Monday, 12 November 2018

Demons of the Punjab written by Vinay Patel and directed by Jamie Childs

This story in a nutshell: Yaz is heading into her own family history, a dark page of the past… 

Oh Brilliant: Family history and time travel are very tricky, says the Doctor, probably remembering the result the last time she acquiesced to this kind of demand. There was a moment when the four travellers left the TARDIS and headed into the forest where my brain was screaming ‘oh yeah, this is Doctor Who.’ After a five-episode run that has done some unconventional things, it is lovely to get back to basics. The Doctor loves poking around alien spaceships and has look of wonder on her face throughout. I love that this Doctor has no qualms about expressing her childlike joy at experience new things. Capaldi’s Doctor was a little too reserved to unveil his lust for new experiences and Matt Smith could push the boggle eyed wonder a little too far. I’ve been waiting for a ‘they’re under my protection now!’ moment from Whittaker since she took on the role and she doesn’t disappoint. She’s such an approachable Doctor that when her teeth are bared it really makes me sit up. ‘I never did this when I was a man’ says the Doctor, and a million fanboys faint. The Doctor getting a henna tattoo is a glorious moment, the series subtly acknowledging the gender of the lead without having to get into any politics. The Doctor officiating a wedding ceremony in the Punjab, get in! It’s a beautifully written sequence that Whittaker rightly plays a little awkwardly but with plenty of heart. This isn’t the Doctor’s natural place but she makes the most of it and makes the moment count. Especially given what is coming for the couple. The whole scene is touched with beauty and tragedy, it’s a wonderfully complex wedding. When she has a rifle pointed in her face she walks straight towards it and keeps making her point. 

Graham: How does Bradley Walsh manage to sneak into an episode that isn’t about him at all and snatch the two most affecting scenes of the entire piece? He’s a very generous actor, standing back as part of the ensemble with the odd line but when he is given the opportunity to shine he grasps it with both hands. It’s such an honest, unforced acting style too. It’s hugely impressive. Graham telling Yaz to enjoy this moment with her grandmother and worry about the implications later is valuable advice to anybody who overthinks. It’s a wonderful discussion about how incredible it is to travel with the Doctor without ever pushing the sentiment. I can barely write about Graham calling Prem a good man and hugging him before his wedding…because it might reduce me to tears again. 

Yaz: How delightful that Yaz should step from the fug of mediocrity that she was given for the majority of the first half of the season and emerge as a fully rounded character with her own mind and wishes thanks to the efforts of this one episode. Her family dynamic seems much more realistic with the additional of her grandmother (and maybe because Chibnall isn’t the sole writer of them anymore) and the request that she makes of the Doctor seems much more reasonable than Rose’s in Father’s Day (of which many people are comparing this episode to) because meeting her grandmother should in no way change the timeline if handled properly. I’m so pleased they didn’t go down the route of Yaz and her grandmother not getting on, instead it is a respectful relationship from the start. They suggest that she somehow she has imprinted herself on her grandmother (after all she is her favourite grandchild) but I’m really happy they didn’t attempt the ‘you were there!’ revelation at the climax. She's such a warm character here, totally at home in the series. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Don’t read the filthy bits’ – with one line Yaz’s grandmother becomes a real person rather than cardboard cut out family member just there to provide a little backstory.
‘Today India is officially cut into pieces.’
‘Traipsing through the forest alongside the British looking for the enemy.’
‘I heard gangs in the distance’ ‘It’s a long way away…’
‘We didn’t change when a line was drawn.’
‘We’ve lived together for decades. Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. And now, we’re being told our differences are more important than what unites us.’
‘My baby brother, what happened to you?’ Prem’s relationship with his brother throughout this episode is superbly handled, carefully written and acted. This was the moment that broke my heart the most. When Prem looks into his brothers’ eyes and sees a stranger, somebody who will turn to violence in the name of his faith. It’s one of the most important moments in Doctor Who because it shows that human beings can turn out to be the biggest monsters of all, if they think they have a good enough reason. 

The Good: How phenomenal has this season looked? Some of the visuals have more than rivalled the Hollywood genre shows that people binge on Netflix, which was rather the idea. Whilst Doctor Who has never been one to triumph visuals over storytelling (cough cough the eighties), television is an increasingly competitive market and it seems in this day and age people demand something gorgeous to look at as well as intellectually stimulating and engaging material. The sweeping shot of the TARDIS arriving, the Doctor departing and taking in the magnificent scope of the Indian landscape quite took my breath away. Running through the field of poppies couldn’t be more appropriate on Remembrance Sunday, and it’s visually striking too. A huge round of applause for the music, which managed to be both understated and epic and involved instruments we simply aren’t used to hearing on the show. It was the most atmospheric score I can remember in ages. Murray Gold’s music wowed me for many years but like any composer you get used to their styles over time (stand up Dudley) and one of the many refreshing changes this season has been the use of a new composer who is brining a unique musical charm to the adventures. Whilst last weeks score lacked urgency and rarely matched up to the madness of what was going on, Punjab’s score is absolutely perfect. I’d love to have it in isolation. ‘Pakistan is being crated for Muslims, Hindus have India’ No it isn’t anywhere near as simple as that but essentially that is exactly what was happening and it is extremely worthy to teach both kids (who probably will have heard very little about this) and adults (who have shied away from an apologetic page of the past) a valuable lesson about dividing land, faith and people. It’s an unfortunate chapter for human history, one where the demons present were the people and how they behaved. Religious intolerance was exacerbated and led to widespread slaughter. In today’s troubled times, it’s a period of history we should look back on and try and learn something from. The flashback to Prem’s wartime experiences is excellently shot, and necessary. It offers a glimpse into his life beyond the events of this episode and shows a man who has had a complicated life. It adds shade to his character, and makes his death at the climax more affecting. How many Doctor Who episodes get to pause for a hen and stag party? A wedding in the heart of open conflict, with the bride and groom on either side of the religious divide. That’s a potent idea at the heart of the episode and having the reports of the oncoming fight lead in to the wedding service really drives home the powerful mix of love and war. How there is no real villain in the piece until the climax is impressive, especially when you are talking about a religious divide. The aliens aren’t what you think they are and the episode goes to great pains to be respectful of both Muslims and Hindus. Prem’s soul being saved and sent up to the heavens with the others should be remarkably trite but it’s simply beautiful. I had goosebumps all over. Fantastic music. 

The Bad: Do we need aliens in the historical stories? Is it a necessity? Some of the time I would say definitely not. Could I have done with a genuine exploration of Hitler’s regime rather than that nonsense with River Song taking priority – oh definitely. Do I think that the trip back to Charles Dickens at Christmas would miss something without the Gelf – for sure. I do love the pure historicals of the Hartnell era for their passionate storytelling, focus on character and their local colour and Demons of the Punjab reminded me strongly of that era. However, it does also shove in a couple of aliens, suspected of being up to devious shenanigans, but ultimately they are pacifists and respectful of the dead. If they aren’t going to be the main thrust of the story, do we really need them? Actually on this occasion I would say yes. Doctor Who is a genre show after all and so doesn’t need to make excuses for including science fiction elements. The Thijarians contribute a great deal to the emotional strength of the climax, giving us fair warning of a major character’s death and present to ensure that his life is celebrated and will always be remembered. How the story convinced me these guys are up to no good and then pulls the rug out from underneath me so spectacularly when revealing the Doctor was wrong and that they are in fact benevolent is very well done.

The Shallow Bit: Indian guys are hot. Indian women are beautiful. I was having bad thoughts throughout this episode and I don’t mind admitting it.

