneration episode and second because of the Chibnall factor. We were dreading it utterly, and the fact that it was watchable therefore filled us with joy and wonder. We also discovered we were a lot sicker of Moffat's peculiarities than we thought. (We've spent this year listening to all the Eighth Doctor audios, and when River appeared, we did a synchronised cringe.) And y'know, the female Doctor thing took us by surprise by thrilling us down to our toes. We didn't think we minded one way or other, but it turned out we did. A lot. Let's see what happens next.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi gang! Hope you're good, and glad New Who has prodded you out of the mysterious Androzani lair for a spell.

      I agreed with your review, but I was surprised how much you liked it. (Hey, free country.) For me, I think I'm just really *really* not having any nonsense when it comes to dialogue. If you're a professional writer with a high profile job, you can make the words interesting. And I don't like seeing the same things trotted out, so I get a right pooch on at that.

      But principally, it was okay. And I'm still in a pleased state of shock that What If The Doctor Was A Woman is now a silly little footnote. I wish all the hair-tearing morons the best, and bon voyage. (And quietly hope this series isn't shit, because it'll be Ghostbusters all over again. THEY MIGHT BLAME WOMEN.)

      Delete