Sunday, 22 December 2019

On 22.12.19 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments

[This review contains spoilers. If you want a spoiler-free review, there are enough out there.]

In 2015, when the popular opinion of the Star Wars franchise was that the prequels had forgotten the fun, action adventure feel of the original movies, JJ Abrams was the right choice of director to bring it back. The Force Awakens was a whistle-stop tour of what we used to love about Star Wars, and the fact that some plot elements were very much a replica of those from A New Hope was outweighed by the new perspectives added onto this plot by charming new characters, and by the energy which Abrams injected into every scene.

But then The Last Jedi upped the game, keeping the same charm but twisting it into something new. Its writer/director Rian Johnson recognised that, if the sequel trilogy stayed reverent to the originals, like so much of our nostalgia-fuelled pop culture, the trilogy would fall flat, and so made a point of not doing that. He pushed those characters in new directions and gave us us a more thoughtful film, twisting The Force Awakens’ best idea – that Luke Skywalker and the Jedi had become myths in the Star Wars galaxy, reflective of the characters’ beloved status in our culture – with the most daring theme of any Star Wars: nostalgia and myths can be dangerous; question your heroes; "we are what they grow beyond.”

In my opinion, it was the best Star Wars film to date. Some people didn’t agree. Which is fine. Opinions will vary. But some people really didn’t like it, seeing the way it refused to be adoring of every aspect of Star Wars iconography as a betrayal of the franchise. The backlash expanded from fair criticism into bullying. Two of the film’s stars were hounded off social media by the most toxic, outspoken elements of fandom. It became difficult to have a fair discussion around this film without getting bogged down in the pervasive nastiness.

When it came to the final instalment of the sequel trilogy, Disney and JJ Abrams, at the helm once more, had a choice – stick to their guns, or fall back. 

The Rise of Skywalker falls back, and then some. It’s a regressive movie, both in ideas and execution.

Rey’s arc began in The Force Awakens by centring on how her desire to know about her parents dominated her search for personal identity (to the point of holding her back – she initially refused a place on the Millennium Falcon’s crew so she could go back to Jakku and await them). This was playing into one of the more conservative aspects of Star Wars – an equating of parentage with destiny. Luke’s fate being determined by his Skywalker bloodline was such a large part of the original films that the release of the first two sequels was surrounded by endless, dull theories about who Rey’s parents were. Is she a Skywalker, a Solo, a Kenobi, a Palpatine? My thought about all this was – who cares? And that’s why I loved the twist in The Last Jedi. It’s who she is that matters, not who her parents are. Someone playing an important role in the galactic saga because it’s their familial destiny to do so is the equivalent of someone becoming Prime Minister because their parents’ mates in the House of Lords and their teachers at Eton always told them they were going to; I’m much more interested in the story of someone who comes from nothing, makes the choice to join the fight, and creates their own destiny. 

But the theorists weren’t happy about that twist. They weren’t happy about the film daring to go against the unspoken rules of Star Wars and surprise them with a revelation that didn’t fit their carefully plotted theories. And so The Rise of Skywalker gives in, pulling right back. Rey is, via a half-arsed retread of The Empire Strikes Back’s big moment, a Palpatine now.

Maybe not liking the twist is a matter of opinion, though. Maybe for some, particularly those who didn’t like The Last Jedi, Rey (pictured above) being the Emperor’s granddaughter is a neat reveal, bringing the themes of the saga full circle. But even if you do like the idea, I don’t see how anyone can defend the execution – Kylo casually saying “oh yeah, I was lying in the last film.” The backtracking is excruciatingly palpable.

I do think there’s some merit to the idea of Rey flirting with the dark side in this final instalment. Having failed to turn Kylo to the light and with her master Luke dead, Rey doing whatever it takes to win, and being lured via Palpatine’s schemes into making bad decisions, is an interesting way to move her arc forward. But this potential story gets lost among the baggage of her being his granddaughter, which deviates the film away from any possible point about what makes people commit evil. (And again, the whole thing is so clumsily done; a lowlight for me is when she thinks she’s killed Chewbacca, then it turns out she didn’t, and the explanation is “oh, maybe it was a different transport”, despite the fact that there clearly was only one transport.)

