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New Escapist Column! On Ncuti Gatwa’s Casting in “Doctor Who”…

I published a new piece at The Escapist yesterday. This weekend saw the surprise announcement of Ncuti Gatwa’s casting as the new lead of Doctor Who, so it seemed like a good opportunity to make sense of it.

Gatwa is an interesting choice, and marks something of a departure from the recent casting of older and more established actors with more conventional prestige, like Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker. Capaldi and Whittaker were both choices that spoke very much to an older audience with more mature and perhaps conventional taste. In contrast, Gatwa’s casting suggests that new showrunner Russell T. Davies is pushing the show towards a younger audience, that rather than trying to appease or flatter older fans, Davies might be trying to attract new ones.

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

New Escapist Column! On a Grand, Unified Theory of Chris Chibnall’s “Doctor Who”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist on Friday. With the broadcast of Legend of the Sea Devils last weekend, marking the second-to-last episode of the Chris Chibnall era of Doctor Who, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back over Chibnall’s tenure.

Chibnall’s tenure on Doctor Who is interesting, in large part because it feels so aesthetically and philosophically distinct from the thirty years before it. It marks a clear departure from the version of the show overseen by script editor Andrew Cartmel and by showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. Central to this is a very strong belief in the status quo, in the idea that things are simply the way that they are, and that change is largely impossible and not worth the effort. It’s a startlingly cynical worldview, but it’s one that permeates Chibnall’s Doctor Who.

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

Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils (Review)

“Sea Devil!”

“Land Parasite!”

Well, to be fair, Legend of the Sea Devils is at least a worthy sequel to Warriors of the Deep.

The Sea Devil you know.

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New Podcast! The TARDIS Crew – Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor Who and deconstructing children’s television…

I was thrilled to be invited to join the great Ben and Baz Greenland for an episode of their new podcast, The TARDIS Crew.

The guys invited me on to talk about a number of subjects, but we eventually settled on a discussion of the Sylvester McCoy and Andrew Cartmel era of Doctor Who. In particular, the way in which Cartmel and his creative team capitalised on the creative strengths of the production at a point where the show was very much on its last legs. Understanding the limitations of the family science-fiction show, and the question of how it could or couldn’t compete in an increasingly special-effects-given genre, Cartmel landed on a radical approach to Doctor Who: a deconstruction and subversion of children’s television.

You can listen directly to the episode below or by clicking here.

Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks (Review)

“Here we are again.”

“Yeah, here we are again.”

In hindsight, it’s surprising that it has taken Doctor Who this long to do a proper time-loop episode. After all, this is a show about a literal time machine.

Time-loop stories are inherently fun. As Dan points out, Groundhog Day codified a narrative template that is easy to replicate while also being fun to play with. As recently as last year in the United Kingdom and the previous year in the United States, Palm Springs demonstrated how such a story could resonate in this era of a global pandemic, when the feeling of being stuck in an unending loop living the same day over and over again tapped into a fairly widespread feeling.

Shelf storage, am I right?

On a more basic level, these sorts of stories are fun for writers, directors and audiences. It has become increasingly common for television shows to have timeloop episodes. Star Trek: The Next Generation had Cause and Effect, which perhaps remains the gold standard. Stargate: SG-1 had the charming Window of Opportunity. The X-Files had Monday. Even Star Trek: Discovery had Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad. These sorts of stories are that rare blend of a simple high concept with an incredible range of narrative opportunities; they can be funny or tragic, straightforward or complicated, character- or plot-driven.

So it is strange that it has taken Doctor Who so long to attempt something like this, even if the results are depressingly familiar within the larger context of the Chris Chibnall era. It feels very much like a repetition of the era’s most glaring flaws, squandering a fun supporting cast and playful concept on a script that seems completely disinterested in capitalising on either. Instead, it just plays the clichés of these sorts of stories over and over again.

Lifting the holiday spirits.

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New Escapist Column! On Making Sense of “For the Fans”…

I published a new column at The Escapist earlier this week. With the recent releases of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of SkywalkerGhostbusters: Afterlife and Spider-Man: No Way Home, it seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on the argument that franchise brand extensions exist “for the fans.” What does that even mean?

As a fan myself, I find myself unsettled and disturbed by the idea that these sorts of properties should exist primarily for the satisfaction and consumption of the existing fanbase, not least because it means validating certain kinds of fans above others and pushes franchises towards an aesthetic conservativism that often strangles them. Perhaps the best thing to do “for the fans” is simply to make media as good as possible and let history sort the rest out.

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

Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Six: The Vanquishers (Review)

“Not like we don’t have enough to do.”

And, like that, Doctor Who: Flux collapses into itself, in a season finale that manages to combine the worst aspects of both The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos and The Timeless Children.

To be fair, this was always the risk. It was obvious from The Halloween Apocalypse that the season would be putting a lot of weight on the finale to determine whether it all worked or not. Particularly in episodes like Once, Upon Time and Survivors of the Flux, Chibnall was effectively able to structure the season so that the finale would make or break the season as a whole. Given Chris Chibnall’s track record with season finales, this was always a gamble. However, it was an approach that allowed the entire season to buttress itself with the audience’s good faith and hope. With The Vanquishers, it all comes down like a deck of cards.

Watch yourself.

