Doctor Who: Resolution

The first New Year’s Day special of Doctor Who since 1st January 1966’s Volcano featured a 30-second scene set on New Year’s Eve for the simple reason that it could, Resolution has a fitting title in a number of ways. It makes for a refreshing beginning to 2019, because its mix of a spectacular standalone adventure with more profound developments for Ryan makes it a much more satisfying resolution to this series just gone than we had been given three weeks before.

One big disappointment of series finale The Battle of Ranskoor Av Koloss was the loose thread of Ryan’s strained relationship with his father, dangled before us from episode one then left hanging. Here, we finally see the elephant in the room addressed, as Aaron (Daniel Adegboyega) arrives on the scene. A deadbeat Del Boy, similar to our first impression of Pete Tyler in 2005, Aaron’s character progresses differently – thanks not only to still being alive, but to the presence of the family’s next generation up in Graham.

We see Aaron from Ryan’s perspective first, all lame excuses for skipping Grace’s funeral, nothing to redeem him for his perpetual absence. It takes a talk from Graham to finally invoke some sympathy, by putting him in Ryan’s position. Where Ryan has been a son without a parent’s love, Aaron has taken his mother’s for granted. He sees an abundance of it when Graham shows him all his childhood belongings Grace kept – too late to undo his neglect of the relationship. The final showdown sees Ryan save him from danger, and a redemptive story for Aaron would need this to have been the other way round. But we at least leave with the way paved to explore their relationship next year, perhaps see it rebuilt.

Aaron and Ryan’s story is kick-started in those two key scenes, so an engaging new character is introduced with impressive economy. The same is true of Lin (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mitch (Nikesh Patel). Their romance isn’t the most original story, but for a ‘festive blockbuster’ like this, it’s all the episode needs. We like them straight away, and we feel for them, especially when it seems they might not both make it to the end. Similarly, the security guard (Connor Calland) killed on duty feels like a fully formed person within a handful of lines. We get a sinking feeling when his body is being used as a tool just seconds later – an example of the episode’s fantastic success in restoring a sense of dread to the Daleks.

Taking centre-stage for the first time in three years, it’s great to see them back. For the most part, Chris Chibnall sensibly treats them in ways often adopted when reviving them. We see it impotent at first, only for it to manipulate others and restore itself to terrifying power (see 1966’s The Power of the Daleks and 2005’s Dalek). We’re shown an especially gruesome mutant slithering up a wall, then leeching onto its host’s body and taking control. It’s the first time we’ve seen a Dalek physically possess someone, and it succeeds not least because of Charlotte Ritchie’s fantastic performance as Lin. Humanity emerges just often enough for us to know she’s still alive in there – all the more unsettling to watch.

For one episode only, we’re also given a new ‘scrapheap’ design for the Dalek. I’d have liked it to be dirtier and tattier still, but it works – even if the missiles are a bit silly. The sequence where the Dalek instructs Lin as she builds the casing also creates a visual parallel to the Doctor building her sonic screwdriver in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. This could have been developed further, and unlike previous confrontations, there isn’t such a personal connection felt between the Doctor and the Daleks. Jodie Whittaker is never less than fantastic, but a conflict like this can be invaluable for distinguishing a Doctor’s character, and here it feels like an opportunity for drama not taken.

Other moments feel like that too, with misdirected attention and unnecessary emphasis working against the story. The UNIT scene allows for a Brexit joke that could have been quicker, and the thrust of the scene otherwise is to show the Doctor and friends are fighting alone. But I wasn’t waiting for UNIT to show up. I imagine they hadn’t crossed the minds of most people watching. The scene wastes time. Meanwhile, growing piles of dead police officers and security breaches give reason for a confrontation between the Dalek and the army, yet that sequence feels out of the blue. It misses a beat of escalation. Perhaps the Doctor and friends could meet them too, try to help them, and go ignored ahead of the ensuing massacre – not a bad way to show they’re fighting alone.

Similarly, elements are left hanging loose from an impressive prologue. That the Dalek teleports itself back together from around the world isn’t made especially clear, so the other two locations established feel strangely abandoned. The same is true for the ancient society of custodians, set up and then given occasional lip service. The prologue adds scale, but it harks back to the Moffat era – complex, frenetic storytelling, with an epic, sprawling plot. But Chris Chibnall’s great skills, seen here and elsewhere, lie more in good, down to Earth, character-driven stories, for a wider ensemble cast. Scale could still be given in a way that plays to those skills, but missteps here work against him.

All that said, Chibnall’s talents are still on good display in Resolution, and it’s a satisfying story for our characters. The path to reconciliation between Ryan and Aaron has been opened up, Mitch and Lin’s love story reaches the conclusion we want, and the Doctor and friends head off wide-eyed on new adventures. Imperfections aside, this was a great piece of adventure TV for the holiday season, and provides a much more enjoyable end to the series than I thought we’d had. The appetite is suitably whetted for series 12… in 2020.

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Doctor Who: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

Well, it had mostly been a good ride, hadn’t it? Like the equally drearily-titled The Tsuranga Conundrum, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has elements that make for interesting drama, and, like that episode, wastes pretty much all of them. The result is an inexcusably drab fifty minutes, and the most disappointing note for a series of Doctor Who to end on so far this century – a shame after a series full of so many brilliant moments.