Kylo Ren’s arc is just as poorly compromised. In The Force Awakens, he was on his way down to the dark side, but consumed by inner conflict, hesitant when it came to killing his father. In The Last Jedi, Rey became obsessed with whether she could redeem him, as Luke redeemed Vader. This dynamic took up much of that film, with a fascinating back and forth, exploring the potential for his redemption from various angles and even very nearly seeing Rey succeed, before she was given the answer: no. He’s gone too far. The film ended with him undeniably evil.

We have to remember that this character is a fascist, at the same time that, in the real world, the far right is on the rise again in many countries. Yes, I know, I’m making the silly space movie political, but all art reflects the culture that produces it, and this comes at a time when we have to ask ourselves questions about whether we stand up to fascism or placate it and hope it goes away (clue: it doesn’t). Kylo Ren is an alt-right kid. He’s also a school shooter; he massacred his class. He is, as of the end of The Last Jedi, evil.

And the first half of The Rise of Skywalker backs this up. He’s slaughtering his way across the galaxy, determined to collate his power and to wipe out the Resistance heroes who oppose him. He’s evil, evil, evil. Rey seems no longer concerned with redeeming him but with finding a way to stop him. 

And then his mum reaches out to him through the Force, he gets injured, healed, and suddenly he’s good. Wait, what? It’s all so sudden, over and done in a scene. Like with Rey, even if you like the idea of a redemption arc – and I don’t – you can’t deny the clumsy execution.

“This is so stupid,” I thought while watching it, “they might as well go for broke and have Rey and Kylo make out.”

For fuck’s sake.

Speaking of Kylo’s mum, the use of previously shot footage to fit in Leia is awkward, but I can forgive that – the filmmakers making the best of an unfortunate situation. But I can’t forgive the awful death scene, as arbitrary and half-arsed a part of Leia’s arc as it is Kylo’s. I found it hilarious how everyone accepted her death without question. 

The scene goes like this:

Poe: I need to talk to the General.
Conspicuously lesbian rebel: Poe... she’s gone.
Poe: Oh, that’s sad, but OK.

When it should have been:

Poe: I need to talk to the General.
Lesbian: Poe... she’s gone.
Poe: Huh? Where?
Lesbian: No, I mean, she’s dead.
Poe: Dead? How?
Lesbian: I don’t know, I just left her for a minute and then when I came back she was lying there. Must have fallen over or something.
Poe: Fucking hell, do we not have any doctors? How did you idiots let this happen?
Lesbian: I’m sorry, I only left to call my wife and – 
Poe: Your what?
Lesbian: Oops.
Poe: You know you’re not meant to actually mention her. Get back to the background of shot.
JJ Abrams: This film has LGBT representation.

Anyway. At least Rey and Kylo, and to a lesser extent Leia, get to be characters

Poe and Finn had charm and promise in The Force Awakens and grew new layers in The Last Jedi. Here, they’re little more than toy soldiers, bumbling through the plot making ‘witty’ comments, as are the rest of the figures who pop in to do their bit. Lando is here for the sole purpose of Lando being here, in a role in which he doesn’t do anything distinctly Lando-ish and could have been swapped out for any other character. Hux’s change of side is another bonkers consequence of putting superficial tropes over letting characters drive the plot, a far cry from the devout believer in his neo-Imperial cause who we met in The Force Awakens screaming from his Nuremberg-esque platform about the sins of the Republic. Rose Tico is an extra.

These characters are thrown from set piece to set piece as the plot regurgitates the highlights of previous Star Wars films; as Abrams did in The Force Awakens, yes, but this is no longer enough. He even retreads his own effort, with half the film taken up by the search for a MacGuffin that will lead the way to a hidden planet, just like the map to Luke Skywalker. Then we have a loose retread of Return of the Jedi’s climax, with a lot of spaceships thrown in from Abrams’ toy box and the whole galaxy suddenly deciding it would be a good idea to liberate itself (in The Last Jedi, no one answered the call for help; here, Chewie and Lando do a quick whip-round and every planet decides to simultaneously commit all its forces to the Battle of Exegol and rise up against the First Order locally... where to start with that one?).

