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Doctor Who: Rosa (Review)

“We don’t serve negroes.”

“Well, that’s good. Because I don’t eat them.”

Rosa is undoubtedly well-intentioned and timely.

It is hard to imagine a more relevant or important episode of Doctor Who at this moment in time than one which acknowledges the history of racism within the United States, and the horrors inflicted upon its minority populations within living memory. (A “Brexit” episode might be closer to home, though.) This is, after all, a point in history where the President of the United States has been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, described nations with black populations as “sh!thole countries” and argued that Mexico is exporting rapists and murderers to the United States.

Park it here.

Of course, this isn’t just an American issue. The Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom was driven by racial anxiety, to the point that the “Leave” campaign unveiled billboards that evoked Nazi propaganda. In countries like Hungary, a resurgent ethno-nationalism is on the rise. Even on the day that Rosa was broadcast, there was a prominent news story about a white man on a Ryanair flight who insisted that a woman of Jamaican descent could not sit next to him. Rosa is certainly very timely and very relevant. It is important for children (and adults, frankly) to hear this.

There are problems, however. Rosa is a very worthy episode of television with a lot of very important things to say. In particular, its handling of Ryan and Yaz’s experiences in both the fifties and the present are very illuminating and insightful. That said, the episode runs into the same problems that haunt most of the series’ big “fixed point in history” narratives, in that it adopts a fundamentally conservative approach to history and predetermination, arguing that things can only be as they ever were. This may not be the best approach to a story about Rosa Parks.

Suitcase of the week.

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Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (Review)

The Ghost Monument feels almost worryingly safe.

To be fair, it is almost churlish to complain about this. The Woman Who Fell to Earth seemed designed to assure audiences that the Chibnall Era would be a safe pair of hands, a stylishly produced piece of televisual science-fiction that visually upped the ante in terms of how Doctor Who looked and felt on the small screen. It was consciously designed to be safe and accessible to new viewers, to avoid anything that could be considered weird or strange.

Artful appearance.

By all accounts, this approach paid off. Reviews for the episode were largely positive. The ratings were spectacular, with Jodie Whittaker premiering to a larger audience than any Doctor since Christopher Eccleston and earning the series its highest ratings since the end of the Davies Era. There is a lot to recommend this relatively safe approach to Doctor Who, particularly following the ambition and experimentation of the Moffat Era.

Chibnall is very much adopting a back-to-basics approach. The Woman Who Fell to Earth demonstrated the way such an approach could work. This is the function of premiere episodes, particularly following a regeneration or a significant change behind the scenes. The goal is to comfort audiences still curious whether Doctor Who is the show that they love and to welcome those viewers who might be dipping their toes into the water. Rose and The Eleventh Hour did this as well, constructing tightly-wound accessible thrill rides.

Piecing it together.

However, the question then becomes “what about the second episode?” What happens after the premiere? Having welcomed both old and new audiences into the fold, what does a showrunner do next? In the case of both Davies and Moffat, the answer was to produce something ambitious and messy, something that showcased just how weird and strange the series could be. If the premieres lured viewers in, the following episodes suggested what that audience might be in for; consider the gonzo weirdness of The End of the World or The Beast Below.

The Ghost Monument is a much cleaner and much more streamlined episode than either of those two. It is an efficient action adventure that carries over a lot of the more effective elements of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. However, The End of the World and The Beast Below also suggested just how bizarre and wonderful Doctor Who could be, underneath their messiness. The Ghost Monument is simply effective.

Things went South (Africa) very quickly.

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Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth (Review)

“Don’t worry. I have a plan.”

“Really?”

“Well, I will have by the time I reach the top.”

– the more things change

The Woman Who Fell to Earth has a lot of pressure working upon it as Doctor Who season premieres go.

This is the first time that the Doctor has changed gender during regeneration, and is the first time that the title role will be played by a female actor. This is only the second time that the series has changed showrunner and rebuilt itself from the ground up since it returned more than a decade ago. There is a lot riding on The Woman Who Fell to Earth, and a lot of expectations that need to be satisfied.

Doctor who?

The Woman Who Fell to Earth is efficient, if not excellent. As a showrunner and scriptwriter, Chris Chibnall immediately and effectively establishes himself as a safe pair of hands. On some level, this is disappointing. After all, both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat were showrunners who immediately and aggressively asserted bold visions of what Doctor Who could be, announcing their arrival on the series with a confident statement of purpose that left the series scrambling to keep up. Instead, The Woman Who Fell to Earth seems to promise business as usual.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, to be fair. There is some argument that Doctor Who might even need a safe and reliable pair of hands at this point. Chibnall is a writer who is much less adventurous than Davies or Moffat, but The Woman Who Fell to Earth is infused with a back-to-basics meat-and-potatoes approach. A lot of the episode is spent trying to avoid potential pitfalls that would emphasise Chibnall’s relative weaknesses, and instead play to a very broad “big tent” ideal of what Doctor Who can be.

