Chris Chibnall

Doctor Who S12 E10 “The Timeless Children” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains major spoilers and scattershot speculation

So, that happened. Now the only questions that remain are exactly what did happen, where did it all came from, and what it means for the future. And does the final outcome live up to the pre-broadcast hype that ‘everything changes’?

Certainly you could hardly get more night and day than this year’s run of episodes compared with its season 11 predecessor. When Chris Chibnall took over the reins of the show, the declared intention was to make Doctor Who open and accessible to all once again. It planned to do so by doing away with the disconcertingly convoluted timey-wimey plots spanning one or more seasons, dispensing with recurring characters, adversaries and monsters, and cutting out the relentless deep-dives into the series history that had hallmarked Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. While well-intentioned, the end result was somewhat divisive with many fans unhappy with season 11’s sudden change of direction, leaving them feeling that the approach had resulted in a run of disconnected and fragmented episodes that lacked dramatic heft. Whether they were right in this verdict or not, the question today is whether this adverse fan response to season 11 resulted in a major rethink in approach by Chibnall and his production team, or whether it was always the plan all along to go down this entirely different road in 2020. I suspect it’ll be a long time before we know the truth of the matter either way.

What’s beyond doubt is that this series has gone all-in on bringing back familiar characters and monsters and complex plotting, and most of all using the series’ own continuity to a degree that even Moffat would likely have baulked at. The season finale leaned heavily for inspiration on three seminal stories from the 1970s, and on the never-realised plans for the show that were cut off by the series being cancelled (or: never actually renewed) at the end of 1989. Let’s take each of these influences in turn. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E9 “Ascension of the Cybermen” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers and speculation

Last week (and indeed the week before that, too) I commented that Doctor Who is at its best when it’s at its most scary. I totally stand by that assessment, but should add a coda: that the show’s greatest strength is its sheer diversity, in how it is continually able to flip from one genre and style one week to a completely different one the next. Hence last episode we had a precision-crafted chamber piece, a sublime 19th century gothic haunted house mystery; and without skipping a beat, this time out we have a full blown galaxy-spanning epic space opera set in a far future dystopia following a disastrous war that has all-but wiped out humanity. You really couldn’t get much more of a completely contrasting tonal shift than that, surely?

Better yet, it pulls off this sudden change of direction even though “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a direct narrative continuation of the ending of last week’s episode. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is determined to deal with the consequences of her decision to surrender the Cyberium to the Lone Cyberman – otherwise known as Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) – and to defend the last seven known human beings alive in the galaxy. Unfortunately even by the Doctor’s eccentric standards, this proves to be terribly ramshackle effort that’s quickly overcome by Ashad and his guards, putting everyone in mortal danger. Considering how much the Doctor talked up the severity of the situation at the end of last week, you’d have thought she’d have known to come up with a plan just a little more robust than a few second hand bits and pieces from the far future equivalent of eBay. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E7 “Can You Hear Me?” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

I always tend to think that Doctor Who is best when it’s at its most scary, and on that basis alone there’s no denying that the first act of the latest episode of season 12 goes all out to deliver the chills. After a strong pre-titles sequence set in Aleppo in 1380, we’re rapidly plunged into a series of nightmares which seem to centre on a strange tattooed man called Zellin (Ian Gelder), who is to be found lurking disturbingly in the shadows in impossible places.

Pretty soon the story spreads out, moving on from simple horror movie/ghost story jump scares and into the full spectrum of modern anxiety-inducing terrors, from adolescent worries about bullying to more adult concerns such as health and bereavement. It becomes apparent that Zellin is from an immortal race that feeds on the fears of others, giving him a God-like status similar to former classic adversaries the Doctor has encountered such as the Eternals (“Enlightenment”), the Guardians (the Key to Time season) and even the Celestial Toymaker, all of whom receive a brief name check that will tickle long-time fans – but which in the process accidentally promises more than the story goes on to deliver.

