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

Monday, 19 November 2018

Kerblam! written by Pete McTighe and directed by Jennifer Perrott

This story in a nutshell: Bang Bang a Bubble Wrap! 

Oh Brilliant: Whittaker has truly arrived by this point and she delivers her most commanding performance to date here, in a situation where she can rail against the injustice of the treatment of the everyman whilst still having an awful lot of fun with the part too. Her delight at receiving a special delivery in the TARDIS is very Matt Smith, which is appropriate given that it is a fez being delivered. How can the Doctor possibly resist a cry for help? The psychic paper is upgrading her and her friends this time, friends of the First Lady. The scene between Charlie and Kira might have been irredeemably twee if it wasn’t for the cut to the Doctor going ‘awww’ which dispels all the syrup. Kudos for giving Whittaker a script where she has to stand up to the corporation and does so by spitting out threats of the kind we really haven’t seen from her before. If you hurt anyone I care about, you’ll pay is her creed. Then it brilliantly subverts her threats by having her say ‘laters’ as a parting riposte. There’s no attempt to turn her into a clone of Capaldi (threatening people was definitely his schtick). This Doctor can be dangerous, but she always has a smile to offer afterwards. She doesn’t like bullies, conspiracies or people being in danger. It sums up the Doctor rather well without having to get into all the hideous hero worship that infected the show in the Tennant/Smith years. I think a lot of people were worried that having a woman as the lead of this show would lead to too many touchy-feely moments. A ridiculous assertion, but then there is some crazy gender stereotyping out there and those people have short memories that all four the previous new series Doctors have had their overly sentimental moments (Father’s Day, New Earth, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe, The Husbands of River Song). Kerblam! does see the Doctor trying to get the villain in touch with his feelings at the climax, and just at the point where he is about to commit mass murder it feels entirely appropriate to do so. Using his feelings for Kira to explain how his victims will feel when they lose their loved ones was a brilliant way to try and find a solution to the problem. It’s not her fault he’s a nutjob far too in love with his political ideals. She offers mercy at the climax but some people just cannot be helped. 

Graham: There’s a confidence to the three regulars now that comes with the three of them all having spent half season together having hair raising adventures. It happened with Rose and Martha, they were finding their feet in the first half of their first seasons and really came alive in the latter parts. I love their cheeky banter in trying to infiltrate Kerblam! It feels like they are a dab hand at that sort of thing now. Graham’s face when he realises that he is going to have to play the cleaner is priceless. This whole experience with the Doctor has been a new lease of life for him…but sometimes he has to be the one holding the mop and bucket.

Ryan: Ryan is a little stiff in parts but I think he’s just that sort of humourless lad who takes everything in with solemnity. I know people like that, I’m just not sure I would want to travel all of time and space with them. However, once he faces his fears (the dyspraxia element hasn’t been overplayed, which I am pleased about, but it has been present) and tosses himself down a chute onto a conveyor he’s screaming like a big girl again (see The Ghost Monument) and feels like he is joining the party. Of course, Ryan is the sort of idiot who threw the health and safety book out of the window and tossed himself into chutes in his old jobs. Boys (and I’m saying that as a manager with experience, and an exasperated sigh).

Yaz: I don’t know if Yaz is a particularly deep character, but she’s certainly becoming more fun to be around with every episode and actress Mandip Gill is letting go of that standoffishness that held her back in the first half of the season and just having a blast. The result is a really enjoyable companion who throws herself into trouble and tries to wiggle her way out. I think she has really come along. I think it really helps with each of the companions that they have been grounded by their domestic backgrounds, all that work introducing Yaz’s family has paid off because now we can see precisely the sort of background she has come from and she’s ready to shake that off and head off into the universe. And Gill has the most infectious smile I’ve ever seen. Good on Yaz for giving the last scene a little emotional punch. This series of Doctor Who really doesn’t forget its guest characters. I really like that.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Whilst we were busy staring at our phones, technology went and nicked our jobs’ – ouch, what a line.
‘Anyone got a tissue?’ is the perfect line when you realise you’ve just covered your hand in liquidised people.
‘Kerblam!’s trying to kill their own customers? That’s the worst business plan I’ve ever heard!’
‘The systems aren’t the problem! How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem!’ 

