Resolution

I did not review this year’s Doctor Who on initial viewing.  I’ve decided that my first impressions are too emotional and subjective, far beyond the fact that all criticism is subjective on some level.  It’s too easy to get sucked into “different = heretical” (or “same = boring” for that matter).  I hope to review the 2020 season here soon, but I realised I never reviewed Resolution!  I watched it again last night.  Here we go!

Early on there’s an attempt to tap into classic Doctor Who horror tropes.  There’s some solid tunnel work early on and the scene of the possessed Lin in her bathroom was very effective, genuinely sounding like she was about to throw up in disgust at what was happening to her.

Unfortunately, this rapidly became one of those stories where a science fiction threat is married to an emotional subplot that has no plot or thematic connection to it.  I’ve never really seen the wisdom of this.  I feel the emotional core of the episode should relate more directly to the science fiction plot.  Neither of the plot lines is particularly bad here, but they do not really gel either, especially with no sign of Aaron becoming a semi-regular whose experience with a Dalek might become relevant.

The juxtaposition between the Dalek killing two police officers and Aaron trying to sell a microwave/oven was effective, if not especially challenging.  New Year’s Day viewing perhaps requires a degree of familiarity in the tropes used.  There was a danger of Aaron becoming the cliché of the black man who abandons his family, but this is rescued by Daniel Adegboyega’s thoughtful performance as a man with regrets who is realising that he has made some serious mistakes with his life.

Surprisingly, the action seemed lower down in the mix than the emotion, a feature that may be budgetary as there seemed surprisingly few soldiers while GCHQ was represented by one extra in a single room.  At least we did not have an Action Man tank this time.  And an ill-advised joke near the climax about families needing to relearn the art of conversation was (a) not funny, (b) old, and (c) distracting from the climax of the story.

There was some handwaving of plot points too, possibly to keep the two separate plot strands running at the same time.  Presumably the Dalek learnt where its gun was from its internet searching, but it was not completely clear about where it had been for the previous thousand years until it was bought by MDZ.

In the end the Dalek was defeated and Aaron and Ryan reconciled, as we knew all along would happen. The problem is that it is not at all clear whether Aaron has really changed, something reinforced by his non-appearance in 2020. Has anyone really moved on? It’s hard to tell, which makes this seem a bit like something happening on the television rather than in real life.

I don’t wish to sound too negative.  Resolution was a success overall, especially as our only new TV Doctor Who for 2019.  It was worth holding back this Doctor’s first meeting with the Daleks to make it count off-screen as well as on-screen, turning the only episode of the year into more of an event.  I just wish that Aaron could have been integrated into the plot a bit more.

I was surprised at the hate that greeted the bit about UNIT being suspended at the time of broadcast, as it seemed to me a fairly obvious way of explaining why they weren’t around so that we could focus on the Doctor in this incarnation’s first battle against the Daleks.  I doubt that they will be out of commission for long.  I am also unsure why people saw it as a Brexit joke, when it seemed to me to be more about austerity in general or, more likely, Donald Trump’s threats to pull the USA out of NATO.  The Dalek apparently accessed the Black Archive on Lin’s computer, which indicated to me that UNIT may not be as out of reach as Polly thought.

Other thoughts:

I know I’m not the only person who has wondered how Medieval knights killed a Dalek.  Was it the brother of the rubbish Dalek who blew up when shot with spears and arrows in Death to the Daleks?

I liked the matter-of-fact way Graham says “Alien psychopath.”  You can almost hear him thinking, “Another of those nutters.”

Neglected Gems Part 4

The final part of my mini-series on unfairly neglected Doctor Who stories!

Fear Her

I’ve never understood the sheer hatred Fear Her has inspired since its broadcast.  Indifference I could understand, but not hatred.  To many fans, this is the worst episode of Russell T Davies’ time as showrunner, if not one of the worst of all time.

I concede that the monsters are subpar.  The father in the wardrobe conceit doesn’t really work.  We don’t see enough to really buy it as a threat, and what we do see isn’t scary enough.  And there is a huge dollop of sentimentality, especially over the Olympics.  But excess sentimentality is, in my opinion, a problem with a lot of Davies-era stories and never stopped episodes like Doomsday and Journey’s End topping polls.  At least in this story the Doctor and Rose seem likeable and believable, compared with other stories this season, where they often radiated smugness, acting like a couple of demi-gods who deigned to descend from Olympus to patronise us mere mortals.  The bit where Rose shoots daggers at the Doctor for eating marmalade out of the jar is one of my favourite Doctor/Rose bits in this season, not least for being done non-verbally.

