Doctor Who: It Takes You Away

From guttural horror to a moving consideration of grief, via high-concept sci-fi, all wrapped up by one of the most bizarre climaxes Doctor Who has done in years, It Takes You Away continues to add colour to this series as we approach the finale. Over its fifty minutes, it feels unpredictable in structure, even uncertain what genre it wanted to be – yet somehow it holds together. It’s a roller coaster in the way Doctor Who occasionally is – and luckily this is one of those occasions when it works.

Unrelenting dread is the order of the day as we arrive at a cold, isolated setting, and feel an overwhelming sense of the unknown. The threat doesn’t feel fully defined – which we realise was deliberate upon the reveal that our ‘monster’ was nothing more than a pair of speakers, à la Father Ted. But until this point, we’re made to feel as unsure in our grasp of the menace as possible, and Hanne’s (Eleanor Wallwork) blindness is used to increase this. She wouldn’t be able to see it were she fully sighted, but she is the only one who can tell us about it, convincing us that there will be something to see.

On this point, there is something unsavoury about how blindness is treated here – simply as a way of generating mystery. And there are no consequences for Erik (Christian Rubeck) having abandoned his terrified, bereaved, blind daughter alone in the woods, with a monster of his own fabrication and with no form of communication. It’s simply skipped over. Meanwhile, the Doctor uses Hanne’s blindness to her own advantage too when writing a message to Ryan, keeping yet more secrets from her. It’s a callous move that we might have grudgingly accepted from Peter Capaldi circa 2014, but it leaves a sour taste here.

Regardless, the mystery itself is intriguing, and reels us in at a perfect pace. When a sudden shift takes our journey into the anti-zone, we feel ready for a new stage of the adventure. And more unknowns come to unsettle us. Ribbons feels like a stock sci-fi character, but Kevin Eldon brings him deliciously to life, and it isn’t hard to start painting pictures of his life in our minds, with all his creeping nastiness. Again, he doesn’t feel fully explained, and nor do the flesh-eating moths, and nor does this entire space – but enough is given to us not to feel short-changed as we’re left to fill the blanks with our own imaginations. It’s all the scarier for it.

When we arrive into the Solitract universe, we’re struck by a sense of the uncanny – it’s subtle at first, and it takes a moment to hit home that, in this mirror world, the picture has been reversed (Erik’s Slayer t-shirt is the real clue). But what summons up real dread is Sharon D Clarke’s performance as Grace. We’ve seen her so little, but we know this version of her is wrong. So little seems changed, and yet she is colder; deader. It feeds our suspicions and our fears brilliantly, but that same strategy also makes Hanne’s family more distant to us. Trine (Lisa Stokke) is a copy, just like Grace, while Erik has done nothing to invoke our sympathy, and we are shown precious little of Hanne’s relationship with either of them. Only experiencing them at this crisis point, we don’t gain an understanding of who they normally are.

But the approach serves its purpose, and all through Grace and Graham’s conversations we’re desperate for him to admit what we can already see clearly. Yet we also feel his own desperation to believe he has found his wife, and we feel his pain when he must choose between this seductive fiction and a bleaker reality. But he gains strength from his love for Ryan, and this is at last reciprocated when Ryan calls him Grandad for the first time, having had to address his own mistrust of the men in his life during his experiences with Hanne. It’s a very satisfying development for both those characters as the series nears its end.

Finding new hope in a place of isolation is the theme of the episode then, and it’s quintessentially Doctor Who that this is examined not just by meeting ghosts of lost loved ones, but in a climactic conversation with a talking frog. Opinion on this scene is inevitably split, but personally I loved it. After so many twists and turns in the episode, this felt like another welcome one, and on just the right side of lunacy.

Celebrating Grace’s spirit further through a symbol she loved, the frog also lends a sense of the child-like that suits Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor well, with all the wonderment she has brought to the role (as well as tying in with the bedtime story from her grandmother where she first heard of the Solitract). This final conversation could be seen as a romantic relationship ending, like Grace and Graham, but with its roots in the Doctor’s childhood, it feels just as much like saying goodbye to an imaginary friend. There was something strangely touching about that little frog.

