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.


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!


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: 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.


Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Nearly fifteen months after the announcement of her casting, it was indeed about time for Jodie Whittaker’s debut episode as TV’s Doctor Who. Hers was also the start of a brand new era for the programme – new showrunner, writers, producers, composer. The Woman Who Fell to Earth felt to me the boldest relaunch of the show since its return in 2005, with a refreshing new approach to its cast of characters and some exciting, even unsettling, changes of style and tone. Exactly the shake-up it was due.

Though it’s hard to judge a Doctor from their first episode alone, but following a casting that prompted a min-revival of the historic debate amongst predominantly male fans as to whether or not women can act, this was a triumph for Jodie Whittaker. Her introduction isn’t fed to us in quite the show-stopping, blockbuster-y way that many other Doctors have enjoyed this century (looking at how we meet her companions, this is surely a deliberate choice). But the big moments are still there. Moments of heroic action, a big climactic speech, proudly asserting her identity and her morality. Fantastically inquisitive, often struggling to catch up with her own mind – and a lovely bit of childlike humour when she asks Yas (Mandip Gill) if they can have the lights and siren on in the police car.

Separated from the TARDIS for now, she is also forced into an Earthbound, practical mindset not properly seen since Jon Pertwee was having to make do with whatever technology our planet had to offer in the early 1970s. For me, the first time this Doctor felt like she was really discovering herself was the sequence where she makes her own sonic screwdriver (now with added Sheffield steel). Eight years on from another relaunch for the show, where Matt Smith gets given a new, ready-made one by the TARDIS (“Thanks, dear,” indeed), this was a brilliant distinction, and a welcome reminder after a long period of the Doctor seeming almost magical, that the character is a scientist – she’s hands-on, she builds, she is an inventor.

‘Down-to-Earth’ seems an apt phrase to describe this first episode, then, and it’s reflected in the companions too. This isn’t to say we didn’t believe Bill was real, or Donna, or Clara (sometimes), but over the years, we’ve been used to seeing characters who feel like big personalities to us from the off. There are broad brushstrokes, and we often meet them through the lens of their own perspective. Meeting three new friends at once, ours is much more of an outside eye, in spite of Ryan (Tosin Cole) communicating with us directly through a vlog, Our view of them seems more objective as we see multiple criss-crossing personal relationships slowly reveal themselves. We’re invested enough to continue, but I certainly feel after episode one that there’s much more to learn.

My biggest criticism of the episode is that one of those avenues is cut off before we have a chance to explore it. Grace’s (Sharon D Clarke) death felt to me a needless cruelty, inflicted on someone who brought the most sense of life and soul to proceedings (aside from maybe the Doctor herself). It’s her who really brings a love of adventure to a tense, often grim, story “Is it wrong to be enjoying this?” she asks Graham (Bradley Walsh). “Yes!” he replies.

Others more knowledgeable than me have questioned the underlying (perhaps unconsidered) politics of a story of white female empowerment culminating in the death of a black woman, but for my part, I felt cheated of a character I was so keen to see return periodically. Grace is given a good send off by her loved ones, and I have no doubt her loss will continue to have ramifications for Graham and Ryan, but is a character’s death really necessary to catalyse other relationships? And come to that, what of the other relationships that will now go unexamined?

A shame in an otherwise fantastic relaunch, yet it does also serve the grimmer tone that is struck at points in the episode. After a trailer and publicity that unanimously screamed action, adventure and fun, this episode had some surprisingly dark turns. There was something deeply unsettling in the brutality of the amusingly misnamed Tim Shaw/T’zim-Sha (Samuel Oakley), and the implied violence of maimed corpses – to say nothing of the evidence of this that he wears so proudly. It’s made more affecting by the profound sense of the real world in this story. Mundane details like the flavourless salad and kebabs being eaten by one of his victims make his violence that bit more visceral – especially after the more fantastical violence since the programme’s return.

Segun Akinola’s music amplifies this, too. Gone are the sentimentalist comforts of Murray Gold, and in their place is much greater emphasis on atmospheric drones, tension and dread abound. The updated music casts us into this new world of Doctor Who just as surely as the sumptuous changes to the programme’s cinematography. This can also be said of his new theme tune arrangement (to be heard in its proper place for the first time in tonight’s episode). For the first time this century, it speaks less of action and adventure, and more of the ethereal and the unknown. The result is by turns exciting and just a little bit frightening – quite right too.

