The only Doctor Who episode for 2019 is the New Year’s Day special aka the Christmas Special moved to a different Bank Holiday. It’s fun and it has some good moments but it is an odd mish-mash of elements.
It starts with an ancient battle against an unseen enemy whose dismembered body is sent to three remote destinations (Siberia, a South Pacific island and Yorkshire). It’s all very big budget but a bit overly reminiscent of part of the not-very-good Justice League movie. By the end of the episode, the set up (including an ancient order of custodians) doesn’t go very far. It’s expensive purpose is mainly…misdirection.
Back in Yorkshire and back to classic Who territory we have two people working on an archeological dig underneath Sheffield Town Hall (which is a great building by the way, if you are ever in Sheffield — looks like it should be the parliament of a small European principality). The episode starts doing something good with its extended running time — gives characters time to talk, sketch out some personality & relationship to episode specific characters which will enhance the creepy aspects to come.
OK spoiler bit coming up. I don’t think it is a hard one to guess and even mentioning that there’s something to spoil makes it likely you’d guess what is coming up.This post is bigger on the inside…
There are lots of good things to say about the 2018 season of Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker was great, it was often visually lovely, it took historical episodes seriously and to top it all Alan Cumming deftly eating the scenery.
In my list of least liked Doctor Who episode there is not a single one from the 2018 season but…
…the best episodes weren’t on the same level as the best episodes from previous seasons. What the season gained in consistency it lost in excellence.
I’m going to suggest some changes that I think would have given it a bit more oomph. There are some self imposed rules though.
- The same episodes in the same order with the same basic plot. I’m not allowing changes like ‘some two-parters’ or ‘an episode like Blink (or insert some other loved episode)’ or ‘instead of Graham have Grace be the older campion’. Those changes might good ideas but I want to limit myself.
- The same approach to the characters (in general). Ryan, Graham, Yaz and the Doctor have the same characterisation – although I’ll give myself a bit more latitude with the Doctor.
- I’m not bothered by plot holes or continuity with past seasons. However, if a plot hole offers an opportunity to deal with some other issue then it is worth exploiting.
The issues I want to fix are:
- The three companions issue: In some episodes there wasn’t enough for each companion to do.
- The Yaz issue: In particular Yaz was underdeveloped as a character and even got sidelined in the two Yaz-centric episodes
- The 11-Factor: every episode needs something that is Doctor Whoish but more so — just one thing that’s just that bit more whether it is a talking frog dimensional god-being or pting or James the first/sixth.
Assorted tweaks to just make the whole thing hang together better.
Here we go:
1. The Woman Who Fell to Earth: This was a decent introduction to Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor on par (in my opinion) with Ecclestone’s arrival in Rose. It has issues but I only want to change one thing which then ripples through the rest of the season. At the end when the Doctor teleports off to find the TARDIS, Yaz gets left behind. Don’t worry, she’ll be back! Leaving Yaz behind creates some space for Graham and Ryan in the next two episodes, space which the characters took anyway!
2. The Ghost Monument: I liked this episode – some interesting ideas and it looked gorgeous. Some of the threats on the hostile planet didn’t add up to much and maybe if there were extra competitors in the race to die red-shirt like deaths that would give it more menace but I don’t think it needs that and it will detract from the character focus of the episode and the theme of grief. A deeper issue is that Chibnall was not wholly truthful about season arcs. This episode is actually one of a ‘Stenza’ trilogy along with episode 1 and 10. There’s also an opportunity here. No reason is ever given for the odd behaviour of the TARDIS (chucking the Doctor out just prior to episode 1, flying off to this weird planet and not properly materialising). In episode 10 (part 3 of the Stenza story) we discover that the Ux are beings with trans dimensional powers who are stealing planets. Somebody messing with space-time not only explains the TARDIS behaviour (sort of) but ties the three parts together.
3. Rosa: Doctor Who takes on a serious piece of history and largely doesn’t mess up. The villain is a bit dull though. Aside from Yaz missing out, I’m leaving this alone.
