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New Escapist Video! On “WandaVision” and the Death of Ambiguity…

So, as I have mentioned before, I am launching a new video series as a companion piece to In the Frame at The Escapist. The video will typically launch with every second Monday article, and be released on the magazine’s YouTube channel the following week. This is kinda cool, because we’re helping relaunch the magazine’s film channel – so if you can throw a subscription our way, it would mean a lot.

This week, following the end of WandaVision, it seemed like an appropriate time to take a look at what the show said about contemporary pop culture, in particular the show’s approach to its “mystery box” format and its insistence on explaining every ambiguity without any willingness to leave space for interpretation. It’s a big, ambitious video essay that looks at everything from Lost to Twin Peaks to The X-Files to Doctor Who, and I hope you enjoy.

New Escapist Column! On “WandaVision” and the Death of Ambiguity…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With WandaVision ending just over a week ago, I had some thoughts about art, ambiguity and meaning. You know, small things.

One of the more interesting aspects of WandaVision was the way in which it presented itself, and was received as, a “mystery box” show. It was framed and treated as a puzzle to be solved. What’s interesting about this is the care that the finale took to carefully explain and confront each possible fan theory and speculation, to communicate very simply and very straightforwardly not only what its audience was supposed to take from this story, but also how they were supposed to feel in response to certain key plot beats.

This is arguably a reflection of a larger trend in pop culture, in which there’s a strong rejection of the idea of ambiguity and an embrace of the idea that everything has a fixed meaning that can be clearly determined and objectively derived. This ignores the reality that art exists in ambiguity, that there’s no simple, single decoder ring and that meaning is often something derived from conversation between the art and the audience consuming it.

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

New Podcast! Enterprising Individuals – “More Mooney, More Problems”

I am always thrilled to get a chance to talk about Star Trek with other fans, so I was thrilled at the invitation to join the wonderful Aaron Coker on Enterprising Individuals to talk about The Immunity Syndrome. The bulk of the episode came out last week, and is well worth your time if you’re specifically interested in discussing that individual episode.

However, the initial recording session was actually much longer than the version that appeared last week. It was a more casual and free-form conversation, covering everything from the state of the modern franchise to Doctor Who and plenty of stuff beyond. It’s a bit unfocused and wild, but I really enjoyed chatting with Aaron on such a wide range of topics.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

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New Escapist Column! On How “Doctor Who” Is Less “Woke” Than It’s Been In Decades…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With rumours that Jodie Whittaker may be departing Doctor Who, it seems an appropriate time to look back her time on the show. In particular, the weird political furore around it.

Under producer Chris Chibnall, Doctor Who has been criticised for being “too woke” and “too politically correct.” This is interesting, because – if anything – the show is more conservative than it has been at any point since the mid-eighties. Under Chibnall, Doctor Who believes that “the systems aren’t the problem” and is openly deferential to authority. It frequently rejects the idea of radical systemic change, instead suggesting that the status quo is something to be preserved rather than disturbed.

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

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks (Review)

“Have you had work done?”

“You’re one to talk.”

Like Resolution before it, Revolution of the Daleks is a special that largely works through momentum and spectacle, while failing to cohere into anything greater than the sum of its separate parts.

The cobbled together Dalek casing from Resolution is a major plot point in Revolution of the Daleks, but it also plays as metaphor for the episode itself. Even as early as The Woman Who Fell to Earth, it was clear that the Chibnall era did not share the same strengths as the Davies and Moffat eras before it. It is impossible to imagine Chibnall constructing a holiday special featuring characters bantering around a couple of generic sets. If he did, it would probably resemble The Timeless Children more than Twice Upon a Time, with characters just expositing at one another.

Insert political joke here.

Instead, Chibnall tends to construct his more successful episodes around propulsion and momentum; he likes to have multiple characters doing things simultaneously, while constantly throwing new elements into the mix to maintain some sense of forward movement. Revolution of the Daleks is not so much an episode as a collection of familiar Doctor Who elements thrown into a blender with even more familiar elements thrown on top. There’s a frantic sense of “… and then…” plotting to the episode, as Chibnall rhymes off any story coming into his head.

