Divergence, importance and Rosa (2018)

rosa

The thing about writing a weekly blog about a randomly selected Doctor Who story is that it’s sometimes wildly out of sync with what’s new and exciting. And it feels most disconnected from the rest of Planet Who when a new series airs. Everyone’s talking about the latest and greatest and I’m over here saying, “hey, let’s talk about The Happiness Patrol!”

So when I worked out that my 250th post was going to fall during the new series, I thought I’d make a pretence of being up-to-date and de-random the whole shebang just for a moment. Just for one week, I’ll talk about the most recent episode to air. And when I was planning this brief foray into topicality, I hoped that the post would neatly coincide with an episode which was notable. Something interesting and engaging and that felt like an event for the show.

I got lucky. That episode turned out to be Rosa, an episode which offers much to talk about. I know this because so many people have been talking about it.

Online fandom seemed to draw a collective breath after this episode aired – a kind of moment of startled surprise at what they’d just seen – and then the tweeting and blogging and podcasting began in earnest. This is an episode which people want to discuss. And debate. And draw attention to, in a kind of “wow, did you see what Doctor Who just did?” moment. BBC News, Radio Times and New Statesman ran stories on it; more than the usual amount of attention for a mid-series celebrity historical.

Normally, I have months and more often, years to think about a Doctor Who story before I write about it, so the prospect of giving a prompt response to an episode panicked me. So, I’ve been reading and listening to everyone else’s opinions, to think over what other people have said to help synthesise my own thoughts. And over the course of five days, this is the general opinion I’ve noted: “It’s very good. Surprisingly good considering how badly it could have gone. But…”

And that “but” is where opinions start to differ. For some, Rosa is preachy, for others, poignant. The aspects of it that one person loves, someone else hates. Whether it’s that scene by the dustbin or the patriotic trumpets in the score or the distracting eyebrows of the time meddling racist… you’ll find voices in support and criticism of them all. Well, so far, so the lived experience of Doctor Who fans everywhere.

There’s something invigorating about this whirlwind of ideas and competing viewpoints because we all know it won’t last. In years to come, it will all settle down, consensus will be mostly reached and we’ll all come to some sort of rough agreement about the episode. We’ll assign it a mark out of 10. We’ll pigeonhole it. But right now, we’re in a state of uncertain, noisy, opinionated divergence. I wish it was always like this.

***

If there’s a common word to pick out of the maelstrom of comment about Rosa, it’s “important”. That’s a signifier for when Doctor Who drops its usual far-fetched malarkey and tackles a serious issue. Like that other “important” episode Vincent and the Doctor, Rosa takes a real and present problem, refuses to dress it up in allegory and drops it like a truth bomb into the Doctor’s fantasy-filled world. The Doctor’s not that well equipped to deal with racism, or depression or similarly complex societal issues. But occasionally an episode forces her to do so. And because this draws a mainstream audience’s attention to those problems, we say that’s important.

In Rosa’s case, it’s also the first story in 55 years written by a person of colour (definitely important) and a compelling piece of drama. I relished my first viewing of the episode in which the powder keg tension of Alabama in 1955 was at its most palpable. It felt like our TARDIS travellers, particularly Ryan (Tosin Cole), were in genuine danger. This pervading threat of jeopardy, all too rare in Doctor Who, is like lightning in a bottle. A second viewing can’t hope to recapture that feeling, but it at least allows the viewer to appreciate how director Mark Tonderai and DOP Tico Poulakakis created it. (Aided, it’s got to be said, by some of the best art direction the show has ever seen and some brilliant locations which felt authentically deep south).

Rosa herself is played with poise and precision by Vinette Robinson. Where Doctor Who’s other historical celebrities – your Shakespeares, Churchills and so on have been broad brush pastiches – Robinson produces the sort of naturalism you expect on prestigious dramas. She lends this already weighty story much gravitas. Among the storm of opinions about this episode, praise for Robinson is as consistent as praise for the decision to keep Rosa’s story parallel to but separate from the sci-fi hijinks of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) foiling uber racist Krasko (Joshua Bowman). Rosa’s act of civil disobedience is too profound and treasured to be spoilt by turning it into standard Doctor Who, by making the bus driver be an alien in disguise or something. If a Doctor Who episode’s going to be “important”, it also needs to tread carefully.

Still, there are missteps, and despite the episode being genuinely moving, we shouldn’t overlook them. The script telegraphs its intentions too often, such as when Ryan inquires how the temporal displacement gadget works and the Doctor carefully explains how to use it before warning him not to. Surely no one was surprised when he disobeyed her a few scenes later. Repetition snuck in: the Banksy joke, for instance, worked well once and didn’t need to be repeated. And as for how many times our TARDIS quartet explained to each other how they needed to coordinate efforts to get Rosa on the bus on time… well, I’ll just say I felt comprehensively informed.

Those four are proving to be engaging company, even if their exploits seem carefully planned around their individual skill sets. They just about get away with Yaz (Mandip Gill) using her investigative skills to plot Rosa’s movements, and Ryan can be relied upon to fire the space guns and bumble into trouble, but I’m just not sure how many more bus driving related plots they can conjure up for Graham (Bradley Walsh).  Their individual character arcs are all pointing to moments of self-realisation I’m quietly dreading: Yaz reconnecting with her family, Ryan riding a bike to save the universe and Graham driving a spaceship vaguely shaped like a bus to some vital plot point. (And at some stage, surely Ryan’s going to call Graham “Grandad,” and I’ll be hiding behind my sofa for that one).

