Doctor Who 12.1-2 – Spyfall (parts one and two)

Chris Chibnall’s run of Doctor Who has had some major obstacles about which he could not do anything, like COVID-19 and like the British media suddenly getting outraged about John Barrowman’s decade-old inappropriate behavior on set, but it’s hard to see the year-long gap between “Resolution” and “Spyfall” as anything other than a totally unforced error. Despite the outsize grumblings of the he-man woman hater’s club, there was a palpable enthusiasm about Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in January 2019, and the BBC did nothing to capitalize on this. They should have already been in production when series eleven was being shown, to get new episodes on the air as soon as possible, but the BBC has never understood how to strike when an iron is hot.

That said, “Spyfall” is visually one of the most striking Who series openers. It’s a big globetrotting adventure with a pair of huge guest stars in Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry, some interesting new aliens called the Kasaavins who are from another universe entirely, and a plot that seems to have been written after Chibnall watched all the time travel shenanigans of “The Curse of Fatal Death” on an endless loop. We’re now comfortably back – I think! – in our son’s memory hole. He says that he remembers this series very well, as I certainly hope he should; it’s not even been two years. He mainly liked the laser shoes, of course.

But “Spyfall” has some really aggravating misfires among its visual splendor. The second biggest one is that the story takes aim at something serious in the real world: giving up our privacy to search engines and social media. But too much like “Kerblam!” for my taste, this caution doesn’t come with any bite. Lenny Henry’s character is in charge of a search-engine-plus thing called Vor, which operates in the same world as Facebook but we can intuit that Vor is larger and more youth-skewing. The story hints at the dystopian awfulness of this thing, evoking Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, but there’s no consequence or follow-up to Henry and the Kasaavins’ plan. The last we see of him is he’s walking out a door asking for an extraction team. We’ve seen Who refuse to follow up on history-changing tech or politics several times since 2005, but this still feels incomplete, and toothless.

That said, I think that the biggest misfire in “Spyfall” is actually Sacha Dhawan’s character. To Dhawan’s considerable credit, I appreciate how frighteningly angry his Master is, marking him as very, very different from the previous versions. As I’ve said previously, I sincerely don’t believe that there should be a Master after Missy. But it’s not just “it’s the Master again” that’s the problem. It’s that O is a million times more interesting than the Master. The character that Dhawan creates in part one of this story is something that Who has never actually done well before: a Master disguise who has a life and a world that is engaging and in which we want to believe.

O could have been an absolutely wonderful new recurring villain, someone who uses all of Earth’s technology and resources, including an alleged shelf full of reports about the Doctor’s past, against our hero. When we see how dreary the Master is at the end of this series, it will really drive home how we could have had the incredibly talented Dhawan do something so much more fascinating and fun. Ah well. It’s not like this program’s not completely full of frustrating missed opportunities.

Happy Birthday, Doctor Who!

For Doctor Who’s 58th birthday, I’m happy to publish some new fic that I wrote earlier this year. Now just don’t mess with my headcanon before you go, Chibnall.

A Woman is the Sum of Her Memories

If you didn’t read my earlier fic, which I never told anybody was fic because I wanted to lull people into a false sense of security before surprising them, you can do that, too.

A Life is a Very Long Time

Doctor Who 11.11 – Resolution

From grownups, I have seen Chris Chibnall’s “Resolution” really get a kicking online, which is perhaps more evidence that grownups shouldn’t be allowed online. Given a chance, I’d happily give it more of a kicking, because it’s an hour of… let’s be charitable and call them missed opportunities. But among kids, I think this one must be a legend. Hands down, it is one of, if not the all-time favorite episode of our son. He may have forgotten about half of series eleven before this month, but he remembers every minute of this one. He has watched it repeatedly, and thinks its one of the all-time greats. He was eight when it first aired (three days before we watched “Resurrection of the Daleks” for the first time) and he’s probably come back to it more than any other Who story.

I do think that one of the few things it really does get right is that it serves as the real season finale, not “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”, which had aired about three weeks previously. It’s not just because it’s got a Dalek in it – something with more audience-friendly menace than Tim Shaw – but because Chibnall had actually been seeding the confrontation and reconciliation between Ryan and his father in several of the previous stories. That’s the resolution of the title that we were wanting.

