Monday, 21 January 2019

Planet of the Drashigs written by Phil Mulryne and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it About: When the TARDIS lands on an alien planet, the Doctor’s intentions to show Ann Kelso an advanced future society are thrown into disarray. Because they have arrived on DrashigWorld - a park where every known species of the terrifying predators has been gathered together to entertain and thrill the public. The familiar wetland Drashigs, the albino burrowing Drashigs of the desert, and deadliest of all, the tiny Emerald Drashigs of the rain forests. And it’s not the best day to have arrived. The park has been shut down due to a visitor fatality. A Galactic Attractions inspector is on site meaning everyone is extremely tense and under pressure. It’s exactly the right circumstances in which someone might make a mistake. And on Drashigworld, mistakes are deadly.

Teeth and Curls: This is the sort of race against time material that doesn’t allow Tom Baker to overindulge in quirkiness and forces him to drive home the severity of the danger. There’s a forcefulness to his performance in the second episode that could be taken for granted but when it’s Baker telling you things are deadly dangerous, you really pay attention. He might have tinkered about with K.9’s original spec and made a few improvements but he doesn’t like to boast. Does the TARDIS often deposit him in some mystery destination? Of course it does! That’s part of the fun! If you are going to have a companion quite this grumpy then you need to make it much funnier than this otherwise it would appear that the most irreverent of Doctors is choosing to lumber himself with an old sourpuss for no particular reason. Why would you do that? To put a constant damper on your day? Is this the only story where the Doctor admits that he is extremely tasty. This Doctor always was complimentary about human beings and so his speech at the climax about controlling instincts and being the best you can be really strikes a note. His solution is clever and humane, allowing the Drashigs to claim the world they were exploit on as their own to thrive.

Bobby on the Beat: She’s a bit grumpy, isn’t she? I can’t help but make comparisons with previous companions but I do recall Hex, Erimem and Evelyn all finding their first trip in the TARDIS quite a jolly one and that they were all very excited about where they were going to end up. Ann Kelso in comparison has a bit of a moan that they are hovering in space and like a petulant child asks why they haven’t arrived anywhere yet. The Doctor asks if she is always this pernickety because the first thing she does when she sees where they have arrived is to moan about how damp it looks. Just because you’re a police officer it doesn’t mean that you have to have a downer on the universe. I suppose travel with Ann Kelso will prepare him for his adventures with Romana I, Tegan and Peri. She asks a lot of questions but she does have a good excuse, she is a police officer.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Your park, Lord Braye, is complete insane!’
‘Bad idea? It’s up there with those Trojans who thought a great big wooden horse would be just the thing for the towns square!’
‘Does a Drashig have a conscience?’

Great Ideas: Big Finish have plundered so much of Doctor Who’s past in the past 15 years that we are getting to a point where no classic Doctor Who story has gone untouched. I understand the draw of nostalgia (that is after all why we watch our old DVDs over and over again) and their ability to tap into the style and tone of certain eras of Doctor Who has been transferred into a very lucrative business for the company. When it comes to something like the Drashigs I find my self in two minds about their inclusion. They are without a doubt the best feature of a brilliant Doctor Who story and in a time when wobbly dinosaurs and CSO maggots were the order of day they were a technical triumph. Not only that they were used creatively by both writer Robert Holmes and director Barry Letts in Carnival of Monsters and for once the Doctor Who disaster that bigger is better (I say disaster because of the Skarasen, the Myrka, the Creature from the Pit) works a treat. However, on audio you are losing their stunning visual impact and have only an animal roar to represent them. That’s not to say they couldn’t be used creatively on audio too, just that you are having to use your imagination to do most of the work. Like the Angels, how effective is it to feature a visually impactful monster in an aural medium? The Doctor and Ann stumbling on a landscape littered with skeletons, not a complete one among them, might encourage them to hop back to the TARDIS lickety split. The Drashigs tend to hunt in packs and dine together. What a social species. You can admire that in them whilst they are eating you alive. It’s the finest collection of Drashigs in the universe, every species brought together for the first time. Safety is paramount, every visitor has a personal energy shield and there are teleport pads at every corner.

Audio Landscape: The roar of the Drashigs is as terrifying as ever. At least they do have a great audio hook. Ambient planetary sounds that are suddenly punctuated by a screeching roar. I’m surprise more suspense wasn’t generated given the advantage this story has.

Isn’t it Odd: The cliffhanger was always going to be the Doctor and co being menaced by Drashigs. I was rather hoping that the writer would shy away from anything that obvious and go for a plot twist instead. Perhaps something about one of the guest characters abusing the creatures or experimenting on them. Something like that. Instead of ‘ROOOOAAAARRRRRRRR!’ ‘RUNNNNNNNNN!’ On audio that’s terribly unsatisfying. An intellectual approach to the pause in action would have been preferable. As soon as Vanessa was devouring her dinner in the first episode it was clear that some obvious link between her and the Drashigs was being made. It’s the sort of signposted plot twist that the TV series was keen to point out in the 70s (But Sarah Jane doesn’t like ginger pop…?).

Standout Scene: How does John Leeson manage to make K.9 such a sympathetic figure? When the Time Lord and his human companion are in danger I couldn’t really give two figs but when his metal dog is powering down after saving their asses I was sticking out my bottom lip in sympathy.

Result: Fun, with a big goofy premise. Let’s get this out of the way first: this is no Carnival of Monsters. Anybody expecting something as subversive, as original as clever and as witty as that hasn’t been paying attention to the 4DAs properly. This is Doctor Who’s Jurassic Park with Drashigs, a tourist attraction that has turned deadly. Pleasingly, Mulryne chooses to add some detail to the species by creating some sub species and having one of the characters talk about of their different abilities like the David Attenborough of outer space. Robert Holmes would have had them running amok when the park was open and munching their way through the visitors. He always had a dash of mischief about him. Instead Mulryne assembles a small group of characters and has them menaced by the slavering beasts. Where this has a huge advantage over The Sinetran Kill is its energy and pace, the built-in danger of its grisly foes and an impressive guest cast who elevate the material considerably. This is a two-part story that I wouldn’t mind giving some extra time to. Having one character have an affinity with the Drashigs is a brilliant because it manages to give the creatures a voice and it allows us to sympathise with the most fearsome of Doctor Who monsters. That’s not something I thought I would be able to write about this tale. Planet of the Drashigs could have been a much more substantial four-part adventure with more time to indulge the (interesting) guest characters and more of a chance to study the Drashigs. Even so, it manages to entertain and surprise and skips by at a fair lick. It’s certainly one of the more enjoyable of run-around 4DAs. I’m still not sure about Ann Kelso though. She’s practical in a fix but I was getting an early Tegan vibe from her, always grumbling rather than enjoying her adventures: 7/10

Saturday, 19 January 2019

The Sinestran Kill written by Andrew Smith and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it About: When the Doctor decides to trace an anomalous energy signature on twentieth century Earth, he stumbles into an assassination attempt. Gangland thugs are trying to murder a seemingly innocent shopkeeper, and it’s only the intervention of the Doctor and Ann Kelso – a WPC who happens to be on the scene – that prevents a tragedy. But why do the gangsters want the shopkeeper dead? And what does this have to do with alien technology? The first stages of a grand conspiracy are about to be revealed. And finding the answers will take Ann Kelso on a journey like no other.

