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Demons of the Punjab

I have mixed feelings about Demons of the Punjab.  That is probably due in part to my own circumstances; I’m not in a great place at the moment and wasn’t really in the mood for bleak historical character drama.  This might seem better after a more timely rewatch.  It was a lushly made and well-acted drama, and top marks for (along with Rosa) finally showing some non-European history in the revived show.  But the core of it annoyed me.

Romeo and Juliet is an old story that has been told many times across many cultural divides.  From that point of view, this was familiar territory.  That’s not necessarily a problem.  Unfortunately, also familiar was the lack of subtlety, the Whiggish certitude that sees history as tending inexorably towards our liberal democracy.  People in the past, in this perspective, divide into two categories: those who thought exactly like us, and the villains: the idiots and reactionaries who worship at the altars of nation and religion, who can’t see the way things must inevitably work out.

Yet if history – and time-travel – is to have any point, it is surely to help us to understand those who are not like us.  Here, too much was left unexplained.  British rule in India was barely alluded to; Partition was inadequately explained or contextualised.  Partition and population transfer occurred in several parts of the world in the forties and fifties, seen as the lesser evil compared to leaving large ethnic minorities that could lead to a pretext for war on a par with German expansion in the thirties.  I don’t expect all this to be included (it’s a science fiction drama, not a history documentary), but some kind of context from the Doctor would have been good.  Moreover, we don’t get any idea of what separated Hindu from Muslim in real terms.  Ritual and religion are a very postmodern British thing here, something you pick and chose and only bring out at life cycle events.  We don’t see how religion affects people’s day to day lives in traditional societies.  People in the past, we are told, did stupid, brutal things, but we don’t really understand why because the writers of drama of this kind can’t – or aren’t interested in – entering the mindset of people who professed beliefs the writers don’t share.  The historical weight of intermarriage across religious divides is not adequately portrayed.   The decision seems to marry across denominational lines is obvious, even frivolous here, which would not have been the case in reality.  While the racism of the Deep South in Rosa was familiar enough to us to seem unbearably threatening, the violence here, while every bit as bigoted, felt cursory.  It’s just the type of thing that happens in stories like this so we can congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come in eighty years.  Compare with how The Aztecs (in 1964) managed to make human sacrifice seem normal and opposition to it unworkable.

While watching this I kept thinking of George Orwell.  It was  only afterwards that I remembered the exact quote I was looking for.  Writing in Wells, Hitler and the World State in 1941, he wrote, “Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.  The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a Fascist streak in themselves.”

Well, creatures out of the Dark Ages have again come marching into our present again.  To understand them is to understand the darkness in ourselves, but it’s easier to say, “We’re different; it could never happen here.”  For a programme that so far this year has tried to be about empathy and understanding , that is disappointing to say the least.

The Tsuranga Conundrum

The Tsuranga Conundrum was arguably the weakest episode so far this season.  It was still reasonably enjoyable and engaging, but seemed weak in comparison to most of the other episodes so far.

While the opening scenes, in which the TARDIS crew are separated from the TARDIS seemed redolent of the stories of the sixties, the bulk of the episode looked elsewhere for inspiration.  While other versions of the programme might have focused on the horror of the Pting stalking the spaceship or the comedy of the male pregnancy and the Pting’s conspicuous cuteness (cf. Partners in Crime), The Tsuranga Conundrum stayed focused on characterisation.  In this regard, the programme resembled Star Trek more than Doctor Who, not for the first time this season.  In particular, it was reminiscent of Disaster, the Next Generation episode where the Enterprise D hits a cosmic plot device and loses power, resulting, among other things, in Counsellor Troi taking command and Worf having to deliver the O’Brien’s baby.

Unfortunately, The Tsuranga Conundrum focused as much on the guest characters as the regulars and ended up too short to develop the guest characters as much as would be needed to make us really care about them.  A better tactic might have been to focus on the regulars more.  While Ryan’s father issues received some attention, more could have been made of Grace’s medical background and the fall out of her death (while it could be morbid to dwell on that too much, I feel there is still room to explore it more than has happened so far).  I also feel that Yaz has been somewhat neglected, the appearance of her perhaps as a result of her family last week notwithstanding.  The familial relationship between Ryan and Graham has proved a more obvious conduit for emotional resonance.  It would be interesting to develop Ryan’s relationship with Yaz without going down the easy route of a romantic or will-they/won’t-they relationship.  At any rate, next week’s episode will hopefully let Yaz, and Mandip Gill, take the centre stage.

