What I thought of Doctor Who series 11

Jodie Whittaker’s first season is over and overall this new direction (which it isn’t, more on that later) is overall pretty good. Stripping away the lairs in often incomprehensible plotlines that would often lead nowhere has freed up the programme to just tell stories again, and for the first three episodes it did that as well as the series has ever done. After that things became patchy.

Rosa is in my mind a fantastic bit of Doctor Who that lives up to the original idea of retelling history for younger viewers, while something like Kerblam! is a reminder of the worst days of the Colin Baker/Sylvester McCoy years. All the other episodes come between them with about half being above average to excellent and the rest ranging from the aforementioned rubbish of Kerblam! to the sheer averageness of It Takes You Away.

Part of the problem is Chris Chibnall. In replacing Stephen Moffat he’s simplified things and taken the show back to it’s roots so that’s why so many of this season’s episodes feel like condensed classic serials; The Doctor and crew land in a strange place/time. Encounter something odd. Investigate it. Find out the problem/culprit/monster. Solve it in a neat bow, and barring a brief coda that’s your episode.  Now that’s great most of the time but all the time? Back to basics doesn’t have to mean making the stories basic, which considering the possibilities of a female Doctor has barely been explored.  In fact there’s little character development going on with the Doctor’s likeable set of companions with one exception. Tosin Cole and Mandip Gil both do good work with what thin gruel they often got, but the massive shock is discovering Bradley Walsh can’t just act, but has become the emotional and moral heart of the programme.

What about The Doctor? Well, Whittaker is excellent often adding things into episodes which do seem scripted as she plays the Doctor not as the broken, lost thing trying to be good that Peter Capaldi did, or the boyish hero of Matt Smith, but more like Peter Davison’s often uncertain Fifth Doctor, but there’s this gap in the centre of her performance created by scripts too scared to deal with the change of gender head on. I hope Whittaker isn’t let down by scripts as Capaldi and Smith were, and I hope after this seasons reboot she’s allowed to tackle something stronger than she’s had to deal with at times this season.

Overall though the series is vastly improved. The new musical score from Segun Aginola is superb as it ditches the pompous orchestral score for something weirder, while the new production values are excellent to see even though they’d ran out of money by the last episode so relied on a quarry in Wales to see them to the end. The basics are there as are the viewers but it needs beefing up and although the attempts to create new villains is only really successful with the Stenza, the New Year’s Day episode promises the return of the Doctor’s oldest villains…

So, as a series it’s back on track. If however we’re only getting this small amount of episodes a year I’l hope next year sees a, increase in overall quality to take Whittaker’s Doctor to a new level because with the right scripts she could very well be one of the best there’s been.

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55 years of Doctor Who

Doctor Who has been with us 55 years now and it’s in a place where its under attack from critics for having the first woman playing the Doctor in the shape of Jodie Whittaker, or it being to ”SJW”, and all the usual pish from bitter, sad incels but it is still the same programme it’s always been. It’s the Doctor having adventures in time and space with his/her companions.

Right now the programme is readjusting to the post Moffat era of overblown,needlessly complex storylines to the new Chris Chibnall era where each episode is a story unto itself. Effectively the programme has gone back to basics and although some of the scripts are frankly, shite, there’s some wonderful ideas being put of screen as the programme again (as the programme has done many a time over the last 55 years) finding its feet as it finds a new audience.

Doctor Who is a programme which has a loose formula and when it deviates too far, or becomes tired, it’ll revert to it before it finds its feet again and moves on. This is where we are now. Everyone seems to be waiting to see how things go before kicking (hopefully) up a gear to develop plots and ideas which won’t turn off Countryfile viewers while keeping fans, young and old, happy.

But as the programme aims towards pensionable age it persists onwards so happy birthday and here’s to another 55 years where people will be arguing whether a  radioactive mutant should play the Doctor or not.

What I thought of Doctor Who: Rosa

There’s a lot going on with Chris Chibnall’s revamped Doctor Who outwith of just having a new Doctor in the shape of the increasingly excellent Jodie Whittaker.Effectively what Chibnall has done is a ‘soft reboot’, a concept oh so familiar in comics and film but not television. What he’s done is basically simple; he’s stripped all the story arcs out so there’s not the annoying thing that used to happen under Stephen Moffat where stories would be diminished or reduced in order to cram in something about the arc which may well end up being forgotten about anyhow.

By doing this the show is free to do single story episodes that can concentrate on telly A story rather than three or four all at the same time. Rosa is a sign that now the series has introduced the basics (Doctor, Tardis, companions, etc) it can really get going by producing an episode which is going to inhabit fan’s Top Ten lists for years to come. The story is simple, classic Who; the Doctor and her friends go back in time to fix something and in this case its ensuring Rosa Parks makes her stand by refusing to stand for a white person on the bus. What they find is another time traveller has come back in time to alter time to stop Parks making her stand and therefore end the civil rights movement before it even got started.

