• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

Doctor Who: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (Review)

“Don’t worry. This ain’t our first rodeo.

“We’ve never been to a rodeo.”

“You’re not helping, Ryan.”

As with Orphan 55 last week, there is a sense that Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is pushing at the edge of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, trying to take the era’s underlying assumptions and make them work within a compelling narrative structure.

Orphan 55 attempted to write around the Thirteenth Doctor’s narrative passivity by dropping her in a plot that took place long after calamity had befallen Earth, and so cannily avoiding another story that hinged on the Doctor’s general uselessness. (Of course, it also ended with the Doctor abandoning Kane and Bella to their deaths, so mileage varies.) Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror offers an interesting spin on the era’s approach to historicals – telling a story that hinges not on building an affirming narrative from a hopeless future, but instead mourning the loss of a potential future.

Tesla recoils.

To be fair, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is still haunted by a lot of the familiar problems of the show around it. As a showrunner, Chris Chibnall is nowhere near as good with characterisation or humour as Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. More than that, the episode seems have largely been built in homage to the villainous Skithra, as a collection of spare parts and leftover pieces. Like Arachnids in the U.K., the extent to which Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is an engaging piece of television is the extent to which it feels like a flat mid-season episode from the Davies era.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is a mixed bag. Indeed, it’s interesting how much Orphan 55 and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror feel like the belong in the first season of a new era, trying to figure out the basic mechanics of the new way that Doctor Who tells stories. This is something that Doctor Who should have been doing last season, and it’s frustrating to see it only really trying now.

“Elon who?”

Continue reading

Doctor Who: Orphan 55 (Review)

“He’s moving at thirty-seven klicks an hour.”

“That doesn’t sound like my Benni.”

Like It Takes You Away in the previous season, Orphan 55 provides a something close to a workable model for the Chibnall era as a whole. Unfortunately, Orphan 55 doesn’t quite get there.

One of the strange paradoxes of the Chibnall era is that it often seems like the guest writers have a stronger grasp on its core themes than the showrunner. After all, Demons of the Punjab was perhaps the best single argument for Chibnall’s passive and observational characterisation of the Thirteenth Doctor, a far stronger argument than that articulated in Rosa or Arachnids in the U.K. or any of the episodes with Chibnall’s name on the credits.

“Game over, Doc.”

Orphan 55 draws from an impressive array of influences across the history of Doctor Who, providing a fascinating intersection between “holiday camp gone wrong” episodes like The Macra Terror and Delta and the Bannermen and “future of Earth” episodes like The Ark in Space or The End of the World. Indeed, the positioning of Orphan 55 as the first standalone episode after the premiere is quite canny; it fills what would be the “New Earth” slot on a Russell T. Davies season. However, it offers a much grimmer prognosis. This is appropriate for a much grimmer age.

Like so much of the Chibnall era, Orphan 55 is built around the general impotence of the Doctor. The Doctor is a fictional character, and so cannot save the world. The Moffat era dealt with this question in a more abstract and metaphorical sense in episodes like Extremis, demonstrating the importance of Doctor Who as a story and the Doctor as an idea. The Chibnall era tends to respond to this challenge with dull literalism. The Thirteenth Doctor spends an inordinate amount of her run confronting systemic or societal problems with which she refuses to engage.

A green message.

The Thirteenth Doctor’s passiveness when confronted with monstrosity is one of the more horrifying aspects of the Chibnall era as a whole. In The Ghost Monument, the Doctor refused to hold Ilan to account for the horrors he inflicted on the participants in his race. In Arachnids in the U.K., Jack Robertson just walked away from liability for mass murder in his hotel. In Rosa, the Doctor stage managed the oppression of Rosa Parks, even forcing her companion to be actively complicit in systemic racism.

While the Chibnall era is clearly trying to make a larger point about how the Doctor cannot save the world because she doesn’t exist, this often becomes a bleak and depressing study of how the public imagination can no longer conjure better worlds into being. Demons of the Punjab managed to make the best argument for this approach through careful construction, tying its historical injustices to Yaz’s personal history. Orphan 55 pulls off something similar, primarily by setting the action long after the world has failed to be saved.

Shattering expectations.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

New Escapist Column! “Doctor Who”, “Mission to the Unknown” and Resurrecting the Lost Past…

I published a new Don’t Miss It! piece at Escapist Magazine over the weekend. This one looking at one of the genuine marvels of the modern internet.