I’ve been feeling something of an ‘early eighties’ vibe to this season so far, not just in the obvious four-strong TARDIS crew (like the fifth Doctor, Tegan, Adric and Nyssa or, perhaps stretching a point, the fourth Doctor, Romana, Adric and K9), but in the sense of a stripped back version of the programme, getting rid of some of the laughs and scares to focus on the character drama and occasional chunks of science (I’ll leave it up to someone else to decide on the accuracy of this episode’s CERN-talk.  I did A Level physics, but, like Yaz, it was a long time ago (rather longer in my case)), as well as looking even further back to the early Hartnell era as a ‘pure’ model for the programme, full of Reithian promise.

It’s worth noting in this regard that while Davies and Moffat were children of the sixties and early seventies, Chibnall (born in 1970) would have been more or less the right age to see Christopher Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner’s vision of the programme in the early eighties as an exciting new approach, taking the programme more seriously when he was of an age to start wanting it to be more serious.  Like the early part of season nineteen, there’s been a sense so far this year of the programme reinventing its key tropes for a new audience, making the regulars and especially the Doctor vulnerable again.  Like season nineteen, parts of the first half of this season have felt lightweight (with Rosa as this season’s Kinda, perhaps).  Will the second half have an Earthshock to add to the drama?  Time will tell…

Arachnids in the UK

Arachnids in the UK was the silliest episode of Doctor Who so far this year.  That’s not really meant as a criticism.  Three-quarters of Doctor Who, if not more, is silly if you stop to think about it, and Arachnids in the UK boldly ploughed on straight-faced, producing the most tense and nerve-wracking episode so far this year.  And I’m not even arachnophobic!  If Chris Chibnall seems to determined to attempt a new style with each episode, this episode gets the ‘Yeti in the loo’ contemporary horror style down to a tee.

Well, almost.  The story did rely a bit too much on a web (sorry) of coincidences to bring all the characters together, perhaps the product of adapting a story style dating from the late sixties to the shorter story lengths and attention spans of the twenty-first century.  It was pacey, but could have done with more time to develop the incidental characters.  I’m sure we’ll be seeing Yaz’s family again, but Jack Robertson felt two-dimensional.  Donald Trump is an easy and inevitable, but legitimate target and, in a nice twist, he is just an unpleasant businessman, not an Evil Genius Master Criminal as the opening scene implied.  But he did seem to have wandered in from a different type of drama, or even a different type of Doctor Who.  And I felt that one or two of his lines should have been cut, given the mass shooting in Pittsburgh the previous day.

In a typically Doctor Who touch, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for the spiders, even as we are also encouraged to fear them and, of course, the Doctor is opposed to guns.  More surprising was seeing her trap a spider with her practical knowledge of spiders, not Time Lord gadgetry, something pleasantly in the vein of the Doctors of the sixties and seventies than later incarnations.

Also, a pedantic point, but a zoologist should really know the difference between ‘poisonous’ and ‘venomous.’

Ultimately, Arachnids in the UK was very enjoyable, but it also felt a bit like a palate cleanser after the intense personal drama of Rosa.  Just celebrate the fact that this programme can move from hard-hitting historical/political drama to out and out contemporary horror in a single-episode.  Four episodes in and I have no idea where the rest of this season is going to go, and there isn’t anything more exciting than that!

Rosa

When the names of the writers for this season of Doctor Who were released, it was Malorie Blackman who I was most interested in.  I haven’t read any of her books, but, having just spent a year and a half working as a college librarian, I know how popular they are with young adults.  I imagined she would be telling a futuristic parable similar to her Noughts and Crosses books, so it was with interest that I discovered that she had co-written a historical story.

A while back I suggested on Twitter that the programme could avoid the problems of colour blind casting stories set in eras before mass immigration to Europe by visiting non-European history, as the Hartnell historicals had done, so I was pleased to see a step towards that here.  Rosa is set in Western history, but not in Europe and at a point of racial conflict.  (I think we are to get a completely non-European historical story later in the season.)  There’s a tension in this production, a sense that this is too important a story to fail with the double weight of the new regime’s first trip to the past, reinventing the ‘time meddler’ strand of story, and the importance of the subject matter.

