Sunday, 19 April 2020

"Ascension of the Cybermen"/"The Timeless Children"


For the past two years I have repeatedly made one observation about the current lead writer for Doctor Who. He is following in the footsteps of two of the finest writers in the world and the fact remains that he is not only not in the same league, but has another league in between his league and their league. This will inevitably affect the direction and quality of the programme. The lack of sheer poetry in Chibnall's dialogue, when compared with his predecessors is evident, but not, in the end, too damaging. Critically, however, Chibnall still exhibits a lack of care when it comes to resolving plots, something that was of particular concern when before watching "Ascension of the Cybermen"/"The Timeless Children", because it builds on the revelations of "Fugitive of the Judoon" to form the greatest reformatting of Doctor Who's mythology since The Deadly Assassin, if not "An Unearthly Child" itself.

The driving force is the reintroduction of the Cybermen – bold, considering that the two previous Cyberman stories were the best ones ever made, in my opinion. We see the return of the memorable Ashad, the tortured half-convert from the previous story, who is now the leader. Again, as with the two Moffat Cyber-stories, we have the Master thrown into the mix as well. We are also given the concept of a fugitive remnant of humans fighting extinction. These form a strong framework to hang the story on, which is a good thing, as there is some of the lack of attention to detail that has cropped up before. The characterisation of the remnant humans are sketchy, the Death Particle is a pound shop version of the Daleks' Reality Bomb that is dropped into the plot a bit too conveniently. Critically, we are never sure what the actual Ascension of the Cybermen is – the aspect that seems to point the way to it, the image of the awakened Cybermen made to scream by Ashad's lieutenants is memorable, but unexplained. Most critically, we have the portrayal of our leading lady. The characterisation raises some big issues, most notably the fact that the Doctor is willing to cut a moral Gordian Knot by allowing someone else to sacrifice himself.

And yet , while there are issues with how Chibnall writes the character, he also sets out to rewrite the Doctor's history and that of the Time Lords; and the ideas and de- and remythologisation work well. The new origin story for the Time Lords manages to be memorable, disturbing, and, crucially (and in the best possible way) raises more questions than answers. In revealing more about the Doctor's past, we are left with a figure as mysterious as the one in the junkyard in Totters' Lane. As one of the many people who know what the final revelations of the Cartmel Masterplan were, Chris Chibnall's bombshell is a considerable improvement over what would have been revealed in Sylvester McCoy's fourth season. The, at first, entirely disconnected story of Brendan the Irish policemen shows Chibnall reaching for a Moffat level of conceptual ingenuity – and succeeding to a very welcome degree!

The story is realised with epic flourish, with flotillas of attacking cyberdrones and warping battle cruisers materialising on an immaculately shot battlefield location. The supporting actors make their hastily written characters really work – Julie Graham's character Ravio, realising that she is on the planet where her race originated on is a surprisingly powerful scene. The fam are as utterly delightful as ever, with Ryan finally making the shot that he missed and a wonderful scene between Graham and Yas, showing the difference between Cockney and Yorkshire 'sharing'. The more proactive role that Yas has been taking of late, is wonderful, improving the fam's chemistry, no end. Patrick O'Kane spits venom again as Ashad and his ultimate destruction is unexpectedly sudden. At this point we must address one thing – the Cybermasters. The design is ridiculous, bordering on the New Paradigm Daleks, especially when compared with the other Cyberman designs in the story. It would have helped no end for the Doctor to have pointed out how silly they look.

Sacha Dhawan effectively shows the pain and fury of his new-found relationship between the Master and his best Enemy. The enemy in question, the Timeless Child is a huge task for Jodie Whittaker as an actress and she is more than up to the challenge. After a memorable pep-talk from her unknown former-self, we are treated to the magnificent sequence where the Doctor blows the matrix with her memories, realised magnificently as a drop beat to the Doctor Who theme music. The Doctor is still with us, bigger and more magnificent than ever before.

Chibnall, as I've said before is a lesser writer than his predecessors. Yet, despite its faults, "Ascension of the Cybermen"/"The Timeless Children" show him increasing his reach by striving to be better than anyone thought he could be. He fails, of course, but what we are left with is a very good story, although not the classic that the Chibnall era has been lacking, so far. I look forward to what's coming next.

