So I’m going to do something I haven’t done before and review Season 12 of Doctor Who episode-by-episode as the are released. As usual, I shall be dispensing with the twin straightjackets of objectivity and fan consensus, and will add each new episode as they come.
Season 12, Episode 1 – Spyfall, Pt 1
One of the curiosities of reviewing Doctor Who at the moment is that it’s under a very different kind of scrutiny than it was during the Davies and Moffat eras. Davies had the burden of bringing the whole show back from the dead (or nearly-dead, depending on how much weight one wants to put on the Eighth Doctor novels and Big Finish) and Moffat was very much the king-in-waiting – there was no question who was going to take over when Davies stepped down, even though there was a bit of faff regarding Mark Gatiss or someone similar to provide a bit of a fig-leaf so everyone could kid on it wasn’t a done deal. But by the time Moffat left there wasn’t the same sense of continuity – there was no clear heir apparent. A few names got bandied about – Mark Gatiss (again), Chris Chibnall, Toby Whitehouse and one or two other less credible suggestions. In the end, it fell to Chibnall – nobody’s first choice, it seems – to usher in a new era, which he did most prominently by casting a female Doctor for the first time. On it went, then introducing a new, more cinematic look for the show, a change to the incidental music (farewell Murray Gold, hello Segun Akinola), and the jettisoning of “big arc” storytelling and old monsters in favour of emotional journeys, smaller scales and new enemies. This was a wholly credible approach to the show, striking out in a new direction and finding a contrast to what came before, but it would be a brave person indeed that claimed this approach was implemented entirely successfully. And much of the new approach got buried under an avalanche of criticism, hand-wringing and support over the fact that the Doctor was – gasp! – a woman now. People were more concerned with arguing other whether it was SJW/PC gone mad or the show finally embracing something it should have done ages ago – and which the Master had already proved could be successful with the irrepressibly brilliant Missy – than they were over the actual content of the season. Which, given the season itself wasn’t very strong, is maybe no bad thing. Still, one thing Season 11 got out of the way – Jodie Whittaker is a fantastic Doctor. The idea of not reusing old monsters was a rather commendable one, but the bunch of villains we did get weren’t up to much, and it’s telling that one of the strongest episodes – “Resolution” – finally gave this Doctor the chance to face off against her biggest foe and in doing so found a pacy, energetic script that felt just a bit more… well, confident really, than the rest of Season Eleven. It wasn’t a flawless episode by a long chalk, but it gave Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor a chance to really embrace the action/adventure side of the character in a way she hadn’t much up to that point, while still allowing time for the emotional closure between Ryan and his dad. That also wasn’t flawlessly handled, but it left space for cautious optimism. “Resolution” course-corrected some of the most obvious flaws of Season 11, so the question is, does “Spyfall” continue that trend or fall back on the mistakes of the previous season?
It’s the first one. “Spyfall” has something that most Chibnall scripts have struggled with, and it makes a huge different – it’s well-paced. The story starts slowly, allowing us a little time to re-familiarise ourselves with our core characters (important, since they’ve been off-screen for exactly one year) so we get a reminder than Yaz is a police officer and has family, of Graham’s loss, of Ryan’s background, and finally of the Doctor, puttering about repairing the TARDIS while waiting for the story to kick into gear. Which it does, as each of them is picked up/abducted into the story with a quick bit of car-chase antics to get some excitement on the go before Stephen Fry (in a surprisingly brief appearance, unless he’s somehow back in the second episode) gets to be Exposition Central. It’s all handled smoothly, and the confidence with which it’s all done makes even the exposition slide past relatively painlessly. It it a bit contrived that MI6 don’t bother with all that alien stuff? Sure, but then it’s also not hard to imagine how territorial those organisations could be – “someone else’s problem until it isn’t” doesn’t seem hard to imagine. Anyway, it’s just all well shot and well handled and for all that Stephen Fry’s C dies quickly it does provide an unexpected jolt – that’s a big guest star to get removed so quickly. In other words, the script is playing with audience expectations, and doing it in a smart way – we expect someone of Fry’s stature to be a major role so when it isn’t it gives the script a proper punch. That’s not the biggest way the script does this (we’ll get there), but even that soon in the episode it’s a sign that things are already considerably smarter than they have been. Meanwhile, the other National Treasure ™ on the cast list is Lenny Henry who has a noticeably bigger role. At the moment he’s playing a Jeff Bezoz/Mark Zukerberg (or indeed Henry van Statten) type character, Daniel Barton, head of a huge tech company with, we can assume, evil intent. 7% of his DNA isn’t human, but beyond that we don’t get a lot of clarity on what’s going on – but what is clear is how great Henry is in the role. In a way it’s a little disappointing to see him here, since he was on my list of potential Doctors once Whittaker steps down – not something I’m in any hurry to see, to be clear, and yes I know Capaldi’s casting (and indeed Colin Baker’s casting) doesn’t entirely preclude the idea of Henry becoming the first non-white Doctor but it does make it exponentially less likely. Regardless of all that though, Henry is great – he’s consciously underplaying here, knowing how to judge the introspection of the character but also skilled enough to let just a little of his natural charisma come out during the party scene where he needs to be glad-handing and a smooth host. Henry handles it all with aplomb and he’s a great addition to the story, regardless of where his character goes in the second part.
And of course that’s the challenge in writing about this episode – it’s in isolation and we don’t have the second part yet to know how it all plays out. That means there’s a lot of set-up going on here, and very little in the way of answers. That’s fine, that’s what you expect from a two-parter and there seems little point complaining about it – the requirement is that the second episode doesn’t fluff the landing and we’ll find out how that goes soon enough. And there is a lot set up here – the white figures that can even push their way into the TARDIS, the strange world that Yaz and the Doctor find themselves in, the nature of Barton and his mysterious DNA, why intelligence operatives are being targeted, “everything that you think you know is a lie” – which is a double-edged sword. If Chibnall can stick the landing on all these points (and I’m going to assume some of them at least will lead to a season-long story) then it will be a huge improvement on how he’s written in the past, and if he doesn’t it’s going to be incredible disappointing. Because, of course, there’s one hell of a cliffhanger here – another thing lacking from Season 11, since there were no two-parters – with Sacha Dhawin’s bumbling nerd O revealed as… the Master! That pacing which Chibnall got right at the start of the story continues to pay dividends as we hurtle towards a cliffhanger that involved the Doctor and co jumping on a plane, the Master revealing himself having hidden in plain sight, the bomb the Doctor for once can’t sonic her way out of, then her abducted to the strange light place while her companions are left on a crashing plane. It’s a lot. But it’s also genuinely exciting and thrilling in a way no Season 11 story evoked, and it feels positively Russel T Davies in the way it just piles more and more on until the credits finally role (“Army Of Ghosts” did this extremely effectively, with Daleks, ghosts, parallel worlds, Cybermen and a panicked Doctor all thrown in to the mix). It’s by miles the best episode ending Chibnall his written, and one can only hope things go as well when the second episode arrives. Dhawin himself is terrific throughout this episode – it’s well worth re-watching it just to see how many additional moments he adds to his performance once you know who he is, especially regarding things like the huge obsessive file he has on the Doctor in his outback shack. Dhawin is terrific in the way he just slightly up-plays his performance without just giving the game away, and it’s a fabulous performance. There’s a glee to his performance once he sheds his alias, and indeed the way Dhawin plays it makes it look like the Master can’t wait to show off his little plan. When the Doctor picks up on the fact that he used to be a sprinter but now struggled to catch the plane the Master could have used any number of excuses, but he sheds the fake identity immediately and revels in his big reveals. This feels like an anarchistic take on the Master, even though we only get a few minutes of screen-time with him – it’s a long way from Missy’s redemption arc, but that’s also fine. Few people love Missy more than I do, but working with another incarnation of the Master makes sense – Pertwee had Dilgado, Davison/Baker/McCoy had Ainley, Tennant had Simm and Capaldi had Gomez – and now Whittaker has Dhawin, her own nemesis to face off against. Missy’s story ended in “World Enough And Time” perfectly, and I’d rather have a new incarnation to have fun with that potentially ruin Missy’s flawless exit from the show (and as Simm’s Master has shown, she can still return even without touching that ending). Dhawin’s Master has scads of potential, and it will be interesting to see where he goes but on a side note, it seems that the Master could become a portent of what’s to come – the Master regenerated into a woman before the Doctor, and now we have, for the first time, a non-white actor playing the Master on television. A sense of things to come for the Doctor? We can only hope.