The result is an episode that is messier and more overstuffed than Resolution. Indeed, Resolution might have somewhat bungled the eponymous reconciliation between Ryan and his father, but at least it understood that this relationship was meant to be both the heart of the episode and the pay-off to a thread running through the season. In contrast, Revolution seems like a bunch of stuff happening incredibly quickly as the stakes frantically escalate and the story switches before the audience can get bored of it.

To be fair, everybody looks at Christmas leftovers the same way.

Revolution of the Daleks doesn’t really work. After all, despite all the stuff that happens in the episode, it is hard to pinpoint what it is actually supposed to be “about.” There are certainly scenes and developments that feel like they should be important, but they never really feel like organic evolution from one scene to the next. That said, Revolution of the Dalek manages to avoid falling completely flat. The sense of constant escalation prevents anything from collapsing into itself. Revolution of the Daleks is certainly more Spyfall, Part I than Spyfall, Part II.

At the same time, it is hardly revolutionary.

“It’s hard to keep track of how many stories this is referencing.”

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“Doctor Who?” The Deconstructed Davison Doctor…

This week, I had the privilege of stopping by The Galactic Yo-Yo to talk a little bit about Doctor Who with the wonderful Molly Marsh. In preparation for the episode, I rewatched the bulk of the Peter Davison era for the first time in years. I talked about it on the podcast, which is worth your time. But I also thought it was worth jotting some of the thoughts down in more detail.

Rewatching the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who is a strange experience for a number of reasons, not all of which are good.

The Davison era arguably served as a point of transition. It existed in the negative space between two particularly memorable incarnations of the Time Lord. Tom Baker is justifiably considered the most important and influential actor to play the role. Notably, he was the only lead from the classic series to get a showcase scene in The Day of the Doctor. Despite Colin Baker’s protestations, this made a great deal of sense. For an entire generation of television viewers – not just Doctor Who fans – Tom Baker is the Doctor.

On the other extreme, Peter Davison was succeeded by Colin Baker. Whether rightly or wrongly, Colin Baker occupies a similarly important place in the mythos. With his garish costume and his string of terrible stories, Colin Baker was long the public face of the decline and decay of Doctor Who as a cultural institution. This isn’t entirely fair. The rot had set in considerably earlier than Baker’s arrival, and there’s a sense in which he suffered from terrible timing. Still, Colin Baker wound up serving as the face of the show’s hiatus and the embarrassing Doctor in Distress.

This puts Peter Davison in a strange position. He is caught between these two hugely important moments in the show’s history. However, he also arguably lacks a strong cohesive identity like other iconic iterations of the character. The Fifth Doctor is a markedly different character from the iterations around him, and Davison was subject to criticisms from fans that his interpretation of the title character was “bland” or “boring.” It’s arguable that the Sixth Doctor’s abrasive personality was a direct response to this perceived blandness.

However, in just under three full seasons in the role, Peter Davison left quite a mark on the Time Lord. His final story, The Caves of Androzani, is rightly regarded as one of the finest Doctor Who stories ever made. (Indeed, it is one of the rare stories to have topped polls of fandom.) More to the point, it’s notable that Davison would become a surprisingly strong influence on the revival series. Tom Baker got to occupy centre stage in The Day of the Doctor, but Davison returned first in Time Crash. The short served primarily as a love letter to Davison’s influence on the role.

There’s a lot of very fascinating stuff happening during Davison’s time in the role, most of seemingly happening by accident. The most striking thing about Davison’s tenure in the role is the recurring sense that he doesn’t quite fit. The Fifth Doctor often seems to struggle with the basic narrative conventions of Doctor Who, wrestling with the series’ core concepts and underlying assumptions. Over the course of Davison’s three seasons in the role, Doctor Who seems to ask what might happen if there were an iteration of the Doctor who wasn’t up to the task.

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New Podcast! Galactic Yo-yo – Peter Davison’s “Doctor Who”

I was very thrilled to be invited to guest on the Galactic Yo-yo podcast by the wonderful Molly Marsh, to discuss Doctor Who.

