Monday 20 May 2024

WHO REVIEW: 14-3 - BOOM

 


We’ve had “Boom Town,” we’ve had “Kerblam!” and now we have “Boom,” which isn’t at all like those two episodes but does form a peculiar little set of titles. I think I prefer the working title, “Don’t Move,” but it’s still neat. Regardless, this is the best episode that Gatwa’s had so far, indeed, the best episode altogether for some time in my humble.

I think we all expected something special from this, the first script from Moffat since 2017 and the first one he’s written outside the showrunner role since 2008. Moffat had a tendency to deliver outstanding and memorable episodes when he was working under Davies, and he does it again here. There are, admittedly, a lot of familiar Moffat tropes here: AI reproductions of the dead; an innocuous repeated phrase taking on a sinister note; technology becoming the threat, Black Mirror style; a small child in need; the power of love and/or memory saving the day. There’s no timey-wimey stuff this time, but otherwise, this is very much Moffat by the books. 

Moffat by the books is, however, at its worst very watchable and at its best excellent. “Boom” really works, in an uncomplicated, tightly scripted way that only “Wild Blue Yonder” has come close to in recent years. The inclusion of the Church army, established early in Moffat’s stewardship, allows him to engage in an unbarred attack on faith. It’s interesting that once the Doctor is no longer in danger, he is more accepting of it; we’re seeing his unmasked anger while he’s ranting at Mundy and scared for his life. More essential, though, is the merciless attack on the capitalist system and war for profit. It was clear early on that there was no enemy, and it was all a massive sales exercise by Villengard (another lovely callback, right back to “The Empty Child) that was perpetuating war purely to generate profit. It’s even nastier than that, though; there’s no conscious decision made here by a rapacious CEO, it’s purely the algorithm that keeps the war ticking over, killing people in just the right numbers to remain saleable and packaging up their remains in neat little packages. The whole of the capitalise world is under fire here, but the United States in particular. The repeated use of “thoughts and prayers” is just biting.

Weirdly, in the resolution, the episode it calls back to most strongly is “Closing Time” – not Moffat, but made on his watch – with its focus on fatherhood and the feel-good, if unlikely, resolution of the evil tech being defeated by a father’s love and determination. That, however, didn’t work terribly well, largely because they had James Corden delivering it. Here we have Joe Anderson, who gives a decent performance even though his eyes are covered for the first scene and he’s playing a stilted AI playback for the rest. He does a lot with very little, and it helps sell the whole episode.

It is, of course, Gatwa’s episode. It’s an absolute gift of a script for a actor, giving him a chance to play the character in close up, constrained circumstances, without the flamboyance that he’s used to characterise him so far. He’s astonishingly good here, giving us palpable fear, determination and resignation in an understated yet powerful way. There are still hints of the gabby, catty Doctor from his previous episodes, naturally, but it’s all downplayed; the Fifteenth Doctor without the frills. It’s interesting that he’s quickly become characterised as “the singing Doctor,” but here it’s, again, understated, and entirely believable in the situation. 

In spite of this episode being inspired by the landmine scene in Genesis of the Daleks, a great example of Tom Baker at his least OTT, it feels like an idea designed explicitly to show off Gatwa’s Doctor. There aren’t that many who it would work for. It’s easy to imagine Capaldi playing this beautifully, but can you imagine Matt Smith? The Eleventh Doctor wouldn’t be able to keep still for ten seconds. Nine and Ten would both get angry too quickly and blow themselves up. Whittaker might have been interesting with this material. But I digress.

There’s some interesting material included for the Doctor here, who seems particularly ready to give away information about himself in this regeneration. He describes himself as “a complex space/time event,” a Moffat-y line but also very New Adventures. Making the mine detonate the target themselves via their own DNA is nonsensical, but clever, and extrapolating this so that the Doctor would become the biggest bomb ever is a great way of ramping up the tension. I wonder if it was entirely necessary, though, rather than keeping the danger limited to the Doctor and those immediately around him. There’s also his murmured poem about the President’s daughter, harking back to stories about him that we heard a little of in “Hell Bent.”

Gibson gets less to do in this episode, what with being dead for a big chunk of it, but what she has she delivers perfectly. There’s a sense in this episode and last that Ruby has already gotten to know the Doctor well and is fiercely loyal to him, which, along with the mention of the present being June 2024 (rather than Christmas) for her last week, suggests they’ve been travelling together for longer than it appears. Then again, everything is still being presented as new: her first alien planet here, her dream historical destination last week. There’s a disjoint there.