Teeth and Curls: ‘I just stopped by to tell you that whatever you’re planning, I’m going to stop you…’ I’m surprised it has taken Big Finish this long to team up the Doctor with an entirely original companion for a series of adventures. With the sixth Doctor it was instantaneous with sparkling results. It’s very unlike Tom Baker’s tenure to be behind on the times. Whilst I applaud using Louise Jameson, Lalla Ward and Mary Tamm (wonderful actresses all), part of the fun of the audio universe is exploring the what if nature of paths not taken by the TV series. Given how ruthlessly this range has stuck to nostalgia over innovation, perhaps it isn’t altogether surprising. What’s also nice is that this season there is a nice spread of unusual names writing across the adventures, now Briggs and Barnes have flogged Tom to death they have moved onto pastures new and handed the nursery to new hands to see what other people can do with the toys. It’s a promising start for what could be the most original series of adventures the fourth Doctor has had on audio yet. We’re used to hearing Tom babble to himself, both on screen on audio so his opening scene is hardly a surprise. The Doctor is quick to assess a scene of almost murder and to stick his oar in unapologetically. Described as extra-terrestrial, possibly extra temporal. Tom Baker still has a very odd way of exclaiming his dialogue. Listen to how he shouts ‘Run!’ in episode two. It sounds like a man who is enjoying showing off rather than a man trying to add drama to a scene.

Bobby on the Beat: A cynical hard-nosed female police officer is quite a novel idea for a companion of the fourth Doctor. She has one of the most nonchalant reactions to walking into the TARDIS, whilst still being fairly shell shocked. I’m not sure if it was the way that Jane Slavin mutedly played the moment but it didn’t feel as momentous as it always should. She doesn’t know about UNIT or aliens but her boss does so she questions if she is the only person who doesn’t know. Someone she has known for over two years turns out to be a shape-shifting alien. She wonders why she isn’t more surprised about that. To be honest, so was I. practical and open-minded Ann Kelso might be, but I still think this is the sort of revelation that would generate shock. It’s hardly the sort of disclosure that is commonplace. And to be honest the story could do with that kind of human interest. By shrugging off each twist, so do we. This is supposed to be the audience identification figure after all.

Great Ideas: The Sinestrans are criminals of the worst kind and totally ruthless. They earned their reputation through murder and extortion. They have a particular modus operandi, using empaths to take control of others who commit their crimes for them.

Audio Landscape: Have Big Finish been through the entire spectrum of modulated voices now? The Sinestran are one of the more obscured and irritating of attempts. It’s pretty unpleasant to listen to.

Isn’t it Odd: Perhaps it would have been more fun had the Doctor assumed alien involvement and made an ass out of himself suggesting the criminals were masked extra-terrestrials when in fact they genuinely were just a criminal gang? The pincers on the cover rather blow any chance of surprise in that department. I think a story without an alien threat might have been rather novel. Maybe it’s just the way these fourth Doctor Adventures are paced but it feels as though there is relatively little time to experience the story. Before the end of the first episode the Doctor is dishing out exposition about the Sinestrans because we need to understand ho they operate so the finale can kick in. But there is no attempt to allow us to experience their (admittedly terrifying) modus operandi. We’re just told everything about them in one great lump so the story can progress. It’s a very unsatisfying way for the story to unfold. Did you get a feeling of danger surrounding the Sinestrans? Because the Doctor is teamed up with the police (both of whom take everything in their stride) you don’t have anybody reacting to the threat in a way that generates fear. Imagine if Barbara has wandered through the Dalek City in a ‘seen all this before’ sort of way? Somebody here needs to be afraid. There’s a suggestion that this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the plan that the Sinestrans were part of. It doesn’t fill me with confidence for the upcoming season.

Standout Scene: Am I supposed to be surprised that the Doctor picks up a gun and shoots somebody at the cliff-hanger? Remember him straddling the D-Mat gun in Invasion of Time? Did I think he had genuinely murdered somebody? Not for an instant, and I wasn’t wrong.

Result: What’s the oddest genre that you could shove the fourth Doctor into? This is a man who strode through gothic horrors, universe spanning tragedies, comic capers and frightful murder mysteries. And yet he never touched upon the world of contemporary crime, crossing paths with the police and aiding their investigations. Tom is such a big character it is odd to have him stomping, bold as brass, through what initially appears to be a criminal investigation is a bit of an anomaly. There’s nothing colourful or crazy for him to latch onto and so he seems a little out of sync with the straight story being told. I was quite surprised by the lack of occasion in The Sinestran Kill. It’s the introduction of the fourth Doctor’s first original companion, I would have thought all the stops would have been pulled out to make this story as special as possible but this is a pretty humdrum adventure with relatively little incident, spectacle or wit. There’s very little about how Tom and Jane play their characters that makes me think that they belong together as Doctor and companion. Remember when Sixie and Evelyn met? Or the fifth Doctor and Erimem? Eight and Charley? There was that instant spark, that exciting feeling that there were arresting possibilities. It’s early days and they might develop a fine rapport but there was nothing that made me sit up and pay attention and long for more material with this pair in their debut. I enjoyed Frank Skinner’s DCI Neilson much more and it might have been a more innovative approach to have had an all-male TARDIS team. It’s a beat for beat standard 45-minute Doctor Who story. Mystery introduced, (unimpressive) banter between the Doctor and his companion, exposition, cliff-hanger, a dash of action and a climax. None of it is necessarily bad but it’s desperately uninspiring. A splash of colour in the dialogue, an unexpected twist, memorable characters, a bit more zip and pace in the production. All these things are missing. Andrew Smith has produced some clever, exciting scripts but this isn’t one of them and with John Dorney as script editor I’m surprised that they opened the season with something as ordinary as this. Nick Briggs is one of Big Finish’s most reliable directors and I’m surprised he has delivered something as unpolished as The Sinestran Kill. I’ve heard much, much better. Thank goodness this has been released as part of a set, as a standalone story it would be unforgivably unmemorable: 3/10

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Resolution written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Wayne Yip

This story in a nutshell: EXTERMINATE! And for once, it actually does! 

Oh Brilliant: Precisely the sort of story that a lot of people needed to see from Jodie Whittaker, one where she gets to confront an old foe and bare all of her teeth when doing so. The most surprising thing that could be done with the least confrontational of Doctors is to force her into a situation where she is panicked, angry and intense. Whilst there is still that element of domestic about 13 in this story (protecting her ‘fam’ is what she is about), this the first female Doctor at her most desperate and improvisational. The Doctor taking her family to a cosmic fireworks display is a great opening for the team, spectacular and emotional and really drawing on the fact that they have been travelling together for some time and are drinking in each other’s company. For a story that puts three of the four major players through the wringer it is lovely to see them all smiling in awe as they are introduced. It’s a shame she had to lose the coat and scarf so early. Despite aping Tom Baker a wee bit, it was a look that really suited her. Awkwardly the Doctor has no time for Ryan’s dad and tells him in the most succinct way possible that he isn’t a great father. I wouldn’t suggest she takes up the role of counsellor. Notice how all the Doctor’s quirks drop as soon as she realises that the Daleks are involved. She wastes no time in informing her friends of the deadly danger that they are facing. Hearing her say the sort of dialogue that we are used to hearing from Eccleston and Tennant (‘It’s going to kill anyone who gets in it’s path and it’s not going to stop until it’s taken control of this planet!’) does not detract from its power. I bloody loved the invasive way the Doctor took the fight to the Dalek, tapping straight into Lin’s conscience and spitting out threats. It’s the most no-nonsense she’s ever been and it really made me sit up. Especially when she makes the contact tangible and asks the Dalek to laugh to her face. Just like The Witchfinders, there is something genuinely fresh when the Doctor’s opponent is female – the woman/woman rivalry has a real frisson about it. The whole sequence where the Doctor first confronts the Dalek is just magic. We’ve been waiting for 40 minutes for it and it doesn’t disappoint. She lays down the gauntlet by saying if the Daleks wants the planet then it has to come through her. 