I suspect the problem for a lot of people with this story is that it goes further into both fantasy and children’s fiction than Doctor Who usually ventures, and low fantasy at that, thus alienating all the fans who insist that Doctor Who is Serious Adult Science Fiction.  If you’re one of those fans, then this probably isn’t for you.  But please don’t stop me from liking it.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

This story seems to get a lot of flack just for having a TARDIS interior without roundels.  In fact, the “roundels everywhere” approach is inconsistently applied in the original series – just see Inside the Spaceship (or The Edge of Destruction if you prefer) or The Invasion of TimeJourney to the Centre of the TARDIS is hardly flawless, with some confused plot elements that took me a couple of viewings to fully understand and a strange twist that requires the Doctor to fake a threat of destruction before the story introduces a real one. I have to say this is probably one of the weaker stories on this list for me.  However, the TARDIS is presented convincingly as a living labyrinth leaking time, the Doctor is quietly manipulative and there are some nice surreal moments even if they production team’s intentions didn’t quite meet the budget with some rooms reduced to views through doorways.

Under the Lake/Before the Flood

I was going to write about In the Forest of the Night, but much of what I said about Fear Her applies to it.  So I’ll go for Under the Lake/Before the Flood, which surprised me by appearing near the bottom of the poll for series nine.

I feel it has a lot going for it: the enclosed atmosphere of the first half (ghost story/base under siege hybrid) broadening out to the surreal abandoned mock-Soviet village of the second.  The time travel paradox is handled well (I like time-travel stories, but they’re rare outside of Moffat’s time on the show, except for Dennis Spooner’s tenure  as story editor*).  It’s very creepy even if the pseudoscientific explanations don’t entirely hold water (again, not unusual for Doctor Who).  There’s a decent monster too who towers over Peter Capaldi, although he isn’t seen much.  The story even gets away with breaking the fourth wall, just don’t ask me how (well, as we would find out a few episodes later, the Doctor always needs an audience).

Arachnids in the UK

I admit that I don’t know which Jodie Whittaker stories are considered good, beyond knowing that I’m in a minority in preferring her first season to her second.  Arachnids in the UK is a rather silly story, but a lot of fun, even if the not-Trump is a bit of a stock “evil American businessman.”  Giant creepy crawlies is something Doctor Who has done quite a bit, with varying degrees of efficiency.  It’s no surprise this feels like a bit of a throwback to the Pertwee era, with giant spiders, a corrupt businessman and an ecological theme.  Leaving all the spiders to die is a bit of a brutal ending though.

That said, my favourite bit only happened in my head: when the Doctor asks “Are all your hotels built on repurposed sites?” Robertson responds, “Some of them are built on Native American graveyards.”

*For more on the appearance of time travel stories under Dennis Spooner and Steven Moffat, see my book, Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who, by D. G. Saunders, available from Lulu.com and also Amazon US, Amazon UK, Blackwells and Barnes and Noble!

Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who – Out Now!

I’ve been away from here for too long.  The reason (part of the reason, anyway), is that I’ve been working on a book!  Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who by D. G. Saunders looks at all of television Doctor Who from An Unearthly Child to Resolution (sadly, there wasn’t enough time to add this year’s episodes), examining the way the series has changed with the changing priorities of different production teams.

From the back cover blurb:

For over fifty years, the BBC’s Doctor Who has taken viewers on adventures across time and space.  At the same time, the programme has crossed genres and styles.  From science fiction to action, horror to comedy and back again.

Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who offers a penetrating look at the way different showrunners, producers and script editors shaped the Time Lord’s adventures.  Analysing each era in sequence, it looks at story styles, the character of the Doctor and his intrepid companions, and the nature of the villains and monsters they faced, as well as the portrayal of the Time Lords.

An essential guide both for new fans wanting a primer on the programme’s history and for long-standing enthusiasts seeking a fresh perspective on eras they thought they knew.

Available NOW from Lulu.com, Blackwell’s, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com!

