Tag: Doctor Who

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.

Advertisements

Doctor Who Review: Resolution

I’ve found Jodie Whittaker’s episodes as the Thirteenth Doctor very hit and miss – the hits have been fantastic, the misses…not so much – and Resolution, the New Year episode, was, for me, pretty much all miss.

There is a Dalek. No longer is this a sixties Dalek, a creature horribly mutated by nuclear war stuffed into a personal armoured tank; or even an early noughties Upgraded Flying Dalek (it can handle stairs!). No; for this War on Terror era, this age of political division, we have a levelled-up Scout Dalek, which can crawl about outside its shell in order to possess innocent humans and thereby gain secret information about Earth’s defences.

I think my problem with Resolution is that the Dalek here is not doing anything very interesting, or, at least, anything that another monster could not do better. Sure, we could say that fear of infiltration from within, of brainwashing, of not knowing who your neighbour is, is more relevant today than it was forty years ago, but I’m not even sure I’m convinced by that argument: spies were a thing in the Cold War, they’ve always been a thing. And we cannot argue that the Dalek of Resolution is a Dalek in any meaningful way, at least for the first half of the episode. Why do the Daleks need scouts when one of them in a makeshift casing can destroy a whole military patrol all by itself?

Actually, that is probably the most effective moment of Resolution: that doomed military patrol facing down an enemy which we know is too strong for them. And it’s a moment that happens after the Scout Dalek has put together a casing out of scrap metal – in other words, after it’s become a recognisable Dalek again. The emotional power of the Daleks lies in their unconquerable force; they’re an enemy which cannot be destroyed. That’s…the whole point of them?

There’s also a subplot involving Ryan’s deadbeat dad trying to re-enter his life, but it feels poorly integrated into the Dalek plot, thematically speaking, and as a result I don’t really care. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Daleks are only here because Daleks go with Doctor Who – not because Chris Chibnall had anything to say with or about them.

Review: Trigger Warning

If there is one thing I would like to happen in 2019, it is for us all to agree that Neil Gaiman’s work is nowhere near as edgy, dark or interesting as his public persona is.

(Actually, there are a lot of other things I would rather happen in 2019 – sustained action on climate change, the impeachment of Donald Trump, a second Brexit referendum – but, you know. Neil Gaiman’s also quite annoying.)

How did I end up reading Trigger Warning? The marketing for his work promises twisty, thorny fairy tales, urban fantasy from the underbelly of modern life, stories that are fun and yet meaty, and that was what I was hoping for from this collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”.

And once again, I found it lacking that indefinable something. Depth. Nuance. Resonance.

To me, the most satisfying fantasy, the best fairy tales, are built on a paradox: they describe something that is indescribable. Through omission or metaphor, they talk about the numinous, the earth-shattering intrusion of the Real into our lives that lie under layers of story and symbol; they are about things that cannot be narrated. They resonate because they contain lacunae.

Perhaps this is why Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels works so much better for me than his novels and short stories do: the images supply that resonance; wordless, they speak the unspeakable. There is nothing in Trigger Warning that does the same.

If you’re looking for an example of the collection’s lack of depth and nuance, look no further than its red-flag-to-a-bull title, based on a deliberate misunderstanding of how the phrase “trigger warning” is actually used. In his introduction to the book, Gaiman muses, with reference to his title:

Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

And then, later on, he talks about stories he read as a child:

they…taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

This romanticising of story and having grown up through fiction, as so many of us readers did, is of a piece with Gaiman’s authorial persona: the mysterious storyteller/bard warning us that fiction is never just fiction, that it can lead us into the mire and through the dark forests of the night, and that this is, mystically, a good thing. But, you’ll notice, it’s not actually very well-argued. For a start, note how paying heed to a trigger warning becomes conflated with not leaving your “comfort zone”. No. Staying in your comfort zone is, like, never watching anything apart from Doctor Who on TV, or having the same sandwich every day for lunch. Whereas, as I suspect Gaiman very well knows, encountering a trigger unannounced can be for a PTSD sufferer a matter of life and death. Comfort zones are formed by habit, and, mostly, there’s nothing actually unsafe about leaving them. (Although, as a sidenote, what’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone at least some of the time?) Trigger warnings are about not destabilising someone’s entire mental health. Fiction doesn’t need to be a safe place, but neither should it be radically unsafe. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it says nothing for Gaiman’s power as a writer that he misses, skips over, that nuance.