The Doctor continues to be refreshingly warm, smart and enthusiastic, walking confidently through this tale of the worst of human prejudice. She’s the first Doctor who seems to truly enjoy having a team of people around her, but she has the smarts and courage to talk down a two-bit crook like Krasko on her own, and without raising a sweat.

Where the Doctor truly looks challenged, for the first time this season, is in that climactic scene on the bus, where she must steady her friends to stand by an allow an act of racism to play out, in order to safeguard the future. It’s a brave scene in several ways. First, it’s brave to make a decision to do nothing the moment on which a drama hangs. Secondly, it’s uncomfortable to watch the Doctor and her friends silently condone a moment which goes against everything they stand for. Thirdly, in doing so, the Doctor seems to reject the radical act of demanding immediate change which she is usually the catalyst for. She’s normally the bringer of regime change on many an oppressed alien planet. Here, she falls in favour of slow, incremental change, making people of colour take the long way around to equal rights. It’s a deeply conflicting ending but it’s designed to be, and that’s what makes it work.

This kind of small-l liberal resignation to the practical – an attitude of “well you’ve got to work within the system and change will eventually come” – is an odd note for a Doctor Who story to end on. And I can see where some are coming from when they say that’s part of the story positioning racism too firmly as a historical artefact; that despite Ryan and Yaz’s dumpster conversation, there wasn’t enough recognition of the ongoing stain of racial prejudice in our own society. I think there’s two elements here which redress the balance.

The first and subtlest is that Krasko comes from the far future. He’s a walking indication that racism will prevail long into humanity’s future and will always need confronting. More overt is the choice to close out the episode with Andra Day’s Rise Up. As it’s closely linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign, it’s a clear statement that racism is still our problem and the fight goes on; a point I’d much prefer being made by music than by the post-match TARDIS exposition convo.

***

In her first episode of this series, and in the trailers to promote it, our new Doctor proclaimed, “this is going to be fun!” That seems to be a catch cry for this season, and a point of difference from the show’s recent past. Whatever the merits of the Capaldi era, it wasn’t, for the most part, what you’d call “fun”.

Rosa proved to be an early antidote to fun in this season. But that’s OK, because it swapped being fun for being essential viewing, for more than just us die hards. Whatever the diverse opinions about this episode, I think we can confidently say it’s been a while since Doctor Who was that.

LINK TO The Happiness Patrol: both feature Americans.

NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed. Stop your Cryon, it’s Attack of the Cybermen.

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Tweaks, twists and The Happiness Patrol (1988)

happiness patrol

Although I try not to pass judgement on Doctor Who stories on this blog, I have to make an exception on this occasion. Because I bloody love The Happiness Patrol.

I love its wit and its brash design which masks so many darker themes. I love how it reveals hidden depths in its cast of comic book characters. I love its masterful musical score and its zingy dialogue. And I love its message, that to stop people expressing their true selves is as wrong as a totalitarian regime or a TARDIS painted pink. It’s glorious. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Well, maybe there are just a couple of things I’d like to tweak.

I’d probably start with the scenery. Don’t get me wrong, I love the faded theatrical jollity of the sets, which give the place a strange, abandoned funfair feel… but oh, it would be great to have this shot on film, at night, in the backstreets of a real city. The trappings of enforced cheerfulness could remain, but wouldn’t that lift the whole affair?

That would mean we could get rid of those awful motorised buggy things, particularly the one which the Doctor (a crafty performance from Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (the ever vibrant Sophie Aldred) use to escape from the waiting zone in Part One. Noisy, awkward and above all, ludicrously slow. Yes, they can go.

A quick tidy up of the plot wouldn’t hurt either. Ace gets captured and escapes a lot in three episodes – twice in Part One alone. Ideally, you’d use her to drive a subplot with the protesting worker drones, so that then we could see them taking over the sugar factories (the act which truly spells the end for this confected regime) instead of hearing this reported to us in voice-over.

Also, I’d clarify the difference between the late show at the Forum and the Happiness Patrol auditions. These seem to be the same thing and a fate worse than death for whomever goes through it. Ideally, we’d see someone attempt this terrifying ordeal, so we know what it is. As it is, it’s just so much word peril (a phrase I’ve deliberately nicked from Flight Through Entirety, as an excuse to link to their episode on this story, which is particularly brilliant).

There’s also a need to put back all those deleted scenes and extend the truncated ones. Fantastic though it is, this story does suffer from some particularly choppy editing. As a result, things happen very abruptly. Susan Q (Lesley Dunlop) for instance, goes from Ace’s jailor to her confidante and bestie in the blink of an eye. We lose a crucial bit where the Kandy Man (David John Pope) force feeds Earl Sigma (Richard D. Sharp, born to play a musician as he has a musical note in his name) his deadly sweets, and so the result – a blissfully catatonic Earl – appears without explanation during Part Two.

