Who the What?

You probably want to know what I think of the new series of Doctor Who so far.

It got off to a really strong start with ‘Spyfall’ part 1. Not least with its genuinely surprising reveal at the end. And then part 2 followed up on it. Not everything made total sense, but what the hell, it’s Doctor Who. There were some complaints about the way the nazis and The Master were handled, and I get that. And it had the memory-wiping thing. But all in all, I found it a strong, promising start to the new season.

And then we got ‘Orphan 55.’

Oh dear. Oh dearie, dearie me. This was, for me — I’m not going to sugarcoat it — the worst episode of Doctor Who ever. At least in the modern era.

The story was confused and confusing, the direction was incoherent, the character motivations made no sense… Oh, and the message — admirable though it was, to say it was beating us over the head with a stick is to understate how heavy-handed it was.

I thought it must be a first-time writer and director. But no: it was written by Ed Hime, who wrote ‘It Takes You Away’ last season, which was very good. And it was directed by Lee Haven Jones, who directed ‘Spyfall’ part 2, just the week before.

So what went wrong? Hard say, but I’ve got to hope they pick things up again on Sunday.

Who’s Who?

Right, let’s get 2019 off to a start by talking about my favourite TV programme. I haven’t said anything about the recent season of Doctor Who here since my appreciative post at the end of the first episode. Not for any reason other than not getting round to it.

I absolutely love this iteration of the series. Jodie Whittaker is fantastic as The Doctor, and the supporting cast is brilliant as well. I like the crowded Tardis feel. It does have the limitation that some of the characters don’t get as much time or as many lines as others. That’s been notably true of Yaz — except in the “Demons of the Punjab” episode, of course.

But there’s plenty of time for her to be developed further, assuming they’re all sticking around. And the focus being more on Ryan and Graham was entirely correct, since if there was an overarching theme to the season, it was grief.

It’s not perfect. There have been several occasions when I’ve thought that the writing team don’t really understand what a galaxy is, or the scale of it. Lines like “half the people in the galaxy are unemployed,” or “they’ve crossed four galaxies to get here,” just don’t really make a lot of sense. And there have been several episodes where things maybe weren’t as tidily resolved as we’re used to.

Tonight’s New Year special episode, “Resolution,” was a classic example of the kind of story where the ideas are good, but the whole thing could have been improved if they’d taken the time to come up with slightly better ways to make things happen. Some way of defeating the enemy that didn’t involve the microwave oven, for example. And the whole vacuum/supernova bit at the end was kind of farcical.

But no matter. This season was all about the character dynamics, and those were great. It’s a strong start for Chris Chibnall as showrunner, and an incredibly strong start for Jodie Whittaker.

Star Doctors

It was drawn to my attention a couple of weeks ago that I have not yet expressed (publicly) an opinion on either Star Wars: The Last Jedi or the Doctor Who Christmas special. That is both true, and very remiss of me. Trouble is it’s now been quite a while since I saw them both.

Still, I should be able to gather together a few memory cells.

The Last Jedi

I went on opening night, as I microblogged. It was great. There are some points that could have been done differently, or left out, or speeded up; and it had the weird effect towards the end of there being a series of times when I thought it was finished, and it still wasn’t. But all in all a fine work. Not as good as The Force Awakens, maybe. But that’s partly because that one raised our expectations so high.

‘Twice Upon A Time’

Peter Capaldi’s last episode. It was damn fine, loads of fun. Great to see Bill back, even if not exactly. Unnecessary Daleks, but quite a good use of them — or ‘it,’ I should say.

And the introduction of ‘Testimony,’ scooping up people’s memories and saving them, is great. Though how many computer-simulated afterlives can one series have?

And what a dramatic start Jodi Whitaker’s Doctor is going to have.

There you go, only a month or so after the events.

Trekking

Past

I can remember when I first saw Star Trek.

That’s not so unusual, but if my memory is right — and I’ve just more or less confirmed that it is — then when I first saw it was the absolute first time anyone could see it, in this country, at least.

Here’s the memory (and it’s tied up, as many good things are, with Doctor Who).