But it’s the final scene on Tatooine which sums up how nostalgia – and remember how ‘nostalgia can be dangerous’ was the theme of The Last Jedi? – is this film’s downfall. It’s regressive in how it takes us back to a location from the original film to please fans rather than for any obvious story reason, and regressive in how it brings Rey back to where she started, where The Force Awakens told us she needed to get away from – alone on a desert planet – all her character development, finding her place and her friends among the Resistance, for nothing. Rian Johnson knew this franchise needed to move on; JJ Abrams pulls it right back.

There are some small things I liked... Babu Frik is delightful. C-3PO gets a few good bits. The reveal of Snoke’s origin makes narrative sense and is handled efficiently. And the line “It’s not a navy, it’s just... people” is powerful. Though even that hurts because it hints at a potentially much better film, one that not only has some kind of grasp of what’s going on in this galaxy but also properly explores what makes people either give in to or resist oppressors, rather than just faffing around on the surface.

This is a bad movie. It’s a movie in which someone turning down sex with Oscar Isaac doesn’t even make the top ten list of biggest nonsenses. The prequel movies may have been horribly flawed in execution, but at least they had ideas, a story to tell. 

It’s a gut punch. It’s not just a bad film, it’s a disastrous film, a victory of style over substance except without any style. But more than that, it’s a victory of commerce over art, another victory for the bullies in a decade where the bullies keep on winning, a loss for a franchise supposedly centred on hope at a time when we have little.

Still, at least The Mandalorian is good. Ahem... so I hear.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

I haven't posted on here for a while, as life has been pulling me in all its many directions, but I thought it time to round up the links to the reviews I've written for STARBURST Magazine so far in 2019:

New movies:
  • High Life - messy but poignant space-set drama
  • Jarman V2 - nice BFI packaging of the queer cinema pioneer's work
  • Kingdom - about bananas and capitalism

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Earlier this week, I started thinking about how Series 11 had been going, and realised that, though some early episodes were decidedly mediocre, we hadn’t had a completely awful episode.

Jinxed it, didn’t I?

Let’s start with what I liked:
“Yippee ki-yay, robots!”
The René Magritte-esque exterior of the building 

And then they got inside it, and it looked like a Welsh power station.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (I'm going to start spelling that wrong in a bit) is a shambles of an episode, executed with the sub-Stormtrooper precision of the robots who shoot each other in a scene shockingly on par with the barely first draft quality of this entire episode’s illogic. Everything makes you ask: why? Why would you set up the planet’s mind-altering field and then have it amount to giving the Doctor a bit of a headache? Why is it relevant that 3407 years have passed when all of this could have been achieved in six months? Why do they keep putting things on their faces this series?

If there’s anything that comes close to working here, it’s Graham’s desire for revenge against Tim Shaw. There is an idea in there for a way to close his character arc about grieving. But the episode almost completely avoids drawing any conflict out of this. The Doctor considers stopping him, then... just doesn’t. Graham gets the chance to kill Tim, then... just doesn’t. It’s all a load of nothing.

‘Nothing’ is also a fair description of the amount of development Ryan, Yaz or the Doctor get in The Wandering Around of Ranskoor Av Kolos, and of the depth of Mark Addy’s character, who might as well have remembered his name as Commander Exposition. A better script could have done something interesting with the Ux, exploring them as religious fanatics manipulated into extremism, but again this episode can’t even begin to do anything interesting because it doesn’t get past the level of basic competence; it’s utterly baffling that they start worshipping Tim so quickly and then, after 3407 years, are persuaded to stop so easily.