That said, the business with Aaron is nobody’s favorite part of the story. A key piece of it, the long scene in the cafe, is a momentum-destroying block right in the middle of the rising action, and I’m troubled that the actual resolution between the two comes down to Ryan doing most of the work, and not his dad. However, resolving this background issue for Ryan just drives home that the BBC should have started the series three weeks later and shown all eleven installments as one run. But then I suppose that their commercial arm couldn’t have sold series eleven and “Resolution” as two separate DVDs, could they? What a bunch of jerks. Somebody tell me we’re getting a Complete Whittaker Blu-ray set this time next year, please?

Doctor Who 11.10 – The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

In order for our son to understand the pun in the title of last night’s episode of SG-1, “Ex Deus Machina”, we talked about what a deus ex machina is, and how it might differ from Chekhov’s Gun in storytelling. Tonight provided us with a great example of one of those guns, although we stressed that it is not necessarily a gun or even a weapon, just something introduced early which will become important later on. Here, it’s some neural blockers, which you stick on your forehead and are necessary because the planet Ranskoor Av Kolos gives off waves of seriously negative vibes, making anybody visiting amnesiac and paranoid. They come in handy toward the end, because two psychic aliens have been working with Tim Shaw, the villain from the season opener, and these let the Doctor turn off their psychic powers without injuring them.

And that’s nice, but… the idea of a planet giving people hallucinations and steal their memory is far more interesting than anything that happens in this episode. Honestly, the only thing that this planet’s power is good for is keeping a supporting character hazy and foggy and unable to remember what a strange artifact in his possession actually is. That way, it’s a big surprise when its true purpose is revealed later on. But it’s a surprise that would have a lot more weight if it was revealed early. This is a story that keeps the audience in the dark unnecessarily, when what we really needed was a reason to get emotionally involved in the events.

Instead, the story tries to pull us in with the most unlikely and phony attempt at emotional heft that Chibnall could deliver. Graham decides that he is going to kill Tim Shaw and get revenge for Grace’s death. No, he isn’t. At no point does anybody believe for a second he will. Bradley Walsh is a great actor, but even he can’t sell that idea, because we’ve spent nine stories seeing Graham as a congenial, practical, sweet, and sensitive man. He has expressed love and sadness, but never a lick of anger. If you wanted me to believe for a minute that Graham might actually kill Tim Shaw, then Chibnall had nine episodes to show me that he might, and he didn’t.

Although, I’ll give Chibnall credit here: this is the first time since 2005 that they didn’t spend the series building up to a big finale. It was overdue. Russell T. Davies seemed trapped in wanting to make the stakes higher and higher for each of his four runs. Steven Moffat sensibly didn’t – he blew up the universe in his first season finale and kept it smaller after that – and I’m glad that Chibnall didn’t retread their ideas. On the other hand, it makes the reappearance of Tim Shaw feel kind of strange because it wasn’t seeded anywhere previously. This one also brings back the Sniperbots from “The Ghost Monument,” but this doesn’t feel like an ongoing narrative thread. It feels, like the Robot Santas in “The Runaway Bride” and the Silurians in “The Pandorica Opens”, that they’re here because their costumes were in the closet.

But speaking of Silurians, yet another place where this story really aggravates me is these two psychic aliens. Back in series five, Chibnall wrote that two-parter that brought back those dudes, making their costumes handy for the big dozens-of-aliens reveal a couple of weeks later. Among its million flaws, there’s this bit where the Doctor decides that the scientist who’s been doing hideous experiments and vivisection of humans needs to have a nice big all-smiles hug because he’s clever and kept a character with a speaking part alive.

These two? They’re responsible for the deaths of billions of people. Misled by a false god or not, they were accomplices in Tim Shaw’s plan, they used their powers to destroy planets, and the quarries outside their shrine are littered with the wreckage of dozens of ships full of people who came to stop them and failed. And it’s all okay! They get to go live on a new planet and the Doctor reminds them that it’s important to have faith and hope. We know that the Doctor doesn’t want to kill – unless the plot really demands it – but this wasn’t the answer. They need to do some kind of penance for their crimes, but everybody forgives them. Nobody even mentions their role in the genocides.

It’s almost like the writer just doesn’t think these things through.

Doctor Who 11.9 – It Takes You Away

And then there was that day in December 2018 when a handful of Doctor Who viewers had hilarious meltdowns when the story gave us an animated frog with whom the Doctor had a conversation about friendship. This was by no means the first time that the big visual effect at the end of a Who adventure was a tad underwhelming, but you’d think the world ended with these fellows. Maybe they were unfamiliar with the original run and missed the end of “Kinda”. Neither that snake nor this frog are especially convincing as “real,” but they are what they are. I get what they were trying to do and I like it.

