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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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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Two: War of the Sontarans (Review)

“I have Queen and Country on my side. That is all that I need.”

“She here with you right now, the Queen?”

War of the Sontarans is a basically functional episode of Doctor Who, even if it feels like a rough draft of a more interesting premise that moves quickly enough to dance over the more obvious cracks.

In some ways, War of the Sontarans feels very much like a proof of concept for Doctor Who: Flux, a demonstration of how exactly Chibnall is going to turn that frantic season-opener into a sustainable six-episode miniseries. War of the Sontarans settles down, severely trimming down the number of plot threads in play at the end of The Halloween Apocalypse. Diane and Claire are nowhere to be found. The Weeping Angels are entirely absent. Joseph Williamson only makes a minor appearance, serving primarily to remind audience members that he still exists.

“Queuing for petrol,
Queuing for petrol.
Queuing for petrol.
And I’m on a horse.”

So War of the Sontarans feels very much like a conventional episode of Doctor Who, albeit with considerably more plot crammed into comparatively less space, and with a secondary subplot that more directly ties into the larger arc. It’s not the most elegant way of structuring an event story like this, but it is a more workable model for six weeks of Doctor Who. This is an episode of television that will be easy enough for casual audience members to follow, even if they haven’t seen The Halloween Apocalypse. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that this is easier to follow than The Halloween Apocalypse.

For all the plot and narrative hijinks at work in War of the Sontarans, the episode is remarkably straightforward. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. War of the Sontarans touches on a variety of interesting ideas, but never lingering on any of them or pushing them too far into their more compelling implications.

Sontaring into battle.

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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter One: The Halloween Apocalypse (Review)

“You know, Yaz. I can’t help but feel like some of this is my fault.”

In the lead-up to the broadcast of Doctor Who: Flux, there was some debate about the marketting of the series.

After all, it seemed like fans knew more about the distant fourteenth season of the revival than they did about the looming thirteenth season. Information about Chibnall’s third season tended to escape into the wild rather than derive from a single coherent source. Former showrunner Steven Moffat seemed to (accidentally) confirm that the Weeping Angels were appearing. Part of the publicity campaign for Flux involved deleting the show’s social media presence. The first trailer was released only three weeks before the premiere. In interviews, Chibnall openly worried about “giving too much away.”

Dogged pursuit.

In some ways, this is typical of the larger Chibnall era. After all, Chibnall took great pride in seeding the phrase “the Timeless Child” in The Ghost Monument, only to eventually pay it off with twenty minutes of expository flashbacks in The Timeless Children. The Chibnall era is very plot-focused, which means that it is paranoid of potential spoilers, and it is reasonable to wonder whether that paranoia makes it harder to sell the show to the general public. For a sprawling six-part epic built around one of the BBC’s flagship properties, Flux seemed to fly in under the radar.

Then again, this makes a certain amount of sense watching The Halloween Apocalypse. The season premiere doesn’t really feel like an episode of television, at least not in the traditional sense. There is a relatively minor self-contained plot within the episode focusing on Karvanista and Dan, which is neatly wrapped up within the episode proper. However, that is just one thread of a story that cuts frantically from one thread to another, introducing a host of set-ups that promise the possibility and the potential of chaos.

Tracing an outline of the season ahead.

This is itself pure and unfiltered Chris Chibnall. It is the ultimate acceleration and culmination of the style that he adopted in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Inheriting the series from Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, Chibnall was a writer who lacked his predecessors’ skill with character and dialogue. Watching The Woman Who Fell to Earth, it seemed like Chibnall’s solution to this problem was to ensure that there was always something to cut away to – that he could get into and out of scenes quickly, to distract from the fact that his dialogue and characters felt rather generic.

The Halloween Apocalypse takes that idea to its logical extreme. It introduces a variety of disparate and disconnected elements that are presented as a series of mystery boxes, hoping that the audience will be enticed enough to keep watching – the Swarm and his history with the Doctor, the transformed Azure, the mysterious Vinder, Claire who appears to be from the Doctor’s past and/or future, the Sontaran invasion fleet, the mysterious excavations in 1820. None of these elements get any pay-off, or even development. Instead, they are simply spinning plates positioned for the rest of the six-episode arc.

With that in mind, the marketting strategy makes a great deal more sense. Why would Flux need heavy advertising, if the first episode was essentially a fifty-minute trailer?

Being a little cagey about spoilers.

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New Escapist Column! On Chris Chibnall’s “Doctor Who” Aspiring to Prestige Television…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With Doctor Who: Flux launching this weekend, it seemed like a good excuse to take a look back at Chris Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner.

One of the more interesting recurring aspects of Chris Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner of Doctor Who has been the way in which he has embraced a lot of the narrative and visual language associated with “prestige television” – the anamorphic lenses, the muted colour scheme, the serialisation, the minimalism, the self-seriousness. It’s an approach that is an awkward fit for the show, particularly when the era around it seems so lacking in substance. It feels like an unconvincing attempt to argue that Doctor Who is “serious business.”

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

New Podcast! Enterprising Individuals – “Gimme Some Mooney”

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 That Which Survives. The main feed episode went live last week.

However, our conversation tended to be a bit broader and a bit more wide-reaching than that, so we talked about everything from the recent release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to the completion of the Rebuild of Evangelion series. It was a discussion that managed to cover everything from Quibi to workers’ rights to the future of Doctor Who. It was a fun chat, and I hope that you enjoy.

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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