Perhaps on a side note, something that’s been irritating me this series is how many alien races are identical to humans, or in the Ux’s case, humans with squiggles on their faces, as if prosthetics haven’t moved on since the first few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It makes the universe a lot less exciting.

Meanwhile, Tim Shaw has been stripped of all the cultural specificity he had in The Woman Who Fell to Earth in favour of being a cape-swishing supervillain screaming for revenge. He worked quite well in that first episode, but doesn’t have the gravitas to be a finale big bad. Compare the incredible appearance of the Dalek army in Bad Wolf or Missy’s reveal in Dark Water to the complete shrug that is the return of Tim, which boldly assumes everyone will recognise his generically evil voice and mask (surely what we remember about him was the face of teeth, but no, we get the mask).

And that lack of gravitas is the problem with The Battle of Rather Have Colonoscopy as a whole – with no tension, it’s utterly boring. Not what you want from a finale. In this respect, it’s possibly the worst final episode of post-2005 Doctor Who; while some of Moffat’s made as little sense, at least they felt big, and had moments that kept you halfway to the front of your seat, if not at the edge. Even The Name of the Doctor had the John Hurt reveal. Here, Chibnall seems averse to making us give a shit about anything. The Doctor’s task in the climax of this, the final episode of the series, is to put some planets that are already dead back in their orbits. Why?

Chris Chibnall confuses me. Sometimes he’s really on it – Broadchurch Series 1 and 3, for example, and there were some good decisions made in the run-up to this series, not least the casting of Jodie Whittaker and excellent choices of guest writers. But sometimes, he does Broadchurch Series 2, or Camelot, or this piece of P’ting shit. Perhaps he’s a worse writer under pressure – I’ve heard that Broadchurch Series 2 was rushed into production by the BBC, and that he struggled with being thrown into the showrunner role on Camelot – in which case, this may not be the job for him.

The BBC announced shortly after the episode finished broadcasting that Series 12 won’t be coming next year, but in early 2020. That’s a well timed decision, as after such a dire finale, it’s difficult to be eager for more. But it also might be a good decision; let’s hope the extra time allows Chibnall to do at least second drafts this time round.

  1. Rosa
  2. It Takes You Away
  3. Kerblam!
  4. Demons of the Punjab
  5. The Witchfinders
  6. Arachnids in the UK
  7. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  8. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  9. The Ghost Monument
  10. The Bottle of Rick Astley's Cum

Saturday, 8 December 2018

I’ll put my cards on the table right away and say I love it when Doctor Who goes full-on ‘frog universe’ level weird. This was especially enjoyable in Ed Hime’s It Takes You Away as it came as a surprise, at the tail end of a series where episodes have tended to, for better or worse, do what it says on the tin.

This episode’s trailer, as unfortunately vague as all the Series 11 marketing, pitched it as standard ‘cabin in the woods’ horror fare, a trope which is worn out in horror films that are for an adult audience and therefore allowed to be actually scary and which I wasn’t particularly enthused to see a toned-down Doctor Who take on. But it turns out there’s a whole lot more going on inside this tin.

It’s an episode built around turns that take the story in completely different directions – from that cabin the woods we’re taken to a hellish cavern more delightfully alien and grotesque than anywhere we’ve been this series, and from there to a whole different universe, before culminating in a void with a frog on a chair. At any point in this plot, there’s no way you could predict where it’ll be in ten minutes’ time.

And yet, it all flows so well, due to the very sharp focus in its character stories. It’s a style reminiscent of Steven Moffat’s Who at its best – plots which similarly ran off on unexpected tangents with big sci-fi concepts but which were unified by their solid character focus. I say ‘at its best’ because it’s an approach that went wrong for Moffat as often as it worked. Here it works; with the missing father, the dead mother, the return of Grace, and the unspoken issue of Ryan’s father, this is an episode about absent family members, and that’s a thread that carries us through the surreality, like the string the Doctor uses as a guide through the caverns. Graham’s scenes with ‘Grace’ are heartfelt, and pairing Ryan up with another abandoned child works well to reflect his own issues.