“It Takes You Away” was written by Ed Hime and the story doesn’t have a villain, just a strange quirk of the universe that ends up briefly looking like a frog. That’s nebulous, but I like it. It’s exactly the kind of outside-the-box thinking that I wish we could have seen in the previous story. “The Witchfinders” needed an alien force or energy or something much more like this frog than what it ended up doing. This is a good story, albeit a sad one, meditating on grief and loss. I’m not sure I buy all of it, particularly the shockingly poor parenting, but it’s an intelligent story with believable, real characters. Foreshadowing: Hime is much more successful in that regard here than in his next story.

One again, this is an installment that our son didn’t remember at all from three years ago, although this time something probably stuck with him. The Doctor claims that in the year 2211, there will be a “Woolly Rebellion” in which sheep and humans renegotiate their arrangements with each other, and he’d now like to see that story, so somebody at the BBC needs to get on that for him. As for me, I also remember something fairly minor more than the rest of the adventure, even the frog. I love how Graham has started packing cheese and pickle sandwiches in his coat because he can’t trust that the Doctor will stop for a meal anywhere and he gets cranky when his blood sugar gets low.

Doctor Who 11.8 – The Witchfinders

There are certainly bits of “The Witchfinders” that I like. The cinematography is gorgeous, Alan Cumming is amusingly fey as King James, and I’m predisposed to like anything that flirts with folk horror. Overall, it’s okay at best, and it falls completely apart for me at the end. What could have been a strange and unique alien entity turns out to be this program’s hundred and umpteenth gang of all-conquering loudmouths. Something that had the atmosphere of something promising and different turns out to be Who by the numbers.

What’s really strange is that the episode has a proper climax where the mud-zombies surround the villain, and her hypocrisy and mass murder are exposed to everyone. The show should wrap up at that point somehow, because at that point we are done. Yet there’s still another eight or nine minutes of threats and explanations and technobabble and special effects after that. Even if the mud-zombies weren’t all-conquering loudmouths, this would feel like a show that didn’t understand pace.

I think the oddest thing is that even though it didn’t gel for me, and our son was quick to follow me in dismissing it, the episode must have made an impact on the kid when he saw it three years ago. He didn’t remember a frame of “Demons of the Punjab”, but he explained that when I told him that title last week, he believed that “Demons” was the name of this story, which he did remember somewhat. It’s got mud-filled zombies in a chilly English forest, and that’s a fine, creepy visual to stick with a kid.

Doctor Who 11.7 – Kerblam!

Regular readers might have spotted that “Kerblam!”, the first Who story written by Pete McTighe, was not an episode I’ve looked forward to revisiting. Simple reason: it’s among my least favorite episodes of Who.

Although, funny aside, it came at a strange time in our rotation, as the silly coincidences that pepper our lives gave us an odd one this weekend. Yesterday, we took a sunset stop on our way back from a day trip at a really odd place. There was this billionaire financier named Templeton who disliked paying taxes so much that he renounced his US citizenship and stormed off to the Bahamas where he could keep making money without getting any more IRS bills. He was one of those guys who gets celebrated for the literal billion-plus in philanthropic and charitable donations, but who could have made a better and larger contribution to our society staying home and paying his bill every April like the rest of us. Among his eccentric deeds, he founded an appointment-only private library in this whacking great building a few miles outside Sewanee with an astonishing view of the valley below and his old hometown of Winchester, where students from the University of the South will often congregate at sundown, behind the rear fence and past the sign warning of the dangerous bluff, sitting on the rocks looking out at one of the most amazing sights in Tennessee.

Despite the fact that this almost-never-open building surely must not generate very much waste, one of those local students was killed in a tragic accident twenty years ago. He and some mates got into the building and found a chute. The poor kid slid down it into an industrial trash compactor and was crushed. We were there last night at sundown, and this morning, we watch a Doctor Who where the Doctor’s friends slide down a chute in a big warehouse and our son said “That would be fun!” That’s just like a kid to make his father turn into a killjoy. “No, it wouldn’t, let me tell you what happened at that weird library we visited yesterday…”

One of the dopiest moments of “Kerblam!” is that the fellow revealed at the end of the piece to be the villain goes down that remarkably unsafe chute at all. The Kerblam! system has chosen his crush as the next target of their killings. This guy knows exactly how to get to where she is, because he’s the villain of the piece and set this all up. But Doctor Who does dopey moments, and he’s hardly the first villain to do something unlikely to make the hero believe he’s a goodie as well. I’d overlook it if it wasn’t for the twist itself.