NEXT: "Revolution of the Daleks"

Saturday, 22 February 2020

"The Haunting of Villa Diodati"

The meeting of minds that took place in the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati would be fascinating enough if it had just been one of those legendary gatherings of the great and good. However, as this summer produced Frankenstein and The Vampyre it is fair to say that Doctor Who itself would not exist were it not for the creativity that that sunless summer spawned. It is bold, therefore for the Doctor to gleefully gatecrash this legendary holiday. We do get the expected story of the Doctor meeting and possibly influencing a great writer. However, this is achieved in an intoxicating, reality-folding horror story, with some genuine shocks and some clever moments. Strangely, there are no really big names amongst the cast of characters in the Villa Diodati, but each actor portrays their role well. Lili Miller makes a very charismatic Mary Shelley and Maxim Baldry a wonderfully grumpy Dr Polidori. As a poet, Byron is a master, but, unlike his daughter, he was far less admirable as a person and the story portrays not only his charisma but, rather than the usual trio of characteristics associated with him, he is also cowardly and callous, brought out in a fine performance as Jacob Collins-Levy. There is also a nice turn from Nadia Parkes as the tragic Claire Clairmont, who is given a good deal of dignity, here. The scenes in the Villa with just the regulars and the historical holidaymakers are, in turns, delightful, funny, spooky and shocking.

However, the story also has to set up the finale, and we have our first encounter with the lone Cyberman. It is here that we have some very woolly writing that could have done with a few more drafts – the nature of the Cyberium, presumably a far-future version of Mr Clever is rather poorly explained and the to-ing and fro-ing concerning Shelley's importance in the timeline doesn't really work. We are helped with a very arresting performance by Patrick O'Kane who memorably chews the scenery. The Cyberman is not one we've encountered before, naming himself as Ashad and being clearly emotional – his declamation of the experience of his killing of his family is suffused with both sadism and pain.

Emma Sullivan again puts fantastic work behind the camera. The scenes progress alternately with snappy urgency and slow dread when required. The cinematography throughout is excellent, so when the sun finally bursts in, it is a wondrous shock to viewer and character alike. The period detail is wonderful, as is the Cyberman, who has shades of Star Trek's Borg about it. The regulars continue to do excellent work, with Ryan being a standout this week. In the face of the Lone Cyberman, Jodie Whittaker has the Doctor seem closer to the Lonely God than she has ever been, but we are also, for the first time, given the Doctor as an object of desire, by Byron, no less – and “Mrs” Doctor is having none of it.

There are some large problems with the script, but "The Haunting of Villa Diodati" is very well made and tremendously entertaining. Of course, some questions might be answered in coming weeks – the materialisation of the Cyberman does seem very familiar...

NEXT: "Ascension of the Cybermen"

Sunday, 16 February 2020

"Can You Hear Me?"

There is a great deal to commend "Can You Hear Me?", however the debut script from promising playwright Charlene James (with help from Chris Chibnall) has some problems which stem from one main factor – failure to integrate the monsters of the week with the issue of the week. We have the introduction of Zellin and Rakaya, a sub-group of the Eternals (with namechecks for the Guardians and the Celestial Toymaker) who feed off nightmares. We have the monsters in the shape of the Aleppo nightmare creatures. However, in a coda, we look at how people suffer by keeping their pain to themselves. These low-key scenes are quietly brilliant, particularly Yas’s journey from troubled teenager to promising police officer. This is the kind of thing that Charlene James has excelled at before and it shows. Although this does have a certain connection to Zellin and Rakaya’s parasitism of nightmares, it is not a great one and there is the feeling that it is an attempt to blend two very promising individual stories together, with not entirely successful results.

Whatever flaws there are in the writing, the realisation is astonishingly good and the lack of cohesion between the two main strands in the plot are considerably lessened by the visualisation. The effects are stunning as are the sets, with the harp-like interface for the alien space ship being very original. The detached fingers would be all-but-impossible to ruin as a scary concept, but director Emma Sullivan goes the extra mile in all respects. Particularly impressive is the realisation of the nightmare creatures, who are just another monster on the page and as a CG maquette, but are terrifying in Sullivan's hands, especially when their hands grab someone, in the teaser. The best indication of Sullivan's skill in this area is the realisation of Yas's nightmares – simple, yet unsettling. There is also the great use of animation for the story of Zellin and Rakaya's origin and imprisonment (with a nod, I’m sure, to Sapphire and Steel. The casting of Ian Gelder is key to making Zellin as effective as he is and we have the effortlessly charismatic Clare-Hope Ashitey as Rakaya. Aleppo has recently been in the public eye for being one of the most horrific parts in one of the most horrific places on Earth. It is useful to remember that Syria was not always thus and Aleppo arguably has a history and culture unequalled in the world. Aruhan Galieva portrays Tahira with real passion, making her another inductee into the 'companion who could have been' category. Special mention must be made of Nasreen Hussain as PC Anita Patel, the person whom Yas really needed to meet to become who she was.

