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Doctor Who: Arachnids in the U.K. (Review)

I’ve heard you’re only running because you’ve hated Trump for decades.

Please don’t mention that name.

Arachnids in the U.K. is perhaps the best episode of the eleventh season of Doctor Who to date.

Arachnids in the U.K. feels like a nostalgic throwback to the Russell T. Davies era, which makes it feel of a piece with the first three episodes of the season. Executive producer Chris Chibnall has executed his spin on the traditional “present-past-future” triptych that was a hallmark of the early seasons of the revival, and so it is time to return to the contemporary United Kingdom in order to better develop the supporting cast and make some very broad political commentary about the modern world.

Finding its (eight) legs.

It is interesting to reflect on how far Doctor Who has come since its resurrection that this idea seems almost quaint, a nostalgic “back-to-basics” approach that seems lifted from thirteen years earlier. It is a valid and worthy approach to Doctor Who, and reflects Chibnall’s desire to make the show more populist and mainstream than it was during the more esoteric tenure of Steven Moffat. There is a reason that Davies was able to transform Doctor Who from a failed cult curiosity into one of the biggest things on British television using this template, after all.

At the same time, there’s something just a little worrying when the stand-out episode of the eleventh season feels like a perfectly serviceable mid-tier episode from the first four.

“Who is this Harriet Jones? I feel like we could make a deal with her. A tremendous deal.”

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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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