Result: ‘Maybe you’re my enemy now for the mess you’ve just made of my country…’ This is really different, and it is so rare that I get to say that about a Doctor Who episode. The way it was shot, the pacing, the subject matter and the focus on the intimate details over the sweeping politics of the time. I have never seen an episode of the revived series quite like it. The visual of a country being torn apart violently is a powerful and a great setting for a drama. Doctor Who could never hope to capture the scale of the conflict in 45 minutes and so focusing instead on a family that are torn apart by the events taking place was an inspired idea. It allows us to get intimately close to the historical sweep without ever really seeing it. And because Patel is an expert at getting us to care for his characters it means we are devastated as something as pure as the faith that each individual in story has threatens to tear them apart. It also leaves room for the regulars to have some beautiful moments with the guest characters; Graham talking about why he loves travelling with the Doctor, the hen/stag party, and the wedding itself which emotionally is an unusually multifaceted sequence for this show. Jodie Whittaker is on fire at this point, still enjoying playing the Doctor as part of an ensemble but getting some very strong, dominant moments. I particularly loved her threats to the Thijarians and how she confronted Manish at the climax. She’s a contradiction of knowledge, vulnerability and governance. I’m enjoying her very much in the role. Whilst the entire cast are excellent (I did question Leena Dhingra’s delivery at times, but I enjoyed the character and felt for her so I’m considering that a success), I’d like to single out Shane Zaza who gave an unfussy, beautiful performance as Prem. He’s effortlessly likable but also complex and interesting and that makes his fate all the more upsetting. How this episode manages to make the death at the climax so powerful despite the fact that we have early warning that it is coming is masterful. It is because of what that death represents. For the country, for the characters that have met him and for Yasmin’s grandmother. I don’t think an episode has gotten me this personally involved in an age. I haven’t even mentioned in my summary how beautiful this episode looks and sounds; the location work, music and direction are all quite beautiful. An out and out classic in the middle of Chibnall’s first season, and an episode that works all the better for his understated, character focussed style. Doctor Who hasn’t brought tears to my eyes in years: 10/10

Thursday, 8 November 2018

The X-Files Series Eleven

My Struggle III written and directed by Chris Carter 

What’s it about: Fuck knows. I’ve given up with this mythology bullshit.

Brains’n’Beauty: What an absolute waste of Gillian Anderson’s considerable talents. She’s mostly out of it for this episode; spouting portents of doom, lying unconscious or suffering terrible visions. Anderson attempts to give credence to all of this but I could tell her heart wasn’t really in it. When you compare it to her other performances this season, it’s quite clear what she thinks of Carter’s writing.

Trust No-One: I sound ridiculously shallow saying this but age has not been kind to David Duchovny. Don’t me wrong it does not alter his ability to act or hamper his role in the show in any way. It’s just there is one level to my enjoyment of this show that has now been removed due to the ravages of time. I guess that is pretty shallow actually. The reason Mulder was only spoon-fed information about the conspiracy over the first ten seasons of the show is because the Smoking Man (his father) had parcelled them out at his own pace. Mulder slits the throat of a man who is attacking Scully? Is that in any way a reasonable response to the situation? Attack him, sure. Beat him, sure. But to cut his throat? Who are these people anymore?

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘My plans are airtight, and even if they were to get out they would be dismissed as so much fake news. That’s the world we live in, Monica. Every day a new disaster, when the one thing that no one is prepared for will wipe the slate clean. We refuse to imagine our impending extinction, the acceleration of the cataclysms. We’ve thrown science out of the window in favour of scandal and opinion and cant and all manner of ridiculous untruths. Civilisation a joke and my plan merely the punchline.’ Do you think the CSM practices these grandiose speeches or just makes them up on the spot? Is he just very well rehearsed in melodramatic hyperbole? ‘I’ve endured more hatred than you will ever know. My enemies are legion.’ Get over yourself, man.
‘I have to find our son! You need him. And I need you!’

The Good: Even I can’t deny that the image of the Smoking Man at the helm of the faked lunar landing by Neil Armstrong raised a smile. Carter re-writing history is lunacy, but it’s also a lot of fun.

The Bad: Carl Gerhard Busch? All this time the Smoking Man’s name has been Carl Gerhard Busch? If that is the case then I can completely understand why he was quite happy to go under the noxious alias of The Smoking Man for so many years. Had we been seeing the plan of the invasion of the world in the hands of somebody called Carl all this time it may not have had the same sense of ominousness. Thank God they are blink and you’ll miss them because how the Smoking Man is inserted into some of the events that have shaped history is horrifically unconvincing. The idea is sound enough (and it was explored in some depth in the superb season four episode Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man) but the way he seems to be behind just about every conspiracy and moment of lunacy in human history is absurdly overstated. I’m surprised they didn’t have a shot of him in a limousine with Lady Di. The entirety of the precious episode…or at least the most pertinent parts of it were all a part of some nasty portent of the future courtesy of Scully’s brain? This is the worst kind of retroactive rewriting of events we have already seen. It’s JR in the shower. It’s Crossroads wasn’t real. It’s ‘I really wasn’t sure if the show would come back so I kind of want to forget about where I left things with the great alien spaceship descending on the Earth and take the show in a completely different direction.’ I’m boggled that Carter ever thought that he would get away with such a gross insult to his viewers intelligence. To begin what is a perfectly great season of this show with such a cheat boggles the mind. And Scully’s brain sending out morse code to those who might be watching…that’s equally barking. Why doesn’t a script editor whisper in Carter’s ear ‘erm, are you sure about that?’ Skinner not only manages to uncover the mysterious code flashes of Scully’s brain but he also manages to piece it together for Mulder to go look for his son. How a plot hinges on such absurdities defies description. Not only that but the Doctor that is treating Scully also manages to be clued up on alien conspiracies so she has all the information needed to keep the plot going and pointing Mulder and Scully in the right direction. What an insane co-incidence. This really is plotting as laid out by a three-year-old. Add to that that Scully has further visions that add some further plot detail. Worse than the messianic approach to the CSM is Monica Reyes re-imagined as a villain, pointing guns at Skinner, working against Mulder and Scully and empathising with the monster who is behind this all. Give me a break. It’s like Carter has forgotten all about his reboot of the show in series 8 and 9. Reyes and Doggett were a genuinely engaging team, even if the series was haemorrhaging viewers at the time. To pervert her character like this feels like a punishment for her lack of success at keeping the series on air. Let’s get this straight, Reyes and Gish were never the problem. The inconsistent writing and the fact that the show had simply outlived its natural existence was. I would rather have kept Reyes contained to those two seasons and have fond memories of her. Now when I watch those episodes I have to think of this bullshit. What about the introduction of this arch nemesis of the Smoking Man that we’ve never met before and his plan to transport all 7 billion human beings off into space, or something. What is that bollocks all about? ‘So we just wait…do nothing’ ‘We do our work’ – I feel like we get here at the end of every mythology episode. Big crazy shit about to go down. Oh wait, no it hasn’t happened. Let’s get on with our work.

Pre-Titles Sequence: Ah the joy of a recap where you can cut out all the flabby padding and plot inconsistences and show the best of the previous run in a nutshell. Watching this you might think that the tenth mini season of The X-Files had been the most successful thing ever rather than the baby steps of a show learning once again what it does best and making some heinous mistakes along the way.

The Truth: ‘Not so long-ago mankind’s greatest threats were war, famine and plague. We’ve all but conquered them with hard science, this faith in or technology – our new religion – when a simple pathogen would kill billions and billions. The aliens brought not only technology, they brought the seeds of our destruction.’


Result: Words fail me. Chris Carter’s seemingly inability to craft a script without resorting to the most heinous clichés imaginable boggles the mind. How he attempts to justify the end of the world climax at the end of the previous season as a portent of doom on Scully’s part, that’s taking audience liberties to a whole new level. When Mulder’s agonising voiceover begins I thought to myself has this writer learnt NOTHING in the previous ten seasons of this show? Has he such a God complex that he thinks to never seek out professional advice on his previous failings as a writer and simply continue to bash out this show in his own abominable style. Carter’s voiceovers have long been criticised, Redux being the worst example and Trust No-One being a particularly loathsome late offender. My Struggle sags under the weight of expository and soul crushing paranoia and emotional vapidness…usually wrapped up in an agonising voiceover. The narrative hinges on lunatic plot devices, characters having information they couldn’t possibly have obtained, regulars from the past turning up with clues and Scully’s apocalyptic visions. It’s practically every unspoken rule about bad writing. It’s a crying shame because within this retarded scribbling is a director who is trying to kick start the episode, actors giving the unfortunate dialogue some meaning and a musician who seems to think the show is still at its height and raining all the power of his orchestra to give the material some weight. If only you could switch your brain off there is probably a great deal to enjoy about My Struggle III. But ultimately this plays out like the ultimate antithesis of drama, things happening because the writer says they do rather than for a logical reason, things promised that never come to be, things discussed that sound important but are totally irrelevant and things happening that you can no longer trust will have any kind of impact. The series will return to standalone stories until the end of the season and so whilst everything is pitched at an apocalyptic promise of badness, you know that next week it wont matter as Mulder and Scully enjoy eight episodes of high jinks. Anti-drama, it’s the Chris Carter speciality. He should stick to line dancing and terror attacks. My big question is why couldn’t they have taken the risk and had the aliens exposed and changed the landscape of the show forever as the conclusion to the previous episode seemed to indicate? To back step on that seems like a severe lack of courage and the most unfortunate example of playing it safe I have seen in a long time. As a message to the audience at the beginning of the shows (potentially) last season, it’s that The X-Files has lost its balls. The Smoking Man is now the biggest joke of the entire series, apparently the villain in EVERY story, and now with the godawful twist that he was responsible for Scully’s pregnancy. So terrible it practically redefines the word: 1/10

This written and directed by Glen Morgan

What’s it about: Is Langly back from the grave? 