While we’re talking of him… the Kandy Man. Many commentators have suggested they would have preferred him in his original conception as a pasty faced, humanoid clinician type. You’d have got Peter Miles in to play him. Personally, I rather like the walking hodgepodge of lollies he became (particularly the spinning spiral eyes), but perhaps a leaner, more sinister concoction would have the air of a Tim Burton creation, truly the stuff of nightmares. It would help if we could turn down the lights in the Kandy Kitchen – like the gloom of the rest of the planet – and make it altogether more suspenseful.

We can also lose that stagey bit where the Doctor sticks the Kandy Man to the floor using lemonade. While we’re at it, let’s lose that second stagey bit where the Doctor sticks the Kandy Man to the floor using lemonade. It doesn’t make a lick of sense either time. And in other kitcheny matters, we can do with fixing up that bit where the oven unexpectedly shoots out a jet of flame because the Doctor’s puts a hot knife in front of it. And in fact, it would be better if the hot knife didn’t look like a wooden prop with pink gloop on one end.

I think we can make some changes to Fifi too. She’s an ingeniously designed puppet creation, but the shots of her in the pipes bring about some confusingly different suggestions of scale. Plus, even if Fifi is meant to have some piranha-like deadliness about her, she never looks terribly formidable. So let’s give her some transformational abilities. She can be the adored lap dog of Helen A (Sheila Hancock) one minute, but when unleashed into the pipes to track down our heroes, imagine if she morphed into an enormous, slavering hell hound.

While we’re down the pipes, we had better do something about those Pipe People. They’re a nice element to include; the remnants of the indigenous population, stunted and oppressed. But their design needs to be much more appealing. They should be Ewoks, not stunted little gargoyles. And naturally, we’d rerecord their dialogue because they are, frankly, unintelligible.

Nearly done. That brilliant climactic scene… where the Doctor finally makes Helen A confront the folly of trying to eliminate sadness from your life, just before she collapses in grief over the corpse of her pet. With two beautifully measured performances, that haunting music and director Chris Clough’s sweeping crane shot at the end, it’s the perfect way to end the story. So let’s end it there, and not with the charming but pointless wrap-up scene.

And I’d change its title back to The Crooked Smile.

But apart from all those things, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Well, what’s the point of a good Doctor Who story if you can’t change it?

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: whoever wrote the DVD subtitles had their work cut out for them with the Pipe People. At one point, where Ace escapes down the drain pipe with one of them,  they just give up and keep guessing “foot pit” until the sequence ends. What is a foot pit, I wonder?

LINK TO Extremis: both feature Popes!

NEXT TIME… Randomwhoness’s 250th post.

Heresy, hearsay and Extremis (2017)

extremis

It’s just as well that Extremis takes place not in the real world, but in a computer simulation. That helps explain why no-one in that world behaves in any believable way.

Let’s say you’ve just read a document which reveals that the world in which you live is a fabrication: a test run for wicked aliens to rehearse an invasion. (A kind of Android Invasion but where random numbers rather than newly minted coins and misprinted calendars are the tell.) Sure, you might be shocked. You might even be appalled. But would you really top yourself? Amongst all these brave readers, wouldn’t there be someone who would react with curiosity, or defiance, or even wonder? Surely, at the very least, you’d tell someone.

To be fair, after an awful lot of to do in Extremis, someone finally does tell someone else. It’s Piero (Francesco Martino), the unusually handsome priest (that’s his sitcom name), who has found his way into the Haereticum (it contains forbidden texts, so I assume things like Travels without the Tardis, Gary Downie’s Doctor Who Cookbook and Zamper). And when given the chance, he emails this explosive work to CERN. Interesting choice. I mean, if you wanted to convince someone to blow up the world, you could have chosen Donald Trump of Kim Jong un. Instead, he chose a group of scientists – rational seekers of the truth of things, unburdened with superstition. The one group of people you could safely assume would react with sobriety and rationality.

But then the CERN in this ersatz world is a strange place too. It’s staffed by Nicolas (Laurent Maurel) who speaks and a lot of extras, who don’t. On the whole, this odd crew seems to be taking mass suicide pretty well. OK, so there’s a couple of people with hands in heads and staring moodily out of windows. But most of the others are wandering around politely like it’s Inge from accounts birthday and they’re waiting for a Hadron Collider shaped cake to arrive. Companions Bill (Pearl Mackie, again given very little proactive to do) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) look more bemused than unnerved. I’m with them.

The other odd thing going on is the weirdly interventionist actions of the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. The Pope (Joseph Long) drops in on the Doctor to ask him to take on a special mission. “You don’t do this,” notes the Doctor. “The Pope doesn’t zoom round the world in the Popemobile, surprising people,” and he’s right. The Popemobile doesn’t zoom anywhere, it’s designed to amble.

Anyway, it’s very unlikely papal behaviour. But again, this is a computer simulation so in this reality, presumably the Pope does make home visits, is aware of the Doctor and his capabilities and is unafraid to transact with a man who could jump in his time machine and disprove the existence of God at the drop of a tall pointy hat. And presumably the Vatican never thought of getting someone to read the Veritas in padded cell with no way to harm themselves. And they never thought of simply destroying it.  And they never thought of… well, about a dozen different ways you could stop reading people a book. But to be fair, once they realised they couldn’t simply burden the Veritas with a crippling, lifelong guilt, they were probably all out of ideas.