Varada Sethu is excellent as Mundy Flynn, a character who is at once infuriatingly rigid and very likeable and compassionate. Bhav Joshi does well with very little as her doomed love interest. Caoilinn Springall gives a solid turn as young Splice, although she does seem a little older than the script calls for. Susan Twist is suitable creepy as the face of the military ambulance. Her manifestation here reminds me of this cover to Grinny, a book I have never actually read because the cover freaked me out way too much as a kid.

This brings us once again to the ongoing mystery of the actors. While Twist makes her fifth appearance, I think, Sethu makes her first. Without fanfare, next year’s new companion arrives and shows us just what she can do with strong material, while Twist also gets by far the most screentime she’s had so far, albeit not so much as a character than a literal plot device. To be honest, I didn’t realise either of these on first watch. I’m not very familiar with Sethu and didn’t recognise her until it was pointed out – in the pictures I’ve seen of her she’s had a whole lot of hair so it just didn’t click. Twist, on the other hand, seems cast almost deliberately to be unremarkable. I wouldn’t have clocked it was the same actress in “Wild Blue Yonder” and “Ruby Road” if it hadn’t been pointed out online, and even now that I’m looking out for her I didn’t realise the ambulance lady was her. We’ll see what all this means in time, of course, but I’m actually glad I didn’t notice it on first watch, as it would have distracted from the story and performances. I’d be perfectly happy if it turned out that Mundy herself was joining the TARDIS though.

“Boom” proves that this latest iteration of Doctor Who can still deliver a tense, serious episode while still feeling part of the same show. It might have been better to run this one after “Space Babies” instead of two camp silly ones together, to give new viewers a better idea of what the series is capable of.

Setting: Kastarion 3, AD 5087.

Maketh the Man: The Doctor wears a snug, purple-black short jacket this week, over a white T-shirt and off-white trousers. Nice and simple, suiting the military setting.

Links and references:

  • We first heard about Villengard when the Ninth Doctor noted he'd destroyed the weapons factories there. The Twelfth Doctor visited the planet, in ruins, in Moffat's last script, "Twice Upon a Time."
  • That episode also saw snow suspended while falling. I doubt that has anything to do with what's going on with Ruby though.
  • The Second Doctor used to play The Skye Boat song on the recorder, but this is the first time we've heard them singing it. The Master sang while in the Doctor's body though.
  • The Doctor linked up with the Anglican Marines, along with River Song, in "The Time of Angels."



Saturday 18 May 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-7 & 5-8

 5-7: ERIGAH
 5-8: LABYRINTHS


Two solid episodes that ramp up the tension now that Michael Burnham's mission - and Star Trek: Discovery itself - are running out of time. I find I haven't a great deal to say about these two; they're extremely competently made episodes with some tight direction, some very nice performances from the regulars and nothing too unsual or experimental. There are some intriguing additions to Trek lore, with a real sense of history being built up. This latest series has felt connected to the wider Trek universe in a more organic way than in previous seasons.

"Erigah" works well due the continual increase in tension. There's some decent action, yes, but it's the gradual ramping up of the state of emergency as the Breen come after L'ak. We know this isn't going to end well, and there's a sense of doomed inevitability about the crew's attempts to stave off the upcoming conflict.

There are two threads to "Erigah" (I wish they'd made up a different word. I wondering who Erica is). Primarily we have the stand-off with the Breen, revolving around Starfleet's holding of Moll and the terminally injured L'ak (and whose fault is that Michael?) Making L'ak the Scion of the Breen Imperium, heir to their throne, is maybe a bit much, but it gelps up the stakes even more. Primarch Ruhn will stop at nothing to have him back so that he can use him to take overall power of the Imperium, with the erigah as the perfect excuse to pursue him.

There's some lovely work by Eve Harlow and Elias Toufexis. They completely sell the unique bond Mol and L'ak share, a love that unites them even across two very different species. Harlow, in particular, excels at the quieter, more anguished moments, far better than her gung-ho bad bitch persona, although it does suggest that this is just a front she puts on to survive in the dangerous world she inhabits.

