Tuesday 25 June 2024

WHO REVIEW: 14-7 - "The Legend of Ruby Sunday" and 14-8 - "Empire of Death"

After all that, it was just a shaggy god story.

It's been an uneven season, with some real high points and a lot of befuddling near-misses, but on the whole it's been solidly entertaining throughout. One thing's for certain: without the sheer magnetism of Ncuti Gatwa's central performance and the depth that Millie Gibson brought to Ruby Sunday, it would have fallen apart. Their performances have made the series, even in episodes where one or both of them were largely absent, holding the rest together.

They almost manage it with the closing two-parter, but can't quite hold together a storyline this careless. A grand finale in the style that Russell T. Davies gave us each year back when he ran the show the first time round, this unfortunately reminds us that those finales gave diminishing returns even then. Where once we had clear character development that was spiced up by a gently seeded mystery - Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Harold Saxon - this time we had a bundle of seemingly unrelated mysteries increasingly brought to the forefront, with little hope of a satisfying payoff. The identities of the One Who Waits, Ruby's birth mother, Mrs Flood and the various characters played by Susan Twist all jostling for attention, with no real clue why they'd all been forced together. Somewhere in there, these two episodes were also meant to have their own story.

There are a lot of elements here that, individually, work beautifully. I adored the time window, and the use of a scratchy old VHS, combined to allow Ruby to step back into her past and witness her own origin story, complete with flickering, rippling frame edges. Not that many people were still using video cassettes in 2004, but CCTV still did, and anyone who's had to review such a tape knows how satisfying it would have been to get close enough to actually see something. The revelation that the Memory TARDIS is born from this - the image of a TARDIS becomes a TARDIS? - ties in Tales of the TARDIS beautifully and is wonderfully poetic.

The visit to the last living survivor on a dead planet, giving us a gently devastating two-hander between Gatwa and Sian Clifford, is genuinely beautiful. It feels like a scene from an entirely different episode, quietly and carefully played against the bombast of the rest of it, while still tying back to the above, with the nameless woman having lost her child as a cruel reflection of the other unnamed woman giving hers away.

Every scene with Bonnie Langford just works, showing us just how wasted she was in Mel's original portrayal in 1986-7. Her embracing the Doctor as he sinks under the weight of the mounting threat, before cajoling him into action. Her gently cradling his earlier selves' costumes, holding onto those old adventures, as she slips away, unseen by the Doctor and Ruby. Just lovely work.

But it's all almost lost in the noise, and the sheer frustration at the story's incoherence. This is RTD's grand finale finally becoming a self-parody. "The Legend of Ruby Sunday" almost works through sheer verve, but it's ultimately less a story than a bunch of stuff that happens. It could have been saved by a second part that contextualised it all, but "Empire of Death" is somehow even less coherent. The missus and I spent the entire episode saying, "that doesn't make sense" and "that's it?" and words of that ilk. 

The moment Kate Stewart dies, the reset button looms over the proceedings, and then - poof! - everyone's dead, Dave. From that moment on, nothing matters, because the sign that says "Push to reset plot" is now lit up in neon orange. This is Doctor Who doing Avengers: Endgame, only with a fraction of the time and none of the logic. 

With his triumphant appearance in the closing moments of "The Legend of Ruby Sunday," Sutekh is reborn as a monster for the CGI age, even though his snarling demon form is somehow less imposing than either immobile mask that represented him back in 1975. Kudos for getting Gabriel Woolf back to voice him - really no one else could have done. While it's not his first time voicing a villain for the revived series - he voiced the Beast for 2006's "The Satan Pit" - nor even his first return to the Sutekh role, what with Big Finish and all - it's still significant to have him return to voice such an iconic character almost fifty years after he first made such an impression. (If you do look at this series as the new Season One, then, barring clips, I think he must be the first actor to appear in all three versions of the programme.)

I was a bit dubious when Sutekh was revealed as the one behind all the sneaky clues and cosmic games, and that he was being described as a literal god, seeing that he was traditionally of the alien astronaut, sufficiently-advanced-technology kind. Yet this is satsifyingly explained as his having evolved and attained true godhood, and while the trickster angle would genuinely have suited Fenric more than the blunt and brutal Sutekh, overall it works. His MO hasn't changed - he still wants to kill everyone and everything in the universe - and now he has the means to do it.

Straight away, though, the script cuts down its own concepts with elements that don't quite work the moment you think about them. So Sutekh has been riding the TARDIS ever since Pyramids of Mars? The sheer number of stories this renders baffling is outweighed only by the number of memes it has already inspired. Given that it was the Doctor's meddling at the edge of the universe that was supposed to have let all these gods and goblins in, why not use this already comfortably established explanation? Have Sutekh be stuck on the outer membrane of space/time until the Doctor pierced it, and then have him surf the TARDIS back to reality. Otherwise why is the Ship only moaning about it now?