How fantastic that, after the fresh ground that’s already been struck this year (especially with trips into history), we can enjoy such original sci-fi ideas so late on too. It Takes You Away adds yet more much-needed variety to a very strong second half of the series, and serves our central characters well too. The arcs of their development feel clear, and we have gradually come to feel, without many ‘big moments’ for them, that we know the TARDIS team perfectly. One or two misgivings on the tone aside, this was another fantastic instalment to their first season.




Doctor Who: The Witchfinders

Another trip into the past, another successful episode. In The Witchfinders, we have a further instalment in this year’s Doctor Who where traditional storytelling offers a chance to reflect on contemporary issues. Investigating an unknown menace, fighting larger-than-life villains and their useful idiots – two tropes nearly as old as the programme itself are on show here, but infused once again with a threat that has become a running theme this series, the terror of a human mob. The greatest inhumanity can spring from humanity itself; very of the moment.

In Rosa, we feared a society gripped by racism. In Demons of the Pubjab, we saw young men whipped up into nationalistic fervour. Here, we see paranoia and manipulation turn communities upon their own women. It feels appropriate that the first female Doctor should break her own policy of non-interference for the first time in order to intervene in a witch trial, and that she should ultimately face such a trial herself.

For the first time this series, drama is generated by the Doctor’s gender. Interestingly, her treatment continues a grand tradition of the Doctor being ignored, belittled and threatened by the authorities, fighting to be listened to, to be permitted to save the day. Yet this is the first time such a thing specifically happens because of her identity. King James (Alan Cumming) is happy to trust an outsider, bestowing Graham with the role of Witchfinder General – he just isn’t happy to trust a woman. A traditional piece of storytelling is enabled by our ongoing contemporary conversation on gender.

As in Rosa then, Graham, the white man of the group, is an ally thrown into a reluctant position of privilege, an egalitarian mistaken for a ruler. A well-known Doctor Who format turned on its head by the changed gender dynamic, in turn allowing more for a companion to do.  Yaz also gets a more pro-active role, her police officer background coming to inform her character better, as she instinctively heads into the community to find answers. Ryan gets a more comic turn for this episode, although the running joke of his unwanted attention from King James does, on reflection, smell a bit of ‘gay panic’ – not the best judged comedy this series has done.

By now, our team feels fully formed and we’re sure that we know them. So, as with Kerblam! last week, we can enjoy a fantastic guest cast too. Alan Cumming in particular shines as King James, theatrical flamboyance met with perfect, calculated control. Every tick and every glimmer of the eyes feeds into this masterful performance of a man fixated and warped by personal loss. Siobhan Finerran is brilliant as Becka Savage too, an embodiment of individualism against community. Her self-preservation comes at the expense of all the women around her, and her shame is finally exposed when those she has sacrificed group together against her.

And so we come to the monsters themselves. After our last two trips into history, where the drama was distinctly human, it feels almost disappointing to return to a story that explains away a mythical threat as alien activity. But the reveal of the Morac as our witches holds together better than similar pivots that spring to mind from previous stories, like The Stones of Blood (1978) or The Curse of the Black Spot (2011).

Crucially, this fits tonally, and it also successfully treads a fine line, giving a story about witch trials the witches we’d expect to see, but also emphasising that those tried as witches remain victims. The witches we see are terrifying, but they are reanimated bodies of innocent people, unjustly treated by those around them, and at the mercy of a malign, outside. In a story that is embarrassingly Doctor Who’s first in 35 years to be both written and directed by women (the last one was excellent too), it’s an aspect that feels brilliantly judged, and depressingly apt.


Doctor Who: Kerblam!

Not for the first time, I’ve tuned into Doctor Who having just made a criticism of the previous week, only to have the concern addressed head-on by that evening’s episode. Just so, last week, I expressed concern that the Doctor had seldom felt a leader so far thie year. In Kerblam!, she feels in full charge of the situation, the leader of her pack for the first time in the series. Kerblam! is fantastically old-school in its format, and this serves all our characters the best they’ve been served all year.

Following the familiar pattern of a distress call received, a mystery uncovered, a problem resolved, Kerblam! uses this shape  to its advantage. That I was struck by how quickly things were moving shows that the series has been missing the odd episode like this. We know the rhythm of this story, how it should proceed, so not a single line is wasted – every moment feeds into character, everyone has their part to play in the episode, and it’s all done with economy and pace.

