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New Escapist Column! On Sixties Throwback Qualities of Chris Chibnall’s “Doctor Who”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening, looking at Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, which kicked off its second season with Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II last week.

Cosmetically, Chibnall has done a lot to modernise the show – the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it’s structured. However, one of the most striking aspects of Chibnall’s era has been the way that it has drawn so heavily and so consciously from the show’s earliest days. Certain vocal segments of Chibnall’s Doctor Who complain that it is too modern and too disconnected from the show’s roots. This has always seemed a strange criticism to level at a showrunner who arguably owes as much to Terry Nation as he does to Russell T. Davies.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part II (Review)

Spyfall, Part II certainly takes a sharp turn.

In hindsight, despite its literal holiday trappings, it seems fair to position Spyfall, Part I as a “holiday special.” It is consciously designed as a “romp” or a “runaround”, with a whole host of homages to something that audiences enjoy. In the case of Spyfall, Part I, that piece of pop culture happens to be the James Bond franchise. In Voyage of the Damned, it was The Poseidon Adventure. In A Christmas Carol, it was… well, guess. In The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, it was The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Return of Doctor Mysterio, it was generic superhero films.

Master of his domain.

It is retroactively possible to identify Spyfall, Part I as part of the show’s “holiday episode” genre because of the sharp way in which Spyfall, Part II pivots away from the defining features of the preceding adventure. Director Jamie Magnus Stone is replaced by Lee Haven Jones, which is most likely a result of production block scheduling. That production block scheduling reflects the distinctions between Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II, because Spyfall, Part I needs to use South Africa as a shooting location while Spyfall, Part II is produced in a more traditional manner.

However, Spyfall, Part II distinguishes itself from Spyfall, Part I in more than just its production choices. The episode marks a very sharp departure from Spyfall, Part I. For all its flaws, Spyfall, Part I knew what it was doing. It was doing Doctor Who as an elaborate homage to James Bond, while flooding the screen with production value, a star-studded cast, some exotic locations and a big “moment” on which it might hang a cliffhanger. Spyfall, Part II lacks even that sense of purpose, to the point that it’s hard to tell exactly what the episode is meant to be about.

Hangaround.

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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part I (Review)

The name’s Doctor. The Doctor.

Spyfall, Part I offers a solid start to the season, if an unspectacular one.

Of course, Spyfall, Part I is all about spectacle. In some respects, showrunner Chris Chibnall is building off the successful elements of his deeply flawed first season of Doctor Who. Spyfall, Part I capitalises on a number of the core strengths of those first ten episodes. The location shooting in South Africa affords Spyfall, Part I an impressive sense of scale and spectacle. As in episodes like The Ghost Monument and Rosa, South Africa is able to stand-in for a variety of exotic locations that would normally be outside the scope of Doctor Who. Chibnall is able to pitch Spyfall, Part I as a genuinely globe-trotting adventure.

No agency.

More than that, the production continues to look lavish. Chibnall retains the anamorphic lenses and the modified aspect ratio from the previous season, lending the series a polished and cinematic appearance. The guest cast for Spyfall, Part I is absolutely stacked, especially by the standards of Doctor Who. Stephen Fry has had a long a complicated relationship with Doctor Whostarring in audio dramas, writing for the television show, critiquing the television show – and he finally makes his television appearance here. Lenny Henry is a suitably big draw, particularly for the role he ultimately plays.

Spyfall, Part I is a good old-fashioned runaround adventure, consciously built around setpieces and action beats that would have seemed impossible for Doctor Who even a decade ago. However, there is something frustratingly hollow in all of this. Spyfall, Part I is positioned as both a season premiere, a New Year’s Day Special, and the first episode of Doctor Who to air since Resolution. That is a lot of weight pressing down on the episode, a lot of expectation, and a lot of outside context. Spyfall, Part I is a new beginning for the series, but it feels more like another day at the office than a statement of purpose.

What the tech is going on?

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Doctor Who: Resolution (Review)

Despite being positioned as a New Year’s Special and being the only episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 2019, Resolution functions as a season finale to the eleventh season.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. In terms of working relatively well, Resolution helps to compensate for the damp squib that was The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. It provides a sense of spectacle and threat that was sorely lacking from the last episode of the broadcast season. It also wraps up a number of thematic threads from the season and even provides a much more effective bookend to The Woman Who Fell to Earth than simply bringing back an underwhelming antagonist.

Calling the Dalek out.

However, there are also problems. Most obviously, the fact that Resolution functions as a slightly-delayed series finale makes The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos seem even more pointless. There was no need for The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos to serve as such a half-assed bookend to The Woman Who Fell to Earth, given Resolution would do a much better job. The storytelling real estate in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos could easily have been given over to literally anything but the episode that was broadcast. That’s deeply frustrating.

