Tag Archives: series 11

Camp, villainy and The Witchfinders (2018)

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Like most Doctor Who fans, I’m not quite done talking about Timelash. I must be the first person ever to write about it and fail to mention Paul Darrow’s spectacular turn as the villainous Tekker.

Darrow must have looked around the drab interiors of Karfel and realised that someone needed to liven things up a bit and he was just the man for the job. He doesn’t so much steal each scene he’s in, as mug his fellow actors, grab their collective dignity and run down a corridor, tearing it up and scattering it around, laughing maniacally as he goes. I could choose a dozen of his lines to highlight this scenery chewing, but this one will do: “Well, that can hardly be said of our beloved leader, the Borad of Karfel,” he hams, one hand casually on a hip, the other casually gesticulating with a space pistol. “The most luminous force in this part of the GALAXY!”

Tekker the Tremendous is part of Doctor Who’s tradition of high camp villainy. From Karfel it’s only a hop, skip and a stylish leap to Lancashire where we find the flamboyant personage of King James I, played, as only he can, by Alan Cumming. Others have found Cumming’s fruity performance too much to cope with, but I think it spruces The Witchfinders up no end. “You may prostrate yourselves before me!” he opens with and dials it up steadily from there. It’s not just that he wrings every last inference out of a line (such as when he addresses an alarmed Ryan (Tosin Cole) with “And what is your field of expertise, my Nubian prince?”). It’s also that each is accompanied with pursed lips, a haughty stare, a saucy smile or all of the above. “I rather like the drama,” he says of his habit of wearing a disguise when he travels, but we all know it doesn’t stop there.

One of the great things about watching Doctor Who randomly is the way these sort of hidden similarities between stories emerge, and thus Timelash and The Witchfinders have got me thinking that big, camp performances by villains have been an infrequent but not uncommon part of the show for many years. Let’s call these cheesy bad-uns the Campions.

It starts in The War Games (of all places) which features two such performances from Edward Brayshaw and James Bree, who bitch incessantly at each other for episodes on end. Then there’s Harrison Chase, the millionaire botanist madman of The Seeds of Doom, who loved to play all day in his “green cathedral”. There’s Soldeed of The Horns of Nimon fame (a story we must be getting around to eventually), with a robe sweeping, eye rolling performance of operatic proportions. He’s a direct ancestor of Paradise Towers’ Chief Caretaker. For a modern Who example, perhaps there’s Mr Finch of School Reunion or the paper pushing Seb in Dark Water. And from next random, there’s BOSS, a computer programmed for maximum camp. He purrs at his adjutants with lines like, “the adrenaline flowing nicely? Living dangerously? That’s how you get your kicks, like the good little Nietzschean you are.”

A quick point of clarification: the type of villain I’m talking about here not just an over the top performance. Here we’re looking for OTT + camp. Yrcanos, for instance, or Zaroff are over the top, but neither are Campions. A Campion needs to be a bit fun, a bit flouncy and a bit fey. And they need to be able to engage the Doctor in articulate and witty debate about the pros and cons of their plan. Count Grendel, for instance: pure Campion. (And also, for the purposes of this post, male. There are fabulously camp female villains but once you start listing them – the Rani, Captain Wrack, Helen A, Miss Winters, Miss Foster… it suddenly seems like all female Who villains are camp. The male villains seem to offer a clearer division. Why is that? Opinions in the comments please).

So why use a Campion? Well, some stories are highly stylised to begin with and seem to suit a larger than life, theatrical performance: Paradise Towers, for instance, couldn’t include a Lytton. Others are playfully postmodern – a pastiche of a character like the Pirate Captain was never going to call for a performance of quiet understated menace. Sometimes it’s needed to brighten up proceedings. The Witchfinders, with its tale of the pointless murdering of women, would be grim indeed without James prancing in and out of it regularly throughout.

Interestingly, the one thing they’re not is sissies. They often end up in single combat with the Doctor at story’s end. And the threats they represent are not insubstantial. Doctor Who is a show where camp is fun, but just as dangerous as everything else the Doctor faces. Harrison Chase, for instance, has a machine which crushes people to death and will physically feed you to it if he has to. There’s a dramatic levelling effect here, when villains can be playful and whimsical, but will still send a robot to strangle you without hesitation. That feels very Doctor Who.

