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

Monday, 5 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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