Doctor Who never makes complete sense, and some stories make a lot less. Yet there are just so many infuriating choices and illogical conclusions and great flapping loose ends here it becomes aggravating. Off the top of my head: how can the Doctor fetch evidence from the evil Welsh PM's regime in 2046 when Ruby prevented that timeline from happening, and now Sutekh has ended life on Earth in 2024? It double-never-happened. Where does the Memory TARDIS go, aside from into the spin-off series? Why is Rose Noble working for UNIT, as lovely as her immediate friendship as Ruby was? Why waste Lenny Rush on such a briefly used character?  Why did the Doctor need to go to that planet and meet that woman to borrow her spoon? Sutekh killed living beings, he didn't erase all the metal in the cosmos. 

Perhaps most bafflingly, why end your massive relaunch of Doctor Who, intended to kick it into international streaming super-success, with a story so utterly beholden on the programme's ancient history? It's not that bringing back characters and concepts from the past is a bad idea, but to so deeply hold onto the original stories to the point of including clips from Pyramids of Mars and continually referencing Susan is a bizarre move at this stage. If only there'd been an appropriate opportunity for that kind of nostalgic looking back, say last year...

Ah yes, Susan. It takes some balls, I guess, to throw in an anagram so obvious that not only every fan will pick up on it, but even UNIT, who apparently aren't phased by a new recruit named H. Arbinger, and then to throw it out in favour of a vastly more stupid play on words. I mean, "Sue Tech," for goodness' sake (and no, Doctor, that isn't an anagram). It also takes balls to bate the die-hards with the return of Susan, only to have Twist's character revealed as, basically, evil Clara. In a way, I'm relieved. I'm not sure wha I would have disliked more: making Susan into a villain, or missing the opportunity to have Carole Ann Ford, the only surviving actor from the very first story, play her again.

In the end, of course, the indescribably powerful cosmic evil is beaten absurdly easily, because there isn't time for anything more satisfying. Everything's OK again. Except for the Doctor, once again beating himself up for being "a monster," as if killing the literal God of Death who just killed virtually every living thing in the entire universe is in any way morally questionable. Maybe he's just feeling guilty at the sheer cheek of saying he represents life after the shit he pulled when he looked like Jodie Whittaker.

So, mystery number three: Ruby's mum. The actual discovery of her, the meeting with her, the bringing her back into Ruby's life, is all beautifully done. I love that Ruby completely ignores the Doctor's sage advice about leaving things alone and goes straight into meet her. It's a stunning scene, and Gibson is once again fantastic in it. Unfortunately, we're then fobbed off with the "she's the most important thing in the world - an ordinary woman" reveal, which is such a let down it makes you wonder why we bothered. After all, it makes no sense whatsoever. Why could Sutekh not see this ordinary woman? Why does Ruby have impossible depths and is able to make it snow? I can only hope that the Doctor is hiding something from her, or that her father turns out to be something interesting.

Thankfully, we do get a strong goodbye scene, again sold by the talent and presence of Gatwa and Gibson. It's goodbye to Ruby, except we know she will be back next year. Not sure exactly what the set up will be there, but very pleased we're not losing Millie yet.

That just leaves mystery number four, the quite irritating Mrs Flood. She knows a lot, talks to the audience, and seemingly cosplays as old companions (there's a cohort of fans who are convinced she's Clara because she wears one of her jumper/shirt combos, but she dresses as Romana I in The Ribos Operation at the end). She also starts preaching some very strange portentous language when Sutekh is about to let loose, but then, half the characters start talking like that for some reason. At the end of the day, I can't really muster much interest, when it'll probably be another let down.

Settings: UNIT HQ, London, 2024; Ruby Road, Manchester, 2004 (kind of); somewhere in Britain, 2046; planet Agua Cantina, time unknown.

Maketh the Man: Nice black leather jacket, white T-shirt, jeans and boots combo from the Doctor. A good, practical, stripped down look for a tough mission. I liked his cosy poncho in the Memory TARDIS though.

Throwing back and spinning off: So, the latest Tales of the TARDIS takes place in the middle of "Empire of Death," with the Doctor taking an hour or so off recount an old adventure to Ruby while Mel quietly dies in the corner. As much as I love the cultural appropriation line (in the main episode) and the looting accusation (in the TotT framing), all this really does is highlight how much better Pyramids of Mars was than this.

How's Your Uncle? Pretty funny that while Rose is risking her life, Donna and the Fourteenth Doctor are nowhere to be seen, having nipped off to the Costa Brava or Planet of the Hats or something.

73 Yards: Interesting that this is linked to the TARDIS' perception filter, suggesting that the entire haunting experienced by Ruby and her being pulled back in time was down to the Ship itself.

The Shallow Bit: It's a pity Harriet Arbinger turns into a skull-face and then dies; Genesis Lynea (cool name) is rather gorgeous.

Gods and Monsters: The Pantheon is listed by Harriet, a nice mix of recognisable names and new creations:

  • The Toymaker, the God of Games (The Celestial Toymaker, The Giggle)
  • The Trickster, the God of Traps (a recurring villain on The Sarah Jane Adventures)
  • Maestro, the God of Music, child of the Toymaker ("The Devil's Chord")
  • Reprobate, the God of Spite (they're new)
  • The Mara, the God of Beasts (Kinda, Snakedance)
  • Incensor, the God of Disaster (new)
  • Their children, Doubt and Dread (very Sandman)
  • The Threefold Deity of Malice, Mischief and Misery (probably new but could maybe be the Gods of Ragnarok from The Greatest Show in the Galaxy)
  • Sutekh, the God of Death
Intriguingly, Sutekh is described as "the mother and father and other of them all," in spite of apparently becoming a god later than several of them.