The regulars are on fine form, with Yas continuing to impress as it is her story that is easily the most compelling here. Bradley Walsh makes Graham's fear of his cancer returning quietly effective and it’s good to see Sharon D Clarke back. Tosin Cole is not to be overshadowed, though - if there's one thing that shows how delivery can elevate a line, it's Ryan's 'I brought chips though!'. Jodie Whittaker is given rather less inspired dialogue but, again, she really goes to work with what she has.

If there's one scene which shows the main problem with "Can You Hear Me?" it's the Doctor's reaction to Graham opening up to her. Especially after the excellent scenes with Yas and Ryan's friend Tibo, it comes off as clumsily bathetic, which the performances of Walsh and Whittaker can only partly compensate for. There are some moments of true excellence in this story, but it's a pity that they could not have been woven into a narrative that could have produced a true classic.

NEXT: "The Haunting of Villa Diodati"

Saturday, 8 February 2020

"Praxeus"

Pete McTighe's "Kerblam!" was a very enjoyable story and, like Ed Hime, I was keen to see him come back. Like Hime's "Orphan 55", "Praxeus" is s standalone adventure with a strong environmental streak. Unlike "Orphan 55", "Praxeus", is an astonishing example of how fantastic such a story can be. The only villain in the story is short-sightedness – the alien humanoids lack of care in experimenting on Earth and, of course, the main subject of the episodes – microplastic. Like Robert Holmes looking at how many plastic gadgets and products surround the average person and creating the Autons, McTighe and Chibnall look at the disturbing accumulation of the detritus left from those same plastics breaking down, and created one of the most terrifying threats the programme has ever had – the plastic-mutating Praxeus virus. The plotting and pacing are frequently relentless, but the varied locations and adrenaline-charged scenes illustrate that this is a global problem and an urgent one, which is why the Doctor enters the scene running and barely lets up.

The writers have created what is the best use of the fam and their dynamic, yet. For most of the episode, the fam is split into three groups and all three of the fam-ily have their 'Doctor-y' moments – Ryan is the first to appear in the story and that scene has some of the same beats as the Doctor's first appearance in "Rose". Best of all is that, for the first time since "Demons of the Punjab", Yas truly shines – her disappointment at not having discovered an alien planet is hilarious, as is her correction of Graham's use of the scanner. The Doctor is given, perhaps, the most Doctor-y challenge to overcome – saving her favourite species from their own short-sightedness and Jodie Whittaker is on fire. In such a maelstrom, characterisation can suffer, but here, supporting characters are given enough nuances to register, with slightly needy vlogger Gabriela and the Doctor's science crush Suki, who, of course ends up disappointing her. The main support comes from Warren Brown and Matthew McNulty as Jake and Adam, a mismatched, yet wholly believable married couple, which gives the episode its few respites from the breakneck pace.

Jamie Magnus Stone returns to realise this frenetic tale and he uses the vivid locations to paint an epic globe-trotting experience. The most effective sequences are, of course, the manifestation of the Praxeus virus. The flocks of birds are reminiscent of Hitchcock, and all the better for it. The symptoms of the virus are utterly horrifying and very well shot and edited. They are more terrifying than the corpse mutilation in "The Woman Who Fell to Earth", yet, unlike Tim Shaw's trophy hunting, not crossing the line in appropriateness – an important distinction that Chibnall has learnt.

"Praxeus" starts and ends with a David Attenborough-style narration by the Doctor, but the wearing of its environmentalist heart on its sleeve feels far less preachy than in "Orphan 55" and only makes this vibrant story all the more appealing.

NEXT: Can You Hear Me?

