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!

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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.

Nervous/Excited

I haven’t posted here for a month.  That was not my intention.  I just had a lot going on in the real world.  But the new series of Doctor Who, and the thirteenth Doctor, arrive in under eighteen hours.  Like any good Doctor Who fan, I’m both excited and apprehensive.  The hope of enjoying a new series of top-notch Who combined with the fear that it will somehow disappoint.

Unfortunately I don’t rate Chris Chibnall’s previous scripts that highly.  I don’t hate any of them (although I used to), but The Power of Three is the only one that really grabs my attention.  And I disliked the first two episodes of Torchwood so much that I never came back.  But Chibnall has kept such a tight lid on advanced publicity, it’s hard to guess what the new series will be like.  Nor is it easy to find a “Chibnall style” in his previous work.  In fact, looking at Chibnall’s scripts, 42 is a mash-up of The Empty Child and Planet of EvilThe Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is based on Doctor Who and the Silurians, or more accurately the novelisation and The Power of Three comes across as a homage to Russell T Davies’ era.  Only Dinosaurs on a Spaceship seems distinctive, but that also doesn’t seem like the style he would pursue for a whole series.  Of course, his other writing, for more adult programmes, would suggest another style entirely.

These days I can find something to like in most Doctor Who, even in episodes that made me rigid with boredom or half-dead of embarrassment years ago.  I really like the fact that, in our era of DVDs and downloads, I can jump from a Hartnell historical to a political Pertwee to a Gothic horror early Tom, then to a palate cleanser comedy Tom before a Davies character drama.  Sticking with the same style for several years on TV can seem a bit repetitive.  Boring, even.

All of which should make me sound really worried about the new series, especially as the female Doctor has its own risks which no previous regeneration since Hartnell into Troughton has had.  But, somehow – and despite being a natural pessimist – I feel more positive about the coming episodes than I have done for years.  The trailer clips showed a natural understanding of the rhythm of a Doctor Who scene on the part of both writer and actors.  And I’m glad that this is, apparently, to be continuity-lite, partly in the hope that will attract new viewers, but also because I like continuity-lite eras.  (Did you know that only four of the thirty-six previous seasons of Doctor Who have no old monsters or villains at all?  And two of those (seven and thirteen) have UNIT, while season sixteen has a Time Lord companion, leaving season one as (inevitably) the only season not requiring knowledge of episodes before the first one of that season.)

So, nervous, but excited…