The Problem of Susan: The Doctor apparently hasn't seen Susan since he dumped her in the 22nd century in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, although he doesn't actually confirm this. The Eighth Doctor met her again in his radio series (and also separately in the EDA novels, but you try reconciling those two accounts). Very intriguingly, he suggests that he may not have had children yet, and may have grandchildren before he has children, although he's referred to himself as a dad several times (as recently as "Boom").

Sundry quibbles:
  • Repeating a concern from "The Giggle:" what is the Vlinx, and for that matter, what is the point of the Vlinx? It says two words and otherwise just sits there looking stupid and costing money.
  • Calufrax has been restored? Bit of a waste of time, it was dead in the first place.
  • All of the fan baiting and references in this, and they cut out the scene of Susan Triad meeting the Zarbi? We was robbed.
  • Of all the episodes that make you go "Huh?" when you realise Sutekh was sitting on the TARDIS the whole time, surely "The Giggle" is the biggest deal. There are two TARDISes now, so are there two Sutekhs as well?

Sunday 9 June 2024

TREK REVIEW: DIS 5-9 & 5-10



Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?

Star Trek: Discovery's final two episodes bite off a bit more than they can chew thanks to the late-in-the-day cancellation of the series, but still give us a more satisfying than we normally get with Discovery. In spite of running to only ten episodes, this last season has been tighter and better paced than the show normally manages, with a more coherent structure. 

"Lagrange Point" sets things up nicely, but is very much a first part rather than a satisfactory episode in its own right. It's a taut little thriller, with Michael and co. infiltrating the Breen dreadnought which is, somehow, effectively under the command of Moll after she insighted the rebellion against Ruhn. There's some good stuff here, with Adira stepping up to the plate on a risky away mission against the objection of her space dad Stamets, and some cool-as-a-cucumber stealth work from Rhys, who's finally developed a character this year. Frankly, I was expecting them to kill him off, since he's never been more than a handsome background character till the last few episodes.

Taking the lead in the Breen mission are Burnham and Book, once again showing that they have all the best chemistry even when they're having to communicate through cod-Iron Man helmet cam effects. I love how Book, thrown in the deep end and having to keep one of the various Breen troops occupided, instantly resorts to flirting, and gets away with it. There's a very clunky scene where, in true Discovery style, everything stops so Michael can have an emotional moment with her ex, but at least it's lampshaded. 

The weakness in this episode is that the Breen aren't really living up to their promise as the new Big Bad. The main draw of the Breen was always their mystery, and inevitably, once we started to learn about them they become less interesting. That's pretty much unavoidable. Sadly, while we do get some intriguing snippets about them, they've turned out to be such a generic warrior race that they just fail to hold interest. Once they start speaking English so Moll can understand them, they just come across as a bunch of ranty soldier boys. The fascinating idea of their having two forms isn't explored at all. We learn both too much and not enough about their culture for them to be interesting, and it's a real shame.

This is exacerbated in the final episode, when Primarch Tahal coming to take Ruhn's dreadnought how he's out of the game. She's exactly the same as he was, but with a crackly female voice instead of a male one, only she really is all mouth and no trousers. It's great to finally have Saru back, with Doug Jones giving a great performance as the steely predator-mode Kelpian who'll stare down the aspiring Breen Queen, but Tahal just isn't threatening enough to warrant turning up as an eleventh hour villain. Plus, every time they refer to the Primarch I just thing of a bargain clothes shop.

Where these episodes really sing is in the mindbending science and beautiful visuals. Having the Progenitor's tech sitting in a capsule hanging in the Lagrange point of two black holes is awe inspiring, especially when we learn that the Progenitors may well have created this whole system themselves, just to hammer home how incredibly advanced they were. And, of course, the capsule's bigger on the inside, being merely the entry point to another dimension (where have I heard that one before?) There's a bit of confusion about all this though, as it's also said that the 24th century scientists were responsible for putting it there, which doesn't really mesh with everything else we learn.

It's inevitable that both Moll and Michael will throw themselves across the threshold into the other dimension as the penultimate cliffhanger, but the world they find is nothing short of spectacular. It's reminiscent of the timeless realm of Interstellar, but with some logic to its construction even if we have trouble following it. The idea of the Progenitors having access to a limitless space containing hundreds of worlds is fantastic, and suitably epic for the final discovery. 

However, it all falls down a bit with the final test, which falls into the perennially annoying, ludicrously simple maths puzzle variety. I realise there were other tests of character beforehand, but this simple brainteaser is what convinces the Progenitors that Burnham has what it takes to take control of god-like technology? It's also disappointing that the terrifying threat it poses is apparently little more than growing a clone army. Surely they could have come up with something more imaginative?

