Tuesday, 30 October 2018

To show off that I’m reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods at the moment, let’s begin with some screenwriting theory. In the popular three-act model for writing feature films, the first act features an inciting incident, followed by a period of indecision, before the hero commits to the adventure, leaving their status quo behind. This applies probably uncoincidentally well to the formula for a modern Doctor Who series, as established by Russell T Davies and mucked around with by Steven Moffat: in Episode 1, the companion meets the Doctor (inciting incident); then they spend a couple of episodes testing the waters of time and space; and around Episode 4, they revisit home before committing to full-time companion status - adventure awaits!

And so it is that the Doctor brings her three friends back to Sheffield (again nicely grounded by location filming), but before Graham, Ryan and Yaz can make their decision, there’s a problem to deal with: as a delightfully goofy piece of dialogue puts it, “something’s wrong with the spider ecosystem of South Yorkshire”.

In other words, time for a fun and fast-paced adventure in which our characters are chased around a massive hotel by massive spiders. They may not be alien, but the spiders are the best monsters of Series 11 so far; especially given how common a phobia they are, it’s surprising that post-2005 Who’s never properly done spiders before (I don’t count the moon-spider-germs in Kill the Moon, as they were heavily overshadowed by the fact that the moon was an egg). They also allow for the best action sequences so far, shot with punch and wit; the giant spider emerging through the bathtub is a perfect example of what Doctor Who can do like nothing else – putting a sci-fi twist on an everyday image, to deliciously creepy effect. 

It may not be as boundary-pushing as Rosa, but Arachnids in the UK is a lot of fun, and often that’s exactly what Doctor Who needs to be. It must also be stated that this isn’t easy to pull off – see the same writer’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship for an example of Who trying a similar daffy B-movie style and making a complete hash of it.

I’m also impressed by how the Doctor’s methods of dealing with spiders and, to an extent, the gradual reveal of the cause of the spider infestation, draw on actual science; an arachnid expert was consulted, in a desire for truthfulness which never troubled the Moffat era and which harks back to the Reithian principles of Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert’s original vision for Who as a show that would alternate history and science lessons. Last week taught kids about the civil rights movement and this week taught them that spiders hate the smell of garlic – in both cases hiding the education behind the production values and narrative flair of modern TV.

I have a few bones of contention, my biggest being with the character of Jack Robertson. Chris Noth plays arrogant American businessman brilliantly; I love the smarminess of lines like “I don’t have clarity on that”, and the ridiculous way he washes his hands is a lovely character-building detail. But... is the fact he’s planning to run for president necessary? By which I mean, does he need to be a blatant Trump parallel? I’m all for the dreadful state of current politics being satirised, and I’m all for Doctor Who doing that, but it feels unnecessary here; the bouncy B-movie story doesn’t allow the satire to cut deep enough to justify itself, and instead I found myself taken out of my enjoyment by the sour reminder that Trump exists.

That said, the sheer off-its-tits insanity of Mr Big from Sex and the City shooting a giant spider in the head while quipping “How’s that for fire and fury?” is one of the reasons I love Doctor Who.

A few plotting oddities, though nothing as bad as the structural messiness of The Ghost Monument: the curious coincidence of two separate events (Najia’s firing and the dead neighbour) drawing the team from Yaz’s flat straight into the conspiracy; in the time it takes Yaz to go to the hotel and then to a bedroom, the Doctor and co. investigate the flat, fight a spider, go to the lab, do some science, and then go to the hotel; and the question of whether locking spiders in a room to suffocate is actually that much more ethical than shooting them dampens the impact of the climax. 

And then there’s the ending, or lack of. The arcs of both Robertson and the spider scientist just stop once Big Momma Spider’s dead. Is there going to be a deleted scene on the DVD in which she reveals the conspiracy to the public and so scuppers his political ambitions? If so, why was it cut? If not, why was it not shot?

But the final coda, in which the Doctor's friends become her companions, is marvellously done. The first act is now complete, and it’s apparent that it’s done its job; after four episodes, we finally have a good sense of who the three companions are and what their arcs are, even if some are stronger than others: needing distraction from grief is a dramatically great reason for running off into time and space; having a dead-end job and an absent father is pretty good too; dad being bad at making curry is not so great. 

