Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Child

The two part finale is over and can be summed up in a single word: divisive. There are positive reactions to the story, particularly focusing on the scale and dramatic stakes it provided. There are substantial negative reactions. When both veteran Doctor Who critic Elizabeth Sandifer and theocratic blowhard John C Wright hate something (for wildly different reasons) then something notable has occurred. Of course Wright just hates Doctor Who in general now because there are women doing things other than fainting and is just jumping on a bandwagon (if you must, you can read his confusion here: http://www.scifiwright.com/2020/03/the-death-of-doctor-who/ ). El Sandifer’s review is naturally so much better informed but also deeply scathing (http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/the-timeless-child-review/). Well worth a read.

I noted that episodes last season often had a great range of interesting ideas that frequently fell flat later in the episode. Chris Chibnall has found it difficult to raise and maintain the emotional stakes in episodes, which has made some potentially great stories like the punch that they need. Last season’s finale epitomised this issue by having the whole season end flat (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2018/12/11/doctor-who-the-battle-of-ranskoor-av-kolos/ ). I cannot complain this time that Chibnall failed to turn things up a notch — all the dials were set to 11 and stuff certainly happened all over the place and often in entertaining ways. To that end, I’ll call it a success but very much a flawed one.

The biggest dial spun up higher than was safe was marked “lore”. If you start messing with the implied backstory of a genre show then you raise the narrative stakes. It’s exactly the fear that the revised mythology will ruin what a person likes about the show that creates an additional tension in an episode. Of course, it isn’t just science-fiction/fantasy that does this. Soap operas revealing that a key character isn’t dead or isn’t the child of who they think they are or some other shocking change to jolt tension into a story that needs it. It’s both a necessary and a cheap trick that can add more narrative complexity but also turn a series into just a series of ret-cons.

For the moment, I’ll put aside the big revelations and concentrate as far as is possible on the broader story across the two parts. The Doctor has gone to the closing period of a great war between humanity and the Cybermen. Both humans and the Cybermen are on the bring of destruction but the arrival of the Lone Cyberman (the part assimilated fanatic last seen menacing Mary Shelley) and his possession of the Cyberium (the sum total of the Cybermen’s strategic expertise as an AI) will turn the final defeat of the Cybermen into victory. The Doctor and her trio of companions arrive on a ruined planet to find a tiny set of human survivors on the brink of extinction.

Meanwhile, we get a totally separate story about a foundling baby in 1950s Ireland who grows up to be a Garda (Irish police officer). This story that takes a sinister twist at the end is contained within the first of the two episodes and its resolution is contained within the big lore-reveal in the second.

Various things occur in episode 1 and with mixed results. The Doctor turning up with a range of weapons and devices for fighting the Cybermen which are then instantly destroyed by flying Cybermen heads is unintentionally comical but beyond that the desperate fight of the survivors is well done. Splitting companions off from the Doctor is also a good move, as it gives Yaz in particular more to do and adds to the sense of desperate people making hurried decisions just to keep going.

The first episode ends with The Doctor and Ryan landing on a planet that has a special gateway through which human survivors have been fleeing to escape Cyberman-controlled space. Meanwhile Graham and Yaz are trapped aboard a huge Cyberman troop carrier that is coming back to life. At this point The Master arrives through the gateway which is now connected to the ruins of Galifrey and the story heads off in new directions.

The second episode (The Timeless Child) has the big lore reveal and a dastardly plan from the Master. What is less obvious is how unconnected the two are. The Master induces the Cybermen to travel to Galifrey. The Lone Cyberman explains his plan to destroy all organic life (including the inner organic parts of the Cybermen) and thus establishing a purely mechanical future. The Master has some excellent dialogue tearing the whole idea to shreds, pointing out that this is little more than the Cybermen turning themselves into pure robots and how commonplace robots are in the universe. The Master has a better idea. He has the dead bodies of Time Lords and with those he can create Cybermen with Time Lord organic bits capable of regeneration, creating essentially unkillable Cybermen.

So this is a fun twist with a good use of The Master to betray the initial main villain and substitute a new evil plan as the driving threat of the story. Like any evil plan, it can’t matter to much as it will be defeated somehow. Indeed it is, by the mechanism already established by the Lone Cybermen for destroying all organic life on a planet. What it lacks is a clear reason for everything else that is going on. Is it all just coincidence that The Master’s other scheme and the Cybermen scheme are colliding at this point? It seems to be and this is just part of where amid all the big explosions and lore reveals, there is that same sense of ideas thrown together but left unexamined. I’m not saying The Master has to have manipulated ALL the events for it make sense but there’s a lack of a story’s connective tissue here that makes a rewatch feel distinctly less good.