Graham: There’s an unspoken rivalry between Graham and Aaron, in which Graham has the authority because he was the one who stood by Ryan whilst his dad let him down again and again. He’s the one who has had to pick up the pieces. For a grouchy old bus driver from Sheffield, Graham is a very wise bloke and he reminds Aaron family isn’t about who you are but what you do. It’s so bizarre that we lost Grace so early on because by continuing to get close to the people she left behind she’s become one of the most defined characters in the new series. Walsh plays the scene where he comforts Aaron beautifully, Graham offering him that wonderful gift of showing him all the things that Grace kept and hope for the future. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I need you to see just how serious my face is right now.’
‘Me and a Dalek. It’s personal.’
‘What d’you call this look? Junkyard chic?’
The Good: It’s not the first time that Chibnall has gone for a huge beginning that feels like the beginning of epic novel. Remember at the start of Dinosaurs of a Spaceship where he gathered up all of those famous historical figures and brought them all to the same place as the Doctor. Well Resolution does something a little similar but on a much bigger scale, with some awesome action set pieces, phenomenal direction and a genuine sense that he is going for movie style storytelling. It’s almost a shame that the story has to centre so much around Sheffield after such an impressive, dynamic, globe trotting opening. This is Chibnall writing in huge broad strokes like the best of Davies and Moffat, but very unlike the much subtler approach of series 11. Frankly the return of the Daleks to the series deserves a prelude this huge. I’m one of those people that was wowed by Segun Akinola’s scores for the previous season and I found his calmer, more atmospheric approach a refreshing approach after 10 seasons of (admittedly excellent for the most part) explosive wallpaper from Murray Gold. His work in Resolution abandons his understated style from series 11 and instead he goes for something hugely energetic, percussive and in your face. It’s a startling score and it truly got me involved in the action in a very immersive way. There are only two Doctor Who scores previously that I can remember owing quite this much to rock; Mawdryn Undead and Enemy of the Daleks but this trumps both of them for style and effect. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about how the relationship between Lin and Mitch is written (it’s pleasant enough but we’ve seen this sort of coy almost romance in the show countless times now) but it’s played extremely well by both parties and I was immediately invested. Chibnall does the unthinkable to Lin, which makes the desperation of Mitch very plausible. By the end of the episode I was very happy to see them together. They had earnt it. They’re a very cute couple. The scenes of the pieces of the Dalek mutant coming together have a very ominous air about them, long before we ever discover what the ‘artefact’ is. Seeing it writhing around in a sweaty bag is the first of several uncomfortable images that this episode sports. Whilst I still have a slight problem with the pulsating pensises (in a giggle in your hand/I never grew up kind of way), the directors have really adjusted to the new console room at this point and found exciting and visually interesting ways to shoot in there. It has a feeling of safety and home to both the décor and the lighting and I always like it when the TARDIS feels that way. It is our sanctuary after all from the horrors of the universe. Lin being menaced in the sewers is back to basics good old-fashioned scare Who, truly highlighting one of the most impressively sized sets the show has ever offered up. There is something so disturbing about the disgusting, pulsating Dalek mutant riding on Lin’s back and taking control of her that the episode takes full advantage of. Possession has long been a Doctor Who staple but I cannot think of many times where it has been played quite this personally or discomfortingly. Charlotte Ritchie really is excellent as the hapless archaeologist, struggling against alien control and surrendering when it applies painful pressure. She makes a tragic victim and an intimidating villain, an impressive mix. ‘Do not struggle or your friends will die at your hands’ is an impossible situation to be put in. It really feels like a violation of everything that it is to be human. Huge kudos to Nicholas Briggs too, who gives his one millionth Doctor Who performance (across television and audio) and somehow manages to create an original and terrifying new take on the Daleks. It’s probably his most satisfying turn yet. It’s a very small thing but I love the fact that Mitch walks into the TARDIS and it immediately takes off, cutting through his reaction to the Ship. How awesome is the notion of a Dalek taking a human hostage and having her build a casing from scratch out of materials from Earth? It mirrors the Doctor building the sonic at the beginning of her tenure. The result is a fantastic Dalek creation, outwardly so odd looking and a complete one off but one that is vicious and murders crowds of people on sight. Doctor Who’s ability to make the absurd terrifying continues in a great style. It’s great how the Dalek makes its entrance Terry Nation style, blasting its way into a room with a spectacular explosion. It’s almost like it thinks it is the end of episode one and it’s time to make its mark. For once a Dalek tries to kill the Doctor from the off. I’ve never understood why they stand around with their mortal enemy and chat so much. The way the whole head piece lights up is a great bit of design, making the conversation scenes much more dramatic. A huge round of applause to director Wayne Yip for making the scenes where the Dalek takes on the army so visually exciting because what this is essentially is a handful of soldiers firing on a toy (there’s no operator inside this Dalek). Again, this is aiming for movie like action and it goes a long way to achieving that. I bet this would have looked amazing on the big screen. The rocket launcher bumps are just beyond cool. Sometimes you just want Doctor Who deliver something kick ass and this does that in spades. 

The Domestic: It’s in an episode like Resolution that you have to question whether the soap opera elements of Doctor Who are relevant. The trouble is that there are several moments where the action is slowed down considerably to allow for a heartfelt moment between Ryan and his Dad. Another problem is that some of the episodes best written exchanges are these scenes, and so squeezing them between moments of Dalek action was probably the worst place you could put them (in a position where you want them to end and get back to the exciting stuff). I believe there is definitely an episode out there where dealing with Ryan’s dad could have been the sole focus, like Rose and her dad in Father’s Day and Clyde and his dad in SJAs The Mark of the Beserker. However, it is in Resolution where their reconciliation takes place so let’s discuss the actual material, which is striking and emotional and brings out some of the best performances of Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh to date. I think Chibnall could write this sort of material in his sleep, he has a real feel for grounded domestic drama (some of his best scenes have been the non-SF moments of series 11 – Grace’s funeral, Graham returning to their flat, Ryan’s admission about his Dad in Tsuranga, Graham telling the Doctor that he is going to kill Tim Shaw) and he really lavishes a lot of time and care on the scenes between Ryan and the father that has always disappointed him. Ryan is clearly desperate for his father’s attention and approval, even when he has been so disappointed by him in the past. It feels like a very cathartic moment when he gets to drop his shields and just be honest with him. The dialogue hurts it is so raw. Speaking as somebody who has been in a very similar situation with my own father, this scene resonated very much. Aaron’s speech about making mistakes and running because you’re too ashamed to make it right also rings a lot of bells. Whilst I object to the lulls in the pace, this really is strong emotional material. Turning Aaron into a literal monster at the climax might push the metaphor a bit far but it does provide a reason for Ryan to fight for his dad and for them to reconcile. To be honest without that scene there is very little reason for the two plots to be in the same episode. 

Oh Fandom: I love all the bedwetting a certain section of fandom have suffered over the idea of a gay character, introduced quickly, biting the dust has caused. Get a grip folks. It’s lovely the new series has embraced homosexuality so liberally but with equal rights comes equal deaths. Let’s not forget that Davies killed Jack more times than I care to remember and Moffat didn’t even give the The Fat One and The Other One names before dispatching them. It’s a token scene that serves a plot purpose where the character killed reveals a tiny bit about his life to prevent him from being a total cipher. Get over it. Also, the scene that reveals that UNIT is temporarily suspended with a coy Brexit gag is a gorgeous throwaway scene that almost seems designed to get the fans (you know the sort that declare series 11 so awful that it ‘isn’t Doctor Who’) in a tizzy is marvellous. I never thought Chibnall had it in him to bait hardcore fandom like this. More please. ‘How longs a rel?’ is the first laugh out loud Chibnall line. Before objecting too much about a Dalek being (almost) brought down by a microwave oven please remember that this is the same species that was defeated by a robot Frankenstein, disappointment (the one that self-destructs in a huff in Death to the Daleks), a bit of rubble (Genesis), despair (the one that self-destructs in Remembrance) and Donna twiddling a few knobs. Daleks are much more effective at making an appearance than they are at being defeated, and at least there is some effort on the creature’s part to struggle on.