There is a hint of Chibnall’s style too, in that stories this season have tended towards the procedural solving of mysteries, and the red herring with the ‘monster’ is a perfect example of that. It’s nicely worked into the plot – set up but you don’t see it coming – while also tying into that deeper theme. But it also leads into what’s missing from the conclusion: Erik is forgiven for his poor treatment of Hanne very quickly, and it’s a shame he never gets any dialogue with Ryan, who presumably has some harsh words to say to a runaway father; a confrontation between the two seems like a necessary beat towards the end but it’s skipped over.

While it’s Ryan and Graham’s story, this is also a great episode to show off Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, perhaps largely because the climax is a show of compassion from her towards the Solitract rather than a confrontation, which plays to her strengths. That said, this is, I think, the first episode in which this Doctor has been put at odds with a companion, and both Whittaker and Bradley Walsh really shine in their argument outside the portal. If the next episode actually wants to feel like a series finale, though, this Doctor might actually have to confront some villains for once, so we’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, Yaz is sidelined as usual, but at least her approach to Hanne feels like a solid and not superficial use of her police trainee backstory, with the additional purpose of highlighting Ryan’s awkwardness.

And then we have a universe in the body of a frog. A frog universe! That’s wonderfully ‘only Doctor Who would do this’ in its combination of the everyday and the enormous. And no, I don’t care that the animatronic is a bit shit.

It Takes You Away is the biggest surprise of Series 11, as well as the boldest episode with the possible exception of Rosa, and all the better for it. While Rosa felt like Chris Chibnall’s approach to Who but done really well, It Takes You Away brings to mind qualities some of the show’s best writers of past – the emotional resonance of a Russell T Davies script, the thrillingly pivoting plots of Moffat, and a bonkers ending that Douglas Adams would be proud of. It’s also quite Neil Gaiman-esque in its big sci-fantasy idea with an emotional punch – a god looking for a friend. What I’m saying is, Ed Hime can come back next series, please.

  1. Rosa
  2. It Takes You Away
  3. Kerblam!
  4. Demons of the Punjab
  5. The Witchfinders
  6. Arachnids in the UK
  7. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  8. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  9. The Ghost Monument

Friday, 30 November 2018

One thing I’m enjoying about Series 11 is the variety of places on Earth we’re visiting. Russell T Davies’ Who was London-centric and Moffat tended towards geographical vagueness, but so far this year we’ve been to Sheffield, Alabama, the Punjab, and now Lancashire, with the specificity making each of these diverse settings feel more tangible. This is a particularly exciting one for me, because Pendle Hill isn’t far from where I grew up.

Based on this series’ sensitive treatment of history and culture so far, then, and given writer Joy Wilkinson is a Lancastrian too, they were inevitably going to treat my county with respect and not come up with a town name that sounds like a medieval sewage dump.

So the Doctor and friends land in Bilehurst Cragg... oh... ah, well... and soon find themselves embroiled in the Pendle witch trials. Adventure ensues.

My main impression of The Witchfinders is the same simple point that summed up Kerblam! – it begins with a concept that’s thoroughly well suited for Doctor Who and tells that story well. Every character has something to do, there’s clear plotting, a clear theme (the witchfinders as bullies of women) and a clear tone (Hammer-esque camp, spooky horror). All this allows it to flow in a pleasant way that makes for one of the most rewatchable episodes of the series. This level of basic competence perhaps shouldn’t be remarkable, but given four out of the first five episodes of this series were irritatingly messy, it does feel remarkable how much it’s raised its game since Chris Chibnall passed the baton to his team of guest writers.

A few aspects elevate the episode above basic competency, though, and the first is the most brilliant piece of Doctor Who guest casting since Kylie Minogue played a waitress on the Titanic. The role of King James I (VI to the Scots) must have looked odd on the page, not particularly necessary to the plot and with some rather dramatic dialogue that could easily make for the most cringeworthy guest character since James Corden played the Doctor's mate James Corden.  But the invincible Boris from GoldenEye more than pulls it off, treating every scene with the same flamboyant sense of fun with which he pissed Chibnall off by being the only person to leak a single detail about this series’ plots. Every scene with him is brilliant, right down to the way he camply flaps his cape when sitting down in a huff. I’m no monarchist, but King James is now a queer icon. 