James is a good example of the skewing effect a Campion has within a Doctor Who story. It draws focus from the Doctor, offering the viewer a figure of fun to rival him or her. They’re magnetic, charismatic types. You can’t wait to see them onscreen again, because often, they’re the most interesting thing it in. In James’ case, he’s also played by a big star and big stars neither fill small roles nor give small performances. You don’t hire Cumming to be understated and people tuning in don’t want him to be. In The Witchfinders, it certainly gives Jodie Whittaker someone of great skill to play off, and the mercurial nature of the character means she’s sometimes pally with him, sometimes vehemently opposed to him.

In fact, Whittaker’s Doctor really benefits from having someone tricksier than the usual alpha male to play against. Her three friends are pleasant enough company, but they are determinedly everyday folk. They won’t be playfully frocking up like Romana or delivering the punchlines like Nardole. So having a Campion every so often to bring a little zing to the dialogue is no bad thing. And when male Doctors faced off against a Campion, it resulted in a positioning as the Doctor as our standard, masculine hero and the villain as the slightly shifty, less masculine “other”. Played against Whittaker’s goofy, unassuming Doctor, there’s less of a right vs wrong version of maleness, which allows for more of a contest of ideas. Such as here where the Doctor, tied to a post and about to be dunked for a witch, places the seeds of doubt in James’ mind about his vicious doctrine. A less combative, but still interesting, dynamic.

Actually, I’d go as far as saying Chris Chibnall’s Who could afford a bit more fun and flamboyance of the type exhibited in Cummings in The Witchfinders. As an antidote to its current air of earnestness and its roll call of blustering macho types – your Tim Shaws, your Kraskoes, your Trump-lites. Pitting a female Doctor against traditional male bullshit is an obviously pleasing match up, but subverting that is even more fun. Let’s Campion things up a bit more.

LINK TO Timelash: as discussed. But also, appalling treatment of women.

NEXT TIME… This fellow’s bright green apparently, and dead. It’s a trip down t’pit in The Green Death.

The Doctor, her many friends and The Tsuranga Conundrum (2018)

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One of Series 11’s hallmarks is spectacular location shoots – sweeping vistas from all around the world, stunningly shot, providing epic backgrounds for the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to adventure in. It seems, though, that you can’t have those every episode, unless you want to make one episode out of action figures and papier mache. (Actually, I would totally watch that). Sooner or later, you have to confine our intrepid team of travellers to a cost effective spaceship for an episode. That budgetary expedience gives us The Tsuranga Conundrum and gives our otherwise picturesque series the air of holidays spent inside because of rainy weather.

Being confined to barracks, however, does the Doctor some good. After a couple of episodes where she has been swept along by events, struggling to be an active presence in the plot, The Tsuranga Conundrum offers her a chance to exercise her skills in Doctorly problem solving 101. It’s an exercise in piling problems on top of each other to see how the Doctor will cope.

There’s the ravenous P’ting, Doctor Who’s most notable entry into the established sci-fi pantheon of cute, but deadly creatures, which stretches back through Futurama’s Nibbler, Beep the Meep and Gremlins, all the way back to Star Trek’s Tribbles. But there’s also the threat of destruction by the authorities from afar, panicking about what might be going on on the suspiciously quiet ambulance ship. Then there’s the impending labour of pregnant fella Yoss (Jack Shalloo, an actor whose name sounds like it should be a Doctor Who character of its own). Plus the need to recover a distant TARDIS, and to recover from the lingering effects of stepping on a space landmine. As the sixth Doctor once muttered, Pelion upon Ossa.

The thirteenth Doctor rises to this challenge in reassuring style. She tricks the P’ting into falling for its own trap, luring it into an airlock and jettisoning it. She convinces warring family members General Cicero (Suzanne Packer) and Dorkus… sorry, Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith) to cooperate on flying the ship to safety. She gives newbie nurse Mabli (Lois Chimimba) the confidence to hold herself together long enough to deliver a baby. She basically inspires a ragtag bunch of people to work together to overcome the challenges around them. In this sense, The Tsuranga Conundrum’s an opportunity to reinforce this new Doctor’s credentials, by showing her use all the ingenuity and resolve of Doctors before. If only there was a snarling villain to take down this episode, the checklist of Doctorish core competencies would be fully ticked off.