The Good: The TARDIS travelling through the vortex, the Doctor and her companions wrestling with the console, a special delivery by robot and a mystery to solve on an alien world in the future. It just screams Doctor Who from the off and in a season of somewhat unconventional episodes it is quite refreshing to have something this conventional. In the purest of terms you could happily sneak the opening of this story into any period of the show’s history. Ryan immediately grabs the bubble wrap from the package and starts popping it. I thought at the beginning that that was a nice touch because it is exactly what I do…but I didn’t realise just how much of a nice touch it was given that it foreshadows a massive twist later in the story. Given that this story is pay lip service to the first two season of Sylvester McCoy (there’s an angry criticism against plastic commercialism in there all wrapped up in a quirky, colourful setting), it feels appropriate that the few exterior shots we get of the Kerblam! factory feature (like Greatest Show) a huge alien planet in the sky. ‘Is it me or are they pretty creepy?’ says Ryan of the Kerblam! man. He is not wrong, they are precisely the sort of Doctor Who ‘monster’ that crawls under my skin because it is a grotesque parody of a human being. The fixed smile and glowing eyes are supposed to suggest amiability but in a period where jobs are hard to come by for people (with the enforced 10% of people labour) it just feels like a finger in the face at all those people out of work. Plus, there is something extremely sinister about how they are always lurking in the background with that polite voice, reminding the human workers to keep going, to pick up their pace and increase productivity. The people are just happy to have jobs, and the suggestion of slavery that lingers is quite unnerving. Because it’s slavery that people have happily agreed to. I worked in the offices of a factory where over the five years they were there they replaced over half of their labour force with a fully functioning robot picking device. I know work for a company that relied heavily on self service checkouts to increase productivity. The evolution of business to rely more on machines than people is something that has happened slowly and insidiously. Perhaps this isn’t such an unrealistic picture of the future after all. Lee Mack’s character remind me of the many foreigners (I questioned writing that word because I didn’t want the description to have a negative connotation – when did that start happening? – I’ll use it because it is appropriate and in no way a derogatory, and when did somebody like me feel the need to explain that I am not a racist for using a simple descriptive word…a sign of the times) I have worked with in my time, hard working people who devote themselves to their job to earn money and send home to their families, barely getting to see them once or twice a year. It stuck me as a nice bit of subtle commentary, in a season that has waved red flags. Charlie is instantly likable, thanks to the how the episode sketches him as the lowliest worker in a factory full of drones and how it includes the awkward romance between him and Kira. Since Kerblam! was setting him up as the hidden villain, I was completely hoodwinked. It really helps that Leo Flanagan gives a wonderfully cocksure performance, and then convinces utterly as the psychotic worker gone rogue. Who hasn’t been stuck in a mundane job and thought about bringing it down to make a point about the system? Oh, just me then. Judy Maddox decapitates a robot with her bare hands! That made me laugh out loud. Ryan, Yaz and Charlie lost on the conveyor system, screaming their heads off and holding on for their lives is one of the most energetic and visually impressive moments this season. It’s just really cool and every now and again the show needs to deliver a dose of that. Yaz was right, Twirly is very cute. The Doctor should have taken him along with her. It could have been like the Talkie Toaster of this show, always trying to sell them things wherever they go. ‘You’re back in history? Then what you need is a Stetson!’ In an episode that is full of reversals, I really enjoyed the reveal of who sent the distress signal to the Doctor. Every parcel a death trap, containing bubble wrap that will explode when you pop it. It’s absurd, but it’s a really fun idea. And I hate to say it but the thought that a company like Amazon could systematically wipe out a portion of the population by adding something deadly to their packages (a toxin perhaps) is not out of the realms of possibility. Mass consumerism being the result of population control, something like that. The image of all the Kerblam! men poised and ready to delivery packages of death is wonderful, a worthy climax to the episode. And how the Doctor solves the problem is inspired and makes perfect sense of what came before.

The Bad: I’m not sure I would have used a park for the recreational area on Kerblam! It spoils the claustrophobic feel of the episode that is deliciously maintained elsewhere. It’s a bit like when Paradise Towers heads up to the pool, or Greatest Show leaves the circus in the last episode. Visually interesting, yes, but dispelling the suffocating nature of the setting as a result. The music was a massive step down from last week, mostly fun but undercutting the tension at times. It’s like wallpaper, always present but rarely making an impact. Except the reveal of the army of Kerblam! men and then the music really comes alive. I’ve never noticed those crystals pulsing up and down in the TARDIS before. Whilst they give the console room a homely glow, it does rather resemble a bunch of penises that are starting to become erect. 

Result: I’m digging that season 24 vibe. This feels precisely like those early McCoy’s with its whacky setting, social commentary, wit and colour but this time there is a hefty budget to back up the more outrageous concepts. The result a very smart, confident episode that paints an intriguing vision of the future, rocks up with some terrific set pieces, includes some lovely guest characters and even (and this is a rarity for Nu Who) has a very satisfying climax. The twist that the people we think are the villains are the good guys and vice versa is such an old trick but it is pulled with remarkable effectiveness here. With its big fun name like Kerblam! this is just a step away from Amazon and I really love how the episode pokes fun at how they have their fingers in every pie (it might have rebranded but it’s pretty much a universal delivery shopping service now) and could be responsible for the most appalling acts of terror. Countering that is the fact that the suits who represent the company are actually honourable and good hearted and what they best for their human workers. It’s quite a balanced examination. I also liked the whole humans being replaced by machines angle which, for once this season, didn’t feel like a lecture but there to provide some local colour and to give the human characters an extra layer of sympathy. There’s a fair amount of talk along the way but the dialogue is punchy and fun and performances from Julie Hesmondhaigh and delivery memorable performances. I feel like the guest actors are being given a much better crack at the whip in this era, and more opportunities to show what they are capable of. Essentially though this is all a massive bundle of fun, the Doctor and company infiltrating a universal delivery warehouse to uncover something sinister going on. It’s Doctor Who at it’s most idiosyncratic, whilst still feeling very much like the Doctor Who of old. I enjoyed it very much and have reached a point where I can confidently say I am getting a great deal of enjoyment from the season as a whole. A few more challenging SF tales and I will be extremely happy: 8/10

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