Sunday, 2 February 2020

"Fugitive of the Judoon"

Seeing the trailer for "Fugitive of the Judoon" led one to have a few expectations for it. A low-key rural romp, with a welcome return for an entertaining, though not scary monster. And, for a while, this is what we get. However, this episode reminds us of something which has been missing from the Chibnall era – genuine jaw-dropping surprise. In this joint script by Chibnall and Vinay Patel, we have the abrupt change in direction of "Utopia", combined with the huge changes to the programme's mythology of The War Games. It is, perhaps, no exaggeration that this could mean a bigger change for the Doctor's character history than the moment Whittaker opened her eyes in "Twice Upon a Time"

As in "Utopia", we are given a perfectly respectable story to be getting along with, with nice small-scale characters in low-stakes conflict – the rivalry between Lee and All Ears Allan is both delightful and funny and the Judoon fit perfectly into this situation. However, the plotline is very similar to "Smith and Jones" and, when we find that there's more to the character of Ruth that we think, it seems that Chibnall is recycling  the plot of his very average Torchwood episode "Sleeper". Torchwood springs easily to mind because, for the first time in nearly a decade, John Barrowman explodes back onto the screen as Captain Jack. He looks remarkably unaged and it is a real joy to have him back.

Yet this shock pales next to the subsequent one – for Ruth is not merely an alien in disguise, she's an alien wanderer in time and space, in a ship called the TARDIS, known only as the Doctor. Jo Martin gives a solid performance as Ruth, but she dazzles as the Doctor, giving further evidence of the theory that half of all British actors dream of playing the part. This brings out Jodie Whitaker's best performance yet as the Doctor. The first shot of her reminds me of a thought I had of her in her debut story, looking like William Hartnell would look like if he were a beautiful young woman. The sheer expressiveness of her face is an asset that has never been put to better use. The fam are with her all the way and each one of them flow with the relentless surge of the story, but are not overwhelmed. The first evidence of this story not being what it appears to be, is the rapid disposal of the supporting characters – however, Neil Stuke makes Lee someone with a past, a mission and a love and Ritu Arya is also memorable as Time Lord badass Gat.

Nida Manzoor is superb at the staging of all these scenes and refreshingly ensures that the major shocks and revelations are realised by moments involving actors. The location filming in Gloucester is great and the space battle scenes are shot with an intensity that belie the few sets used.

"Fugitive of the Judoon"'s true effectiveness can only be truly measured when Chibnall's full plan has been revealed. It has raised the stakes higher than any Moffatt or Davies story and it is a genuine fear that Chibnall will not match what those two, almost peerless writers have done. As it stands, "Fugitive of the Judoon" is thrilling and wonderfully realised, giving real hope for the future.

NEXT: "Praxeus"

Sunday, 26 January 2020

"Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror"

It's time for this year's visit to the past and an encounter with a famous historical figure and we have, not only the fascinating figure of Nikola Tesla, but his more famous nemesis, Thomas Edison. This is the debut story from Nina Metivier and her inexperience sometimes shows. On paper, it does feel like the paint-by-numbers version of the Doctor meets a famous historical figure and helps them fight monsters a bit too slavishly and the progression of the solution is sometimes a bit too woolly. However, the monsters in question, the Skithra, tie in well with the central theme of inspiration and inventiveness versus piracy and parasitism although the scenes of the monsters attacking lack verve on the page. One wonders what the considerably greater conceptual ingenuity of RTD and Moffat would have given to these monsters, come rewrites.

However, it is in the characters that the script really comes into its own, helped immeasurably by the performances of Robert Glenister as Edison and, especially, Goran Višnjić as Tesla. Višnjić has always shown incredible charisma, reaching an international audience in ER, a medical drama that was considerably more than the sum of its parts, but his joy at playing someone who is clearly a hero of his, is palpable. Although it was always hugely unlikely that this was going to be the best Doctor Who story he appeared in, Glenister refuses to be outshone. He very interestingly plays Edison with hints of a considerably less intelligent businessman who is currently making an absolute dog's dinner of being the President of the United States. However, Edison is an antagonist, rather than a villain and, despite his portrayal as a ruthless businessman, is shown as being loyal to his employees and his shock and sorrow of the murders on his factory floor are well-conveyed. Behind some heavy prosthetics we have the welcome return of Anjli Mohindra to the Whoniverse. Despite having matured greatly as an actress, the child-like glee she has as the Skithra Queen is fantastic. The Fam are very well written, - Ryan and Graham are their usual cheeky selves and we are treated to Tesla and Yas alternating the role of Doctor and companion in their breakaway scenes. The real Doctor is a champion of inspiration and invention and Whittaker aces every scene.