Altogether though, I’m loving Team TARDIS, and this rollicking adventure reinforced that. Bring on Act 2.

(Side note: it doesn’t seem coincidental that this ‘start of second act’ is when all the tie-in media is beginning to be rolled out, and I’m really excited for Jody Hauser and Rachael Stott’s Thirteenth Doctor comic, launching next week. If you’re enjoying the series, give it a try.)

  1. Rosa
  2. Arachnids in the UK
  3. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  4. The Ghost Monument

Monday, 22 October 2018

A Doctor Who story about Rosa Parks, in a series showrun by the writer of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, could have gone very wrong. Last week’s The Ghost Monument got away with a lot of clunkiness by virtue of its genre: bombastic, flippant space adventure. This could not.

Imagine if Rosa had stuck to the ‘celebrity historical’ formula of The Shakespeare Code and The Impossible Astronaut, with history as a playground for sci-fantasy antics: the Bogallions have shot down a Deltazoid spaceship over Alabama because they trespassed onto a six-limbs-only space lane – it’s like racism, get it? – and now both species are battling it out and will destroy Earth in their crossfire. Thankfully, the Doctor has pimped a bus to return the Deltazoids to their home planet, and has the help of a plucky passenger who happens to be sat in the seat where the space energies are coalescing. Good job she didn’t move. By the way, civil rights.

OK, maybe it was never going to be that bad, especially with a guest writer of the calibre of Malorie Blackman, but especially after last week, I was nervous. 

Rosa doesn’t fuck it up. It more than doesn’t fuck it up. 

It throws away that old formula – which may have given us several thoroughly enjoyable episodes in the past but would have been completely inappropriate here – to give us instead a powerful drama that’s possibly the first classic of the Chibnall series, most comparable in tone to the similarly sci-fi-light and thematically heavy Vincent and the Doctor – and anyone who’s heard me waffle about Vincent will know that a favourable comparison to it means this must be good.

What Blackman and Chibnall have clearly realised is that the main act of heroism in this story must be committed by Rosa Parks, not the Doctor or companion, and must be refusing to give up the bus seat. 

The way the story leads up to that act, with our regulars’ goal not being to change it but to maintain it, is very clever plotting. It means that bus protest stays at the dramatic heart but everyone has something to do. It allows Parks herself to be kept at a distance from the sci-fi gubbins and so avoid being reduced to caricature. It gives the heroes a challenge that only those in a time travel show could face but that the Doctor hasn’t faced before – and wow, who knew such tension could be drawn out of bus timetables and staff rotas?

It also allows the episode time to explore its world and theme. Like the Sheffield of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, this episode’s 1955 Alabama feels real, detailed, the South Africa location shoot again justifying its expense. And it’s seriously impressive how the episode doesn’t hold back in its depictions of racism, no doubt related to its hiring of Doctor Who’s first writer of colour (yes, it is bad that it’s taken this long). Ryan being slapped is shocking; the fact that it’s not at all what we’ve come to expect from recent Who’s rarely sincere treatment of history makes it all the more so. The extended length of this series’ stories certainly helps – in the 45-minute format, the scene with the cop would probably have been cut, and here it really hammers in the oppression of the world. And the episode also reminds us, through having two non-white companions discuss their own experiences of racism, that these problems persist today.

These companions finally seem concrete in their characterisation. That may be because they have that theme to hang their discussions around, allowing more insight into Yaz’s life in particular than we’ve had previously. It’s also helpful that they have plot objectives relevant to character traits: Ryan investigates the civil rights leaders he remembers his nan admiring; Yaz sets her charts out on the motel wall like a police investigation; and Graham? Well, I love Graham, because his specific skillset is ‘talking to bus drivers’, and somehow that’s come in useful in two out of three stories. I wonder how many more before it gets silly.

And then there’s the Doctor. I commented last week that the grandstanding, speechifying approach Peter Capaldi mastered doesn’t play to Jodie Whittaker’s strengths, and it’s almost as if the show listened. She’s in her element here: compassionate and wise, driving the plot forward with the necessary sci-fi words but not taking attention from the others, putting protecting her friends above risky confrontation. (I’m aware ‘being caring and not the centre of attention’ may be playing it dangerously close to feminine stereotypes for the first woman Doctor, but compassion is never a bad trait in Doctor Who, especially after Capaldi moved away from that, and there’s also a nice feeling of the ‘family going on a trip through history’ dynamic of William Hartnell’s Doctor and his companions.) Also, Whittaker is properly funny in the lighter moments, the Banksy gag in particular.