The Doctor of course succeeds but not before its firmly laid out the issue of racism for viewers in as unpalatable a way possible for essentially a kids TV programme shown before the watershed with ‘negro’ and ‘paki’ being used in equal measures of disgust and shock. It makes a point that racism needs to be fought because you never know when you’re a victim of it. Even Graham (played surprisingly well by Bradley Walsh & it you don’t believe he can act just look at his face when he realises he’s the person that forces Rosa to stand. The pain and tragedy is agonising) who is the Tardis crew’s sole white male. Then there’s watching Whittaker play the Doctor getting used to being a woman and realising she can’t just command authority by being a man so she has to work harder than ever before. Also if Vinette Robinson doesn’t pick up some sore sort of award for her portrayal of Rosa parks then there’s no justice.

This feels like old Who in that it’s a historical drama (and in fact it’s the closest to a classic Who historical story the new series has done) that tries to educate while leaving it’s politics slapped in your face. Before people say, ‘ah but it shouldn’t be political’ remember this is a programme that featured alien space Nazis 18 years after the actual real Nazis were defeated in a story warning us that sort of ideology should always be fought. Doctor Who has been political since virtually the start so those complaining of an ‘agenda’ forgot the programme has an agenda to inform, educate and entertain in the very DNA of it. Chibnall has taken this strand of DNA and given it a shake to remind us of history and that today, racism has got to be fought.  Indeed the same week this episode was broadcast a black woman suffered terrible abuse on a Ryanair flight and this happened in America.

My only complaint is the song at the end which is designed to make people cry but really, the episode has you by this point so if there’s not tears of anger and admiration welling up you’re a bastard of Farage-esque proportions. It doesn’t need the song to drown out the impact of the end or the lovely little coda where the Doctor shows her friends there’s a bit of the universe which will always be Rosa Parks.

Three episodes into the new series/Doctor we’re seeing the series and concept being pushed in fantastic new ways, and next week there’s spiders. No Moffatesque mysterious menaces like the possessed smell of Tudor Crisps from 1973, but spiders. Actual fucking spiders. Yeah, that might be one to watch behind the sofa…

What I thought of Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

An awful lot was riding on this episode. First female Doctor. New showrunner in the shape of Chris Chibnall who has a patchy at best record on Who, and with things like the scene below on his C.V, we were right to be worried.

On top of this there’s a vocal group online ready to lead boycotts for a series which worldwide is one of the BBC’s top three money-earners, but here in the UK the audience has declined during the Stephen Moffat years. And there’s a point; the first Moffat series is excellent but he quickly falls into a convoluted mess of plotlines and character arcs which means that if you’ve not seen Doctor Who at any point over the last half century, or have been away for a while you’d often turn on a Moffat episode and be lost from the first scene. Then there was the fact many of the scripts being commissioned were just dreadful which made it feel that actors of the calibre of Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi were often wasted.

In short the programme was in a similar state to where it was in the Colin Baker to early Sylvester McCoy years where it was falling in on itself from the weight of continuity and the urge to follow it ahead of story and character. Basically Moffatt changed the programme from a mass audience one to one for fans, which works to a limit but certainly the programme had basically fell up it’s own arse.

So The Woman Who Fell to Earth is the programme rebooting itself for the age of mass audience programming with works like Broadchurch and The Bodyguard, proving that loads of people will tune in at the same time if there’s something they want to see. The revamped Doctor Who is now 13 years old and frankly, wasn’t going to keep an audience where it was going, so in come Chibnall fresh from the success of Broadchurch,  to essentially take the programme back to 2005. All you need to know going into this is there’s a character called the Doctor, who has just regenerated because they’re an alien, and they fight evil on and off Earth throughout time with their companion/s. Chibnall has also promised no old recurring baddies for this series which is good, and I hope finally lets the new series build up its own mythology.

Which brings us back to everything riding on this episode. The BBC have spent what must be millions in sending Whittaker around the world to publicise the relaunch (which the BBC never admitted it was) and it has to be said, she did her job brilliantly showing an enthusiasm and love for the show that belies the fact she wasn’t a hardcore fan when first cast. The first episode itself has a pretty old-school Who B-plot with an alien landing in Sheffield (the programme uses its Sheffield locations, and the fact we’re not used to seeing programming set outwith of London very well) killing people seemingly randomly. It frankly is only there to push along the A-plot which is who is this woman who crashed from the skies and how come she knows how to fight an alien menace? There’s also the start of three character arcs in the shape of the companions ( Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill and a surprisingly good Bradley Walsh) so there’s a lot going on in a busy opener.

