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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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Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen (Review)

The cynical observation about Ascension of the Cybermen would be that Chris Chibnall has spent the previous season building to an excuse to do Earthshock on a modern television budget.

After all, for all that Ascension of the Cybermen seems to tease mythos-shattering revelations, there is very little in the episode that hasn’t been seen before. The episode builds towards two concurrent cliffhangers. The first is a standard “unexpected Master reveal”, a cliffhanger that Chibnall employed earlier in the season with Spyfall, Part I. More than that, it’s pretty much one of the most archetypal Doctor Who cliffhangers. (There is something be said for symmetry, but recycling the same cliffhanger beat from the season premiere is decidedly unambitious.)

“Okay, it’s season finale time. So generic grey battlefield.”

Similarly, a large part of the power of the climax of Ascension of the Cybermen comes from the revelation that Doctor Who now has the budget to offer a particularly impressive riff on the classic “army of monsters” cliffhanger of the kind employed in beloved stories like Tomb of the Cybermen and less beloved stories like The Leisure Hive. There’s a real sense at the end of Ascension of the Cybermen that the audience is meant to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Cybermen on screen.

There are other smaller familiar cues tucked away within Ascension of the Cybermen. Chibnall also borrows a few smaller touches from his direct predecessor. The seemingly disconnected snapshots of mundane life juxtaposed with science-fiction spectacle is a familiar narrative trick within Steven Moffat’s two-parters for the show, notably the thread focusing on CAL and Doctor Moon in Silence in the Library and Danny Pink’s bureaucratic induction into the afterlife in Dark Water. Brendan’s plot offers a broader sort of conceptual mystery, a plot waiting to tie in.

Lone ranger.

However, amid all of this cacophony, there’s a strange modesty to this season finale. Ascension of the Cybermen is very much a triumph of production; it features a big introductory battle sequence, a host expensive-looking sets, galactic stakes and a sense of escalating danger. It takes its cues from a variety of familiar and populist sources, from Russell T. Davies’ work with the Daleks in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways through to the set-up of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The special effects are impressive. The production design is remarkable.

Despite all of this, even as it gestures at grand twists and turns, Ascension of the Cybermen seems to suggest that “Earthshock on a bigger budget” is the platonic ideal of Doctor Who in the twenty-first century. Like The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, there’s a sense in which Ascension of the Cybermen believes that a large part of any Doctor Who season finale should be spent running up and down large and atmospheric industrial corridors. It’s impressive, but it’s all rather hollow.

From the Ash(ad)s…

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Doctor Who: The Haunting of Villa Diodati (Review)

The Haunting of Villa Diodati is an episode of extremes.

On one extreme, it’s a genuinely well-constructed piece of television that is both a triumph of production and which offers a genuinely novel approach to a familiar and iconic Doctor Who villain. It’s a fairly solid concept – to a certain extent, it’s a collision of Dalek with Army of Ghosts – but with a distinct enough flavour that it stands apart from what has come before. More than that, it continues the season’s trend of offering a more proactive and decisive version of the Doctor, building on earlier episodes like Orphan 55 and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.

Missing pieces.

At the same time, it feels like an episode that is stronger on concepts and production than it is on narrative execution. The big ideas all fit in place, but the underlying ideas feel just a little bit off. Most obviously, it’s an episode that leans very heavily into the mythos of the Chibnall era, its climax hinging not on any moral authority but the conservatism that informed stories like Rosa or Kerblam! This is an episode where the Doctor refuses to sacrifice a life to save the future, but not because that life has inherent value, but because that life happens to be Percy Shelley.

It’s a very strange and ill-judged narrative beat, not least because it so squarely misses the obvious pay-off to that set-up. “You know that in nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before?” the Eleventh Doctor remarked in A Christmas Carol, an expression of the humanism at the heart of the show. In contrast, The Haunting of Villa Diodati argues that some lives are much more important than others.

Time Out.

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Doctor Who: Can You Hear Me? (Review)

Do you have any idea where those planets might be?

You get me an A-Z of the universe, and I’ll be able to stick my finger straight… no. I’ve got no idea.

The twelfth season of Doctor Who at least has a little more ambition than the eleventh.