The Doctor is here as we’ve always known her to be, at once the outsider and the moral authority in a world where all’s not well. Ruffling feathers, sticking her nose in and righting a terrible wrong – all the while encouraging everyone she meets to be who they know themselves capable of being. And her companions all have such moments where they capitalise on their skills, or challenge themselves, and come into their own. Ryan hurling himself down the conveyors with Yaz, whose own experience as a police officer finally arises without a sense of being shoehorned in – their characters are reinforced by their every line.

Man of the people Graham, at first providing comic relief, quickly provides some of the greatest in-roads for the plot. As with The Woman Who Fell to Earth and Rosa, and his reliance on bus drivers for information, here with Charlie (Leo Flanagan), he learns vital information about the infrastructure and the workings of Kerblam! working in maintenance. Another line of work often forgotten, even looked down upon, yet essential. And he does so with the characteristic warmth Bradley Walsh brings to the part every week. What an asset he is to the series.

None of this focus on the leads hampers the guest cast either, and as the TARDIS team split up they each meet new characters we come to know and care about at once. We love Dan (Lee Mack) and want him to be reunited with his daughter – it’s a terrible moment when he’s suddenly killed. Similar can be said for Kira (Claudia Jessie), whose death, like Grace’s in episode one, feels a terrible cruelty to inflict simply for the sake of motivating another character. (Even if, on this occasion, that is a calculated cruelty within the story itself, inflicted by the Kerblam! system onto Charlie, it leaves a sour taste.)

They’re all character types we know: the hard-working family man, the young, burgeoning office couple. The familiarity helps us care faster. But there are some subversions too – Julie Hesmondhalgh gives a fantastic turn as futuristic HR manager Judy, a character we expect to be cold, perhaps even a villain, who turns out to be caring, determined and incorruptible. Likewise, Slade (Callum Dixon) turns from nasty boss to secretive investigator, a goodie after all, although that pivot feels sudden, and works against the episode’s conclusion. One character less well-served by the necessary twists and turns of a whodunit, then – although the final reveal of Charlie as our killer strikes the right balance of surprising and satisfying.

Where the episode falls a little there is in finding consistency in its moral outlook. It’s refreshing to have an episode where the villain is someone whose politics we sympathise with. Charlie’s crimes stem from political idealism, a desire to see more people in work, after their abandonment by an automated society that now views a 10% human workforce as generous. It calls Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) to mind, where the whole of human history is nearly unwound by environmentalists who want to give the species a fresh start. The Doctor sympathises there, less so here. While last year’s Oxygen was decidedly anti-capitalist, now she goes to great lengths to stress that the system is not to blame, merely abuses of it.

Charlie’s violence is stopped, and Judy gives her assurances that the workforce will become majority-human. Which is all very well, but what of the abuses we’ve already seen? Slade might have turned out good, but earlier on we’ve seen him bullying Kira. We’ve seen the work is tedious for many, and keeps Dan perpetually separated from his family. All the while, the superbly creepy teammates ensure efficiency is at a high and joy at a low. And even good-hearted Judy admits that she can’t keep track of every single worker’s welfare. Yet the Doctor simply moves on at the end, content with a job well done.

I don’t hold the episode’s viewpoint against it, simply the elements it doesn’t quite reconcile. And that didn’t detract from how much I enjoyed the adventure. Kerblam! was one of the highlights of the series so far for me, a fantastic story of a kind it felt we hadn’t seen for some time. An alien menace that unsettles us by being creepy instead of brutal, jokes that were properly funny, a sense of colour in the world we were shown.

There was something of the McCoy era to it – a sci-fi satire of our society, from structural inequality to pop culture, where a sense of eerie decline prompts the Doctor to fix an as-yet unknown problem. A less garish The Happiness Patrol (1988), or a less youth-theatre Paradise Towers (1987). Even a messenger arriving in the TARDIS was straight out of 1988/89’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (and what a fantastically efficient piece of world-building the Kerblam! man is – we instantly get it). I loved the episode for that. What sat less well was that we’re used to seeing such a world fundamentally changing for the better at the end. At the end of Kerblam!, we have a sense that a couple of cracks remain.


Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab

I commented last week that this series of Doctor Who was so far at its strongest when it journeyed into the past (only one episode to feed that theory, but Rosa served its characters exceptionally well). Demons of the Punjab, our second journey into history, bears this out – a moving episode that brings a personal element to a much vaster story, in a way that speaks to our society as it stands now.

