Tag Archives: series 11

Friends, faith and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (2018)

RAK

Dear past Johnny,

Hello from 2019! Back where you are, it’s 2013 and you’re thinking about writing a blog about Doctor Who. Because apparently the world really needs to hear what any old Johnny Spandrell has to say about a kids sci-fi TV show.

I get it. You’re full of nerves and misgivings: you’re thinking, can I keep up the pace? Can I really hope to say something new about every story? Will anyone read this thing? Is it all going to be a colossal waste of time?

I’m here with some good news. The answers to those questions are, yes, you’ll keep up the pace. In fact, you’ll publish at least one post a week (and sometimes more) for five and a half years. That’s nearly 300 posts and well over 300,000 words. And yes, you’ll more or less say something new about every story. Occasionally, you’ll even manage to be funny. (Though you make lots of typos. My favourite is when you go on about a “rouge Cyberman”, closely followed by when you talk about a female military officer’s rack, when you mean “rank.” You like that one so much you never bother to change it.)

Will anyone read it? Surprisingly, yes. They’ll even contact you to say so. From all around the world. You’ll make new friends and that’s something that hasn’t even crossed your tiny little 2013 mind has it? As for a waste of time… no, it’s the opposite of that. It’s hugely enjoyable. You won’t regret it.

(In other news, there’s gonna be a new showrunner, a female Master, a female Doctor, a gay companion and the Fish People make a triumphant return to the series. One of those things is a lie, have fun finding out which. And Donald Trump… oh, probably best not to think about it).

Your last post is this one and it’s on The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. No, not more typos, that’s what the episode is called. You haven’t heard of it yet, because it’s years away from being conceived of. It’s an understated season finale, in which the Doctor (her off Broadchurch) stumbles across an old enemy (*cough Zaroff! cough*) who is merging super-advanced technology with the faith of an ancient race of mystics to steal the plot of The Pirate Planet.

It’s an odd piece of work. It’s not a big, bombastic season closer as we’ve seen in previous years (the Doctor even has dialogue which refers to a couple of them fondly, just to hammer home the point). It’s kind of about chickens coming home to roost; the Doctor’s humiliation of said old enemy (no, not Zaroff. But wouldn’t that be great? This one is called Tim Shaw. No, not him off the Demtel ads.) has caused him to stew for three thousand odd years, during which time he’s managed to convince two of the ancient mystic race (the Seussical sounding Ux) to help him build a super weapon.

They are a bit slow on the uptake, these Ux, having taken three thousand years to work out that guy with his enemies’ teeth embedded in his head and an army of robots (who, by the way, have the shoddy marksmanship of those old UNIT soldiers of yore) at his disposal may not have the best interests of the universe at heart. But I suppose the point this episode is making is that blinkered adherence to faith can lead you some distance up the garden path.

The other question it poses is whether the Doctor’s pal Graham (him of the UK version of The Chase) is going to give in to his desire for revenge and shoot Tim Shaw for killing his wife, back in the first ep of this season. Which technically he didn’t actually do, but that’s probably unhelpful to point out. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ve watched enough Doctor Who to know by now that it’s unlikely to produce an episode celebrating revenge as a satisfying and justifiable course of action. So it’s probably enough to point out that for our two characters contemplating murder here as a cathartic act, one friend and one foe, it works out OK for one of them.

The Battle of RAK, as I’ve just christened it, is surprising only in its determination to not be surprising. You, 2013 Johnny, are in the tangled midst of the Steven Moffat era where everything is complicated and moral decisions are painted in many shades of grey. Not so much anymore – the show is now in a place where its messages on good and bad are much simpler. Its pace is slower and the Doctor’s back to travelling with three companions. I’m not the first to say that it’s reminiscent of the Hartnell era, and that, as we know, is a double-edged sword.

Talking of Hartnell, you’ll start your random journey with The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and oddly enough, it and The Battle of RAK have things in common. The TARDIS crew is battling to fight an enemy whose plan is well underway and reaching its climax, they end up saving loads of trapped extras running away in a quarry and the plot involves moving planets across the cosmos. If your blog has a theme, it’s thinking about what each story is about and why that matters (well, most of the time. Sometimes you just take the piss). At heart, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Battle of RAK and everything in between is about how cruelty and tyranny can be countered with intelligence, bravery and wit.

And throughout, the Doctor is the same character you’ve always loved and admired, fighting against the odds, battling brawn with brains and generally putting things right. And she still has that same faith that people are basically good and if you give them the chance to be, they’ll make the right decisions.

