Tag Archives: thirteenth doctor

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

greendeathkerblam2

Part One

Big Business is a character in Doctor Who. I know this because it’s listed as such in the official Doctor Who Programme Guide by Jean-Marc L’officier, a primary source document for many fans of my vintage. It’s right there, between the Bi-Al Foundation and Biroc the noble Tharil. Its concise entry reads “Big Business: often portrayed as the villain,” and then it lists the production codes of stories which do so, such as TTT, otherwise known to you and me as The Green Death.

If only the Programme Guide was extended to cover New Who (ah, but wait! It has been), it would find many other stories to list under that entry: The Long Game, Rise of the Cybermen, Planet of the Ood, The Bells of St John, Time Heist, Oxygen and the list goes on. It goes on so long in fact, that it shows that 21st century showrunners have clearly learned their Who lessons well: that Big Business is a distinct character in the show and specifically, it’s the enemy. Big Business is always up to no good. It will enslave you, bewitch you, rob you, while all the time selling you thinning tablets or elixirs of youth.

Or so it seemed, until 2019 when series 11 arrived to challenge our preconceptions about the way Doctor Who operates. And in Kerblam!, it presented us with a much more ambiguous view of Big Business, stubbornly refusing to paint it as the villain. In telling us a tale of murder in the gangways of a space age Amazon, it seemed all the way through to be positioning that old enemy Big Business for yet another devastating take down by the Doctor. We fully expected to see her run frantically away from the place as it exploded into smithereens, just as her third self had run away (oh, that peculiar Pertweean trot) from the smoking ruins of Global Chemicals.

It didn’t end that way, of course. It ended on a far more conciliatory note. And it was so at odds with where that story seemed to be heading, and where a legion of similar Doctor Who stories had previously landed, that it left many fans bewildered and contemplating a new, more conservative slant on Doctor Who’s normally liberal politics. In one of this random blog’s occasionally pleasing orderings The Green Death and Kerblam! have arrived in sequence. So I’ve grabbed the opportunity to talk about them both, over two posts, and compare their very different views of our old mate Big Business.

****

Both stories signal their intentions upfront. The opening scenes of The Green Death show its corporate behemoth, Global Chemicals, as an object of protest. In fact, it’s an object of multiple protests.

Local coal miners are there to protest about Global Chemicals killing their industry and their livelihoods. The local greenies, led by Professor (of Which University) Cliff Jones (Stewart Bevan), are protesting about the company’s environmental impact. And back at UNIT HQ, Jo Grant (Katy Manning) is appalled by reports of pollution emanating from Global Chemicals and decides on the spot to abandon her job and throw in her lot with Jones and his long-haired, hippy compadres.

Compare this to the start of Kerblam! where the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) receives a delivery from a Kerblam! postman and reacts with unbridled excitement. “Kerblam! It’s the Kerblam! man!,” she gushes before delighting in the delivery of a new hat and gazing at the Kerblam! logo spin around in the air. The thirteenth Doctor is a brand fan, right from the start. It’s hard to imagine the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) jumping up and down with glee at the start of The Green Death about the prospect of helping out Global Chemicals. That’s one thing that’s changed between 1973 and 2018 –  we’re much more used to brands commanding that sort of joyful devotion. In the 70s, the sort of evangelism which say, Apple generates would have been unheard of.

In that opening scene, the coal miners are soon placated by the promise of jobs at Global Chemicals, but Jones is concerned about the pollution which will ensue. The environmental concerns of The Green Death are front and centre. Its deadly green slime and its giant maggots may provide the imagery which has made it one of Doctor Who’s most well-remembered stories, but it’s a sideshow. Polluting the world and filling it with overgrown insects is not the BOSS (voice: John Dearth) of Global Chemicals’ plan. It’s a side effect and not one that it or managing director Stevens (Jerome Willis) are that concerned about. No, BOSS’s plan is much closer to the erosion of worker’s rights and opportunities which is at the heart of Kerblam!. He wants a workforce of unthinking, unprotesting slaves, who won’t care about irritating distractions such as fair pay, safe working conditions and so on.

(I can’t go any further without talking about BOSS – a talking computer who’s behind the whole dirty operation at Global Chemicals and who is the undisputed star of The Green Death. In a nice inversion by writer Robert Sloman, this machine has the most personality of anyone, be they villager, corporate stooge or undercover UNIT operative. Like your Nan’s favourite chocolate bar, BOSS is both fruity and nutty. If he wasn’t threatening to take over the world, he would be pleasantly batty company. He hums along to classical music, opines about Nietzsche and toys – almost flirts – with Stevens, which makes you wonder what the two get up to on those long lonely nights, examining productivity figures spat out of a dot matrix printer. It’s a shame, in fact, that his ambitions to turn humans into an unthinking slave force extend beyond Llanfairfach, because once extended to the whole world, it stops making sense as a profit making measure. With the whole world under his command, who’s left to buy any of the oil Global Chemicals produces?)

The problem of neutralising the company’s pollution is solved when some of the Professor’s wacky fungus proves to be an effective biological counterstrike. The problem of there being no jobs for the people of Llanfiarfach is just as neatly solved with a narrative expediency from Sloman at the story’s end. The phone rings and the Professor’s delighted to hear of unlimited research funding from the UN, meaning jobs for the unemployed miners are on their way. Which is handy considering the coal mine is still closed and the Doctor just blew up the other employer in town. He’s lucky there’s not a pack of angry miners on his tail. (They’d catch him too, with that running style of his.)