***

Meanwhile, in another part of the story, the Doctor is being led towards his execution. But – fake out! – it’s not his at all. It’s Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) and the Doctor’s on hand to deliver the killing blow. Nardole turns up in a robe to deliver a stern but incomprehensible message from the missus. There are lots of meaningful stares between characters. It’s all a bit gradual, but at least it confirms that it’s Missy stuck in the vault the Doctor ends up guarding. And the scenery’s nice. And the Doctor’s gets his best coat ever.

But it ends on something truly stomach churning. To scare Ranfando the executioner (Ivanno Jeremiah) off, the Doctor once again goes for the gambit of letting his reputation as the supreme defeater of bug eyed monsters do the scaring off for him. I’ve noted before how inherently undramatic this is, but up until this point, this tactic has just been smug and irritating. The version Extremis gives us is particularly nasty and inherently unDoctorly.

This particular wheeling out of the Doctor’s track record is accompanied by the beeping tally of how many people he’s killed. It’s his kill record and it’s enough to terrify a man who has a fetishistic attraction to death. So the Doctor wins this battle, not by cleverness or cunning but by being a notorious murderer. The executioner does a comedy “gets frightened and runs off” bit, but it’s not funny. It’s awful. That the Doctor’s resorted to killing people is no surprise. But he’s always regretted it. Never before has he bragged about it in order to win the day.

All this adds up to a sort of un-Doctor Who story. Sure, the Doctor fights against an alien menace, but he doesn’t actually defeat them. He doesn’t save anyone. The best he does is sends himself an email, and it’s not like it contained any information which actually helped him against the Monks in The Pyramid at the End of the World. And none of it actually happened anyway. So it can’t help but be 45 minutes we’ve spent getting precisely nowhere.

***

There’s one line though that’s got me a bit flummoxed. It’s when Missy is surprised to see the Doctor, even though another Time Lord needs to preside at her execution, and he’s the only one this side of the end of the universe.

MISSY: Thought you’d retired. Domestic bliss on Darillium, that’s the word among the Daleks.

The word among the Daleks?  Whatever could this mean? If the Daleks have started to have gossipy little chats around the water cooler, that’s a real development:

ZEG: Well, I’ve heard he’s shacked up with that Song woman in a restaurant for 24 years.

TARRANT: Ooh, that Rose Tyler is going to blow her little blonde gasket when she finds out!

Turns out it that River has sent Nardole to remind the Doctor that virtue is only virtue in extremis – that it’s easy to the right thing when there’s no pressure, but when the chips are down is when we discover the true importance of doing the right thing. (It’s a surprise he needs to reminded of this after The Day of the Doctor, The End of Time and all the rest but there you go).

Quite why the ultimate expression of this is to save Missy’s life, I’m not sure. I mean, the Doctor was never going to let her die, so it’s hardly an example of virtue in extremis. And more crucially, why would River want him to save Missy’s life? On the face of it, this is a terrible idea, as the Doctor’s efforts to rehabilitate Missy lead directly to the disastrous events of World Enough and Time, which will eventually kill him. Makes you wonder why River has it in for him.

Ah well. More people failing to behave in a believable way.

LINK TO Rose: companions living at home in flats with overbearing mothers/step-mothers.

NEXT TIME: When you smile, I want to see those teeth! We sign up for The Happiness Patrol.

Audience, avatars and Rose (2005)

rose

Doctor Who was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the BBC bigwigs in 1989 and countersigned by the 1996 TV Movie. It was unloved by audiences and TV commissioners alike. It was seen as cheap, hokey nonsense whose time had well and truly past. Doctor Who was as dead as a door-nail.

But then –  2003, when Russell T Davies used its revival as a bargaining chip to come over to the BBC. That he and a few key allies within the BBC like Lorraine Heggesey and Jane Tranter conjured it into existence at a time when it was still seen as a laughable remnant of TV past, was an enormous achievement. But there was a bigger mountain still to climb.

The broadcaster might have ordered 13 episodes for an initial season, but had the ratings not been there – if an audience could not be found and sustained further than the first few episodes – the show would likely be rapidly moved to a late night throwaway slot and its death sentence reapplied. Davies’ career would have suffered a severe setback. And Doctor Who would be the show with two failed reboots, making it TV poison. The stakes were never higher.

So with episode 1 of this new series, Russell T Davies had to achieve one thing only: he had to make a modern audience fall in love with Doctor Who in 45 minutes. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that he pulled this off brilliantly. But he also did something else in that first episode, something even cleverer and more cunning.

He taught a whole new audience how to watch Doctor Who.

****

His first step: reassurance. This episode doesn’t start like the TV Movie, in deep space, with planets and shadowy aliens and so on. It starts with a swan dive from Earth into space, down into an ordinary council flat. In a music clip montage, we meet Rose (Billie Piper) and she goes about the familiar routines of her life: getting ready for work, catching the bus, lunch with her boyfriend, folding up clothes.

The importance of this sequence is that it disarms. It captures viewers who would turn off at the first sight of a laser beam or a spaceship. It sends a powerful signal that this is a series for people who go to work, catch buses and do jobs they don’t particularly love. The lack of dialogue and the pacey cutting all help. Stick with us, this opening sequence says. It’s going to be OK.

