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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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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 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?

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Doctor Who: Resolution (Review)

Despite being positioned as a New Year’s Special and being the only episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 2019, Resolution functions as a season finale to the eleventh season.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. In terms of working relatively well, Resolution helps to compensate for the damp squib that was The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. It provides a sense of spectacle and threat that was sorely lacking from the last episode of the broadcast season. It also wraps up a number of thematic threads from the season and even provides a much more effective bookend to The Woman Who Fell to Earth than simply bringing back an underwhelming antagonist.

Calling the Dalek out.

However, there are also problems. Most obviously, the fact that Resolution functions as a slightly-delayed series finale makes The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos seem even more pointless. There was no need for The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos to serve as such a half-assed bookend to The Woman Who Fell to Earth, given Resolution would do a much better job. The storytelling real estate in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos could easily have been given over to literally anything but the episode that was broadcast. That’s deeply frustrating.

There is another issue as well. Writing a New Year’s Special that also serves as a season finale is a risky move. The End of Time, Part II attempted this, and struggled to find the right balance, mostly be eschewing the holiday elements in favour of providing closure with the larger Davies Era as a whole. Resolution tries to strike a more effective balance between being an epic season finale and an episode that can be watched by the whole family after gorging on a massive dinner. This creates an internal tension that Resolution never quite resolves.

Digging deep.

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Doctor Who: Series Eleven (or Thirty-Seven) (Review/Retrospective)

And so the Chris Chibnall era begins.

Any discussion of the Chris Chibnall era must begin with an acknowledgement that it is, by any measure, a commercial success. Even allowing for erosion over the course of the season, the overnight ratings are appreciably up on where they were during the Moffat era. This is particularly true in the United States, where the show is thriving on BBC America. More than that, these new viewers are younger and female, indicating that the efforts to revitalise the show have been largely successful in attracting a new audience to a series that has been on the air for ten seasons (over one hundred and forty episodes) over thirteen years.

More than that, the series has survived an incredible transition. In theory, the casting of a female lead in a major long-running science-fiction property really shouldn’t be that big a deal. (After all, the advertising neatly summarised it as “about time.”) However, one need only look at the controversy around things like increasing the diversity in mainstream comic books or even the backlash over Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi in order to see how easy it is to start a culture war. Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, and her widespread acceptance speaks well to Whittaker and Chibnall, and to fans as a whole.

There is a catch, however. As much as the eleventh season has been a commercial success by any measure, it has also been a massive creative disappointment. The eleventh season of Doctor Who is very stylishly produced. There is a credible argument to be made that these ten episodes are the best that the show has ever looked. However, it is also the most generic that the series has ever been. From its earliest days, the series has been defined by a hint of madness and insanity, wonder and awe. The eleventh season of Doctor Who strips all of that out, looking like any other successful science-fiction series. That’s disappointing.

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Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (Review)

The Ghost Monument feels almost worryingly safe.

To be fair, it is almost churlish to complain about this. The Woman Who Fell to Earth seemed designed to assure audiences that the Chibnall Era would be a safe pair of hands, a stylishly produced piece of televisual science-fiction that visually upped the ante in terms of how Doctor Who looked and felt on the small screen. It was consciously designed to be safe and accessible to new viewers, to avoid anything that could be considered weird or strange.

Artful appearance.

By all accounts, this approach paid off. Reviews for the episode were largely positive. The ratings were spectacular, with Jodie Whittaker premiering to a larger audience than any Doctor since Christopher Eccleston and earning the series its highest ratings since the end of the Davies Era. There is a lot to recommend this relatively safe approach to Doctor Who, particularly following the ambition and experimentation of the Moffat Era.

Chibnall is very much adopting a back-to-basics approach. The Woman Who Fell to Earth demonstrated the way such an approach could work. This is the function of premiere episodes, particularly following a regeneration or a significant change behind the scenes. The goal is to comfort audiences still curious whether Doctor Who is the show that they love and to welcome those viewers who might be dipping their toes into the water. Rose and The Eleventh Hour did this as well, constructing tightly-wound accessible thrill rides.

Piecing it together.

However, the question then becomes “what about the second episode?” What happens after the premiere? Having welcomed both old and new audiences into the fold, what does a showrunner do next? In the case of both Davies and Moffat, the answer was to produce something ambitious and messy, something that showcased just how weird and strange the series could be. If the premieres lured viewers in, the following episodes suggested what that audience might be in for; consider the gonzo weirdness of The End of the World or The Beast Below.

The Ghost Monument is a much cleaner and much more streamlined episode than either of those two. It is an efficient action adventure that carries over a lot of the more effective elements of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. However, The End of the World and The Beast Below also suggested just how bizarre and wonderful Doctor Who could be, underneath their messiness. The Ghost Monument is simply effective.

Things went South (Africa) very quickly.

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Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth (Review)

“Don’t worry. I have a plan.”

“Really?”

“Well, I will have by the time I reach the top.”

– the more things change

The Woman Who Fell to Earth has a lot of pressure working upon it as Doctor Who season premieres go.

This is the first time that the Doctor has changed gender during regeneration, and is the first time that the title role will be played by a female actor. This is only the second time that the series has changed showrunner and rebuilt itself from the ground up since it returned more than a decade ago. There is a lot riding on The Woman Who Fell to Earth, and a lot of expectations that need to be satisfied.

Doctor who?

The Woman Who Fell to Earth is efficient, if not excellent. As a showrunner and scriptwriter, Chris Chibnall immediately and effectively establishes himself as a safe pair of hands. On some level, this is disappointing. After all, both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat were showrunners who immediately and aggressively asserted bold visions of what Doctor Who could be, announcing their arrival on the series with a confident statement of purpose that left the series scrambling to keep up. Instead, The Woman Who Fell to Earth seems to promise business as usual.

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, to be fair. There is some argument that Doctor Who might even need a safe and reliable pair of hands at this point. Chibnall is a writer who is much less adventurous than Davies or Moffat, but The Woman Who Fell to Earth is infused with a back-to-basics meat-and-potatoes approach. A lot of the episode is spent trying to avoid potential pitfalls that would emphasise Chibnall’s relative weaknesses, and instead play to a very broad “big tent” ideal of what Doctor Who can be.

Breaking out.

Indeed, The Woman Who Fell to Earth works best in its relatively straightforward nuts-and-bolts elements, when judged on the individual elements of the episode rather than how they all fit together. Jodie Whittaker throws herself into the lead role and understands that she’s effectively propelling the narrative forward. The new regular ensemble has a breezy and easy chemistry that feels suitably distinct from more recent inhabitants of the TARDIS. The actual plotting of the episode is fairly boilerplate Doctor Who, almost as if the series is showing that it can still do that.

That said, there’s a worrying lack of ambition evident in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and its business-as-usual approach to Doctor Who. This is a season premiere that feels more of a piece with episodes like Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime or Deep Breath, episodes that are less concerned with bold questions of vision than they are with the mechanics of simply introducing a new lead. It’s disappointing, because the stock comparison for The Woman Who Fell to Earth should be something as wonderful as Rose or The Eleventh Hour.

Jodie’s Wits-About-Her.

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