If the guest characters all do well out of this episode, it’s great to be able to say the regulars do as well. And they do! Yaz for one gets a noticeably increased role, and it’s more than welcome. Beyond references to the fact that she’s a probationary police officer and has a family we drop in on, it’s just lovely to see Mandip Gill get the chance to bring the character to life. One of the biggest – and fairest – criticisms of Season 11 was how little Yaz got to do. “Resolution” haltingly started to correct this, but “Spyfall” finally really engages with the character and given the opportunity Gill runs with it. She gets a couple of stand-out moments, but her teary admission of fear with Ryan is her best moment in an episode which really allows her some space to develop. Ryan too gets plenty of screen-time and gets the chance to spend more time with Yaz, a pairing we didn’t really see in the last season. The two characters work well together in a sibling relationship and hopefully the temptation to go down a more romantic line will be avoided – it would be nice to have a relationship grow and develop on-screen without simply taking the most obvious route. Graham doesn’t get a vast amount to do this time out, but that’s OK – Bradley Walsh is still great, even when he’s mostly following the Doctor around and pointing at things. And oh yes, the Doctor – Jodie’s still great! She’s just a little toned down from last season, and there’s a bit more depth to the way the character’s written. We’ve never quite seen the sense of fear she has when she realises she can’t just wave the sonic screwdriver at something and make it better, and Jodie grades her performance in these moments very skilfully. The Doctor here is just slightly toned down but the joy of the character still shines through and even more than the last season Jodie Whittaker proves beyond all doubt what a great choice she is. It helps, obviously, that she’s now actually been given a script that bothers to make use of the full range of her skills (arguably only “It Takes You Away” really did that in Season 11) but regardless she’s straightforwardly terrific here and it’s such a pleasure to be able to spend time with this version of the character again.
Of course, not everything is perfect. While this is a fun, entertaining runaround there’s not exactly a vast amount of depth here. That’s fine because I don’t really think that’s the point of the story – this is a fast-paced action story designed to get viewers back on board who drifted away last season but might still be prepared to give the new series a fair crack of the whip. In this, the story provides a good re-entry point for those who found the last season a bit slow and under-motivated (including your current reviewer) but who can nevertheless be pulled back in with some whizz-bang adventure and a noticeably improved head writer. The spy stuff helps enormously with this – obviously there’s lots of spy riffs going on but particularly Bond (big brassy incidental music, card game in the Villain’s Evil Mansion etc) and, while most of it is extremely corny, it’s also an immediately familiar trope that needs no explanation beyond what it actually is. That means the sub-Bond plot can tootle along in the background to keep things moving while more interesting mysteries are set up in the foreground. The BBC’s budget is very nearly but not quite up to making the car chase through the vineyards look convincing but that in a way almost makes it more appropriate, leaning into the hokeyness of the inevitable car chase even as Lenny Henry struggles to make a convincing sharp shooter hanging out the window of a Bentley (his only less-that-perfect moment in the episode). So yes, the spy riff is a bit shop-worn, but it’s fine. And can Jodie Whittaker ever rock that tux and bow-tie (and top marks for the script being restrained enough not to make some “bow-ties are cool” reference).
The big surprise of this episode is just how confidently it kicks off Season 12. The hesitant, slightly uncertain feel of much of Season 11 has been jettisoned, Chibnall’s writing is sharper, there’s a couple of genuine “wait, what?” moments that really land, and the whole thing is dashing, exciting and great way back into the season. I haven’t even mentioned how strongly this is riffing on the Pertwee era – an obvious touchstone for spy capers, with Jodie working away on the TARDIS in a garage at the start, the motorbike chase, a car chase, the return of the Tissue Compression Eliminator and more – but for once it actually feels like it is riffing on the era, not just replicating it for nostalgia points and to smugly loop in old-timey fans (unexpected Torchwood reference not withstanding). This is a bold, confident start to the season, and if it is a harbinger of what’s to come then we could be in for a very strong season indeed.
Season 12, Episode 2 – Spyfall, Pt 2
Unpredictability is one of the engines upon which Doctor Who thrives. It’s unpredictable nature, of course, comes from a show which literally has the entire history of the universe to play with, which is not something most sci-fi shows have available to them. This means that, properly deployed, the unpredictability can give a real shot in the arm to a story, or indeed to part of a story. Deployed badly, it can make things seem scattershot and random, as if the show has no idea of where it needs to go so it just grabs anything and hopes something will stick. If one had been asked last week where I thought this story was going to go, “the 19th century, and also war-time Paris under the Nazis” was not the answer I would have given. The sheer scale of that unpredictability gives the second episode a real boost, but at the same time it also plays into the scattershot side of things as well – there’s just so much stuff going on here that, despite good ideas and some proper thematic resonance, a lot of it gets lost in the shuffle.
Take Ida Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan as Exhibit A. Their inclusion? Fantastic. These are two important women in history who are not generally given the recognition they deserve, so to see them included her is genuinely great. Yet both these characters could effortlessly sustain their own episode rather than both being temporary companions for the Doctor while her actual companions are off trying to keep the whole spy-spoof side of the episode going (though it’s a nice beat that when Graham, Yaz and Ryan eventually meet them they’re concerned they’ve simply been replaced). Both characters come across well, and we avoid the worst mistakes of the celebrity historical whereby either the Doctor ends up telling us how super-duper-awesome someone is without bothering to demonstrate why (Agatha Christie) or ends up with the Doctor giving them ideas which ends up undermining the very greatness the script is trying to demonstrate (like the Doctor giving Shakespeare famous lines). But they’re just given no time to breathe, and more time spent with either Ida or Noor would have been greatly appreciated. Individual moments are terrific but they don’t tend to connect to anything, and that’s generally how things go in the second episode. Daniel Barton suffers from this as well. He gets a scene where he kills his mother, apparently because she’s been withholding and could never say “well done” even as Barton changed the world. It shows Barton as a petty, small and spiteful man prepared to indulge in a bit of matricide to settle a perceived slight and Lenny Henry is, as one would expect, terrific in the moment. But the scene doesn’t connect to anything. It would be fairly easy to draw something out from that – perhaps that Barton fears the rejection he got from his parents so works with the Kasavin to receive a kind of ultimate form of gratitude – but the connections never get drawn. A little later, Barton gets a fantastic speech (again, and brilliant turn from a cold, contemptuous Henry) about how we’ve all given away control of our lives for a few circuits and games. It’s a good speech, it allows criticism of Big Tech to stand (in sharp contrast to the appallingly misjudged politics of “Ker-Blam!” last season) but… it doesn’t connect. Again there’s a ready-made connection right there with the Nazis – how people don’t just instantly go from “normal” to “exterminating millions in concentration camps” but instead slide one step at a time, just as we give away our own privacy and controls one step at a time. But no link is ever made.
There’s also a shift in focus during the second episode – the first episode gave the companions the focus but the second episode is all about the Doctor. From the moment she starts monologuing to herself in the Kasavian dimension – a skill all Doctors need to develop – until the final seconds of the episode, this is all about Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. And she is straightforwardly brilliant. The slightly toned-down Doctor from the first episode remains but she’s given a lot to do here and Whittaker carries it off with aplomb. This Doctor finally has something that was rather lacking last season – she has a real sense of interiority, and those final few moments of the episode where she actively deflects questions while apparently answering them gives Whittaker a whole new register to play her Doctor in. She simply didn’t get scenes like that last season and it goes a long way to making this Doctor feel like a much more rounded character. That’s not a criticism of Whittaker – who’s been fantastic from the word go – but it demonstrates the writing for her is getting stronger and as a result she has much more to work with. Of particular note is her scenes with Sasha Dhawin – they get lovely, long scenes together atop the Eifel Tower and the two positively crackle with energy. All the potential in Dhawin’s Master that we got at the end of the last episode is unleashed here and the two have a phenomenal on-screen rapport with each other. The Master comes across as a wounded animal almost, lashing out, full of fury but genuinely hurt. The Doctor is contemptuous of his movies and completely distrusting. Both Whittaker and Dhawin give their all during those scenes and they result in some excellent moments. Though it wouldn’t be a Chibnall script if something didn’t go wrong – the Doctor giving the Master over to the Nazis is horrendously misjudged, partly because, you know it’s the Nazis and partly because his race is used against him, since we have the first non-white Master. It’s difficult to overstate how crushingly wrong that moment is. The best you could come up with is the Doctor clearly demonstrating to the Master “you throw your lot in with racists, this is what it gets you” but really, that’s a piss-poor defence. It’s made all the worse because the withering contempt the Doctor shows for who the Master is palling around with is genuinely powerful (another excellent turn from Whittaker) and then… that happens. It’s very brief but it’s a horrible, miscalculated moment in a scene that otherwise absolutely sparkles.
