Tuesday, 8 January 2019

D.I.Y. Of The Daleks

Doctor Who
2019 New Year's Day Special

Daleks.  Oh, go on then.  (And don’t say you weren’t warned, because 1) I’m a week late and 2) the BBC ruined it in their own trailer – but only by chucking an “Exterminate” in there, not in a big or showy way that might actually have helped the ratings.  Truly, the current Doctor Who wing of the BBC couldn’t advertise a piss-up in the proverbial.)

Sure, you can have too much of a good thing, and there’s only so much you can do with shouty pepperpots.  But the only iconic thing in Series 11 was the TARDIS, and they managed to make that look like a rotten honeycomb filled with fingers.  After ten middling episodes where none of the main cast get hurt and nothing is complicated, a recognisable and dangerous monster is a sight for sore eyes.

Go on then: what are "cosmic fireworks"?
No remotely sci-fi explanation here, of course.  That would be weird.
To his credit, Chris Chibnall gives us a slightly different Dalek.  Initially without its famous casing, the creature inside attaches itself to Lin, an archaeologist, and promptly sends her on a mission to get a message to the Dalek fleet and conquer Earth.  It’s a boringly simple plan – this is Chibnall – and it essentially shadows Rob Shearman’s (obviously superior) episode, Dalek, where one Dalek runs amok and tries to get the band back together.  But hey ho, it’s a creepy journey to get there.  The Dalek hides under Lin’s coat and gives her instructions only she can hear, literally puppeteering her.  It’s nice seeing Daleks out of their element, and not trying to merge their DNA with humans or somesuch.  Nothing else the Dalek does is particularly interesting, but that opening – up until, say, it starts chatting to the Doctor – is pretty gnarly.

Plus the episode has a fun start even before we get to the Dalek.  Centuries ago – in locales signified with great big place-names, aww – a mysterious menace was defeated, just barely, and its body was separated into three bits.  These were buried on “opposite sides” of the Earth (can you have three opposite sides?), with a guardian sitting to watch each piece, and their descendants after them.  It’s suitably Lord Of The Rings prologue-ian, including the bit where one of them gets haplessly taken down by an arrow.  (Bad luck, mate: you beat a Dalek, and this is how it ends?  His assailants don’t even take his one obviously valuable possession.  He got murdered by morons!)  Cut to 2019 where two archaeologists (Lin and Mitch) discover the hapless guardian’s bones, and his quarry which incredibly wasn’t touched or stolen in all this time.  (Maybe it snowed a lot, immediately?)  Lin and Mitch are likeable enough, in that strange way of everyone who isn’t a main character (not including Graham) in Series 11; they’re one-note, but real enough that you’d miss them if they immediately carked it, which it feels like they’re going to.  Before this can happen, Chibnall handles their dialogue about a kiss on New Year’s Eve with his usual aplomb, i.e you’ll wish a Dalek would enter screen left and take them both out, but they do their best.  Lin is the best “new” thing here, with Charlotte Ritchie slipping smoothly between her good and bad selves.  Whereas Mitch doesn’t amount to much besides Bloke Who Fancies Lin And Owns A History Book.  Pretty soon he’s a fuzzy bit in the background, Yaz-style.

My interest really began to sag with the arrival of Team TARDIS.  Sue me: it’s been a long ten episodes, and while lovely Graham has made every scene he’s in a lot better, glimpsing the rest of them is like running into bubbly workmates you hate outside of work, and fatally making eye contact.  The Doctor promptly arrives, lists her three best mates and sends the archaeologists packing, allowing Yaz to do the only policeman-like thing she’s done in ages: sound like a policeman when she sends them out.  Suck it up, it’s also her only contribution to the episode.  Apart from this absolute side-splitter, delivered in earnest: “Hi, it’s Yasmin Khan.  We met in the sewers earlier.”  And to be fair, she does her usual bit of asking inane questions – “Where’s it going?  What’s it doing?”  Actual, consecutive dialogue there – but at this point, I seriously wonder how good the pay must be that Mandip Gill keeps coming to work.  Save yourself, Mandip.  This.  Is.  Not.  A.  Part.

Faring much better is Tosin Cole, because it’s that time at last, as Ryan’s dad shows up.  It’s just about plausible that this happens on the same day a Dalek gets loose, as his dad is doing a new year / make amends thing, and the Dalek is uncovered on New Year’s Day for gossipy, kissy reasons established earlier.  Anyway, Cole is really good in the scenes with his dad, gazing in disbelief at the nerve of the man.   Daniel Adegboyega seems suitably fish-out-of-water as Aaron, although their scenes do come with a free gift – specifically, a microwave oven he lugs around hoping to sell.  Neither Ryan nor you are safe from his sales pitch, which tells us 1) Chris Chibnall only just found out about microwave ovens, and he is SUPER PSYCHED, you guys!  And 2) THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER.  They might as well have had those words flash on screen.  But before we get to the amazing, fantabulous microwave oven invention of 2019, a word for Bradley Walsh’s scenes with Aaron, which is: also brilliant.  Okay, two words, but Graham’s had more of an arc than anyone this series, and his pride at finally having Ryan’s approval (even if it came all of a sudden one week ’cos, sigh, Series 11) translates into some very believable anger at Aaron.  It’s also hilarious when he calls the Doctor and demands to be picked up, because there’s only so long before righteous indignation becomes awkward boredom when you’re stuck with the guy.