Also shining in this episode is Callum Rennie as Rayner, who gets some deeper backstory here. We learn that Kellerun was conquered by another Breen Primarch in his lifetime, leaving the planet wasted and his family dead, among many others. It makes sense that Kellerun would be in the Breen's path, just as it makes sense that Rayner's been to the Badlands. They're all part of the same area of space, the DS9 neck of the woods. Rennie gives a very believable performance as someone trying to keep it together when faced with the people who destroyed his world as "collateral damage." From what we've seen of the Breen so far, you can't help but think his hatred of them is understandable; L'ak is the only one we've seen who has any redeeming features.

While it seems pretty brutal that Starfleet hands Moll over the Breen, it's hard to see what else they could have done. Frankly, the Federation were pushing their luck holding her and L'ak at all when the Breen demanded them. Still, Moll gets on fine, at least as far as the next episode.

The other thread deals with the mysterious metal card that they apparently picked up when they got the most recent puzzle piece. Stamets, Tilly, Adira and Book (for some reason) work on this clue to try to find out where the final piece is. This is a lot less engaging than the A-plot, but it has its charms. I love the idea that the Betazoids use what is, essentially, psychometry, imbing objects with telepathic impressions that can impart information. The reveal that the object is a library card is lovely, as is the entire aside with Jet Reno (still the most watchable character in the entire series thanks to Tig Notaro's perfect delivery), who used to peddle books for a shady antiquarian (blatantly this is Pelia from Strange New Worlds). So it's off to the Eternal Gallery and Archive for the final piece of the puzzle.

"Labyrinths" is a much calmer affair, although there's still a building tension as the Breen are never far away. It's fun to visit the Badlands, realised in a truly astounding set of visuals that are fully in keeping with its appearance on DS9 and Voyager, but more intricate and dynamic. The eventual reveal of the Archive, nestled in the eye of the storm like a castle beneath the clouds, is absolutely beautiful. 

It's pretty obvious that the Betazoid book will aslo be telepathic and draw Burnham into a mental exercise. While the script continues to remind us that Burnham is under threat while she's in the mindscape, it still feels very leisurely. Martin-Green plays it all very well, particularly Burnham's mounting frustration that gives way to calm acceptance. The tests surrounding the clues are becoming increasingly esoteric, but it at least means each step feels earnt. 

David Ajala gives a beautiful twin performance, as both Book and the avatar in Burnham's mind that takes his shape. For the latter he affects a subtly more proper accent and careful enunciation, which fits in nicely with the quiet characterisation, not to mention the Time Lord robes he's kitted out in. For the former he gives it his all when confronted with the clipping from a Kwejian world root, one of the last remaining pieces of Book's homeworld. I get a feeling this will tie in with the Progenitor tech's ability to recreate life and ecosystems (if they remake the planet Kwejian in the last episode I will not be at all surprised). Ajala gives a beautiful performance as Book is overcome with emotion. Not for the first time I feel that he's better than the material he's given deserves,

However, the stuff on the Breen ship drags the episode back. It's the only thing that really lets this pair of episodes down. The Breen politicking isn't all that interesting once you're in the middle of it, and the fact that the Breen all look the same and sound very similar makes it next to impossible to follow who's talking. It's even more difficult to tell them apart when they're speaking Breen, but it's at least alien and threatening, unlike the bickering in slightly modulated English.

Moll performs a classic bit of turning-the-henchmen-against-the-main-villain, but it's still hard to credit that she's seemingly managed to put herself in charge of this faction of Breen. Still, it should lead to an interesting final confrontation as we approach the grand finale.

Oh, and Reno should have a spin-off where each episodes shows us a story of one of her historic odd jobs.

Character points:
  • Yeah, T'Rina speaks Breen. You can't get anything by her.
  • Is Saru even in this show anymore?
  • Reno used to run a bar making cocktails called Seven of Limes, and worked as an engineer for the Hysperians, the Ren Faire-styled human colony to which Billups belongs on Lower Decks.
  • Pros to having an English actor on the cast: getting to hear someone say "shite" on Star Trek.
Alien life forms:
  • Betazed had no colonies in the 24th century.
  • The Breen, it appears, engage in scarification to signify marriage.
  • Hy'rell, the chirpy librarian lady, appears to be an Efrosian. This species, also known as Atreonids, appeared in the original cast movies; notably, the Federation President in Star Trek VI was Efrosian.
Shippy-ships:
  • Ships seen in "Erigah:" USS Locherer, USS Credence, USS LaMar and USS Excalibur-M.
  • The Breen dreadnought is ridiculously mahoosive.
Dialogue disasters:

 "Labyrinth... labyrinth... oh, it's a maze!"  Well done, bullet.