“Keep your faith. Travel hopefully,” the Doctor tells the Ux at the end of this episode. “Go forward in all your beliefs,” her predecessor said all those years ago, at the end of that Dalek invasion. The Doctor’s still urging her audience to have confidence in their abilities and just go for it. It’s good advice. You should take it.

And here’s one more spoiler for you: for all the randomness you’re about to dive into, the surprising part is that the things that make Doctor Who the best TV series ever made never leave it. It never gives up on being smart, funny and engaging. It always seeks to fire up its audience’s imagination, armed only big ideas, compelling performances and charmingly inadequate production standards. When you think about it that way, it’s not random at all.

Yours,

Future Johnny.

LINK TO The Seeds of Death: Oh and this thing. It seems like a good idea at the start, but let me tell you, it will drive you mental. “It’s late,” Mrs Spandrell will say, “go to sleep, you fool.” “No!” you’ll retort. “There must be something linking Inferno and Love & Monsters and I’ve got to find it! Does anyone turn into paving stone in Inferno? Or does Elton Whatsit wear an eyepatch?” So many times you’ll want to quietly retire this part of the blog like a long running DWM feature suddenly dropped without comment.

But against all odds, we’ve made it and linked every story in this random chain to each other. And by pointing out that because The Battle of RAK has an opening sequence set in 2018, both it and The Seeds of Death have scenes set in the 21st century, my work on this particularly pointless feature of the blog is done. You have been warned!

NEXT TIME: An afterword.

Thespians, amphibians and It Takes You Away (2018)

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Laurence Phibbs takes a long draw on his cigarette, jammed between his webbed fingers and smiles. “When my agent rang to say I’d got the part, I was jumping off the walls with excitement. Literally, and there aren’t many actors who can say that!”

We’re sitting at a quiet table in charming old school pub, not far from Laurence’s pad in South London. Well, I’m sitting and Laurence’s squatting. If any of the regulars are surprised to see a larger than normal frog sitting on a toadstool – sorry barstool – talking to a journalist, none of them are showing it.

Is Laurence a fixture here? “I hop in every now and then. It’s never very busy, so you’re unlikely to be bothered by people wanting to take a selfie or get your autograph. Although with Doctor Who, now everyone wants a high four!” He laughs and holds up the four fingered hand which expelled Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor from a mirror universe in the now-famous climactic moment of series 11 oddball It Takes You Away. “You’re kind of public property once you’ve been on the telly.”

Laurence should know. Already a familiar variegated green face from appearances on stage and screen, he’s now finally made it to Doctor Who. Laurence played the sentient universe the Solitract, which takes the form of a frog for a crucial resolution with the Doctor. Lucky for him that the universe decided to take on amphibian form. Laurence would have been out of luck if the production team had gone for, say, a talking donkey?

“They wouldn’t have gone for a donkey,” says Laurence matter of factly, whipping out his long, sticky tongue to catch an unwary passing fly. “Very difficult to dub voices over, donkeys. Their mouths are very inflexible. That’s why they’re so often CGI. Like Shrek, right? Can’t do that in studio. Though many have tried.”

Why didn’t they go for a CGI frog on Doctor Who? Laurence rolls his eyes, which is quite a feat considering they’re on opposite sides of his head. “Well, they did think about it but it’s a very emotional scene. With CG, you just can’t get the full range of emotion that a trained actor like myself can bring to a role. I mean, that’s what you’re paying for when you book me. You don’t want to embarrass an actor of Jodie Whittaker’s calibre by having her perform a scene with some shoddy imitation of a frog. You want the real thing!”

If Laurence sounds slightly arrogant about his acting chops, he can afford to be. His track record in film and TV is admirable. Roles in programs as diverse as live action versions of The Wind In the Willows and Danger Mouse have made him the go-to actor for frog roles in the UK. Is there enough work around for him? “You’d be surprised actually. I mean, wherever there’s a story with a handsome prince there’s a role for me in it, so panto’s a godsend for me. Plus I always get kissed by the princesses!” he adds, with a grin.  Is it true he’s attached to the new Kermit bio pic, Rainbow Connection? “I can’t talk about that,” he says coolly, scratching his eye with one of his hind legs.

Laurence may be the charming green face of the Solitract, but its voice belongs to Sharon D Clarke, who has played Grace throughout the season. Did Laurence mind not delivering the vocals to go along with his physical performance?

