Doctor Who 12.11 – Revolution of the Daleks

I was talking about Yetis on the loo in Tooting Bec? This might just be one of the very best examples in all of Doctor Who. “Revolution of the Daleks” is good, despite a few very large problems with its premise, but this little bit might just be the best part. Our son absolutely loves it. It is among his favorite of all Who stories.

I know that I should be saying that the character growth is the best part of the hour, because it’s clearly where Chris Chibnall’s heart is, but it’s not. I really like that in the ten months since her fam last saw the Doctor, Ryan has accepted that she is either dead or gone, and he has moved on. Yaz hasn’t. There’s a reason that “Thasmin” shippers are so loyal. So it feels weird that the TARDIS needs to take an uncharacteristic four minutes to fly from London to Osaka in order for the Doctor and Ryan to have a hearts-to-heart about something the story has already shown us, while Yaz has a chat with guest star John Barrowman about what it’s like to stop travelling with the Doctor. Flip the companions around and you’ve got a much stronger emotional story: let the men underscore what Ryan has decided, and let Yaz tell the Doctor how hard the last ten months were.

But where I just can’t get on board with this story is the really weird theft of the dead Dalek from 2019’s “Resolution”. I can buy that the scheming Jack Robertson, played again by Chris Noth, would want to get his hands on that tech within six hours of the Doctor and friends blowing it up, and television being television, I can even buy that his team has an agent in place at some random food truck on some bypass somewhere just in case the salvage driver wants to refill his tumbler with fresh tea, so they can poison him.

What I can’t buy is that since the dead Reconnaissance Dalek had virtually no alien tech inside its shell – it pilfered its laser gun from storage after some previous Dalek invasion and built the rest from scrap and salvage – it is actually necessary for Jack’s plans. He has teamed up with the woman who is about to become prime minister, played by Harriet Walter from the 1987 Lord Peter Wimsey series, to build an army of AIs in 3D-printed shells that look like the dead Dalek that attacked GCHQ in 2019. But why do they need to look like that when, stripped of their laser gun and armed instead with gas and a water cannon, they could look like anything?

Obviously, they “need” to look like that because they get a bunch of cloned, slimy, mutated Daleks teleported inside of their shells, and they get to have a big showdown with some proper Daleks. The Doctor called them to Earth, correctly guessing the proper ones wouldn’t stand to have inferior mutations rolling around. I guess it’s the cracks in the universe from series five again, because this really underlines that the events of series four’s “Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” didn’t happen here. And I guess I’m disappointed that we see another massive, planet-changing event – the PM is exterminated on live television – without any consequences ever being mentioned. I think there’s such a good story someone could tell, should tell, about the ramifications of these things.

With all that grumbling, I’m almost surprised that I do like this story after all. It may try to do too much on an unsteady platform, but it does it pretty well, and much better than the previous two hours. It has many clever and intelligent moments – the Doctor’s spare TARDIS resolution is terrific – and I enjoyed all the actors. Ryan and Graham’s departure seems a little long, but it’s entertaining. If the Daleks outside Downing Street is my favorite moment, Yaz shoving the Doctor is my second. It’s an hour that gives audiences a lot to chew on, even if the more you chew, the more you realize it doesn’t make the most sense in the world.

Also, it is way past time for the Doctor to start cleaning up all the alien tech left behind when an invasion goes south. Humans simply can’t be trusted with any of it, especially if Jack Robertson is among them, and she really, really should know that after all these years.

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 cliché 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!

Doctor Who 12.8 – The Haunting of Villa Diodati

“The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is definitely a story that divides opinion in our house. The grownups like it a lot – Marie noted that its scope is small but its perspective is wide, which strikes me as just right – but our son really dislikes it. There’s far too much creeping around in dark corridors for him. Funny, I thought that was the best part. It’s very Sapphire & Steel. The second best part is Lord Byron hitting on the Doctor.

Naturally, details like who Lord Byron and Mary Shelley are will escape a kid who was eight when he saw it and didn’t like it. I reminded him of the beginning of Bride of Frankenstein as we got started; that film also introduced us to this bunch. I like the fact that even though this is set a little more than two hundred years before the present, the historical characters are among the most creative and intelligent people of their day. This is a story that does not need to be bogged down with explanations; Mary Shelley knows what’s going on. There are also some really good callbacks to “Fugitive of the Judoon”, where we learned the Doctor would soon meet a Lone Cyberman and to not give it what it wants. We saw just that very thing last night on SG-1, where a green wire is foreshadowed.

Anyway, while the kid really doesn’t like it, I think it’s easily one of Whittaker’s finest stories. It was written by Maxine Alderton, who also wrote the best chapter of “Flux,” and I certainly hope that Russell T. Davies has her number. I enjoy the Lone Cyberman a lot. His name is Ashad, although I don’t think it matters too much, and he’ll feature in the next two stories. Great villain.