Rose is our central character and casting Billie Piper was crucial to both selling the character and the show itself. Piper manages to look like the girl next door while also being charismatic enough to signal that she’s much more than that. Positioning this as her story – making the female sidekick (always a secondary presence in the classic series) the focus of the first episode is a huge signal of intent.

Not only is this a story set in the real world, the world which viewers live in, one of our own is the hero. One of our own is someone important enough to be the centre of this story and to give her name to the story. The old series, even in its later years, never gave us a story called Ace. Or even Mel (can you imagine?). That Rose is fundamentally about Rose is a quiet but fundamental shift.

Next step: the hook. Post our music clip opening, there’s the sequence with the Autons in the basement of the building. It’s textbook Doctor Who: monsters made out of everyday objects, creepy simulacra of human beings, someone trapped within a darkened room and the creeping threat of death at the hand of something bizarre but terrifying. This will be familiar to those who remember the classic show, and in its capacity to intrigue and excite, it crosses televisual generations. Davies shrewdly doesn’t lead with this. In a narrative sleight of hand, he lulls his audience into a sense of comfort with science fiction with the “day in the life of Rose” sequence and then grabs them with some ol’ fashioned thrills. He tops off this sequence, by introducing us to the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston).

Davies keeps the Doctor at arm’s length. He’s an enigma who Rose has to decode in increments. She meets him in a series of events, getting deeper each time. This is what Davies wants his audience to do. He wants them to seek him out, in the same way Rose does. He wants to them to go on the internet to find out about him, just as Rose does. (And didn’t the BBC had several dummy websites from the show’s fictional world set up for them to discover?) By the time we get to the pivotal “turn of the earth” speech, we’re hooked. This drip feed of information avoids the TV Movie’s info dump approach, but it also positions the Doctor as a man you have to spend time with to understand. He’s a man of secrets and you’re going to have to hang around all season to find them all out. But if Rose is willing to, then so are we.

Having made Rose and us fans, Davies warns viewers about capital F, Levine level super fans. Clive (Mark Benton) is one such fan, who Rose meets on the internet. Clive’s way of following the Doctor is not the right way. He lives in a shed. He’s a bit obsessed. A short meeting with him is enough to convince Rose to keep her distance. Clive’s inclusion here is crucial to normalise the process of watching Doctor Who for new audience members. When Rose walks away from Clive, repelled but with her curiosity about the Doctor maintained, she’s showing that you don’t have to be an anorak to watch this show.

And as Rose continues to decipher the Doctor, to explore the TARDIS, and to help him defeat a big tub of angry goo, Davies is stating what viewers can expect from the show. Expect Rose to be an active participant in the story, he’s saying. Expect her to battle aliens. But also expect her to have a family, have a home base and be grounded in the real world.

Then in the very last frame, she runs into the TARDIS, completely buying into future adventures. Again, this is what Davies wants the audience to do. Throughout this whole episode, he’s used Rose as an avatar for the viewer. It’s almost like neural linguistic programming or subliminal messaging – making Rose the stand-in for an audience learning about Doctor Who. It’s what makes Rose such a crafty, disarming and ingenious piece of work. It’s a trick which got – and kept – so many of us watching.

And this weekend, the show will attempt the same trick again. A brand new Doctor, but for the first time, a woman. Reassurance, intrigue, old-fashioned thrills and enough mystery to keep us hooked for a season worth of adventures. My prediction? There’ll be plenty of Rose in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. A trick that good is worth pulling again and again.

LINK TO Kill the MoonTension between the Doctor and his companion’s boyfriend.

NEXT TIME… Are you secretly a badass? We’ll find out in Extremis, baby doll.

Credulity, morality and Kill the Moon (2014)

kill the moon

Let’s pretend I’ve sent you on a blind date with the human equivalent of Kill the Moon. (We can choose any gender that takes your fancy, but for this example, let’s say the walking, talking embodiment of this story is a he). He walks in the room, and he’s all you could ever want: handsome, fit, well dressed and with, as Steven Moffat would say, the smile of a bastard. Hoo boy, you might think. This is going to be fun.

We’ll check in later to see how it goes.

*****

One site I refer to frequently is Chrissie’s Transcript Site. It’s packed with painstaking transcripts of every Doctor Who episode and some other show called Star Trek, which I’ve never heard of.

It’s of ongoing use to me to jog my memory of the episodes I cover in this blog, and every so often, there’s a sly little comment hidden within, just to spice things up a bit. Here’s how Chrissie ends her recounting of Kill the Moon, quietly pointing out a final piece de resistance of implausibility, in this already deeply unlikely story.

Clara goes home with her shopping and pours herself a glass of red wine, then looks out of the window at the impossibly big full moon with exactly the same crater markings as the old one.

I love that sentence’s quiet disdain. It captures a widespread frustration with Kill the Moon, that its fantastical idea of the Moon being an egg housing a giant but hitherto undetected creature, is just too unbelievable to maintain credulity. But if we’re going to get anything out of this taut, nervy adventure, we have to put aside the shakiness of its premise.

Because scientific inaccuracy is a pretty weak stick with which to flog a Doctor Who story. I mean, if this is where you want to start criticising Doctor Who, where do you end? Steven Moffat, on an episode of Whovians in 2016, bemoaned people who complained that the show got “some of the science wrong.” (“Some of the science wrong!” he groaned, no doubt thinking of a certain time machine disguised as a police box, bigger on the inside.) And it’s absolutely fair enough to want a Doctor Who story to build a coherent world with some level of internal logic, but to insist too strictly on plausibility would be to rob the series of the imaginative elements that are such a part of its appeal.