For a moment, he inflates his throat sac in bubble of what could be frustration. “Look, it was a hangover from when they were thinking of it being CG. They’d booked her and recorded it and everything, so I just said, “fine”. I mean, it’s part of the story too, but I told them I was happy to do it and of course, I said the lines on the day, to give Jodie something to work with. But they stuck with Sharon, who of course did a marvellous job, and that’s great. But I thought I brought a nice croaky quality to those lines, so I do regret it a bit. Perhaps it will turn up on a DVD extra one day.”

Take us through the day of the shoot. “Well, it was quite hilarious really. Because as you know, security is so tight on Doctor Who. They smuggled me in in the back of a car, in a shoebox which thankfully they’d remembered to punch some airholes in. Then they took me straight to make-up, where they spent a long time giving me a slightly rubbery, artificial kind of look. They were going for a slightly unreal, fantasy feel, in tune with the whole episode really. And then it was straight to the studio where Jodie was waiting. I must admit she seemed little taken aback when she saw me – overawed maybe, I don’t know – but after that initial hesitation, I thought she did very well. I gave her a few tips, cracked a few jokes to put her at ease.”

He pauses for a moment, to secrete a moisturising fluid from the glands at the back of his head. “Actually, I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you this… but hey, what does it matter now. They were thinking about keeping me on.” What, as a regular? “Yeah, as a member of the TARDIS crew. You see, they were sort of worried that they didn’t have quite enough companions, and they were thinking of the range of stories they could tell if the Doctor had a talking frog sitting on her shoulder But the dates wouldn’t have worked out. I’m mean they shoot for six months of the year, I hibernate during winter plus I shed my skin every few weeks, so continuity would be a nightmare.” But if those logistical problems could have been ironed out, would Laurence had said yes? “I’d have jumped at the chance. I mean, I’ve loved Doctor Who ever since I was a tadpole. It would have been amazing.”

I get the sense that Laurence might be holding out for an even greater prize. Would he ever consider playing the Doctor? “Well, it’s very interesting, isn’t it?” he says, gently lifting his suction pad fingers off the stool, and bringing his hands together, contemplatively. “We’ve now got a female Doctor… why not a frog Doctor? I think it could work. Frogs naturally metamorphose anyway, so regeneration’s a doddle. Plus imagine how quickly I could out hop those Daleks! Yes, I’d certainly consider it if it ever came my way.”

Our time is up, and Laurence’s got to get to a photoshoot for National Geographic. I ask him for some final thoughts on his time on Doctor Who. “It was a hoot and I’m so pleased to have been a part of it. And who knows, maybe the Solitract’s reality isn’t entirely incompatible with the known universe and will turn up again to be Jodie Whittaker’s eternal BFF. I think she’d be delighted with that.”

He raises his hand for a trademark high four, which I happily take. Then he flies through the door with a few leaps of his powerful frog’s legs, as enigmatic as the Solitract itself. Onwards, to his next froggy theatrical triumph.

LINK TO The Horns of Nimon: the Doctor uses string to leave a path when entering into the anti-zone, a tactic famous from the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur which, the astute among you will have noticed, bears a faint resemblance to The Horns of Nimon.

NEXT TIME: The Daleks are doing something drastic in The Daleks’ Master Plan. Now will you, SHUT UP, SIR?!!!

Big Business, The Green Death (1973) and Kerblam! (2018)

Part Two

“Suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame,” says factory worker Dan (Lee Mack) in Kerblam! “While we were busy staring at our phones, technology went and nicked our jobs.” Suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame. Some might say the whole of series 11 has had that feel about it. So racism’s a thing, and Trump’s a thing and exploitation of workers is a thing, but *shrugs shoulders* whatya going to do? It’s kind of your fault for wanting a new fez in the first place.

Dan’s one of the 10% – the mandated proportion of job holders that Kandokan society requires to be human. The other 90% it fills with creepy robots of long held Doctor Who tradition. Dan and his fellow Kerblam! worker Kira (Claudia Jessie) are grateful for their jobs, even though they are lowly paid, monotonous and their performance is constantly monitored by passive aggressive androids. Not for them the kind of protests you see out the front of Global Chemicals. They’d never dream of going on strike. In their own way, they’re as trapped and as compliant as BOSS’s brain drained zombie workers.