The only negatives I have are nitpicks. There’s too much “I know about that from school” exposition. Needing to go back to re-check evidence already found should never be part of any plot. The coda in the TARDIS is oddly edited, as if they only had the rights for two seconds of the newsreel. And the Doctor’s confrontation with Krasko is distractingly over-reliant on close-up shots.

But that came from the same director and crew as this ¬–

– a combination of cinematography and acting which lingered in my mind for a while. That climax is as powerful a scene as Doctor Who’s ever had. Graham’s realisation that he has to stay on the bus and play a passive role in history is heartbreaking, and leads right into the gut-punch of this episode – they have to let Rosa be the hero, in a historical moment then presented with flair and dignity. And not a single Deltazoid in sight. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

If the first episode of any TV series has to hook viewers in, the second has to keep them, to reassure us of the quality and tone we’re in for a whole series of. Which means, going by The Ghost Monument, we’re in for a whole series of sci-fi that’s impressive on the surface but ultimately a bit shit (and isn’t that the opposite of what Doctor Who’s meant to be, I hear you snark).

Ghost Monument does have a lot going for it, not least a cracking premise; sometimes you watch an episode of Who and realise you’ve seen fifty variations on the same plot before, but ‘rally across space’ feels fresh, especially when combined with the cool setting of a planet littered with abandoned weapon designs. It’s also a perfect fit for the show's refreshed, cinematic look, with the South African landscapes and some energetic camerawork (director Mark Tonderai is a camera operator himself, as evidenced by the fluid tracking shots around the crashing spaceships, so good they're practically showing off), really adding a visual panache befitting of the standards Netflix, HBO and co. have led us to hold for a 'quality' TV show in 2018.

If only that was enough to make up for the numerous things about this episode that don’t work. Worryingly, it mostly comes down to the script from new showrunner Chris Chibnall. At least when Steven Moffat was crap, it was in ways you could get angry about. Crap Chibnall is just disappointing. For starters, that setting becomes less cool when you realise that all the weapons are either, like the episode itself, good ideas executed badly, or just complete crap. The flesh-eating water – goes nowhere, a set-up without a pay-off. The robots – men in suits, after we had a man in suit villain last week; described as snipers but worse shots than stormtroopers; oddly static and defeated by an inexplicably convenient EMP. The bits of rag – original at least, but the climax falls flat because they just fly around not attacking anyone.

And then there’s clunkers like the heavy signposting of the cigar, the even heavier arc drop of whatever this ‘Timeless Child’ bollocks is, and the lack of point to the rally – surely a sport needs more than one spectator? It’s thin, first draft writing.

Jodie Whittaker does continue to be fun to watch as she grows her incarnation of the Doctor. I’ve realised since writing last week’s review that she seems to be stronger in the more compassionate, lower key moments, such as the conversation after the funeral, and in the matey, slightly daft humour (again evident in this episode – “It is all that!”) but not quite as confident when it comes to dramatic monologuing at aliens. The true art of playing Doctor Who is being able to defeat some bits of cloth by chucking a fag at them, and somehow making it as exciting as the Death Star trench run; Peter Capaldi or Matt Smith might have been able to pull this off, but I’m not convinced Whittaker’s there yet. Perhaps the writing will develop to match her strengths as her time in the role goes on.

Ryan and Graham get some nice development (though again this is tarred by odd writing – the thing about him struggling with ladders might work if we actually saw him on either of the ladders rather than just talking about them). Yaz still hasn’t done much.

Looking back on this review, it reads as if I really disliked The Ghost Monument. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it. There’s nothing majorly wrong with this episode, it’s a finely entertaining piece of TV, but there are lots of little things wrong with it, which is frustrating, as it could be so much better. Here’s to eight more weeks of "at least it's not Twice Upon A Time".

(I am optimistic for next week’s though, as Malorie Blackman could be a superb guest writer.)

Oh, and the new TARDIS set. Hmm. Going back to a layout similar to Eccleston and Tennant’s feels like a regression from the more three-dimensional sets Smith and Capaldi had to play with, the colours are a bit much and the big coral rock things are ugly. I like the custard cream dispenser, though.