Brains’n’Beauty: Suddenly Scully and Mulder are talking like real people again, taking on the mystery of the ghostly Langly and the attack on Mulder’s house and trying to piece it together like professionals. Who needs Google when you’ve got Scully? She’s a font of useless information that might come handy in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Trust No-One: Keeping Mulder and Scully together for an entire episode is a wonderful idea, because the precious three have taken great pains to separate them and the result is that lose one of the greatest strengths of the series, the delicious rapport between Duchovny and Anderson. Just enjoying some time between set pieces seeing them relax and crack some jokes is just delightful.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Frohike looked 57 the day he was born.’
‘He’s dead because the world was so dangerous and complex then. Who’ have thought we’d look back with nostalgia and say “That was a simpler time” Scully?’
‘What’s in them belongs to everyone. That’s the point of them.’ The truth about The X-Files.
‘Maybe he saw Mulder in his dreams?’ ‘Who hasn’t.’
‘It’s reason for being is to advance life. Not end it.’
‘Why do you work so well with your hands cuffed behind your back?’ ‘As if you didn’t know.’
‘Bye Bye, Ringo.’ 

The Good: There’s just something truly satisfying about Mulder and Scully being in peril. It has been a staple of this series since the very early episodes, the pair of them poking their noses in where they aren’t wanted and everything from kidney eating mutants to satanic faculties to necrophiliac serial killers attempting to kidnap and kill them. This works because Mulder and Scully are in peril for the entire episode and unlike the conspiracy episodes it feels like they could genuinely lose their lives at points. I love the ambiguous nature of the threat, we never quite have a handle on why they are being targeted for a long time because the story sticks close to the pair of them and we never get any answers despite their demands for some. A shoot out in Arlington? That has a ring of the bold X-Files of old about it. I like the idea that The-X-Files have gone viral and with classified access you can read their content. The Information is Out There, so to speak and with any number of intelligence agencies looking for the upper hand in the global conflict there is information about extra-terrestrial and paranormal abilities in the files that might just help them get it. The Scully spankbank? Hahahahahahaha. The White House is not looking on the Bureau with any great respect these days, no they are the Spooky ones. It’s anti-Trump propaganda but very quietly done. 

The Bad: Deep Throat was called Ronald Pakula? It’s no wonder these government officials go by overblown nicknames. If we had known the worlds end was being masterminded by Carl and Ronald rather than the Smoking Man and Deep Throat it might not have had the same ring to it.

Pre-Titles Sequence: And with one brilliantly directed fight sequence The X-Files is brought bang up to date with a sequence that is edited and scored so swiftly it could only come from the reboot version of the show. It’s like the pre-titles sequences of This is the point where the old X-Files departs and the new style kicks into place. It’s really fun and energetic and memorable. Bravo. 

The Truth: ‘When Scully started, it was just us. Dark forces in the US government. There was barely a Russia. Now there’s 17 US intelligence agencies. Homeland Security, Russian FSB, Chinese MSF, Isis, al Queada, Blackwater. Private companies launch to the space station and they are all of them are in bed with one another while trying to exterminate each other.’ This is an essential speech which shows just what a terrifying world The X-Files exists in now. It’s probably the most vital scene yet in the reboot. The world is fucked, and we’ve got to try and navigate its waters. Imagine a simulated afterlife? A copy of yourself and your brain that would kick into life after your physical body and mind have expired. Is that a path that you would want to take? In reality it is a work camp, they are digital slaves. They take uploaded minds to develop science but only the elite will use it to leave this world. The digital world that Langly describes of fake stars, sunlight with no warmth and a wall around reality sounds empty and lifeless. A digital sweatshop of obscurity. Poor Steve Jobs. Erika Price turns out to be behind this whole digital nightmare, and the one element of My Struggle III that deserved further attention and exploration. Barbara Hershey is always worth your time. The idea of a computer revolution to ensure that the human race survives the impending alien apocalypse is actually more exciting than the catastrophe itself. Langly was the only person within the simulation to figure out it wasn’t real and he had seven billion people in the real world that he could have contacted…and he went for Mulder. 

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘What is this? How did we get here?’ Whoopdefreakingdoo! How glorious to have Skinner ask why on Earth they are waving guns at each other for the nine thousandth time. The shows eighth and ninth seasons made the firm decision that Skinner was an ally to The X-Files and turning that around in the reboot is another mistake on Carter’s part. As soon as he can, Morgan gets them back in bed together (oo-er) where they belong and asking the pertinent questions. ‘Do you work for them?’

Result: ‘The world is different, Mulder…’ It’s a brilliant idea to have Mulder and Scully on the run throughout an entire episode and have nobody to turn to. It gives the show a chance to indulge in some awesome action set pieces but to also keep the suspense up for the entire 40-minute running time. I haven’t been this gripped by an episode that has played out in real time since season six’s Drive. Glen Morgan is determined to drag the revised X-Files into the modern day with a furiously paced script and some dynamically directed sequences but he’s not aversed to kisses to the past as well with an intriguing role for Langly, which is well explained by the end. The exposure of the misty Vancouver landscapes is the greatest nostalgia kick this series could offer. The clues that Scully and Mulder follow might be a little tenuous and you do have to strain credulity to follow the plot but no more so than in a similar conspiracy tales like The Da Vinci Code. I like how it is a stroll through X-Files mythology and how it gives the characters the chance to honour the ghosts of the shows past. And Scully at least asks the question of why the hell Langly couldn’t have just pointed them in a specific direction rather than a series of ambiguous clues. Unlike a Chris Carter script where we have to accept a nonsensical plot because he says so, Morgan hangs a lantern on his quirky plotting so the audience knows they are being taken on a fun ride. How the script looks on longingly at the early days of the show when things were so much simpler in the world and exposing just what a mess we have made of things since then and how frightening it is to be alive in today’s globe of violence, terror, paranoia and underhandedness is inspired. Skinner’s speech about the state of play today and how this episode feeds into that to a point where it doesn’t matter who is pursuing Scully and Mulder, because it could be any number of agencies with their own sinister agenda, plays brilliantly into one of the shows greatest strengths. It’s ambiguity. This could only take place now and it’s all the better for it. Powerful, sinister and exciting, The X-Files is bang up to date. It feels relevant again: 9/10

Plus One written by Chris Carter and directed by Kevin Hooks 

What’s it about: In a show that has traded in doppelgangers for years, this is a fresh take on the idea… 

Brains’n’Beauty: I love that at this stage of the game Scully can tell what Mulder’s outrageous theory of the week is just by looking at home. He doesn’t even have to say anything. Talk about telepathically connected. Carter uses this episode to explore how Scully and Mulder have changed over the years, how they have aged and slowed down a little. It’s been two decades since the show began and there are serious physical changes that occur in that time. To ignore them (like they try and do with the title sequence for some bizarre reason) is just absurd. Whilst the dialogue that Scully has dried up over the years hits home, that’s nothing to shot of her staring at herself in the mirror as she gets undressed. Anderson says with a look what Carter could never truly put into words. When she asks if Mulder thinks she is old he responds with the most Mulder like line (‘you’ve still got some scoot in your boot’). Scully asks the question of when they retire, will they spend any time together? What do you think?

Trust No-One: Equally fun as Scully’s psychic connection to Mulder when it comes to his outlandish concepts, Mulder suggests that Scully is flinging dookie when she tries to offer a scientific explanation for the dopplegangers and the Poundstone’s influence. Whenever Mulder turns up at Scully’s bedside it is to deliver news of another death. I’m sure he would like to pay a visit for a very different reason. 

Sparkling Dialogue: The entire sequence where Mulder and Scully talk about having more kids and getting old is just beautiful. When Carter stops pretending he is writing the Second Coming and just lets his characters discuss very real issues his dialogue can be truly excellent. I have no clue why he forgets that so often. Scully’s admission that her first baby was a miracle and that she does have anybody to have a second one with is very touching. More scenes like this please. 