Along the way, there’s time for her to be funny and cheeky and exercise that old Doctory charm, too. If there’s a moment that doesn’t feel right, it’s where she allows herself to be put in her place by chief medico Astos (Brett Goldstein) for endangering the ship. It’s usually the Doctor who lambasts ineffective or recalcitrant supporting characters, not the other way around. On the other hand, there’s a trademark Doctor moment when she basically puts the episode on pause for a moment to wax lyrical about the ship’s anti-matter converter, her eyes lighting up and her voice rising in praise of atoms and positrons and so on. It brings to mind William Hartnell’s original moment of wonderstruck raving about the birth of a sun, all the way back in Inside the Spaceship (another of those, “we all have to play inside today” stories).

And yes, I should acknowledge that I’m brushing a lot of The Tsuranga Conundrum’s issues aside. Its clunky pacing. Its seemingly neverending exposition. But behind all that, there’s something positive happening for Whittaker’s bright and breezy Doctor – an attempt to restate why she’s the centre of this show, and what her Doctor is here to do.

But if this episode knows what it’s doing with the Doctor, it’s not as certain about what to do with her companions. Sorry, friends. We don’t call ‘em companions these days, for, um, reasons.

Yaz (Mandip Gill) takes on the role of the Doctor’s right-hand woman. Yaz is the one who is at the Doctor’s side as she’s trying to solve this conundrum. That means she gets to handle the guns and drop kick the P’ting down a short corridor (handily wrapped in a blanket designed to eliminate the need for tricky CGI shots).

But her role is also one of companions friends of old: to helpfully explain plot points for the audience in a range of unlikely ways: “Like the Red Cross,” she says when describing the space ambulance. “Like a posh version of my uniform camera,” she says when discovering the hologram database thing. “Like at CERN,” when she sees the particle accelerator whatsit. Need something quickly explained by suggesting a familiar, modern day equivalent? Yaz is here to help. Like a talking glossary.

She’s also confidante-in-chief to a range of characters throughout Series 11. It says something about her policing skills that she’s often the one who coaxes information out of others. Here, it’s Ryan (Tosin Cole) who opens up to her about his mother’s death and his dad’s inadequacies. “Why am I even telling you this?” he asks Yaz at the time and the answer is only partly that the episode needs padding out.

It’s to help Ryan shoulder his way into the plot, with too many competing characters and no ladders to climb or bikes to ride. And so he is pressed into service as a doula for Yoss and is able to inspire him to commit to fatherhood. It’s a predictable moment, and one which sits oddly in a story of multiple things going to hell all at once, but it means Ryan gets a character note in a show which otherwise doesn’t need him much.

That’s two companions (yeah, I’ve given up) in and we’ve still got Graham (Bradley Walsh) to go. He’s there for a bit of comedy relief, what with his love of Call the Midwife and his gags about secretly accessing your loved one’s medical records.

No, let’s be honest, there’s no real reason for him to be there at all. He doesn’t even have the courtesy to hit his head on something and spend the episode in bed dreaming of the Phantom Piper (though in his case, it would be the Ghostly Bus Driver, or something). Truth is, in an episode which really only has room for one companion, or two at a pinch, the simplest thing would have been to give him 48 hours induced sleep in the delta wave augmenter.

And all this is a real shame. I’m a documented fan of the four person TARDIS crew, but here’s an episode which shows how much care is needed to divide the plot between them. The Doctor signals how difficult this is early on in the episode when, in order to separate herself from them, she simply says she wants to go on a limp on her own for a bit. But more often than not, the three of them are left to simply follow mutely behind the Doctor, like an oddly dressed security detail. Why go to all the trouble of creating a TARDIS ensemble and then jam them into stories too small for them?

Like stuffing too many kids into classroom during a rainy lunch break. As Yaz would probably say.

LINK TO: The Keys of Marinus. Apart from the fact that one has an Altos and one has an Astos, both have four TARDIS crew members.

NEXT TIME: Pack your deadly jelly babies, we’re off to face The Face of Evil.

