Doctor Who 12.10 – The Timeless Children

The thing about being a fan since the eighties and reading lots of fic, professional and not, and lots of theories, ridiculous and not, is that the revelations of “The Timeless Children” are not remotely shocking. What is shocking is how badly they are told. Telling me that there are pre-Hartnell Doctors and that our hero had a long life she cannot remember has been done before. In novels, Lance Parkin hinted at it, Marc Platt insisted upon it. In interviews, Andrew Cartmel winked at it. Onscreen, Lady Peinforte dropped tantalizing clues. Weirdly, the Cybermen were in that story as well.

The first problem is that Chris Chibnall decided to embrace this fan origin silliness within the confines of another chunk of action-adventure tedium, all clichĂ© and no heart. Does the Doctor say something like “I started this and I’ll finish this… alone” before going out on a suicide mission that a random supporting character will complete for her, sacrificing himself so the hero can have more adventures? Of course she does. This would have been approximately a million times better if the Doctor had said “The Master’s expecting one of those ‘one last confrontation’ showdowns that we keep having, and I’m not giving it to him,” and thrown the ultimate hand grenade out the TARDIS door, impact button first, to thump against the far wall and detonate. Maybe the audience might have protested that they were robbed of a big climax, but it’s the same big climax that they have already seen in everything else that looks or sounds like this. Besides, the Master assuredly had the same transmat / teleport / trap door that every other writer has already used. We’ll have another “one last confrontation” showdown same time next year.

But even a million times better, this would still be a disappointing mess of infodumping and mansplaining. All the business with the Cybermen is utterly unimportant because the core of this story is a man telling a woman, at incredible length, who she is. This is triply unfortunate because the most entertaining thing in the episode is the Master’s conversation with the Lone Cyberman, and Sacha Dhawan is great. “Oh, you mean robots. You’ll be robots.” I enjoyed that a lot. The kid liked the whole hour, of course. Oh, and it has the best flashback scene that the program’s ever done, accompanied, wonderfully, by the theme tune.

“The Timeless Children” wants very, very badly to be “The Deadly Assassin”. It evokes that earlier story in the dialogue, just to make sure viewers recognize the recreation of its set. “Assassin” has a lot that annoys and disappoints me as well, mainly in part four, but all of its wild revelations and retcons are not its problem. Instead, there’s a totally effortless feel to “Assassin,” as all that we learn about Time Lord society and regenerations and Borusa and politics come naturally. Extremely little is fed to viewers there. Its writer, Robert Holmes, was among the very best writers to ever work on Who, and let viewers and characters learn things together in a natural and interesting way. This is just clumsy, and very, very boring exposition. I respect that Chibnall is in charge and can make whatever decisions he wants about the hero’s past, present, and future. I just wish that he had chosen a better and more entertaining way to let us see them unfold.

Doctor Who 12.9 – Ascension of the Cybermen

Last time, our son reminded us that he really did not like the creepy Cyber-ghost story of “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” but that he was looking forward to seeing this one again. After telling us, in that perfectly ten year-old way, that he remembered 64% of it, he was again very satisfied. This is definitely a crowd-pleaser for younger viewers who want some big, stomping Cybermen action and lots of explosions. I’m a little less taken with it.

One of my complaints is that this is a very, very ordinary action-adventure runaround, with just about none of the spark, life, imagination, or silliness that makes for great Doctor Who. It’s extremely well-made for ordinary action-adventure – the opening location filming is as good as or better than anything anybody is making in any medium and it has a great guest star in Julie Graham – but after several minutes of this, I was ready for some farting aliens or some Kandymen. That Doctor Who is presently capable of looking like the most competently-made show on television is certainly very nice, but great Doctor Who should look and sound like nothing else. This is so ordinary that the Doctor throws a grenade at the Lone Cyberman. That she does this in front of Ryan, who, last season, she chastised for using a rifle to shoot robots, shows where this one is.

That said, I do like that this is a very interesting look at the Cybermen that the show hasn’t really done before. This one is set very, very far in the future, and probably in another galaxy. Here, the Cybermen have just about won. There are fewer than a dozen humans left. What’s curious about this is that up to about 2006, the Cybermen may have been very popular with fans and audiences, and they racked up a big body count on and offscreen, but there was always the understanding that while they could be huge and formidable threats, their time on the galactic stage was very limited. In “Earthshock”, which this story resembles in many ways, they’re on the brink of a big interplanetary war that will destroy their growing empire. By the time of “Revenge of the Cybermen”, set in the 29th Century, they are only “a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship.” The Daleks, in “Doomsday”, don’t think of them as rivals on the universal stage; they’re just pests to them.

I think what this story does is take a cue from “Nightmare in Silver” and move the story very, very far out and very far away. “Silver” mentioned that an entire galaxy had to be destroyed to stop the Cybermen some time before the events of that episode. That’s a scale far greater than anything the show had previously done; the Cybermen of most of Doctor Who hid in sewers and poisoned sugar and fired pathetic little laser bolts which didn’t bother Daleks no matter how many times they shouted “upgrade” first. Obliterating galaxies is overkill for Cybermen, unless these are very different Cybermen fighting very different wars, with very few survivors. So yes, the teenage fanboy in me is thrilled with this one’s scope. He probably would have liked the action-adventure feel to this one, too.

The other thing I don’t like about this one is that there’s a side story which is not explained at all – and even then not fully – until the next episode. It’s about a policeman named Brendan in a small Irish village full of people who don’t age. I think it’s sort of bold storytelling, to say it kindly, to have an entire B-plot running through your hour of television without a single connection point between the two, not even at the cliffhanger. Normally I bristle when people commenting on TV they don’t enjoy rely on the old chestnut “Why should I care about these characters,” because if you have elected to watch their story, you have elected to care. But I didn’t elect to watch Brendan’s story. If it’s part of the Doctor’s story, then the hour needs to show me how, even if right at the very end. Not next week!

The Sarah Jane Adventures 4.11-12 – Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith (parts one and two)

Our son was really unhappy with this one for a while. Julie Graham, who I enjoyed very much in Acorn’s Queens of Mystery recently, plays Ruby White, who appears to be another amateur alien-fighter like Sarah Jane, but, to nobody’s surprise, is really another alien. The kid was not fooled for a second. We’re meant to dislike her from the outset before she turns heroic and the good guys welcome her, but the kid stayed unconvinced. He even came close to predicting the resolution. Ruby’s species have separate, second stomachs, and use them to feed on heightened emotions. Our son knew that had to be the way to stop her, but bet on them somehow boring the stomach into starvation rather than overloading it with too much fear. Always bet on overloading the enemy power source / supercomputer / second stomach.

So this is the big finale story, but it’s surprisingly low-key for a SJA finale, with no returning villains or Slitheen. Luke and K9 return for part two, but that’s it. It’s a low-budget battle of wits with few locations or speaking parts or even extras. The story was written by Gareth Roberts and his partner Clayton Hickman, and it’s full of good ideas and a good villain. It’s a shame that Elisabeth Sladen’s sad death meant that Ruby could never come back for a rematch. Julie Graham returned as a different character in series twelve of Doctor Who, and my fingers are crossed that we’ll get a second series of Queens of Mystery, because they sure did leave a lot of unresolved plot threads in that fine little show.

We’ll watch the fifth, final series of The Sarah Jane Adventures in December. Stay tuned!