And then, at the end of the episode, we discover the Master has wiped out Gallifrey because of some secret in it’s past. That’s a risky line to take. It’s going to have to be one hell of a reveal if Chibnall is going to pull that off, and there’s not a lot in his writing to suggest he’s capable of pulling that off. “Spyfall” is a vast improvement on his writing thus far but the idea that he can play with those kind of big concepts… well, that still needs to be shown. The problem we have at the end of “Spyfall Pt 2” is in a way the same problem that we had at the end of part one – we’re not seeing the whole picture. A lot of this episode comes across as overstuffed but there’s every possibility that once we know where it’s going a lot of the details will snap into place. At the moment the Kasavin are visually-striking-but-little-else bad guys – but maybe once we know what they actually are their presence here will make a lot more sense. Barton exits stage-left, hurried out of an auditorium by his security people (who are apparently unperturbed that their boss just tried to wipe out humanity) which is fairly unsatisfying in terms of the villain getting his comeuppance – but maybe he’ll be back later in the season? Obviously the whole what-happened-to-Gallifrey plot will be back, and the chances of the Master not returning this season are zero, so… where’s it all going? And when does this Master come from – pre-Missy, post-Missy, post-Roberts/pre-Jacobi, pre-Delgado even? There’s no clear answers but, for once, Chibnall has earned the benefit of the doubt. Whether he’ll provide satisfying answers very much remains to be seen but at the very least he’s delivered two fast-paced, engaging episodes that show a marked improvement in his ability to write, a much more rounded Doctor, and a new take on the Master that recalls the old without simply replicating it. That leaves a degree of cautious optimism in place. Time will tell whether this is justified, but at this point the show is back with two rousing episodes which, while unquestionably flawed, simply have a sense of fun about them that lets old-school fans enjoy a few references (“Contact!”) without just seeming like pointless continuity porn and which gives plenty for new fans to get their teeth into. Something that appeals to everyone in a couple of episodes that are fun, exciting and provide a little bit of everything?
Sounds like Doctor Who to me. We’re off to a good start.
Season 12, Episode 3 – Orphan 55
Well that was a complete mess. That’s the most obvious thing to say about “Orphan 55”, an episode whose heart is very much in the right place and whose brain very much isn’t. Doing a story about environmental collapse in 2020? I mean, that’s pretty much inevitable isn’t it? So fine, Doctor Who has frequently engaged with contemporary issues and used sci-fi as a lens to comment on them. That’s not quite what happens here though – there’s no real lens. It just states it’s point baldly, and basically has the Doctor deliver the point of the episode “you’re doing the washing up while the house burns down” directly to camera before smash-cutting to a Dreg as evidence of what will happen if we don’t all step up. It’s a startling way of ending an episode. Subtle it is not.
But before we get to that point we have a whole host of other far-from-subtle points to be made, all more or less following the same pattern. Part of the problem with “Orphan 55” is that it’s just so massively overstuffed that nothing gets the chance to breathe and as a result an episode that needs time to really build a case gets cluttered up with too many characters, too much running-up-and-down-corridors (they’re quite nice corridors, at least), too much expository dialogue, too many co-incidences or contrivances… the episode doesn’t even come close to being able to balance any of these into some kind of coherent narrative. And “narrative” is where this all badly falls down. Because the plot itself is pretty straightforward – the Doctor and co land on a resort world which turns out to have been build on the remains of Earth, they’re attacked by the mutated remains of the population and need to escape. That is not, in the telling, a greatly complex story, yet at every juncture “Orphan 55” proceeds to trip over its own feet. Any given Doctor Who fan should be able to reel off a list of obvious influences from previous stories (the spa from “The Leisure Hive”, the mutated creatures due to environmental collapse from “The Curse Of Fenric”, the “it was Earth all along” from “The Mysterious Planet”, the stranded vehicle conceit from “Midnight” and so forth) but Doctor Who showing its roots isn’t necessarily a problem. What is a problem is when all these aspects are pulling against each other rather than working in harmony with each other, and pulling against each other they most assuredly are. And that’s before we get to other fairly standard sci-fi tropes being looped in as well – Aliens is an obvious touchstone here as the Dregs rampage through Tranquillity Spa, but – “The Caves Of Androzani” not withstanding – Doctor Who just hasn’t generally proven to be very good at doing faux-military or shoot-em-up action. I mean, this isn’t as poor as the ANT hunt from “Dragonfire” but still – it’s just not what’s been effective, generally speaking. And thus it proves to be here – either through budget or execution the blast-the-aliens part of the episode doesn’t come across as remotely convincing, and that’s a bit of a problem when it’s a decent chunk of your running time. Early on, when the Dregs are first introduced, we get the fairly standard but generally well-utilized Doctor Who technique of just showing very short bursts of the monster on screen – a quick flash of a toothy jaw here, a sinewy limb there. Fine, that works. And the reveal of the Dregs – oh look, men in rubber suits! – is pleasingly old-school rather than being dodgy CGI. But the Dregs themselves never quite conjure up the terror they’re supposed to, and it’s telling that their most frightening moment is when one of them is asleep and the Doctor has to creep up to it. The design isn’t bad, and the protruding teeth right out of the jaw looks suitably menacing, but they just don’t quite convince on screen.
So if the monsters are a bit of a bust, what about our characters? Well where to even begin… Ok, well, let’s start with something positive. Jodie Whittaker is outright fantastic here. Her Doctor is absolutely leading from the front, she’s full of energy and authority (in a line that’s bound to be endlessly repeated, “I could make you from some crayons and half a tin of Spam” still nevertheless lands fantastically well) and at every step the slightly revised version of the Thirteenth Doctor is brilliant. And the interrogation of her motives continues as well – just as doubts were expressed by her companions at the end of “Spyfall” as to how much they really know about her, here Yaz demands to know when the Doctor realised they were on Earth. “Just before you did,” the Doctor replies, but it’s not at all clear whether that’s true, and we know from the end of the last story this Doctor will lie by omission or deflect difficult questions when it suits her. It’s giving the character interesting places to go and allowing a much more nuanced take on the character from Whittaker who, no surprise, again gets to show off why she was such good casting. She’s great at doing enthusiasm and “fam” but it’s just so nice to see her being able to add detail and depth to her performance when given material that allows her to delve into more than “cheery problem solving”. Whether this will go anywhere we will need to see, but in these short moments we get to see more depth to the character than we did in most of Season Eleven put together. And she’s smart here too, able to figure out how to create a “balanced ecosystem” to escape one Dreg, she understand how and why this is happening, and she works out how to save everyone more than once. This is the kind of intelligence that she should always have been written with and it seeing this Doctor figure stuff out makes her feel far more of the Doctor than long-winded speeches or catchphrases. The Doctor has always been a smart person who figures out what’s going on and what to do about it, and that’s exactly what she does here.
The other characters… maybe not. For one there’s Nevi and his son Sylas. Why? As in, “why are they in this”? And “why have you cast James Buckley in the role if his only defining characteristic is going to be a cheap green wig?” If you want to claim there’s a parallel between Nevi and his son bonding over the course of the episode and the bonding that Graham and Ryan went through last season, well, that’s fair, but the script doesn’t do nearly enough to make that land. And then there’s the nominal terrorist, Bella, who Ryan gets to have a bit of a flirtation with. But also her Mum – Kane – is hanging about the place, and there’s a whole sub-plot about how Kane gave her away, then they reconnect, then Kane sacrifices herself, but also survives (no explanation forthcoming) and is left to an indeterminate fate with her no-longer-estranged daughter at the end of the episode. Bella and Kane’s arc alone would be enough for one episode. Ah but we’re not done yet! Because there’s also doddery old couple Vilma and Benni, who are in this for… reasons. Reasons not made especially clear. On and on and on all these characters go, none of them getting nearly enough time to make it possible to invest in them and that’s without even mentioning the other regulars. There wouldn’t be time enough for all them in a two-parter never mind this 45-minute burst of stuff. Oh and just in case you thought we were done there’s a bunch of other stuff, like a Hopper Virus, teleportation, ionic membrane, a Dreg nest, explosives…. Enough already!