All in all, this was a brilliant first step down a new path. I have my misgivings on one aspect, true, but in general I couldn’t be more excited by the fresh directions the show’s taking – at just the right time. Jodie Whittaker looks set to be a fantastic Doctor, I’m looking forward to visiting strange new worlds with her and her friends, and I’m quietly thrilled at having no idea what to expect next.


The War Game (1965)

Winner of the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Peter Watkins’ The War Game was never broadcast by the BBC when it was produced for the Wednesday Play series the previous year. Deemed too unsettling for audiences, it was eventually transmitted in 1985 (a year after the broadcast of Threads amid escalating nuclear tensions) to mark 40 years since the bombing of Hiroshima. Comparisons with Threads are inevitable, and although both films attack similar specific targets, they use markedly different techniques to do so.

A documentary voice is employed by both films, but where Threads allowed its terrifying speculations to unfold as a drama, The War Game comes from a more detached, factual perspective. Threads’ occasional stark captions have their role filled here by an authoritative narrator, one that would be as much at home in a Protect & Survive film. We are led through events by this single guiding voice, and the effect of hearing it underscore the action in contemporary Britain (and occasional illustrative diagrams) is similar to that of a newscast.  A crisis is imposed onto everyday reality through one of the most familiar formats to viewers at home.

Those viewers at home can also see themselves reflected in the vox pops that are interspersed throughout the film, offering opinions on the issues, informed or otherwise, and it is these that allow The War Game to take a different path to that taken by Threads decades later. With no single main character, we see a picture painted of wider societal views, and the film can also take the opportunity to break away and offer a clearer international context. Interviews in Britain cut away to scenes of unrest in Berlin – the flashpoint of a worsening crisis. Hypotheses are offered as to the US President and Soviet Premier’s motivations and actions that would lead to a nuclear attack on Britain. The divide between the leaders who would destroy and the people who would be destroyed is stark – a total disconnection.

While this approach creates a contrast with Threads, which largely gives a domestic view, the recipients of The War Game’s criticism are just the same. Narrator and talking heads alike expose the inadequate measures on the part of the government to prepare and protect the public. Safety manuals are overpriced, and people on the street largely ignorant of what to do in the event of an attack, while privilege is shown in some cases to lead to selfishness bordering on paranoia. One of the only people we meet in the film with the means to build a shelter for his family also shows off the shotgun he will use to ensure no one else tries to get in with them. When the attack comes (with just the same horror and dread felt in Threads), all are equally powerless.

After the impact is when these interviews with the public become most significant, as the attitudes on display prior to the bombing in Kent are demolished by the grim reality now facing the people who held them. Before, we saw people casually admitting they would like to see retaliation to any attack, and similar devastation inflicted on another country, not to mention residents’ reluctance to take in evacuated families on our own soil (“Are they coloured?”). In the aftermath, violent crowds grow. Citizens and police kill each other in riots. The narrator comments on Mrs Joyce Fisher, a housewife from Gravesend, as she pilfers armfuls of food retrieved from murdered officers. The scenes of civil unrest in Berlin that viewers might like to imagine could never happen here are shown to duplicate themselves all too easily in Britain.

Prejudices and preoccupations erode in the turmoil never foreseen by those who held them. A film that started with the blasé comments of detached adults on a potential apocalypse ends with parents frightened for their children, and the children themselves saying weakly, “We don’t want to be nothing.” Silent Night plays at the close of the film over scenes of destitution, following graphic descriptions and depictions of melted eyeballs, burned and blinded children, police officers shooting dead those beyond medical help, mass cremations to prevent disease and executions of relatives trying to retrieve bodies.

The imagery is as gruesome as that used in Threads – it is ultimately the ideas behind them that hold the real power. It doesn’t surprise me that the BBC withheld it at the time, although not especially a decision I sympathise with. The War Game is a very unsettling piece of television for a nation that had had questions asked in Parliament about Nigel Kneale’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation only the previous decade. While it was also fortunately mistaken in its prediction that the scenes shown in the film would have happened by 1980, its message is powerfully grim and, as Threads demonstrated twenty years on, still resonates. Tensions diminished slightly in the 1970s, but rose again. Today, they seem to have done so once more, and the people are once again in thrall to the whims of leaders unaccountable to us in other countries. 53 years on, the fear remains of what could be.

The War Game is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.