Ugh: Judy’s split personality is pretty damn scary, thanks to Konoval’s intense performance. It’s been a while since the show went for some simply scares like this and how she sits in the dark, threatening Scully and flinging shit at her, really got under my skin. I would put my money on the fact that evil doppelganger Scully would be the scariest thing this show has ever produced and the few glimpses that we get seem to confirm that.

The Good: Am I lacking in ambition to find the opening scenes of Mulder bringing a case to Scully in the X-Files office just the most delightful of things. It feels like I have dialled back 20 years to my childhood. The way it is presenting as though the intervening two decades never happened so unapologetically is just wonderful. Even Mulder says they are back to their bread and butter. I love love love how the most touching moment in the entire episode (Mulder holding Scully in bed to comfort her) is undermined by the uncomfortable notion that she might be her evil twin.

Pre-Titles Sequence: A good old-fashioned X-File sequence…I didn’t think that Carter had it in him anymore. A man is haunted by a copy of himself in a gig and is forced into crashing his car and killing himself. Maybe it is the use of a brand-new director but there is something forceful, angry and energetic about this sequence that feel refreshing. 

The Truth: Is there an evil twin inside each of us just waiting to come out and play? Who hasn’t behaved in an inappropriate way in the past and unleashed that side of them? But the idea of that darker, baser side to your nature being made flesh and acting independently of you…that’s actually pretty terrifying. 

Moment to Watch Out For: How the beautiful scene between Mulder and Scully is prevented from being too twee by being overseen by a dark version of Scully in the corner of the room. It’s an excellent scare.

Result: Plus One is a terrific little X-File of the old school variety that kept my interest throughout, had some impressive set pieces and insane characters. The simple truth is that when Carter isn’t trying to impress with his mythology episodes, he’s actually a pretty good writer of bizarre and twisted pieces of supernatural drama. Think How the Ghosts Stole Christmas. Think Improbable. Think Plus One. By all accounts Kevin Hooks was keen direct the original series of the X-Files and never had the chance. Now he has his opportunity he delivers what is probably the most traditional of episodes since the reboot but in a very stylish, idiosyncratic and angry way. This show rarely touches upon psychological horror in the conventional sense, opting to more often go for gore, action set pieces or more overt paranormal threats. Whilst Carter doesn’t spend too much time offering a convincing portrayal of schizophrenia, he does offer up a wildly entertaining pair of nutters who make this episode a joy to watch. Enormous kudos to Karin Konoval (Mom from Home!) who performs an incredible double turn as both Little Judy and Little Chucky, a performance so convincingly offbeat that I genuinely did not realise it was the same actress playing both parts until my second watch to write this review. There’s very little subtlety in playing such outrageous characters but they are both so packed full of madness and energy that the episode just sings whenever either one of them is on screen. Scully and Mulder are given some much needed exploration too and I really love how they both take a moment to consider how much they have changed over the years. There’s something rather elegiac about the recognition of age over time that touched home for me. Anderson and Duchovny share an effortless chemistry now, and it is really bolstering these stories. The main plot of Plus One could take place in any season of The X-Files, at any point in its history. I mean that as a massive compliment. Carter should let other writers take care of the mythology episodes and just stick to writing these oddball one offs. He’s really rather good at them: 8/10

The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat written and directed by Darin Morgan 

What’s it about: I can’t quite remember. I think it was really good. 

Brains’n’Beauty: Trust Scully to get to the heart of the matter whilst Mulder and Reggie argue over the details: the Mandela/Mengele Effect is simply people mis-remembering stuff. I’m glad she said that because for the first 10 minutes of this episode that was at the forefront of my mind. Anderson plays Scully’s increasing incredulity to the hilt. The last scene is especially cute because the regulars break through the fourth wall and look each other with honest affection and remember the past they have shared so fondly. 

Trust No-One: How very Mulder to dress up in a Bigfoot costume and head out into the wilds to hunt out the real thing. Apparently, it isn’t about seeking out the truth but more about getting away. It’s very sweet how Mulder can flirt outrageously with Scully during their work these days, it is such a difference from their plutonic relationship in the early that it identifies these latter-day episodes immediately. Before had Mulder suggested meeting an informant was a date Scully would have shot his nose off. Now she just smiles knowingly at him. Mulder couldn’t simply accept that people are simply mis-remembering facts, oh no, he has to go to the extreme of suggesting that it is evidence of the existence of parallel universes. No matter how much he tries to solve this thing…he keeps coming back to his outrageous theory of parallel universes. At least he admits that he has lost the plot. The world has now become to crazy for even his conspiratorial powers. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It can’t be that good of an episode!’ How many times have I heard that? 
‘You’re having a Mengele Effect about the Mandela Effect…’ Perhaps the best gag in an episode full of zingers is Mulder and Reggie arguing over the name of the condition when you remember something different from the majority, one of them clearly mis-remembering. The fact that Reggie uses a memory to justify his version of the truth is sublime.
‘It’s not parallel universes!’
‘They want you to think all conspiracies are nutty so you ignore the ones that are true.’

Ugh: Baby Mulder with his adult head watching The Lost Martian is one of the most disturbing things this show has ever dished up. It’s just wrong.

The Good: Such a fascinating concept to build an episode around: memory, and how it can be corrupted, distorted or mis-remembered. The Mandela Effect is when somebody has a memory of something not shared by the majority or the factual record. He who controls the past, controls the future. The ability to manipulate memory creates unlimited power – political, economical, cultural. It’s a fascinating line of thinking because our memory informs every decision we make. By being able to make people remember things in a way that suits their agenda, it could literally change the world. Swing a vote. Sway a jury. Sell a product. Direct hate. It always feels like Morgan is winking at the audience, mocking the tropes of the show that all the other writers take so seriously. So, there’s plenty of underground car park scenes, paranoia and sinister men showing up to perform dastardly acts but there’s the feeling that this show has been on for so long now we can mock them kindly for their overuse. Reggie calling out a big-name company but the episode jumping a few frames so not to name them…inspired. This episode contains the best ever Trump gag – seriously, everybody needs to stop bothering. The story of Doctor They and how he was at the last Presidential Inauguration (in which hundreds of millions attended – fake news!) made me howl with laughter. Imagine real facts being presented in such a phony way that nobody will ever believe any of it. Some could accuse The X-Files of that.

Pre-Titles Sequence: The X-Files has past form at these campy, ridiculous pre-titles sequences. I seem to remember saying during Darin Morgan’s brilliant Jose Chung’s From Outer Space that it would be catastrophic if somebody came to The X-Files for the first time during the pre-titles where a terrible Claymation monster attacks a car in a parody of those ridiculous b movies. People might mistakenly think the show is this bad all the time. Which I guess was rather the idea. The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat is Morgan playing with the same idea again, a particularly trite episode of The Twilight Zone playing out in crisp monochrome replete with ridiculous twists and a hilariously bad alien design (the multiple arms that try and cover its mouth in shock are hilarious). It’s Morgan being clever because this is very relevant to the rest of the episode but taken as a pre-titles in its own right it is one of the oddest the show has ever presented. So, bravo for that. 

The Truth: ‘Where the hell are they taking Reggie?’ Who the fuck knows what the truth is. Best to settle for this episodes moral, and it’s something that is well worth remembering: ‘I want to remember how it was.’ 

Moment to Watch Out For: The glorious moment when Reggie drops the bombshell that he started The X-Files and that he, Mulder and Scully used to be partners and the beautifully conceived and realised series of clips where he is inserted unceremoniously into the classic series. Come on…surely you all remember Reggie Something? It sure makes sense of the mysterious ‘Reggie’ that Mulder used to phone in the first couple of seasons. This sequence just gets funnier and funnier, his reaction to Tooms and Mom from Home are to die for.