4. Arachnids in the UK: In the actual episode the mystery isn’t a hard one for the Doctor and it more or less sorts itself out anyway. The episode’s 11-Factor is flippin’ freaky giant spiders and that’s great. The big difference I’d make is I’d have Yaz investigating the mystery without the Doctor. Yaz is a police officer and this story would give her an X-Files case to solve. The Doctor (with Ryan and Graham) can come crashing back into the plot later into the story. At the end Graham stays behind in Sheffield. As Yaz missed out the Doctor promises her to take her on two adventures: one in space and one in the past…[ETA In the comments Paul King suggests that Yaz arrest Mr Big at the end. I think that’s a perfect addition to Yaz’s ‘Sheffield Paranormal’ episode]
5. The Tsuranga Conundrum: Aside from there being no Graham this carries on much the same. Pting is the 11-factor thing.
6. Demons of the Punjab: The bit with Yaz’s nan is now a flashback, otherwise it carries on much the same.
7. Kerblam!: We start back in Sheffield with the Doctor returning Yaz and Ryan at Graham’s house. Instead of the TARDIS, the Kerblam man delivers to Graham’s house (because that’s where the Doctor is). Yaz insists on investigating the note because it’s her responsibility as a police officer and Graham and Ryan insist on coming too. This episode is probably the most contentious of the season. The ‘happy ending’ involves more people getting dehumanising jobs that would be better done by machines. Instead of a satire about Amazon, the pulled punches lead to it looking like an endorsement. Here’s a completely different direction for it: 1. Don’t have the Kerblam computer basically murder the nice co-worker Kira 2. The Kerblam computer has demonstrated by the end of the episode that it is a sentient being. Kerblam as an entity (including the delivery bots and all the machinery etc) is, in effect, a person and the Kerblam business model has unwittingly been slavery. The end of episode is Kerblam taking control of itself – it’s not a corporation any more but a being in its own right. The moral they aimed for (don’t treat people like machines) gets a twist ‘don’t treat people like machines including the people who are actually machines’.
8. The Witchfinders: The gang is all together again, the episode is as it was.
9. It Takes You Away: A small change. We start with Hanne in the house and her father missing to build up the spookiness and mystery of the setting. The Doctor and crew arrive shortly after. The Doctor is looking from a transdimensional anomaly that’s messing with the TARDIS (ooh story arc!). Otherwise the episode is the same.
10. The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos: Basically the same but with the plot lines about the TARDIS and freaky transdimensional stuff going on connected back to episode 1 and 2 (and maybe 9 slightly – the portal and the antizone maybe being a side effect of the Ux messing with space-time).
The changes add a bit more continuity to the episodes but there’s barely more story arc than the actual season had. Each episode is about as self-contained as they actually were. All three companions get the same amount of screen time (probably) but with a bit more focus. The plots are basically the same.
I don’t know if anybody else got a bit of a Fifth Season vibe from the beginning of this episode. I did, which got my hopes up but overall this was an episode of unexplored ideas. Not terrible but it felt oddly sketched out with hints of something better.
Take for example the idea of this mind altering planet, it gives one character a reason why they can’t initially explain what is going on but otherwise the idea goes nowhere. Which is doubly odd, because it is a concept that could be done really well with a smart script and clever acting.
Likewise the Ooks (sp?), the species of two people who can manipulate space-time psychically with their faith. Great idea but under explored. Also, why are they on the planet that is psychically dangerous? Did they make it psychically dangerous? It felt like we were supposed to get a connection between the two things and we don’t.
The Doctor’s more overt pacifism this season all sits badly at odds with her putting the Tardis crew in such danger. Yes, there has to be a degree of the Doctor being very careless with the lives of their friends otherwise plots just don’t happen as they’ll never let anybody out of the Tardis. Yet here she marches them off to mount a rescue mission into a war zone against a merciless killer. It’s triply odd because the story already has a mechanism for sending Yaz, Ryan, Graham and the Doctor off in different directions: the psychic hostility of the planet.
Chibnall also seems to be trying to do a commentary on religion, perhaps even Christianity. This is not uninteresting but its both too much and too little. Doctor’s more overt pacifism has a feel of a progressive Quakerish Christianity (also consider her riposte to the Bible quote in Witchfinders), we’ve had repeated examples of funeral rights and remembrance of the dead and in this episode the Ooks (sp?) are presented in terms of faith. On top of that, they end up posed in a kind of crucifix imagery. That’s laying it on a bit thick but without actually taking it anywhere. Chibnall is pointing at religion to the point where it is clear he wants us to pay attention to the topic but then…not really saying anything. Religion! Yes? What about religion? Maybe the message is “religion is OK but don’t get too carried away with it”. Which is fine but not a terribly interesting theme for a TV show to keep returning to.
There are multiple dials on every Doctor Who episode. At least one needs to be turned up a notch. Where this season has been fun is where at least one thing gets that extra Spinal Tap nudge to 11. The spider effects in Arachnid made it better, the messed up folktale vibe (and the frog!) of It Takes You Away makes it better. The teeth on Tim Shaw’s face in episode 1 makes it better. Allan Flippin’ Cumming eating scenery! GO UP A NOTCH OR TWO OR FIVE. If there’s already too much in the episode (like this one) that goes unexplored then either pick one and make that MORE or ADD EVEN MORE.