Friday 17 May 2024

WHO REVIEW: 14-2 - "The Devil's Chord"


Of the two episodes chosen to launch the latest series, "The Devil's Chord" is easily the bigger. Everything about this episode is loud, confident and over-the-top. That doesn't necessarily equate with being better, though, and while "Space Babies" had some hidden depths, "The Devil's Chord," while a lot of fun, is basically shallow.

This is Doctor Who as pure spectacle, and on that basis, it works. 99% of this is down to Jinkx Monsoon. From the second she crawls out of that piano, she owns the episode. The Maestro is a character that starts out at eleven and cranks it up from there. We've had some camp villains in the past on Doctor Who, but nothing compares to Maestro. There's a sheer confidence on display simply in having a drag queen arrive and perform as the villain of the week without ever holding back or reducing her performance. The greatest queens have always had something otherworldly about them, due to their gender fuckery and the oversized nature of the performance. Of course a timeless god would appear as a drag queen and claw their way into the universe so that it's all a little more OTT for the week.

Given that no one has a hope in wrestling the limelight away from Jinkx, the rest of the cast do well. Gatwa continues to give an intense performance as the Doctor, swivelling between emotions at full volume. Gibson is left to play the normal human being, in spite of her apparent hidden depths, and to deal with the standard genre tropes. It's slightly odd to see such wellworn time travel story beats in such an outlandishly fantastical story, but there will be plenty of people coming to this who haven't seen the whole causality discussion. The devastated wilderness is, of course, straight out of Pyramids of Mars, and is a scene that RTD's been trying to fit in the series since "The Unquiet Dead." It's visually spectacular, haunting and for most of the audience, entirely new. Gibson plays her reaction to it beautifully, as much as Ruby's giddy joy to be travelling through time with a full wardrobe to match.

George Caple and Chris Mason are pretty good as Paul McCartney and John Lennon, giving their roles a lot of heart and believability. Physically they seem to have been cast from a perverse desire to have complete non-lookalikes - are the Beatles' likeness rights just as fiendishly complex and expensive as their music rights? At least they can act and sing. The less said about the Cilla Black impersonator the better. Frankly the less said abotu Cilla Black the better, really.

It's quite bizarre though that the episode about music will be remembered mostly for its visuals (saving the song at the end, which is catchy but not nearly good enough to top off the episode). I admire RTD's thinking on the episode: rights to use Beatles' songs are prohibitively expensive, so work from the premise of a world with no Beatles music. The problem is that this leaves us with a period piece about pop music that lacks a soundtrack. What it really needs, more than anything, is for John and Paul to give us a triumphant moment when they find their muse, and for more than a few bars. Doctor Who has Disney money now, surely they could have afforded a few lines of "Penny Lane?"

Frustratingly, in spite of Jinkx's piano attacks, Murray Gold's usual audio histrionics and the genuine brilliance of "I've got a dog," there isn't much to the music here, which guts the episode. Of course, that's the point, with the Maestro leeching music and colour from the world, calling back, in fact, to the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine (which also featured unconvincing Beatles stand-ins).

This, though, highlights how the episode's plot doesn't make a lick of sense. Maestro crows that they are music, and they clearly feed upon it, and yet they want to stamp it out across the universe. Yes, we get some guff about wanting to reduce everything to the "pure" music of Aeolian tones, but everything else makes it clear that it's what's in the heart of the composer or player that makes it truly music. Underlining this is Maestro's desperately hungry assault on Ruby as the only human left with music in her heart. Surely they're dooming themself to slow starvation? As Ruby says, where's the win?

From the outset, there's a sloppiness to the writing here, as if they were all confident they could get by purely on spectacle. Timothy Drake lets Maestro into the universe through his musical genius, but while Maestro bangs on about it there's absolutely no indication of what his genius is. He's just a fairly enthusiastic piano teacher who apparently was too out there for the establishment. Sometimes you can get away with just telling, but this is something that absolutely needs to be shown, or it all rings hollow.