The Shallow Bit: Nikesh Patel is an absolutely beautiful man. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.

‘Here’s my New Year’s resolution…I’m coming for you, Dalek!’ A truly impressive job of bringing back the Daleks for one of their most satisfying turns in the new series, Resolution had me on the edge of my seat on my first watch and it still grips me despite watching it several times now. Chibnall ditches his touchy feely approach to Doctor Who and goes for a dynamic, epic, emotive and exciting seasonal special with plenty of chilling scenes and riveting action. If anybody though that series 11 was too placid this is the shot of adrenalin that they needed. Everything is ratcheted up to 11; the direction is forceful, pacy and unashamedly exhilarating, the music the most in your face since the show returned in 2005, the performances of the regular cast match the severity of the threat and the Dalek itself is a brilliant makeshift design that looks absurd and murders without apology. Chibnall’s approach, bringing the Dalek together piece by piece, is inspired and in doing so he achieves the impossible: he delivers a totally original Dalek tale. That’s something I thought would be impossible at this ancient stage in the show’s history. The idea of the Recon scout Dalek, the first to reach Earth and the first to leave Skaro buried on the planet since the 9th Century and slowly bringing itself together and building a new casing is a terrific innovation. The first Moffat era Dalek story had a similarly innovative approach, except this is about ten million million times better. It’s funny because what this episode builds up to – a Dalek in its casing threatening to kill – is where a Moffat Dalek story would begin but by deferring its completion it adds so much suspense to the story. It’s a huge cast but everybody gets something to do (except Yaz, she’s just sort of there) and it’s another terrific showcase for Whittaker’s Doctor who has some seminal moments with the Dalek. Does Resolution need the domestic scenes wedged into its running time? Would it have worked as one 45-minute kick ass Dalek tale? Probably, and whilst the extended scene with Ryan in the café irritatingly kills the pace for five minutes, I cannot deny that this material is genuinely well written so I won’t be too harsh. It’s more than made up for by some unforgettable set pieces and moments where the series aspires to reach movie level production value. I love the fact that the first series of 13th Doctor adventures was so subtle for the most part that you might think that the show had gone soft with its first female Doctor and at it’s climax it delivers possibly the punchiest episode of the new series yet. It’s almost enough to make you think that Chibnall lulled his viewership into a false sense of security just to make his impact on New Years Day. Whatever the reason, this was the rarest of Doctor Who’s: one that gave me real chills: 9/10

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jamie Childs

This Story in a Nutshell: Tim Shaw returns and Graham has murder in mind… 

Oh Brilliant: What a learning curve Whittaker has been on this year, taking on a role that nobody in a million years would have expected to (even her probably), bravely turning a bind eye to the critics and throwing herself into the part and doing it her own way. Despite the venomous backlash from a certain section of Doctor Who fandom (you know those who think that if it isn’t done their way, it’s not Doctor Who), Whittaker has shined and here at the end of the season she saunters out on a high; confident, charismatic and completely in control of the series. There is still the occasional attempt for Chibnall to make her whacky which feels forced, but overall she acquits herself beautifully here, often lifting some pretty standard material. She’s become adept at tackling technobabble (check out her first scene) and handles herself brilliantly when she steps from the TARDIS and is presented with a gun pointed at her. This is the only story where the Doctor gets to lift an entire planet up. She admits that her rules change all the time, that she has a flawed sense of morality. The last time the Doctor walked into danger with a bomb strapped to his/her back was Revenge of the Cybermen. Whittaker pulls it off as well as Tom Baker because she seems like she genuinely doesn’t care if it goes off if she doesn’t get the answers she wants. She’s sneery in the face of Tim Shaw and his plans for Godhood, just as the Doctor should be with anyone who gets ideas above their station. When the Doctor barks at Tim Shaw that he breaking every law in the universe, it’s Whittaker who is making the climax count for something. Her intensity suggests that something very serious is happening. The Doctor’s love of the TARDIS shines through at the conclusion. I’m not sure about its nickname as the Ghost Monument though. 

Graham: Graham gets one of the most powerful moments of the year when he openly admits to the Doctor that if he gets the chance he will kill Tim Shaw. I love his complete lack of ambiguity. This is how it is and I won’t change my mind. And I believed him too. It’s a charged moment between him and the Doctor because he truly stands up to her at this point, and she is as clear with him that if he goes ahead with this then she will be taking him home. I could do with more moments like this between the TARDIS crew because it really made me sit up and pay attention. Ultimately, he isn’t a warrior and he only blasts Tim Shaw in the foot, which is right for the character (especially since I want him to stick around). And ultimately Grace wouldn’t have wanted her death to turn him into a murderer.

Ryan: It’s a shame that they are interrupted by Sniperbots because the conversation between Ryan and Graham about the finer points of revenge and whether it is worth was very nicely written. It feels like it is difficult to give all three companions enough character threads and allow an episode to breathe and so each week somebody takes a backseat (often Yaz). Because of their shared connection, Ryan and Graham enjoy a number of scenes where they discuss Grace. I’d like to feel a deeper connection between them than I do at the moment, an episode where one of the other genuinely feels like they are going to lose the other wouldn’t come amiss. Ryan saying that he loves Graham, but not being able to look him in the eye doesn’t really cut it. 

Yaz: Was she there?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The more we learn, the less we realise we know…’ I’m starting to feel that way myself as I head towards my 40s.
‘Universe, provide for me. I’m working really hard to keep you together right now.’
‘None of know for sure what’s out there. That’s why we keep looking. Keep your faith, Travel hopefully. The universe’ll surprise you…constantly.’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘I still remember how to take down robots, luckily for you!’ This is part of Chibnall’s problem. He writes the sort of dialogue that other people write when they are spoofing back science fiction, but for real. This kind of macho bollocks belongs in an Eric Saward script. 

The Good: Am I the only who still gets a twinge when the TARDIS lands in an atmospheric location such as a crashed spaceship? The promise of danger and excitement when they step out of the doors. Mark Addy is a character actor I have admired for many years and I’ve seen him handle drama (Game of Thrones) and comedy (The Thin Blue Line, Trollied) with equal skill. How lovely to see him finally turn up in Doctor Who. It’s not the most memorable role in the world but he acquits himself beautifully. At first he feels genuine threat but very quickly he feels part of the gang. The early scenes on the spaceship have a dark, oppressive feel to them which is mostly down to the lighting, stunning sets and direction. I’m torn about the return of Tim Shaw. Was he a villain who deserved a return visit? Probably not given that beyond his design he didn’t really stand out from the other despots that the Doctor has encountered. And yet his return feels like the series is generating a little continuity (something I confess I would like to see happening a little more), he’s treated as a serious threat with a big bold ridiculous plan (in true Doctor Who style) and his appearance prompts one of the best scenes of the season (Graham confessing that he will kill him when he sees him). The last time the crew took on this character they lost somebody important with ramifications that have bled through the season. By bringing him back it feels there is a chance that not everybody will make it out of this alive, a feeling I haven’t had since the RTD era. The edifice looming through the mist is a powerful image. It’s not just the fact that entire worlds are being held in stasis as tiny globes that brings back fond memories of The Pirate Planet, but that the Earth is the target of danger at the eleventh hour. At least this episode has a solid reason for it being the Earth rather than simply capitulating to the fact that that is one of the tropes of the show. Whilst the technobabble flew straight over my head, the pyrotechnics at the climax were very impressive. Flashing eyes, planets bursting into life, an exploding TARDIS, slow motion running. Even if I can’t be sure that something ground-breaking is going on, it at least looks as if something is. I’m not endorsing that approach to storytelling at all but you can’t blame a director for trying. Just a thought – those stasis crystals really look like the Key to Time segments. 