But look, it’s not all bad. It’s all incoherent, but not all bad. For all that the message here is crushingly unsubtle the fact of the matter is that this is light-years away from the sad Amazon apology of something like “Ker-Blam!” and for the second story in a row we get a genuine critique of a contemporary issue. In “Spyfall” is was Big Tech, here it’s environmental collapse, but in among the prothletising there’s some surprisingly sharp observations, like the way the rich simply abandoned Earth when they could, leaving everyone else to their fate. That’s a level of social critique that’s not at all present in the last season and is very much welcome. The regulars come off fairly well too – Tosin Cole gets a few nice moments, and it’s great to see that it’s Yaz who demands answers of the Doctor at the end of the episode, Mandip Gill again proving her worth. Graham doesn’t get much to do here beyond trailing round after the Doctor but he gets the odd good line, like pointing out that it’s worrying over Ryan that’ll get him in the end not the monsters. But we now have a common theme running through the three episodes of this season because, along with “Spyfall”, what this script simply aches for is a halfway decent script editor. Pare back the number of characters. De-clutter the story. Maybe bother to insert even one line about why this is only “an alternative future” rather than the standard model we-just-visit-anywhere-in-time. It wouldn’t be remotely surprising to discover there was a development problem – a late script maybe, or budget issues, or something – because the sheer level of incoherence here is unusual, and even some of the editing and sound (especially during the largely pointless drive-the-vehicle-into-the-wasteland sequence which takes up the middle third of the episode) seems to be greatly off in a way we just don’t normally see. So yes – this doesn’t really work. It’s not the worst episode of Doctor Who, nor the worst episode of the Chibnall era, and as a runaround and a bit of a base-under-siege standard-issue episode it’s passable. But it’s also immensely frustrating because there’s some really good, meaty ideas in play here and they get squandered in an episode that just doesn’t seem to have any idea what it’s doing, nor what it’s meant to do. From the person that wrote the beyond-excellent “It Takes You Away” last season this can’t be seen as anything other than greatly disappointing. Not appalling. But it simply should – and could – be so very much better.
Season 12, Episode 4 – Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror
It’s fine. Good in places, not so good in others.
Oh fine I’ll write more. This is, at least as far as working out the basics of how to construct a script, obviously more competent than last week’s smear of stuff. We get an exciting introduction at the beginning, the Doctor and co arrive in the narrative, we meet our historical characters, our alien invaders, and we have a plan to defeat them. Simple structure yes, and a familiar one, but it immediately lends a coherence to this episode that was sorely missing last week. For this season’s celebrity historical we have in the red corner Nikola Tesla (slightly distracted, melancholy, likeable) and in the blue corner Thomas Edison (bullish, blunt, hard to warm to). The episode has a number of fairly sharp observations about them – one of the sharpest of which is how Tesla was known as a genius but none of the Doctor’s companions can name anything he actually did apart from lending his name to a car. And Edison is allowed to make the observation that genius isn’t really worth much if you can’t translate your ideas into something that actually, you know, works. Where the episode scores its best points is in allowing these two characters to be shown as obvious contrasts to each other yet both have enough depth to be more than “deluded dreamer” and “bullying capitalist”. Edison is shown to be genuinely upset at the death of his employees – they are not simply cogs in his machine but people he cares about and knows. And Tesla has the chance to actually put some of his ideas in to practice to defeat the Skithra come the end of the episode. The shading given to those characters allows them to be more than just cyphers for a particular point of view and allows each to have a valid point. This solid character work is boosted by a couple of outstanding guest performances in the shape of Robert Glennister as Edison and Goran Višnjić as Tesla. Real depth and feeling is brought to both by a couple of actors who commit fully to their roles and bring out the best in the writing.
For the rest… well to be honest it’s pretty standard Doctor Who fare. The Skithra are fine as an alien-of-the-week – the make-up for the queen obviously recalls the Racnoss, the scorpion “drones” are distinctive enough (the CGI is a bit poor but it’s a nice touch that they stumble over each other from time to time) but there’s nothing about them that’s especially distinct. That they’re a hive-mind might have been a point worth either exploring or at the very least dropping into the episode at an earlier point so their defeat – stop the queen, stop them all – feels less contrived but it’s not the worst sin imaginable. The period setting is suitable lush and well-realised. Graham gets some nice, and rather unexpected, friction with Edison when the latter dismisses the former because he’s English and the English are, apparently, not good at business. Actually that’s a slightly weird beat for an episode set in 1903 when the British Empire spans half the globe, but it allows Graham the chance to bristle and make some sharp (and class-based) observations about Edison and how he operates. It’s great to see Graham’s working-class background not only be referred to but actually count for something and it’s great to see his opinions grow directly out of his background. It’s a small character beat but extremely well realised. The rest of the cast are fine too – Jodie Whittaker remains the star and is continuing to have real fun with the Doctor and her anger and disgust at the Skithra and their parasitic ways are all well-realised and convincing. I like the fact that we get the statement that immigrants contribute positively to society – that’s important and worth stating in today’s climate. Some of the direction, especially early on around the train, is a bit poor and struggles to get much excitement out of a big chase on a moving train (not sure how that’s possible, really) but once we get on to the story itself everything locks into place. It’s… fine.
And that’s it. Sorry this is a short one. This is perfectly good, solid ,enjoyable Doctor Who. Last week we had a mess of a script but with a real fury and conviction in what it was saying. This week we have a better constructed script which has a few things to say but in a fairly standard Doctor Who style. The base line for this season remains massively higher than it was last season, which is great, but we’re still waiting for a knock-out. Now, what do we think the chances of the Judoon doing that next week are…?
[EDIT] Because I was flying at the weekend and didn’t have much to watch I decided to go through “Spyfall” again. With one exception (you know, that scene in the second episode which is still an appalling miscalculation) the whole thing rocketed up in my estimation. There’s real detail and attention being paid, everything functions smoothly, it’s actually funny not “funny”, the performances are absolutely terrific and it’s just so confident and entertaining that it’s impossible not to get pulled along with it. Certainly I was too harsh on the second episode. Putting “World Enough and Time” / “The Doctor Falls” to one side (because that’s possibly the best two-parter there’s been) it stands comparison with previous two-parters. I’d rate it around “Dark Water” / “Death In Heaven” from Capaldi’s era or “Time Of The Angels” / “Flesh And Stone” from Smith’s, and that’s not nothing.
Season 12, Episode 5 – Fugitive Of The Judoon
So back when covering the second episode of “Spyfall” I may possibly have said, “Unpredictability is one of the engines upon which Doctor Who thrives”. I wasn’t quite prepared for how prescient those words would prove to be however, because if “unpredictable” in “Spyfall” meant “the Master is unexpectedly back, but also we’re off to the 19th century and war-torn Paris”, well, that is unpredictable but it also falls within a certain range of unpredictability which is very much within what Doctor Who does. A surprise return for the Master? We’ve had a good four of them already in the new series (the Yana reveal, the return of Simm, the Missy reveal, and the return of Simm (again) just to delineate them) even before “Spyfall”, that’s part of how the programme operates. “Fugitive Of The Judoon”, however, takes the idea of unpredictability and really runs with it. It’s an episode that’s really engage in sleight-of-hand – look at the shiny Judoon over here at the front-of-stage, while somewhere in the wings we get the decade-long absent Captain Jack popping in for a camped-up cameo and also an apparent whole new Doctor. Which is… quite something. But the real achievement here is just how vital all this feels. There’s a huge number of moving parts here, and while a lot of this is obviously set-up for the season finale and so is difficult to judge in isolation, the sheer confidence and balls-to-the-wall enthusiasm with which this is carried off makes it a hugely watchable piece of television. This feels like the most energised episode of Doctor Who of the Chibnall era, but more than that it feels like the most energised since arguably “The Day Of The Doctor”.
The important thing here is, though, that it’s not all just throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks, it’s clearly something which has been very carefully thought through. This episode is co-written between Chris Chibnall – who presumably did the Captain Jack bits and guided where the overall episode was going – and Vinay Patel who was one of two breakout writers from last season. “Fugitive Of The Judoon” proves beyond question that “Demons Of The Punjab” was far from a fluke – there’s an incredible amount of skill demonstrated here in balancing the action, the emotion, the twists and the characters in a story that is Moffat/RTD-level confident in its ability to stamp exactly what it wants to do and say on the episode. Patel is coming forward as one of the great discoveries of the Chibnall era who’s now pulled off two outstanding episodes and in very different modes – a thoughtful pseudo-historical that carefully dealt with an unexplored part of history and a full-on action-adventure sci-fi spectacular. That he’s been able to land both with such aplomb makes me incredibly excited to find out what he’s going to do next.