When it comes to the fantasy, the plot works fine. Maestro travels through realities by climbing in and out of pianos, wraps their victims up in musical notes and swallows quavers whole (and they're not even cheese-flavoured). This all works within the specific illogic of their character. The science fiction side mostly works just as well, from the cataclysmic potential future to the brilliant concept of using the sonic screwdriver to cancel out all sound and silence the villain. When it gets down to the actual story, though, nothing adds up. Maestro arrived in 1925 and perverted the course of musical history. Does their defeat undo all of this? Or are we now living in a world with no Elvis greats? Is Buddy Holly still living in obscurity in Texas?

Ultimately, that final song and dance number is the episode in microcosm. It looks fantastic, it's entertaining while it's on the screen, but the music is too mediocre for a story that's about the joy and importance of music. And, no, it doesn't make sense. There isn't a twist at the end of this story, other than the dance. Unless it's little Henry Arbinger hanging around, tipping us off that Maestro will no doubt be back at some point, but frankly that's barely a sharp turn of the head, let alone a twist.

Unless...

This is the first time the modern series has mentioned Susan by name. I loved the Doctor acknowledging that his younger self is living a mile or so away with his granddaughter (although the fact that this means his personal history has been altered as well is glossed over). It seems likely that we're finally going to meet Susan again after all this time. Then we have Susan Twist, who has sneakily appeared in "Wild Blue Yonder" and "The Church on Ruby Road," showing up again as a tea lady. Aside from being far more interesting than the mystery of Mrs Flood, there's the possible suggestion that twist is coming, and it's a Susan twist. I'm unconvinced. Firstly, why would you recast Susan when Carole Ann Ford is still around and acting? Secondly, I wouldn't put it past RTD to have cast an actor with that name purely to troll the fans.

I have a feeling that this episode will play better on the later rewatch once we know where all the foreshadowing is heading. Maestro may be the Toymaker's child, but it's "The One Who Waits" that remains the looming threat, presumably the same as "The Oldest One" they also mention. My money's on Fenric, but I'm probably wrong. As for Ruby's nature, there's a peculiar effect following her around. Since she turned up, characters are winking at the camera, the Doctor is suggesting trips to Star Trek, the composer is playing piano on screen and there's a full blown song-and-dance number to end an episode. The cleverest line of the episode, "I thought that was non-diagetic," could, just like all of these, be bit of fun, but taken together they suggest something strange is happening to nature of the series. Then again, maybe Murray Gold's music is so loud and intrusive that even the characters can hear it.

Setting: London, February 1963 and June 2024.

Maketh the Man: The Fifteenth Doctor is setting out to be the best and most variedly dressed incarnation of all. After wearing a red T-shirt and jeans in the TARDIS he changes into a Mod-ish blue pinstripe suit (it's all very Austin Powers). Given that he mentions the First Doctor living in London in 1963, I kind of wish he'd warn a black frock coat and checked trousers - that was how he dressed in the sixties, after all.

Maketh the Woman: Ruby, meanwhile, switches to a spectacular black and white number and a beehive hairdo. I'm kind of disappointed the TARDIS has a stash of wigs though, and not some kind of miraculous hairstyling system.

Cameos galore: As well as Murray Gold, costume designer June Hudson, who created the Fourth Doctor's burgundy look and the Fifth Doctor's costume, appears as the poor old dear who gets got by Maestro after playing piano. Plus there are some people from Strictly in the final dance off, but I'll be honest, I don't know them from Adam.

Beatlemania: The Eighth Doctor's companion Fitz collected Beatles albums from parallel universes. I hope the Doctor got him a copy of "I've got a dog."

Tuesday 14 May 2024

WHO REVIEW: 14-1 - "Space Babies"

Finally, I have time to rewatch and write up the new Doctor Who episodes; I should have "The Devil's Chord" up tomorrow or Thursday. And yes, I'm going with series fourteen, not season one. I understand that this is the big relaunch, but we didn't have a sixteen year gap this time, we had a thirteen month one, and then we had four specials before the season actually started. It actually feels quite comicbook-y: Doctor Who, Volume Three, Season One. Still, I just don't think it'll stick. They tried this with series five back in 2010, and that didn't even last until the DVD release. There's also the weirdness of following the sixtieth anniversary specials with season one. In old money, this is season forty.