Students at the University of Central Lancaster lovingly recreated a lost episode of Doctor Who. Mission to the Unknown was purged from the BBC archives, and thought forever lost along with a host of other classic adventures, so it is amazing to see it brought to life. It is a fascinating episode in a number of respects, from its position as a prelude to the epic Daleks’ Master Plan through to the fact that it’s the rare Doctor Who story without any involvement of the Doctor whatsoever. More than that, though, the recreation is a stunning piece of work from all involved.

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

The Moffat Moment: The Lasting Legacy of Steven Moffat’s “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock”…

Hindsight is a powerful tool.

It’s hard to recognise patterns in the moment, to understand how a larger design is unfolding as it actually unspools. It’s a lot easier to process the larger context once the work is complete. Many important works only reveal themselves in retrospect, once they can be properly contextualised as part of broader cultural movements and placed within the larger popular consciousness. By this measure, Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who is a particularly fascinating piece of work.

Moffat’s Doctor Who is an interesting piece of work, in large part due to the sheer volume of venom that it generates online. This is to be expected with any writer working on a major geek-friendly property. Fandoms are inherently protective of what they deem to belong to them, and this can lead to excessive and aggressive campaigns of hatred against those writers and directors they believe to be betraying the object of their affection. This is most obvious in terms of the response to Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, with harassment campaigns against actors and insane petitions and misogynist edits.

Moffat was subject to that sort of online hatred to the point that he was chased off Twitter, but the most interesting thing about the hatred of his tenure was that it seeped into professional journalism. Professional websites like The Daily Dot were so aggressively critical of Steven Moffat that they even made a point to blame him for decisions made by his direct predecessor; even when issuing a correction of that simple fact-checking oversight, they made a point to leave his sarcastic commentary on that narrative choice within the article without any context so that it might look like an endorsement.

There was an interesting dishonesty in the criticism of Moffat’s tenure. The most obvious example might be Rebecca A. Moore’s infamous study that argued that women’s speaking roles actually decreased under Moffat’s tenure, which was circulated in mainstream media and press. While it’s possible to have subjective arguments about the content of such dialogue and characterisation, the study itself was easily demonstrably inaccurate and read very much as an attempt to manipulate the numbers in service of a predetermined editorial perspective.

It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to dislike the work of a particular writer or to dislike the direction of a particular show. Life would be boring if everybody liked the same things. However, a large part of the fan-press coverage of the Moffat era seemed dedicated to arguing that the series was objectively awful with little room for debate. This resulted in a very heightened tone in online discourse around it in which the producer had to give interviews to the mainstream press insisting that he was not a misogynist. This critical environment was less than healthy, and its spread to professional outlets was regrettable.

As with most things, including the tenure of Russell T. Davies and Andrew Cartmel, the reality of the Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner was complicated. It is, for example, true that the overnight ratings did drop during the final years of his tenure. It is also true that the manner in which people were consuming television changed as well, making overnights less important. It is similarly true that Moffat’s tenure saw the series breaking into America; synchronising broadcast on BBC America, record high ratings and shooting episodes like The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon and The Angels Take Manhattan there.

More to the point, it was the Moffat era that saw the series’ impact on American popular culture increase dramatically. To be fair, at least some of this was a delayed reaction to the hard work done by Russell T. Davies who had made smaller-scale efforts at outreach such as second-unit shooting in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks. Nevertheless, the impact was felt. For example, Christopher Eccleston showed up on The Sarah Silverman Program playing “Doctor Lazer Rage.” Similarly, Community featured “Inspector Spacetime”, with a superfan played by future Moffat-era co-star Matt Lucas.

Whatever the precise cause of this increasingly mainstream interest in the show in American popular culture, and it seems fair to credit at least some of that to the increased access that American audiences had to the show during Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, it gets at one of the larger and stranger overlaps between Moffat’s work on the series and broader cultural trends. Moffat’s Doctor Who often seems like a template for certain strands of contemporary popular culture, whether through coincidence or design.

Rewatching Moffat’s Doctor Who, removed from its original context, it often seems like Moffat had a much stronger understanding of the direction of contemporary culture than many of his critics would allow.

Continue reading