It’s 1969. It’s the summer holidays, and we’re in a holiday home with a TV. That in itself makes me doubt the memory, because back then holiday houses just didn’t have TVs. A lot of houses in general didn’t. But this memory has always told me that we were on a family holiday. And it’s Saturday, late afternoon. I’m settling down at the TV, and somebody says — I think it’s my sister — ‘Martin, Doctor Who finished, remember?’ Because it was Doctor Who time.

And I said, ‘But this is like Doctor Who!’

And as the new programme started someone else — my Dad, I think — said, with a tone of surprise, ‘He knows all about it!’ And then the Enterprise swooshed towards me out of the screen.

I’ve long wondered how true this memory was. It was 1969; I’d have been five. But I just checked:

Initially, the BBC was the first-run broadcaster of Star Trek (12 July 1969-15 December 1971).

The series was shown in four seasons, the first on Saturday evenings at 5:15 pm (in the time slot usually taken by Doctor Who).

Which exactly matches my memory: summer, Saturday, Doctor Who slot. And the calendar confirms that the 12th of July 1969 was a Saturday.

I wouldn’t be five for another month plus. Not a bad bit of early-memory retention. I wouldn’t have remembered it at all, if it wasn’t for one thing: trauma caused by fear that my parents would turn the TV off just as this exciting new programme was starting burned it into my brain.

My Dad always liked Star Trek too, so I guess I was partly responsible for that.

Present

Yesterday I watched the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, which are on Netflix (in the UK and Europe, at least; in the US they’re on CBS’s own new streaming service). And I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say it felt like being that nearly-five-year-old again, but it did feel like they’re trying something new and potentially very exciting.

Today I was looking at its entry on IMDB. It turns out there are user-written reviews there, which I don’t think I’d been aware of before.

Sadly they are almost universally negative. ‘It’s not Star Trek,’ is a common theme. But there’s a strong whiff of racism and misogyny coming through. Two non-white women as leads means ‘social justice warriors’ are running the show, it seems. Well from what I’ve read of Gene Roddenbery, I think he’d have been happy to be called a social justice warrior. Star Trek was always about diversity and tolerance.

Future

I don’t know how many episodes of this new series they have lined up, but I know I’m looking forward to watching them. So is my inner five-year-old. So would my Dad have been. And so would Gene.

Extreme Pyramid Scheme

I didn’t intend to discuss these two episodes of Doctor Who together, but watching the first was delayed because I was in Scotland when the first one was on. And I didn’t realise they were a two-parter.

Except (spoilers) — oh, they’re not. They’re the first two of an n-parter, where n equals… who knows? At least three, and I’m sort of guessing from the titles and directors that it might be four.

Anyway, in them we have one really good episode, one not so good.

Episode 6, “Extremis,” was really very good indeed. Right up there with the best of this series so far. And good to get the mystery of the vault revealed early on, rather than letting it drag on to the end of the season and be an anticlimax.

Episode 7, “The Pyramid at the End of the World,” despite the great title, was weaker, largely because of scientific irrationality and foolish plotting. To say nothing of incredibly lax biosecurity.

That said, I did enjoy it while watching it. It’s one of those ones where a little bit more care, a few easily-insertable words, and it would all have held together much better. The problem with bad science or plotting based on foolish mistakes is that they can dump you out of the story. Critical faculties should be engaged after you’ve watched a show, not unceremoniously force-invoked by something happening onscreen.

Never mind, though: the next one looks very interesting.

Space Suits You

Back to form, then, with Doctor Who season 10 episode 4, “Oxygen.” Jamie Mathieson has written some good episodes before, and he keeps up the standard here. A tale of capitalism red in tooth and claw, it reminds us at times of “Silence in the Library,” and also of Duncan Jones’s Moon.1

It’s a “monster of the week” episode, but the monster is capitalism. This season so far has been surprisingly political. Well, maybe not surprisingly. These are politically-charged times, and science fiction is nothing if not of its time.