Nida Manzoor is very good with the actors and the action scenes, but strangely not so sharp with visual comedy – the revelation of Tesla’s bare laboratory could have easily been done better. This is odd, considering Manzoor’s pedigree. However, the whole production has a very cinematic feel, even though – wisely – Manzoor does not attempt to compete with Tesla's unforgettable entrance in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. A problem with the Skithra Queen is her similarity in appearance to the Queen of the Racnoss thirteen years ago which is unfortunate.

"Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror" manages to overcome its flaws to become a very enjoyable piece of work. However it does show that the pseudo-historical is not as easy to write as it seems – a warning that future writers should take note of.

NEXT: "Fugitive of the Judoon"

Sunday, 19 January 2020

"Orphan 55"

"It Takes You Away" was a real highlight of Jodie Whittaker’s first series and writer Ed Hime’s return was something I, along with many others, was looking forward to. Strangely, for the writer of an episode that felt like nothing else previously broadcast under the Doctor Who banner, "Orphan 55" is a type of story that we have seen a fair few times before – welcome to the base-under-siege! Although this type of story is nothing like as prevalent and predictable as it was in the middle part of the Troughton era, it is surprising how un-surprising much of the plot is. The roles and motivation of the characters range from the functional to the sketchy – key character Kane seems like the traditional security chief type character, but is she the owner/designer of Tranquility Spa? However, Hime makes sure that there is solid world-building and futuristic incomprehensibility – the ionic membrane, the Hopper virus, the fakations. More importantly, Hime ensures that stock scenes do not unfold in a stock manner – the way in which we are immediately thrown into the action is both thrilling and funny, but not as funny as the scene where Ryan is cured of the Hopper virus. If anything, the story has too many ideas (which can be dealt with) and too many characters (which is detrimental).

Lee Haven Jones directs with great energy and has a great cast to help him. The old couple keeping their love alive is an old cliché, but Julia Foster and Col Farrell are touching as Vilma and Benni. Laura Fraser brings her unique presence to the role of Kane and Gia Ré does very well with the rather sketchy character of Bella - there is a reason that terrorists with mummy issues aren't stock characters! James Buckley brings his cheeky charisma to the role of Nevi and Lewin Lloyd, fresh off of playing one of the most tragic minor characters in modern fiction, is great as his son, Sylas, again, rather basically written. The writing for the Fam, however, is top notch and with Graham’s glee at his free holiday, Ryan’s hilarious reaction to hallucinatory side effects and Yas’s unintended gooseberrying, the Doctor’s companions just keep on giving. As for the Doctor herself, she’s a whirling dervish of solutions and outrage at what her favourite species can do to themselves.

The monsters of the week are the very well-realised Dregs and it turns out that Orphan 55 is not the far-off alien rock we thought it was, with the dregs being mutated degenerate humans, straight out of some of the more depressing chapters of Last and First Men. Some would say that the warnings over the environment are laid on a bit thick but frankly, we are running out of reasons to put our fingers in our ears.

It is perhaps unfair to view "Orphan 55" as a disappointment- it is well made and achieves what it is set out to do and is clearly a lesser script by a very good writer. I’m sure that viewing it in the context of the season will work very well in its favour.

NEXT: "Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror"

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Spyfall

Doctor Who returns for the third decade of its revival with this epic action-fest. The name of this two-parter has obvious echoes of the other great British icon that has survived due to the lead actor being changed every few years, but Bond is not the only drawer that Chris Chibnall gleefully plunders from. The various time zones, the Doctor setting up problems and solutions for herself and her Fam in the future, all have echoes of the timey-wimier Steven Moffat adventures and The Fam as fugitives is a situation reminiscent of "The Sound of Drums". There is still a degree of woolliness, but the dialogue is more polished than before and, although it comes close to emulating the pat conclusions of his work for Moffat and RTD, the resolution doesn’t feel like a cop-out.- to be honest, it is probably not too unfair to posit that Chibnall came up with the title and constructed a story from there. A more major caveat it's that Chibnall hasn't fully thought about the full implications of using historical characters - whilst drawing attention to all-but-forgotten women of the past is laudable, using Noor Inayat Khan does raise uncomfortable questions, when one considers how she died in real life.

The slight vagueness, however, becomes a strength when it comes to the story’s realisation. One of the strongest aspects of Whittaker’s debut story was the effectiveness in which it conveyed the alien. The monsters in question, the Kasaavins are visualised as alarming apparitions, like something out of an Usborne Paranormal book and their ‘realm’ is as unexplained at the end as it is inexplicable at the beginning. The use of two directors works in the story’s favour as each episode has a separate pace and feel. The guest cast are first rate with Stephen Fry making an all-too brief appearance as ‘C’ and Lenny Henry being menacing in a very restrained performance as Barton, a very believable character, whose revelatory speech is all-too close to reality. Sylvie Briggs and Aurora Marion are great as Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan, and we mustn’t forget the brief Lovelace/Babbage double-act! Even the duo who form “O”'s Aussie security detail are fun throwaway characters.