Races, relations and The Ghost Monument (2018)

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I’m slightly cranky at The Ghost Monument for taking an idea for a Doctor Who story that I’ve always wanted to see, and being a version of it which isn’t quite as good as I’d envisioned. That’s probably the most unfair attitude you can take to an episode of Doctor Who –  “It wasn’t as good as the imaginary version I’ve harboured for years and years! Call the Daily Mail! Set up a hashtag!” – but there you go.

In my head, a grand space race was an epic backdrop for a Doctor Who story. A kind of Wacky Races meets Hitchhiker’s Guide. A host of racers, in exotic latex masks and cut price spaceships. The Doctor pressed into service to drive one of the ships. Lots of heart thumping races across deserts, around satellites, through ancient ruined cities. With each leg survived, the stakes only get higher as competitors are peeled off one by one. C’mon, you’d watch that, right?

The Ghost Monument teases us by seeming initially that it’s going to be a race story told on a similarly epic scale. After all, it does kick off with that impressive sequence of the spaceship crashlanding almost on top of Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) on location in South Africa. But then it transpires that we’re joining the race at a late stage when most of the competitors have already bumped each other into the flightpaths of comets, or what have you. Only two are left, gritty and determined Angstrom (Susan Lynch) and gritty and determined Epzo (Shaun Dooley). Which goes to show that while the budget will stretch to shooting on the other side of the planet, they just can’t take that many actors along for the ride.

So my dream story of a mad miscellany of aliens and their hovercrafts racing around a planet has become, before my eyes, a story of a couple of humanoids taking a long and sandy walk. With the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her buddies in tow, so there’s that to keep us engaged. But even if I forgive The Ghost Monument for not being the madcap rollercoaster ride of my dreams, there’s still one fairly major trick it has missed.

Early on in the episode, our adventurers come across the organiser of this race. It’s enigmatic, holographic Ilin (Art Malik) and he lounges around in a tent of plot exposition. In it, he explains that the race will be won when one of them reaches the fabled “ghost monument”. When he brings up a nifty special effect of it, the Doctor recognises it as her recently lost TARDIS. From there on in, she commits to tagging along with Angstrom and Epzo to get to her ship and return her friends to Earth.

But here’s the thing… the TARDIS should surely be the prize, not just the finish line. What if the TARDIS were the thing Angstrom and Epzo were so desperate to win? That would transform the Doctor and her friends from mere fellow travellers on this trek, but to genuine competitors. And given that we’ve seen that without the TARDIS, its crew are highly vulnerable to a. asphyxiating in the depths of space and b. never getting home again, they have every reason to compete for this prize with every last breath. Surely this should have been the dramatic driver in the story – not that the Doctor had merely to reach her lifeline home, but that she had to fight for it as well.

But then, The Ghost Monument has more business with Angstrom and Epzo than making them mere competition for the Doctor. They’re there to emphasise and give us contrasting perspectives on one of Series 11’s recurring themes: the importance of family.

Not for nothing do our new TARDIS quartet describe itself as a “fam”. They are, for each other, substitutes for their own broken or dysfunctional families. Ryan and Graham, both recently bereaved, are trying to reconcile their own familial relationship. Yaz (Mandip Gill) hints at a family life which she finds suffocating and maddening. And the Doctor seems, in this new incarnation, to need more than just a pretty girl and a grumpy butler by her side. She seems keen – as all of this new bunch of fellow travellers do – to form an unofficial family amongst them. And throughout series 11, we’ll see families and familial relationships of all kinds thrown at us: the home life of Rosa Parks, family secrets in Demons of the Punjab, a man contemplating childbirth and parenthood in The Tsuranga Conundrum, feuding family members in that story as well as The Witchfinders, and a family in turmoil in It Takes You Away. Not to mention the tricky family dynamics that both Yaz and Ryan have to navigate throughout the series.

Both our competitors in The Ghost Monument use family as motivation for racing. Angstrom is driven by her need to win the cash prize and lift her family out of persecution and poverty. If this series’ message about the importance of family needed a moment of overt emphasis, it is surely here when Angstrom looks straight at Yaz and implores her to not take her family for granted. Epzo, the cynical, hard-bitten type, recounts the (it must be said, fairly cliched) story of his mother tricking her young son into trusting her, only to trick him into trusting no-one. It’s no surprise when the Doctor tells him flatly, “your Mum was wrong. We’re stronger together.”

