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

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.

DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11 RANKING

  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!


DOCTOR WHO SERIES 11 RANKING

  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.

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 at 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