The Bad: When the opening scenes are reminiscent of Planet of Fire (two quasi-religious figures on a journey across a rocky plain spouting mumbo jumbo) I begin to worry. It’s exactly the approach to Doctor Who that RTD tried to avoid, characters from planet Zog gathering on a planet that nobody can get their tongue around talking about things that don’t mean anything to the audience at large. It’s science fiction of the Star Trek and Stargate variety, not at all the sort of thing that Doctor Who usually touches. Or if it does it usually does it with much more of a sense of humour to make it palatable and with the sort of stereotypes you can warm to. This is science fiction that is pitched at 15-year-old nerds, so deadly serious and without irony. The Sniperbots shooting each other down as Graham and Ryan duck is beyond hackneyed, but to be fair to Chibnall it is exactly what Moffat did with the Daleks is Day of the Doctor and that seemed to get by without comment. How nice of Tim Shaw to keep talking even after the Doctor has run away to stop his plans. It’s always helpful when a villain stands in an empty room and reveals plot points. Much like The Pirate Planet, I have absolutely no clue what happens at the climax. Unlike The Pirate Planet, it isn’t delivered to me in a way that makes me think something inexplicably clever has happened. Essentially it’s Aux + TARDIS + Stenza tech = everything is fine. What it needs is a sacrifice, to make the drama hurt. Instead everybody walks away scot free (even Tim Shaw) and so it all feels a little too tidy. 

Result: With the epic New Years Day special on the horizon and no series for another year, can this really be treated as the season finale? As a finale it is a bit of a flop, even though it does pick up elements from the season and try and do something dramatic with them. Despite the fact the fate of several worlds hang in the balance, the stakes don’t feel high enough, the situation isn’t desperate enough and ultimately the episode doesn’t lead to any startling revelations or great drama. However, as a regular episode of Doctor Who it is perfectly serviceable. With its head definitely in science fiction and jettisoning a lot of things that usually make the series palatable (humour in particular), The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (who the fuck thought that title passed muster?) presents an intriguing mystery, some fine visuals, lovely character beats and an explosive conclusion. Had this been placed where Tsuranga was I think it would have been greeted much more favourably. However, we have become accustomed to massive revelations in our finales such as the Doctor’s regeneration, Rose’s alternative universe prison, Donna’s ‘death’, the reveal of the War Doctor and as such a perfectly functional episode of Doctor Who simply fails to cut the mustard. Those who declare this as the worst finale ever must have erased Hell Bent from their memories. I really enjoyed the doomy feeling that infused the episode. In a superbly made season this is an episode that leans heavily on atmosphere and everybody that is involved in making this piece as despairing as possible deserves a round of applause. Tim Shaw is brought back with some fanfare and his scheme is certainly audacious but how he is defeated is a little hard to swallow. Let’s just shoot all supervillains in the foot from now one and shove them in stasis. It’s Whittaker that impressed me the most; passionate, commanding and leading the way all the way through. Her little diatribe at the climax is lovely, very Hartnell-esque (‘our destiny is in the stars’). Chibnall is the weakest writer of his debut year, there’s no doubt about that. He also hasn’t really dropped the ball or produced anything truly spectacular. This is the superior end of his middling efforts, just edging towards being really rather good. With a little more focus on personal drama and a little less focus on pious science fiction and this might have been spectacular. As it is it serves as a reasonable but never truly outstanding climax to a year of Doctor Who that completely restructured the feel of the show. Whether you have enjoyed it or not is entirely down to personal taste. Ratings wise it seems to have gone down rather well, amongst fans there is a vocal majority who seem to get a sexual thrill out of tearing it down. For me? I’ve watched the run from Punjab to It Takes You Away five times since it has been aired, something I very rarely did with any of the Moffat seasons. Series 11 has problems, but it’s also doing far more things right than some people care to admit. I’m calling it a moderate success that needs to be fine tweaked and built on, with a curious but lacklustre finale: 6/10

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Warlock’s Cross written by Steve Lyons and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: It’s time the truth was told. About UNIT. About the Cybermen invasion. About the so-called ‘Doctor’. About what happened all those years ago, at Warlock’s Cross. About the man they keep locked up in a cage, in a secret prison… It’s time. Because UNIT scientific adviser Elizabeth Klein is going to help ensure the truth is brought to light. Today’s the day… that UNIT falls.

The Real McCoy:
He tries to namedrop Brigadier Bambera but nobody seems to know who she is. Klein describes him as UNITs greatest asset but he certainly hasn’t done anything at that point in the story to have earnt that reputation. I find the stories where McCoy goes solo often bring out the best in his performance, capitalising on his melancholic side. However, in a story full of odious grunts, to have the Doctor behaving in a moody and morally ambiguous way too means there is literally nobody to latch onto to like. Except Klein, and that just seems odd to me, that she should be more of an audience identification figure than the Doctor. Hopkins does ask a pertinent question about the Doctor. Given how many alien incursions he has thwarted and how many aliens he has personally killed, why should any visitor to this planet trust him? The last thing he ever wanted to be was a soldier but sometimes the threat to your life is so massive that you have to fight back. Klein admits that the Doctor uses people as pawns and sacrifices them if he has to. It’s said in such a matter of fact way that it doesn’t really make much of an impact. Klein thinks he just likes to be in control. Hopkins wonders what it will take to make this version of the Doctor ruffle his feathers and I almost wish he hadn’t because McCoy is at his least convincing when he plays at losing his temper. Whatever is being whispered in the Doctor’s head by Ship is nothing that anybody else needs to know, or hear. One man against an army, how do you beat those odds?

Nazi Scientist: I got the sense that this is in no way the character that Steve Lyons wrote for the Klein trilogy and that he wasn’t quite sure what to do with her, hence her being so sparingly used throughout. She certainly seems to have lost a lot of her bite that made her so attractive a character in the first place. Generally speaking I got the sense that the developments from Daleks Among Us were ignored (thank goodness) but what we were left was a neutered version of a character who used to keep me on my toes waiting to see what way she will jump next. Her relationship with the Doctor was always a fascinating one but it seems to have been replaced with something much less acerbic and more based on respect, no matter how much she criticises him at parts. I also felt that McCoy and Childs didn’t quite have the same acidic chemistry as before, and I’m not sure why, Maybe too much time has passed. Remember that terrific moment in Colditz (‘Built on how many corpses?’) where the Doctor angrily condemns Klein’s morality and way of life? There was nowhere near that level of fury here, but in a story that is built around paranoia and how these characters affect one another, there really should have been. Klein’s work is mostly in research these days because the 90’s is mostly quiet in terms of alien incursions on the Earth (hoho). Despite the fact that so much has happened in his life since they last met, the Doctor has no problems in remembering precisely who Daniel Hopkins is when he is placed in a cell next to him. She knows that it is Ship manipulating her but she also thinks there is some truth to the fact that the Doctor has changed her path in life. The Doctor says she has a remarkable brain.

Standout Performance: I found this to be the weakest of Blake Harrison’s performances because no real attempt to suggest the madness and loneliness that he would have felt being incarcerated by UNIT for a decade. Harrison plays the part with a detached, distant solemnity, which makes perfect sense but did not make for particularly riveting scenes. The idea of following this character’s story over three tales and to get close to a UNIT operative that was let down by the organisation in such a massive way was an interesting one. Imagine if it had been Benton or Yates? But Daniel proves a little uninteresting ultimately because it feels as though there was no real point to this journey, or that the three writers didn’t collaborate to ensure that it was a satisfying ride (which it has been so far) and conclusion. Daniel was perky and eager in The Helliax Rift and bitter and angry in Hour of the Cybermen, which both afforded Blake some decent acting opportunity. Here he’s just your standard Doctor Who nutter, without any of the emotional investment we might have given him. What does he want now? It’s been so long since it even mattered, he answered. And it’s a crying shame that he should wind up such a nebulous character.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The worst thing is how the world keeps turning without you…’ That’s a genuinely upsetting line that captures Daniel’s incarceration better than the rest of the script.