She’s shown to be right, of course. The story requires Angstrom to save Epzo, and Epzo’s self-igniting cigar to save the day; acts of teamwork which justify a dead heat in the race. As for the Doctor, when it appears that the race has ended without her retrieving the TARDIS, she needs her newfound family to reignite her hope and ensure that she can indeed coax that errant ghost monument back into being. So we can all tick that box marked, “thematic consistency”.

But beyond this, why does Doctor Who in 2018 want to reinforce the importance of family? On one hand, perhaps it’s just trying to differentiate itself from recent TARDIS teams, which have strived to show various combinations of unlikely mates mucking around together through time and space. Or maybe it’s trying to recall family-like combinations of classic Who, like the very first TARDIS team or the ersatz families of seasons 18 and 19.

However, my bet is on an attempt to reflect the audience base of what could be the world’s most famous “family” show. Not just that there’s someone in the cast for every demographic to latch onto, but that as families watch the show together, they are seeing themselves reflected back at them. That at least saves me from thinking it’s some low level propaganda about traditional family values, which would be um… tricky, to say the least.

So given the emphasis placed on family, perhaps the TARDIS shouldn’t have been the prize after all. Perhaps it should have been something essential to saving the life of one of our new found “fam.” An antidote, a pardon or a rescue in the nick of time. Or one of  the fam themselves. For all their importance, Series 11 steadfastly refused to put one of our crew on the line. I think the show will get there though. And when it does, the Doctor will really have something worth racing for.

LINK TO The Brain of Morbius: both set on worlds which were once the home to great civilisations, now gone.

NEXT TIME: We’re wanted in Turmezistan immediately, to contemplate The Pyramid at the End of the World. Is it OK if I get an Uber?

Trump, triumphs and Arachnids in the UK (2018)

arachnids2It was inevitable, I suppose, that Doctor Who would have to deal with President Donald Trump. He casts too long a shadow over 21st century life to ignore. Way back when talking about Aliens of London, I suggested that the way the show deals with world leaders is to show the real ones onscreen, unless you want to kill them, in which case you invent new ones you can ice without controversy.

Back in The Sounds of Drums, we got a George W Bush substitute who was zapped at the earliest opportunity. Arachnids in the UK does something new – it gives us a stand-in president but lets him live. More than that, it gives him a moment of triumph, which feels uncomfortable and unusual for a show which would normally sanction such a character.

The stunt Trump presented here is Jack Roberston (Chris Noth). The similarities are clear to see: American hotel magnate and celebrity, bombastic and petulant. They stop short of having him lech onto every woman in sight and having him take a phone call from a Russian operative, but we get the idea. He’s also a potential presidential candidate in 2020, which is a little confusing. He doesn’t seem like a Democrat so perhaps he is proposing to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination? Perhaps it’s a reflection of the antipathy towards Trump within the GOP establishment. Anyway, The West Wing it ‘aint.

Robertson’s a broad brush stroke portrait of an unscrupulous businessman, a familiar adversary for the Doctor for years. With his brash, obnoxious style, his closest cousin is Henry Van Statten from 2005’s Dalek. Back then, the mainstream fear being reflected was of a Bill Gates types controlling the government and replacing the President whenever the whim took him. If only it were that easy (actually, here in Australia it kind of is. We go through Prime Ministers like socks. There’s been three since randomwhoness started and we’re just about to get another). In the Trump era, we no longer worry so much about big business pulling the strings of power. The President generates enough concern on his own.

Robertson, however, represents something more than a Trump-lite style parody. He’s a stereotypical alpha personality who’s firmly on the side of “might is right.” He’s in favour of shooting his way out of his new spider infested hotel and when the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) insists on finding a less violent way out of the problem, his lack of ability to understand someone who isn’t pro-gun borders on the unhinged. “What’s wrong with you people?” he exasperates. “What is wrong with this country? Why don’t you do what normal people do? Get a gun, shoot things, like a civilised person.”