On the whole it works. A major death is telegraphed from the minute the character is introduced which detracts from the tension, also the alien menace looks great and not a monster out to destroy the universe but is dispatched with a finality which suggests it won’t return which is a shame.  The companions, sorry, ‘friends’ are all fine and good though I’m still worried there may be too many of them, but it’s Jodie Whitaker that the new relaunch hinges on and she carries the entire thing off so well that you forgive the odd cliche, or clunker of a line.Added to the fact there’s a real effort in upping direction (though Moffat should be praised for letting people like Ben Wheatley loose on Who) and cinematography (Sheffield has never looked so good)that things do feel exciting and fresh.

In fact by halfway through the episode you forget all the fuss about a woman Doctor and just accept that this is The Doctor, it’s a regeneration episode and I can’t wait to see where Whitaker goes from here to develop the character though you can spot influences, especially when she’s bumbling around trying to build a new sonic screwdriver there’s a touch of Troughton, Tennant and Smith there, then a touch of Tom Baker and Eccleston during the climatic scenes. There’s even a few scenes where she carries herself as Capaldi would to show shes not fully regenerated yet. Is it perfect? No though as introductory episodes it is up there is the show’s 55 year history (Spearhead From Space remains my favourite) but it had a number of jobs to perform which it did well.

We now have a new Doctor. There are complaints about how the ‘agenda’ is spoiling it from mainly sad wankers, then there’s Americans complaining about the Sheffield accents which is so sad it’s funny but the response so far has been good, though the tough work really starts now. Will Whitaker keep people coming back or, like Smith and Capaldi, will she be let down by scripts? There’s still the Tardis to re-indtroduce too

We’ll see but for now there’s an almost blank slate to play with and Doctor Who feels fresh and exciting. For that a well done to all involved is deserved. Bring on next week!

What has Doctor Who in common with conspiracy theories, Russia and hats?

Ever since 2001 and 911, the conspiracy theory has entered political debate so with Russia strongly suspected of poisoning the Skripal’s in Sailisbury, tinfoil hats are being passed out left, right and centre.

On the subject of hats, we have #hatgate in which some of the more rabid supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are saying the BBC are making Corbyn seem ‘more Russian‘ by digitally altering the Lenin cap he wears which is so called thanks to Lenin adopting it as I assume he hung around with a load of Greek fishermen. Meanwhile, various Tory figures are avoiding discussing the rather large sums of money many of them have been given by various Russian oligarchs. Then there’s the frantic cry and rush to war from much of the UK media who seem to forget that a war between the UK and Russia wouldn’t even last as long as the career of an X Factor winner. We also have people on the left leaping instinctively to defend Russia even though Russia is now a hyper-capitalist tyranny, while some on the right leap to the defence of some on the left. All the time Putin and the Russians are simply taking the piss and watch this further destabilise the UK, while Putin gets to send a message to his dissidents that you can’t ever escape.

So it would be hilarious if it weren’t so serious but then wading into this quagmire of insanity comes former Doctor Who actor John Levene who played Sergeant Benton of UNIT during mainly the Jon Pertwee era who is on the case in Salisbury in this, well, quite unique video that touches international crime and feeding the ducks.

In this era of fake news and hats, who best to get to the root of the problem but a retired actor? It sort of sums up how we appear to be living in a world where nothing at all makes any sense and we’re so desperate for simple answers that we’ll throw our hat on anything that fits our own personal bias’s.

What I thought of Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time

In terms of stakes this episode of Doctor Who had a lot to achieve. It wasn’t just the last episode of Peter Capaldi’s run, but also head producer Steven Moffat, as well as being the first introduction of the first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. Add into this the fact the story was a multi-Doctor story with David Bradley doing a good job of portraying William Hartnell’s first Doctor plus we’ve got a WW1 army officer played by Mark Gatiss who has been displaced in time for some reason. It sort of works as long as you’re prepared to ignore the plot as that’s really secondary to what else is going on here.

The episode starts with a recap of the very first regeneration 709 episodes ago as the First Doctor (One) faced down the Cybermen, and that nicely leads into One meeting Capaldi’s Doctor (Twelve) at the South Pole after he’s just faced down the Cybermen. Both are refusing to regenerate; in One’s case because he wants to die in the same body he was born in and in Twelve’s case because he’s done with it all. He’s tired of fighting and just wants some peace. In the middle of all this is the riddle of why a WW1 officer has be placed out of time with both Doctor’s? Enter a group of glass androids powered by memories called Testimony who harvest people’s memories at the moment of death, so when Twelve’s former companion Bill Potts returns she can only remember everything up the point of her death. Twelve suspects something bad is going on, and One and Twelve team up to find out what’s going on.