We've known for the whole season that eventually Burnham would find the supreme technology, just as we've known that she would inevitably decide it was too advanced and dangerous and that there were just some things mankind was not meant to know, etc. There's only one way stories like this can go, and this duly went there. All fine, all so predictable. Overall, though, it still worked for me, largely thanks to some genuinely nice moments between Burnham and the last Progenitor. (It is frustrating, though, how Michael is constantly fretting about getting out and saving Book, when the alien keeps reminding her that they are outside of time and therefore can take as long as they like.) 

One thing I absolutely adored was the revelation that the Progenitors didn't create this technology at all, just found it along with all the worlds it contains. It's continuous creation, all the way back to the dawn of time and maybe beyond. This brings to mind Pratchett's undersung classic, Strata, although that wasn't the first to use this idea (and subverts it anyway). In any case, love it.

There's a lot going on in this episode, good and, if not bad, then frustrating. Culber's miraculous spiritual experience post-joining is just remembering a few numbers that the Trill scientist handily left in his head. I enjoyed the final defeat of the Breen, using the spore drive to just dump them out by the edge of the Galaxy, even if the science was a bit ludicrous, even for this series. Still, I hope they don't show up again one day, brimming with godlike mind powers thanks to the Galactic Barrier...

After all the excitement, we get what is basically a series of epilogues as they try to wrap up everything. I'll admit, I punched the air when Kovich revealed he's actually Agent Daniels from Enterprise. Very silly, yet absolutely perfect. David Cronenberg doesn't much look, sound or act like Matt Winston, but he did say he's "lived many lives." Perhaps he regenerated? Saru and T'Rina's wedding was suitbaly lovely, even if we didn't see as many Vulcans or Kelpien as we might expect, but is was good to see some old faces again. Then, at the very end, we get a beautifully acted moment where Burnham and Book finally make up for good. Lovely.

Except that's not the end, because one last, very long epilogue was recorded after they learned of the cancellation. This jsut about works. It's too long, for sure, but this little peak at the 33rd century and the much older Admiral Burnham's life is pretty satisfying, even if she does have the same neo-Luddite retirement dream as every other Starfleet captain. Bringing them back to Sanctuary Four, with Book's alien conservation projects, is a nice touch.

What doesn't quite work is the final fate of the USS Discovery itself. Short Treks' "Calypso" was the highlight of that brief series and left us with all sorts of mysteries to ponder, and notably didn't quite line up with the direction that Discovery eventually went. While a nod in its direction would have been nice, trying to explain it all away ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers. Why does the ship need to be returned to its original state, with the "A" scraped off an everything? Why does Zora, a sentient being we might recall, have to be dumped alone for untold decades as part of this mission? How the hell does anyone know about someone or something named Craft turning up at some point in the future, to do something or other? It just doesn't quite work.

Overall, though, both the epilogue and the final episode as a whole manage to tie up this season, and the whole series, quite satisfyingly. This has probably been the best season in Discovery's run, and it's a shame that it had to get canned just as it got the formula right, but better to go out on a high.

Other bits and pieces:

  • Book and Burnham's son is called Leto and is a captain in his own right. He's at least in his thirties, so this section can't be set any earlier than the 3220s.
  • As for when "Calypso" is set... it still isn't clear whether Discovery really was hanging around for a thousand years, or just made to look like that by being reverted to its old design. The latter seems more likely, but it could still be a good while before Craft turns up. If she does sit there for a thousand years, it's set no earlier than the 43rd century.
  • Culber gets a Bones-ism: "I'm a doctor, not a physicist!"
  • Kovich/Daniels has Geordi's VISOR, Sisko's baseball and a bottle of Chateu Picard in his collection, making him look like the galaxy's biggest fanboy and tealeaf.
  • Tilly basically outright says she's sticking around for the Starfleet Academy spin-off, and no surprises there.
  • The planetary landscape filled with fields of flowers is beautiful... and I reckon it's Lurglestrop from The Smeds and the Smoos (the finest science fiction story of our time).
  • The Breen apparently practise polyamory and enjoy oil baths. So now you know.

WHO REVIEW: 14-6 - "Rogue"


Tremendous fun. Sure, there were some more serious aspects, but basically, this was fifty minutes of gorgeously realised fun. 

This is, as telegraphed back in the series trailer, the Bridgerton episode. I've never seen an episode of Bridgerton, but this works as a pastiche if you've ever watched or read an Austen-style regency melodrama. I do think that maybe the script labours the point a bit, with Ruby mentioning Bridgerton three times, but it's refreshingly honest for an episode of Doctor Who to wear its influences to brazenly. It's also timed brilliantly; not only is it Pride Month, but it's aired just before the second half of Bridgerton's current season is released. This is an episode that's courting a very specific audience, and if though I'm not exactly in that audience, I can admire the skill there.

The fact that this is the queerest the show's ever got is bound to rub some viewers the wrong way but, frankly, bollocks to them. Doctor Who has been beloved by the queer community since the universe was half its present size. The alleged fans who are bashing out their screaming hatemail in caps were left behind a long time ago and the show doesn't need them. This is Doctor Who for a modern, queer-friendly, emotionally-free audience, and quite rightly, we have a modern, queer, emotionally-free Doctor. As good as Gatwa is when playing the Doctor as anguished, angry or scared - and we get some brilliant work from him there as well this week - he just sings when his Doctor is having fun. Literally.