Great Ideas:
The Spa is a medical facility for the victims of close encounters (hence Klein can cause a distraction by name dropping a Krynoid infection). It is somewhere to house (hide) them whilst treatment is attempted. It reminds me of the Initiative from series four of Buffy, a place to dump all of their alien nasties and try and learn from them. Warlock’s Cross was never entirely abandoned. It was assumed that those studying an alien in the facility triggered off a biological defence. A thought powered ship, phasing between dimensions, the shock of its materialisation unleashing a deadly blast of psychic energy. A spaceship out of phase with our reality.

Isn’t it Odd: When you promise that tomorrow is the day the UNIT falls you better be damn well sure you can live up to that promise. I question whether UNIT should be painted in such an ugly light as it is here. Even those within have nothing especially complimentary to say about the organisation. Their treatment of those who fall in their care are abandoned. And the people running the joint are unlikeable. The Brigadier and his motley crew who aided the Doctor in his work during the 70s would be appalled. My question is what is the point of making UNIT quite this unpleasant if it isn’t to bring this era of the administration to an end and see a new one take flight? The alternative to UNIT is to approach alien visitors without soldiers and weapons? That seems a perfectly reasonable response on the surface but I can think several hundred alien visitors that would have taken over the planet by now had that been the greeting they had received. The paranoia that this story is trying to brew up would be better served if we understood these characters with more clarity. It feels like a bunch of separate people thrown together for the express purpose of having them turn on each other, which doesn’t feel at all natural. ‘I wouldn’t say anyone here is especially trustworthy’, says Hopkins and he has a very good point. As they were squabbling amongst themselves I found myself wondering why I should care if any of them make it out alive. I think we’re supposed to hate the Colonel for threatening to flatten the facility with bombs but given that was how the show chose to end every other story in the early 70s, with the Brig calling in the big boys and so it’s hardly something we can condemn Price for. Irritatingly there is a scene featuring a much younger Daniel and Blake doesn’t seem to have adjusted his performance at all. I would have expected him to have gone for a much chirpier, energetic turn as his younger, uncorrupted self. Daniel wants the human race to suffer so agonisingly that when the Cybermen return we are begging for conversion. He’s truly lost the plot at this point. Ultimately the Ship is no serious threat at all. It’s all talk. How the Doctor stops that threat is decidedly underwhelming. You can go to sleep now. It doesn’t feel like a climax at all. This particularly ugly brand of UNIT is allowed to continue on its merry way at the conclusion, Klein brushes off her fears about the Doctor and herself, Maxwell agrees to therapy and is suddenly convinced that UNIT might be a place for her after all. It feels like the laziest end for all of these characters imaginable. ‘It hasn’t been for nothing, has it?’ asks Klein. Ahem.

Standout Scene:
The third cliffhanger, where it looks like the Doctor is going to rewrite history, promises that the climax is going to be a memorable one.

Result: I expected this to be the strongest of the UNIT trilogy, not the weakest. The seventh Doctor and Klein heading into a dangerous and abandoned UNIT facility to discover what catastrophe occurred should is the sort of premises that most Big Finish audios dream of. What should have been a gripping, claustrophobic nightmare instead turns out to be a flaccid, paceless unpleasant mess of a tale featuring no characters that it was possible to get behind or cheer for. I’ve heard complaints that the first UNIT story in this trilogy, The Helliax Rift, lacked any agreeable characters. Well whoever made those complaints had better hold onto their hats for this ride as everybody from the return of Klein and Daniel Hopkins to the Doctor to the UNIT personnel and those who oppose them is written in the same flat, uncompromising and monotonous manner. I couldn’t give a damn about any of them. Instead of the oppressive ‘trapped with nowhere to hide’ atmosphere I was expecting, the lack of anything resembling pace meant our faceless characters walk around endlessly whilst a voice whispers at them in the shadows and they discuss a whole lot of nothing. I expect a great deal more from Steve Lyons, who has been providing knockout Big Finish scripts practically since they started making audios and from Jamie Anderson, who in turn has been one of the standout directors of the past couple of years and has barely set a foot wrong. I try to head into these listens with as few preconceptions as possible but with that writer/director combination I really couldn’t help but get my hopes up. This neutered, compromising, complimentary Klein is a far cry from the cold-hearted strategist that we started out with. She’s lost her bite and that is the greatest tragedy in a story that could have seen her undo all the damage of the previous trilogy she featured in and get back to the Nazi bitch we all know and love. As usual McCoy verges between brilliant and awful but the guy needs a script with a lot more life to it to excel in (last month’s The Quantum Possibility engine, for example). In the last episode he delivers every line as though he is on the verge of falling asleep. There is the odd brilliant line or a suggestion that the story might head in an interesting direction but for the most part this is a flat drama, not so much failing to get into orbit and more like failing to move from the launch pad at all. I genuinely thought this would be the best main range adventure of the year. Instead it ranks lower than the sole Matthew J. Elliot effort. This is the day that UNIT falls? Not even close: 4/10

Thursday, 6 December 2018

It Takes You Away written by Ed Hime and directed by Jamie Childs

This Story in a Nutshell: Mad as a box of frogs. Quite appropriate, really. 

Oh Brilliant: ‘I’ve lived longer, seen more, loved more and lost more…’ After watching this story if people are still complaining that Whittaker isn’t the Doctor in their eyes then I’m not sure what more this production team could possibly do to convince them. This has everything I want from the Doctor. She’s quirky (the woolly rebellion), witty (‘with a very low trip advisor rating’), curious, authoritative (leading the way to the mysterious cottage), smart (thinking her way through the entire episode), brave (jumping head first into the intersection between worlds), assertive (bartering with Ribbons), knowledgeable and forgiving. It’s a very giving script, and one that Whittaker seizes with both hands and runs with. The tale of the Solitract could have been just a massive info dump but instead Whittaker tells the story with such zeal and passion it becomes a vital scene. She has really has gotten into the habit of holding the sonic screwdriver in a defensive posture, hasn’t she? It’s like she’s brandishing a weapon. For once the Doctor is genuinely terrified because she has no idea what to expect in the Solitract plane. At one point during the climax somebody asks if the Doctor is completely mad. Of course she is. The Doctor is not unsympathetic to what Graham is going through at the climax but she understands that he needs an emotional slap to save him and the two realities that are collapsing. Calling his dead wife furniture with a pulse should do it. This is the story where the Doctor tries to describe the universe she is from to a form that cannot exist within it. Really big and incredibly beautiful. 

Graham: I’ve always said that Graham was the audience identification figure. Having an emergency cheese and pickle sandwich is exactly what I would do if I was a companion of the Doctor. The second it becomes clear that Grace will appear I knew I was in for a world of heartache the way only Bradley Walsh knows how to deliver. Looking at his dead wife, he sadly asks ‘don’t do this to me.’ He’s travelled the universe to try and move on and to cope with his grief, but what good is that when the sadness keeps catching up with him. The moment where she says it sounds like he is doing fine without her and he quietly admits that he is lost is one of the most poignant moments of the show. It’s a particularly cruel form for the Solitract to take and I really like how long Graham holds on in hope for, because this is the one thing he has wanted all season. It takes the Doctor to forcefully, almost unkindly snap him out of his dream of having her back at his side. He has to lose her again, but this time of his own choosing. Because when she dismisses Ryan’s fate Graham knows it cannot be Grace. This is not the sort of adventure that a companion can just skip back to the TARDIS and be on their merry way so I’m pleased to see how haunted Graham is in the character-focussed coda. I’m also pleased to see how Ryan has accepted him now as a member of his family.

Ryan: Much like last week, Ryan is paired up with the guest star if the week and it brings a different side out of him. He’s trying to be protective of Hanne but it’s almost impossible given how fiercely independent she is. He’s pretty forgiving given she attacks and knocks him out.