Result: ‘It was George Orwell that said that’ ‘For now maybe…’ The wonderful thing about the idea of having erroneous memories is that the more that you think about it, the more paranoid that you get. Can you trust anything? It’s the core concept at the heart of The X-Files and it baffles me that it has never been examined before. What’s so wonderful about The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat is that for the most part it is a very low budget story with an extremely wordy script but it’s proof (once again) that if the words are engaging enough and the performances sing then all you need are those elements to make a magical piece of television. Like This, Forehead Sweat presents an X-Files in a brand-new age and describes it as post-conspiracy, post-cover up. Are the writers trying to tell us that The X-Files unique brand of storytelling isn’t relevant anymore? Or that the show has to adapt and change to survive in the new television landscape? What this episode proves with its post-postmodern approach is that it can still kick the ass of the big hitters in any age as long as it striving to be as smart, funny and surprising as possible. What Forehead Sweat does is allow us to look back on the show with a huge rosy glow of remembrance, even if it wasn’t quite a fabulous as we remember it being…because sometimes how we remember something is more important than how it actually was. This is an episode that throws so many ideas in the air and lets them stew…. it’s an episode that makes you think. And in a television schedule that is rife with brainless synthetic entertainment that is something worth celebrating. The memory of the last X-Files case that Mulder, Scully and Reggie had together has to be the funniest thing ever put under the X-Files banner, partly because of the Trump mockery, partly because it is so profound, partly because it is visually absurd (the segway) and partly because something this bizarre is so much more enjoyable than the ‘real’ X-Files that Carter is trying to write in his mythology episodes. ‘Good luck, and good riddance’ indeed. I’m not sure how I will remember this episode in years to come, I’m not sure if the details will get all mixed up in my brain or my interpretation of its content will be different from somebody else’s. All I can say with some certainty is that right now this is the best X-Files episode since Release in series nine; packed with intelligence, charm, more witty lines than you could imagine squeezing into 45 minutes, a playful use of continuity, gorgeous characterisation and a plot that never stops giving. It’s a series 11 masterpiece: 10/10

Monday, 5 November 2018

The Tsuranga Conundrum written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jennifer Perrott

This story in a nutshell: The pting is…I’m not entirely sure I can sum it up in a nutshell. Antimatter. Asteroids. Bomb. Critter. A baby. 

Oh Brilliant: Whittaker was dazzling this week, and it’s the first week (Rosa aside) where I have felt that we have had a fully confident and capable Doctor at the helm rather than a team player who allows everybody else to shine. Maybe Chibnall has just figured out how to write for her now, maybe Whittaker is naturally more confident in the role at this point or maybe I’m just enjoying the quirky northern charm that she brings to the role. There was plenty of Doctorish things for her to do, which really helps like running down corridors, fiddling with equipment, standing up to monsters, figuring out problems, reeling off technobabble, protecting her companions and thinking up insane solutions. It’s a performance with a great deal of energy and conviction whilst still a little vulnerability and humour. There’s not a chapter in the book of Celebrants about her, there is an entire volume. Not that she likes to boast. Actually, she doesn’t really, this Doctor is pretty reticent about boasting about her previous achievements. I thought the panic she displayed about losing the TARDIS, so soon after getting her back, was palpable and necessary. Her reaction to her sonic being eaten was priceless. A Doctor of medicine, science, engineering, candyfloss (??), Lego, philosophy, music, problems, people, hope. Mostly hope. And hope doesn’t just offer itself up – you have to use your imagination and the Doctor has that in spades. That’s a terrific scene for this new Doctor, exploring what she is all about. She strides into a room halfway through the episode and takes full charge for once. I never doubted her. Once she understands the Pting, she thinks up a genius plan to get it off the ship and I love how hairy the solution is. It has the potential to blow everybody up if she’s guessed wrong. The little salute she gives the Pting as she ejects him into space is perfect. 

Graham: Why should there be a silly subplot with Graham and Ryan helping a man give birth, I hear you bemoan? Because it gives them both the chance to share a little comic relief and show their mettle in a crisis, but also it allows for some more touching scenes where they support and encourage this confused young man. Skipping over the fact that it is a man who is pregnant (probably the ultimate PC statement in a season full of them), these were genuinely warm and lovely scenes and they help give the climax a bit of emotional welly.

Ryan: Hooray for the return of the sweet and tortured Ryan from episode one, who in a beautifully scripted moment admits to Yaz how much losing his dad hurt him as a kid. Speaking as somebody who was also let down by his father as a child, I can certain empathise. It’s clear that we are building up to something here and Chibnall’s subtle building of his companions’ lives is one of the best aspects of the latest season. I’m certainly having the feels more for Ryan and (especially) Graham than I ever did for Clara or Bill. They might have been more memorable instigators of action, but they never felt this real. The reason Ryan’s dad left is pretty heart-breaking and finding his mother dead must have killed him a little bit inside. It explains a lot about why he is such an introverted soul. 

Yaz: Marvellously Yaz really comes to life in the second half of this episode, in a way that she hasn’t for me to date. Suddenly she’s active with a staser, struggling with monsters, giving them a swift kick (that scene made me laugh out loud) and enjoying fun and frantic banter with the Doctor. She essentially stands around in the background in the first half of the episode, but her involvement in the climax shows a huge step in the right direction.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination.’ 

The Good: A fabulous opening on Seffilun 27, a marvellous and memorable location that is brewed up for the purposes of getting the Doctor and company from A to B. I could have spent much more time poking around the scrap planet looking for a story to emerge but we have places to be. I’m pleased we’re kickstarting stories in this way rather than always opening inside the TARDIS. Like the Ghost Monument, these unconventional openings (Moffat used to enjoy doing cuts between many different plots in the pre-title sequences but would generally have the Doctor and companion arriving by TARDIS) which see the Doctor cut off from the TARDIS are rather unusual and enjoyable for it. A good old-fashioned spaceship of the clinical variety; I thought it looked visually impressive and given this is an old-fashioned base under siege story it needed to be for the Doctor and friends to run about in. There are plenty of West Wing style tracking shots to make the dialogue scenes snappier and to show of the design. I’d take this statuesque and gothic android over the android-not android from Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS any day. Suzanne Packer gives a nicely understated performance as Cicero, a character with a lot of hyperbole attached to it and instead of turning her into some arrogant military hero Packer and Chibnall instead make her much more nuanced and modest than that. The sibling tension angle is hardly a new device but as a way of giving both characters depth in a situation it worked on this occasion. I think if one of them hadn’t died, it might have lacked the heart it needed but by the end of the episode these two characters who are estranged have come together in a crisis and realised that they love one another, leaving one of them heartbroken and the other a heroine. That’s a character journey within an hour full of other stuff going on. Bravo. Everyone turns up to meet the star of the show: the Pting! As well as having a ridiculously quotable name, it’s an insanely designed creature that manages to be both cute and sinister (actually I sinister because it was cute). Why can’t creatures in Doctor Who be both? People had a similar problem with the Adipose and I adored them too. It’s different and a bit silly, and I think that’s the real objection. But different and silly works for me in this ultra-benign season. People have a whinge when Chibnall plays it safe and uses giant spiders and people moan when he goes for broke by introducing something bizarre and original like the Pting. I rather liked both. And I loved the fact that he gobbled up the sonic…and that one of the many climaxes of this story involved him eating a bomb and it detonating inside its stomach! Only on Doctor Who…and when I get to say that I know I’m onto something enjoyable. 

The Bad: A female Doctor, lectures on guns, a story that vilifies racism, an ecological sermon and now a pregnant man. I loathe to say this but maybe the Daily Mail is right and Doctor Who has become too PC for its own good? Hahahahaha. Of course not, I’d rather choke on my own intestines than admit that. But all of these left-wing agendas back to back are starting to form a pattern of morality that is a little dictatorial. I’d love next week to offer a really scathing attack on the partition of India with more morally grey areas. On its own there is nothing wrong with the concept of a pregnant man from another species. I have seen it done before on other shows and it’s a harmless bit of fun. It’s biggest crime here is that it is entirely disconnected to the episode as a whole, just there to give Graham and Ryan something to do. As a subplot on it’s nicely acted and written with some rather touching moments. I’m sure there are plenty of young single mothers out there who can empathise with what Yoss is going through. Character subplots like this that eat up so much time belong on Star Trek really. But beyond adding more detail to the the ultra-liberal themes that are running through season eleven like Brighton through a stick of rock, I don’t have any major objections to this sweet bit of character drama. I’m baffled that we did not get any exterior shots of the ship diving through the asteroid field as Eve directs them through. Stinks of a budget saving device to me, classic Who style. Maybe the money is being saved for next weeks trip to India. The self-rebooting sonic smacks me as being a bit of an easy fix. Call the Midwife? Pop culture references really date a show in years to come. But I guess no more than in Bad Wolf or a hundred other RTD references. The avocado gag completely missed the mark for me. Chibnall proved in this episode that he capable of grand moments of energetic humour (Yaz smacking the Pting into the net) but his scripted jokes often fall flat because they are obvious and too simple. The prayer at the end was probably a push to hard towards making the audience emote. Gridlock achieved its grand swelling of emotion during the prayer scene because the entire episode had been pitched at that operatic level. This was a much more contained and quieter piece and so going out on a prayer feels a bit overdone. 