It's funny to think back to 1996, when we had a handsome young Doctor in a wig and a velvet frock coat, fans were gnashing their teeth at his kissing a woman. Now, we've got another one, and he's throwing caution to the wind, kissing a man and being joyfully scandalous. The Fifteenth Doctor is the sexiest, flirtiest, most passionate Doctor we've ever had, and he's just perfect for this new version of Doctor Who. Still, it seems even more of a shame that we couldn't have Jodie and Mandip kiss in "The Power of the Doctor" in retrospect.

Jonathan Groff is almost as good, but in a very different way. Ahead of broadcast a lot of fans were convinced he was going to be a recast Captain Jack and, while he does display some similarities and could well be another ex-Time Agent, he's a distinctly different character. In keeping with the overall cosplay theme of the episode, Rogue seems like he's playing at being a space adventurer, without the confidence that his character displays. He's got the brooding down pat, but when he has to improvise an entirely new gamepla, he falters. He's a bounty hunter who's completely unprepared for anything but the simplest mission - he didn't even think to bring more than one trap - and he named himself after a D&D class. The poor, sweet geek, no wonder the Doctor likes him so much.

Even with the focus on the Doctor and Rogue, it's another strong episode for Millie Gibson, who gets to have her own side adventure that plays to her and her character's strengths. The plain-talking Northern girl barging her way into polite society is always a winner, and when you throw in the carelessly futuristic talk and increasing adventure savviness she works brilliantly. The Chekov's earring, letting her take her downloadable choreograpy and swap it for battle mode, is a silly but brilliant way to feasibly allow her to kick alien ass, and her taking the deception of the aliens too far and getting herself almost chucked into a prison dimension by the Doctor is spot on too. 

While Ruby's scam was the obvious get-out, I could have believed she was really dead, and that the closing two-parter would have involved the Doctor fighting to bring her back somehow, so convincing was the Doctor's fury. It's also the first time we've seen this Doctor act like a real bastard, condemning the Chuldur to centuries of solitary misery. This is from the man who pleaded with a bunch of racists who hated him to let him save them, but hurting Ruby is clearly a step too far for him.

The Chuldur themselves are a fun, if fairly throwaway monster of the week. Indira Varma is a joy to watch, as always, both as the Duchess of Pemberton and the Chuldur inhabiting her form, and she's a hoot (sorry) when in full-on bird form. I still kind of wish the Duchess had been the Rani, since Varma would be perfect for the role and it would be the one time it would actually make sense for a female villain to actually turn out to be her, but one-off shapeshifting bird lady is fun. I liked Camilla Aiko evne more, as the wonderfully positive young Emily, who turns out to be one of the aliens cosplaying really well. The fact that the entire dramatic scene witnessed (and crashed) earlier by Ruby between Emily and her suitor is completely fake is hilarious.

This is the first script we've had from someone new to the series since 2020, and we really need some more of that. Getting Kate Herron, fresh from Loki, is a great move - if there's anyone who should be working on Doctor Who, it's the Loki team. I don't know much about her writing partner, Briony Redman, but based on this they're a team to follow. If there's an issue with the script, it's down to the episode's length; there simply isn't time to fully convince us that the Doctor and Rogue have fallen for each other, not with everything else that's going on. There'll be time to work on that later, though (because Rogue is definitely coming back. let's be honest). 

Pretty much everything else works, though. The dialogue, direction, music and costumes are all exceptional. This is campy, OTT, silly, fun Doctor Who that's a step above either of the season's opening episodes. They should have kicked everything off with this.

Setting: Bath, Somerset, 1813.

Maketh the Man: Gatwa looks incredible in a burgundy frock coat and full Regency garb, and Groff doesn't look half bad either in his blue and silver outfit. The flashback to Ruby's home has the Doctor in another bright orange jumper. I'm surprised they didn't just make the frock coat orange.

The Many Faces of Doctor Who:

As always with this series and its midnight streaming, I have to try to avoid spoilers online until I have a chance to watch it. This time, I had no trouble avoiding actual plot points, because everyone was raving about this moment. Gatwa gets his moment with a montage of past Doctors, giving us snapshots of all the previous incarnations - including Jo Martin and both David Tennants - and, out of the blue, Richard E. Grant.

This is a surprise, to say the least. Grant played the "other" Ninth Doctor in the animated webcast Scream of the Shalka in 2003, who was rapidly overwritten by Eccleston's Doctor. Suddenly making him part of visual TV canon is a shock, and it's not clear what this means. Is he a past or future incarnation of our Doctor, now that the Timeless Child reveal has left everything up for grabs? Or is Doctor Who paving its way to get on the Multiverse bandwagon, showing us a variant Doctor, as Herron would no doubt put it?

The most surprising thing is RTD allowing this, given how much he hated Grant's portrayal of the Doctor, and how he very publically said so. Surely it was Herron's idea, what with her having worked with Grant as the "Classic Loki" variant on her own series? 

Of course, it's possible he's meant to represent the Comic Relief Tenth Doctor from The Curse of Fatal Death, but that would be even more of a headscratcher.