Chris Chibnall was clear there would be a less pronounced arc to this season, which is no inherently bad thing – as long as there’s some progression for the characters along the way. It’s what we rightly demand of Doctor Who now. For pretty much the first time this year, characters arrive at cross-purposes, yet it doesn’t pay off. Graham openly resolves to kill Tim Shaw (Samuel Oatley), Ryan and the Doctor implore him not to, and then he finds he can’t bring himself to do it. It feels incredibly by the numbers, no twists or turns to complicate proceedings or motivations, and nothing happening under the surface. Graham full-on states his intention – there’s nothing for the Doctor or anyone else to detect. Where’s the drama in any of this?

All the story does is bring Ryan and Graham closer together, finding them some closure for the loss of Grace (something that had been examined more interestingly last week). What’s here for the other characters? What is the group’s relationship at the end of this series? Each individual has some relationship with the Doctor, and Graham and Ryan have their own bond. But how do Yaz and Graham relate to one another? What makes hers and Ryan’s relationship interesting? And how do they all feel about the Doctor as a phenomenon separate from themselves? Each week, a character has had their time in the spotlight, but as the series ends, this group’s dynamic as whole remains ill-defined.

Another trick a finale can pull is to bring back a previous villain – sure enough, Tim Shaw returns. And it’s a good performance from Samuel Oatley, but the characterisation feels inconsistent. After references to the Stenza’s legacy in The Ghost Monument, we might have expected to see Tim Shaw in the context of his society, even as an outcast – perhaps also to have seen the Stenza at the height of their powers. A terrifying army. Instead, we see Tim Shaw changed quite arbitrarily to a false god, a shouting megalomaniac with a super weapon. After seeing him as a lone, privileged hunter in episode one, denied the glory within his grasp, we could see him twisted by greed and entitlement here. But this could be any identikit sci-fi villain – and it isn’t interesting. Most frustratingly, it could be.

We see an attempt to question the Doctor’s culpability for Tim Shaw’s crimes, the price of her mercy when dispatching him at the start of the series – but it isn’t built upon. Compare to Journey’s End (2008), when Davros asks the Doctor how many have died in his name. We have seen those deaths, we see them again, we can feel their weight. We could feel the weight of the genocides that have been committed here too. But they are wrapped up in a cold, high-concept sci-fi mystery. The Ux, aliens that can create and destroy worlds, make practically anything happen, at the will of a god of their choosing, are a fascinating concept. But the way Andinio (Phyllis Logan) and Delph (Percelle Ascott) are written, they simply don’t feel like people.

Too long we’re kept asking what ‘object’ Paltraki’s (Mark Addy) crew have stolen, what the true nature of the Ux’s power is. And when the revelation comes that these objects are shrunken planets, whole worlds wiped out in the name of the Ux’s false religion, it should feel like an enormous moment – but it doesn’t. There’s no moment of guilt for the Ux as they realise their gullibility has killed billions. No misplaced guilt for the Doctor, whose mercy let this situation arise.  If the parties concerned are given no moment to feel the drama of their story, why should we? In what could be such a huge story, why do the stakes feel so bizarrely low, the drama so distant?

In what seems a telling metaphor for this all, the titular battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has already happened. A grand title like that might, dare I say it, suggest that we would see the drama of a battle. In fact, it has been and gone, and we can feel very little of the aftermath when we only meet one character to have experienced it – and he has conveniently lost his memory of select information. Mark Addy, in that respect, is terribly wasted as Paltraki. Aside from a patchy memory and a basic assumption of competence, I could tell you nothing of the character he’s playing. A function of plot is not a person.

Doctor Who is unquestionably made by a team of immensely talented, hard-working and devoted people, and it feels churlish to attack the fruits of their labours, especially when it means ending this run of write-ups on such a sour note. The programme has had plenty of failures throughout its history, after all, including in recent years, and this finale only feels worse than those for being an uninteresting failure. So instead, I’ll finish by looking at all the things I’ve enjoyed so much about this series, which on balance has been fantastic.

Firstly, Jodie Whittaker and the other three leads have been excellent. Their relationships with each other aren’t all equally engrossing, and that has a chance to improve in 2020, but as individuals, their performances are engaging, sympathetic, and, not a given in Doctor Who, utterly loveable. Look at the wealth of new talent brought onto the writing team too, and the benefit their new perspectives have given the programme, especially with this year’s trips into the past. Those gave us real, human drama about challenging subjects from history, showing how relevant they can still prove today. For my money, the three stand-out episodes of the series.

I hope all the guest writers return, and, alongside Chris Chibnall, continue to build our characters. I want to see them come into opposition more. I want to see them feel real jeopardy more. I want to see their families more. I want to see Sheffield more too. As a location, it’s lent a fresh sense of reality to proceedings after the fanciful tendencies of the last few years, and was a big part of this series’ sheer confidence early on.

The same is true for Segun Akinola’s music, the programme’s secret weapon throughout this series, and another breath of fresh air – to say nothing of how enthralling the cinematography has been. To see in such big changes for such a successful franchise, and do it with such a winning sense of boldness, is no mean feat. And for that, in spite of a couple of weak scripts, this first series under Chris Chibnall’s leadership is to be celebrated. It’s not to be underestimated how tough it is to get people excited about something that’s been on for 13 years, and the phenomenal ratings Doctor Who achieved this year is testament to its new team’s success.

And so, for one day only, on to 2019!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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