Doctor Who 2021 New Year Special: “Revolution of the Daleks” (BBC One)
Contains spoilers for the episode
It’s probably a measure of just how completely Christmas and New Year had been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic restrictions that I found I had very little enthusiasm for anything this year, to the extent that even the latest New Year’s Day Special edition of Doctor Who felt strangely underwhelming, and even almost out of place.
The show itself was curiously lacking in any sort of festive trappings (I don’t think it mentioned the holidays at all, which is unusual in the recent history of Doctor Who specials), and rather than presenting itself as being the start of a bold New Year it actually felt more like an end-of-term report card, tying off loose ends, generally looking backwards rather than forwards. Read the rest of this entry »
Doctor Who S12 E10 “The Timeless Children” (2020) [BBC One]
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]
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 E8 “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” (2020) [BBC One]
It seems like only last week I was suggesting that Doctor Who is best when it’s at its most scary. Oh, wait a minute, it was only last week. There you go, you see: you wait for ages for an effective, chilling episode to come along and then inevitably two turn up in quick succession, in what can’t help but look like a bit of an awkward hiccup in scheduling.
But in fact, despite sharing some basic horror elements, this week’s story is very different from last week’s “Can You Hear Me?”. That started with a ‘big monster on the rampage’ sequence, segued to a creepy guy lucking in the shadows in people’s bedrooms, went on to the very stuff of modern nightmares, only to veer off into an earnest and well-executed drama about mental health which unfortunately came at the cost of pretty much losing the plot in the process. In contrast, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” starts with a classic haunted house tale, and despite adding a science fiction element to the heart of (almost) all the ghostly incidents and even very effectively connecting it up to the overall series arc, the script by Maxine Alderton manages to never lose focus or cohesion and as a result delivers an episode right up there with the classic entries in the history of the long-running series.
The story has its own message – about how “words matter” and can change lives – but it does so very nimbly and as part of building up the stakes for a no-win decision facing the Doctor, rather than as some major declarative statement as has been the case at other times in the Chris Chibnall era of the show. The episode also continues Chibnall’s interest in foregrounding real historic events and people as seen previously in “Rosa” and “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”, but again a light touch means that this time it feels much like a natural scenario and interesting line-up of guest characters appropriate for the drama on hand rather than another public service historical infodump. Read the rest of this entry »
Doctor Who S12 E7 “Can You Hear Me?” (2020) [BBC One]
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]
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]
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 E4 “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” (2020) [BBC One]
When Doctor Who started in 1963 it alternated between two formats, the science-fiction-with-aliens variety and the historical-events-with-real-people sort told somewhat in the style of contemporary educational Ladybird books. The latter had run its course by the start of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, and while the show would still have stories set in the past and occasionally include people like HG Wells and George Stephenson, they would invariably be SciFi heavy. Arguably, thereafter only 1982s “Black Orchid” was a pure period piece. For the show’s relaunch in 2005, Russell T Davies introduced a new variant of ‘celebrity historical’ in which the Doctor was excited to meet his heroes like Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Vincent van Gogh, but that largely lapsed under Steven Moffat and it’s Chris Chibnall who has now revived the show’s interest in history with last season’s “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, followed by somewhat more fleeting supporting appearances from Lady Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Khan and Charles Babbage in this year’s “Spyfall”.
It’s hard not to think that this week’s episode started life as a more conventional, straightforward drama about the life and work of 1900s inventor and electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla, and that writer Nina Metivier worked backwards from there to make it work as a Doctor Who story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach, if it is indeed the case. Unusually we open not with our regular cast, but instead with Tesla making a presentation to a group of potential investors for his latest project. It’s not until he’s discovered a bit of anachronistic alien tech and gone on the run from some very inhuman-looking would-be assassins that the Doctor ((Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) show up to save the day almost five minutes in. It’s rare for a one-off guest role to get that sort of screen time all to theirselves, and as a result Tesla is the most rounded and developed character we’ve seen in the show for a while. It’s helped hugely by the fact that Tesla is played by Goran Višnjić, an international film and television star with such deep reserves of on-screen charisma, warmth and likability that he instantly made me pine for the days when ER was on television eery week. Read the rest of this entry »
Doctor Who S12 E3 “Orphan 55” (2020) [BBC One]
There’s a particularly nice touch at the start of “Orphan 55”, the latest episode of Doctor Who, which opens as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) are literally mopping up after their latest (unseen) adventure, in which the Doctor is called out for being unusually moody and downbeat. It is of course a reference to the way she is still processing the seismic impact of what she learned about Gallifrey at the end of “Spyfall”, but she’s not sharing that with the others. Instead, they decide it’s time for a holiday and duly head off for a break at the practically perfect paradise resort of Tranquillity Spa.
Naturally they’ve barely been there for ten minutes before everything starts to go catastrophically wrong, starting with Ryan being infected by a biological computer virus from a vending machine. Soon the entire facility is malfunctioning, opening the way for a full-scale invasion by terrifying monsters called the Dregs who make short work of dozens of guests until the Doctor can find a temporary solution to the problem. Long-time fans of the show will be thinking ‘this sounds familiar’ and the episode is indeed the latest iteration in one of the series’ most reliable variants, known to one and all as ‘base under siege’. It’s a very effective take on that established sub-genre, fast and furious from the start and not letting up for a second thereafter. The close-up, visceral way that the Dregs are photographed by director Lee Haven Jones is barely less horrifying than how Ridley Scott presented the xenomorph in the original Alien film, and I was amazed that the BBC cleared this for transmission so early in the evening. I suspect a lot of small children (and bigger ones, too!) had trouble sleeping afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »
Doctor Who S12 E2 “Spyfall Part 2” (2020) [BBC One]
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]
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 2019 New Year Special: “Resolution” (BBC One)
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)
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)
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)
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 »