There are no particularly egregious pieces of nonsense here, either. Why the suit’s force-field helmets are OK inside the station but not enough outside isn’t really explained, but the real reason is so the actors don’t have to wear helmets for the whole episode, so that’s all right.

Oh, one thing: they’re on a space station: what are they mining? I mean, for copper, but in what? We have to assume it’s asteroids, but they could just have said.

The really interesting stuff is what we might call the “arc” material (if we are harking back to our Babylon 5 days). The shades are back, but only because The Doctor is blind now. Can he fix it by regenerating, maybe? Or by doing a partial regeneration, like Ten? And more about the vault and The Doctor’s oath. Nardole fears what would happen “if that door opens.” But we saw it open last week, so things are not quite as Nardole thinks, at least.

And the very last scene in the “Next Time…” Yes!


  1. Which is a great film that you should see at once if you haven’t already. []

Wood and Puzzles

Well, I suppose they couldn’t sustain the excellence forever. I mean, there’s bound to be the odd weaker episode, right? “Knock Knock”, Doctor Who season 10 episode 3 is certainly that. I have to say it’s the weakest episode we’ve seen so far this season.

This is largely because it doesn’t make much sense. Alien bugs turning people to wood? And back again? Well, I guess it’s no more preposterous than many things we’ve seen, but you need to have some semblance of a rationale, and this had none.

Plus it had less of what has really been making this season great: the Doctor/Bill interaction.

Still, it had an interesting season-arc-related ending, with the Doctor taking Mexican food into the Mysterious Vault to share with whoever is in there. And we now it is a “who:” they were playing the piano. And they eat, presumably.

I think there are two possibilities:

  1. Since The Doctor mentioned regeneration, and we know he’s going to regenerate this season, it’s something to with that. Like a future version of himself, for reasons to be explained.
  2. As I said before, it’s The Master, or Missy, since we saw both the latter and the John Simm version of the former in the season trailer. That would be plausible but weird.
  3. Or, and this occurred to me just tonight: what if it’s Susan? His granddaughter from right back at the beginning? Her photograph was on his desk in the first episode… but that’s just fanciful, and why would he have her in a vault?

The Luxury of Outrage

The Doctor is a burning sun of outrage, but claims never to have had time for it. Season 10, episode 3, “Thin Ice,” sends him and Bill into London’s past, to 1814, and the last great frost fair on the frozen Thames.

There is a beast below the ice1 There is a racist lord. There are cute dirty-faced urchins, and acrobats, and a fleeting glimpse of an elephant.

I loved almost everything about this episode. In fact the only negative point to me was the use of the old diving suits. You need someone onshore, operating an air pump, to use those, and there was no evidence of such a thing. It’s one of those things that Doctor Who is prone to. Not a big deal in this case, but it wouldn’t have hard to have included a few words about The Doctor modifying them with a compact air supply, or something.

No matter, as I say, it was an almost perfect episode. And we got back to The Doctor’s office at the end, where Nardole was making the tea (with added coffee for flavour).

And who or what is in the mysterious vault? The knocking of course echo’s “He will knock four times,” at the end of Tennant’s run, and that was The Master. And we know that The Master — or at least John Simm — as well as Missy, is gong to be in this season.

But it would be very strange if it were him in the vault.


  1. I’m sure you saw what I did there. []

Smile, You’re on Emoji Camera

Episode 2 of Doctor Who Season 10, “Smile,” featured emoji-faced robots (or not strictly robots), as well as Bill’s first real trip in the Tardis and into (as is proper) the future.

It wasn’t a great story, but it was a good one, and I think it was a great opportunity for character interactions.

Complaints would be that The Doctor was too quick to leap to the “blow it up” solution (shades of Lethbridge-Stewart, maybe); and that the pacing dropped off badly in the last third, with The Doc taking ages to explain things long after it was obvious that he just needed to reprogram the robots.

Still, it was, as I say, great character work — Bill is shaping up to be an excellent companion — and an amazing location. I heard that the main building is in Valencia, and parts of it looked an awful lot like the Eden Project.

I also like that the episodes are continuing one into the next. Will they carry that on through the whole season? Could they? Should they?