However, the main guest star is Sacha Dhawan for, sooner than I expected, the Master is back. After the revelation of his identity, we are treated to the surprising return of the TCE – but Dhawan is definitely taking the Master into unknown territory. Dhawan burns with a raw fury that exceeds his predecessors. In particular, the moment when he asks the Doctor to kneel and call him by name is truly spine-tingling – although it did seem as if the Doctor was going to launch into a rendition of Metallica's greatest song! Another example of Chibnall not fully thinking things through is the Doctor using the Master's appearance as an Asian man against him with the Nazis – Third Reich pan-Aryan pseudo-anthropology notwithstanding.

Refreshingly, however, Chibnall seems to have ironed out most of the kinks of his crowded TARDIS and the Fam(ily) dynamic works much more smoothly with Cole, Gill and Walsh being more than up to the challenge, their impromptu spycraft being both funny and fun. Our leading lady relishes each challenge – there is betrayal and joy around every corner and Jodie nails every turn. The close-up of her surveying the ruins of Gallifrey is wonderful.

It is true to say that, whilst I enjoyed the previous season a lot, I had resigned myself to the fact that the programme’s best days were behind it. However, the past has been learned from and Spyfall gives us hope that the Chibnall era might be capable of true greatness in its future.

NEXT: "Orphan 55"

Friday, 23 August 2019

"Resolution"

When the broadcast date for Jodie Whittaker’s first special was announced, it seemed that Chris Chibnall had committed the ultimate sin – ruining Christmas! Nevertheless, with the glow of a slightly different holiday illuminating it, "Resolution" pulls itself out of being the target for ill-will, by bringing this most mould-breaking of Doctors face-t0-face with her most iconic foe for the first time.

Again, Chris Chibnall borrows heavily from a previous story, in this case the Daleks’ reintroduction to the twenty-first century, in Rob Shearman’s eponymous classic. However, although some of the beats are there – the reconstruction of the creature, the high-speed absorption of the internet – there are sufficient differences to give the story a flavour of its own. There is some nice domestic dialogue involving Ryan and his family and the fumbling hesitancy of Mitch and Lin’s budding romance is well written. Again, the glue binding the script together is nothing like as strong as for RTD and Moffatt, but this is something, it seems, which we have to get used to. The jokes about Brexit and the loss of personal contact are not particularly polished, but are funny nonetheless – although it is to be hoped that we can look back and laugh at the former, in the future!

However, the realisation of the story is what really pulls it from OK to very good. Wayne Yip puts in some spectacular work. The scene with the Dalek mutant possessing Lin is genuinely creepy and it is a master-stroke differentiating the telepathic voice of the Dalek from its more familiar staccato. Lin’s murderous rampage is given a Terminator like urgency and the battle scene with the junk yard Dalek and the soldiers is spectacular. Yip makes these disparate moods blend excellently and he handles the quieter, more personal scenes very well, and he is helped no end by the performers. The very likeable and versatile Charlotte Ritchie is great as Lin and Nikesh Patel dials down his usual dashing look so much, that he is almost unrecognisable as the rather geeky Mitch. Special mention has to be given to Daniel Adegboyega’s wonderful performance as Ryan’s dad, a nuanced and sensitive portrayal that feels genuinely real. The regulars are on fine form and Jodie Whittaker fills the Doctor with the fire that we have come to expect from the Time Lord facing her greatest enemy. Her conversation with the possessed and unpossessed Lin is written generically, but given a spin that only she could.