We’d talked a little bit about Doctor Who before the podcast, and I’d wanted to talk a little bit about classic Doctor Who, because I don’t always get a chance to delve into the classic series. Plus, with the recent blu ray collections, I’d been watching a bit of it. More than that, I’d been delving back into Peter Davison’s almost-three-seasons in the role and was quite impressed with the way in which the Fifth Doctor often seemed to be a protagonist trying desperately to stay on top of a show that was falling to pieces around him. So we talked a great deal about Peter Davison.

Anyway, it was a huge honour to be invited to the show, and I hope that you enjoy it and I didn’t embarrass myself. You can subscribe to the show here. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

“I Deny This Reality”: On the Broken Reality of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ “Doctor Who”….

The fourteenth season of the classic Doctor Who was recently released on blu ray. In an unprecedented movie, there is a reissue of the blu ray box set coming in July. With the twelfth and fourteenth seasons available on blu ray, the bulk of the era overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe has been packaged on the latest home media format. As such, I thought it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on the era, and its subtext – which is eerily resonant on contemporary rewatch.

For an entire generation, Tom Baker will always be the star of Doctor Who. There is a reason, after all, why Baker was the only previous lead actor to get a major role in The Day of the Doctor, as opposed to being shunted off into specials or shorts or other supplemental material. There’s a number of reasons for this. Part of it is simple math, with Baker spending more time in the role than any other actors. Part of it is simply that Baker’s performance is iconic. Part of it is that Baker was the actor who tended to be featured on airings of the show on PBS in the United States.

However, there’s also the simple fact that Tom Baker had a pretty good run – at least at first. While there are certainly defenders of Baker’s final four seasons in the role, Baker’s first three years headlining Doctor Who count among the most consistently satisfying periods in the history of the show. From his admittedly rough around the edges introduction in Robot to his third season finale in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, there is a remarkable consistency to Doctor Who. Arguably it is the longest such period of consistency until Peter Capaldi was cast nearly four decades later.

These three seasons were overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Hinchcliffe and Holmes were lucky to be inheriting the show from a successful pairing of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, which gave them a solid springboard from which they might launch themselves. Hinchcliffe and Holmes immediately veered the show towards horror, with stories like The Ark in Space or The Sontaran Experiment. It was a radical departure from the action adventure that defined the previous era, but was just what the show needed.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes codified a certain aesthetic of Doctor Who. Indeed, within the revival, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that any historical episode is going to play like an homage to their work, with examples like The Unquiet Dead or Tooth and Claw coming to mind. This was the era that attracted the ire of Mary Whitehouse, who famously described it as “teatime brutality for tots.” It codified the idea of watching Doctor Who from “behind the sofa.” When writer Peter Harness was commissioned to write Kill the Moon, he was directed to “Hinchcliffe the sh!t” out of the first half.

Rewatching these stories today, it’s interesting how much they resonate and how much the horror at their core still works. This era of Doctor Who has its fair share of iconic monsters like the Wirrn from The Ark in Space, but a lot of the horror is abstract. The Hinchcliffe era is firmly anchored in classic horror stories, with Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius most overtly evoking Hammer Horror and stories like Planet of Evil drawing from stories like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, but its horror is more existential than that.

The Hinchcliffe era is preoccupied with the notion of long-dormant threats resurfacing and threatening the established order of the universe, long-vanquished foes reviving themselves and causing existential crises. More than that, these three seasons are particularly preoccupied with the anxiety about a fracturing and warping reality, in a way that feels strangely prescient and probably resonates even more strongly these days than it did on original broadcast.

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The Unlikely Validation of Steven Moffat’s “Doctor Who” by Chris Chibnall…

To be entirely fair, the twelfth season of Doctor Who offers a marked improvement over the eleventh. It has a lot more enthusiasm and ambition, a stronger sense of ownership, and a higher baseline of competence.

Still, watching the twelfth season is a surreal experience. On the most basic of levels, the season does not contain a single episode as good as either of the eleventh season’s standouts, Demons of the Punjab or It Takes You Away. The best episode of the season is Fugitive of the Judoon, which is not so much an episode as a forty-odd minute teaser. The second best episode of the season hinges its climax on the moral argument that Percy Shelley’s life is worth more than millions in the future because he’s a “great man of history.” As such, it is a fundamentally flawed season.

