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?

Monday, 5 November 2018

Space Balls

Doctor Who
The Tsuranga Conundrum
Series Eleven, Episode Five

Oh, what’s this?  A fifth consecutive episode written or co-written* by Chris Chibnall?  (*See Rosa, noticeably the best episode yet.)  Well, I see no reason to worry.  Off we go.

Surprise!  It sucks.  Some of which is down to odd choices in the production, and I’ll get to those.  But most of it is our good friend, the writing.  Of course it is.  To expect Chibs to suddenly metamorphose into a brilliant writer now is the definition of insanity.

The Tsuranga Conundrum actually starts well, with the TARDIS already having landed and the crew in the middle of something.  That’s my jam!  Granted, what they’re in the middle of is wandering around a junk planet with metal detectors looking for… something… which they can’t be bothered to explain, even though they’ve apparently been at it for four hours.  You’d hope it was important for all that.  (Incidentally, it’s so helpful when a character announces how long they’ve been doing something.  Like that old joke of how you find out the time in the middle of the night: bang a drum until someone yells “WHO’S BANGING A DRUM AT FOUR O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING.”)  Graham promptly finds a “sonic mine” which the Doctor is completely unable to stop, giving us yet another pathetic “Sorry” before they’re all obliterated.

Well look, at least it's not copyright infringing that alien.
Just kidding!  The Doctor lucks out and none of them are killed – not for want of standing around like a tit and staring at the bomb as it goes off – although the Doctor does gain a serious injury that will plague her for the rest of the episode.  Kidding again, sort of!  She has some sort of pain which means she’ll occasionally wince and grab her side.  It serves absolutely no purpose in the story for her to do that, but do it she will, on and off for forty minutes.  Grand.  Anyway, our heroes find themselves on some sort of space hospital, and for some reason it takes the Doctor a while to figure out this is actually a spaceship.  I’ve no idea why since a) she probably knows there’s nothing like this on the junk planet, and b) she’s been on a billion spaceships before, it’s obviously a spaceship.  But this is Series 11 and the most basic information is going to be treated like a revelation.  Certainly when it’s this Doctor figuring it out, one head-scratch or grunt at a time.

We quickly meet the two medics in charge and their patients, including a pregnant man.  We learn about them in quick succession, all with the usual subtle Chibnall touch.  “I understand your responsibilities, Ronan.  I hear about them endlessly.”  “Says the man who never wants any of his own.”  /  “I fix the things pilots like my sister tend to wreck.  And she looks down on me for it, and she always will.”  /  “You can do this, Mabli.  You’re good enough.  You have to believe in yourself!”  /  “He was one of the only people who ever believed in me, including me!”  Mercifully a plot arrives in the form of a mysterious alien, which gives the Doctor plenty of opportunities to strut her stuff.  Kidding, obviously!  She gets put in her place by the chief medic and then fails to save him, as he stupidly blunders into an escape pod which is blasted into space and then explodes for some reason.  She then comes face to face with the alien, tries to sound tough and is completely ignored, observes that it can “digest pretty much whatever it wants” and is somehow surprised when it eats the sonic screwdriver she waves right in its face.  Not exactly a showcase for Jodie’s Doctor, this one, but then have we had anything like that this series?

Still, we have our alien.  What’s it like?  Well, remember me grumbling about production choices?  Here’s one.  Perhaps not wishing to copy Ridley Scott, they go in the opposite direction with a cute CGI critter that looks like Stitch, and then they tell us it doesn’t eat living things.  Aww!  Except it’s responsible for one death already – not deliberately, though the Doctor has to do some more bumbling and guessing before she twigs this – and the episode hinges on the threat posed by it, so maybe they could threat it up a bit?  But despite a lot of early comments about how fast and unstoppable it is, the Doctor seems happy to ask for seven minutes to think of a plan, and the other characters are then able to wander around having slow conversations like nothing’s wrong.  You could cut the tension with bubbles.  And incidentally, what conversations: since Ryan’s purpose in life is to moan about his dad, the sight of a pregnant man gives him all sorts of Feelings to work through.  Yaz’s purpose in life is to do whatever’s left over in the script, so she gets to feed him lots of thankless questions which, if you’re feeling really charitable, could be construed as policeman-like?  (This is her side of the conversation: “When was the last time you saw your dad?”  “Why?”  “D’you mind me asking, how did your mum die?”  “God.  Who found her?”  “How old were you?”  That... that isnt how conversations work, you guys.)