There’s 45 years and a world of difference between The Green Death and Kerblam! The Green Death said clearly – emphatically – that the power big business wields is a problem. It showed us a business which had politicians in its pocket, its own militia to deploy and a colonial upper class (all the management types are English, all the milkmen and cleaning ladies are Welsh) calling the shots. The Green Death is saying, f*ck that. It’s angry and is advocating radical change. It starts a sub-genre of Doctor Who which we might call “protest” stories, in which we can include The Sun Makers, The Happiness Patrol and The Long Game. All of which involve overthrowing an oppressive regime.

And, up until its last ten minutes, Kerblam! seems to be telling us a similar story, that the power Amazon wields allows it to reduce working conditions to the minimum because employees are afraid of losing their jobs. Make no mistake, there’s enough for Kerblam! to be angry about. (In fact, in preparation for this piece, I read a number of online stories of Amazon’s appalling treatment of its employees until I had to stop because it was so infuriating.) But this story pulls its punches in two significant ways.

Firstly, it makes the person protesting against this awful state of affairs the villain. That’s Charlie (Leo Flanagan) and misguided and murderous though he is, his arguments about what’s wrong with Kerblam! are hard to argue with. “Ten percent?” he says incredulously. “They want us to be grateful that ten percent of people get to work? What about the other ninety percent? What about our futures? Because without action, next time it will be seven percent, then five, then one.” If this was a Malcolm Hulke story you might expect Charlie to be overpowered at the end of the story and quietly walked away, the Doctor gently noting his misguided good intentions. But here, there’s no acknowledgement of moral ambiguity. He’s blown up like every other bad guy. It’s like if Professor Jones turned out to be the villain in The Green Death, and all his environmental concerns were blown away with him in the inevitable Part Six explosion.

Secondly, the Doctor declines to sanction Kerblam! for the shocking way it treats people. Here is the hero who once brought down Harriet Jones with one sentence, because she disagreed with her politics. Only last season, she fought against the suits, and started a chain reaction which meant that “corporate dominance in space is history, and that about wraps it for capitalism”. But capitalism lives on at the end of Kerblam! The Doctor could end the story with a piece of sabotaging software or some other magic switch to meter out justice on Kerblam! Instead, we’re left with a promise from Judy, Head of People (Julie Hesmondhalgh) that “All our workers have been given two weeks’ paid leave, free return shuttle transport. And I’m going to propose that Kerblam becomes a People-Led Company in future.” Two weeks off and a promise to do better. I’m sure that will do the trick.

Look, let’s not be too lefty bleeding heart about it. I think it’s fair to say that Kerblam! chooses a different ending to a Big Business Doctor Who story partly out of a search for originality. If we’ve come to expect, from lengthy experience, a protest story complete with a Doctorly takedown and an exploding factory and the end, then perhaps it’s time to subvert that expectation. And perhaps, it’s just not realistic to wipe out a huge company over the course of an afternoon. Maybe slow, incremental change makes more sense. And perhaps, as I noted last post, the 10% of the human workforce still needs jobs and money and livelihoods, so blowing the company up is too blunt a resolution.

But I can’t help but think back to the episode’s beginning, where a packing slip with a desperate message for help found a sympathetic receiver in the Doctor. That opening premise could have led us to a story of how the Doctor helped an ordinary person being crushed by a corporate giant. Instead, it turned out to be a call for help from the company itself, asking the Doctor to protect it from someone trying to point out that it had a social responsibility to give more people jobs and to treat them humanely when it does.

The Doctor gives voice to the story’s model in the confrontation with Charlie. “The systems aren’t the problem,” she says. “How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.” That’s precisely the opposite of the position taken by The Green Death. It says the system is fundamentally flawed and dangerous to boot. You don’t change how people use the system, you’ve gotta change the system. Even if we cut Kerblam! some slack and say it’s trying to present a more nuanced political argument than Doctor Who normally does, and that it’s trying to invert our expectations of what a protest story is, there’s still a fundamental conservatism to saying “the system’s basically fine, we’re the ones who have to get used to it” which feels very odd in a series which usually challenges the status quo.

The Green Death will always be the first and loudest of Doctor Who’s battle cries against the world’s wrongs. Kerblam!, despite its explosive title, is not the fiery exclamation mark on the end of that cry. It’s something far more ambiguous, signalling a series which, while responding to its times, is exploring murky moral territory. That will be interesting and thought-provoking, but let’s hope it never loses its anger. We need it as much as we needed it in 1973.

PREVIOUSLY ON RANDOMWHONESS: Part One of this post can be found here.

NEXT TIME: The very first humans on Mars? We’re soaking ourselves in The Waters of Mars.

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)

Ghost

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.