The Vanquishers is in many ways a very typical Chris Chibnall episode, indicative of his approach to showrunning Doctor Who dating back to The Woman Who Fell to Earth. It’s an episode that is powered by plot, based on the assumption that more plot makes the episode better, and that the episode is more engaging whenever Chibnall has something else that he can cut to. In some ways, the splitting of the Doctor into three versions of herself “split across three realities” feels perfectly suited to Chibnall’s sensibility, effectively allowing Jodie Whittaker to star in three separate episodes that the series can keep cutting across.

The problem is that none of the three episodes are any good, and none are in anyway satisfying as a conclusion to this epic saga.

Ood one out.

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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Five: Survivors of the Flux (Review)

“We’re not in the universe.”

Survivors of the Flux marks a return to the narrative style of both The Halloween Apocalypse and Once, Upon Time.

It’s not so much an individual episode of television so much as it’s a space in which the larger narrative threads of the season advance itself. While it’s not as scattershot as Once, Upon Time, it lacks the clarity of focus and momentum that held The Halloween Apocalypse together as a season premiere. Surivivors of the Flux often feels like things happening, which is particularly noticeable in the two story threads focusing on the Great Serpent and the separated companion crew, which are largely a series of disconnected vignettes jumping through time and space respectively to provide a sense of scale to the adventure.

Tomb to manoeuvre.

Even more than The Halloween Apocalypse, Survivors of the Flux is an episode that hinges heavily on the looming series finale. The nature of Doctor Who: Flux places a lot of weight on The Vanquishers. If the season finale is suitably compelling, any earlier missteps will either be retroactively justified or easily excused. However, if the last episode of the set collapses into itself, it may erase a lot of the more interesting ideas leading into it. It is best to travel hopefully, but The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos and The Timeless Children are perhaps cause for concern.

Survivors of the Flux is not only a heavily serialised instalment, it’s also recognisable as the first half of the season finale. It is comparable to something like The Stolen Earth or Dark Water. The best of these penultimate seasonal episodes manage to balance a compelling self-contained narrative, or at least engaging character work, with the necessity of setting up larger plot arcs to pay off the following episode. Survivors of the Flux feels a lot more like homework than episodes like Heaven Sent or World Enough and Time.

Glowing concern.

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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Four: Village of the Angels (Review)

“Doctor, there are angels in the wall here.”

“Of course there are! Why wouldn’t there be?”

Village of the Angels largely works.

It is the best episode of Doctor Who: Flux to this point, and certainly the best episode of Doctor Who since Maxine Alderton’s last credit on The Haunting of the Villa Diodati. Like The Haunting of the Villa Diodati, Village of the Angels is an interesting high-concept cocktail: it is a period-piece base-under-siege story with a classic monster and simmering occult undertones. It is an illustration of how sturdy some of these Doctor Who templates can be, and how there’s room for novelty and ambition to be found even when playing the old standards.

Angels of the Mourning.

That said, Village of the Angels does run into a couple of problems. Like The Haunting of the Villa Diodati, it is a narrative that feels somewhat undercut by the decision to use it as a launching pad into the two-part season finale. There are enough interesting characters and concepts at play in Village of the Angels that the episode feels like it deserves to function as more than just an extended trailer for the epic closing story of the season around it. Village of the Angels is a story that has markedly less internal resolution than War of the Sontarans, and it almost feels like both episodes would be better served by swapping places.

Still, that’s a relatively minor complaint about one of the most impressive episodes of the Chibnall and Whittaker era.

Grave danger.

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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Three: Once, Upon Time (Review)

“Love is the only mission.”

Once, Upon Time is equal parts ambitious and frustrating.

It feels like an attempt to adopt the approach that Chris Chibnall took to The Halloween Apocalypse and apply it to a mid-season episode. Allowing for the tertiary plot involving Yaz, War of the Sontarans was recognisable as a fairly straightforward Chibnall era episode, albeit one tied to the season arc. It was a historical epic about a marginalised female hero like Rosa or Spyfall, Part II and it was also a modern-day invasion story like Arachnids in the U.K. or Revolution of the Daleks. Sure, the plot mechanics where governed by the larger concerns of Doctor Who: Flux, but it was recognisable as an episode of Doctor Who.

Blaster from the… future?

In contrast, Once, Upon Time is a radically different approach to Doctor Who on television, one that feels like an extension of the style of The Halloween Apocalypse. On some level, it recalls another of the bolder scripts of the Chibnall era, The Timeless Children, in that it really feels like Chris Chibnall is driving Doctor Who like he stole it. He is trying to do something new with a nearly sixty-year-old franchise. That is genuinely admirable, particularly given how traditionalist the rest of the era around it can feel. For Doctor Who to grow and evolve, it needs to be able to try new things.

However, that’s a very qualified comparison. Like The Timeless Children before it, Once, Upon Time is an episode that doesn’t necessarily work on its own terms. It demonstrates that an episode like The Halloween Apocalypse – an episode with multiple seemingly disconnected threads constantly pushing the narrative forward – only really worked as a season premiere. The Halloween Apocalypse worked because it started with a bang. The audience were oriented coming into the episode, which made the chaos somewhat compelling.

Time, pyramided.

In contrast, Once, Upon Time is too disjointed. It never provides the audience with enough to hold on to as it jumps from one concept to another. It is an episode that should theoretically have a set of clear emotional hearts – Dan and Diane, Vinder and Bel, the Doctor and her past – but gets too tied up in scale and speed to really ground anything that is happening. Once, Upon Time feels like a more dynamic version of The Timeless Children, a lot of exposition in place of what should be a compelling and engaging emotional narrative.

Once, Upon Time feels like it is trying for something new, but it isn’t quite succeeding.

Back up.

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