Tag: Doctor Who

Review: Borrowed Time

Naomi A. Alderman’s Borrowed Time is a Doctor Who novel first published in 2011 and recently re-released to capitalise on the success of Alderman’s award-winning The Power. In it, the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory visit the headquarters of the fictional Lexington Bank in the City of London in order to have ringside seats at the 2008 financial crash (???), only to find that there’s more than one speculative bubble in the making. The bank’s employees are impossibly productive and prepared, doing vastly more work than they should have time for. Turns out that two fishy characters by the names of Symington and Blenkinsop are lending out time to all and sundry: who wouldn’t relish having an extra hour or so in the day? But the wonders of compound interest have people owing more time than there is in a lifetime – tens if not hundreds of years.

Borrowed Time is, first and foremost, a lot of fun – unexpectedly so, for a novel about banking. The conceit of having time lent out like money, and on the same capitalist principles, serves to clarify the stakes of actual, real-world banking practices like those which precipitated the 2008 crisis: practices which ruined people’s lives just as thoroughly as they would have if they’d literally taken years from them. Poverty is still a major killer, even in the West, which makes bankers the biggest villains on the planet. Perhaps some of the imagery is a little on-the-nose: Symington and Blenkinsop, the predatory loan sharks, are also literal sharks. Well, shark-headed, anyway. And it’s a little difficult to believe that bankers would fall for the compound interest trick. But, hey, this is a book that’s designed to be accessible to older children as well as adults, so I can forgive a little narrative efficiency. (This is Doctor Who, after all. Subtlety has never been its strong point.)

I’m not sure how to parse the weird meta doubleness of having all this go down in a bank. Of course it’s thematically appropriate and it’s a great way of explaining the complex economics of the sub-prime mortgage crisis; but making the bankers the victims of their own behaviour (without making it explicit that they too would engage in Symington and Blenkinsop’s trickery if they had the chance) perhaps lets them off the hook a bit. What’s more, one of the sympathetic human characters goes on to lead the bank, weathering the financial crash and achieving huge success – which definitely excuses her of culpability. The novel encourages us to think that there are “good” bankers and “bad” bankers, instead of a system that incentivises risky, predatory decision-making.

Having said that, would the story work as well if it was set in a management consultancy, or a law firm? I’m not sure. I think Alderman is aiming for clarity of purpose here rather than complete ideological purity, which might be beyond the scope of a Doctor Who novel anyway. As it is, taken on its own terms, this is a clever, light adventure story with a bit of depth to it – something for everyone to enjoy.

Doctor Who Review: Praxeus

Praxeus’ foresight looks almost uncanny now, more than three months after it was first aired and who knows how long since it was filmed. The sixth episode of Doctor Who’s twelfth series, it sees the Doctor and her fam investigating an alien bacterium, the titular Praxeus, that feeds on microplastics, threatening to spread a deadly disease to every living thing on Earth.

The handling of its environmental message – viz., that the way we’ve contaminated our entire planet with a material that doesn’t break down poses dangers we may not be able to foresee – is a nice corrective to that of the heavy-handed and weirdly Cold War-reminiscent Orphan 55. Unlike the earlier episode’s oddly insubstantial warnings of mass migration and nuclear destruction, that of Praxeus is specific, actionable and educational without being didactic. And the environmental theme serves the story in an organic (hah) way. It’s interesting that Praxeus and the pandemic it threatens to cause is presented as a problem basically of our own making, in the light of recent comments from people like Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, on the link between novel coronavirus and humanity’s destruction of wildlife habitats.

But Praxeus does less well on the details of epidemiology. Bizarrely, towards the end of the episode we find out that Praxeus is sentient (raising some moral questions about eradicating it that go unaddressed) and that it has built a kind of den at the bottom of the Indian ocean out of waste plastic after being released into the sea by an alien spacecraft.

Why? How? This isn’t how bacteria work! If Praxeus eats plastic, surely it would be breaking it down rather than building with it? And why does it need such a space anyway?