"Resolution" is a welcome and very enjoyable break from what may be the longest hiatus since the programme’s return. I look forward to welcoming the Doctor and her fam back.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

"The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos"

And so we come to the end and it is the placement of this story that is a major factor in evaluating "The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos". The storyline seems a bit light, plot wise, for a finale and, again, Chibnall shamelessly lifts from Doctor Who’s past, most especially The Pirate Planet (which covers its concepts with more thought and humour). The Ux are a bit underwritten and don’t come across with the gravitas that they should as a mythical race with god-like powers. The plot progression is very sketchy - the Doctor has often gone for a haphazard, improvised solution, but this shouldn’t appear like a convenience for the script writer – here, we have a long period where the Doctor has a backpack with two grenades stuck to it has her plan. As far as these aspects go, we would probably have been more forgiving, had this story been earlier in the season, but we are dealing with a writer who has often disappointed in the resolution of his plotlines. Happily, Chibnall seems, thankfully to have followed the path of the Torchwood Series 2 arc, rather than the appalling Season 1 arc. The threads are personal, with the murder of Grace by Tim Shaw being the galvanising event for the companions. Tim Shaw will never go down as an all-time great adversary, but the personal stakes give the story what power it has and it is wise that Chibnall emphasised this aspect.

Although, again, the dialogue lacks the zip of RTD or Moffat, it is the performances of Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole that sell this aspect brilliantly and it is this which papers over the cracks in the dialogue. Samuel Oatley again attacks the role of Tim Shaw with relish. Yas is, again, underutilised, but Mandip Gill remains as likable as ever. We have a nice role for the excellent Mark Addy, and Phyllis Logan and Percelle Ascott do good work in the rather underwritten roles of the Ux. Our leading lady is commanding and lovable at the same time and Jodie Whittaker continues to dominate the story, as is her right. Jamie Childs helms a spectacular looking production with some awesome visuals, most notably, the sight of the floating ship. The design is first rate and the editing sublime.

"The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos" is, without doubt, the least impressive Doctor Who season finale. The script comes off as a rushed first draft, even more so than others this year. However, it is by no means a bad story and perhaps, that is helped by the fact that we didn’t have to wait long for the next one…

NEXT: "Resolution"

Monday, 10 December 2018

"It Takes You Away"

There are some stories where there is a twist in the plot. Then there are stories where you reach the end, look back at the beginning and wonder how you got there. "It Takes You Away" sets itself up as a Nordic noir mystery and then goes to places no-one could truthfully have anticipated. The story is stuffed full of intriguing concepts, but the real success it has in its exploration of more emotional themes. The consciousness that is incompatible with the Universe, so it is rejected, to form its own cosmos is intriguing enough, but when that is combined with the themes of loneliness, the effect is potent Yas describes the Solitract as trapping people, but it is also looking for loss, which is the companion of loneliness. There is even a meditation on when love of one's marital partner and of one's child become dissonant with each other. In the Antizone, we have six-legged rats and flesh-eating moths and the disquietingly named Ribbons-of-the-Seven-Stomachs. Ed Hime’s debut script is full of great ideas and, most importantly, manages to weave them into an intriguing story. And, there's a frog.

Jamie Childs again shows he's a force to be reckoned with. The moths eating Ribbons is very close to the bone (sorry!) but, unlike "The Woman Who Fell to Earth", it does not cross the line, but will cause some healthy nightmares in younger viewers. Sharon D Clarke returns as Grace in a very assured performance, and Christian Rubeck is very effective as a father who needs to grow up a little bit more. The actor Kevin Eldon pours his unique skills into the role of Ribbons, under heavy make-up, which I hope means that we are due for another guest turn from this wonderful performer, very soon, The main guest role is Ellie Wallwork as Hanne, who is astonishing, belying the paucity of her acting CV.

The script makes good use of all the regulars, with Ryan and Yas getting good material, but it is the other two who get the lions share. Bradley Walsh is quietly astonishing as Graham, especially in his scenes with Grace. In looking at more batrachian scenes, it is the other performer who truly makes it work. Jodie Whittaker has the Doctor as brilliant and mad as ever, but it is compassion that is the driving force and it is this which makes the scene with the frog truly powerful, rather than ridiculous. The frog is something that will split viewers. Some were expecting the Solitract to manifest as Susan or River. However, that would dilute the highly emotional appearance of Grace. There are others who just find the idea of a talking frog ridiculous. I am not one of those people, as it forms part of the astonishingly varied recipe for this adventure.

"It Takes You Away" is a truly invigorating story and I look forward to more from the pen of Mr Hime!

NEXT: "The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos" 

Monday, 3 December 2018

"The Witchfinders"

The dour pre-Civil War Stuart period in English history, particularly the Jacobean era, is a ripe setting for drama. In hindsight, it seems that the threads that bound the opulent Elizabethan era were slowly starting to unravel. Whilst this was the age of Shakespeare and Bacon, there was a growing hysteria over the imagined rise of witchcraft and it is in this setting that the Doctor and her friends find themselves.

