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 Woman Who Fell to Earth

So, the waiting is over, at last.  The Woman Who Fell to Earth started with the feel of Steven Moffat’s era, with a narrator, most similar to The Bells of St. John, but also like several other episodes such as Listen and Before the Flood, which opened with narration.  This was followed by a scene in a wood shot to evoke a dark fairy tale aesthetic, like much of Moffat’s era.  But this was illusory and soon we were in the midst of a story very much rooted in the real world, somewhat like Russell T Davies’ vision for the show, but arguably more real, with characters that felt like real people doing real jobs, rather than simply evoking other TV genres.  The funeral at the end in particular rooted this in a reality only previously glimpsed in the codas to Black Orchid and Remembrance of the Daleks.  In Doctor Who people die all the time, but they very rarely get buried and mourned.

The lack of advance publicity paid off for me, although I don’t seek out spoilers at the best of times.  I guessed that Grace might die because I did at least know which characters would become regulars, but much of the programme was entirely unknown to me; compare the way in which characters like Martha and Bill seemed well-known long before their first episodes were broadcast as I tried to guess how they would enter the Doctor’s life.

The main characters were quickly and deftly sketched in.  The thirteenth Doctor doubtless needs time to find her feet, in writing and acting, but seemed initially like a slightly generic new series Doctor: gabby, eccentric (although not as much as her immediate predecessors) and questioning, but also genuinely apologetic in a way that has not been seen for a long time.  Perhaps it was this, as much as her gender and height, that gave this Doctor an interesting and unusual air of vulnerability only really seen previously in Peter Davison’s interpretation.  I look forward to seeing how this is developed in the coming episodes.

It was not just the Doctor’s vulnerability that echoed the past.  The larger regular cast evoked season nineteen as well as much of the sixties, the Doctor tricked the villain into defeat in a very seventh Doctorish way (compare with Remembrance of the Daleks, but also The Dominators) and the title sequence was a little reminiscent of Pertwee’s psychedelic spirals, with a tune closer to Delia Derbyshire’s original orchestration than any since Tom Baker’s time.  However, what was most noteworthy was an absence: while there was humour, the wise-cracking, gag-a-minute style that characterised so much of twenty-first century Who had quietly disappeared.   Again, it will be interesting to see how this develops.

If the episode had a flaw – and it’s a minor one – it’s that Tzim-Sha/Tim Shaw was perhaps too Star Trek-ey a villain, both in conception and execution, but even that serves to distinguish it from the approaches of Moffat and Davies, who tended to steer clear of glossy American ‘cult’ science fiction when searching for inspiration.

The greatest achievement of the episode was that it succeeded as a newcomer-friendly, continuity-lite episode, but somehow still feels like the logical next step from the previous thirteen years.  In that respect, the nearest parallel is Spearhead from Space (as relaunch and new Doctor episodes often are), which also quietly reconfigured the programme with minimal fuss and continuity.  The Doctor is most definitely in!

You Have Been Watching (In Order of Appearance)

This week I finished watching the whole of surviving Doctor Who in order, from An Unearthly Child to Twice Upon a Time.  It was actually the second time I’ve done it (the first finished just before The Next Doctor), this time as research for a book I’m writing (because I’ve refined the research parameters as I was going, I need to go back and watch the whole of the sixties again, while the last season or so would probably benefit from another viewing).  This is a somewhat topical matter, as Doctor Who Magazine’s Time Team, which was doing something similar (similar-ish, as they changed team members partway) was disbanded and instead the new Time Team has moved on to watching thematically-linked episodes, disconnected not just from their eras, but from the stories they form a part of.

Would I recommend it to other people?  Probably not.  Doctor Who is too large and unwieldy, and too thematically and narratively disconnected, for it to work well in the way that it does for a shorter, more coherent programme like Blake’s 7 or Babylon 5; you would have to binge-watch at a much faster rate than I was doing (it took me a year and ten months) to have vibrant memories of the beginning at the end.  With those series too there was at least some continuity of personnel involved before and behind the cameras, and there were deliberate plot and character arcs over time.  With Doctor Who, even recent series, there isn’t always much connection between stories that are close together, let alone those separated by decades (although finishing with Twice Upon a Time did feel like a tying up of matters, with the return of the first Doctor, although it would have been better if I didn’t think it was a really unpleasant and unnecessary attack on the character).    A few ‘turning point’ stories gain weight by being seen in order, e.g. The Time Meddler, The War Games and The Day of the Doctor and perhaps some Doctor or companion arrival or departure stories, but not really enough to justify the time involved.  I suppose if you’ve never watched Doctor Who before there would be benefits to watching in order… but then again, if you’ve never watched Doctor Who before you probably aren’t used to vintage television, in which case classic Who is going to be a big culture shock, probably big enough to put you off it entirely..

That said, certain ‘arcs’ are worth binge-watching, runs of stories that have strong narrative or thematic progression: the very first three stories (a strong character arc for the Doctor, Ian and Barbara), perhaps season seven, certainly seasons sixteen, eighteen (plus Castrovalva), the Black Guardian trilogy (especially if you watch season sixteen first), season twenty-six and (new) series one.  Sadly, though, The Trial of a Time Lord and the eleventh Doctor’s ongoing narrative arc both finish up as deeply disappointing when watched in order; all that wait for a confusing, incoherent outcome (and I’m more fond of those stories than many fans; imagine if I didn’t like them!).

Beyond that, an externally-dictated schedule does at least give me the opportunity to revisit ‘good but not great’ stories that I might otherwise neglect, as well as forcing me to revisit and sometimes to reassess stories that I had down as clunkers.  Over the last five years or so, I’ve revised my feelings about certain stories and eras, both from this in order viewing and, before that, in replacing my videos with DVDs and watching many stories in digital clarity for the first time.  I’ve turned into one of those strange people who can find something to enjoy in (almost) any episode.  Sometimes the turnaround has been quite dramatic.  (New) series three is a season that has gone from being one of my absolute least favourites to, if not a favourite, then at least to one I enjoy a lot.  Certainly I feel it has the most successful story arc of the Davies years.  On the other hand, sometimes you end up being ‘forced’ to watch a good story on a day when you just aren’t in the mood for it (particularly if it’s a heavy-going one for some reason e.g. an emotional episode when you’re down and want a silly one) and it suffers.  Occasionally a story just doesn’t seem to work any more due to too many viewings.  I used to really like Battlefield, but this time around all the criticisms I’ve heard over the years seemed to make sense.  So there are perhaps dangers in viewing in order as well as occasional benefits.