The Doctor and her friends work together to create an antidote to the disease caused by Praxeus and test it on Adam, a handy astronaut who’s been exposed to the bacterium. “You need a clinical trial, a human body, and now you’ve got one,” says Adam as he’s volunteering for this role.

Again: not how clinical trials work. You need thousands of people, not just one.

These are nitpicks, obviously, and generally I try to avoid such Watsonian critiques: they’re rarely helpful to looking at what a text is trying to do. But now, in the midst of the most significant health emergency the West has experienced since the Spanish flu…it’s important to get these things right. It’s important that people understand how disease works, and that writers don’t misuse technical terms like “clinical trial”. Misinformation is a killer.

In other areas, though, I felt Praxeus was a strong episode relative to the first half of the series, with a strong identity and a single unified theme. The relationship between Adam and his husband Jake is touchingly handled – the matter-of-fact inclusion of LGBT+ people is something this series is getting right. It’s not clear whether vloggers Gabriela and Jamila are a couple, but I certainly read them that way and I think the episode gives us the space to do so. Praxeus isn’t as good as its predecessor Fugitive of the Judoon, but it’s a solid entry in the series.

Doctor Who Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

This review contains spoilers.

It’s revealing that pretty much all the responses I’ve read to Fugitive of the Judoon (episode 5, series 12) consist of fan theorising, rather than, say, criticisms of character or plot. It’s not difficult to see why: this story of rhino-like Judoon descending into a weekday-morning Gloucester to menace an apparently unremarkable couple features a cameo from Captain Jack Harkness, back for the first time in ten years, a hitherto-unknown incarnation of the Doctor (the first played by a person of colour) and a cryptic reference to “the lone Cyberman” to which, we assume, the long arc of series 12 is bending. Oh! And a bonus sexy Time Lord. With its hints and mysteries, it’s not so much a standalone episode as it is a set-up for larger stories to come.

And yet it works pretty well, certainly in my view, as a lore-focused episode; in fact it’s probably the best of the series’ stories so far. Unlike, for example, Spyfall, it’s pretty consistent in tone and perspective, following a single mystery – why are the Judoon after a tour guide and someone who works at Bathrooms4U? – through to its conclusion, without getting distracted along the way.

I think that what makes it work so well as a fan-service story is that it’s self-consciously structured as one: it asks us to revise our understanding of Doctor Who just as it asks the Doctor to revise her understanding of her own past (a process whose significance will become clearer later on in the series). The first half of the episode juxtaposes the mundane and the alien: the Judoon in a quiet cathedral town, inside the cathedral itself (“this is a place of worship,” the Doctor says, “show some respect”), besieging an ordinary-looking block of flats.

The recurrent image of a lighthouse leads us, appropriately enough, into the second half of the episode. A lighthouse is decidedly not mundane; nor is the practice of living in it, as tour guide Ruth’s parents apparently did. This mysterious building, which Ruth sees a couple of times in flashback before taking us there, functions almost Gothically: it’s a liminal, haunted space where Ruth and the Doctor encounter unexpected truths about themselves, before travelling into the fully alien space of a Judoon spaceship.

So the episode leads the Doctor, and by extension us, through a psychological rupture, leaving our understanding of Chibnall-era Who fundamentally changed. Its biggest flaw is probably Captain Jack’s subplot: his literal only purpose is to kidnap Graham, Yaz and Ryan accidentally and give them a cryptic warning before depositing them back on Earth, which seems a rather clumsy way of removing the Doctor’s companions from the main plot. On the other hand, I appreciated the depiction of the Judoon as a trigger-happy police force – an analogy given particular force by the fact that Ruth is Black.

All in all, I’d call this the first good episode of series 12, a turning point leading into a relatively stronger second half.