Let’s just get right into it, shall we? What we have here is three big moments in a story that’s somehow just forty-five minutes long (it doesn’t feel like that watching it, and I mean that as a compliment). We have – the return of the Judoon; the return of Captain Jack; the revelation that Ruth is in fact the Doctor. The Judoon themselves are interesting simply because of their irrelevance – they’re the feint, the thing you’re supposed to pay attention to because even if nobody thinks of the Judoon as being a top-tier alien creation (and surely nobody does) big stompy-stompy Space Rhinos turning up is pretty hard to miss. They’re all over the promotional material for this episode, they’re a familiar returning creature and, in the first quarter or so of the episode, they’re also pretty well used – threatening, sometimes funny, and with their own perspective in terms of carrying out their mission. Their prosthetics are as well done as you could hope for when it comes to Space Rhino Policemen in Doctor Who and they provide the threat they’re supposed to in a completely adequate way. Which is to say, they lull you into a false sense of security – you think you know the story you’re getting. Sure, Space Rhinos, stamp-stamp, the Doctor will help the fugitive and off to the next episode! Nope. Instead we get a bolt-from-the-blue return of Captain Jack which is, unspoiled and watching in context, just incredibly exciting. The decision is wisely taken to hold back on the reveal, letting his voice do the work for half a minute before ta-da! and out he comes. Poor old Graham is on the receiving end and it’s all just so silly but utterly the right kind of silly. But this is still a feint – we still think we know what kind of story this is, one with Space Rhinos but also a returning guest star to zhuzh things up a bit because ultimately the Space Rhinos don’t amount to a whole lot of anything. Nope. It’s only once we get to the lighthouse that we truly understand what kind of episode we’re in, but crucially we take our time getting there. For all that happens prior to that we have scenes which allow the episode to breathe. The Doctor’s calm but unrelenting interrogation of Ruth in her car (it’s a Volkswagen Beetle, if any Eight Doctor Adventures novel fans want to make something of that) allows the pace to slow down before we get the Big Reveals. The café scenes at the beginning allow a light but crucial amount of world-building so we get some proper scene setting. This means the structure of the episode can really support the amount of material that lies within it and is crucial in allowing the episode to function as well as it does.
Right, so that third revelation, and the one that really matters. Ruth is the Doctor, on Earth, disguised by a Chameleon Arch in a lighthouse, with her TARDIS buried in an unmarked grave. It’s a lot to process but the episode is very deft in the way it balances these revelations out. Because it rests on pre-established parts of Doctor Who lore there’s a minimal need for exposition which helps to keep the story moving at a fair clip, and because we’re used to seeing multiple Doctors meet up there’s a lot of shorthand involved that also precludes the need for further explanation. Once we accept who Ruth is – the Doctor – we get some familiar beats in the way they don’t particularly get on, though there’s a thankful level of restraint here. A lot of the initial dialogue between the two Doctors is very familiar in its rhythms but there’s no recycling of lines from earlier episodes – a level of restraint that wouldn’t necessarily be expected from Chibnall (see, by contrast, the Tenth Doctor getting the “I see you’ve redecorated – don’t like it” like recycled from “The Three Doctor” in “Day Of The Doctor”) but one which allows these characters to establish their own rapport. And what a rapport! Jo Martin, who’s done the rounds in a bunch of fairly standard British TV – Holby City, The Bill, EastEnders, you know the sort of thing – is fantastic as the new Doctor. She’s certainly more forthright than Jodie Whittaker’s version but she’s also instantly recognisable as the Doctor and she excels in the part. Martin is really giving two performances here, one the affable low-key Ruth and one the emergent Time Lord, and they’re both sharply drawn and immediately distinct. Even the way she physically stands as the Doctor helps shift the performance and she’s just fantastic. Which isn’t to say Whittaker isn’t, because this is without exception the best performance she’s given and she’s been amazing this season. Once again given far more range to play the Doctor she proves what a great choice she is for the role. The most obvious moments – the “you don’t know me” speech at the end of the episode, her interactions with Martin’s Doctor – all stand out, but even small moments like the questioning of Ruth in her car, or the way she deals with Ruth and Lee in their apartment, are being better written now and she’s responding in kind. Chibnall really seems to have figured out how to tailor material towards Whittaker to take advantage of her ability this season – “Spyfall” was excellent at this as well – and it continues to reap dividends with Patel doing exactly the same here.
And we haven’t even started to talk about the companions yet! And actually, that’s fair enough, because they’re not really the most important element here. They all get something to do at least – getting a snog from Captain Jack means Graham is probably top of that list this week – and, would you believe it, someone actually remembers that Yaz is meant to be a police officer! She actually gets the chance to point this out and say she’s going to use her ability in that role to talk to the Judoon as a distraction! It doesn’t work (or if you’re feeling less generous, it doesn’t amount to anything) but hey, at least someone’s paying attention! Ryan gets the least to do as well, but at least he gets to call out the Doctor at the end of the episode for her judgements (“I’m not having that”) and though the companions are definitely not the most important element here they’re also not neglected, a criticism that has – with at least a degree of merit – been aimed at previous episodes in Whittaker’s run. Apart from the companions though, even the most minor character here actually feel like real people, not someone who’s popped into an episode. Some old lady with her knitting just feels more convincing as a character even with just a couple of lines than sometimes, and with Lee – an excellent but all-too-brief appearance from Neil Stuke, always good value – we get an interesting character who only becomes moreso after the episode’s revelations. Was he the Doctor’s companion, serving in the same way as Martha “Human Nature” / “The Family Of Blood”? No answers are immediately forthcoming though it’s more than possible we’ll get further revelations somewhere down the line. The point here being – all the characters feel rounded and full, whether our regulars of just brief one-of’s and that makes the whole thing feel alive.
What isn’t at all clear, I fear, from the above description, is just how exciting this episode is while watching it. The big twists, the sudden reversals all work incredibly well but the episode doesn’t depend on them in order to work, but rather functions as a terrific episode in its own right within which the twists are a part but not the only part. It’s an amazing balancing act, and it makes “Fugitive Of The Judoon” easily the strongest story of the season so far. Time will tell whether all these elements come together to make for a satisfying conclusion but even if they don’t the thrill of the ride has really been quite something. It’s a mark of how vastly improved this season has been that this is already the third time I’ve muttered to myself, “well this is the best episode of the Chibnall era” and we’re only halfway through the season. But really – this is the best episode of the Chibnall era! It feels important and fun and exciting and engaging and interesting and million other things and by the end of it I – along, it seems, with just about everyone – was absolutely buzzing. Doctor Who felt like it mattered again, in a way the show only occasionally manages and certainly for the first time under its current stewardship. This was invigorating and everything that was needed to get the show back on top. I cannot wait to see where all this goes.
For a more in-depth look at the episode, I co-host a podcast normally about Big Finish but this time about “Fugitive Of The Judoon”. Have a listen:
Season 12, Episode 6 – Praxeus
For the second time this season we face an alien threat which is there simply as an illustration of contemporary environmental concerns. “Praxius” isn’t quite as blunt as “Orphan 55” – really, how could it be? – but at the same time isn’t exactly pussy-footing about when it comes to delivering its strong Green message. “Orphan 55” was a heart-in-the-right-place episode that struggled to pull together any sense of cohesion while it fired its anti-pollution message straight at the audience so can “Praxius” manage to find a better balance?
Yes. Yes it can. But let’s not get too carried away here either. Structurally this is a huge improvement on “Orphan 55”. There’s something for everyone to do here, by splitting the TARDIS crew up into various different units they all get to contribute something meaningful to the episode, the Doctor gets to properly investigate and work out what’s going on, and there’s a sense that the shambolic nature of “Orphan 55” has been replaced with a much more coherent approach to storytelling. The globe-trotting nature of the episode helps a little with that – rather than just having everyone rambling round the same few (admittedly rather good for Doctor Who) corridors or the inside of a tin-can APC we get three distinct locations for the investigation to play out over – a beach in Madagascar, Hong Kong and, in the end, an underground base of trash (plus some none-less-subtle scene-setting in Peru as two vloggers camp in a trash heap that was once meant to be beautiful before one is swiftly disposed of to get the plot underway). The beach is, at least, distinctive, as is Hong Kong right up until they wander into a warehouse that could then be literally anywhere. But hey, points for making the effort. All these settings actually help contribute to the plot – the birds wouldn’t make sense in Hong Kong, the warehouse wouldn’t make sense in Madagascar – and lean into that sense of story unity. So that’s all to the good. And character wise everyone has something to contribute – Yaz gets to investigate and go off to explore stuff, Ryan gets to do a dissection and help out, and Graham gets to deal more with the emotional side of things while Doctor gets on with resolving the plot. It’s all… well, solid. But it’s rarely remarkable. This is, for the most part, solid, middle-of-the-road Doctor Who – the base of what “middle-of-the-road” is this season is still considerably higher than it was last season, but this doesn’t have the sheer pop of last weeks’ story, nor the blatant genre collision of the two-part season opener.