Alien beings feeding on fear is not exactly a new concept in horror and science fiction – most long-running shows have done a variant of this sort of thing in the past – but the twist that writers Charlene James and Chris Chibnall apply to “Can You Hear Me?” is the very welcome focus on real-life mental health issues. The input of the UK charity Mind is evident in how well the episode addresses how we are all likely to become nervous, upset, worried, despondent, depressed and afraid at some point in our lives, but that with the right support from friends, families, counsellors and therapists we’ll be able to get through any such crises, that tomorrow is another day, and how it’s worth hanging in there to see it through. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E6 “Praxeus” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains some spoilers

After last week’s blizzard of shocks and twists, it was always going to be hard for Doctor Who to ‘follow that’ this time round. Fortunately it doesn’t even try, but instead takes a deft step to one side and this time out drops the continuity-heavy season arc entirely in favour for a standalone story told with great gusto and intelligence.

The episode drops us right into the middle of things with the story already infolding, a decision that immediately lends pace and energy to the proceedings as we scramble to keep up with what’s happening. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is investigating a series of strange events around the world – a dead sailor washed up on the shores of Madagascar, a missing astronaut over the Indian Ocean, the strange behaviour of birds in Peru, and signs of alien technology being used in Hong Kong. All these locations are rather successfully conjured up by director Jamie Magnus Stone, once again filming in South Africa.

For once, the script makes a virtue of the large regular cast by splitting them up with their own assignments. It’s the same technique that writer Pete McTighe (here working in credited collaboration with showrunner Chris Chibnall) developed so successfully in S11’s “Kerblam!”, and his way of pairing up each companion with a new supporting character means we get to see new aspects of our regulars while also getting a proper introduction to each member of the guest line-up. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E5 “Fugitive of the Judoon” (2020) [BBC One]

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Well, that was rather unexpected.

When Chris Chibnall took over Doctor Who as showrunner, he had a clear vision to strip everything back and reinvent the show from the ground up. Gone were the recurring or returning characters from the past, or appearances from familiar monsters; no more complicated timey-wimey plot lines dipping into the show’s past continuity for story elements that only long time hardcore fans would understand. Start from first principles and work from there, seemed to be Chibnall’s new approach. But it proved divisive as well as daring, and while it reaped rewards in some areas it also alienated large sections of fans who grumpily declared that it was no longer the show they loved. When the Daleks returned for the 2019 New Years Day special it seemed like the show was throwing a bone to assuage these rabid packs of fans, as a reward for sticking in there.

To be honest, I thought that season 12 would see Chibnall return to his New Model Doctor, which is why the events of “Spyfall” – with the return of a very old adversary, together with a visit to the Doctor’s home world Gallifrey which has seen better times and needs a lick of paint and a truck load of new double glazing – proved such an unexpected shock. But since then the most recent episodes seem to have reverted to the S11 baseline with standalone stories featuring previously unseen characters, with an emphasis on real historical people where possible, and so it seemed that not much had changed after all. The advance publicity of the fifth story, “Fugitive of the Judoon”, seemed pretty much in the same vein with the one surprising aspect being that it’s the first time Chibnall has openly announced that he was bringing back an established character/monster from the past, rather than rolling it out as a hidden surprise.

I was puzzled by Chibnall’s choice of the Judoon for this purpose: they’re hardly from the top shelf of the pantheon of Doctor Who creations. First introduced in the season 3 opener “Smith and Jones”, the oafish and officious Judoon were always a one-note sight gag – Russell T Davies satirising lunk-headed private security guards and neanderthal nightclub bouncers by presenting them as trigger-happy space rhinos in leather skirts. They weren’t even the primary adversaries in their debut story, and more recent appearances have seen them limited to background extras in exotic alien crowd scenes. I suspect they’ve had more regular gainful employment scaring children by prowling around the auditorium at Doctor Who musical concerts and BBC Proms. I certainly hadn’t noticed many viewers clamouring for their return. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E2 “Spyfall Part 2” (2020) [BBC One]

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After a strong season opener on New Year’s Day, the main thing that part two of “Spyfall” absolutely had to do was stick the landing and not drop the ball in the process – if you’ll pardon the clumsy mixed sporting metaphor. And the good news is that it pretty much pulled it off, rewarding the audience with another largely enjoyable hour of television featuring thrills, spills, laughs, action, spectacle – as well as an unexpectedly dark mystery at its core to carry us through the rest of the season.