The ‘innocent abroad’ sequences at the start have an additional weight and horror not seen since The Massacre as the TARDIS crew realise the full extent the danger posed by the society of the Deep South.  This is the most fully-realised ‘alien’ society seen in the programme in a very long time.  Given that under Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat the past was often presented as having the same attitudes as the present, but with different clothes, this is disconcerting in more ways than one.  Rosa’s warning to the Doctor early on that she would get into trouble that she would not be able to get out of easily serves as an warning to the audience about the type of story this is, one largely unseen in the new series, where societal forces create a problem too great for the Doctor to defeat directly and only a small or partial victory can be achieved.  This story is somewhat more optimistic than The Aztecs or The Massacre, positing that small actions can have great effects over time.  This verges on a slightly Whiggish version of history, heading inevitably towards peaceful pluralism, but Yaz and Ryan’s conversation about their own experiences of racism in the twenty-first century helps to add a note of caution and a reminder of the distance the audience still has to travel.

As with The Massacre, it’s the standard Doctor Who stuff that jars, such as the lines about the Doctor giving her mobile to Elvis who then lent it to Frank Sinatra to push the plot along a little.  Krasko in particular feels a light-weight, under-motivated villain.  James Blake is a product of a society built on centuries of racism and slavery, but we never really find out what Krasko’s society is like, what made him the way he was, what has made him go to all this effort.  Perhaps, as with real-life questions about what made, say, Hitler, the way he was, it’s ultimately unanswerable and doesn’t need an answer purely in terms of plot mechanics, but it does leave Krasko feeling more like a plot device than a character, someone there to put the wheels of the story in motion.  The very real danger of scenes where the regulars come up against the entrenched racism of unnamed supporting characters, particularly the scene in the motel with the policeman, produce far more tension and fear than any of Krasko’s scenes.  The difference between these characters and the cardboard Nazis of Let’s Kill Hitler is palpable.

By this stage the slower pace to the stories is beginning to look deliberate, an attempt at changing the house style and allowing for stories that would not have been told in more frenetic recent years.  The Doctor’s confrontations with Krasko allow her to show real ‘steel’ in the face of danger perhaps for the first time in this incarnation, but this is still a quieter Doctor than we have seen so far in the twenty-first century, one who listens to her companions as much as she speaks and is willing to stand in the background rather than hogging the limelight, particularly when gently nudging history back on track.

Overall, this was a strong episode that revitalised the pseudo-historical sub-genre.

The Ghost Monument

The Ghost Monument is essentially a quest narrative, something that, like its close relative, the chase narrative, was relatively common in the original series (particularly in the Hartnell and McCoy eras), but not really seen in the revived version.  Perhaps there is a need for spectacle in the quest that previous showrunners were worried they would not be able to provide.  Doctor Who always struggles to provide spectacle, but on a quest there have to be a whole series of terrifying obstacles to overcome because so much of the story is based on the overcoming of external danger.  It is no wonder that previous showrunners preferred character drama or invasions of Earth that had an attention-grabbing, spectacular moment, but then zoomed in on the responses of a handful of people.  In many ways, that must have seemed easier than providing a planetful of danger like The Keys of Marinus.

To be honest, they may have had a point.  The quest here is relatively small scale, or at rather we only see its closing stages, once most of the obstacles have been overcome and most of the competitors are out of the race.  There is not really enough danger or enough different environments or even enough set pieces to seem like a big and epic quest.  That’s even before factoring in that the narrative stops earlier than expected to introduce the new TARDIS set.  To be honest, I was left wanting more danger and excitement and more villainous villains.  I do wonder why it was established early on that violence was against the rules and would be penalised.  The selfish Epzo learning that cooperation was better than competition was perhaps inevitable, but should have been after he tried to use underhand methods to win.  And Ilin gave in far too easily.

That said, this was not a bad episode, just a slightly underwhelming one.  It was worth trying something new even if it didn’t quite work.  The new regulars are developing nicely, although Yaz was left somewhat underused and so I still worry that there is not enough room for three companions in hour long stories.  The guest characters were more off-the-shelf, though, the selfish adventurer and the war orphan trying to save her family.  The episode did benefit from having a bit more banter than the previous one, although the less humorous style seems to be the big change at the scripting level from the immediately previous versions of the show.  That, combined with the larger TARDIS crew and more vulnerable Doctor, less able to get out of danger with a convenient plot device (sonic screwdriver, psychic paper) from her pocket give these episodes the air of seasons eighteen and nineteen, which also reduced the Doctor’s abilities while increasing the number of passengers in the TARDIS, especially when combined with a production policy that seems determined to put the money spent on screen (not a criticism).  It’s early days yet, though, and certainly this feels much more accessible to non-fan audiences than those seasons.  And it was nice to see the TARDIS being restored to a position of a truly alien awe-inspiring artefact, here having become part of a culture.