And so it is with Kill the Moon, which dares to imagine a moon baby with giant spiders crawling all over it and a world which, when faced with annihilation, sends a second hand space shuttle with a third rate crew to deal with it.

It may be far-fetched, but it’s a work whose inventiveness matches its ambition. And it’s directed with energy and tension to ensure that it’s a heart thumping ride. It does so much right, that it’s hard to condemn it just because it doesn’t know the difference between mass and weight. So let’s put that aside and concentrate on three things it’s trying to do and one it’s not trying to do, but somehow utterly does.

Firstly, it’s trying to be a gloomy sci-fi thriller. This it does well, largely thanks to director Paul Wilmshurst wringing all the scares he can out of dark rooms and leaping spiders but also to writer Peter Harness, who finds new ways of heaping trouble upon trouble. It reaches an apex of unfortunate incidents when the shuttle falls down a ravine with the TARDIS and junior companion Courtney (Ellis George) on board. There’s something unnerving too about the high contrast, monochromatic lunar exterior which means you really do feel that our heroes are in a hostile environment…. Or that they’ve walked on to a more convincing version of The Moonbase.

At about the two thirds mark, the focus suddenly shifts, and the story starts on its second objective: to present a compelling moral dilemma. One of Doctor Who’s recurring images since The Day of the Doctor has been of women threatening to blow things up, and as usual, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is around to pontificate a bit. But here, he abruptly sods off, claiming that whether or not to blow up the moonchild is a decision the humans have to make for themselves. With the Doctor gone, the pace drops off, and we’re asked to buy into the debate between Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Ludvik (Hermione Norris). Debates about killing big animals being another Moffat-era motif.

The kill or let live debate helps justify the absurdity of the “big baby thing in the moon” plot. But much as the episode’s first section heaped action upon action, the next act seems to want to build on the unlikeliness of the premise. Because now, Clara wants to put this moral dilemma to an Earth bound vote, convincing people to signal their choice by turning on their lights. Not only does it seem unlikely that everyone on Earth would go for this on short notice – to listen to this random stranger who has mysteriously turned up on the moon – but it’s a vote which only counts people for whom it’s night on Earth. Truth be told, this bugs me more than the moon being an egg.  As our friend Chrissie, in another of her quiet moments of candour, says, “The only visible artificial lights are of course Europe and the Americas. Africa, Asia and Australia don’t get a vote in this.”

So the night owls of planet Earth are put to a test of their compassion, which they fail. Only Clara’s intervention saves little Moonpie from being blown up. The Doctor deigns to return and describe how it’s all going to work out fine because the creature’s benign. It lays another moon and in doing so re-ignites humanity’s appetite for space travel. But with this morality play over, we come to the third of the story’s big ideas: the bust up between Clara and the Doctor.

It’s this closing move which is the most plausible in the whole story. That Clara would finally get sick of the Doctor’s bullshit and call him out seems right on. Because frankly, the Doctor’s been an utter dick this episode. When Clara accuses him of being patronising and disrespectful, it’s hard not to agree with her on each count. Actually, if we’re scratching around for likeable characters in Kill the Moon, we’re in trouble. Between piggish ol’ Doctor, hard nail Ludvik and obnoxious teen Courtney, there’s a real charisma vacuum on this ersatz satellite.

Then on top of all the tall tales, switches of focus and friendships being ruined… there’s an anti-abortion message bubbling under the surface. Harness has said it’s unintentional, but you might think that between him, showrunner Steven Moffat, the script editor, the producer and the director, someone must have twigged and decided to let it go through. Once noticed, it’s hard not to see it; the Doctor, Clara and Courtney all refer to the creature as a baby (thanks again, Chrissie), it hatches from an egg and the correct moral action, as presented, is to let the creature be born. As unintentional allegories go, it’s as blatant as they come and a rare example of Doctor Who coming down strongly on one side of a contentious moral debate.

So what do we end up with? A story that doesn’t know what mass is, forgets that only half the world is dark at any one time, fails to give us a likeable hero to root for and subconsciously comes out as pro-choice. And then ends with a brand new replacement moon that looks just like the old one.

*****

So how’s that date going?

Well, it turns out after talking to that dreamboat of a date for about 45 minutes, you’ve discovered he’s a bit stupid, he’s full of tall tales and just to top things off, he’s a bit of a moraliser. But damn, he looks great. That’s your Kill the Moon, right there.

LINK TO The Hand of Fear: emotional companion farewells.

NEXT TIME… did I mention it also travels in time? We start the adventure of a lifetime with Rose.

Sisterhood, sexiness and The Hand of Fear (1976)

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It’s no original observation to point out the irony that the last few minutes of The Hand of Fear are its best.  In this afterthought to a story of ancient revenge by an exiled stone alien, we say goodbye to longstanding companion Sarah Jane Smith. Played as ever with smarts and spunk by Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah is farewelled in touching but unsentimental form when Tom Baker’s Doctor drops her off to go off on a solo adventure. It’s a devastating end to one of the show’s most effective partnerships.

It’s also complete nonsense.