The other major strength of The Witchfinders is its treatment of gender. No episodes so far have really shown Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor being treated differently because she’s now a woman, which may have been wise to start with so as to let her cement herself in any doubters’ minds that she is the same Doctor we’ve known for twelve previous incarnations. But the show had to address this issue at some point or another, and there may not be a more appropriate story with which to do so than this one: it’s about a historical atrocity committed specifically against women, which was long enough ago that the Doctor almost becoming a victim of it can be treated with some levity rather than feeling distasteful, but which allows for some nevertheless relevant dialogue about misogyny. James’s patronising attitude towards the Doctor and declaration that “the general can’t be a woman” before being proved otherwise seems to me a metatextual comment on the backlash to Whittaker’s casting, another aspect of this episode that could have been clunky as hell but is judged with enough subtlety and sits right within the episode’s wider themes. 

It definitely helps that The Witchfinders has a female writer. Indeed, letting a Lancastrian woman do an episode about the Pendle witch trials shows off a major strength of Series 11 – guest writers have been given lease to write stories reflective of their own experiences and culture, with the consequence that Rosa, Demons of the Punjab and this have all felt like they have something to say, in a way that individual episodes of Moffat’s Who much less frequently did. It makes me excited to see whether the same team will stick around for the next series or whether Chibnall will bring on even more diverse recruits.

Female director, too, for those of you counting, and I like what Sallie Aprahamian did here. The finale could have been bland and exposition-heavy, but feels like a proper Hammer movie showdown, visually punchy, while the desaturated brown and green colour palette makes for a nice rural horror atmosphere. Every episode this year has had a distinct and cinematic look, another strength of Series 11; the bit of Wales that played a Lancashire forest this week probably isn’t far from the bit of Wales that played India two weeks ago, but through considered grading and sound design, they’ve both felt like Lancashire and India respectively.

That said, does the Doctor’s trial scene feel oddly put together to anyone else? The reliance on close-ups means that the companions and James have to stay on the same spot, which is weirdly static, and that the geography is unclear. And if you don’t see what I mean by that, try drawing a map of where all the action in that scene takes place. I bet you struggle.

But anyway, another very strong episode all around. And let’s not forget Graham in the big hat. Laughed every time I saw it.


  1. Rosa
  2. Kerblam!
  3. Demons of the Punjab
  4. The Witchfinders
  5. Arachnids in the UK
  6. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  7. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  8. The Ghost Monument
(Though I'm starting to wish I could be bothered to work out how to make the list say Kerblam!, Demons, and Witchfinders are all joint second. They're very close.)

Monday, 19 November 2018

A lot of the people on my Facebook and Twitter feeds who haven’t been enjoying Series 11 seemed to cheer up this Sunday, as they actually really liked Kerblam! As someone who's been reasonably positive about the series so far, I agree with them.

It’s interesting how even those bores whinging about Rosa and Demons of the Punjab adding ‘social justice’ messages into Doctor Who as if that’s a bad thing have shut up this week, given that this is just as political an episode, and that’s possibly because its contemporary commentary is weaved in with as fast-paced, action-packed and witty a sci-fi adventure as anyone could want from Doctor Who, in a way reminiscent of the Russell T Davies era (and indeed Oxygen from Series 10, with which this would make a good double bill).

You could go through a checklist of everything you’d expect to see in one of those beloved RTD episodes and Kerblam! has them all. Great monsters, tick. Sinister subversion of everyday thing, tick – not gonna stop me popping all the bubble wrap I get, though. Great guest cast, tick – I wasn’t sure about Lee Mack being in Who but the role is perfect for him. Sense of humour, tick – in fact, the most laughs of any episode in Series 11 so far. I loved Twirly the self-doubting delivery bot, and the return of the fez. Still cool.