Doctor Who Review: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, the fourth episode of Doctor Who‘s series 12, does not improve its impressively dismal run. Despite its pulpy title, I found it dull and uninspiring. I think I may have gone to unload the dishwasher at one point.

Set in 1903, the plot revolves around the rivalry between Nikola Tesla (pioneering, a solo flyer, has no money) and Thomas Edison (commercially-minded, wealthy), with a mysterious alien orb thrown in for good measure. It turns out that a vaguely lizardy/snakey species called the Skithra want Tesla for his engineering skills, and are prepared to destroy the planet to get him.

The overall thrust of the episode, broadly, seems to be that Stealing Intellectual Property Is Bad. Tesla dislikes Edison because he buys intellectual property and commercialises it; the Skithra are cheapskate deadbeats because their spaceship is made up of bits and pieces of other species’ technology. Be like Tesla! writer Nina Metivier seems to say. Invent your own stuff! Create the future!

Which is a mindset that neither the salvagepunk nor the socialist in me can get behind, fundamentally. It smacks of American exceptionalism, this idolisation of ~pure~ genius/creativity: not everyone can invent, and equally not every inventor is skilled at deploying and distributing their inventions effectively. Metivier’s Edison isn’t a corporate monster: he knows his staff and mourns their deaths at the hands of the Skithra; he doesn’t seem to be exploiting anyone. As for the Skithra – well, criticising their practice of cobbling together other species’ technology seems pretty rich for an alien whose time machine looks like a 1960s police box.

It’s possible your mileage may vary! There’s nothing outright wrong or offensive about Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – what it was trying to do just didn’t resonate with me. I found it a pretty dismal addition to an already fairly dismal series 12, though.

Doctor Who Review: Orphan 55

Hmm. Well, this is easily the worst Doctor Who episode I’ve seen this season. I see many critics agree with me on this.

Orphan 55 opens as the Doctor and her companions arrive at Tranquillity Spa, an all-inclusive holiday destination, for some intergalactic luxury. Doctor Who being what it is, of course, the relaxation doesn’t last very long, as the hotel’s defence system collapses and a horde of terrifying murderous creatures burst in, separating Ryan from the rest of the group. Fantastic! A good old-fashioned base-under-siege episode!

Except, as with Spyfall, the story pivots rapidly away from its initial shape: the Doctor discovers that Tranquillity Spa is built on an “orphan” planet, a planet destroyed long ago by its original inhabitants and left a toxic wasteland. The mutated creatures now living there – named, ominously, the Dregs – have taken Benni, one of the hotel guests; the Doctor and everyone staying at the hotel (including a child and an elderly woman) set out on a dangerous mission across the poisonous surface of the planet to rescue him.

Various inevitable complications follow: their armoured truck breaks down, Benni’s voice is heard mysteriously close, their oxygen begins running low as they make a dash for some underground tunnels. In the midst of all this they discover the awful truth of the planet’s origin: it is Earth, ravaged by a nuclear war caused by climate change-induced food chain collapse; while the benighted Dregs are the mutated remnants of humanity. In case we hadn’t quite got the message, the Doctor repeats it for us once the gang has escaped:

In your time, humanity is busy arguing over the washing-up while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided. You know that. The future is not fixed. It depends on billions of decisions, and actions, and people stepping up. Humans. I think you forget how powerful you are. Lives change worlds. People can save planets, or wreck them. That’s the choice.

I don’t think Doctor Who does edutainment well: in the mouth of the all-knowing Doctor, speeches like this come off a little too didactic. (Which is not to say I don’t think SFF should be political; on the contrary, all fiction is by nature political. But there are ways and ways of doing it.) Nevertheless, moments like this can be redeemed by a strongly-written episode, like last season’s Rosa. Orphan 55 is not strongly-written. On any level. There’s simply too much going on, and too much of that is frankly quite bizarre.