The episode picks up exactly where part one left off, which means that Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) are stuck on board a crashing airplane with the Doctor nowhere in sight – although that doesn’t mean she doesn’t also help save them from certain death. The two groups are subsequently kept apart for most of the rest of the episode, which means that the companions get some time to shine in their own right as they discuss what the Doctor would do if she was there. Graham meanwhile graduates from delivering muttered quips and witticisms to some full on slapstick as he uses a soft shoe shuffle to activate the laser shoes he purloined from MI6. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E1 “Spyfall Part 1” (2020) [BBC One]

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A year to the day since its last episode, Doctor Who has finally returned to our screens with the first instalment of season 12 which also served as a New Years Day Special in the UK.

I think it’s fair to say that the previous season had proved somewhat divisive, with a disturbingly large section of the audience less than thrilled by the new incarnation as played by Jodie Whittaker and helmed by showrunner Chris Chibnall. Some of the things I’ve read about the most recent run of Doctor Who were extraordinarily scathing and vitriolic. While there were aspects I was also admittedly underwhelmed about, I didn’t think it deserved a fraction of the vicious criticism that was hurled at it with gleeful abandon by internet trolls.

Still, it was clear that there was a problem with what ended up on screen in 2018 and that there had to be some changes made, and so it was a great sense of anticipation and not a little apprehension that we sat down to see what the show had in store for us in 2020. The good news is that “Spyfall Part 1” is a terrific season opener that should satisfy pretty much all fans old and new and win universal acclamation as being “back on form”.

The hour-long episode had a sense of energy, excitement, confidence and sheer joy that at times had been painfully missing from an oft-lacklustre S11 that too often seemed over-awed by the task in hand and by its painfully earnest heart-on-sleeve sentiments that delivered triumphs like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” but elsewhere proved too lacking in thrills and spills for many. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who New Year Special: “Resolution” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

The Doctor Who production team were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t on this one. As soon as they teased “the deadliest creature in the universe” in trailers, fandom was rife with speculation that this could only mean the return of the Daleks, after a maiden season for Jodie Whittaker conspicuously devoid of any of the Doctor’s greatest adversaries of the past. So should the production team deny it – and risk leaving fans disappointed and disillusioned weeks before the broadcast – or simply accept that the surprise had been spoiled?

Unfortunately, in the end the secret simply could not be kept all the way to New Year’s Day, which is the new slot for the annual Doctor Who special after it was bumped from Christmas Day. To be honest, I’m in two minds about this time switch as I found that it really did leave a sense of something missing on the 25th. There’s also an implication of the show losing prestige and no longer having the full-throated support of the current BBC hierarchy, both of which are worrying signs of those of us who are long-time fans. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S11 E10: “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

And so we reach the end – all too soon. A ten-episode season simply doesn’t feel long enough for Doctor Who, even if we still have one more feature length special to come on New Years Day. But it’s quality over quantity as the saying goes, so how does the 2018 season finale “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos” written by showrunner Chris Chibnall fare on the former attribute? As ever, the answer to that is mixed and not altogether straightforward.

We start with the kind of opening scene that used to be standard in the 1970s series but which has been little used in recent years: with no Doctor in sight, we have two entirely new characters talking cryptically and portentously to each other about a pressing situation in terms that we don’t know nearly enough about to understand. What we can tell is that Andinio (Downton Abbey’ Phyllis Logan) and Delph (Wizards vs. Aliens’s Percelle Ascott) are members of the ultra-rare Ux religious order who possess incredible powers to manipulate reality. Oh, and they’ve got a guest dropping in for tea. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S11 E9: “It Takes You Away” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

It was the best of episodes, it was the worse of episodes…

Regular readers might recall that I was a bit grumpy last week in my review of “The Witchfinders”. It simply didn’t work for me, although I know the vast majority of viewers appeared to genuinely love it beyond measure. However for me, it was comprised of individually strong elements that lacked an overall coherent vision. The different parts rubbed against each other awkwardly and kept throwing me out of the story so that I wasn’t able to enjoy it at all, and instead ended up frustrated and less than happy. Or to put it another way, you could say that the individual parts were much greater than the whole, at least as far as I was concerned.

This week’s episode “It Takes You Away” is almost the mirror image (pun intended) of its precursor. Like last week, it is also comprised of several distinct parts; and on this occasion the quality of each component was less consistent than the previous instalment, ranging from the brilliant to the near-risible. But what writer Ed Hime and director Jamie Childs are able to manage this week is to wrangle these different elements into one unified end result that was superior to the sum of its parts. The key was a consistent stylistic vision and tone to the overall endeavour, provided by an adherence to overarching universal themes of love, loss and mythic folklore. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S11 E8: “The Witchfinders” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

We’ve already discussed how new Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall has sought to rediscover and reinvent the ‘historical’, a strand of the show that effectively died out in the 1960s. He did so by seeking stories from modern political history like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” that could carry a relevant social message for the present day audience at the same time, rather than simply rehashing junior school classic texts on the Aztecs, Romans and the Battle of Hastings.