At the same time, there is something interesting in the season’s relationship to the Moffat era. Every era of Doctor Who has an interesting relationship with the one that preceded it. The Third Doctor’s status as an establishment figure was best read as a reaction against the Second Doctor as a wandering hobo, with the Fourth Doctor’s bohemian sensibilities itself a reaction against that. Indeed, specific stories with the Hinchcliffe era seem to exist as plays upon (or critiques of) the Letts era, most notably Terror of the Zygons.

The Moffat era was no stranger to this, involving itself in an evolving conversation with the Davies era. The fifth season adhered religiously to the structure that Davies had employed for each of his four seasons, while later seasons would become structurally ambitious. The entirety of the ninth season seemed to be built outwards from Journey’s End, from the return of Davros and resurrection of Skaro in The Magician’s Apprentice to the reframing of the Doctor’s memory wipe of companion in Hell Bent. Moffat even affectionately named the “good Dalek” in Into the Dalek as “Rusty” in honour of Russell T. Davies.

As such, it is no surprise that the Chibnall era should have something to say about the Moffat era. To be fair, historical episodes like Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror or The Witchfinders, along with attempts to ground the series in the companions’ domestic lives in Arachnids in the U.K. and Can You Hear Me?, suggest a stronger affinity for the Davies era. Still, the decision to open the twelfth season with a two-parter globe-trotting adventure (that morphs into a time-hopping adventure) in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II feels consciously indebted to Moffat’s sixth season opener The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.

The most striking aspect of the twelfth season’s relationship to the work of Steven Moffat is how its season premiere and finale feel like long-delayed set-ups to punchlines that Moffat delivered years ago. In particular, Spyfall, Part II feels like the premise of Let’s Kill Hitler played depressingly straight, and The Timeless Children is essentially the sort of notionally “epic” continuity-fest that Hell Bent so studiously avoided. There’s something incredibly depressing in this, a sense that the Chibnall era not only missed the point of Let’s Kill Hitler and Hell Bent, but is committed to being the kind of stories that they so roundly mocked.

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Doctor Who: The Timeless Children (Review)

Note: This is a very quick review, as I’m currently in the midst of the Dublin International Film Festival. I may come back and expand it in a few weeks when I have time. Or I might not.

The Timeless Children certainly offers some earth-shattering (or Earthshock-ing) revelations about the larger mythos of Doctor Who.

There is something slightly surreal in all of this. When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, showrunner Russell T. Davies shrewdly made the decision to strip back a lot of the show’s internal mythology. He did this by removing Gallifrey, by confirming in The End of the World that the Doctor watched his home planet die. This was a sane and practical choice, given that so many Gallifrey-based stories (notably The Arc of Infinity or The Ultimate Foe) count among some of the worst stories in the series. When Steven Moffat resurrected Gallifrey in Hell Bent, he consciously avoided a Gallifrey-based continuity-fest.

As such, there was perhaps some logic in Chris Chibnall’s decision to destroy Gallifrey once again in Spyfall, Part II. The season premiere closed with the revelation that the Master had massacred his own people, reducing Gallifrey to rubble yet again. While hardly the most elegant of narrative choices, feeling like a clumsy and desperate reversion to the Davies era status quo of “the Last of the Time Lords”, it was at least defensible as an effort to push the show away from the lure of monotonous and suffocating continuity that Gallifrey represented. Gallifrey offered an origin for the Doctor, a way of making the Doctor mythic.

So there’s something slightly perverse in the way that The Timeless Children manages to do a mythology-heavy continuity-rewriting mythos-building Gallifrey-based story even after the destruction of Gallifrey. It seems like the worst of all possible worlds, a story unfolding in the wake of a holocaust consisting largely of stilted exposition that offers unnecessary and overly elaborate explanations for things that don’t really need explanation in the first place. The Timeless Children is a mess of an episode, but at least it’s a loud and ambitious mess. That has to count for something.

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