Firstly: I think Doctor Who episodes do best when they have a strong unity of place. I’m thinking of episodes like Gridlock, Midnight, even Blink, all of which explore a situation, a setting, and its various symbolic or psychological ramifications. (Spyfall, notably, lacked unity of place, as did many of Moffat’s episodes.) It’s a format well-suited to a 45-minute segment. The fact that we don’t see the toxic wasteland of Orphan 55 until about twenty minutes in, and that we don’t spend that much time in it, means that we never feel its full emotional resonance. The episode doesn’t take the time to build a sense of atmosphere, which means in turn we don’t experience the full horror of realising this barren wasteland is Earth.

Besides which, the anxieties on display here are weirdly outdated and difficult to connect with modern fears about climate change. The nuclear wasteland (which apparently used to be Russia) and the mutated Dregs feel more Cold War than anything – the Dregs especially tapping into racist concerns about purity and degradation. (It’s interesting that Orphan 55 shows signs early on of turning into a story about colonialism: “You built this somewhere you shouldn’t…The native species want you and your guests dead.”) The later Praxeus does a much better job of working contemporary environmental concerns into a compelling storyline, focusing as it does on plastic proliferation; I might also expect to see flooded planets, drowned cities (bonus if they contain recognisable buildings) or extreme weather events in a story about climate change. It is possible to repurpose old imagery to talk about new things, but it hasn’t worked here.

While the failed climate change messaging is the worst thing about Orphan 55, it’s not the only thing the episode fluffs. There’s plenty of stuff that just seems to be…forgotten? Why did the Dregs keep Benni alive for so long, and why does his death happen off-screen? How did three people run a spa on their own, and how did they hope to terraform a whole planet? Sure, the semantic content of popular SF narratives isn’t always important or worth interrogating, but the episode just doesn’t cohere on any level. It’s frustrating – a far cry from the simple, narratively satisfying episodes of season eleven.

And, look. As a species we need more stories about climate change – especially popular ones. There just aren’t that many that tackle it head-on; that present us with solutions, not moralising; that ask us to face the terrifying truth that the climate is collapsing, that everything is dying, that there is no place on Earth we have not polluted. This kind of half-baked storytelling? Is not going to cut it. Do better, Doctor Who.

Doctor Who Review: Spyfall

Spyfall, a two-part story, kicked Season 12 and Jodie Whittaker’s second season of Doctor Who off with…a fair amount of confusion, I thought. Part 1 begins with spies dying and disappearing in mysterious ways all over the world, leading the Doctor to two men: Daniel Barton, CEO of a major search engine company; and O, a former intelligence agent and friend of the Doctor living in the Australian outback. Two men, and the Kasaavin: a race of extra-dimensional beings apparently made of light who are the direct culprits of the murders. But Why?

The story looks at first to be a fairly formulaic Who tale: a tycoon in league with an alien race, both of them up to no good; classic, if slightly unoriginal, fare. That’s until it takes a hard left at the end of Part 1, with the reveal that O is actually the Doctor’s old nemesis the Master in disguise (played by Sacha Dhawan), and that he’s been orchestrating the entire caboodle for nefarious reasons of his own. “Everything you think you know is a lie,” he says, before vanishing from a plane that’s plummeting from the sky.

So ends the first episode, rather propulsively. The second episode, which sees the Doctor propelled through history by the Kasaavin, with Ryan, Graham and Yaz working to foil Daniel Barton’s apocalyptic plans, is quite frankly a mess. There’s a heck of a lot going on here and writer Chris Chibnall doesn’t seem terribly interested in much of it. The Doctor meets a couple of famous women, Victorian computer programmer Ada Lovelace and WW2 British spy Noor Inayat Khan, only to wipe their memories of her at the end of the episode, non-consensually, to “[wipe] away the things [they] shouldn’t have knowledge of” – treatment notably not extended to Nikola Tesla when he appears a few episodes later. Graham, Yaz and Ryan discover that Daniel Barton intends to turn the entire human race into biological hard drives, only for this plan to be foiled off-screen, anti-climatically, by the Doctor’s judicious use of time travel. I’m not even entirely sure where the Kasaavin come into all of this, or why they were needed in the first place.