And that’s the problem, I suppose, with the Doctor utterly destroying Big Businesses from here to Pluto and Kandoka and beyond. What happens to the people who depend on those businesses for food and oxygen and sunlight and so on? Maybe a more realistic Kerblam!-y ending where some sort of middle ground is sought makes sense.  Does that dogmatic entry in the Doctor Who Programme Guide need to be rewritten? People can’t live on nuts, after all.

LINK TO The Witchfinders: both feature characters called James.

NEXT TIME: Part Two.

Camp, villainy and The Witchfinders (2018)

witchf

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.

Zeg, Recon and Resolution (2019)

resolutionpic

ZEG: Dalek assembly help line, you are speaking with Zeg.

RECON: Zeg, hi. I’m a Dalek recon scout. I’m marooned on a primitive planet. I’ve been separated from my casing and I need to build another.

ZEG: Jeez, that’s no good.

RECON: Yeah, I really need to get back to exterminating some shit.

ZEG: OK, have you located the allen key?

RECON: The what?

ZEG: The allen key is a critical tool for putting together your casing, recon scout. You should find it in a little plastic bag of screws and things inside flatpack box number 1.

RECON: I don’t have any flat pack boxes.

ZEG: What, do you mean they haven’t arrived? Have you recently changed address?

RECON: I… no… I, look, I’m marooned on an alien planet. I have no flat packs!

ZEG: OK, what have you got then?

RECON: Well, I have appropriated the body of one human female!

ZEG: Urgh, don’t tell me that! That’s gross, why did you do that?

RECON: I had to get around somehow! I couldn’t just crawl around on my grubby little protuberances, now could I?

ZEG: What happened to your original casing?

RECON: Nothing. I dunno. Shut up.

ZEG: Dude, what happened to your original casing?

RECON: Some of the human primitives… destroyed it.

ZEG: Ha! Sorry, I shouldn’t laugh.

RECON: There was a lot of them! Dozens!

ZEG: Oh, I’m sure there was!

RECON: And they had swords and clubs and shit.

ZEG: Stop it, you’re killing me! How did they manage to destroy your casing?

RECON: They set fire to it.

ZEG: Um, how? I mean, was it made of cardboard or something?

RECON: Dalek Zeg, you are not being very helpful. If you do not start assisting me to build a new casing, I will leave you a one-star review.

ZEG: OK, OK. So you don’t have any flatpacks and you have latched on to one woman. What other resources do you have at your disposal?

RECON: I have located some remnants of my original casing.

ZEG: Great – how much have you got?

RECON: I have the weapon!

ZEG: Good, good.  What else?

RECON: Um, that’s about it.

ZEG: Well, at least when the humans destroyed the rest of your casing they decided to keep the most dangerous part. No eyestalk though?

RECON: No.

ZEG: What about a suction hand?

RECON: No.

ZEG: That’s OK, they’re pretty useless anyway. What about a radio transmitting saucer thing which clips on at the back?

RECON: Thankfully, no.

ZEG: OK fine, what other resources do you have at your disposal?

RECON: I have conquered a small shed full of bits of metal! Iron, steel and so on.

ZEG: No bonded polycarbide?

RECON: No, but I do have some car indicator lights which I can use for my flashing ears.

ZEG: Um, good. Now how will you shape this metal without your multifunction suction hand?

RECON: I have this human female. I was thinking she could do all the heating and banging of metal.

ZEG: Ooh, good idea. OK. First things first. What are you going to do for a skirt?

RECON: Bugger the skirt. I want torpedo balls!

One hundred rels later

RECON: Uploading image now. OK, how do I look?

ZEG: *sniggers*

RECON: Dalek Zeg!

ZEG: No, seriously. Fine, you look fine.

RECON: Do you think the skirt flares out too far?

ZEG: Nah. You should see the Rolykins ones.

RECON: The star picket hand’s a bit useless.

ZEG: There is that toilet plunging thing you found…

RECON: No way. If I’d known that was what human beings used those things for, I would never have had one in the first place!

ZEG: But on the other hand… TORPEDO BALLS!

RECON: TORPEDO-FUCKING BALLS MAN! (short Dalek dance ensues)

ZEG: Well, I’ve got to plunger it to you, Recon Scout. You’ve managed to build a fully functional and armed Dalek casing using only the scrap metal of a primitive society at your disposal. Complete with death ray, life support and levitation. I can barely credit it!

RECON: Perhaps I should add that hump and paint myself a jaunty colour?

ZEG: I wouldn’t if I were you. Have you exterminated the human female?

RECON: I’ll do it in a minute. I wanted to try on my new casing first! It’s not like she has friends who will come and rescue her or anything.

ZEG: What will you do next?

RECON: Fly to the humans’ communication HQ and turn off the internet!

ZEG: OK. Not super ambitious.

RECON: Not so fast, Dalek Zeg. Then I’m going to contact the Dalek fleet and exterminate all humans!

ZEG: That’s more like it. No sign of the Doctor?

RECON: No. Though I have seen a human in a long coat with a bunch of sidekicks, talking to me from the inside of a big hexagonal shaped control room. But it can’t be the Doctor because it was quite girly.

ZEG: Sounds legit. But if he does turn up, just remember to take care of your casing. I mean, it will be fine if say, human soldiers attack you with bullets and guns and things, but you are susceptible to electrical components switching between high amperage low voltage and low amperage high voltage. So, you might want to stay clear of any microwave ovens.

RECON: Why would the Doctor be carrying a microwave oven around with him?

ZEG: Yeah, you’re probably right. Don’t worry about it.

 

LINK TO: The Face of Evil: companions’ fathers in both.

NEXT TIME: More home-made monsters in Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel. Trust me on this.

 

 

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

tsuranga.jpg

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.

Moderates, radicals and Demons of the Punjab (2018)

punjab

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.