Which takes us back to The Master and the big lore reveal. The Master forces The Doctor into the Time Lord’s psychic virtual reality archive (called The Matrix long before the movie). There she learns the secret history of the Time Lord’s regeneration ability. It seems they discovered it even prior to becoming Time Lords when they were just the Shabogan people (and yes, that is another term established decades ago) from a child found at a gateway on a remote planet. That child…dun, dun, dun…was The Doctor (gasp etc) and worse, their DNA was used to alter the Time Lords making the Time Lords all part The Doctor and so on. But also…The Doctor knows nothing of this and The Matrix has had chunks of the Doctor’s pre-Hartnell regenerations hidden. What does exist instead is the fake memories of a foundling in 1950s Ireland who grows up to be a Garda. What does it all mean! At the moment not very much. Clearly there are going to be more reveals. Indeed, to get past all these revelations requires a pep-talk from the Jo Martin Doctor to the Whittaker Doctor which enables The Doctor to realise that really, while interesting, it makes no difference to who she is. And that’s sort of true.

I don’t think this is a great bit of new canon for the Doctor’s past and brutal dissection of the flaws in it in El Sandifer’s review are right in substance. However, the insight by The Doctor that really it doesn’t matter that much is also true. I prefer when the show isn’t The Doctor is the Most Special but also the weight of the show is that PRACTICALLY The Doctor is the only Time Lord in the universe other than frequently dead Master. The thin scattering of other non-Galifrey Time Lords can be counted on one hand.

What annoys me more is again, how unconnected all this is. The revelation about regeneration is supposedly the motive for all the angst and destruction The Master has now perpetrated. Now yes, he’s annoyed that The Doctor is even more special than he thought but its oddly flat as a motive for destroying Galifrey. Yes, The Master doesn’t need much of an emotional pretext to do something evil but it still lacks substance. It is misreading of dramatic empathy where a revelation that is taking as a big deal for the audience is assumed to be a big deal for the characters. However, the connection just isn’t there. If The Master had been The Timeless Child and had their regenerations repeatedly exploited by the Time Lords and by their secret Special Circumstances Division THEN the story makes sense.

I’m back to that issue with the Chibnall years that ideas are undercooked. A revelation drives The Master to genocide of his own people! Wow, powerful idea but only if the revelation is something that is shocking to The Master. Otherwise it is just The Master killed his own people because he is messed up and evil and oh, there’s a revelation as well. Indeed, the whole thing is just SO much better if The Master is the Timeless Child that I struggle to see why they didn’t go that way other than because they wanted there to be a secret regeneration of The Doctor (even that could have been worked in – e.g. The Doctor was a Time Lord attempt at Timeless Child Mark 2 but without the psychosis).

My repeated complaint this season is exactly that there is a missing level of thought in the plots and dialogue. In the Moffat years, stories would skip past things or leave threads unresolved intentionally (and that was annoying) but in the Chibnall years we get the same result but by accident. Over-worked stories have become under-worked stories that need just a bit more attention.

What is good about this two-parter? Quite a lot. Plenty of explosions and action and mostly good effects (the flying cyber-heads, not so much). Views are divided by the gloriously over the top Cyberman-Time Lord costumes but frankly I love them. There joy that somebody had designing those shines through.

Yaz, Ryan and Graham are still underused but they did get things to do and separating them from The Doctor gave the characters an opportunity to be active participants in the story. It was great that they could rescue each other and have plans of their own. Having said that, another obvious missed-opportunity was that they didn’t rescue The Doctor from the Matrix but instead just get to wake her up after she rescued herself.

I really liked the two occasions were The Master and The Doctor commented on the stories plot. The Master’s example was ridiculing the Cyberman organic extinction plan. Honestly, somebody should have The Master check out all the scripts. He maybe evil but he has a good sense of plot when he wants to.

The Doctor’s example was the insight that who she is as a person and a character matters more than what she is or what her DNA is or what her now very convoluted back-story is. I’d feel happier if I knew this was an intentional repudiation of the lore-heavy segment of the story i.e. as if The Doctor themselves was renouncing the relevance of a canon that can never make sense.

Short Review: Doctor Who – Ascension of the Cybermen

Part 1 of this two part finale to the season is very, very much a ‘part one’ sort of story. As a single episode it is barely coherent and difficult to evaluate. The most pertinent observation is that there is a lot going on, including a fascinating side story set in 1950s Ireland about a foundling who grows up to join the Garda.