The Shallow Bit:
Whittaker just has a look, she’s radiant. I think she’s a stunning looking lead for the show. And just to keep things balanced we also have Tosin is practically edible in some shots (the pep talk he gives to Yoss during his pregnancy in particular). There was a very cute nurse in there too, all

Result: Fans declare WORST EPISODE SINCE…so naturally I rather enjoyed it. I would say this is Chibnall’s most agreeable episode to date, The Woman Who Fell to Earth notwithstanding. For the Pting alone I would give this an above average mark, the horrifically cute little critter was such a quirky addition and led to some brilliant moments of lunacy, exactly the sort of thing I would never expect from a Chibnall script. Doctor Who fans love to talk in absolutes and I’ve seen the Gallifrey Base forums light up with exclamations that this was biggest piece of televisual excrement they have ever seen. In my humble opinion it is hardly that and if it does get a little pedestrian in places there is plenty happening in the myriad of plots to keep the interest focussed and the surprises coming. I’m still confused about the title, though. Perhaps the conundrum is how the five different narrative threads belong together in the same episode. However, in a season of episodes where I have been complaining about the lack of plot, to have this much going on (the Pting, the guy with the baby, the sibling rivalry, the ship out of control and the bomb) is actually quite a relief. I’m not entirely sure that The Tsuranga Conundrum pulled all of these off brilliantly but there was certain enough happening to keep this mid-season episode pacy, active and engaging. Nice design and direction, a Doctor that is fully active and involved, lovely character moments (I always approve of those) and a memorable (for the right or wrong reasons depending on your tolerance to this kind of thing) monster. You could do a lot worse. Chibnall pretty much always scores a win when he is writing human drama but falters when it comes to science fiction but this had plenty of the latter and some of it was surprisingly good. There’s something rather uncynical about his approach to Doctor Who, focussing on the nicer side of the universe, which is actually rather refreshing: 7/10

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Arachnids in the UK written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Sallie Aprahamian

This story in a nutshell: Spiders! And they’re bloody massive!

Oh Brilliant: I appreciated seeing the Doctor’s vulnerability at losing her new team. I don’t think it took any thing away from her character to be so visibly upset at having successfully gotten them home. Hartnell used to break my heart in this fashion all the time. Whittaker is stuck with Chibnall’s overly eccentric and unamusing dialogue again for parts of the episode, that really hamper her attempts to bring a natural quirkiness to the character. All that nonsense about purple sofas…it’s just cardboard wit in the wake of what Davies or Moffat would have delivered and a far cry from Marjorie Blackman’s thoughtful dialogue for her last week. He’s trying to hard, which makes it sound like Whittaker is trying too hard. When the Doctor days she is still figuring herself out I got the impression that Jodie Whittaker was too. Rather wonderfully I thought she was at her best when empathising and trying to understand the spiders. It certainly felt more Doctorish than her scenes with Robertson where she should have eaten him up for breakfast but instead just sort of lets him get on with being an idiot. The Doctor mentions several off-screen adventures in Arachnids that sound a lot more memorable than the one we are in – fatal mistake. How like the Doctor to find out that a mega giant spider has killed a man and dangle herself down the hold it came out of. Fearless, that one. ‘A call people dude now’ is exactly the sort of line they should be avoiding or the first female Doctor will just be remembered as a knock off tenth or eleventh Doctor. Does it push to hard at the end to bring the four regulars together? Actually no. But I fail to understand how the episode can be so pitch perfect in its characterisation at points, and so ridiculously unsubtle in others. Regardless, this approach of having the three companions all agree to walk willingly into the Doctor’s life is really novel and provides the episode with a touching sentiment to got out with. This isn’t a Doctor and companions, it’s a true ensemble piece and we haven’t had that feeling since the sixties.

Graham: The best exploration of grief in the new series to date, and the most truthful. Graham’s visit to his dead wife’s flat are some of the most impactful scenes in the 13-year run of the revival to date. When Amy lost her child it was skipped over with appalling silence, when Clara lost her boyfriend it was handled volcanically and soon forgotten. And when the Doctor lost Rose it was dwelt upon with appalling regularity. With Graham’s loss of his wife, we see the true extent of grief in a very personal, intimate way. It’s been subtly handled but ever present, how he has honoured her name, remembered her strengths, protected her grandson. Fortunately losing Grace co-incided with Graham heading off into time and space but now he is home and has to face up to his home without her and in some expertly directed sequences, the best in the episode, we see him haunted by her loss and reminded of what is missing. My friend Jack mentioned that had we all known that Bradley Walsh would have been the highlight of the new series of Doctor Who, we would have all laughed. Actually I figured early on he was going to shine in this season, and he’s proving worth his weight in gold and with a hangdog expression that can elicit tears in me much like the mighty Cribbins. And comparing anybody to Cribbins is a huge compliment.

Ryan: Is this the first Doctor Who season that might come with its own soundtrack? There’re a few moments of character thrown Ryan’s way (mostly to do with his nan and dad and both are marinating nicely and will probably yield results later in the season) but like The Ghost Monument, it’s the moment Ryan is characterised as a proper bloke that really stands out. Pumping the hotel full of ghastly contemporary music, he truly earns his lad status. He might not be the most memorable of companions but he does stick out in moments like this (perhaps for the wrong reasons).

Yaz: So, this was Yaz’s chance to shine as we are introduced to her family…and I didn’t get much if I’m honest. Comparing one period of NuWho with another is inevitable now we have reached our third showrunner and if I am honest there was nothing particularly standout about Yaz or her family beyond ‘they were a normal, humdrum family,’ Not something you could level at the Tylers or the Jones’ (for very different reasons) and especially the Nobles who all stood out as rich, colourful, vivid people with lives no more unusual than yours or mine until they met the Doctor but who came to life because of him. The Khans are a pretty bland bunch; the paranoid father, the working mother and the annoying sister but none of them especially reached out to me as being particularly engaging or worth investing more time in. The biggest difference between the characters in the Chibnall era with those of the previous two administrations is that you could drop the companions from Chibnall’s era into any regular drama and they would fit in just fine. That’s an intriguing approach and very worthwhile but at the same time it means they don’t really match up to a Doctor Who episode, which requires you to be a little more vivid and standout (‘We’re on the bloody moon!’ ‘Quick word with Michael Jackson’ ‘Well isn’t that wizard’). Yaz and her family are all very realistic, and because of that a little forgettable. The implication that Yaz might be bisexual is he most interesting thing we have learnt about her so far, and to be honest that probably shouldn’t be the case.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Can you believe they are actually moving towards that music?’

The Good: The direction is impressive throughout and I really love the touch at the beginning of the episode where the camera pans low across the various hotel sets like we are watching the POV of a spider. It’s an immediate suggestion of danger from the eight-legged freaks and a visually arresting start to the episode. I can’t help it – the TARDIS landing in an urban area gives me goosebumps every time. It’s the sort of thing that had I seen it as a child I would have been thinking ‘she might be coming for me!’ I don’t suffer from Arachnophobia but I seem to know everybody in the country who does (I would love to have a pet tarantula but everybody would disown me if I dared) and I was contacted by a friend who was watching this episode live who was literally behind the sofa for one week. See my photo attached. It’s the most impressive spiders we have ever seen in the show and blown up to terrifying proportions they truly come across as a quivering, scuttling, predatory menace. In an episode that was aired just before Halloween it is a genius concept to explore. This is how petrifying the cobwebs spun in Planet of the Spiders should have been, victims bound up in sticky webbing and asphyxiated. For some this would be the ultimately dread. Good on the show for going for plain and simple scares again. The detail in the CGI is impressive and I love the fact that there are no attempts to exaggerate the spiders creatively. These are ordinary household spiders, the kind that fall on your face when you’re sleeping and crawl down your throat but HUGE. Kudos to Chibnall for the scene of Kevin being straddled by a spider, looking as though he is being devoured alive and then dragged screaming hysterically to his death wrapped in webbing. It’s the nastiest thing I’ve seen on the show in ages. Also, the scene of Graham being hunted by a spider in the corridor genuinely gave me the shivers. It’s in these moments that the episode shines. `