Eventually even Chibnall decides the Pting is a bit too adorable to hang the whole episode on – even the name sounds fun! – so we’re reminded that the ship’s home base will blow them all up without hesitation if they believe there’s a dangerous creature on board.  Teeny bit harsh?  How likely even is that?  (Earlier on, the chief medic says they could get blown up if the Doctor tampers with the controls.  Did someone just buy a lot of explosives and really needs to get their money’s worth?)  The Doctor’s seven minutes are up and – surprise! – she hasn’t done anything and asks the rest of them for ideas.  This is the generously-named “conundrum”, by the way: they need to get rid of the alien, ideally without touching it, and hope the home base doesn’t blow them up first.  The Doctor eventually figures out that one of the ship’s explosives could a) lure it towards an airlock and b) feed it long enough to get away, but the magic ingredient to her plan is, and always seems to be time.  This Doctor never works stuff out, she just fruitlessly marches up and down until the solution plops out in front of her when the episode’s nearly done.  This is surely not how you write a genius character.

This week, in a shocking development, Ryan is a dick to Graham.
Just to raise the stakes, the pregnant bloke goes into labour – what did you think this was, Fargo? – but it’s a comedy subplot especially since it’s a bloke, so the stakes don’t actually get any higher, it’s just wacky extra colour.  But it lets Ryan tediously lecture an alien on how to live his life because of his own dad baggage.  A famous space pilot gives her life piloting the ship towards the home base, only for that to be awkwardly undercut when her (not-at-risk-of-dying) brother ably takes over.  So, uh, what did she die for, then?  All the while, the Doctor keeps putting the home base’s surprisingly polite “Are you sure we don’t need to blow you up?” question on snooze, like the goddamn genius that she is.  Eventually the sonic screwdriver fixes itself, probably because it noticed it wasn’t getting anywhere with her.

And the thing just goes on and on and on.  At one point the Doctor delivers a speech about the wonderfulness of anti-matter drives.  Why not?  We’ve got all day, apparently.

It probably should be exciting, with a… technology?  No, energy-eating monster on the rampage, and a spaceship that will explode with the slightest provocation.  But the characters aren’t scared, unless you count Mabli the medic whose crisis of confidence is well established before the alien even turns up.  “Action” scenes include Yaz kicking the Pting uselessly down a corridor – because it’ll never find its way back from there! – and the only deaths are by accident or from natural causes.  At a glance it’s trying to be Doctor Who meets Alien, but as there’s no attempt to create any atmosphere what with the cuddly-wuddly monster and all the friendly, brightly-lit corridors, and all the attempts at tension suffer from the incessant need to stretch everything out, they might have been better off leaning into Gremlins and making it funny instead.  They try to with the Man Have Baby! stuff, much good it does the rest of it, but look at what passes for a “joke” here.  When he finally has the baby and wants to name it “Avocado Pear” in honour of Ryan and Graham, because… future history is wrong, and like, full of avocadoes or something… he says that calling it “Ryan Graham” would make it a laughing stock.  Why?  Oh right, for no reason at all.  Haha?  What the hell is that?

I felt quite sorry for the director as the characters yacked on interminably and, in one curiously un-thrilling sequence, stared at a ticking bomb and just hoped for the monster to amble along.  What can you do with this stuff?  Yet again it feels like Chibnall’s making it up minute-to-minute, piling on threats to keep it interesting but straining to the point of aneurism just to get the simplest plot progression going.  As for writing the Doctor, a character of mythical mystery with a dizzying intellect, that’s seeming like a taller order every week.  On the plus side we’re now out of Chibnall territory for a few weeks, but who are we kidding?  We’ll be back.  And he’ll be there, ready to force his latest half-idea slowly and painfully through a mesh screen, where other show-runners used sometimes to fire them out of cannons.