But that absolutely doesn’t mean that this story has nothing to offer, because one huge thing in its favour is Adam and Jake. Adam is an astronaut, Jake is his husband and the episode makes neither apology or justification for the way these characters are. Last season had a problem with gay representation – always a touchy subject at the best of times – and had a tendency to lean into the Kill My Gays cliché of scriptwriting (the security guard in “Resolution” that gets bumped off by the Dalek is a particularly poor example). This brought entirely legitimate criticism. Yet here we see things actively being corrected – Adam and Jake are, first and foremost, a couple – their sexuality isn’t the point of them being there, this could be any couple but it so happens to be a gay one. When Jake reveals his insecurities to Grahahm, self-sabotaging himself because he doesn’t know how to compete with someone as remarkable as his husband, it’s both a genuine moment of expressed vulnerability and a demonstration that the show has learned from past mistakes. This scene could easily have gone a different way – become, for example, a “my husband wont come out because he’s an astronaut”-type standard gay trope set-up which to be honest may have been a more obvious approach – but it doesn’t and that deserves real praise. By not taking the obvious route, and by allowing Adam and Jake to be characters first and a representation of their sexuality second, we can see lessons being learned and get a genuinely compelling couple of characters. And Adam even gets to save the planet! His decision to stay behind and sacrifice himself when the auto-pilot fails (a bit of a tired plot point, but OK fine whatever) is just a bit on-the-nose, but he genuinely believes he’s sacrificing himself for humanity’s good and the Doctor rescuing him at the last moment lets his moment of nobility stand while dodging the dead-gay-guy cliché. This is all extremely strong work and is beyond question the best queer representation during the Chibnall era.
It’s a shame that character work isn’t quite as consistent over the rest of the episode. Aramu, the otherwise rather likeable third-or-fourth tier supporting cast member ™ gets killed off with barely a backwards glance, and given how close our two vloggers are supposed to be Gabriella seems remarkably unphased by the disappearance of her co-host. Indeed we don’t even really find out what happens to her at all – one moment she stumbles out the tent, there’s a bit of bird noise then… it’s the next day and Ryan has turned up to get Gabriella involved in the main part of the story. Presumably she was killed by the birds? But if so what happened to the body? The whole set-up with the vloggers is classic horror-movie tropes – “we are not staying in this terrible place” immediately cutting to them staying in this terrible place – but there’s no real resolution to it, a clumsy oversight that really should have been caught. Suki – well played by Molly Harris – does somewhat better as the cuckoo in the nest, convincingly on-side until her true nature is revealed. Microplastics as the means by which humanity could be ended feels weirdly specific in a way I’m not sure the episode entirely justifies (not that they aren’t a concern, because they clearly are) but fine, we’re talking about pollution and that’s a valid thing to zero in on. And the death of the characters infected by the Praxeus virus is suitably distinctive, as its victims are slowly overcome with a sort of barnacle/thorn growth on their skin before suddenly exploding in a fountain of dust. New Series Doctor Who has not excelled much when it comes to monster-of-the-week designs, so “Praxeus” does at least deserve credit in getting that right.
What, though, “Praxeus” really lacks is something to elevate it to the next level. There’s a sense that all the elements here are in play and working well, there’s solid character work, and a good story with a timely message. Other than those two slightly off-handed character deaths nothing goes noticeably wrong, but there’s something ever so slightly mechanical about the storytelling here. A leads to B leads to C leads to the end of the episode. It’s not unsatisfying, it’s great to see Yaz get to do some real exploring herself (her disappointment at only finding a huge dome at the bottom of the ocean instead of an alien planet is another excellent moment from Mandip Gill, who continues to shine when given half a bloody chance) and it all dovetails neatly into a sensible solution – or at least as sensible as we’re likely to get when dealing with aliens who use plastic to infect humanity with body-blowing-up barnacles at any rate. This is entertaining and enjoyable and absolutely not a bad way to spend the best part of an hour. It just really aches for a few little tidy-up moments to move it up to the next level. If this is the base-line we have to work with this season, well, that’s OK, no disaster here. But generally Doctor Who excels when it swings for the fences – for all its flaws “Orphan 55” certainly did that. Which of these episodes you prefer will likely be entirely personal – the passion but mess of “Orphan 55” vs the more organised by less impassioned “Praxeus” – but both of these episodes hit exactly the same qualitative level, if for different reasons. That’s a good quality. It really is. So why am I finding it hard to not sound more positive?
Season 12, Episode 6 – Can You Hear Me?
When I say that “Can You Hear Me” is likely the weakest story of the season so far, that’s something that needs to be taken in context. So far we’ve had two absolute stonkers (“Spyfall”, “Fugitive Of The Judoon”), two base-level morality plays (“Orphan 55” and “Praxeus”) and “Nicola Tesla’s Night Of Terror” as the outlier. None of these episodes have been bad – in fact, this is a stronger season thus far than Capaldi’s last one. So, yes, “Can You Hear Me?” is probably the weakest story in the season but that’s more a reflection of the season’s strengths than it is anything else. If this episode follows anything this season, it’s likely “Orphan 55”, which is to say that “Can You Hear Me?” is another episode which wants to deal with Big Issues (mental health this time out) but is sloppily constructed so some of the power of what it is the episode is trying to discuss gets somewhat diluted. Heart in right place, head not necessarily so is a bit of a theme this season, but it’s infinitely preferable to have Doctor Who which is actually trying to be about something – even if it doesn’t always stick the landing – than just hollow running-up-and-down-corridors for the sake of it. If this story struggles to land its theme – and it does – then at least it has a theme, and compassion towards people suffering from mental health problems is a good, solid idea around which to base an episode.
But the story wants to be about more than just mental health, and that’s where things come unstuck. Last week we got three worldwide locations, but a script that was anchored by a sense of cohesion – each location played into the story, helping to drive it towards its conclusion. Here we get the same – Aleppo in the 14th century, contemporary Sheffield and a spaceship somewhere way, way out. But they’re pretty scattershot. Sheffield is easiest to connect to – it allows the companions the chance to step back into their regular lives and try to understand where travelling with the Doctor fits in relationship to what they’ve left behind. That means Graham gets to meet up with friends and worry about his cancer returning, Yaz gets a bit of (very welcome) backstory, and Ryan becomes worried that his travels have kept him from helping a friend suffering with mental health issues. That’s all good solid character-based stuff, and indeed the companions material here is the best the episode has to give us. It’s hardly an unusual complaint, obviously, but it’s taken a long time for Yaz to get much in the way of back-story, so to see Mandip Gill really get the chance to stretch herself here and fill in a lot of the blanks around Yaz feels like very necessary work that’s been a long time coming. And it’s not much surprise to discover she’s great at it! We get some of the story told in flashback – very far from my favourite technique – but the details are relatively compelling. She was someone that was bullied at school and apparently got no support anywhere else (interesting, given the apparently closeness of her family), ran away and was brought back and given direction by a kindly police officer who found a way to get through to her. I am, at best, ambivalent about the idea of “good cop” but it works well within the story, and it fits with what (little) we know of Yaz. Ryan’s concern for his mate, Tibo, is also a good character beat for someone who’s always had a degree of no-nonsense compassion about him and by persuading Tibo to get to group therapy by the end of the episode we get a story not only about mental health but about the possibility of doing something constructive around helping people. This is all to the good.
The other two locations though? Ehhhh…. Aleppo is an interesting choice of place for the Doctor to go, but beyond a few historical titbits that lean into the theme of the episode (the Doctor mentioning they were famous for how well they treated those will mental health issues) it’s not really established as much. I mean, it’s nice to head somewhere like Aleppo and have it contextualised as somewhere with a very long history which isn’t just the endless wars in the Middle East we seem to be faced with today, but at the same time all we get is one square, a small room and a couple of – here they come! – corridors. Nice attempt, I guess, but this really could be Any Given Location. And the spaceship in the middle of Somewhere Far Away is… well, it’s a spaceship. There’s some nice design work in evidence here – we’ll be returning to this theme in a minute – what with the almost harp-like method of controlling the ship, but again… it’s a ship. And this time it’s occupied by some immortal beings, meaning we get a bit of fanwank (namedropping the Eternals and the Guardians, as well as the Toymaker for god-only-knows what reason – please don’t let the Toymaker come back) while the Doctor faffs around making some elementary mistakes (surely it’s a good idea to check who might be in a prison before opening it?). Anyway it’s all resolved in a flood of daftness as a bunch of unstoppable aliens from beyond time are, in fact, stopped. Obviously that’s par for the course, but it all wraps up way too quickly – this is an episode that could have done with either sticking to its alien-nightmare plot or its companion-backstory plot but can’t balance itself well enough to land both elements. There’s interesting stuff here for sure, but it needs a far better structure to bring all of those elements together.