To get why, we need to reflect on the sort of character Sarah is. She was designed to be a part-time companion. She’s the companion who has a life outside the TARDIS. She has a job. She stays on Earth between trips. This mode of travel does two things. It makes her seem more independent of the Doctor. And although it might give the impression that she’s not that interested in travelling with him full-time, instead it does the opposite: it constantly reaffirms how much she loves travelling with him because she makes the choice to be with him over and over again.

After her first, inadvertent TARDIS trip, she finds herself back in London and is ready to go home to check that it hasn’t been stepped on by a brontosaurus when the Doctor coaxes her into another journey – this time to an improbable sounding holiday planet. This becomes a recurring trait; when given the chance to go home, time and again she chooses to jump in that big blue box and run away a bit longer.

It happens in Robot, when she accepts by snatching a jelly baby from the Doctor’s stash. It happens in Terror of the Zygons, when she’s convinced to jump on board while everyone else around her says no. It happens in The Android Invasion, where she barely puts up a protest. And in The Seeds of Doom, she’s not even travelling with the Doctor, but agrees to run off with him twice, once to Antarctica and then to another improbable sounding holiday planet.

So in The Hand of Fear, when the Doctor says he needs to go to Gallifrey by himself, the immediate reaction is… so what? Sarah will go back to her real life for a while. He can just come back and get her at story’s end. He has done that many times before. But for some reason, this time’s the last. No adequate explanation given. It’s a bit like The Husbands of River Song. The Doctor makes the decision to end their time together. Sarah gets no say in it.

It’s beautifully written and heartbreakingly performed. (My favourite beat: when the TARDIS lands and Sarah says, “that’s my home.” Sladen manages to wring about 17 different meanings out of just three syllables.) But it goes against everything that Sarah is and does. She’s the Doctor’s best friend. She’s her own woman. Give her her own space and she’ll say yes every time. There’s absolutely no reason why she wouldn’t keep doing so.

And least in the fictional world. Behind the scenes, it was time to raunch things up a bit.

****

The other great irony about The Hand of Fear is that it improves no end when the hand is finally attached to a body. The body in question is the lithe feminine form of Eldrad, as played by Judith Paris. Squeezed into a blue bodysuit carefully adorned with fake stones, she’s a scene stealer. A formidable enemy and, despite being covered in blue paint and plastic tiles, an instantly sexy one.

She’s a complete contrast to Sarah, who, dressed in her red and white striped overalls is a far more platonic figure. And as the Doctor is more and more taken with Eldrad, Sarah is noticeably jealous.

Of the two of our heroes, Sarah is far more suspicious of Eldrad’s motives than the Doctor, who is much more open to helping Eldrad return to her home planet. But Sarah thinks she’s up to no good, and apart from that, she’s the first woman she’s ever had to compete with for the Doctor’s attention (women being few and far between in Hinchliffean Who).

Sarah always had a sisterly relationship with Tom Baker’s Doctor, but standing in Eldrad’s stony blue shadow, she looks positively chaste. And in a number of other ways, Sarah’s childlike innocence (emphasized by that outfit and her stuffed toy) is deliberately positioned as “not sexy” next to Eldrad. In a few episodes time, Sarah’s replacement will be revealed (ahem) as Leela, a leggy amazon in a leather swimsuit. After her it’ll be Romana, an evening gown wearing ice maiden. Questionable in terms of gender politics, but undeniable attempts to sex up the show.

Still, Sarah gets her own back. Although the Doctor might get all doe-eyed about sexy blue Eldrad, she eventually turns into the bulkier, shoutier, more magnificently mustached form of Eldrad the Bloke (Stephen Thorne). That soon puts an end to the ol’ Tooth and Curls’ campaign of flirting and offering rides home.

Then it’s revealed that when Eldrad was being resurrected, he based his female form on Sarah’s bodyprint. See, she really is sexy! I bet under those overalls there’s a red and white striped bedazzled bodysuit ready to rock and roll.

*****

If Sarah’s last story spends a lot of time pointing out what she’s not, and then gives her a farewell which ignores who she is, it’s partly Elisabeth Sladen’s fault. It was she who asked the production crew to avoid making her final story about Sarah. “Just make it an ordinary Doctor Who story and have me leave at the end,” she advised. True to her request, they made a very ordinary Doctor Who story and had her leave at the end.

But this typically modest request by Sladen grossly underestimated her own importance to the show and her impact on it. Frankly, they were wrong to agree to her request. A story which focused on and celebrated everything about Sarah was the very least Sladen deserved.

LINK TO Hell Bent: Gender changing.

NEXT TIME… One small step for a thing. We’re off to Kill the Moon.

Unanswered questions, unreliable memories and Hell Bent (2015)

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Part 1: The Barn of Mystery

In recent years, we’ve learned a little more about our mysterious, powerful Doctor (Peter Capaldi). Specifically, that when he was a young boy, he used to cry himself to sleep in a barn. Now, in big moments in his life, such as in Hell Bent, after he’s just spent four and a half billion years in an ashtray, he returns to said barn.

But here’s the thing: where’s the farm which utilises this barn? In fact, what could you farm in the desolate orange wasteland of Gallifrey? What gets stored in this barn anyway? Perigosto sticks? Shaboogan toboggans? What’s going on here?