Anyway, that's by the by. What's more relevant is that if this is the big relaunch, then "Space Babies" is a very odd choice for the first episode. A quick glance at people's responses online - when you ignore the Telegraph and the Daily Express and individual pearl-clutchers freaking out at the dreaded woke - shows that as many people hated this as loved this. Just from personal friends and acquaintances, I'm seeing long-standing fans and those tuning in for the first time deciding that no, they're not watching this crap. Then again, I'm also seeing some of my hardest of the hardcore fan friends embracing it wholeheartedly.

"Space Babies," then, is a Marmite episode, but then, I've always never had a particular like or dislike for Marmite. I enjoyed it, altough it certainly wasn't among the greats, and I sincerely doubt it will top many fans' best-of lists. I definitely enjoyed it more on second viewing. There's a lot more going on under the hood here than it appears at first, but that doesn't matter if people aren't sticking around to pay that much attention.

For one thing, this is RTD's second go at season one, episode one, and this hits a lot of the same beats as the first couple of episodes of Eccleston's series back in 2005 (and it still seems unreal that that was almost twenty years ago). On the other hand, there's the sense that RTD's learnt a lot from Moffat's stewardship, particularly the late Matt Smith era of series seven, when compressed storytelling reached a truly frenetic pace. This barely stops for breath, but when it does, it hits us with emotional scenes that have a fairytale quality to them. The snowfall in the middle of a space station is pure Moffat, as is the underlying idea that stories are vital to human development, even if that means conjuring up a bogeyman. 

So, while the essentials are there to introduce Doctor Who to a new audience finding it on Disney Plus for the first time, it's all done much faster. Back in the old series one, RTD was almost too cautious about drip-feeding the series' backstory. Ruby's been through Doctor Who 101 by the end of act two, and the Doctor's even namedropped the Rani (the only one of the other Time Lord titles we've actually heard before, so I'm even more convinced the Duchess will turn out to be her in the "Rogue" episode).

While some moments virtually replay key scenes from the Eccleston series - most notably the view of Pacifico del Rio from the space station visually echoing the view of the dying Earth from Satellite Five in "The End of the World" - there are striking differences. There's no evocative but exceptionally cheap "Outside those doors it's the New Roman Empire," this time we're right back in the Jurassic period. It's a visual extravaganza that has no bearing on the immediate plot, but serves the purpose of showing us the TARDIS can take us anywhere and anywhen. Then we have the almost gratuitous butterfly moment, which seemingly exists purely for the visual of Ruby becoming a butterfly-lizard-woman to drop into the trailer. Nonetheless, this all ties into the greater story arc of history suddenly becoming dangerously malleable, which has been running along since "Wild Blue Yonder." The "butterfly compensator" might be a stretch, but there's the sense that the rules are very much in flux now.

Most significant from a character standpoint is the Doctor's attitude to being the Last of the Time Lords again. It's a bizarre situation that RTD killed off the Time Lords, only for Moffat to bring them back and then Chibnall to kill them all again. The use of the word genocide appears significant in light of current, horrific events, but surely this was being filmed too early for that to factor in? Regardless, the Doctor isn't weighed down by centuries of guilt and loneliness anymore. He's revelling in the fact that he's still alive and enjoying the universe. It's a massive difference in characterisation. It's also significant that the Doctor is still referring to himself as a Time Lord, in spite of the revelation that he's adopted. The one doesn't cancel out the other, and I'm glad that RTD included this.

All of that, and I haven't even touched on the Doctor and Ruby as actual characters, or Gatwa and Gibson's performances. I think it would be hard to say that, whatever you think of the episode overall, they are anything less than captivating together onscreen. Gatwa's Doctor is, at once, the Doctor through and through, and completely different to previous incarnations. It's also a totally different kind of difference to how Eccleston did it back then. Gatwa is magnetically charming, unapologetically camp, joyfully alive and exuberant. He's a streak of glorious colour on the screen, embodying a Doctor who is empowered by their compassion and lust for life.