He’s a caricature, sure, but his hoplophilia becomes pivotal at the story’s end. When faced with the giant mother spider, the Doctor’s preferred solution is to lure it outside the hotel with the help of some homemade insecticide (I don’t know what the plan is then. Let it roam Sheffield freely? Hope it catches a train home?). When she and helpful spider exposition provider Dr Jade McIntrye (the terrifically named Tanya Fear) discover that the spider is going to die anyway because it has grown too large to live without suffocating, Robertson arrives to shoot it dead. Bang bang, problem solved. The Doctor is appalled and we as the audience, are meant to side with the Doctor’s moral view to treat all living creatures with dignity. Even if that means letting the spider die slowly and painfully, as opposed to Robertson’s short, shooty solution.

Like so many of the stories in Series 11, Arachnids in the UK presents a simple but problematic moral. There’s a view to take here that Robertson’s solution is actually more humane than the Doctor’s, and simply expedites something which was going to happen anyway. That’s not an unreasonable conclusion to draw, but there’s more going on here than just a debate about whether euthanasia by gun is acceptable. Robertson’s decision to shoot the spider may be defensible, but it also shows how empty his philosophy of brute force is.

Because Robertson doesn’t shoot the spider to save it from an agonising death. He doesn’t even do it to save himself and the Doctor and the other five supporting characters present from agonising deaths. He does it to make himself feel better and to return to him the illusion of being in control. Robertson’s reaction to the spiders has been panic, followed by self-preservation and finally justification of his company’s dodgy operating procedures which has led to the growth of the spiders in the first place. For him, the gun is a surefire solution to any problem, including the reassertion of his masculinity. That’s what sets his solution apart from the Doctor’s, which comes from a place of compassion. And who knows, the Doctor may have eventually decided to euthanise the spider too. But she would have done it with the creature’s welfare in mind, not her own.

The episode’s apparent misstep is to let Roberston walk away without any consequences. There’s no final comeuppance here for the Doctor to deliver. Think of how she once turned the tables on UK Prime Minister Harriet Jones after she blasted the Sycorax; there’s no Doctorly punishment rolled out here. And the fact that Robertson gets to walk out scot-free does make the Doctor come off as powerless against this man who wields power like a weapon. It’s a real kick in the teeth. It feels like in the adventure where the Doctor met Trump, Trump won.

My hope is that this is leading somewhere. That Robertson will return to the series someday (you’d hang on to a star as big as Noth as long as you could, right?) and that the Doctor will get her revenge. Perhaps she’ll sabotage his campaign in 2020. Perhaps she’ll email a server load of incriminating documents to the FBI. Or perhaps she’ll transport him back to that panic room full of hungry spiders and leave him there.

But on second thoughts… that only rids us of Trump-lite and leaves us with the real thing! In this sense, maybe “Doctor Who deals with Trump” was always doomed to be depressingly impotent.

LINK TO The Romans: Hmm, how about powerful, egocentric men (Nero and Robertson) delivering each story’s climax instead of the Doctor?

NEXT TIME: Up, up and away with The Return of Doctor Mysterio.

Moderates, radicals and Demons of the Punjab (2018)

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One of the surprises brought to us by the thirteenth Doctor, as played with brains and brio by Jodie Whittaker, is that she’s less interventionist than we’ve grown to expect the Doctor to be. Often her first season has shown us circumstances where she has let events take their course, or let bad guys off the hook or otherwise not directly confronted the evils of the universe she comes across.

For instance, in Rosashe has to stand back and allow humanity’s racism to take the slow path to partial improvement. In Kerblam!, she chooses not to overthrow an exploitative corporate behemoth. In Arachnids in the UK, the spider shooter and Trump wannabe escapes unsanctioned. And in Demons of the Punjab, we are presented with a uniquely odd situation: a story in which the Doctor and her friends arrive, discover two problems: one which turns out to not be a problem at all and one which turns out to a problem they can’t solve. Then they leave.

How important is it that the Doctor is an active presence in any given story? Traditional wisdom says that as she’s the hero of the show, she should play a central, proactive role. I think that’s basically right, but as it’s the traditional wisdom, I always like to question it.