As for the stories themselves: they are mostly quite ordinary. There are sub-Twilight Zone-ish stories with trick endings and nothing much else, like “The Thing about Cassandra” and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; very inferior verse offerings like “My Last Landlady”; riffs on other people’s work like “The Case of Death and Honey” (Sherlock Holmes) and “Nothing O’Clock” (Doctor Who). There’s an entire “Calendar of Tales”, all of them very short and very minor.

I’ve written about Gaiman’s squicky fetishisation/aesthetisisation of dead or unconscious female bodies before, and sure enough, it turns out here in force, marring particularly the better stories in the collection. Take “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”, which Gaiman originally wrote to accompany a photograph of a dead woman. (Actually it was his wife pretending to be dead for an art project, which actually makes the whole thing more troubling.) And the dramatic reveal at the end of the otherwise standout “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is founded on the remembered image of a red-haired female skeleton.

I enjoyed “The Return of the Thin White Duke”, which feels like something that’s wandered out of a Mechanisms fanfic, but, once again, its sole female character is aesthetisised for the male gaze (although not dead, so that’s some improvement).

We can probably tie this aesthetisisation of women to Gaiman’s deliberate misuse of the phrase “trigger warning”, which originated in feminist spaces. In too much of his writing, women don’t get to have voices, and they don’t get to have agency: they exist to be looked at, to bear children, to inspire men to revenge or fulfilment. Their images and their words get co-opted by a highly influential white male author – an author whose public persona and reputation in the press exudes progressiveness.

My favourite story in the collection was “Black Dog”, a companion story to Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll probably end up reading that too at some point. And I’ll probably finish it feeling disappointed and a bit angry.

2018 Roundup

Behold, from deep in the Valley of the Christmas Holidays, a roundup post…

I’m going to try and post a bit more regularly in 2019. Starting next week, that is.

My Favourite Things of 2018

Book: The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The Stone Sky made me cry in Stansted Airport. The last book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, it is not a happy book. It is not one I’ll return to for comfort or reassurance. It is just stunningly good.

TV: Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum. I’ve been really terrible at reviewing TV on the blog this year: it’s basically just been Doctor Who. But what a series of Doctor Who! Tsuranga encapsulates everything I love about it. It is hopeful, inclusive and searching, a story that asks us to reimagine what Doctor Who is and what it’s for.

Film: Jupiter AscendingYeah, the film reviewing has fallen a bit by the wayside this year, too. And I’m pretty bad at seeing films, anyway. So let’s go with Jupiter Ascending, a film from the Wachowski sisters that is absolutely bizarre, utterly gorgeous to look at and contains Eddie Redmayne.

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 76 books in 2018 – ten short of my total of 86, dammit.
  • The longest book I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, which at 1069 pages is technically three novels in one, and probably one of my favourite books of 2018. Meanwhile, the shortest was Jorge Luis Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity, at a slim and forgettable 105 pages. Overall, I read 30,048 pages – unsurprisingly not quite as good as last year’s 30,893 (although, not that far off…)
  • The oldest book I read in 2018 was Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841. The average age of the books I read in 2018 was 42, down from last year’s 44. (I’m pretty sure this average is dragged down quite a lot by my annual Tolkien reread.)
  • Genre: The genre split of my reading has shifted quite a lot this year – I relied much more on the local library than I have in previous years, and the SFF section only goes so far. So: 36% of my reading was fantasy, down from 45% last year; 21% was science fiction, the same as last year. 17% was lit fic, significantly up from 9% last year, and 12% was non-fiction, again significantly up from last year’s 6%. The rest was split between historical, contemporary, crime and humour (all the annoying interchangeable categories, in other words).
  • 9% of the books I read in 2018 were re-reads – down from last year’s 11%, which is great.
  • 53% of the books I read in 2018 were by women – up from last year’s disappointing 46%.
  • And 24% of the books I read in 2018 were by authors of colour, another increase on last year’s 18%.