Then, when the Doctor has returned to the barn, he’s greeted by a group of locals. Not Time Lords (no fancy robes, you see). Instead, they dress like extras from a spaghetti western. The gather in a clump to stare silently at the Doctor. Then they offer him one bowl of tomato soup. Which they insist he eats outside his barn. Well, you don’t want to risk spilling soup on your perigosto stick.

Again, just like there’s no farm, there’s no visible township from where these soup offerers have emerged. Where have they all come from? Why have they come at all? Where’s the bread roll? What’s for main?

Here’s my explanation. The Doctor’s barn is actually in a small but tightknit farming community. But the Doctor’s family farm, and all the other farms and buildings, have their chameleon circuits switched on so we can’t see them. The townsfolk have all taken a vow of silence until someone gives them all big collars. Their tradition is to offer newcomers one bowl of al fresco gazpacho. That’s my head canon and you can’t take it away from me.

Part 2: The Chamber of Dubious Utility

Having scared off an army and a despot with only his reputation and an entree, the Doctor heads off to the Capitol to kick some scarlet robed ass. There he demands access to an extraction chamber, so he can (he claims) consult dead companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) about the legendary Hybrid. In fact, he snatches Clara away from the point of her death and abducts her to freedom.

But, um, why do Time Lords need extraction chambers in order to whisk people away from death for a quick natter? Don’t they have complete mastery over time? If they wanted to talk to, well, anyone at any point of their lives, they can do so whenever they like. We might as well call it a plot advancement chamber.

Once the Doctor has successfully extracted Clara, punched a guy in the face and then shot him, he demands a “neural block, human compatible,” and a flunky grabs one from a nearby time/space cupboard. If they have “human compatible” ones on hand, how many other varieties to they have to keep in stock? And why do they keep these nifty little memory wipes in the plot advancement chamber? (Perhaps I’ve answered my own question there).

Part 3:  The Monsters who don’t.

Gallifrey, you would have noticed, is back. Although until recently, it was lost. Frozen in another dimension. This was a big ‘ol thing. Tom Baker came back especially to tell Matt Smith to go search for it. Consoles were punched and tears were shed when Doctor Capaldi couldn’t find it. How did it get back into our universe? “They must have unfrozen it and come back,” shrugs the Doctor. Well, that clears that up then.

While we’re talking unanswered questions, let’s slip from the fictional to the real world: why create a monster you never use? Guarding the subterranean Matrix, are the spooky Cloister Wraiths. They glide around like Georgian state dancers and their faces are transfixed in eerie static filled screams. They can best Daleks, Cybermen and the Weeping Angels. They are a worthy addition to the Doctor Who Monster Book. And they do… precisely nothing. They don’t threaten the Doctor. In fact, they don’t do anything. They might at least have offered our heroes more soup.

Part 4: The Hybrid of Obscurity

It’s Orpheus in the Underworld, isn’t it? The Doctor descends into forbidden worlds to rescue his love from death, only to lose her again on the climb out. In doing so, he realises there are some things you can’t fight. It’s a great plot, the basis for many a retread. And that’s probably all an episode like this needs.

So given that Hell Bent has a perfectly serviceable plot, why clutter it with so much else? Why, for instance, do we care about the Hybrid? The Hybrid, it transpires, is not some big bad monster, ready to wreak havoc on Gallifrey. It’s far more theoretical than that. It’s the combination of the Doctor and Clara which causes them both to go to such extremes that the universe might end up as collateral damage.

The operative word being “might”. I mean, I can see an ending where the Doctor finds himself burning up whole star systems in order to keep Clara alive and realises that he has become the thing he always feared. But what terrible consequences have come about this episode from this dangerous combination? Well, one Time Lord was forced to regenerate and one TARDIS was stolen. Hardly apocalyptic stuff.

Also, why do we need that side trip to the Universe’s end to collect Ashildr (Maisie Williams)? Other than, of course, to collect Ashildr so that she can be Clara’s new companion. And I suppose, to resolve her relationship with the Doctor post her actions in Face the Raven, which this doesn’t really do. It’s at this point in the episode you sense events and characters moving into place, not in a natural way which sets up an inevitable conclusion, but instead in a contrived way to facilitate a pre-determined conclusion.

That pre-determined conclusion is the Doctor having his memory of Clara wiped (a fate some of her fannish critics may have welcomed). As heart-rending as this is, only a couple of seconds pass before the whole conceit falls apart. The Doctor can recall his experiences with Clara but not what she looks like… so this whole Hybrid threat might be back on again, if he happened to come across a picture of her, like, oh I don’t know, the one painted on the outside of his TARDIS?  In any rate the whole problem is fixed in Twice Upon a Time and the new Doctor, I boldly predict, will resist the temptation to track down Clara and form a universe-ending partnership.

By which I mean, she’ll just forget about it. And the barn, the wraiths, the soup and the whole bewildering affair. Must have taken one hell of a neural block.

FOREHEAD SLAP MOMENT. The General has just regenerated from male to female in front of us. The Time Lords’ gender fluidity finally and incontrovertibly proven! And then in the very next scene she says, “We need to block every exit from the Cloisters. Every available man.” Ah well.

LINK TO… Midnight. Both directed by women.

NEXT TIME… Eldrad must live as we’re offered The Hand of Fear.

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