Dedication: Some quick work made this episode dedicated to William Russell, who played Ian Chesterton back in the very beginning of Doctor Who, and who died on the 3rd of June aged 99. He last appeared in a brief cameo in "The Power of the Doctor."

Music of the Spheres: Loved the use of "Bad Guy" in the early part of the episode, which I understand is a direct lift from Bridgerton, and "Poker Face" later on. Can't beat a bit of Kylie on the spaceship, either. The best musical moment, though, was the Doctor singing "A World of Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and it would be no surprise at all if Gene Wilder's Wonka turned out to be an incarnation of the Doctor too).

Monday 3 June 2024

WHO REVIEW: 14-5 - "Dot and Bubble"


From the outset, this episode was destined to be compared to Black Mirror. What's surprising is that it compares so favourably. It's not as if Charlie Brooker came up with science fiction as a method of social commentary, or on the focus on technology in general, and social media in particular, as subjects to explore and satirise. Davies reportedly came up with the idea for “Dot and Bubble” in 2010, as a potential guest script for Matt Smith's first season, while Black Mirror didn't air until 2011. Still, the similarity is undeniable, and it's highly unlikely Davies hasn't been influenced by Black Mirror in the intervening years. (He speaks very highly of Brooker's writing – quick, sign him up to do an episode.)

Some of the few people who have outright trashed this episode have called it “Black Mirror for kids,” as if that is in some way a bad thing. Once again we have a sudden shift in genre and Doctor Who pulls it off perfectly. There's a lot here that Black Mirror couldn't, or wouldn't, do: giant slugs are not likely to show up on that show. In some ways, this has the feel of an episode of The Outer Limits, with the juxtaposition of thoughtful, if melodramatic, science fiction with big squidgy monsters. While similarities to the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” are clear, it has far more in common with “The Machine Stops,” which was made into an episode of Out of the Unknown in 1966 (which thankfully survives and is well worth seeing) but was written by E.M. Forster in 1909, and is frighteningly prescient.

There's a risk that Russell T. Davies, now aged 61, would fall into the trap of simply railing against modern technology. Fortunately, this is no “old man yells at the Cloud,” with RTD skillfully lampooning our dependence on technology and social media while making it clear that the technology itself isn't the problem. The Bubble, of course, isn't simply the glowing sphere that surrounds Lindy's head all day, but the social, mental and moral bubble in which we all risk hiding ourselves. There are clear warnings about elitism; the superficiality of fame and shallow relationships; and the slide into selfishness. One of the most powerful moments to me was the casual way Lindy and others in Finetime walked past a fellow citizen being dragged off to their death by one of the monsters, and oblivious to another in pain and danger on the streets that clearly parallels our blind eye to those suffering homelessness.

All this, however, if overshadowed by the electrifying final scene. For the first time, we see the Doctor faced with hatred directed at him because of the colour of his skin, something that we were bound to see eventually but which was so unexpected in a future-set episode. There's a case to be had that it isn't the place for this, that we should have seen the Doctor come up against the very real racism of the 1960s in “The Devil's Chord,” yet having it occur in a future society acts as a stark warning to us.

Ncuti Gatwa is, in his short time on screen, remarkable, no more so than in that final scene. As the Doctor careers from confusion, to incredulity, to frustrated rage, Gatwa is electrifying. This was, remarkably, the first material he shot following his time opposite David Tennant in “The Giggle,” and RTD has said he was very wary of throwing him into this. My god, though, what a way to come in and show how absolutely right he was for the role.

I, to my shame, failed to notice until the critical moment that the rest of the episode's cast is white, displaying exactly the lazy, if unintentional, prejudices that it's still so easy for a white person to fall into. It will, of course, be a very different experience for a viewer of colour, who will have come up against the barriers and micro-aggressions that Lindy throws at the Doctor. In context, it's all so clear, from the “I thought you just looked the same,” to the shock at Ruby and the Doctor actually being in the same room. For me, it simply looked like more evidence of how people in this community were isolated and how unused they were to outsiders. In retrospect, it's stark, and a real eye-opener for me, not noticing these things simply because I was not looking for them, and I have the luxury of not dealing with them day-to-day.

Certainly, I'm interested in how others feel about this episode. Most people I know, like me, think it's the best of the year so far, and the best for some considerable time. However, this is coming from a group of people in their late twenties to early sixties, who are also predominantly white. I've seen some comments from people of colour who thought the race aspect was tacked on and performative, and some from younger viewers who found the episode ineffective and condescending. Still, I've also seen comments from this audience that were extremely positive. One thing that is clear though is that we need more diverse writers for this show, especially if we're going to be tackling race-related issues. The Chibnall era, for all its flaws, made some real headway here, and it's a problem if we're sliding backwards.

While Gatwa steals the entire episode, making you forget that this is the second Doctor-lite episode in a fortnight (something that could potentially have been a huge misstep), there's some beautiful work from Millie Gibson, particularly in that final scene where Ruby silently supports the Doctor. It's Callie Cooke who carries the episode as Lindy, giving an absolutely brilliant performance as a character who is surely to become one of the most hated in fandom. While she is vapid and at times bafflingly idiotic, for the most part she seems to be simply sheltered and at least trying to help. We're primed to expect Lindy to overcome her limitations, to become a hero and then stand as an almost-companion we wish could have joined the TARDIS.