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos/End of Series

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

As with the rest of this series, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was a fairly low-key affair.  Under Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat, an episode with this title would doubtless have been an epic with vast CGI battlefleets and cameo appearances of half a dozen old monsters.  What we got instead felt like it belonged to the days before CGI, with a number of similarities to The Pirate Planet (telepaths, shrunken planets and a ranting megalomaniac…  The ‘only ever two’ Ux felt like a steal from Star Wars‘ Sith too).  The Earth was threatened, but we didn’t really see any sign of damage.  Under Davies or Moffat we’d have had at least a couple of shots of people running screaming through the streets and damage to famous monuments.  Fan expectations were disappointed, judging from the criticism from the Fan Twitterati (as JNT would doubtless be calling them, were he still alive).  There hasn’t been a season finale this low-key since… Dragonfire?  The Horns of NimonThe Wheel in Space?  But the original series didn’t generally do epic season finales (with a few exceptions).  But that’s the thing, really: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos isn’t failing to be an epic, it’s not really trying to be one in the first place.  (Some reviewers have suggested that the new year’s special is the real season finale, which may be the case.)

Trying to work out what it is trying to do is harder, though.  There’s some mystery, but the Doctor is soon back to solving things through having prior knowledge rather than deduction, in this case of both the Ux (privileging the her over the viewers) and Tim Shaw (rewarding viewers who have stuck with the whole season).  The Doctor’s moral flexibility, particularly regarding firearms, is briefly brought to the fore, but soon ignored.  The real focus is probably Graham’s desire to kill the villain, but, perhaps thankfully, this isn’t really dwelt on long enough.  Thankfully because you would either have to make Graham more vengeful than a family series would be comfortable with or show him so conflicted as to make it obvious that he wouldn’t go through with it.  That said, I was genuinely worried that he would either kill Tim Shaw or get killed himself, so on that level the innovations of the series so far have worked.   This does still feel like a programme willing to take risks.

Overall, this was diverting, but nothing more.  It lacked a proper emotional core, despite Graham’s subplot and was somehow lacking in ‘edge’ and menace.  The continuity-lite finale was refreshing, inasmuch as previous seasons have binged on old monsters and artificial stake-raising exercises, but this needed more weight than Tim Shaw could give it and while Daleks or Cybermen would have been artificial, part of me thinks they might have done something to raise this to a more satisfying conclusion.

 

Series 11/Season 37/The 2018 Episodes

This year’s episodes have given us a new, vulnerable, less eccentric and above all female Doctor, three companions (two non-white), low-key stories and a focus on history.  All these things are to my liking.  As I’ve said before, Davies and Moffat grew up watching Doctor Who in the seventies, but Chibnall is of an age to have been impressed by the moral earnestness, experimentation and crowded TARDIS of seasons eighteen and nineteen and this is reflected in the stories, although this makes the lack of overt continuity more surprising.

This has been a year of bold experiments and often successful ones, but it is not clear yet how the audience has reacted.  My uncle was complaining the other day about stories that are preachy “history lessons” rather than exciting science fiction stories and while I think this does a grave injustice to Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, I wonder if he is onto something.  At the very least, I wonder how many other people agree with him.

The programme has taken some big risks this year, including several that paid off: a more diverse cast, obviously, but also historicals set outside of Europe (not really seen since the Hartnell era) as well as set in living memory and a low-key and continuity-lite style that often felt like a refreshing break from the twisted timelines and crowded stories of Moffat’s time.

However, far too many stories have felt like filler episodes, the type of budget-saving story that previous producers would schedule to balance some epics.  I like small-scale, experimental stories, but even I think this went too far.  There is a need in 2020 for larger, crazier stories.  Only Arachnids in the UKThe Witchfinders and maybe Kerblam! really felt like the Doctor Who of recent years and while this was in many ways positive, I think it may have left too many people wondering whether they were actually watching Doctor Who.

The Witchfinders

Well, it’s not exactly The Crucible, is it?  True, perhaps Doctor Who can’t imitate Arthur Miller (although Rosa might make one question this), but where Rosa and Demons of the Punjab were carefully-researched attempts at portraying real people living in the past, The Witchfinders was a badly-researched, ahistorical mess.

I admit it’s a number of years since I studied the witch-hunting craze at university, but huge blunders leapt out at me.  Witch trials, in England at any rate, were usually actual trials.  In a courtroom, with a judge, prosecution and defence, witnesses and so on.  Contrary to popular belief, there were sometimes acquittals; they weren’t just show-trials.  Ducking witches did happen, but it was usually associated with mob violence and was something the gentry were keen to stamp out (the ruling class didn’t much like the idea of encouraging mob rule).  A male magistrate overseeing such a ducking might be a forgivable bit of dramatic license, I suppose, like the Vikings with horned helmets in The Girl Who Died, but a woman doing it is just silly.  There is no way this could ever happen, and the story’s own dialogue demonstrates that.