Certainly, there are instances in the past where the Doctor hasn’t been central to her own adventures. Many of the 1960s historicals saw the Doctor and his (with apologies for switching pronouns) companions swept up in events but playing no significant role in them. Stories as diverse as The Caves of Androzani and Twice upon a Time have experimented with decreasing the Doctor’s involvement in stimulating and resolving the plot. The trouble at Warriors’ Gate was sorted out when the Doctor realised he was called upon to do nothing. That it was “the right sort of nothing” doesn’t change that.

So sure – a non-interventionist Doctor is the exception rather than the rule, but it’s not unheard of. And despite how it might appear from 21st century Who, not every Doctor’s modus operandi has been to forcefully intervene in the concerns of those around them. The fifth Doctor, for instance, often trod a softer path. The second could also approach problems obliquely, avoiding direct confrontation. So it’s not as if there’s no precedent for a Doctor who plays a less dominant role in the series.

Writer Vinay Patel talked about this in an interview for the The Doctor is In podcast. When talking about the Doctor’s proactivity, or lack thereof, he positioned it as a side product of the show’s new ensemble approach. With Team TARDIS around her, she’s not always going to be the one who takes the lead, so in her character’s DNA is a tendency to let people around her call the shots.

There’s an illustrative moment of this when the Doctor wants to leave after finding out the true nature of the alien Thijarians, but her three buddies convince her to stay. It’s not a loud moment, but it’s a quiet reinforcement that the Doctor’s less of a leading force than she used to be. Whether this is to the Doctor’s detriment – because it pushes her to be more passive than her predecessors – or whether it gives us a refreshing new take on this much-interpreted character is a matter of personal preference.

But while it’s not unheard of for the Doctor to be a tangential element in her own story, it is unusual for her to also face an alien threat which is equally unimportant to the plot. The demons of the title are Thijarians, who travel around paying respect to people who die alone. They’re kind of professional mourners. Thing is, they used to be professional assassins, and that sounds altogether more interesting.

If they had indeed come to India in 1948 to assassinate Prem (Shane Zaza) because he would, in an alternative future, become a global political hero (or villain), that would have given both them, and tellingly, the Doctor, an excuse to get involved in the story. Instead, the theme of helplessness against the course of history is encapsulated in that moment when Prem is shot, and the Thijarians stand witness and the Doctor and her friends simply walk away.

Prem is shot by a posse of India loyalists led by his own brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa). Manish represents something new in Doctor Who villainy, as introduced in Whittaker’s first series: he’s the radicalised young man. His dogma has prompted him to isolate himself from his family and align himself with dangerous people and ideas. Ultimately, it leads him to murder. It’s a particularly 21st century concern, that young men led astray will resort to acts of violence in pursuit of their perverted world view. And it’s not just a one-off; in the next episode, young factory worker Charlie will seek to commit mass murder in an expression of his “activism”. There’s something similar in the journey of smouldering racist Krasko in Rosa, and the hatred of difference he learned while in prison.

Of these depictions of good young men gone bad, Demons of the Punjab’s feels the most timely, because it’s also about borders. There are lots of Doctor Who stories about the evils of colonialism, but few which explore the troubled geo-political decision making which often goes along with it. This story shows how those decisions to apply crudely drawn borders based on religious beliefs ignore the subtleties of residence, family and tradition. Viewers in the UK, the US and Australia (among other places) are living through these concerns about borders and who gets to live on either side of them, making this as relevant a topic as the threat of radicalised young men.

It’s touchingly done too, without being cloying. Manish’s betrayal of his family feels all too feasible – the kind of thing which happens to families when politics meets religion. Umbreen’s (Amita Suman and Leena Dhingra) decision to marry her husband straddling two lands is nicely symbolic, as is the shattered watch, reminding us that some moments are frozen in our memories forever.

It’s a smart story, well told. So much so that it only emphasises how little it needs both the Doctor and the Thijarians. And it proves typical of an intriguing but uneven series of Doctor Who; one which takes us to new, fascinating places with the potential for great drama, but which is tentative about putting the Doctor at the centre of them.

LINK TO The Girl in the Fireplace: Aliens stalking historical humans.

NEXT TIME: Put your mysterious face on, it’s time to track down The Space Pirates.

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.