The partition of India is an event only lightly touched upon in History lessons when I was in school, and although the episode could grandstand more on a subject rooted in colonialism and oppression, it doesn’t seek to. In avoiding that, it makes its chosen points more effectively. Passing references are made to the culpability of the British for ensuing catastrophes, but viewers are left to do their own reading on the situation. The episode’s real target is any voice of division, any voice that stirs radical opinion, or that answers difference with violence – regardless of those voices’ origins.

Vinay Patel’s first script for the programme shows the human cost of such rhetoric, whether espoused by Hindu or Muslim. Homes are abandoned, family ties severed, former alliances in conflict undone. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over proceedings, emphasised by the presence of the Thijarians, and it’s hard to think of an episode more appropriate for broadcast on Remembrance Day (further evidence of care and thoughtful planning going into this series’ running order).

Former assassins whose sole purpose is now to mourn those who die alone, the Thijarians are an alien presence whose service to the episode is thematic in the end. As with Rosa, we are shown the most frightening monster to be ordinary people who have ‘lost their minds’. Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) embodies this, a radicalised young man, whose blinkered view in the end helps claim his brother Prem’s (Shane Zaza) life. Two deeply compelling performances in a fantastic cast.

Through them, we feel the individual stakes amidst an enormous conflict, and personal unrest is threaded through the whole episode, developing our central characters further. As with Arachnids in the UK, we come to know Yaz better through seeing her within her family. Her relationship with her grandmother has shown us much more of who she is than the odd reference to her job as a police officer has. Confronted with the possibility of dishonesty on Umbreen’s (Amita Suman) part when seeing her youth first-hand, we see her face doubts about herself and her own standing in the world. It’s a fantastic challenge for the character, and a further engaging strand of the story.

There are pieces of wonderful writing also when it comes to Umbreen herself, as we see her in old age (Leena Dhingra) echoing her younger self’s dislike of her mother’s hand pattern design before her wedding. A fantastic little moment of character building. It also simultaneously counters and draws attention to the sense that she should recognise her adult granddaughter from one of the most important memories of her life. But honestly, when everything surrounding such niggles is so rich, it feels churlish to complain. Crucially, all the people in this episode feel like people. Vinay Patel is a very welcome addition to the writing team.

One issue that recurs here and elsewhere, though, is with the Doctor’s characterisation. Not necessarily a criticism, more a concern. Jodie Whittaker continues to impress, levity and gravitas coming in equal measure as her characterisation unfolds. It feels increasingly often this series that the Doctor makes a mistake and apologises – a refreshing change from the tiresome grandiosity of the previous ten years or so.

But the frequency of these moments, coupled with the, again welcome, more passive approach to historical adventures like this one, could begin to feed a perception of this Doctor as more a passenger, less a leader. As I say, refreshing for now, but if it persists without clearer moments of leadership along the way, is that the best look for the character?

That ongoing thought aside, this struck me on second viewing today as the strongest episode in the series so far. A moving, intelligent script with gripping performances and an awareness of history and context that reaches out to the viewer as much as it draws them in. And, once more, a special mention is warranted for Segun Akinola’s superb score. Music that engages without ever becoming pushy is a very welcome development this year.

I was also struck by the end credits, the usual theme tune rearranged to reflect this week’s delving into Asian history. As with Rosa’s use of Rise Up over the end credits, it reflects an overall creative approach that refuses to be reverent to the Doctor Who that has come before (only one episode before this year had gone without the traditional theme tune in over fifty years). Once again, as it always should be, Doctor Who is not being given special treatment for being Doctor Who, but is being treated by its makers with a sense of creativity that should go without saying for any drama. Thank goodness for that.


Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Well, you need to odd dud to appreciate the good weeks, don’t you?

To be fair to The Tsuranga Conundrum, it has a lot of good, fun, interesting elements bubbling away. The trouble is they seldom feel capitalised on, fail to gel into a coherent episode, and inhabit a rather cold sci-fi world that gives us very little to engage with in terms of either character or plot. As it is, the episode feels both dull and messy, which admittedly is an impressive achievement in Doctor Who, a show whose failures normally only manage to be one at a time.