Millie Gibson, meanwhile, is almost as good as Ruby. She can't compete in the charisma stakes with Gatwa, but then, very few people can. She's gives a hugely likeable performance as a character who is convincingly swept up in the excitement of the Doctor's life, while equally terrified by it and haunted by her own questions of her past. The description Gatwa's given of the characters as naughty schoolfriends really comes through in this episode; they're thick with each other but without any romantic or familial side. Linking them by making Ruby a foundling and playing up this new side to the Doctor's backstory is a canny move, one which provides a bond that we've never really seen between the Doctor and their companion. It also doesn't hurt that they have to be the most gorgeous Doctor-companion pair we've ever had.

The Space Babies themselves are the questionable part. It's a choice, certainly, making an opening episode about a bunch of hyper-educated toddlers realised by unconvincingly synced superimposed mouths, something which has never worked convincingly on film or television. It's incredibly twee, and understandably a make or break move for some viewers. On the other hand, this is, we must remind ourselves, essentially a kids' show. Some episodes are skewed more that way. It's the same with the bogeyman, a wonderfully designed creature, but one that becomes a grotty joke when we learn that it's a literal snot monster. Yet I can imagine children in the audience howling at that one. The Slitheen were an arguable misstep back in the old series one, but kids loved them and they didn't do the show any harm. Is the snot monster any different to flatulent aliens? At least the fart jokes are subtler this time.

Where the babies work, once you accept the cloying sweetness of the idea and the visual, is in the emotional impact. How can anyone not feel something when Captain Poppy reveals that she's never been hugged? (I hugged my little girl a lot during this episode.) The faux reveal that the nanny is actually Nan-E, the Nanomatrix Electroform, is then broken by the true reveal that it's a real person after all. Gold Rosheuvel is very good as Jocelyn, and when she speaks about hiding so that she and the babies wouldn't have t watch each other die, it's heartbreaking.

While it's kids' stuff on the surface, RTD's habitual anger and cynicism isn't far below. The fact that the baby-making machine has to be left active by law, churning out children who are then abandoned and left to die, is such a scathing indictment of recent American legislation (not to mention a dozen other countries around the world), that it deserved to be shouted louder. Add in a quick attack at the UK's attitude to refugees and it's clear that the silly stuff is there to sugarcoat some serious themes. Unfortunately, for all its power, the overriding theme of found family overcoming abandonment is lsot on anyone who turns on and sees a toddler in a buggy as captain of a space station and switches right off again. But the kids won't, and the sooner they hear these messages, the better.

It's all wrapped up nicely, leaving us with a hint of things to come. The sneaky bio-scan of Ruby is another thing that recalls Moffat's era, both the confusion around Amy's pregnancy and the "impossible girl" mystery of Clara, while the Doctor's steadfast refusal to take Ruby back to the day of her birth lest she cause a catastrophic paradox shows they haven't forgotten the chaos Rose caused. Doubtless this will all come into play in the final two-parter. 

Setting: 

  • Wyoming area, 150 million BC.
  • Baby Station Beta, orbit of Pacifico del Rio, AD 21,506.
Observations:
  • Brachiosaurus did indeed live around 150 million years ago, and its remains are found in the Morrisson Formation, a region that spans Colorado and Wyoming. So top marks there.
  • The bogeyman skulking about the darkened corridors had a hint of Alien about it, and its almost getting sucked out the airlock reminded me strongly of the Newborn suffering that fate in Alien Resurrection.
  • The Doctor says that they should go visit Star Trek, a crossover that RTD's been wanting to do since he first brought back Doctor Who.
  • With that in mind, having the original crew of the station wear very Starfleet-esque uniforms is a nice touch.
  • As well as the Rani, the Doctor mentions Time Lords known as the Bishop, the Conquistador, the Pedant (that'd be me) and the Sagi-Shi.
Nitpicking:
  • The Doctor states that there's no one else like them in the entire universe. There's literally two of you, mate.
Best lines:
  • "This is the worse thing that has ever happened to anyone!"
  • "Most of the universe is knackered, babes."
  • "I've met a million ugly bugs - I'm an ugly bug!"
  • "No one grows up wrong."

Monday 6 May 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-6 - "Whistlespeak"

 A nice change of pace this week after the heavy lore and grand revelations in "Mirrors." "Whistlespeak" is a leisurely,old-fashioned episode that, in its own way, calls back to years of Star Trek storytelling with the sort of straightforward Prime Directive story we've seen many times before. There's nothing much here that's new, with the story suffering from the same sorts of issues these stories often have. The aliens are extremely human-like, their society feels sketched in, and they speak in an overly formalised way that can rob scenes of urgency and impact.