Yaz: It’s nice that somebody has remembered that Yaz used to be a policewoman and has had some training that might be useful.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Let her go or we’re all going to die.’

The Good: A word for the title music, that I am really starting to dig as reach the end of the first season. I love the way the music suddenly drops away in the first third and I’ve grown increasingly fond of the graphics too. It’s both a subtle and an urgent rendition of the Doctor Who theme, a unique piece for a unique era. I’m very aware that this series has been far more believably continental then usual, with some genuinely stunning location work throughout the entire year. Whilst Punjab still takes the medal for the most visually glorious episode of the season, It Takes You Away scores huge points in its early scenes for convincingly pulling off a Norwegian landscape. I love shots of the TARDIS in beautiful surroundings (remember the snowy hillock at the beginning of Revelation of the Daleks) and standing proud in the Norwegian forest with a beautiful fjord babbling in the distance is a memorable example. I’ve had some mainstream reviewers call the early scenes Nordic noir and there is definitely something in that. I’ve seen far to many horror films set out in the woods (although weirdly not Cabin in the Woods) and Childs emulates the disquieting suspense that runs through the early scenes of those types of films (before it gets bloody). There’s a fabulous shot through the boarded-up slats of the creepy old house that sees the Doctor and company approaching and a shadowy hand breaks into shot. Childs is telling a lot of this story through pictures, with gripping preciseness. I love the fact that the idea of a cabin out in the Norwegian should be almost fairy-tale like but instead this is a situation of terror and uncertainty. The script subverts the usual clichés of a horror movie. Ryan pulls open a cupboard which I fully expected to be empty but instead he screams at the frightened blind girl hiding inside. The I was counting on Hanne to be the shrieking violet of the piece but instead she is one of the strongest characters of the year; a brutally honest, unforgiving, smart teenager who really doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She’s remarkably cold in places, and horrible to Ryan despite his attempts to help her and I loved the subversion of the usual sugary tweeness assault that struck when children turned up in the Moffat era. Hanne is a bit of a bit bitch but you kind of like her anyway because she’s having a really bad time of it. Another subversion, just when you think that you know where the episode is going with a ruddy great creature attacking from the woods Ryan discovers the speakers that are making the creatures growl. Who or what would want to trap a little girl in a cottage in the middle of nowhere? Gloomy, creepy tunnels dancing with smoke, a man who looks like he has had his face ripped open with dead rats in his belt, lamps that float in the air and taint everything with a bloody glow and moths that attack if they sense movement and strip the flesh from your skin and fly from your eye sockets. The scenes in the anti-zone are spooky and atmospheric and bolstered by a phenomenal performance from Kevin Eldon as Ribbons. He manages that unusual mixture of being ghoulish and fun (his vernacular is very creative). Just when you think you know where the episode might be going, we hop through another portal into another universe and Grace from the first episode of the season shows up! If a single soul said to me that they could have predicted where this episode would end up after the first five minutes I would call them a big fat liar. The Solitract is one of those huge ideas that Doctor Who plays about with from time to time. An energy that is incompatible with our universe and was banished to another so ours could form. When we’re talking about the sentient toxins from the building blocks of the universe you know you’re dealing with a writer that is willing to think big. Hanne standing up to both her mum (who isn’t real) and her dad (who is, but very sick) doesn’t deserve to be as triumphant as it is given we’ve only known her for one episode. But that is a consequence of genuinely good characterisation. The urgency in the scenes where the Solitract plane is collapsing is palpable. 

The Bad: Ribbons was such a terrific character that it is a shame to lose him after 10 minutes of screen time. Yaz is not wrong, keeping his daughter trapped and scared is a shocking bit of parenting, My one problem with the climax is that the Doctor is happy to leave Hanne with this man after the rather sick situation he put her in. 

Result: ‘And there’s me thinking the day had no more surprises left…’ One of the most genuinely baffling episodes of Doctor since Listen, or probably since Ghost Light. It Takes You Away refuses to play by any of the rules, switching tones, styles and narratives with gleeful abandon and yet somehow gelling into an unpredictable piece that remains touching, dramatic, suspenseful and satisfying. Jamie Childs has proven to be a hell of a find and he has to cerate three very different worlds in this story; the crisp suspense of the Nordic Noir sequences, the comic book horror of the anti-zone nightmare, and the dreamy brightness of the Solitract plane. The episode hops from one to the other without apology and it is simply a case of keeping up or getting off the ride. You should hold on tight though because it ultimately leads to a touching confrontation between the Doctor and Graham, a breakthrough for Ryan and that moment that everyone has been waiting for when Whittaker cements herself as the Doctor and blows a kiss to sentient universe. My favourite scenes were the in the middle sections, the Doctor and co exploring the anti-zone. It feels very classic Who but with a really nasty streak to it, especially with the inclusion of Ribbons and the flesh-eating moths. I just loved the aesthetic, it’s unlike anything else we’ve seen all year. That’s one thing series 11 has done extremely well, plonking the TARDIS down in visually distinctive and diverse places. Truly suggesting that this show can go anywhere. In contrast to the rest of this year however, which has very much gone down the road of telling a self-contained story with a particular feel to it, it Takes You Away takes massive joy in opening out the possibilities of Doctor Who again and having carte blanche to take you anywhere it likes. That freewheeling indulgence leads us to an insane sequence where the Doctor gets to talk to a sentient universe in the shape of a frog, a concept so out there you might think that Douglas Adams had gotten hold of the script from the afterlife. It’s beautifully scripted and performed and Doctor Who has dished up far more bizarre shit than a talking frog. I just accepted it for what it was, a playful expression of life. This doesn’t have the usual climactic momentum of a penultimate episode, proving that series 11 is really doing its own thing. I thought Chibnall would relent and have a one-part lead in to his finale but he’s truly a man of his word when he said that the season would entirely comprise of one-part stories. How can I possibly complain though when I walk away from an episode that intrigued, thrilled, boggled and touched me? It’s another memorable tale, and one where Whittaker truly gets to claim the series as her own. I thought it was quietly magnificent: 9/10

Monday, 26 November 2018

The Witchfinders written by Joy Wilkinson and directed by Sallie Aprahamian

This story in a nutshell: Drown the witch! Drown the Doctor!

Oh Brilliant: I’m kind of in love with Whittaker’s Doctor at this point. I might be out of step with a reasonable portion of fandom but I really don’t care, I am simply loving her interpretation of the character and how she is being written at this point. This was her most passionate performance to date in a season where she has been growing in confidence and getting to grips with the part of a lifetime. Yes, there were a few moments where she faltered along the way but it’s a hard part to determine until you have played about in lots of different types of stories and for me it has been one of the most fascinating evolutions. Even the mighty Patrick Troughton, of which I see many similarities in Whittaker (the childishness, the ability to fly into a rage, tempering her quirkiness with manners) took an entire season of faltering steps to truly master his performance. In this story she is centre stage; inveigling herself into the historical setting, standing up to murderers, smartly investigating a gripping mystery, dishing out memorable one liners, reminding her friends of their responsibilities to history, excited in the face of royalty and then facing the King with righteous anger when he ingloriously mistreats her and tackling a terrifying alien menace without breaking a sweat. I love how the story is built around the idea that the Doctor is a woman, something that the series has quite wisely tried to avoid until this point (given the extreme reaction to Whittaker’s hiring): at no other point in the show’s history could you have a story where the Doctor is forced to endure a witch trial. It would be extremely odd if it happened when he was a man. It would have been left for the companion to endure with the Doctor saving her life at the eleventh hour (which the Doctor gets to do anyway in this story). Instead we have a glorious scene where the Doctor gives daggers to the King who orders her dunking and watch as she is dropped in a lake with chains around her neck, only to emerge later free of her bonds and dropping a line about Houdini. Facing death and a walking away with humour. She’s magic. She gets terribly excited at the idea of apple bobbing and wastes no time asking if she can have a go. Her confrontation with King James is probably the most nuanced scene that Whittaker has been handed to date. Two foes, both hiding behind false names, both seekers of the truth. One trying her best to be open and understanding, the other trapped in a state of paranoia and distrust. The Doctor might be tied up but there is no sign that she is a victim. As she implores to the King to trust her, I genuinely thought she was getting through to him. So the episode pulls the rub up beneath me as he orders her execution. 