This week sees the third ‘historical’ story in eight episodes, which seems a little overkill. But this one treads a very different path by reverting to exactly one of those sort of textbooks you used to read as a child – or maybe a Ladybird? – on the witch trials of the 17th century. It’s not worrying too much about the details and doesn’t twist itself in knots making sure that history isn’t changed by the Doctor’s activities. Instead it takes the gist of the period, just a flavour, and then weaves a merry romp out of it. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S11 E7: “Kerblam!” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

What’s the betting that someone in the Doctor Who production office has just had a particularly aggravating experience getting an order from Amazon? Because the first part of this week’s episode is exactly the sort of light hearted revenge fantasy that you’d expect to come from the pen of an aggrieved creative media industry professional in frustrated response to such a real-life run-in.

In summary, “Kerblam!” is the largest online retailer in the Doctor’s universe. When she receives an unexpected package (a fez, just one of several light touches of fan-pleasing continuity on display this week) that also contains a cry for help from someone within the company’s fulfilment centre (comprised of an entire moon of the planet Kandoka), naturally the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Ryan, Yas and Graham (Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh) can’t resist investigating. They soon uncover a number of unexplained disappearances among the company’s skeleton staff of human workers and set out to find who is responsible – and who raised the alarm. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S11 E6: “Demons of the Punjab” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

Last month, the episode “Rosa” caught fans out by delivering an unabashed return to the ‘historical’ sub-strand of Doctor Who that had been more or less dormant since the 1960s. The truly surprising thing about Vinay Patel’s “Demons of the Punjab” is that it repeats the same trick just three weeks later, establishing beyond doubt that “Rosa” was no mere one-off quirk but rather a fundamental tenant of new showrunner Chris Chibnall’s vision for the future of the venerable show, despite this being the first time this season that he takes a step back from writing duties.

The destination this week is India in 1947 on the eve of Partition, that typically British pragmatic bureaucratic ‘solution’ to an intractable problem that caused huge upheaval for millions of people and cost a large proportion of them their lives, setting off an onslaught of ethnic cleaning and laying down fault lines in world geopolitics that persist to this day. You have to say this about us Brits: when we put our minds to, we really know how to spectacularly screw things up with a ‘sensible’ solution that makes no sense but causes infinite harm to those on the ground. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S11 E5: “The Tsuranga Conundrum” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

At the end of last week’s episode I suggested that it had felt like it marked the end of the first four-part phase of Chris Chibnall’s project to re-energise Doctor Who. It implied in turn that this week would be the start of the next phase, with things starting to settle down to what passes as ‘normal’ in this extraordinary show after the necessary transition period establishing a new Doctor, new companions, and a new production team.

And broadly speaking the peculiarly named “The Tsuranga Conundrum” does indeed feature what passes for an ordinary day in the life of the Tardis crew. We find them in the middle of dumpster diving on a planetary scale (for what exactly I’m still none too sure) with dialogue letting us know that some time has passed since Graham, Ryan and Yas (Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill) actively decided to join the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) on her travels. They have clearly bonded as a team over a number of off-screen adventures and have the familiarity of a group of people who have got to know one another much better in the interim. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S11 E4: “Arachnids in the UK” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

Doctor Who is usually thought of as a science fiction series, and sometimes as a family or even (incorrectly) a children’s programme, but at heart it’s actually an anthology show capable of covering any and indeed every genre in existence from week to week. I’ve said before that my personal preference is when the show sets out to be scary in a good old “watch while hiding from behind the sofa” fashion – Yetis in the Underground, mannequins coming to life in shop windows, and the glorious Gothic horror period when Tom Baker faced mummies, werewolves, vampires, a Frankenstein’s monster and the Loch Ness Monster. So on that basis you’re probably expecting me to declare the latest episode “Arachnids in the UK” as being far and away the best episode of season 11 to date, right?

Yeah. Well. Okay, you got me. That’s exactly what I do think. Read the rest of this entry »