Then there’s all the talk of “Witchfinders General.”  There never was such an official position in the British Isles.  Matthew Hopkins called himself the Witchfinder General (several decades after the events here), but that was a bit of self-important puffery on his part, not a real office.  And King James VI and I didn’t actually write (“As King James has written in his new Bible”?!) or even translate the King James Bible.  And perhaps this is personal griping, but after feeling that Jews are the only minority group not on show this series, it was unpleasant, to put it mildly, to have the Doctor repeating the old Christian antisemitic canard that “Love your neighbour” comes from the New Testament (it’s actually Leviticus 19.18).

If you want to nitpick, King James’ lack of entourage, while budget-saving, seems improbable to put it mildly.  Becka Savage might have had all the horses in the village shot, but where are the King’s horses?  Surely he’s not walking around the kingdom?  And speaking of shot horses, there’s a lot of talk of having people shot here, at a time when the favoured methods of execution would have been hanging, or beheading for the upper classes (like King James’ unfortunate son).

[Pause while I take some deep breaths and try to calm down…]

There’s a lot of argument in fandom about whether Doctor Who needs to be factually accurate, whether those facts are historical or scientific.  I’m somewhat agnostic on the subject, feeling that, up to a point, different eras and even different stories can choose their own level of reality.  What is more problematic is setting up the start of the series (Rosa and Demons again) to look like this is a series about encountering the Real History behind the sanitised facts and then serving up a wildly improbable bit of pulp fiction (pun on the Tarrantino reference not intended).  Even then it might have got away with it in a clearly comedic episode.   I’m fond of the three comedy Hartnell historical stories, The Romans, The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, three stories that play fast and loose with historical truth at a time when the programme was still producing more serious fare like The Crusade and The Massacre, but those stories were clearly comedic in intent (even then, I do have my doubts occasionally).  This presents itself as a serious account of the witch-hunting craze like previous accounts of Segregation and Indian Partition.

While those stories were clearly educational, you can’t really learn much from this except that King James had an eye for the boys.  In an era where witch-hunting seems to be everywhere again, metaphorically speaking, one might have hoped for some kind of historical or psychological insight into the mechanisms of fear and paranoia that spark such investigations, in the way that Miller was really writing about McCarthy in The Crucible.  But this is just nonsense.  King James talks like people only talk in time-travel stories, going out of his way to sound as bigoted as possible as quickly as possible, without any kind of motivation beyond shocking Our Heroes, and allowing the audience to pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on how tolerant they are.  The sense of the past as a place where people behave differently because of different, but coherent belief systems is lacking here, as I found it lacking (to a much lesser extent) in Demons.  This is hugely problematic for a series that seems to be trying to use its portrayal of the past as a way of establishing a reputation for serious drama.  The Massacre isn’t quite the lost classic its defenders would have it be, but it does present the violence of the French religious wars as something that mattered to people at the time; they weren’t just cardboard cutout bigots, even if the details of Reformation politics were left vague.  Here (and this is only set a few decades later) witch-hunting is something that people in the past did because they were religious and superstitious and bad and aren’t we so much better today?  This is a horrible attitude for a series that seems to be trying to recapture the original series’ early sixties mandate to educate while it entertains.

King James is presented a little better than the other characters, in that we get some cod-psychology which is perhaps convincing, but there no one seems to care that Christians in the seventeenth century took the Bible very seriously and did indeed believe that Satan travelled in the world spreading evil and corruption in a very literal and real sense.  Present this seriously and you have room for conflict and drama between our postmodern values and their seventeenth century ones.  But here religion is just noises off, a pretext for misogynistic violence.  Perhaps it needs saying: if you’re presenting the pre-modern era seriously, you can’t afford to either ignore or parody religion, pretending that either no one really cared very much about it and adopted twenty-first century attitudes of irony and tolerance (Demons) or, alternatively, present it as something meaningless and absurd that even the people at the time must have struggled to take seriously (this story).

Was there anything good here?  Not really.  The plot was typical fare, with stranded aliens in the past being responsible for the supernatural as per most Doctor Who like this.  There was some attempt at investigative plotting, but it was pretty obvious where it was going to end up, in broad terms if not the details.  That’s not necessarily a problem in itself, but if Joy Wilkinson wanted to play it safe, it might have been better to tone down the witch-hunting and focus on the mud-zombie plot instead (which wasn’t entirely congruent with the witchcraft theme anyway).  And King James would have been better off left out of it.

But the worst of it all is that this comes after a run of strong stories that had seen the programme find new directions.  To relapse into the worst of the past is thus doubly disappointing.