Monday, 10 December 2018

The Tooth Fury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s the episode by, again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 December 2018

I Wanna Be Like You

Doctor Who
It Takes You Away
Series Eleven, Episode Nine

Well that was… interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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