Graham: Graham’s willingness to adhere to the Doctor’s advice about history is a running theme this season. He was very much on her side in Punjab, and similarly pushes her approach here too. It strikes me that he respects her opinion a great deal, whereas the younger whippersnappers are more impulsive and slaves to their emotions. He gets the most important scene in the episode, where he asks Mistress Savage if she is a good person but it is rather undermined by the fact that he is wearing a silly hat. 

Ryan: He’s caught the King’s eye, this Nubian Prince. I thought it was rather wicked how the script leant on Ryan for some gay humour but it shows a lighter side to this dour character that I appreciated. Doctor Who has never shied away from homosexuality in its new iteration and this was a delightful example of how it can be made to work and still be entirely suitable for a family audience. The King is literally undressing Ryan every time he looks at him and the moment where he brandishes his prick before him was the most overt sexual metaphor since the two Doctor’s comparing sonic screwdrivers in Day of the Doctor. Surprisingly, Ryan doesn’t seem to mind so much that he is the object of the King’s affection and even uses his manly wiles to influence him in a few moments. 

Yaz: She’s not the focus this week but she still has some lovely scenes, brandishing a shovel and tackling the Morax root, seeking out a woman in distress and comforting her and leading the Doctor to the source of the problem. She very importantly points out that people are still persecuted in this day and age, just like she shone a light on racism in the modern day in Rosa. Whilst companions should be central players in the story, I begin to see why having contemporary characters in history is a worthwhile exercise.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If I was Satan do you seriously think a bit of rope would stop me?’
‘And you wonder why the darkness comes back at you?’ 

The Good: It’s another story where the Doctor and friends have already arrived and the usual obligatory TARDIS console scene is excised. This season has felt very McCoy in that regard. No secret is made of the fact that the witch trials were a murderous act and the director develops a very bleached out, drab colour palate for the scenes where women are chained up and drowned. It’s shining a light on a particularly unpleasant period of history, something this season has dared to do with pleasing frequency. The source of the ducking stool is mentioned very early on, setting up the climax imperceptibly. It would have been very easy to have had the Doctor save Willa’s grandmother from drowning but instead the she has to look her granddaughter in the eye and deliver the news of her death. People were killed thanks to superstition and paranoia, and it would be wrong of this episode to pretend otherwise. It’s a fantastic score this week, all discordant violins and dramatic It really sets the scene for the desolate location and the chilly horror. Listen out for the music during the scene with the Doctor on the ducking stool especially. I could listen to Alan Cumming luxuriate in colourful dialogue until the cows come home. He’s clearly having the time of his life mincing his way through this dark tale and he provides a wonderful contrast to the nastier aspects to the story. The Morax are quite the most disgusting zombies Doctor Who has ever thrown up on screen. With their pallid skin, black eyes, matted hair and dripping with filth, they are quite repulsive to look at. It’s nice to see a season that has shied away from icky monsters really go to town with this one. The army that appears silently through the misty forest is a genuinely horrific sight. A word for the direction; I really loved the shots of the twisted and gnarled trees that offer a clue to the alien of the week and the solution in defeating them. There’s also an Ariel shot of the misty forest as the Doctor and co are pursued by the Morax quite unlike anything we have seen in the show before. The direction is stark and uncompromising and very refreshing because of it. Willa turning on the Doctor despite all the kindness she has shown her is another important moment because it shows how could people can be corrupted if they are coerced. Isn’t it wonderful that the Doctor and company head of to defeat the monsters like the flame wielding villagers in Frankenstein? What a glorious reversal. 

The Bad: It’s time to address the lack of an arc this year. Has it been a problem? Was it a fresh approach that has paid off? I would say yes and no, which is about as diplomatic an answer as I could give. The arcs on Doctor Who are definitely a mixed bunch and I would say that I much prefer (obviously, some might say) the attempts of Russell T Davies (who focussed on telling individual stories with hints and whispers turning up mostly unobtrusively that are paid off later in the season) to Steven Moffat’s (which involved overly complex that promised so much and very rarely delivered on those promises). Chibnall has ditched the lot and just opted for distinct stories that stand on their own ground in a season that is linked only by the regular characters who take part in them. The downside to this is that there have been a number of underwhelming stories this season (mostly written by Chibnall himself) which could have done with a bit of arc goodness to spice them up. On the other hand it means that the stronger episodes of the season have stood out on their own merits. The past couple of seasons have really dragged because of their arcs (both the hybrid and Missy in the vault felt like add ons simply there because the format of the show demanded there was a running storyline. They didn’t enhance the stories they were in or lead to anything spectacularly revelatory or mind-blowing. I can see why Chibnall felt it was time to give that format a rest, especially if he has nothing to add himself. Saying that this season has felt a little safe because it has abandoned all structure. In becoming a perfect point to introduce new viewers it has potentially alienated those who might watch a show for it’s continuing storylines (that’s a large portion of the audience these days). More than ever, this feels like classic Doctor Who. Just telling individual tales that you hope will thrill and amuse. Have I answered my question? No. But I really admire trying something completely different. In the latter half of the season, which is proving to be infinitely stronger than that of season 10, simply delivering good dramatic tales is paying off in spades. I love an arc but excising one from this series is certainly not affecting my enjoyment. 

Result: ‘By nightfall, every last witch in this village shall be destroyed…’ Another winner in a season that has saved most of his magic for the latter half. I love the confidence of tone in The Witchfinders, a story that isn’t afraid to switch between camp character comedy, historical cruelty and quite disturbing horror. The witch trials are a subject I have long wanted Doctor Who to tackle on television. It has always felt like a subject that is rife for drama. That nasty streak that runs through this season, how it shines a light on the darker aspects of humanity, has been one of the most prevalent and powerful themes. It does us well to remember how we can be fed to fear things and within that fear commit the most terrible of acts. Nowadays we get to accuse and taunt from behind our phones, but let’s not pretend that directed social media hate isn’t a form of witch trial. This just strips away all the devices and drops us into a period where we actually wanted to see the lethal result of our condemnation. Alan Cumming delivers a delightfully whimsical King James who terrifies because he’s a man who is wilfully pointing the finger and committing murder whilst indulging in the drama of it all. He’s enjoying the theatrics of murder and paranoia, and the episode wisely delves into why he is such a suspicious man. It really is a star turn. Even better, surprisingly, is Siobhan Finneran, who offers the performance of the season as Becky Savage. A woman consumed by hate and anger and accusing all and sundry to keep the suspicion away from herself, I found her a genuinely monstrous creation long before her literal transformation. The direction of the story, all bleak and colourless and yet focussing on unnerving imagery, feels very appropriate and it is one of the most atmospheric scores of the year too. The only thing that there isn’t really time for is to give the alien menace any great exploration (the writer chooses instead to indulge in scenes with Willa much in line with this seasons focus on human drama) and so all we get is a throwaway line about their past and why they are on the Earth. A shame because they are visually very frightening, easily the most successfully ghoulish element of the season. This is the story where the Doctor is tried as a witch and walks away every bit the heroine. It’s my favourite set piece in a season that is clocking up an impressive number of them. And the funniest gag of the year comes when King James, famous for his lusty appetite for men, nearly comes to a sticky end when facing a great phallic monster that rises from the ground to devour him. An intoxicating mixture of history, horror and humour: 8/10