And the fact that it’s about a big company with a bigger conspiracy literally underneath it is very RTD, isn’t it? That conspiracy plot plays out perfectly thanks to an incredibly well constructed script from Who newcomer Pete McTighe – twisting without being convoluted. It’s one that rewards second viewing to appreciate how its pieces fit together – a contrast to the mucky plotting of the four Chris Chibnall-penned episodes, where second viewing reveals how they don’t. The only jarring moment is Charlie’s unexplained decision to run into a field of bombs and let himself be killed.

Oh, and the presence of a ‘panelled alcove’ with the sole purpose of being hidden in, but maybe all corporate HQs in the future have those.

It also nails the job of giving all four leads something to do that's actually relevant to their characteristics, justifying the three-companion dynamic more than other episodes have managed to; Ryan's dyspraxia comes into play and we see him overcoming the difficulties it causes him, while Yaz gets to show off some moves presumably taught to her in police training when dealing with an aggressive robo-postman.

What really escalates this episode, though, is the satirical edge. Like the best sci-fi, it uses the tropes of the genre to be about something contemporary, and it’s one of those rare concepts that’s so perfect for Doctor Who that you wonder why it hasn’t been done before. Jobs been taken by machines is not only an increasingly current issue, but one well suited to being explored through the medium of evil robots with glowing eyes. Through the completely fictional company of Kerblamazon, sorry, Kerblam, McTighe’s script asks us to think about what’ll happen when labour can be automated, and when humans are there to fill minimum quotas imposed upon companies that treat them with little respect. Again, this company is completely fictional, though I wish the planet had been called Kerblam too, so that its star could be Kerblam Prime.

That said, the ending isn’t as optimistic as it thinks it is in its celebration of the fact that 90,000 people are now going to be given jobs that robots could do, because capitalism says that they must in order to live. It seems that the episode tries to counter this by having the character of Kira actually like her job, but that only highlights the fact that the majority of the workforce aren’t going to be as improbably cheery. Surely the utopian ending here would be for society to adapt so that people can be provided with a quality life without having to do unnecessary work, rather than this luddite ‘down with robots’ thing. History shows that technological progression will inevitably win out over luddism, and in the long term usually for the better of society. Is the Doctor on the wrong side of progress for once?

Then again, shifting the universe to a state of fully automated luxury communism akin to an Iain M Banks novel might be a tall order for the two or three minutes the episode has in which to wrap up. We can console ourselves with the assumption that this is set before Oxygen, at the end of which Peter Capaldi’s Doctor makes the bold claim to have ended all capitalism everywhere ever.

But even if its message is a tad muddled, Kerblam! may well have started some discussions about the issues it touches on, and either way, everyone liked it, it seems. The best praise with which I can sum up this episode is this – if in a few years time, I find myself hungover on a Sunday morning, see that Series 11 has appeared on Netflix, and want something to distract me while the paracetamol and bacon kick in, I’m absolutely picking Kerblam!


  1. Rosa
  2. Kerblam!
  3. Demons of the Punjab
  4. Arachnids in the UK
  5. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  6. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  7. The Ghost Monument

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Remember that relief three weeks ago when Doctor Who did a Rosa Parks story and didn’t fuck it up? Reader, they did it again.

The Partition of India needs to be treated with as much sensitivity and nuance as the Civil Rights Movement of America, and, like much of the horrors of British colonial history, it seems to be shockingly lacking from our cultural knowledge; I have some expertise on it due to research for my comics work, but it was never mentioned to me at school. So this episode earns immediate plus points just for approaching the subject, and further points for, as with Rosa, assigning a writer of colour to dramatise their cultural history. 

