FREELANCE WRITER. JOURNALIST, AND SCRIPT READER – FAN OF SCI-FI AND CHOCOLATE DIGESTIVES – YSTV'S BEST DRESSED MEMBER 2013

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.

DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11 RANKING
  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

Tuesday, 6 November 2018


“It could have been a lot better. It could have been slightly better written ... it’s very routine running up and down corridors and silly monsters. It was perhaps a little too routine Doctor Who, very much what the audience was expecting, it’s not really very challenging for them to watch. ... Fairly mullllaaahhhh boring.” – a representative of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society critiques The Trial of a Time Lord on the BBC’s public opinion show Open Air, 1986.

I was surprised when I looked on Twitter after The Tsuranga Conundrum by how negative the general reaction among the fandom to it was. I hadn’t loved it, but I’d certainly enjoyed it.

A lot of the criticisms revolve around talkiness and lack of tension. Having rewatched to see where all of this was coming from, yeah, in some cases that's fair, there are a few dumpster trucks of exposition unloaded. In particular, the discussion of Ryan’s parents is very much a “we’re doing some character development now” scene, static and forced, distanced from the danger the ship’s in.

In other cases, I understand the criticisms but don’t feel them. Yeah, the Doctor explaining the details of antimatter is extraneous to the plot, but Jodie Whittaker’s delivery is so joyful! I like it both because it shows her growing confidence in the role – she seems to have got better as the series has progressed – and because of the message sent by having the Doctor be in such awe at science that for once isn’t completely made up.

Image result for pting

But for sure the thing I like most about The Tsuranga Conundrum is the Pting. Doctor Who has rarely attempted the Gremlins and Tribbles style of ‘cute but surprisingly dangerous’ alien, and this little guy is a great addition to that tradition, with a charming bumblyness to the way it eats bits of spaceship and CGI as impressive as the show has ever had. It seems like a long while since Who’s introduced a new species that I actually wanted to return, and I do want more Pting. Wouldn’t it be great if the finale were Aliens to this episode’s Alien? But we’re sadly more likely to get Stenzas than Ptings.

It would have been nice to have seen more of it in this episode, in fact, though maybe that’s down to CGI budgets, and the way the tension around it was built up could have been better, such as... 

Actually...

Meh.

I could nitpick about the plot. I have done for every one of Chibnall’s sole-credited episodes of this series. But I’m not going to. That’s partly because it’s half way through the series and I’m already growing bored of pointing out every little thing every week. And it’s partly because I don’t care, I liked the Pting, I had fun during the short times it was on screen, and I want one for Christmas.

And I think that points at the bigger problem, from which much of the dislike of The Tsuranga Conundrum stems. While the Pting brought an element of fun to its scenes, the writing elsewhere lacked that spark. Doctor Who under Russell T Davies had dodgy plotting too, but he had a skill of covering it up with laugh-out-loud wit and punchy character drama. Here, there are chuckles but rarely laughs; the character arcs are there but don’t have the emotional precision to hit hard. (Steven Moffat, at his lower points, tended to the other extreme of having no plot and all and a tiresome stream of quirkiness.)

It’s that wit and flair which makes the RTD (and Moffat at his higher points) episodes so rewatchable. So, while I did genuinely enjoy The Tsuranga Conundrum on first watch, when watching it a second time, I did get bored and let my attention drift. It’s not in any way bad and I maintain that its critics are way too harsh, which kind of applies to this series as a whole; Doctor Who has undoubtedly lived through much worse times.

It’s just... “a little too routine Doctor Who”. Which is awkward, because, for those of you who didn’t know this was coming, that representative of the Appreciation Society was a young Chris Chibnall. Look at his silly ‘80s hair:


(I know, as that video title shows, I'm not the first person to make the joke of applying his comments to his own episodes. Someone else made it with Tsuranga on Twitter Sunday night, but I can't find the tweet to credit them.)

By far the strongest episode of the series so far, and the least routine, has been the one Malorie Blackman co-wrote, and it’s not the greatest sign that I’m looking forward most to the guest-written stories. But on the plus side, it is genuinely exciting that the next four episodes will be from voices new to Doctor Who, and it would be however good Chibnall's episodes were. Fingers crossed for Vinay Patel’s episode being another good’un.

DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11 RANKING
  1. Rosa
  2. Arachnids in the UK
  3. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  4. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
  5. The Ghost Monument