The Bad: Doctor Who has never exactly been known for its nuanced villains; nine times out of ten they turn out to be money grabbing, ranting psychopaths with inferiority complexes. However, Robertson manages to be in a league of his own as the cod-Trump wanabee that the series was always going to produce. The attack on Trump is advisable, but the way it is handled here makes the whole exercise a little awkward. Chibnall goes for all out attack and the result is a comic book character without any layers and somebody it is very hard to believe in. He’s also one of those characters that is simply inserted into the story to get in the way of the good guys in as irrational a way as possible – there is nothing remotely plausible about his actions for most of the story aside from to provide somebody to hiss at. It’s one dimensional villainy at its most obstinate. Somehow Big Finish made an even bigger botch of this when they tried to do a takedown of Trump in The Silurian Candidate and the one saving grave of this episode is that it isn’t quite as awful as that. Shobna Gulati is a very accomplished performer and she acquits herself well in this episode but she is given the most anaemic of characters to play. Yaz’s mum’s proximity to Robertson means that we are introduced to her in the wake of his appalling and unrealistic actions, which makes her anguish pretty hard to swallow. Jade McIntyre is similarly one-note, often just there to provide plot exposition and knowledge about spiders despite the actress trying hard to infuse some kind of plausibility into the character. Remember the ‘narrows it down!’ sequence in World War Three leading to a face off with vinegar and exploding goo? Chibnall attempts to pull off the same trick here with vinegar and garlic paste, except it’s not funny or particularly clever. In Tooth and Claw Davies creates a setting that turns out to vital to the entire plot, unpeeling layers as the story continues. In Gridlock he pulls of the same trick but on a planetwide scale. Chibnall tries to do the same thing here with the hotel and whilst everything ultimately does make sense (the toxic dump polluting the spiders into epic scale) it is a very simple explanation with a half arsed ecological message tossed in. In a season that is wearing its left-wing badge, this is another lecture to humanity. The Green Death provided an environmental lecture, but it did it in a far more intelligent way, presenting its argument through colourful and engaging characters.

Result: The title kind of tells you everything that you need to know; it’s as generic as a Doctor Who title can possibly get whilst still promising something kind of exciting. And that is exactly what you get; a traditional Doctor Who runaround featuring some really creepy monsters. But let’s not pretend that this is anything more than that, a chance to blow spiders up to alarming proportions and trap them in a hotel with the Doctor and friends. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s ideal Sunday night fare the weekend before Halloween. But once again I’m not being challenged and that is something I long for now in this ultra-safe season. Maybe this harmless approach to the storytelling was needed to ensure the ring of changes this season (a female Doctor, a new TARDIS, a fresh team of companions, the emphasis on characterisation) went smoothly. Maybe the latter half of the season will up the stakes in terms of creativity and complexity now the status quo has been confidently shifted. I certainly hope so because an entire buffet of romps would be disappointing. I’ve spoken a bit a bit about how functional Chibnall’s dialogue is and it is really apparent here, where some spice and wit in the script would have really have helped with the (empty) characterisation. If it sounds like I am being hard on this episode then I can counter that with some superlatives; mainly the gross icky spiders who feature in some very memorable scenes, a few that are particularly scary. I love it when the show dares to cut loose and just be a bit frightening and it achieves that in droves here. As usual the direction and music are fantastic and I really appreciated the scenes with Graham visiting the flat and the warmth between the regulars in the final scene. It’s a perfectly enjoyable, competent episode. Sometimes you’ve just got to shove some characters in a confined location and throw something nasty at them. It’s when this episode attempts to be smart that it truly falls down, with an ecological message that falls flat and a Trump parody that is insultingly puerile. Also, the ‘humane’ climax lacks any kind of satisfaction. The spiders are quite brilliant…but they are the only brilliant thing about this. I really like the fact that they are victims, despite their actions. It makes their fate especially unjust. Chibnall has The Power of Three, Adrift, Fragments and Broadchurch series one inside of him. I want him to deliver something like that for his debut season of Doctor Who: 6/10

Monday, 22 October 2018

Rosa written by Malorie Blackman & Chris Chibnall and directed by Mark Tonderai

This story in a nutshell: One of the most essential Doctor Who stories of all time… 

Oh Brilliant: I continue to be impressed with how Jodie Whitaker plays the part of the Doctor completely in control and yet very rarely choosing to dominate the story, instead very generously allowing her fellow actors to take equal weight in a scene. It’s a really interesting choice that sees her displaying all those essential Doctorly qualities (curiosity, intelligence, morality) without having to steal a scene or make it all about herself. Davison did something similar but I think it’s more pertinent here because she is the first female Doctor. Whilst she was quite brilliant throughout, I was most enthralled with her scenes with the villain of the piece because she gets to finally show her teeth in some very nicely scripted scenes that show the Doctor without mercy or patience. In a story that tackles racism, Whitaker’s Doctor displays her intolerance for prejudice but in a way that is very different from her predecessors. Capaldi punched a guy in the face, Tennant would have been spitting blood, Eccleston would have been all sarcasm and condemnation. Whittaker holds back, showing her disgust with gentle comments of acceptance. She never preaches but merely quietly shows her allegiance. ‘I don’t recognise anyone by that description.’ The Doctor thinks the TARDIS isn’t getting her friends home deliberately. Yeah, yeah, blame the Ship. Of course the Doctor has Elvis’ phone number. She’s practically salivating to get into the suitcase in the warehouse. The Doctor does love poking around in other people’s things. Look at the look on her face when she walks away from her first confrontation with Krasko, thoroughly pissed off. More of this please because Whittaker is genuinely impressive. The Doctor wont promise Rosa a golden future when she asks, she wont lie to her like that. To have me expressing an element of misandry in a topical episode seems quite on the nose but I really like the first female Doctor standing up to men so confidently. Why is it misandry? Because I like the fact that she is a strong woman and he is a strong man and that she bests him. When he attacks her physically, she bests him. 

Graham: Our salvation in this episode. A man from contemporary times who not only lacks a racist bone in his body but embraces differences. Graham is a useful reminder of how far we have come. I really like how we are continuing to learn more about his relationship with Grace after her death and how her presence is continued felt in the series. I guess we did take her with us after all, in the people who loved her. I thought her death was a misstep in the first episode but instead it has afforded the show some real heart as those left behind deal with their loss. Graham’s anger is hidden beneath the surface but the more he is exposed to Blake, the less he can hide it behind that charming smile of his.

Ryan: Forget about the subtlety of Martha being chided for the colour of her hands in Human Nature, we’re in a period where you will be struck around the face as a black man for daring to touch a white woman. It’s a shocking moment of real violence in a season that has been pretty muted in that respect so far, showing just how ugly and dangerous history can be for the regulars. It’s a vital scene in its rawness because it shows the sort of peril our friends are in simply for looking how they do. The stakes are immediately high for them.

Yaz: I really liked how Yaz instantly became the police officer when Ryan was assaulted. Very assured, very in control. There’s a suggestion of attraction between Yaz and Ryan which I’m guessing will develop throughout the season. It’s Yaz who points out all the positives that are to come for people of colour, her optimistic nature is a real tonic in an episode that exposes the dark underbelly of society. The fact that Yaz, of Pakistani heritage, has to take her chance at sitting where she wants and wait to see how she is treated says so much about the moral compass of this time period.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You aint Banksy!’ ‘Or am I?’
‘If you keep sitting there we’ll all have to move.’
‘It’ll get better, you know. Not perfect…but better.’
‘What keeps you going?’ ‘Promise of tomorrow.’
‘Law’s the law’ is a very important line because it shows how people of prejudice can hide behind it to express themselves. 

The Good: The episode wastes no time in exposing the ugliness of racism, with Rosa being asked to get off the bus and head round to the side entrance in deference to her fellow white passengers. It’s treating coloured people as second-class citizens, holding a mirror up to the fact that society considers them different, lesser, inferior. If you don’t do as your told and stay in your place there are guns and violence that will ensure that you do and the law sits squarely in the hands of those who enforce this ritual discrimination. And if you choose to stand up to your betters, you are punished. I got all of that from the first scene, which is a simple scene of Rosa choosing to behave like anybody else and sit in a seat designated for white people. I knew this was going to make an impact on me from the start. Quietly brave, displaying fear and confidence and just wanting to live a normal life like anybody else, Rosa is instantly likeable thanks to the acting talent of Vinette Robinson. It’s not a great showy role like celebrity historical in the past, there isn’t the usual insane hero worship that comes with this kind of episode, which marks this out as something a little different. The director knows exactly what he is doing in moments like the café scene, spreading an air of disquiet for the regulars to be scrutinised in; two white people and two-coloured people talking in a public place. Many many Doctor Who stories attempt to generate one tenth of the tension of the motel room sequences and fail and what I love about this scene is how damn simple it is. A few characters trapped in a hotel and one massive dose of discrimination from a law enforcement officer. It’s unbelievably tense. Maybe Doctor Who was right to scale back on its showiness after all and get back to things that feel real if it can produce moments like this. You might find it preachy but the scene where Ryan and Yaz discuss how racism is still rife in society is necessary to show that whilst we have made some strides, there is still a long way to go. I thought this scene was quite well written actually, refusing to shy away from the word ‘Paki.’ Stormcage and Vortex manipulator, some nice kisses to the past. 