Like the over-wrought Lone Cyberman, the episode also has the appearance of chunks of other stories welded together. In particular there are elements from the Utopia/Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords triple that ended season 3 of nu-who.

I’m going to leave the review at that for the moment until next week and I’ve seen the whole thing.

Doctor Who: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

Yet another historical episode where the Doctor takes the crew to visit a famous moment in literary history. Near Lake Geneva, Lord Byron has rented the Villa Diodati where he is staying with his friends Percy Shelley, Mary Shelly, John Polidori and Claire Claremont. The actual historical holiday would result in Polidori composing one of the first modern vampire novels but more notably, Mary Shelley writes the story that she would extend into the novel Frankenstein.

The Doctor gate crashes the party only to discover that things are amiss: Shelly P is missing and the house is beginning to behave oddly.

The first three quarter or so of this are great fun. Chris Chibnall’s historical episodes (of which there have been a lot) have had a tendency for reverence for their subject matter but there is only a modicum of that here. Instead we get some deftly done comic horror, with genuine scares, creepy moments and some well played comic timing.

Unsurprisingly, the cause of the pseudo-supernatural goings on turns out to be an alien artefact but here the episode shifts bringing in one of the story-arc elements and a darker tone for Whittaker’s Doctor. I won’t spoil that bit. I think it works even if the connection with the Mary Shelley’s seminal work of science fiction is a bit trite.

Overall, a solid piece of entertainment. This is only a ten episode season for Doctor Who, so we are into the end game next week with the penultimate episode.

Doctor Who Hair

My drawing of “Ruth” Doctor’s hair needs more work but there are few reference images for Jo Martin’s version of The Doctor. We also don’t know where she fits in with the sequence of Doctors yet, so I put her at the end under #13. “Film” doctor here is Peter Cushing’s version. Both him and John Hurt’s War Doctor had facial hair as well. Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor (7) almost invariably wore his hat. McGann’s Doctor had a very different hair style when he reappeared to regenerate into John Hurt. Both Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi changed hairstyle markedly during their time as the Doctor. I’m really pleased with how Tom Baker’s hair-do turned out!

Doctor Who: Can You Hear Me?

This episode is simply described as a mess. Lots of positive qualities to it and even some very moving moments but it feels like a very enthusiastic kid telling you a story that wanders off in ways that clearly make sense to the story teller but not to the audience.

I won’t detail the plot because it’s not easy to do so in broad brushstrokes. There are three quite different elements to the story though.

The first is some genuinely creepy monster horror that mixes big scary monsters with a creepy guy manifesting near your bed as you sleep. Doctor Who has been a source of childhood nightmares for multiple generations of British children and this episode will fuel several. Even the weaker parts (detachable fingers in your ears) pick up on the horrific absurdity of nightmares.

The second is a bit of pseudo-mythology about god like beings (with shout outs to other uses of this idea in past Doctor Who) and their schemes. This is the least successful aspect of the story but I did like the break into an animated back-story/myth.

The third is Doctor Who does mental health which is less bad than it could have been, bordering on good, but maybe a bit beyond what the show is capable of dealing with. We have several characters dealing with their psychological problems (including in 14th Century Syria) which is connected with events but while there is a connection between mental illness and nightmare events, the episode narrowly avoids the lazy trope of mentally-ill psychic is the nexus of horrific events.

At long last this episode does make a solid attempt at giving each of the companions their own stories. Yaz, Graham and Ryan each have their own encounters with the spooky phenomenon and later must each confront their own fears. We even get a bit of an origin story for Yaz (i.e. why she became a police officer).

So not terrible and in so far as it really didn’t work, it wasn’t through a lack of ambition. The story does require the Doctor to be a bit obviously thoughtless when encountering a giant cosmic prison and the bad guys are so camp that they can’t live up to the spooky build up. Yet the episode has its own corny charm that’s very Doctor Who and once again I had no idea where things were heading for a fair degree of the episode.

Doctor Who: Praxeus

There is an improving confidence and coherence to Doctor Who this series. Praxeus is not without flaws but (aside from one) the gaps in the plot or characterisation don’t really intrude into the story as it plays out. In general, as the story develops people’s motives become clear without the story being predictable and the mystery is resolved meaningfully.

Some spoilers follow.

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Doctor Who: Fugitive of the Judoon

So many thinks to spoil but let’s launch into the episode a little way and then move into the realm of surprises.

Promotions of this season of Doctor Who had touted the return of the Judoon as characters even while filming was still going on. They aren’t a particularly loved species but they do have the advantage as antagonists of not being a big-bad. They are obnoxious space-cops and bring with them all the complications of obnoxious space-cops.