Instead, Lindy reveals herself to be a hateful and truly selfish person. There's a hint of it when she tells Ricky September (a nice performance by Tom Rhys Harries, who's actually older than Gatwa) that this is the best day of her life, in spite of all the death surrounding her, before she reveals her true colours, condemning him to death to save herself and then lying to save face. Until, finally, that reveal, when it becomes clear just how rotten Lindy and her whole society are. It actually goes even further than the immediate implications in her (and those other two idiots') behaviour towards the Doctor. Talk of taming and then owning the wilderness smacks of manifest destiny, while the “river runs to the sea” can surely not be accidental. (Yes, this was written way before 7th October 2023. That is irrelevant.)

There are some frustrations. Ricky's sudden appearance is a bit too timely, and I was convinced initially that he was actually a hologram or some other avatar of the Doctor, in a guise Lindy would trust. It's not clear if the Homeworld really has been wiped out, which somewhat improves the target of the story from Gen Z to the entire population, or if it's a fakeout by the Dot. It takes the Doctor an agonisingly long time to realise that the killings are happening in alphabetical order. The slugs, or man-traps as they are apparently to be known, are a bit of a mystery themselves. The Doctor thinks the Dot made them, but how, and why? They might just as likely be animals from “the Wild Woods” or aliens its employed. They also seem a bit unnecessary if Dot can just kill people by smashing through their heads directly, but I suppose the sadism is the point.

A few logistical quibbles have never stopped Doctor Who before, though, and “Dot and Bubble” is, for me, the absolute high point of the series so far. It's certainly been a long time since an episode left me thinking more about how I watched than what I watched.

Setting: Finetime, a colony of what seems to be the moon of a planet known only as Homeworld. As for the time, anyone's guess.

(OK, let's try. First there's the question of whether the colonists are human. They certainly have human, indeed western first names, and their surnames are similarly western or are unusual combinations of English words. They use the Latin alphabet and have a society that appears to be an extension of how our own is developing. However, there's no mention of Earth - which might be the Homeworld but this seems unlikely - and when one of the colonists is dragged off by a slug, they appear to leave a trail of blue blood. It might be slug slime, but it isn't really presented that way.

(So, if they're not human, they have developed in a way that parallels humanity remarkably closely, to the point where they've duplicated "Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." More likely, they are human, and the blue blood can be explained away by their having mixed with an alien race at some point, something we know is common in the future. This would make their desire for "racial purity" particularly ironic.

(While the social media technology has a near future feel, the overall atmosphere of the story is more like the New Earth era, which might mesh with the mention of a year as Five-Dash-Five. However, both the mingling with other species and the resurgance in racism fit with the 51st to 52nd centuries, the latter being the origin of Krasko in "Rosa.")

Story links: Big Finish released a social media-themed story called Like in 2020 featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri. Eilidh Loan, who plays Cooper Mercy here, appeared in that release as well.

The Twist (in the middle): Susan Twist played Lindy's mother in this one, and now the Doctor and Ruby have both noticed that they've seen her face before. This is actually quite intrusive in this episode and it would have been better to leave it out for another instalment. As it is, whatever the truth behind Twist's appearances, they surely can't all be the same character - perhaps someone projecting her image through space and time so that it overlays what's really there for the Doctor and Ruby?

Maketh the Man: the Doctor finally spends an episode in the outfit he was originally publicised to wear, with the brown checked coat and trousers and neon orange jumper. The only other time we've seen him in that get-up is very briefly in "The Church on Ruby Road" when he went to see Ruby's band - Susan Twist was there as well...

Like and Subscribe: It's really hard not to think of Gatwa telling us all to subscribe to the official Doctor Who YouTube channel when he's up on the screen.

Wednesday 29 May 2024

WHO REVIEW: 14-4 - "73 Yards"


I have to be honest, I don't see what the big deal is about this. It's good, don't get me wrong; a solid, nicely told episode with a palpable sense of mystery, with some excellent performances. What it isn't is the truly powerful horror story some viewers are making it out to be, nor the game-changing twist on the series' format lauded by others. Nor is it the infuriating misfire that a smaller portion of the audience are finding it. 

It's certainly beautifully directed by Dylan Holmes Williams, with the breathtaking Welsh landscape giving way to the claustrophobic confines of the pub, before opening back into mundane yet unsettling everyday life in London. The disjoint here is just lovely; the folk horror we're led to expect is abruptly cancelled, and an entirely different story unfolds, still making the most of the uncanny atmosphere but through a different subgenre or horror.

Of course, it's Millie Gibson who makes the episode, giving an astonishing performance throughout. With Gatwa still in the midst of filming Sex Education and therefore unavailable for the bulk of filming, Gibson carries the episode on her own shoulders to the point where you barely miss the Doctor. It's a real testament to her skill that this is the first episode she filmed. Ruby is fully realised as a character from the outset and throughout her life. That this means she was only seventeen when she filmed it only makes it more impressive. While there's some good use of subtle make-up and Gibson is very skilled at portraying her character at different ages, there's no way that a wig, glasses and a big jacket can make us believe that she's a woman in her early forties. Over a year has passed since this was filmed, and Gibson looks older now than she does in any moment in this episode. Fortunately, her performance is strong enough that this can be overlooked.