Where the episode scores some good points those is in that design work. The harp-like controls are one great little moment but there’s a lot of good work when it comes to bringing the episode together. The fingers that detach from Zellin’s hands to draw out nightmares from his victims is a suitably creepy piece of design – something that could have looked stupid but manages to be remarkably effective. “Scary” might be taking it too far, but it’s striking and memorable and a great little detail. Similarly when we get an explanation of who Zellin is and where he comes from we get something unprecedented – the story laid out in animation, narrated and shown as if it came from a Greek or Roman myth. It’s incredibly striking and a really interesting way of shaking up the exposition. Even Aleppo, for all that it is just a square, a room and a couple of corridors, is at least a detailed one, and looks convincing enough to buy it as they story’s third location. The creatures that Tahira conjures out of her mind aren’t bad for a quick one-and-done, and the clawed-hand-across-the-face is another striking image in an episode full of striking images. Even the borderline-surreal material, as nightmares are extracted, works well – indeed the episode might have benefitted from ramping up the surreal elements even further. It does give us another quick cameo from Sharon D Clarke as Grace – always welcome – as Graham is forced to confront his own fears about his cancer coming back (this does lead to one dud moment where, when he admits his fear to the Doctor, she deflects with the line “I’m still quite socially awkward” and kind of pushes his admission away, a strange beat that neither Whittaker nor Walsh quite know how to play, understandably). All of this gives the episode a very distinct visual look and helps rise an otherwise somewhat muddled script.
And yet, it’s hard to be that harsh. It’s true there’s a lot of rough edges here, at least some of which should have been files away during the script-editing stage. This script is from a newcomer to Doctor Who, Emma Sullivan, but the mistakes she makes here aren’t anything unforgivable. True this version of the Doctor feels a little more Season Eleven than the more interior-facing Doctor of Season Twelve. But the Doctor is mostly here for the solve-the-plot details anyway – this is much more about the companions, their lives, and how they face up to the different way they live now, and that focus on the companions remains compelling even as the Doctor fades a little into the background. The attempt to discuss mental health feels grown-up – not some bullshit “woke” agenda, but a proper attempt to wrestle with a real issue – and if the execution isn’t perfect then at least it’s a sincere, open-hearted way to start a discussion. All the guest cast are fine, the design work is striking, and there’s nothing here to suggest that Emma Sullivan returning would be a bad thing. There’s some issues to work out, and there’s absolutely no denying this is flawed, but we’ve had very much worse first-time scripts than this. If Doctor Who is to continue pioneering new writers there’s going to be the odd bump in the road, and that’s really what this is. Sure, it’s the weakest episode this season, but it’s not bad just somewhat unfocussed, and it suggests potential for the future.
Even Season Eighteen had “Meglos”, after all.
EDIT! “this does lead to one dud moment where, when he admits his fear to the Doctor, she deflects with the line “I’m still quite socially awkward” and kind of pushes his admission away, a strange beat that neither Whittaker nor Walsh quite know how to play, understandably.”
You know, I’ve reconsidered this and I think I’m being too harsh. Graham makes it clear, during this conversation, that the problem isn’t that his cancer is coming back – his tests are clear, his health is fine, and he has no reason to think anything is going to change there. But… basically he’s defeated the disease but not the fear of the disease. That thematically links into the episode, which is in part about confronting nightmares, and what could be more nightmarish that your cancer coming back? But the Doctor doesn’t know how to react to this. She too is unable to defeat her fears – Gallifrey’s destruction, the Master, whatever happened with the Grace Doctor – and we’ve seen her actively deflect questions about what’s going on with her. And so the Doctor does the same thing again here – covers her own inability to confront or open up emotionally with an offhanded “socially awkward” line. I think the writing could make that a little clearer, and maybe a bit more direction could draw that out of the performances but on reflection I think this works way better than I originally thought.
Season Twelve, Episode 8 – “The Haunting Of Villa Diodati”
Haunted house stories are an absolute staple of Doctor Who. So are celebrity historicals. So are Cyberman stories. They’re not, generally speaking, genres that tend to get smashed together. And yet, “The Haunting Of Villa Diodati” does, perhaps unintentionally, pose the question “why not” because the exceedingly creepy dark hose, the flitting ghosts, the shifts in perspective (I swear I said “recursive occlusion” at the TV when watching this life as the Doctor struggles to escape the shifting corridors of the house) and a whacking great Cyberman all dovetail extremely neatly into each other. It’s not precisely obvious why they would but once you’ve seen them together, unlikely though the Cyberman’s arrival was, it all makes perfect sense. This is an episode with a clean split structure but the two parts fold extremely well into each other. A handful of Romantic poets and one of science-fiction’s greatest writers? That’s just the cherry on top.
Still one thing you can absolutely say about this season is that it’s done a good job of hiding its big surprises, to often very effective ends. That’s the case here, as we start off with a fairly standard celebrity historical template. The Doctor and co turn up at [IMPORTANT TIME] featuring [IMPORTANT PEOPLE] and [SCI-FI HAPPENS]. I mean, there’s a good dozen stories in the New Series that effortlessly fit that template, never mind the original run. And the first part of the story makes absolutely no suggestion that this is going to be anything other than what it appears – the Doctor meeting some famous writers on the night that Frankenstein got written and Mary Shelly becomes one of the founders of modern science fiction. The symmetry there should be fairly obvious. As a rule I hate it when we get “The Doctor insp
ires X” storylines because it almost always diminishes whatever X is, and this so very nearly falls into that trap but – I think? – just about avoids it. But all the setup here is standard, if well implemented fare. It’s sort of pointless at this stage to mention how good the BBC is at doing costume drama, yet it remains absolutely true. Everything here looks sumptuous and real, whoever was doing the lighting deserves real praise – in particular the way that close-up everything washes yellow from “candlelight” but there lots of dark, dingy spaces around every corner – and this simply feels like a real location. Comparisons to “Ghostlight”‘s setting seem pretty straightforward and the setting really contributes to the feel of the first half. It’s very successful.
Then the Cyberman turns up and we’re not actually in the middle of a normal celebrity historical at all but instead barrelling towards the two-part finale. The Cyberman here is definitely effective, and the half-shattered face and real rage the Cyberman possesses gives this a whole new twist. We’re used to the ideal of Cybermen as stompy-stompy bad guys, strutting their way around (even the new incarnations seem fairly camp) and generally trying to do the whole “body horror” thing to a greater or lesser extent. We still have the body horror here, though it’s markedly different from either “World Enough And Time”‘s unbelievably creepy invocation of the original Cybermen nor the slice-and-dice butchery of “Rise Of The Cybermen” / “The Age Of Steel” and there are definitely points to be scored for finding a whole new horror in what the Cybermen do and what they represent. The Cyberium plotline is a little out of left-field, but it’s not as if it’s completely at odds with pre-established Cyber lore (the references to the “Cyberiad” in “Nightmare in Silver” are probably the closest in the new series) and it’s obviously here to set up whatever’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks. But yes, the Cyberman – one lost, wounded vicious Cyberman – is definitely a success here.
I do also appreciate the attempt to have the writers be more than just “this week’s historical guest star”, though the success of this is somewhat variable. Byron gets a big chunk of time (and I appreciate the callback to Ava Lovelace) but he’s mostly a slightly fruity lunatic who’s mostly there to drop Carry On-style innuendos in the Doctor’s general direction. The Shelly’s – Mary and Percy – get more focus… sort of. The story desperately wants us to understand that, in it’s own, um, words, that “words matter”. What we needed from the episode is perhaps more of an indication of why words matter, and there isn’t quite enough of that. In isolation “words matter” is an extremely Doctor-y thing to say and feels consistent with the character. And look, I get that we only have around fifty minutes and we need to have a stompy-stompy bad guy in there somewhere (the Cyberman trying to “sneak” down a corridor was a genuinely hilarious moment though). But if you are going to not focus on Mary – the wrong choice, of course she should have been the focus – and go for Percy instead as the story does, well, tell us why his words matter. Because they do! People think of Shelly as a poet, obviously, but he was also a philosopher and radical – that’s one of the reasons he was never much acknowledged during his lifetime, a lot of what he wrote was regarded as being downright revolutionary. And his writing had a profound effect, from the Chartist movement in 19th century England to the likes of Ghandi and MLK (some of Shelly’s earliest works were treatises on non-violence as a viable form of political resistance). This isn’t to lean into some great-man-of-history bullshit, but Shelly’s writings have made a difference on the modern world – Karl Marx is a direct influence too. The Doctor’s “your world wouldn’t exist” line to Ryan may be an exaggeration but it’s not wholly wrong either, and we need a reason to care about that side of things. What’s missing is context. Of course the Doctor will try and save one life and doesn’t indulge in the mathematical calculation – one die, billions live – that would be vastly out of character. But give us some idea of scale maybe?