Vinay Patel clearly knows what he’s doing, as this confident script, again like Rosa, avoids the farcical trappings of the sillier Who historicals and instead gives us an impactful slice of character drama. But Partition is a different subject to the Civil Rights Movement in that it had no major figures or moments to focus on; it was one simultaneous nationwide clusterfuck. Patel’s solution to this, focusing in on one family as a microcosm for Partition, gives us another very different approach to the Doctor Who format (and allows the show to keep its PG rating by getting away from the violent bloodbaths in the cities). Perhaps revealing of Patel’s past credits, it feels theatrical, confined to one family in one location, but not to its detriment; the family's story has all the tension and emotion of good theatre while being situated within the wider context by references to events developing elsewhere. The cinematic production values, with Spain convincingly standing in for India and some careful sound design, help that feeling that this is part of a larger world. This family’s story is very much one of many – which is great, because hopefully it will have encouraged viewers unfamiliar with Partition to look it up and find out more. 

The fact that the family is Yaz’s is especially wise, as it gives us an emotional entry point into the story, and gives Yaz the most development she’s had so far, even if she still does feel quite ‘generic companion’ – yes, she has backstory now, but much of her speech patterns and methods of approaching problems could be cut and pasted into any other companion. The story of learning about her grandmother’s past and realising that Prem is destined to die is powerful, though does remind me a lot of 2005 episode Father’s Day – in which a wedding day also spells doom for the companion’s past relative. Then again, I’ve seen it pointed out that the Tijarians are very similar to the Testimony from Twice Upon A Time, which was less than a year ago, and I’d completely forgotten about them, so perhaps my having an issue with one repeated plot point but not the other simply speaks to how good Father’s Day was (and how shit Twice Upon A Time was).

Those Tijarians seem to be getting a lot of stick online; another thing I’ve seen pointed out is that the episode could function without them – a ‘pure historical’, as the really old school fans would lustfully call it. And yeah, it could have; indeed, given that they’re ultimately a B-story, Demons is closer even than the alien-free Rosa is to one of those tales in which William Hartnell and his fam would go and look at a bit of history without touching much. On the other hand, I liked them: they’re an excellent red herring, with the twist that they’re not the real villains nicely planted and paid off, and they do exactly what a B-story should in that they reflect the themes of the A-story – just as Manish is blinded by his prejudice about Muslims, the Doctor is misled by hers about Tijarians, and the theme of mournfulness that pervades both tales is appropriate for an episode broadcast on Remembrance Day.

There is the rather odd plot hole that I’ve seen more than one person online point out – how come no one notices the bullet wound on the Holy Man? I’d like to put forward my own suggestion for this, because I’m proud of it – the powder that the Tijarians put on the body ‘heals’ the wound up, like an undertaker dresses a body to preserve dignity in death. Whether that’s what the writer intended or not, I’m not sure, but it’s in my headcanon now. 

One more thing, even if it is reiterating a point from previous reviews – I’m liking Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor more and more. I can see why it may grate to some that she doesn’t save the day in any way here, but that’s justified by both the sci-fi point of the necessity of Prem’s death and by the historical context that it would cheapen the depiction of Partition for her to do so. I like that we have a Doctor who cares without always grandstanding, who brings such joy to the role, and her speech at the wedding is lovely. This has joined the one of her on the bus as my favourite shots of the series:

So, yeah. I really liked this episode. Two trends seem to be emerging from Series 11. The first is that, possibly for the first time in post-2005 Who, the historical episodes are the best. While Demons doesn’t have quite the punch of Rosa, it’s similarly thoughtful and emotional, properly engaging with a time and place that deserves to be better known. Both of these episodes have deviated from the traditional ‘Doctor vs aliens’ mode, and I love that boldness, variety and desire to tell new stories.

The second is, as I predicted last week, that the guest writer episodes are better than Chibnall’s (though let’s not forget that Chibbers deserves credit for enabling the guest writers to tell these stories; writing five episodes while supervising five more must be hard). With both these trends in mind, the episode I’m most looking forward to now is Joy Wilkinson’s The Witchfinders, but before that, next week brings us the first Who episode to feature an exclamation mark in its title – brace yourselves for the review, I may start talking about punctuation.

  1. Rosa
  2. Demons of the Punjab
  3. Arachnids in the UK
  4. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  5. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  6. The Ghost Monument