Decent turns are given by the guest cast, and it isn’t their fault that their characters don’t manage to grip us. The blame has to lie with the script. We’re told what sort of roles these people fulfil in this mini-disaster movie. The brother and sister with unspoken vulnerabilities and insecurities, the newbie unsure of her abilities, a pregnant civilian in urgent need of care. We’re told these, we see these roles and relationships at work to a greater or lesser extent, yet in most cases we feel very little from them.

We’re told that Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith) feels Eve (Suzanne Packer) doesn’t believe in him, but do we see enough to show why he feels this? That relationship would not be as clear were it not spelled out beforehand. Similarly, the self-doubt Mabli (Lois Chimimba) goes through is made clear by Astos (Brett Goldstein) before we see it evidenced. Time spent saying what people feel is time not spent demonstrating it, and it’s a frequent shortcoming.

Character is not fantastically served, then. The episode strives at the end to make this into Eve’s story – the last stand of a great figure in history. But again, we learn of her status through a couple of lines of dialogue when the Doctor meets her. That’s all we’re given to show off a titanic reputation.

Contrast with Lindsey Duncan’s Captain Adelaide Brooke in The Waters of Mars (2009), when a character’s status and history are built up through flashbacks, and the Doctor quietly idolises her throughout. Here, we have a fairly brief meeting and a few lines of dialogue (ending with a joke that puts the Doctor on even, if not greater, footing). We have precious little to feed the story of a great commander, battling the odds and illness, until she pilots the ship in the final sequence – too late for us to be convinced, and not helped by the sets, which are expansive and samey enough to feel rather empty, rather removed, rather safe.

We lack a sense of jeopardy. And in an episode like this, we need jeopardy as a source of momentum and as a catalyst for relationships to boil over. It doesn’t help that, with pretty much every room and corridor looking identical, and with so few shots of outside the ship, we don’t get a good grasp of physical movement or the geography within. Where is the threat? Is something coming to get us? How far away is it? We don’t feel any of these concerns.

And when it comes to the threat itself, the tone is uneven. I like the Pting. It’s an imaginative monster, and the idea that it’s disposed of by feeding it an exploding bomb, the thermal energy of which was all it ever wanted as a harmless food source in the first place, is fantastic. The sort of thing that Doctor Who does so well: other sci-fi series might shy away from it.

Because the Pting is funny. It looks funny; it sounds funny; it moves in a funny way; the sight of Yaz booting it down a corridor is a great moment of comedy in an episode that wants a few more laughs. It even has a funny name. Anyone watching the episode will surely think the Pting is funny. I’m just not convinced any of the characters do, and that’s an issue for us as viewers. It’s not as easy to connect with people if you don’t laugh at the same things.

I don’t think the Pting being funny necessarily removes the sense of danger – so long as you see a laugh deflated by a moment of savagery. Look at the Adipose from Partners in Crime (2008) – one of the most bizarre-looking monsters in the history of the show, and the episode knows it. But we still feel unnerved by the thought of them moving under their carriers’ skin, a rumble of the stomach becoming a death knell. The Pting could be funny and scary by turns, but the story doesn’t share our first reaction – so it doesn’t elicit the second from us.

Danger and pressure don’t stem enough from the Pting then, but there can be other sources – this is a space-age ambulance, after all, rushing its passengers to hospital. That could be a pressurised enough situation to bring out a character’s problems, and indeed it is – but only for Ryan. His experience having to become a doula for Yoss (Jack Shalloo), who is unsure whether he could ever be capable of being a father, gives him a way to vicariously right the wrongs of his own absent dad.

Doctor Who now is at its best when trips into other times illuminate something of a companion’s life in the present day. That’s what Rosa did so well a few weeks ago, and it’s what The Tsuranga Conundrum does so well for Ryan. It’s the most engaging element of the episode by far. But there’s so much less of this kind of insight awarded to Graham and Yaz, and it doesn’t need to be that way.

The episode is set in an ambulance (although the colour palette, uniform sets and generally static sense of the episode might make it feel more like a hospital). We all have memories, good and bad, of visits to hospital, of ambulance rides. Perhaps Yaz has had to sit in an ambulance with the victim of a violent crime. Graham certainly has previous experience, having suffered from cancer and met the love of his life while undergoing treatment. Little moments like that could help us feel closer to a world that instead feels removed from us. (It would help the plot too – why doesn’t it feel utterly obscene that an ambulance would be fitted with a remote-controlled self-destruct system? Perhaps because it doesn’t feel that much like an ambulance.)