It turns out the plot doesn’t really matter. Testimony aren’t baddies, but actually an academic project from the future to preserve human memories and experiences. This plot device allows Moffat to bring back all of Twelve’s companions (yes, including Clara) to give Capaldi’s Doctor a farewell, and deals with the idea of memories never being replaced. We’ll just make new ones and move on instead of wallowing in past memories which is as subtle a way as possible as saying we need to move on but we’ll still have memories to fall back on when we can. to an audience partly made up of people concerned the new Doctor will be having adventures while not in possession of a penis.

As an episode it is probably the best Christmas special since A Christmas Carol, and a nice sendoff for Capaldi who again shows that he can make any script sing, and here’s been the problem with Moffat’s time as head writer; all the promise of his first year with Matt Smith vanished as plots became needlessly convoluted and were rarely resolved in any satisfying manner. Twice Upon A Time is a fairly simple story by Moffat standards but the hundreds of thousands watching for the regeneration who aren’t regular viewers would have been scratching their heads over some of the plot which did involve having a bit of knowledge of Moffat’s run and indeed, the 54 years history of the programme. Indeed one of the other problems of Moffat’s time is a viewer needed some knowledge of the history to appreciate the programme fully. That said the revelation of just who Mark Gatiss is playing is a lovely wee touch for fans of the programme going back to Patrick Troughton’s time, though I found Moffat making Hartnell’s Doctor a sexist prick

Yet this episode feels like a palate cleanser for what’s to come. A new producer/head writer in the shape of Chris Chibnall, and of course, a new Doctor in the form of Jodie Whittaker. Everything is set up at the end of this episode for a totally fresh start which brings me to the regeneration. Isn’t my favourite. That’s still Peter Davidson to Colin Baker at the end of Caves of Androzani. That story also featured a Doctor fighting off a regeneration, but in this case it was to save the life of his companion and it features the best opening lines from a new Doctor while breaking the fourth wall.. It still can’t be beat.

Capaldi’s regeneration is good though and is essentially a monologue outlining what the Doctor should be; never cruel or cowardly which is the line former Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks has used for years to describe what the basic character of the Doctor. How Moffat uses that line here is to tell the audience that as long as the Doctor remains these things then they are the Doctor, regardless of how they look.

The new Doctor has a cliffhanger to resolve but she comes to the audience as either a blank slate, or as an evil example of how the snowflake Femnazis are making everything awful from the ”we’ve got blue passports” brigade. She’s got the potential to give the programme the jolt it needs as long as Chibnall remembers that not every viewer will be dripping in the history of the programme and to make stories accessible while at the same time keeping the hardcore fan happy. Not an easy task, but I wish them well and although I’m full of regret we never saw Capaldi hit his full potential that we’re going to get something very special with Jodie Whitaker.

What I thought of Doctor Who:Shada

The Tom Baker era of Doctor Who is for many of a certain age, their era of Doctor Who, and it was always a tragedy that the last Douglas Adams story, Shada, was never completed due to a strike. Various attempts over the years have attempted to recreate it as best as possible with varying levels of success but the new 2017 recreation/completion mixed with original unbroadcast footage is as probably as close as we’ll get.

This would have been Adams final story for Who as at this point the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was just taking off and it really is built round Adams writing a love letter to his time at university in Cambridge. In fact much of the action takes place in a professor’s room not to mention that the action is on the whole, far more intellectual than modern Who’s more action/adventure style. This isn’t perfect, and the script has holes in it that you’d think would have been picked up had their not been the strike but the joy of watching Tom Baker in his pomp, aided by a glorious Lalla Ward (who I hope provides Jodie Whitaker with inspiration) in an adventure together most of us haven’t seen is simply wonderful, not to mention nostalgic.

As for the plot, it is something that adds greatly to Time Lord lore (Shada is the Time Lords prison planet) but on the whole the story suffers from being planned as a 6-parter. It gets a bit flabby in places, and a clever pun gets overused. There’s also the issue of poor monster henchmen and the aforementioned holes in the plot leaves holes at crucial points.When it does work it simply is a thing of genius. Baker and Ward are clearly loving the dialogue which is clever without being smug, or totally outwith of most people’s ability to understand. Adams is having fun here, and the scene where Baker’s Doctor convinces a ship’s computer that he’s actually dead is just pure Adams. There’s also a running joke where poor K9 is frequently treated with contempt which mirrors much of what the production team thought at the time.

Shada is an interesting experiment. The animation doesn’t quite work, but suspend your belief enough and it does the job in giving us an unfinished Douglas Adams work.The extras are a delight, and as for the new scene filmed with Baker? That’s a delight and nicely links forward/back to Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special. Overall Shada is a joyful piece of nostalgia and a celebration of what made Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor so incredibly special.