There is another issue as well. Writing a New Year’s Special that also serves as a season finale is a risky move. The End of Time, Part II attempted this, and struggled to find the right balance, mostly be eschewing the holiday elements in favour of providing closure with the larger Davies Era as a whole. Resolution tries to strike a more effective balance between being an epic season finale and an episode that can be watched by the whole family after gorging on a massive dinner. This creates an internal tension that Resolution never quite resolves.

Digging deep.

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Doctor Who: Series Eleven (or Thirty-Seven) (Review/Retrospective)

And so the Chris Chibnall era begins.

Any discussion of the Chris Chibnall era must begin with an acknowledgement that it is, by any measure, a commercial success. Even allowing for erosion over the course of the season, the overnight ratings are appreciably up on where they were during the Moffat era. This is particularly true in the United States, where the show is thriving on BBC America. More than that, these new viewers are younger and female, indicating that the efforts to revitalise the show have been largely successful in attracting a new audience to a series that has been on the air for ten seasons (over one hundred and forty episodes) over thirteen years.

More than that, the series has survived an incredible transition. In theory, the casting of a female lead in a major long-running science-fiction property really shouldn’t be that big a deal. (After all, the advertising neatly summarised it as “about time.”) However, one need only look at the controversy around things like increasing the diversity in mainstream comic books or even the backlash over Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi in order to see how easy it is to start a culture war. Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, and her widespread acceptance speaks well to Whittaker and Chibnall, and to fans as a whole.

There is a catch, however. As much as the eleventh season has been a commercial success by any measure, it has also been a massive creative disappointment. The eleventh season of Doctor Who is very stylishly produced. There is a credible argument to be made that these ten episodes are the best that the show has ever looked. However, it is also the most generic that the series has ever been. From its earliest days, the series has been defined by a hint of madness and insanity, wonder and awe. The eleventh season of Doctor Who strips all of that out, looking like any other successful science-fiction series. That’s disappointing.

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Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (Review)

It Takes You Away is a strong contender, along with Demons of the Punjab, for the strongest story of the eleventh season of Doctor Who.

It Takes You Away plays as an allegory. It is something of a fairy tale. It is perhaps the closest that the eleventh season of Doctor Who has come to feeling like a fairy tale, particularly given the conscious choice to root The Woman Who Fell to Earth in a more gritty and grounded universe. It Takes You Away seems like it could have been commissioned during the Moffat era, a lyrical meditation on the idea of loss and mourning. It Takes You Away is a story about needing to let go of trauma, rather than holding on it or carrying it inside.

Reflections and symbols.

To be fair, It Takes You Away is not perfect. There are still some minor pacing issues, particularly with how long the episode takes to get to the meat of the story; there is a sense in which It Takes You Away is three stories stitched together, with the middle segment particularly inessential. There is also the same over-reliance on weirdly specific and overly detailed nonsense techno-babble and mythology that stood out in episodes like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum.

Still, It Takes You Away has some big ideas, a clever execution, and a strong central theme upon which both might be placed.

Mind the gap.

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Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum (Review)

The Tsuranga Conundrum is a very strange episode, in large part because it is perhaps the first episode of the revived Doctor Who that feels like the product of a writers’ room.

In that, The Tsuranga Conundrum feels very much like an episode assembled to fulfill a checklist of requirements that were due before the end of the season. The primary plot is a stylish futuristic science-fiction adventure with a monster that serves as a solid mid-level threat for the primary cast. At the same time, the secondary plot exists to further the arc of one (arguably two) of the show’s credited leads in a way that is clearly positioning the character for a satisfactory resolution at the end of the year.

Pilot error.

The two threads in The Tsuranga Conundrum don’t necessarily gel with one another in the way that the plots of best episodes do, where several story threads all develop from the same unified idea and move in parallel, as would be more likely if a single writer had pitched and developed the episode from scratch. Instead, the various elements of The Tsuranga Conundrum seem to exist because there has to be a story like this among the ten episodes in the season order, and there wasn’t room to split the two elements into separate stories or there weren’t any other stories in which these elements might be integrated.

The Tsuranga Conundrum feels like a script that went through several passes inside a writers’ room, with each writer working on each draft emphasising a different aspect of the story to the point that whatever had originally been the central focus of the episode has been lost in the process. This would be worrying enough of itself, but The Tsuranga Conundrum is very pointedly not the product of a writers’ room. It is a script credited to a single writer, the head writer on the series. The Tsuranga Conundrum is a Chris Chibnall script that feels like it has passed through several different hands before hitting the screen.

Seeing red.

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