As it stands, Graham does mention that his wife was a nurse, but mostly provides reliable comic relief with his references to Call the Midwife. Meanwhile Yaz displays that she paid attention in physics, and that she works as a police officer (in more on-the-nose dialogue of the kind that script editor Andrew Ellard picks up on much better than I do in his excellent Tweetnotes series). But that’s all. No moments of insight into their own stories as are offered for Ryan, when they could have easily had more.

Frustration, then, is the main thing I felt watching The Tsuranga Conundrum. It would be churlish, and wrong, to call it ‘bad’, because there are plenty of good things about it, including some I’ve mentioned above. All the pieces are there for a fantastic adventure. They just don’t quite come together when the moment arises, so the episode misses the mark. It hasn’t put me off by any means (I’d hope writing a blog about it each week would indicate a base level of investment) But so far it feels that we have adventures that serve character much better when the series goes into the past, which needn’t be the case. Hopefully that will adjust, but for now, I’m glad we have another trip into history in store tonight, as Yaz visits her grandmother, and we explore the Partition of India.


Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK

With humour, thrills and images that haunt, Arachnids in the UK is a textbook Doctor Who adventure. It’s not a story that necessarily says much new, but it does introduce us to new characters in Yaz’s family, and crucially brings us to an endpoint where she, Graham and Ryan voluntarily join the Doctor to travel together. And it only took nearly half the series.

Primarily, the episode is here to serve character, and at long last we get to know Yaz a bit better. She’s been somewhat neglected so far, and now Chris Chibnall shows us more of who she is by showing us her family – a strategy it’s good to see return from the Russell T Davies era. One of the best ways to understand someone is to see where they have come from, and what they’re kicking against, as they opt to travel the universe.

We get similar developments of Graham and Ryan’s stories. Touching scenes of Graham feeling Grace’s presence in their lifeless house show us what pushes him towards the wonders of the TARDIS too. (I still maintain I’d rather see Grace alive and interacting with her family properly, but there we go.) Meanwhile, Ryan hears once again from his deadbeat father, in a letter suggesting that they live together again. That he tells Graham, very briefly, that he’s chosen not to indicates the underlying affection growing between the two of them – even though this itself isn’t vocalised.

Ryan’s development is more interesting, in this respect, than Yaz and Graham’s. What’s important is what goes unsaid, whereas the other two often explain to the Doctor (and us) just what they’re feeling. The last scene of the episode demonstrates this well, and it’s why we benefit from seeing more of Yaz and Graham’s home lives. In seeing how they function there, we’re shown more than we’re told for a change.

The other character we continue to see come into her own is the Doctor herself. It’s not to say we don’t have a good handle on her from the previous few weeks, but she sometimes feels as much a player in the wider ensemble than the star (in many ways, that’s a deliberate choice). But as we see her saying what could be a lasting goodbye to her friends, taking Yaz up on the offer of tea, interacting with her family, getting puzzled over Ed Sheeran, we see warmth, emotional honesty and humorous energy that haven’t been seen so clearly since the days of David Tennant. Couple this with the Doctor’s fundamental moral authority showing ever more confidently, and Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation continues to enthral.

All that makes up for some of the more run-of-the-mill aspects of the plot. The ending certainly felt a cop-out, a final showdown culminating in a monster simply being gunned down – by a man thoroughly deserving of a comeuppance, who simply gets to walk away. Chris Noth gives a fun performance as Robertson, but he feels far too casually let go by the story’s climax. It doesn’t feel a deliberate choice, like with Voyage of the Damned (2007) or The God Complex (2011), where a cruel, cowardly figure is rescued against the audience’s clear wishes. Here, there’s no point made of the lack of retribution – it’s just allowed to happen.

Nonetheless, the story is generally an engaging one, with mad science and industrial irresponsibility combining to echo the giant maggot-infested coal mine of The Green Death (1973). There are arresting images of horror amid the everyday, not least a cobwebbed flat in Sheffield housing the wrapped body of a victim in her bed. The sight of spiders creeping en masse out of the darkness lingers in the memory too, as does the sequence of them scuttling along to Stormzy later (albeit in a different way).