Still, overall this is nicely done. While they're lumbered with some stilted dialogue, the guest cast is uniformly solid. June Laporte is the standout as young Ravah, who's likeable enough that it's genuinely unsettling when they willingly going towards their death. It's also a nice touch that Laporte, who is non-binary, gets to use they/them in the episode. The Halem'nites explicitly recognise three genders, so just because they're at an earlier stage of development doesn't mean they don't get to be progressive. I'm sure the anti-woke crowd is spitting blood again.

There are other elements that add to the reality of this world. Cloud seeding with silver iodide is a tried-and-tested method of rain generation, while whistlespeak itself is used for long-distance communication by cultures all over the world. The sonic treatment that causes the elder woman to cough up the dust that's ravaging her lungs is more questionable, but there are similar techniques used in Asia with anecdotal effectiveness. It's a great moment, though, with the Starfleet interlopers shown that an allegedly primitive culture have achieved the same results as their high technology has.

Indeed, in spite of some very impressive tech on display here - I particularly like the contact lens tricorders - there's a nice theme of there always being someone more advanced elsewhere. While the Federation has technology that looks like magic to the Halem'nites - and has done for at least eight hundred years - the Progenitors have tech that massively outstrips them. The Halem'nites worship the creators of the weather towers as gods, but it's not really much different to how Starfleet look at the Progenitors. Again, this is wellworn stuff from classic Prime Directive stories (the good ones, at least), along with the resolution. The Denobulan scientists (a nice bit of detail) who installed the weather towers saved the population from drought, but altered their social development for centuries, leading to a religion obsessed with blood sacrifice (albeit in a terribly sanitised way). Burnham's interference is less a breach of the Prime Directive than partly putting right an earlier breach, much like many of Kirk's actions back in the day.

As for the regulars, it's very much a Tilly episode, with Mary Wiseman providing the heart and humour of the episode. I like that the bigger girl gets to be the "queen of endurance" here. The script takes pains to remind us that Tilly's now a teacher, obviously so we're not surprised when she goes back to the Academy (and to star in her own series, almost certainly). She shares great chemistry with Laporte, as does Martin-Green with Alfredo Narciso as Ravah's father Ovahz.

Back on the ship, outside the main storyline, the focus is on Culber, as he tries to come to terms with his experience as a temporary host for the Trill scientist's consciousness in episode three. This ties in nicely to the spiritual themes of the episode, and the balance between science and faith, Culber being convinced there's a physiological reason for his changed outlook and feelings. Stamets is being extra spesh and can't fathom why his husband might feel different after a) dying and being resurrected and b) hosting a centuries-old alien consciousness. You'd think Hugh would speak to Adira more about it, given that they still are hosting a centuries-old alien consciousness. There's a strange story thread involving Culber's spending time with a holographic recreation of his abuela, which, while not entirely unheard of in Trek terms, veers close to Black Mirror territory when he starts considering recommending it as therapy. I expect he'll be essential to the eventual realisation of how to use the Progenitors' tech once it's finally recovered.

Bits and pieces:

  • The eventual discovery of the next puzzle piece was ridiculously throwaway - basically, "Oh yeah, we beamed into that other tower and there it was."
  • Although it's generally assumed the Denobulans joined the Federation, there's no indication of whether they were members when the towers were set up on Halem'no or if they are in the 32nd century.
  • Why is the control unit for the tower miles away in the woods? And why is it leaking radiation? The Denobulans really didn't think this through, did they?
  • Given that they were looking for planets that suffered droughts in the distant past, I wondered if they'd be heading back to the Crepusculan planet Burnham and Georgiou visited back in the first episode of Discovery. That might have been a nice touch, although they'd need some serious disguises.
  • Kovich gets ever more mysterious. He owns some 21st century legal paper, for some reason. I'm wondering if it's going to turn out he bought it firsthand in the 2020s and is either a time traveller or hundreds of years old.
  • We've got a full list of 24th century scientists involved in the mystery now: Jinaal Bix of Trill; Vellek of Romulus; Hitorishi Kreel of Denobula; Carmen Cho from the Mirror Universe; and Marina Derex of Betazed (named after Marina Sirtis, I assume).
  • Culber's Mofongo con pollo looks delicious and I am definitely getting some plantain and having a go at making it.