See, this had been a clever and occasionally almost pointed critique of Amazon up to the end. We’ve got a corporation so big that it has its own moon for its fulfillment center, but which employs a paltry 10,000 workers for meaningless jobs, a sop to a local law that demands 10% of a workforce be “organic.” It has just a little bite: the “organics” wear literal ankle bracelets that monitor their productivity. This is a system that is too big, capitalism run far too large and far too powerful. You think locally-owned mom and pop stores in the real world have it rough competing with Amazon? Kerblam! has technology that can track down the TARDIS and materialize inside it. Who else can do that other than the Time Lords themselves and the immortal Gods of Ragnarok from season 25, who could send junk mail travel offers into the TARDIS? No, Kerblam! needs to be taken down a notch.

But it’s the villain who decides to do that. “Kerblam!” has the terrible twist that the Doctor needs to side with the big corporation. And just to ram my point home about how bad this is: the Kerblam! system knows that the villain is test-killing workers, so it abducts the villain’s crush to try and make him stop. Now, the system could have locked her in a room with a note reading “Please be patient; we have alerted the Doctor to help stop the villain.” But no, it teleports in one of the villain’s bombs and kills her. And the Doctor isn’t remotely outraged by this. Harriet Jones didn’t have to order the destruction of the Sycorax; the Doctor rewrote history and ended her career for that. All eight of the deaths are because of a whiny, shy radical who just won’t get with the program and accept that Kerblam! is the greatest thing ever. And the Doctor’s on its side. I like it a lot better when the Doctor sides with the hippies against the big corporations.

Doctor Who 11.6 – Demons of the Punjab

“Demons of the Punjab,” which is Vinay Patel’s first Doctor Who adventure, has some natural surface similarities to “Rosa” earlier in the season. Both stories put our heroes back in recent history (here, 1947), and both have a comparatively minor alien presence in the story, and both leave the Doctor unable to meddle with the established facts of what’s known to happen. But as much as I admire “Rosa,” I think this one does something more interesting in a way. Here, the great big incident that will have repercussions for the future has already happened. The border between India and Pakistan has already been drawn. Imagine how “Rosa” might have played out had they landed in Montgomery just after Rosa Parks had been arrested.

That’s what makes the presence of the aliens in this story so intrusive. “Rosa” needed one of two things to keep the team in Alabama once they realized where they were: either the TARDIS needed to be inaccessible, walled up in an Aztec temple or commandeered by Marco Polo, as you had when the show first started doing stories in history, or it needed a villain who the Doctor needed to stop. “Demons” doesn’t have that problem. I think that’s the reason I don’t like this one as much as I hoped, despite it being a pretty good story with fine actors and great cinematography. This isn’t big established Earth history, it’s a story about Yaz’s grandmother Umbreen.

This could have played out precisely the same way without the Thijarians, and just presented a mystery about why Umbreen is marrying a man who is not Yaz’s grandfather. It’s a shame that the expectations of Doctor Who demand weird aliens so strongly that the story wasn’t made without them.

If somebody thought that Doctor Who needed aliens to be memorable, they’d be wrong, because this is the first episode of Jodie Whittaker’s run that we have rewatched and found that our son didn’t remember it at all. Not the aliens, not the plot, not the beautiful location. I’m glad that these aliens are not malevolent. Like the Testimony in “Twice Upon a Time”, the Doctor is mistaken and these beings have no cruel intentions at all. The real villain of the piece is a young man who has spent too much of 1947 “reading pamphlets and listening to angry men on the radio.”

So this was one of those stories where we had some talking to do. First we had to place the historical setting for him (a second time, because if he didn’t remember the 2018 broadcast, he certainly didn’t remember me explaining the events of the Partition that Sunday evening), and second, we wanted to talk about those angry men on the radio. As parents, we’re incredibly worried about radicalization. We don’t want our kid to grow up listening to the sort of stupidity that gets Hindus shooting at Muslims and Sikhs in 1947 or waving loser flags at our Capitol in January 2021 or any place in between, which usually involves video games. And it feels like there are a whole lot more pamphlets and angry men these days.