The setting is vividly brought to life and the viewer is very quickly brought up to speed concerning the facts about witchcraft; that it was often an excuse to settle scores, that unmarried women were often the target and that village healers, invaluable in rural communities of the area, were also suspect. If there is one thing that the story really does excellently, it is to expose the rampant misogyny that allowed this hysteria to proceed unchecked. Very cleverly, the trial-by-water is conducted by ducking stool, a device used to punish gossiping women. The Doctor's new gender means that her authority is not accepted anything like as quickly as it would have been before. It is a bit of a shame that the alien threat is not more closely tied with the gender themes of the episodes, but we have had 7 episodes without an alien race wanting to invade Earth, so perhaps this well-worn route is actually welcome. Joy Wilkinson produces a very good script, although it could have done with a couple more drafts, to iron out the plot.

Of course, key to the Jacobean era is old Jake himself, James I of England (and VI of Scotland). James was a complicated figure, but, in the context of witchcraft, he was obsessed to the point of paranoia. We are treated, here, to a wonderfully ripe performance by Alan Cumming that manages to make the man likeable, despite his beliefs and actions. His flirtation with Ryan is priceless. Equally good is Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage, the goodwife raised to the landed gentry who becomes a vessel for something alien. Tilly Steele's Willa Twiston is a wonderfully real figure, effectively played. One thing the script does well is make the Jacobean characters all sincere believers in witchcraft – whatever their other vices, hypocrisy is not among them. The Doctor has to fight for her authority even harder and Jodie Whittaker excels, nowhere better than her conversation with King James, whilst being tied up. Although the rough edges of the plot to take their toll on the role of the Doctor's 'fam', the 'very flat team structure' is as engaging as ever. Sallie Aprahamian helms a production that recreates early-Stuart England well and critically, she makes the manifestation of the aliens terrifying, especially the reanimated dead.

Although a few more drafts could have improved it critically, "The Witchfinders"is a very enjoyable adventure, dealing well with its various themes.

NEXT: "It Takes You Away"

Monday, 26 November 2018

"Kerblam!"

It's called "Kerblam!", which, depending on one's mood, is either delightfully chipper or just plain silly. The story is one of Doctor Who versus the evil corporation, something which has, of course been done several times before. It's a story that could fit in any era of modern Doctor Who, perhaps even (finer details aside) in an 80s episode. As, with many other writers this century, Pete McTighe is an avid Doctor Who fan, but seldom has a a writer’s joy in being given the chance to pen an episode of their favourite programme been more evident than in interviews with McTighe. This joy transfers to the story and it is this which elevates a run-of-the-mill Doctor Who plot into something more.

The obvious real-world equivalent of Kerblam! is Amazon and it would be all-too easy to attack a large corporation for being oppressive, but Pete McTighe does something more subtle. Kerblam! takes pains to ensure that it's employees are well looked after and their break area is a really nice park. The Kerblam! Management always have their underlings' best interests at heart. Even rebukes about employee productivity are delivered in a friendly manner. However, McTighe seems to make the observation that such environments are intrinsically oppressive, no matter the intentions of the higher echelons. The detrimental effects on employees and general employment are clearly evident, but the fact that the villain is a someone who is doing it for the benefit of those workers, is beautifully subversive. Added to this, the villain's plan being turning the power of the corporation against itself and the Doctor saves the day by turning that back against the villain is glorious. Even the blatant plot-delaying tactic (Twirly running out of power) is forgivable as the reason Twirly does that is that he wastes time and power up-selling.

The supporting cast is wonderful. Julie Hesmondhalgh is a phenomenal actress who puts her all into the role of Judy. Leo Flanagan makes Charlie a very sympathetic mass-murderer and Claudia Jessie makes Kira sweet, when she could have been cloying and her death is suitably heart-breaking. As the surprisingly short-lived Dan, Lee Mack is very likeable. The regulars all shine in the best ensemble work that they've been given and we have our leading lady. The Doctor is authoritative, inventive and sympathetic – yet her glee at receiving her Kerblam! Parcel is very infectious. The visualisation is very like a Sylvester McCoy story with a colossally higher budget – visual similarities with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy are obvious. Yet we have such stunning scenes like the conveyor-belt chase which show director Jennifer Perrott in complete command of the material.

With nearly every element being honed to perfection, "Kerblam!" is an unalloyed delight and I hope Mr McTighe returns to pen another adventure, soon.

NEXT: "The Witchfinders"