Hey, where is the Doctor, anyway?  Well, with Lin making her way to a weapons storage facility the Dalek found online, where a Dalek weapon is helpfully right on top of a pile of stuff, and murdering several policemen on the way – two of them on dash cam, Lin’s car in full view – the Doctor has got to find it.  So, she… stays in the TARDIS, doing that horrendous hot-footed-wobble thing Jodie Whittaker does when she’s saying something important (or busting for a pee), and trying to figure out what to do.  And it’s here I need to mention another reason you should be glad to see the Daleks: they’re a litmus test for the Doctor.  In some ways, an actor hasn’t really been the Doctor until they’ve faced the Daleks.  It’s the worst of the worst, and they’ve got to step it up.  No Doctor has ever needed a kick up the personality as badly as Jodie, who even now is giving it the mouth-gaping, snort-frowning, magic-wand-sonic hot-foot-wobble bullshit that has come not so much to define her, as fill the void.  A Dalek should be a test, and she should come out of it finally sounding, or for the love of god at least looking like the boss.

Chibnall has heard criticisms that his version of the show isn't funny.
Not to worry: he brought Dad jokes.
Does she?  Well what do you think this is, a magic lamp?  Of course the Doctor in Resolution is the same useless moron she’s been for ten episodes.  The people making the show like her this way.  So, when finally getting the Dalek on the blower, she orders it to let Lin go.  For no particular reason, with no threat of retaliation if it won’t, just, let her go please, or else nothing.  And it laughs at her.  (Yes!  I said they’d do that!  Vindicated!)  The Doctor promptly reveals that she’s stalling for time – aha! – because the Dalek effortlessly shorted out the TARDIS’s navigation.  (In fact it’s worse than that: it doesn’t know this is a TARDIS, so the Dalek shorted out the TARDIS’s navigation without trying.)  And afterwards, the Dalek merrily on its way (three dead by this point), the Doctor goes into hot pursuit!  Only the Dalek shoots out the traffic cameras on which she was relying (?), leaving her up a creek.  Oh.  But don’t panic, she can call for help!  (Really?)  And this scene is probably meant to cough “Brexit” none-too-quietly, as a bored operator tells the Doctor that UNIT are suspended due to funding problems.  Hilarious use of dead air, this.  The Doctor, disheartened, tells her gang that they’re on their own.

For crying out loud, right?  This is the Doctor.  She didn’t suss that it was a Dalek – to be fair all she saw was some goo on a wall, but she’s seen all the goo – she didn’t stop the Dalek at any point, and the script takes time out to inadvertently mock her for needing help from UNIT, then for failing to get it.  It’s even a bit hilarious that they have to go to all this trouble to stop one Dalek, when a bunch of medieval dudes managed it centuries ago without any technology.  So much for a more advanced kind of Dalek, right?

You can argue Chibnall isn’t trying to make his hero look like complete garbage, but he’s doing an awful lot of it by accident.  Thank goodness though, because they eventually locate the Dalek in a shed somewhere, and land in a field nearby.  Body #4 has dropped by this point, good job there.  The Doctor finally meets the Dalek, which improbably has built an entire new casing with shed parts – Chris Chibnall apparently believes you can manufacture literally anything in a shed, including rocket boosters, missiles and sonic screwdrivers.  She promptly tells it she’s the Doctor, because… nope, not sure why she wanted to paint an extra bullseye on herself, but I guess it’s de rigeur.  And what does she do then?  I’ll let the Doctor explain: “I slightly riled it and let it get away.”  Head.  Desk.  Head up.  Desk again.

After a spot of effortless army swatting, the Dalek whizzes off to GCHQ – don’t worry if you don’t know what it stands for, they really got you covered – hoping to send its message.  At this point you’re hoping the Doctor will unveil some sort of plan, and don’t panic, she is.  But panic a bit, because you seem to have forgotten who you’re dealing with.

Step 1: Politely ask the Dalek to go away.  Give it no incentive to do so and offer no tangible threat to stop it from staying and accomplishing its mission.
Step 2: Try to contain your surprise when it tells you to go exterminate yourself.
Step 3: RUNREALLYFASTSLIDEONTHEFLOORANDHOPEITDOESN’TSHOOTYOU, and best of luck with that as Daleks have 360 degree vision.  Except kidding, it’s crap at targeting now, you’ll be fine.
Step 4: Microwave oven time!  Hell yeah!  Why so stingy with the microwave oven action, Chris?  As we all know, when in doubt, disassembling a kitchen appliance and cobbling it together over an angry Dalek without a plug socket will… do something, probably.
Step 5: Bang.