No: this story is very much about the Master and the Doctor. It’s hard not to see it as basically a sparring match with the entirety of humankind at stake, which I think is what bothers me about Spyfall, and all the Who stories (most of them written by Steven Moffat) that are essentially about themselves. This isn’t, like Russell T. Davies’ The Waters of Mars, a story that draws attention to Time Lord hubris. Nor does it have the kind of deliberate, consistent imagery of a story like The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, which for all its overblown sentiment does carry strong religious/moral overtones. There is no such consistency here, as we see from the pile-on of ideas and themes and images. There is only fannish self-absorption in the show’s own history; a self-absorption that treats other people as backdrop or soapbox (it’s nice that Chibnall wants to showcase notable women in history, but not if he won’t give them any agency).

This self-absorption plays out rather uncomfortably at one point, when in WW2 Paris the Doctor takes advantage of the Nazis’ racism to have the Master taken away. Like…really? you went there? There’s just this…lack of awareness of how story-imagery works on viewers. The Nazis in this story are handy tools to be used in service of the plot, regardless of the heavy, heavy associations they carry in the West today.

Yeah. I didn’t like Spyfall very much. And although it didn’t turn out to be exactly predictive of the concerns of the rest of the series (or, at least, the half of it I’ve got around to watching!), it’s not an auspicious start to it.

Doctor Who Review: The Shakespeare Code

So…there are good episodes of Doctor Who, and there are not-so-good episodes.

The Shakespeare Code is a less-good one. But for Davies-era Who, “less-good” tends to translate into “campy fun” as opposed to “poorly-plotted mess”, which is what Moffat-era “less-good” looks like.

Got all that?

Unsurprisingly, The Shakespeare Code sees Martha and the Doctor meeting Shakespeare. In particular, they’re about to solve the mystery of Love’s Labours Won, a real-world lost Shakespeare play which may or may not ever have existed. The episode’s Big Bad is a trio of alien witches called the Carrionites, whose magic (it’s hand-waved as Science, but for all intents and purposes it’s magic) is based on the power of words. They’re intent on using the Bard to write a spell (in the form of a play) to free the rest of their people from the vortex where they’re trapped, so they can then take over the world.

It’s extremely campy indeed. The actors playing the witches are clearly having a lot of fun hamming them up in classic Macbeth-y prosthetic masks, shrieking rhyming doggerel at the rest of the cast. There’s lots of jokes where the Doctor quotes Shakespeare at Shakespeare. Ooh, and Shakespeare is bi! Which may even be historically accurate!

(well…sort of. Elizabethan conceptions of sexuality and same-gender relationships were unsurprisingly rather different from ours, so the label “bisexual” is probably not completely accurate. Still: it’s a concept that’s immediately understandable to modern audiences in the context of a 45-minute space drama, which is probably the most important thing in terms of queer representation. Also: I always forget, and always re-relish, how accessible Davies-era Who is to queer audiences. It just kind of…takes our existence as read? In a way that even Chris Chibnall’s work doesn’t really? And there is SO little mainstream media that does that, let alone mainstream media from 2007.)

There’s also some surprisingly good (or at least convincing) Shakespeare pastiche going on – although, at the same time, for a story about the power of words, the witches’ doggerel is cringe-inducing. As a result, The Shakespeare Code is an episode heavy on the spectacle but light on meaning and theme; the plot’s rudimentary at best and draws some rather hackneyed lines between grief and genius.

Oh, and the concept of genius itself feels rather old-fashioned, too: Shakespeare was brilliant, but he was also a hack – much like that other beloved British writer, Charles Dickens. Roberts is revealing his motivations here: the only work this episode is supposed to be doing is Having Shakespeare In It, because bringing Shakespeare and the Doctor together sounds like fun.

It is fun. It’s just not very good.