Doctor Who 12.7 – Can You Hear Me?

There are so many things about “Can You Hear Me?” that I find really interesting. I don’t know that I truly like it, but it has such a curious structure. The hour introduces threads for each of the companions, has a big conflict with an Eternal – apparently like the ones in “Enlightenment” – and once that’s finished, it spends a final six or seven minutes letting each character work through the situation they have been considering. In Graham’s case, it’s the fear that his cancer is not actually in remission.

I thought it was fairly in character for Whittaker’s often awkward Doctor to have no idea how to respond to Graham confiding in her. The scene actually drew several complaints to the BBC because she didn’t reassure him; that’s what TV heroes are supposed to do when a supporting or guest character brings up an issue of social concern. To be fair, you could certainly imagine Pertwee’s Doctor telling him to steady on, old chap, and we’ll give you the best possible medical treatment on Pulsar Seven, to be absolutely certain the cancer isn’t returning. But this is the same Doctor who immediately agrees that Yaz’s father must be a terrible cook. Of course she would not know what to say.

Like, to be clear, just about any of us.

I think you can make the argument that the unusual way that this episode is built doesn’t actually help the narrative much. One good example: our son, who told us that he didn’t like this one when it was first shown and he didn’t like it now. It’s a deliberately creepy story, but the creepiness and the conflict with the immortal baddie is not the episode’s point. It wants to be an hour about the companions: Ryan not being available when his buddies need a friend, Yaz hitting a very dark place three years previously and trying to forget it while also commemorating its anniversary with her sister, Graham beating cancer but afraid that he hasn’t. The villain of the piece gets in the way of the story that I believe that the writers, Charlene James and Chris Chibnall, were most interested in telling.

Doctor Who 12.6 – Praxeus

I think that “Praxeus” is a much, much better episode than Pete McTighe’s previous story, “Kerblam!”. This one is credited as a co-write with Chris Chibnall. It looks great, with very nice locations and photography. This was the second season in a row that Who visited South Africa to shoot two episodes. More importantly, the supporting characters get a lot of definition and life, and the story has an interesting mystery and a lot of modern-day technobabble as the Doctor needs to use contemporary equipment and techniques to analyze the situation.

I’m not sure why it turns out to be so unmemorable in the end. He remembered it after it had been on for a few minutes, but when I told our son this one was the next up, it didn’t ring a bell to him. And to be honest, there were a couple of big pieces of the plot that I didn’t recall as well. That’s strange and a shame, because while there’s a lot about this story that actually doesn’t work for me and about which I could really quibble – like, couldn’t Gabriela and Jamila have found someplace to pitch their tent other than in the middle of a massive trash dump?? – the desire to make the supporting cast so much more real and believable than so many other stories in this era is the sort of thing I’d rather remember and applaud. I like Gabriela and Jake and Adam, and I feel like I know them more than anybody in “Tsuranga” or “Orphan 55”, so points for that. It’s important to me.

Doctor Who 12.5 – Fugitive of the Judoon

Doctor Who does playful juxtaposition of weird space monsters with the mundane and the ordinary better than anything else. It always has done, it’s the “Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec” thing that Jon Pertwee often found reason to mention in anecdotes and interviews. Even if this story, co-written by Chris Chibnall and Vinay Patel, didn’t have enough huge things to discuss and dissect on its own, I’d absolutely enjoy the Judoon stomping around Gloucester, invading the small cafe of a paranoid little jerk who compiles “dossiers” on the people he distrusts and dislikes. It’s a lovely evocation of the Sarah Jane Adventure “Prisoner of the Judoon” from a decade earlier. Fandom’s going to argue about the Fugitive Doctor for several more years before it finishes, but I’d argue that this particular episode’s only real flaw is not allowing us a good look at this silly man’s silly dossier.

All Doctor Who writers deal with the challenge of what to do with the lead character’s companions. This episode finds an incredibly neat way. John Barrowman returns for the first time in – wow, a decade again – as Captain Jack Harkness, and he teleports the companions out of the episode. Amusingly, for readers who know too well our son’s trouble with names and faces, “Fugitive” first aired in January 2020. We had only just shown our kid the Christopher Eccleston series shortly before, wrapping up with “The Parting of the Ways” in November. Did the kid recognize Barrowman that night in January? Did the name “Captain Jack Harkness” even mean anything then? Of course not.

There’s some gobbledygook talk about his tech having trouble getting a signal through the Judoon’s force field, but it’s really to isolate these characters from what the Doctor is doing. She is, of course, meeting a previously unknown incarnation, played by Jo Martin. It’s not necessarily the decision I’d have made if I was showrunning this program – into an immediate cancellation, probably – because I instantly thought how much fun this could have been if Martin was playing the Doctor’s next incarnation instead of somebody pre-Hartnell. I’m not deep in any fandom trenches, so it’s very likely that I’m missing something, but I’m not sure I’d agree that the development of the Division and the Timeless Child business has inspired “fun” so much as crankiness and hostility.