A weird spooky episode, with a bit of a Sapphire & Steel style spooky British TV sci-fi mixed with a bi of a Neil Gaiman vibe. This one is a bit hard to review without spoilers, so click for more if you’ve seen it.
Is the world ready for gay bad guys? Not that there’s anything new about bad people being coded as gay in popular culture (e.g. Hitchcock’s Rope or Diamonds are Forever) but how about in a more progressive age in a show that’s been accused of being ‘too PC’? Well it’s Alan Cumming and the bad guy in question is King James the Sixth/First — a man with far too many contradictions to fit into this review. Cumming ramps up the hyper-posh version of the Scottish accent to create a twinkly eyed paranoid sadist with an over-exaggerated sense of drama. That’s pretty much most of the episode, Alan Cumming has extraordinary fun as the Scottish King in an over the top performance that is very entertaining. I’d watch a Blackadder like sitcom that was just Alan Cumming as King James badly hunting witches and chatting up men.
Sandwiched either side of Alan Cumming is a story about the Doctor dealing with witch trials. The setting is Lancashire near the real-life Pendle Hill famous for a different set of witch trials. The Yorkshire-based companions of the Doctor find their worst fears confirmed, as Lancashire turns out to be occupied by frightened peasants, religious bigots and alien mud monsters. [I can’t recall any other episodes set in Lancashire, although Clara Oswald was from Lancashire]
The emphasis on historical episodes this season also means the show has adopted a sort of Prime Directive ethical imperative not to interfere with history. Luckily its a rule that the Doctor follows more in the breech than the observance.
With the Doctor having to tackle mass murder, a Satan-obsessed Alan Cumming and alien mud monsters, there isn’t much space for the three companions. Even so, they all get stuff to do and Graham gets a hat.
The final shift into a conventional alien menace plot feels a bit of a let down given the rest of the wild stuff going on prior. The alien character design this season has largely been top-notch but this was more ‘classic’ Who 🙂
Alan Cumming plays King James fighting alien mud monsters. What more can we ask for?
Aside from saying that in this episode the Doctor gatecrashes Amazon, it is a hard one to discuss without spoilers (even revealing how I was wrong about who I thought eh baddies would be is a spoiler of sorts).
I guess the other thing I can say without spoilers is this a very pro-labour episode. It’s neither as radical nor as reactionary as some have described but rather an episode that takes for granted that audience sympathy is with people doing manual labour and that working people deserve respect. And no, that shouldn’t be seen as a radical message but it has become a radical message.
Here’s a fold before spoilers:
Doctor Who touches on an even more raw, unsealed point of history than it did with Rosa, this time setting the story in the midst of the 1947 partition of India. The story is decent enough and at times moving. It’s less reverential about the its subject than Rosa but also treats the topic with a studied vagueness. Keen to avoid apportioning blame for a political event that saw a huge death toll, ethnic cleansing and massive displacement of peoples.
With its focus on Yaz’s grandmother and her intent to marry her Hindu neighbour, the story largely avoids discussing the major villains of the actual partition: the British (or if we want to be very specific, the machinations of Winston Churchill). Particularly awkward given the Doctor’s Anglophile habits (and previous hob-nobbling with aforementioned ex-Prime Minister). Instead the story’s conflict is between two Hindu brothers with clashing perspectives on the division of India into two nations.
As with all the stories so far, the plot is not deeply complex but there is a decent sense of mystery regarding the demonic aliens haunting the events, although in some ways this mystery is inconsequential. As with Rosa, we are back to a non-intervention view of time travel that is applied inconsistently. Tragic events are forced to play out and we are told the TARDIS crew can’t intervene but this makes the Doctor’s continued presence feel cruel or worse, indulging in tragedy.
Yaz get’s a Yaz-centred episode but also is forced into a role that has to be passive for fear of changing her own history. As a character she still hasn’t had an opportunity to precipitate events – even Ryan (who otherwise does very little this week) makes at least one thing occur.
There’s merit though in a story that is essentially tragic. There’s emotional depth and a surrounding message of the importance of remembering and acknowledging painful history. The politics is thin, perhaps thinner than thin but what the episode does is reject the previous cozy approach to history that Doctor Who has played (rarely straying from events & perspectives of events that would have graced a school textbook from 1964). Watching this episode, you would be none the wiser about Britain’s Empire in India and the immeasurable suffering it caused nor the horror and complexities of Partition but you would know that at the level of ordinary people and families historical events have personal consequences.