The Bad: I’m not sure we entirely needed the scene with Martin Luther King. Rosa was impressive enough without that added element of hero worship. However, these scenes did give us an insight into her domestic life and flesh out the character more. I sure do seem to be praising the characterisation in this season. That’s because it’s mightily impressive. That big crystal that rises and falls in the TARDIS central column is hilarious.

The Shallow Bit: How dare Doctor Who employ music to make an emotional statement! Like what the hell does this show think it is? That’s the sort of insane bollocks I have been reading on Twitter. Get a grip folks, it’s a song, not a betrayal of a 55-year-old show. It’s a very beautiful song too and taps into the core of what is going on perfectly. Oh, and the Doctor looks fab when she takes off her jacket. Just saying.

Result: ‘It’s worth the fight…’ Doctor Who hasn’t worn its heart on its sleeve in such a topical way in an age. Not since Vincent and the Doctor I would say. Racism is a common theme in the series (the Daleks) but it has rarely been tackled head in such a brutal, unflinching way where the ugliness of humanity is laid bare. I remember seeing the line up of the latest series and rolling my eyes at the sheer PCness of the series these days, trying to cater for every demographic. There was almost an element of racism in that reaction, and I’m somebody who is never more comfortable than when I am in the company of people from all around the world. I begin to see the logic of the decision now because Ryan and Yaz’s colour makes this adventure really personal for them and allows us to connect with both of them for how they are treated. However it was Bradley Walsh’s Graham that made the greatest impact amongst the regulars, proud of his love for a coloured woman and her grandson and struggling to play his part in an important moment of history. The show hasn’t tugged on my heartstrings like that in a long time, as Graham has to fight his nature to make sure something good comes out of an unpleasant moment of humanity. It’s less about holding up high a person from history and more about ensuring that the right events take place. The race against time ending to stop Krasko from interfering with Rosa’s part of history generates a lot of excitement. I was so caught up in the action that the power of the moment itself really snuck up on me. It’s one of the best ever scenes in NuWho, the Doctor realising that they have behave against their natural instincts in order for Rosa to make a stand. I find racism baffling, I was brought up to treat everybody equally and then hopefully everybody would treat me equally. It’s an element of society that gets under my skin and makes me angry. And this episode had the ability to bring something out in me in that respect. Every demeaning act that is issued made me emotional and any piece of drama that can connect me to its characters and theme that personally is definitely doing something very right. A quick word for the regulars who are gelling in a massively engaging way, all four of them had something to offer here but it is the group scenes that impressed me the most. Rosa is beautifully written and filmed piece of drama with plenty to say. I thought it was a truly excellent piece of Doctor Who and the show reclaiming its ability to shock in history: 9/10

Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Sontaran Ordeal written by Andrew Smith and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it About: An instant of the Time War brings centuries of conflict to the planet Drakkis, and the Eighth Doctor is there to witness the terrible results. A Sontaran fleet, desperate to join the epic conflict, follows in its wake to take advantage of the fallout. But when Commander Jask is beamed down to the ravaged surface, there is more to his arrival than first appears. Soon, an unlikely champion joins forces with the Time Lord to fight for the future of her world, and together they must face the Sontaran Ordeal…

Breathless Romantic: The Doctor considers the Time War cruel and senseless and can see the knock on effect it is having on the lives of the rest of the universe. The Doctor in this universe is cold, dark and angry and this was the first opportunity to see the usually cuddly eighth Doctor turned black by a conflict that was working its way through the multiverse like a piece of fruit slowly rotting. McGann plays this furious anger so brilliantly (think of his blinding anger at the end of To the Death) and with a really powerful reason to bring on this vitriol, it’s justified and necessary. One thing that he insists upon if somebody travels with him is that they never give up hope. The Doctor realises that you most certainly trust a Sontaran, even one that is one your side.

Standout Performance: It was a bit of a coup to score both Christopher Ryan (always a revelation) and Dan Starkey, so this feels as faithful as an ode to The Sontaran Stratagem could be. Listen to the moment that Sarana realises that she has been lied to and given false hope, Josette Simon is remarkable. It’s the most emotional moment of the set and it gave me goose bumps.

Great Ideas: Why would one Sontaran transport unarmed and unmanned into a wasteland on the fringes of the Time War? That’s a powerful image I would have liked to have seen on screen. The land between the cities is where they fought their bloodiest of wars, the Dead Lands have been poisoned by the city wars, scarred and (almost) lifeless. Jast is a guinea pig, testing a dangerous technology (a Sontaran teleportation device that can give them all access) in a deadly landscape. Ordeal is the worst thing that can happen to a Sontaran; stripped of their rank and sentenced to dishonour. This planet was ravaged in a battle in the Time War, this sector of space was contaminated by temporal flux, which is a type of instability that occurs when the Time War enters real time. Drakkis is a world that has been at war for as long as time is recorded but at the same time it has been at peace throughout its history. The records of the latter where made outside the infected areas on the planet. Depending on where you are on Drakkis, the history is completely different. The Sontarans want to join the Time War and have come to Drakkis to learn some of tis secrets, to find a way in. The Sontarans have an incinerator for the disposal of their dead. Charming.

Isn’t it Odd: I cannot have been the only fan to take a look at the details of this release and find myself double take at the use of the Sontarans. Classic Doctors, Classic Monsters more like. The gimmick here being that this involves the Sontarans during the Time War. Fair enough but it does work a little against the brand of what this set is trying to do elsewhere. I love the Sontarans so I have no objections to their appearance but if this is a love-in for the Russell R Davies era monsters then I would have opted for some of the more memorable creations in that period such as The Trickster, the Beserkers, the Reapers, the Krilliatines, etc.

Standout Scene:
Ever wanted to hear a Sontaran get eaten alive? Now’s your chance. ‘A better death than he deserved’, indeed. How they bring down Stenk is very satisfying. He's such a loathsome character that you really want him to get his comeuppance.

Result: A memorable foray into the Time War, The Sontaran Ordeal is a notable end to this box set. Something very odd is happening with the Time War and Paul McGann. Whereas the box sets that have taken place in the war to end all wars have been variable at best (and that’s being generous), he’s had several one-part adventures now that have taken place in other sets in the same period that have been excellent (this and the first River Song box set). So, what are they getting right that the Time War sets are getting wrong? They make the story more personal and emotional, which makes the story you’re listening to much more affecting. They deal with details on the periphery of the Time War, showing the impact of the almighty conflict rather than trying to chronicle the big events. They don’t feature Daleks. And because they afford McGann the chance to display quiet anger and not empty bitterness and sarcasm, he comes across as a dangerously vulnerable man, ready to snap and break because of the atrocities that are going on around him that he can do nothing about. And this story and Rulers of the Universe featured brilliant characters for the Doctor to support. River was a revelation in the final story of her first box set because of her proximity to the man she loves and Josette Simon works wonders with one off character Saran Teel here, showing precisely how a memorable protagonist can be conjured up in relatively little time. The Time War sets are plagued by Bliss, a vacuous companion who has failed to make an impression despite the work of some very talented writers. Simon’s performance and Smith’s writing marry beautifully. Andrew Smith is becoming the most accomplished writer for the Sontarans on audio and to have him (a classic writer) having a stab at an RTD era story is a pleasing anachronism all of its own. Unlike the other stories in the Classic series, New Monsters range I feel that the writer is genuinely trying to explore a fresh angle on the villains of the piece and given this is a race with a 40-year history that is quite an accomplishment. Featuring scenes of the Sontarans and their power struggle away from the main conflict helps as it establishes those characters in their own right, rather than just using them to contrast against the Doctor. The reason behind Jast’s dishonour is surprising and his reaction to the news he is dying is perfect. Big Finish is getting a bit of a reputation for its empty action adventures set during the Time War so it’s nice to be able to report that this is a more psychological affair, getting into the minds of characters and monsters affected. As a result this has more emotional substance, and offers something new: 8/10