Given the title, it was clear from the first five minutes of the episode that we were going to get a story about an alien hiding from the law on Earth in a small (if scenic) town in England. The set-up was very nicely done. We got a convincing introduction to Ruth, the central character who was clearly going to get mixed up in Judoon-based law enforcement gone wrong, and her slightly shifty husband Lee. The latter, of course, looking like the most likely person to be secretly an alien on the run from the law. What I liked (on first viewing) was, while it was obvious were this was all going, it was all being done with a confident humanity.

Vinjay Patel who wrote this episode had also written last seasons Demons of the Punjab, which had also a strong emotional centring of the story on the ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. What I really liked was that Ruth was being sketched out very swiftly as a person in their own right, which was going to be important if the episode was going to focus on brutal policing.

A strong set-up for a predictable episode. Not that predictable is bad — following a well worn path can allow for more character development and personal drama. Chris Chibnall’s biggest TV success has been with detectives solving a murder mystery in a small British town, as predictable a genre as you can get on British TV but one that creates space for human drama.

So predictable was what I was expecting. I’m told there was some social media hype brewing around the episode but I missed that. So, I was genuinely surprised when Graham disappeared while looking at some cup-cakes.

And that was only the first surprise. This was going to be Doctor Who in the mode I like best, like their TARDIS, spinning wildly out of control and crashing into everything in the way…

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I’ll review Doctor Who tomorrow…

I want to rewatch the episode with a different perspective but my over all impression was that I enjoyed it immensely. I was initially pleased with how what appeared to be a fairly bog-standard episode was going (seemed predictable but nicely done) and then it spiralled out of control…in a good way. I’m seeing some varied reactions but I’m mindful of timezones and spoilers, so I’ll save fan-theories until tomorrow.

Review: Doctor Who – Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

Doctor Who episodes set in historical periods fall into two approaches: meet a famous person or meet fictional people of the time period. Of the two, I prefer the second, for example, I preferred last seasons Demons of the Punjab to Rosa. The danger in the first kind if the episode ends up being very reverential and indulges in the great-man-of-history model of progress. That can be subverted, for example Alan Cumming’s OTT King James was very far from reverential and a plot point with Ada Lovelace in this season’s opening two-parter was to show her as part of a chain and network of influential people.

This episode goes both feet first into ‘wow ,wasn’t Nikola Tesla amazing’ but has the advantage of a convincing performance by Goran Višnjić as Tesla. The story itself is what would best be described as a ‘romp’. Ghastly goings on and an invasion of alien scorpion creatures leave little time for plot subtly but do add up for an enjoyably diverting 40 minutes.

This is not going to become a beloved classic episode but it is the kind of episode that keeps Doctor Who going and enjoyable. Yaz gets something to do and a bit more focus (but still not much character development) and Graham & Ryan get to do their comedy double act in the background.

Fewer of those rough-edges/script-laziness that I’ve been complaining about. The biggest one being the supposedly now pacifist Doctor building a super weapon that uses the power of a whole planet to blast an alien spaceship. Again, given the freedom of being able to make literally anything up, thinking up away that the same actual events could have fit more closely with the new parameters of the Doctor wouldn’t have been hard (e.g. the spaceship could have been in hyperspace pocket and the electric pulse would have closed the pocket, removing the aliens from Earth or whatever). There was a visual effect to imply the spaceship flew away but blink and you would have missed it. Perhaps, this was intended to be a character shift after the reveal of the destruction of Gallifrey in episode 2 of this season? If so that aspect was under-developed.

The reference to a Silurian gun as an alien weapon unreasonably annoyed me. I feel like the Doctor should have corrected somebody but that’s just me being pedantic. I’m also glad that the episode dumped the mind-wipe thing of historical characters and both Tesla and Edison go without a brain reset. Of course, that does make the brain resets of Ada Lovelace and Noor Inayat Khan even more out of place and has the unfortunate result that this season, the Doctor only mind wipes famous women from history and not famous men.

Silly in exactly the way I want Doctor Who to be silly and an episode with more internal confidence than last season.

Doctor Who – Orphan 55

Not unlike the opening two-parter there is a lot going right with this episode compared with last season and some things going wrong. What is going right is the episode manages to create tension, has some relevant twists and risks. There is a surprisingly high body count, not that people dying is necessary for a good episode but sometimes a story calls for it.

What is going wrong is that once again, I felt like the script was just a bit half-baked and had rough edges that stood out. It felt to me like there were a few instances where just a bit more thought would have made for a better episode all round. Some spoilers after the fold.

Continue reading “Doctor Who – Orphan 55”