Doctor Who 11.5 – The Tsuranga Conundrum

I had a little bet with myself that what our son would remember most clearly about this episode was the strange little alien beast, the Pting. After all, he’s got a great fondness for strange little alien beasts. He really liked the Adipose from “Partners in Crime”, which, among Who monsters, the Pting probably most resembles. But he tells us that he kind of remembered most of this story – it’s the one on the all-white hospital ship – he’d completely forgotten the Pting. Even weirder, now that he’s met the little fellow again, he says he didn’t like him too much. I like watching Doctor Who with my kid because he surprises me so often.

Anyway, I like this one, Pting and all. It kind of reminds me of a similar modern “base under siege” story, “The Impossible Planet” from series two, in which the Doctor was similarly separated from the TARDIS and has no choice but to battle the weird enemy of the day. Lots of good character moments, both among the guest stars and between Yaz and Ryan talking about his father issues. It’s a show that sensibly gives us time to breathe and learn this world before things fall apart. It may not be a favorite, apart from Graham explaining that he’s seen every episode of Call the Midwife, except for the “squeamish parts,” but it does what it wants to pretty well.

Doctor Who 11.4 – Arachnids in the UK

“Rosa” might be a stronger episode, a more important episode, but what it isn’t is any fun. “Arachnids in the UK” is remarkably fun. It’s a great old-fashioned monster story, dipping into the giant spiders well for the third time in the show’s long history, but done differently enough to “Planet of the Spiders” and “The Runaway Bride” that it doesn’t feel like it’s doing the same thing again. Our son remembers this one very well from 2018, although he has not rewatched it, and mumbled “This just made everybody afraid of spiders, didn’t it?”

Where it does feel like it’s doing something old again is the explanation of why these giant spiders are scuttling all over Sheffield. Somebody bought a disused coal mine, filled it full of industrial waste and sludge. Nature goes wild, creepy-crawlies come to the surface, and the story is very, very political. The last time we told this tale, it was 1973 and the critters were maggots. But that’s okay.

Bringing the politics this time, it’s one of my absolute favorite contemporary actors, Chris Noth, as Not-Trump businessman and presidential aspirant Jack Robertson. Noth is best known as “Mr. Big” from Sex and the City, but my favorite of his roles is Detective Mike Logan from the Law & Order universe, especially seasons five, six, and seven of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Sometimes I figure Logan is my favorite L&O character, sometimes it’s Nichols. Anyway, my jaw hit the floor when I saw he was appearing in my favorite series, and he doesn’t disappoint. Robertson is a germ-obsessed creep who’s quick to fire people and celebrate using guns, but he’s also got just enough humanity in him to feel real, and consequently sympathetic. I’m glad the character returned a couple of years later and I hope that we see him again.

And speaking of feeling real, I think my favorite scene is the Doctor trying to make small talk with Yaz’s family, finding herself socially awkward and agreeing that Yaz’s father’s pakora is terrible before he’s even made it. I really enjoyed how Capaldi’s Doctor was also very awkward, but he projected cold when he didn’t know what to say. Whittaker’s Doctor is so hilariously poor at relating to people that I just laughed like a drain in this scene. This whole story is remarkably fun, and from that perspective, possibly the highlight of the season.

Doctor Who 11.3 – Rosa

Really good science fiction should make its audience uncomfortable from time to time. I’d like to think that there are still teachers who are assigning Fahrenheit 451 to their students, and then asking them why they reckon Texas Representative Matt Krause wants school districts to count how many titles from a list of 850 books are in their libraries. Who compiled this list for Krause? A hideous, unhappy, hateful person who resented being assigned Fahrenheit 451 as a student, probably.

Doctor Who wasn’t designed to do that – it was designed to alternate between educating audiences about science and about history before quickly going off into standard action-adventures – but once in a while, it does. I think that’s why I get frustrated when Who apologizes for that discomfort (“Planet of the Ood”) or does everything to avoid addressing it (“Kerblam!”). Doctor Who should not pull punches. Our clothes are made by effective slave labor, we buy our books from an unethical corporate monolith.

As “Rosa” reminds us, if you’re a middle-aged white southerner like me, then that man who slaps Ryan in this story, that bus driver, that cop, that woman who asks our heroes to leave the restaurant? Those are our grandparents. In 1955, my mother was thirteen and my father was sixteen, they were about 165 miles away from Montgomery, and in that year, I don’t think they would have acted any differently than the adults in this installment.

There’s a renewed push to “protect” innocent white children from the discomfort of learning that their great-grandparents did things like that, with politicians who promise to make those feelings go away winning support from resentful, unhappy, hateful voters. The bigotry in this story is intense enough to make our son uncomfortable enough to close his eyes and wish it away. Good. That means it did its job.