  1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  2. The Ghost Monument

Monday, 8 October 2018

Every new Doctor Who has a moment where they fully become the iconic hero, casting aside any doubts about their casting. For Matt Smith, it was striding across a hospital rooftop, literally emerging from an image of his past selves, to confront the Atraxi. David Tennant’s involved a satsuma and a swordfight. And with Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, it was the moment she looked a vicious alien warrior in the face and declared “Tim Shaw is a big blue shit.”

“Yes”, I thought, “this is the Doctor. This incarnation has no time for any nonsense, whether it’s Predator wannabes running rampant through Yorkshire or silly rules about what words you’re allowed to say on family television.” And then I realised she had in fact said ‘cheat’.

That misunderstanding aside, I hope anyone who had any doubts about Whittaker’s casting feels they’re assuaged. Right off the bat, both actor and writer seem confident in the character, comfortably balancing her sci-fi exposition with a refusal to take it too seriously (the ‘Tim Shaw’ joke fits into a long tradition of Doctor Who lampooning the pomposity of its own genre), and balancing the Doctor’s control of the room with her compassion for everyone in it; this is a Doctor who apologises for leading her new ‘friends’ into having to see Rahul's corpse and who sticks around for Grace's funeral – perhaps a deliberate attempt to skew away from the common (and sometimes fair) criticism of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as too distanced.

Introducing the Doctor was just a quarter of this episode’s main job, as it also had three companions friends to show off. In what seems so far one of the bigger differences between Chibnall’s approach and that of former showrunner Steven Moffat, the episode seemed equally interested in all its characters, with the opening act setting up backstory and embedding them in a world and problems that feel tangible and believable. Ryan and Graham certainly have an interesting dynamic and lots of potential to develop across the series; Yas felt sidelined after the opening act, but hopefully will get fleshed out in the episodes to come.

In fact, Chibnall's tone seems more grounded and human overall than Moffat's. Tzim-Sha has a backstory and a culture too – something very rarely given to villains in the Moffat era. Side characters like garage owner Rahul and unfairly targeted Carl have properly worked out motivation. Even the setting of Sheffield is lent a truthfulness by its specificity; Series 10’s Earth-set episodes were allegedly set in Bristol, but put so little effort into showing us this, that a lot of viewers probably didn’t even realise it wasn't the 'default' of London, whereas here we have wide shots composed to show off the landscapes, a sonic screwdriver made of Sheffield steel, and enough Yorkshire accents to have American viewers reaching for the subtitle button.

I’ve barely touched upon the plot, which is probably fair, as the episode deliberately went for a low-key and generic approach in order to focus on its characters. It's certainly refreshing to be away from the often smugly complicated plotting of the Moffat years (while I wan't the strongest critic of this, I've heard a lot of people say it's what made them stop watching), though it perhaps goes a bit too low-key and generic. Tim Shaw and his ball of electrified string are hardly going to go down as one of Doctor Who’s best villains, and some odd plot beats take the energy from the whole thing: having the Doctor theorise about two alien races at war, only for it to be revealed that they’re on the same side, is lowering the stakes when they should be being raised; and all the business about Ryan having touched the portal to let the alien through neither adds anything to the character drama nor makes any logical sense from the Stenza’s perspective, so it would actually benefit the episode for this to be cut completely. The finale on the cranes has half of a superb set piece – the Doctor’s confrontation with the villain looks and feels spectacular – and half of a muddled one – the companions' roles in it don’t play to their individual strengths and could be swapped around without any change.

So overall, I don’t think The Woman Who Fell to Earth is a brilliant episode – yes, even despite the title referencing a Bowie movie. I’m not even sure it’s as good as The Pilot, the much pacier first episode of the previous series. But it does introduce a great new team, who I’m really excited to go on more adventures with, and a very promising tone for the series to come.

The one part of the episode that I did dislike was that ‘Coming Soon’ montage after the credits, the most bizarre bit of TV marketing I’ve seen. Doctor Who episodes are sold, particularly to kids, on the adventure and the aliens; a series of close-ups of human characters is completely missing what makes the show unique. And while Alan Cumming and Julie Hesmondhalgh might bring a few extra viewers, I haven’t even heard of half those names. I just can’t understand the thinking behind it.