Special mention also has to be made of Aneurin Barnard's charming but always uncomfortable and gently threatening performance as Roger ap Gwilliam; Michelle Greenidge's brutally cold performance as Cherry (again showing us just how callous a person she would be without Ruby in her life); and Sophie Ablett's small but powerful role as Marti, clearly subject to abuse by Gwilliam and selling it through her performance with barely any dialogue to back it up.

However, so much here is frustrating. Some of this is little annoyances, but ones that bugged me throughout. How many 18/19/20-year-olds measure in yards? Or indeed say "answerphone" instead of "Voicemail?" The latter is a single line and hardly important, but it highlights that RTD hasn't bothered to focus on how someone born in 2004 would speak beyond a peppering of slang. Following "Boom" with the Doctor once again stepping on something dangerous without looking where he's going is funny, but not deliberately, and feels sloppy. For that matter, giving us a virtually Doctor-free episode, while necessary due to the production schedule, feels like a major mistake in a major relaunch series that's only eight episodes long.

The Welsh setting of the opening is a chance for RTD to poke fun at the trappings of rural horror and, as the landlady Lowri Palin puts it, racist stereotyping of Welsh culture. This is completely hamstrung, however, by having her character, and most of the people in the pub, be pointlessly hostile and cruelly mocking to Ruby, who is, after all, a young girl who is quite clearly in trouble. The Welsh villagers are painfully stereotyped as creepy bastards who like to fuck with the English. This is only compounded by Maxine Evans play Lowri, bringing her back 18 years after she played the creepy Welsh villager in Torchwood's "Countrycide." Plus the fact that the stereotypically sinister folklore was entirely right, of course.

While it's nice to see Kate Stewart again and she gets some strong and though-provoking dialogue, particularly her understanding that something is wrong with this timeline, her inclusion hurts the story by making it too much about the current run of Doctor Who in general. The same goes for Susan Twist's latest appearance, although it is gratifying that Ruby is beginning to recognise her, and intriguing that she is just as vulnerable to supernatural events as anyone else. This story needs to stand alone to work, but isn't allowed to.

I don't mind at all that so much was left unanswered. This is, in fact, a strength of stories of this type. Much like It Follows, the 2014 horror film that clearly inspired much of this episode, leaving the phenomenon that has derailed Ruby's life unexplained is part of the effect. There does feel, though, to be too much left ambiguous, opaque, and downright incoherent. We don't need to know what "the Woman"/old Ruby said to people that left them so powerless and terrified, or how she had this power, but why would Ruby subject herself to such a brutal experience? Especially since, given the ending, it was all proven to be seemingly unnecessary?

That in itself is enormously frustrating. Once the story shifts and we see the "one year later" caption, it's painfully obvious that everything will be dutifully reset at the end. This can work as a story device but it has its risks. From there on, the story unfolds quite predictably, and while Ruby's defeat of Gwilliam is an extremely effective moment, it's prefigured by a long and predictably scene. The identity of the Woman also becomes immediately obvious as Ruby's future self, in spite of the fact that she and old Ruby are played by visibly different actresses. Are we then, to conclude, that the Woman wasn't Ruby all along? Much of the above makes more sense in this light, but it loses the neatness and dramatic punch, however predictable, of making it Ruby throughout.

For all Barnard's skill in playing the character, Gwilliam is barely sketched in as a character or a threat. He's a lazily written evil politician in the Trump-like populist mold. There's no sense of why he has so much support or how he is able to get so far. There's also the question of his ultimate identity. If he really is the reincarnation of Mad Jack, instead of it just being a nickname that tips Ruby off to what her role is in the story, then his behaviour is even more bizarre. The concepts just don't go together. However, if he's just some ambitious fascist without any link to the fairy circle, then Ruby's undoing of the timeline then leaves him at large, able to take "the world to the brink of nuclear war" (something that pointedly does not happen in the episode itself, but that does exist in the original timeline the Doctor remembers).

I'm very glad this episode exists, once again illustrating just how much the tone and genre of the series can shift from episode to episode (and again how short-sighted it was to stick the two camp OTT episodes together at the beginning). It's easily watchnable and has some bite, and Millie Gibson is genuinely brilliant in it. However, it's nowhere near as creepy as it needs to be to truly succeed, nor anything like as clever as RTD clearly thinks it is.

Setting: London and Wales, 2024 to 2080-ish (timeline negated).

Maketh the man: it's clear that the Fifteenth Doctor's favourite colour is orange, and he's really going for it in this episode, with an orange-yellow duffle coat and a deep orange beanie as part of his Welsh hiking outfit. Gatwa can genuinely wear anything and make it look great.

Foreshadowing: I suspect this will have some kind of callback in the season finale, however oblique, and Ruby's inexplicable experience here may well be somewhat explained after all. Also, Kate mentions that UNIT is in the habit of recruiting ex-companions and is also used to battling witchcraft, all of which is clearly setting up the inevitable UNIT spin-off.