In some ways, Can You Hear Me? feels like a companion piece to Praxeus. Both episodes adhere to a relatively similar structure, albeit applied in a slightly different way. Both Can You Hear Me? and Praxeus cannily split up the TARDIS crew for the first half of the episode, hopping between a series of seemingly disconnected narratives that eventually intertwine in the second half. Praxeus did this with a global adventure, scattering the characters across the planet. Can You Hear Me? attempts to do it with time and space, a story stretching from ancient Aleppo into the deepest void.

“It’s all gone a bit Colin Baker here, right?”

It’s notable that this is a mirror of the approach that Chris Chibnall took to the plotting of Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II. Spyfall, Part I was a global adventure that sent the crew across the world. Spyfall, Part II then attempted to shake things up by having the Doctor journey through time. It’s an interesting approach to narrative, albeit one that fits with the Chibnall era’s larger approach to plotting. The Chibnall era often plots episodes like old four- or six-parters, offering setting, plotting and cast shifts with each act that often seems to compress the narrative into forty-five minutes.

Can You Hear Me? grapples with big ideas. It has a fairly consistent set of internal themes. Like Orphan 55 or Nikolai Tesla’s Night of Terror, it is at least “about” something in a way that too few of the surrounding episodes are willing to be. The episode is also willing to go large in terms of scope, to tackle the sort of scale and spectacle that is often missing from surrounding episodes. All of this is very good. However, there’s also a certain lifelessness to all of this, a sense that the show has so much ground to cover that it is more exposition than story.

Eye see!

On paper, there is a lot to like about Can You Hear Me? This is an episode that includes actual character development for the supporting cast, especially the perennially under-served Yaz. It allows the regular cast to drop back into their everyday lives, which helps provide a sense of context for them. More than that, it is an episode that broaches important questions for these characters, particularly concerning their long-term plans to stay with the Doctor. It features monsters that work on a thematic level. It also offers a strong and important message to young viewers at home.

However, it also feels more like a checklist than an actual episode. It is a collection of interesting elements arranged like a bullet point list, bouncing from one idea to the next without any real sense of flow guiding it. Can You Hear Me? often feels like a rough draft of a much stronger episode.

Fingers in the air.

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Doctor Who: Praxeus (Review)

Praxeus is business as usual for Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who.

It’s always slightly fun when a showrunner takes a co-writing credit on an episode, because it implies heavy involvement in a particular aspect of the story. It’s always fun to speculate what that aspect might be. When Russell T. Davies took a rare co-writing credit on Waters of Mars, it seemed reasonable to suggest that he was (at least) heavily involved in the “Time Lord Victorious” stuff. When Steven Moffat took a co-writing credit on The Girl Who Died, it seemed likely that he worked on the Twelfth Doctor’s explanation of his choice of face.

Beach’s own.

Normally, it’s fairly easy to see what hand a showrunner took in a given script. Fugitive of the Judoon brought back Vinay Patel, who wrote one of the best-received episodes of the previous season in Demons of the Punjab, but paired him with Chris Chibnall. There were any number of elements in Fugitive of the Judoon that might have merited the heavy hand of the showrunner. The most obvious stuff is the subplot involving Jack Harkness, which is both isolated from the story and heavy on foreshadowing. That said, the Ruth!Doctor stuff was also a big deal.

This makes Chibnall’s credit on Praxeus seem very strange. On the surface, and even with the direct cliffhanger feeding in from Fugitive of the Judoon,there is nothing in the story that would seem to merit or necessitate the showrunner stepping in to work with writer Peter McTighe on the episode.

Net loss.

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New Escapist Column! On the Franchise Revanchism in “Star Wars”, “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek”…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine on Friday, looking at one of the more interesting (and frustrating) trends in modern franchise storytelling.

New ideas in existing franchises have always been controversial. After all, fans were taken aback by the changes made to existing properties in films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. So the controversy around things like the first season of Star Trek: Discovery or Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi are nothing new. What is new, however, is the way in which these properties now seem to be swayed by fan anxieties, retreating from bold ideas into the safety of familiarity. This leads an emptiness, and runs the risk of letting these properties stagnate.

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