I like to be open-minded, let things play out, and if they don’t work in the end, shrug and move on. I’m not completely convinced that Chibnall’s going to bring this to a satisfactory conclusion, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. After all, there’s still so much that does not make sense about this, and it’s not like Doctor Who in very many of its forms has a great track record in seeding an idea, letting it grow, and bringing it to a satisfactory conclusion. It’s like how Capaldi’s Doctor was the first one to ever hear about the mythical “Hybrid,” about ten episodes before it would become important; why is Whittaker’s Doctor the first to run into a mention of a Timeless Child?

How are the Fugitive Doctor and Gat utterly unaware of what’s happened to Gallifrey? I guess I can’t wrap my brain around the timeline, how the Division “was” active when the Doctor was more than two thousand years younger but still “is” active in the character’s present while simultaneously being ignorant of galactic events. Jo Martin’s Doctor leaves on her own at the end of this episode. Eventually, at some point, she – or one of her later incarnations – will be released from Division, have her memory erased, and be given the first of a new cycle of 13 bodies as a young white boy who’ll spend much of a frightened childhood in an old Gallifrey barn, and eventually start looking like William Hartnell. Time travel stuff frequently induces headaches. This one sends me to a room with the lights out, a sleep mask, and a shot of good whiskey. I seriously hope it ends well!

Doctor Who 12.4 – Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

Can’t help but like this story. Mercifully, there are very, very few characters this time, so Nikola Tesla, his assistant Dorothy Skerritt, and his rival Thomas Edison feel like real people in a way that Who‘s writers and directors had been fumbling to deliver for the previous three episodes. I think this one gets overlooked because it’s right next to a massive gamechanger of a story, but I think it’s precisely what the breakneck speed series needed badly.

You could argue that it’s a bit Who by the numbers – an alien is menacing a historical celebrity, that’s nothing new – but every so often I think that Doctor Who needs to do what it does best. I like how Tesla is so naïve that not only can he not understand why his investors keep abandoning him, he can’t understand alien menaces. “With your level of technology, you must understand that there is no need for violence,” he says, and your heart breaks just a little. Brilliant men probably don’t have time to read silly things like Verne or Wells.

Our son really enjoyed the bits you’d predict he’d enjoy, like the giant scorpions crashing around the small Long Island town where Tesla has built his Wardenclyffe factory and tower, and the umpteenth “bigger on the inside” bit, which never gets old for him. The alien menace is played by Anjli Mohindra; twelve years previously, Bradley Walsh had been the guest in a Sarah Jane Adventure, where she had been one of the regulars, “The Day of the Clown”. Queen Skithra looks just a little like the Empress of the Racnoss from “The Runaway Bride”. Spiders, scorpions, one creepy-crawlie is as bad as the next, I say.

Doctor Who 12.3 – Orphan 55

When Doctor Who doesn’t work for me, it’s usually because of a big problem with the narrative or the structure or, as I’ve mentioned often in relation to Chris Chibnall’s run, the failure to tackle a real issue in our world with any force. It’s very uncommon for Who, certainly in the modern era, to fail because it’s done poorly, rushed and slapdash. So Ed Hime’s “Orphan 55” is a completely bizarre hour, because finally, this story has teeth and it gives us a cold, serious warning. And yet it’s as rushed and slapdash as late seventies Who at its least memorable, trying desperately to finish something, anything, before the BBC unions cut the power to the studio.

Hime wrote “It Takes You Away” for the previous series, but the only resemblance I can find between these two stories is that they both focus on terrible parents. But “Away” gives us characters that we get to know and understand, even if we dislike that father quite a lot. This story doesn’t have any room to breathe at all. There’s no time to learn who the characters are, or much of anything about their location. The disaster happens far too quickly, so almost the entire running time is an ongoing calamity full of people we don’t care about.

Honestly, the only thing about this one that’s at all cute is the way the Doctor realizes they’re on (a possible) future Earth by finding a sign from a train station in Novosibirsk, which is a fun callback to the Doctor and Peri finding the ruins of Marble Arch Tube station in the first episode of “The Trial of a Time Lord”. But all I can do is imagine how much better this story could have been if the entire utterly pointless plot about taking the truck out into the wasteland – all of it just padding – had been excised. Imagine if those ten minutes were spent building the world, learning the characters, finding reasons to dislike the situation of elites terraforming the same planets their predecessors had ruined and abandoned, before the disaster struck.

Well, okay, I’d like one minute in the TARDIS kitchen with Graham clipping coupons from dozens of intergalactic newspapers. One there and nine at Tranquility Spa. That could’ve worked.

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.

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?