Breaking out.

Indeed, The Woman Who Fell to Earth works best in its relatively straightforward nuts-and-bolts elements, when judged on the individual elements of the episode rather than how they all fit together. Jodie Whittaker throws herself into the lead role and understands that she’s effectively propelling the narrative forward. The new regular ensemble has a breezy and easy chemistry that feels suitably distinct from more recent inhabitants of the TARDIS. The actual plotting of the episode is fairly boilerplate Doctor Who, almost as if the series is showing that it can still do that.

That said, there’s a worrying lack of ambition evident in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and its business-as-usual approach to Doctor Who. This is a season premiere that feels more of a piece with episodes like Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime or Deep Breath, episodes that are less concerned with bold questions of vision than they are with the mechanics of simply introducing a new lead. It’s disappointing, because the stock comparison for The Woman Who Fell to Earth should be something as wonderful as Rose or The Eleventh Hour.

Jodie’s Wits-About-Her.

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Doctor Who: Cold Blood (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Cold Blood originally aired in 2010.

It is the story of our past and must never be forgotten.

– Eldane attempts to justify the “traditional monster” two-parters the revived show is so fond of

The Hungry Earth wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t great. There was nothing too exciting or novel about it, but it wasn’t a complete failure. It was an interesting and affectionate throwback to an older style of Doctor Who. It wasn’t exceptional, but it was -broadly speaking – functional. Chris Chibnell’s script had some rough edges, mostly around characterisation, but there was nothing too unworkable about the premise, which basically consisted of a selection of classic Doctor Who tropes thrown in a blender and served up to the audience.

However, Cold Blood is much less satisfying. Part of that is because it’s part of a story that can’t be sustained by nostalgia or affectionate references to tales long past. There’s also the fact that it hinges on an emotional climax that asks us to invest in an especially two-dimensional supporting cast. And that’s saying nothing about how the last few minutes of the episode aren’t even devoted to tying up its own threads so much as playing into the much more interesting season-long arc.

Cold Blood leaves me… well, cold.

Doesn't scan...

Doesn’t scan…

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Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Review)

You know when Amy and I first got married and we went travelling…

To Thailand?

More the entirety of space and time… in that Police Box.

– Rory and Brian Williams share some truths

There is a strange listlessness to the seventh season, despite its position on the cusp of the big anniversary year. In many ways, the seventh season feels awkwardly positioned between the “timey wimey” ambitiousness of the sixth season and the “new beginning” aesthetic of the eighth season. The fact that the seventh season is split in half doesn’t help matters; it feels like an epilogue to the story of Amy and Rory, and a prologue to the story of Clara. It feels very much like a “light” year, which is a strange way to head into a big anniversary celebration.

There is a curious sense of idleness to all this. There is, for example, no clear story that links both halves of the season – Jenna-Louise Coleman’s role in Asylum of the Daleks notwithstanding. The seventh season has no real purpose beyond clearing out the ensemble and building towards the anniversary. As a result, it can feel more than a little rudderless and indulgent. Steven Moffat has described the “blockbuster” aesthetic of the year, and long stretches of the season feel like the show is just doing stuff because it can.

Gone to the birds?

Give Amy and Rory a five-episode coda? Sure, why not! Actually shoot a western in a country that could pass for the United States? Go for it! It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Ice Warriors, hasn’t it? Throw them in there! Neil Gaiman wants to write a Cyberman episode? Ah, go on! Develop those quirky supporting characters from A Good Man Goes to War into a part of the show’s ensemble in Victorian London? It just makes sense! Richard E. Grant as a villain from two Second Doctor stories? We’d be crazy not to!

There is a sense that the seventh season is a victory lap for the show and many involved in the production. Deservedly so. What is the point of an anniversary year if you can’t go a little wild? That is the kind of thinking that leads to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, a simple “because we can!” story. After all, one of the stock cringe-inducing Doctor Who images is the dinosaur special effects from Invasion of the Dinosaurs. What’s the point in turning the show into a hit if you can’t take an episode to prove how far your dinosaur effects have come in four decades?

Locking horns…

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