While we’re on the spiders, it’s worth dwelling once again on how good Doctor Who looks this series. The episode count has been reduced once again this year, but the resulting increase in money (I assume) per episode really shows. At last, Doctor Who has done giant spiders and they don’t look silly. When even a more standard storyline like this one can feel so well-done, with engaging characters at its heart, there’s every reason to continue feeling very impressed indeed by this year’s series.


Doctor Who: Rosa

And so into history. Rosa Parks and the black civil rights movement in the US is a difficult subject for any programme to handle well, let alone a time-travelling sci-fi adventure series. So it’s a relief that, in Rosa, Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall deliver probably the best, most sensitive and intelligent handling of real history that Doctor Who has managed in about 52 years.

The episode feels a welcome change from encounters with historical figures over the last couple of eras of the show. Which isn’t to say that previous meetings with Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens, the citizens of Pompeii, haven’t made for fantastic pieces of television. But these figures and events are distant enough to be larger than life, grand portrayals – the myth. That the history depicted here is more recent, and sadly still all too relevant, goes some way to explain why such an approach is absolutely not called for here.

Therefore, in a departure for 21st century Doctor Who’s ‘celebrity historical’ model, the Doctor and her friends are not felt to make any significant impact on Rosa’s life at all. Yes, they protect the circumstances that enable her to make her protest, but the action and the sentiments are entirely her own. She is unchanged by the encounter.

In fact, it is she who changes them, exclusively. Inspiring Yaz and giving new opportunities to Ryan, including meeting Martin Luther King (leasing to one of the episode’s best comic beats), she guides them, never the other way round. They are reverent observers – and nothing more. She is also not made into a towering figure, as previous historical ‘titans’ have been in the show – thanks not just to a sensitive script, but also a quietly indomitable performance by Vinette Robinson.

Such scenes mean that the episode also gives the companions a better chance to come into their own. Their first step into history presents a key issue for our cast to respond to, using it to define themselves, by way of their individual experiences. Yaz and Ryan’s discussion of their present day encounters with racism is an arresting moment, making clear the episode’s message that the battle is not over yet. (They, too, have had to learn, “Never give them the excuse”.)

Meanwhile, Graham’s visit to 1955 Montgomery summons up more memories of Grace and the lessons she taught him. More than Yaz and Ryan have been granted as yet, he has fantastic moments of comic relief with the Doctor. But he also finds himself in a heart-rending position at the episode’s climax, as the Doctor makes clear they need to stay on Rosa’s bus to keep the numbers up and ensure she will be asked to give up her seat. When the moment comes, it is Graham who is standing – forced into the unwanted position of privilege he has held throughout in the starkest way possible. Honouring and betraying Grace’s memory all at once.

Rosa provides a compelling demonstration of how history and its evils still resonate and can touch us today, with the TARDIS crew feeling it first-hand. After its broadcast, I saw discussion online as to whether this could have been taken further. Rather than have a malign figure in Krasko (Joshua Bowman) actively trying to disrupt history, what if our heroes accidentally create the problem themselves upon arrival, and have to spend the rest of the episode putting it right?

I had some sympathy with the idea until second viewing: Krasko is needed. The argument was that Ryan and Yaz’s discussion of modern day prejudice was enough to show the battle continues, but Krasko, a white supremacist from the far future, goes further, showing just how hard the fight must still be fought today. Even more crucially, while giving the story a useful singular villain, Krasko is incapable of violence due to an implant he received in prison – he may no longer be able to kill, but his plan teaches gives us a valuable reminder that evil doesn’t need to be murderous for us to identify it as such (even if, depressingly often, it is that too).

His physical impotence lies at the heart of why some viewers took Krasko to be a weak, underused villain.  And that conclusion is understandable because, for all his nastiness, Krasko is not the greatest menace in the episode. That comes from the world of Montgomery itself.

Whether in the form of bus driver James Blake (Trevor White) bellowing at Parks, the violent slap Ryan receives from the white husband (Richard Lothian) of a woman whose glove he returns, the silent stares the group attracts in a café, or the looming silhouette of a police officer (Gareth Marks), it is everyday bigotry, sanctioned, authorised, angry and powerful, that is most visceral and frightening.

How appropriate for 2018 that, in Rosa, ordinary, everyday people are the scariest monsters of all. And that it is ordinary, everyday people who have the greatest power to put things right.