There are complaints to be made here – this isn’t a perfect story. The skirting up to the line of “Mary Shelly was inspired to write Frankenstein” is deeply unfortunate, though it’s a very brief part of the episode (and I do think that scene can be read as Mary already having had the idea then encountering the Cybermen, though this isn’t nearly as clear as it should be). The Doctor seems to give up a bit easily when the Cyberman tells her she’s been defeated and she kind of accepts it. I mean, I understand the desire to have a solitary Cybermen present a real threat a la “Dalek” but it’s the Cybermen. We need a more convincing reason for the Doctor to be defeated than “because I told you so”. Saying that, though, this is yet another fantastic episode for Whittaker, and there’s some really great Doctor moments. For all that we need more definition behind it, the Doctor’s “words matter” really packs a punch thanks to the way Whittaker delivers it, and her big “sometimes the team structure isn’t flat” speech is just terrific. It’s a portentous, and slightly pretentious, speech but Our Jodie sells the hell out of it, and there’s never a moment where she’s anything other than magnificent. That’s true of the whole cast here – all the companions get stuff to do, the Actual Historical Characters feel like real people (though I dearly want to see more of Mary) and there’s a… well, not realism obviously but a believability about everything that makes it all hang together. This is basically a pretty great episode of Doctor Who – perhaps not an all-time classic but a well written, well structured episode that’s far, far more interesting than the standard-fit celebrity historical that it was sold as.
But one final thought. I like this season – I like this season a lot. It hasn’t all worked but it’s a massive step up from the previous season and even when not everything has landed it’s still been taking big swings, and I’d far rather have Doctor Who that took a swing and missed occasionally than never swung at all. And, to be clear, most of the swings have connected. The odd messy structure here and there isn’t all that much to get worked up about, in the long run. But… the season has so far been promising us a lot of Jam Tomorrow. The Timeless Child mystery has been built up. There’s the Lone Cyberman, who we’ve now at least encountered. We’ve had Jack back. There’s… well everything in “Fugitive Of The Judoon” but most obviously the Ruth Doctor. All of these are setting up mystery upon mystery upon mystery. So far the ride has been good – thrilling in places, even. But that places a huge weight of expectation on the last two stories of the season. Sometimes that can work, sometimes not. Sometimes we get “World Enough and Time” / “The Doctor Falls”. And, well, sometimes we get “Last of The Time Lords”. If this season whiffs the ending it wont undermine all the good work this season has done course-correcting the flaws of the last one, but it’s going to make that failure feel that much more painful. I hope the series can pull it off. I really, really want it to find a satisfying conclusion (or even if it doesn’t conclude everything about this story arc, at least give us some answers and set up interesting potential questions for the future). I shall remain cautiously optimistic, because I think this season has earned a degree of optimism. But woe betide it if it all falls apart at the end…
Season Twelve, Episode 9 – “Ascension Of The Cybermen”
It’s the first part of a two-parter. It does what all “first-part-of-a-two-parter”‘s do, sets up a bunch of mysteries the end result of which is going to be obscure until we get the conclusion. So this week…
Any Other Business:
• Interesting opening, with the ponderous voice-over, scattered remains of the Cybermen floating in space, then falling through an eye into the title sequence. It all looks great.
• And off to Ireland we go! Or… is it? I have lingering doubts about this. Obviously there’s a mystery layered throughout the episode and we get no hint as to where it’s all going, but there’s something fractionally other-worldly about this. It could be real, but then again it could be a simulation. Or maybe it just feels peculiar next to the flat-out sci-fi the rest of the episode consists of.
• It’s well-constructed and well directed though, the slightly “off” feel of it allowed to stand without being over-emphasised. Nicely handled.
• I realise it’s necessary to keep the Doctor away from the TARDIS so she can’t just evacuate everyone and cut a good thirty minutes out of the story but surely “we parked a bit far away” wasn’t the best reason anyone could come up with?
• There’s something quite appealing about the idea of the Doctor confidently wading into trouble only to have her little tech toys dispatched easily by some flying Cyber-heads. She’s misjudging the situation, and that makes the declaration of, “I’ve been careless with your lives” later in the episode feel like it carries more weight.
• Oh yeah, the flying Cyber-heads are cheesy as hell (are the actually heads off a Cyberman? Are there half a dozen headless bodies standing about somewhere tapping their feet impatiently waiting for the heads to return?) but I love them all the same. I have no problem at all with that level of silliness, even in a tense situation.
• I found the visible contemporary power pylons in the background of the unnamed planet weirdly distracting. Unless this turns out to be a plot point and this is actually Earth? That might tie in with the Ireland material, though no explicit – or even implicit – connection is drawn between those two parts of the episode.
• We again have a tense, frustrated and difficult Doctor, and we again have a stand-out performance from Jodie Whittaker who simply excels at playing the Doctor in this register.
• Splitting up the companions into two groups of two – Ryan and the Doctor, Yaz and Graham – remains an effective way of using the larger number of companions and giving everyone something to do. Ryan gets a bit less than the other two, since he’s in trail-along-after-the-Doctor mode and is necessarily eclipsed in places, but there’s still enough.
• Yaz continues her independent streak, and her and Graham chivvying the other two survivors in their escape craft into coming up with a solution for being stranded works well, though they’re a bit chipper (Graham especially) given they’re dealing with two clearly-traumatized war survivors. You’d think Yaz’s training might have helped a bit there…
• One thing this episode isn’t very good at is getting us to care much about the supporting cast. With the exception of Ko Sharmus none of the others land much beyond “generic plot function characters”, though none of them are bad either.
• Well, except for Ashad, who continues his run as the best villain of the Chibnall era by a country mile, and stands easy comparison with the best of the Moffatt and RTD era as well. Ashad is an blisteringly effective presence, something genuinely new to the Cybermen and an enemy that has real bite and enough weight for the Doctor to have a proper confrontation with. While I would understand if Ashad doesn’t survive beyond the end of this season I also hope he does because this is about as effective as the modern-era Cybermen have ever been (that’s putting aside the Mondasian Cybermen from “World Enough And Time” / “The Doctor Falls” which were similarly great).
• The contradiction at the centre of Ashad – his self-hatred, righteous fury and the idea that he’s a being driven by emotion trying to resurrect the empire of creatures who have no use for emotion and have forcibly eliminated it – is an excellent conceit. He’s genuinely terrifying but not in the usual Doctor Who “unhinged generic nutter” mode (but don’t worry, because the Master will popping along in a bit to fulfil that aspect).
• Ko Sharmus turns out to be a person, not a place. That feels like a very Moffat conceit (think “The Doctor has a secret that he will take to the grave. It is discovered!”) in an episode that hews far closer to Old Who than it does New Who.
• And speaking of Old Who… we have some classic Cybermen costumes instead of the Cybus-men ones! I honestly gasped a bit when I saw them – while I appreciate there may be a strain of fandom that thinks this kind of retro-reference is a step to far the truth is they’re simply a better design than the current Cybermen, who look great in photographs and never fail to look like anything other than a costume when actually strutting around. Hopefully these “warrior class” Cybermen will be a bit less stompy-stompy as well. Saying that, though, at least the rusted, battered-up version of the modern Cybermen we have here look better than the sparkly-clean versions we’ve had before.
• And speaking of Old Who #2 – one of the cliff-hangers here, with the Cybermen all emerging from their pods as a single vast army, is exactly the same as the cliff-hanger to “Earthshock” Part 3, lacking only David Bank’s campily booming voice declaring that, “my army awaits, Doc-Tor!” (I’d be gleefully fine if Banks ended up voicing the warrior-class Cybermen rather than Nick Briggs, just because it would be super-trolling Old School fans. Banks has recently returned to do Old Cybermen voices in Big Finish, so why not?).
• “He’s the Cyberman who can make other Cybermen scream” packs a real wallop, as does the on-screen visual of Ashad cutting into a warrior-class Cyberman as if he was welding an old car in a garage.
• The other cliff-hanger – the Master stepping out of the Boundary in front of the image of a ruined Gallifrey is a suitably ta-da! moment for him, and of course it’s great to see Sacha Dhawin back.
• Some fans have worried that this might lead to a “humans are the origin of the Time Lords” story, which is unlikely to be great, but the on-screen evidence doesn’t particularly support that reading. We’re told the Boundary never opens in the same place twice, that it’s never looked like Gallifrey before, and we can assume has never dispatched a big moustache-twirling villain either. I mean, that could still be where this all ends up, but what we have so far doesn’t really point in that direction.
• No Ruth Doctor this week. I assume she’ll be around next week? I’m actually very down for mysteries that play out over more than one season, it makes an interesting change from the one-and-done arcs the show has favoured in the past and gives this era of the show something new to play with. But I do want more of the Ruth Doctor.
• Jam tomorrow is still being promised. This better be bloody tasty jam. According to the Master, everything is about to change forever. We shall see…