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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.

Doctor Who: Fugitive of the Judoon (Review)

“Is there even word for how dumb you are?”

“… Doctor?”

Fugitive of the Judoon is a breath of fresh air. The only question is whether it is blowing in the right direction.

There are obvious problems with Fugitive of the Judoon. The episode is overloaded with fan service, just starting with the returning monsters in the title and bubbling over into an entire subplot that seems to exist to give three quarters of the primary cast something to do. More than that, the episode is deliberately and purposefully ambiguous in a way that makes it impossible to properly assess its more audacious and ambitious twists. Fugitive of the Judoon is an episode that relies heavily on context, context that will be derived from the rest of the season.

The devil you Rhino.

And, yet, there is something exhilarating in Fugitive of the Judoon. This is the most ambitious that Doctor Who has felt since World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. This is an episode bursting at the seams with ideas that seem designed to upend what the audience think they know about Doctor Who, while also boldly reassuring viewers at home that showrunner Chris Chibnall actually has some sort of vision of where he wants the show to go. Fugitive of the Judoon suggests an impressive jigsaw puzzle, even if the pieces are yet to be assembled.

It helps that the episode is fast on its feet and breezy, probably managing to balance the “overstuffed Chibnall era plot” better than any episode since It Takes You Away. If Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II suggested that the season was going to take its cues from Russell T. Davies third season, then Fugitive of the Judoon might represent the best expression of this approach. Fugitive of the Judoon is not so much “season three redux” as “season three remix.” While hopefully there’s more to it than that, it is enough to elevate the episode above most of its contemporaries.

Space police stop.

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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?”

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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.

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