By this point, Aaron is hanging around the TARDIS – which everyone else is constantly doing so it’s only fair he gets a turn.  As much as fans long for an episode set in the TARDIS, it’s the depths of the TARDIS they’re talking about, all the funky rooms full of weird stuff.  Not the console room, from which Jodie Whittaker barely strays all episode.  It’s contained.  It’s safe.  No one is in any danger, except all the hapless extras outside.  It’s also a time machine, for god’s sake, so they can comfortably take as long as they like working stuff out – knowing Jodie, weeks – and return in time to stop it.  Not that Chibnall has any interest in time, of course, as complications might put off the Eastenders crowd.

Aaron and Ryan’s scenes have been pretty good up to this point, microwave oven adverts notwithstanding, but they don’t exactly marry up to the plot.  We just cut limply between Ryan and his dad struggling to get on – or Graham and Ryan’s dad struggling to get on – and the Doctor and co. struggling to work anything out or do anything in the TARDIS.  The Dalek almost makes it through the episode unmolested.  (So to speak.)  At the end, we finally marry up the threads, with the mutant taking poor Aaron for a spin.  And, single note of relief here, they don’t do the heroic sacrifice bit you can hear lurching towards you.  But with the Doctor’s spectacularly stupid plan of opening the TARDIS doors on a supernova and hoping the air tunnel will suck the mutant, sans Aaron, out to its doom (?), we get pretty bloody close.  Yes, the Doctor miscalculates and Ryan has to save his dad.  Chris, you do understand the value of the Doctor, don’t you?  That we’re supposed to be impressed, a little perplexed, and ultimately able to rely on her?

"Not bad for a kid with dyspraxia, eh?"
Bit of a plot hole, this.  He's never mentioned having dyspraxia before.
Ryan forgives his dad because he thought he was going to die, and not because he meaningfully made amends.  Which is great.  (The useless bastard had to ask Ryan what he needed him to say.  It’s SORRY, you complete ass-hat.)  Then the Doctor and co. confidently strut off to “everywhere”, which here sounds like “I couldn’t think of an exciting location to send them to at the end”, and Lin and Mitch are left back at the dig – which is nice, except Lin is on at least one camera murdering police officers, they’ll have her registration number and her car even if they didn’t catch her face, and she murdered several other folks too.  No ramifications at all here?  Uhh… best give Mitch a quick kiss before the fuzz arrive, Lin mate.

Honestly, I didn’t hate Resolution.  It’s just that there aren’t a lot of positives.  Creative start?  Tick, though it’s a weird choice to lose the title sequence.  (Always be selling the show!  For god’s sake, are they deliberately tanking it?)  The Dalek is a bit different in some ways, and it gets a steampunk-y redesign which ought to go down well, even if it just looks like Thanos squashed its top half.  Graham and Ryan are really good.  But it’s not Graham Who, it’s not Dalek Who: the Doctor, once again, is the least impressive thing here.  (Unless you count Yaz, holding the coats in the corner.  Ah, shit, she’s dropped them.)  Attempts to make the Doctor funny mostly come off awkward, and attempts to make her impressive die on their backsides.  Her dressing down of Aaron specifically for failing Ryan as a parent might be fair, but it’s about as alien and Doctorly as watching Corrie on the regular.  I’m out of patience with the way she’s written and performed, and right now I don’t know what’s worse: Chibnall deliberately writing her as a useless, unremarkable dunderhead, or him doing that by accident.  No, a new scarf doesn’t make all the difference.  (More weird advertising from the Beeb.  ERMAGERD, A SCARF?  WHY DIDN’T YOU BREAK THAT OUT EARLIER?!)

There’s something quite sad about giving up the Christmas slot.  Steven Moffat even stretched out Doctor Twelve’s regeneration to keep it.  Yes, it must be a tremendous strain writing something “Christmassy” every single year – although come on, you can just bolt a bit of snow on at the end, can’t you?  What’s Christmassy about the festive Eastenders episode, where someone always dies, or the festive Mrs Brown’s Boys where you wish you would?  But seriously, Christmas is a big deal for TV scheduling, it’s a prestige thing, and Doctor Who just gave it up.  Chibnall couldn’t write one of the things.  Instead he sets it on New Year’s Day, a day people are generally too hungover to care about and, evidently, aren’t that bothered about what’s on TV either.  There are a few half-hearted references to New Year here – including the Doctor’s “resolution” to find and stop the Dalek, but aren’t resolutions more of a “work on it all year” thing?  Oh right, never mind – but evidently there’s bugger all interesting to say about this day either.  At least we’ve finally seen a Dalek again, and it was quite nice, really.  But on balance, I’d be happier if it won.