Doctor Who Review: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

This review contains spoilers.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is the last of Thirteen’s episodes, except for one at New Year, which will hopefully save us from the variously schmaltzy Christmas offerings we’ve seen for the last few years. After that, Saint Jodie won’t be back on our screens until early 2020. Doom. Dooooom. As Bridget Jones might say.

I digress. This last episode, this summing up of what the Thirteenth Doctor stands for, loops us right back to the start of the season, as the gang re-encounter Stenza bounty hunter Tzim-Sha. Tzim-Sha has set himself up as a false god after the Doctor banished him into the depths of space and time, demanding the worship of the Ux, a race with the unique (magical?) ability to manipulate the fabric of the universe with the power of their faith. To get his revenge on the Doctor, he’s planning to destroy Earth and threaten the integrity of space-time.

So the stakes are suitably high for a series finale. I’m not sure we’re ever convinced that the Earth is actually in danger, but that doesn’t really matter: like the season as a whole, this episode is interested in the personal and the intimate.

It’s a story about how we should respond to those who commit atrocities, and whether revenge is ever justified. In asking those questions, it tackles one of the moral difficulties at the heart of New Who head-on: the Doctor’s pacifist stance often means that their companions do the killing for them.

So, we have Graham, still deeply angry at Tzim-Sha’s murder of his wife Grace. Graham tells the Doctor early in the episode that he’ll kill Tzim-Sha if he gets the chance, ignoring her horrified protests. (To Bradley Cooper’s credit, we believe him.) Revenge might be his primary motivation, but he’s also got a moral argument to make: Tzim-Sha is only able to exploit the Ux and threaten the Earth because the Doctor left him alive at the beginning of the season.

Tzim-Sha makes the same point. “Don’t you pin this on me,” the Doctor cries; but the question remains open. Do some threats – some people – just need to be destroyed once and for all, to prevent them destroying others?

Inevitably, in hindsight, Graham can’t bring himself to kill Tzim-Sha when it comes down to it. But this is couched in terms of his being “the better person”: it’s a question of personal moral hygiene, not of ethics. And, certainly, we do wonder whether Tzim-Sha’s better off dead than confined eternally to a stasis chamber: is it not, in fact, the same thing? The writers this season have made a big deal about Thirteen’s refusal to kill, but the ethical underpinnings of this stance remain vague. Perhaps deliberately; I do like the ambiguity we’re left with over how complicit the Doctor actually is with Tzim-Sha’s various atrocities. Is the “curse” (Tzim-Sha’s word) of exile worse than a quick death?

Another ambiguity I’m interested in is how The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos handles religion. New Who has always had explicitly atheist tendencies; I’ve written before about how episodes like Gridlock use religious imagery in service of a secular worldview. And this episode does, after all, feature naïve believers blindly following a false deity who abuses and exploits them. “You’re the creators,” says the Doctor to the freed Ux at the end of the episode, referring to their epithet for Tzim-Sha, “look at what you can do!”

And yet. In The Tsuranga Conundrum we saw the Doctor attending a funeral, joining in with an invocation that had heavy religious, if non-denominational, overtones:

May the saints of all the stars and constellations bring you hope as they guide you out of the dark and into the light, on this voyage and the next…

Ranskoor Av Kolos ends with a speech along similar lines, delivered to the Ux by the Doctor:

Keep your faith. Travel hopefully. The universe will surprise you.

Hope is the keystone of this season, as good a word as any to sum it up: contingent, sometimes fragile, sometimes unfulfilled, but always full of potential, an opening up of possibilities, a spread of futures as numerous and wonderful as the wheeling stars. A show that aims to exclude nothing and nobody – even if, sometimes, it doesn’t quite succeed.

Doctor Who Review: It Takes You Away

This review contains spoilers.

It Takes You Away didn’t inspire the same monumental “meh” feeling in me as its predecessor The Witchfinders did, but a few days later I’m finding I care about it even less. To me, it feels like an unwelcome callback to the Moffat Era: a series of progressively more unlikely and-thens instead of a unified, consistent narrative.

Some background may be useful at this point.

The Doctor and her companions rock up in, apparently, northern Norway in the middle of winter.

Fictional!Norway in winter
Actual Norway in winter

They find an isolated house in the woods, with planks nailed over the doors and windows – except it’s not empty: a teenager, Hanne, is hiding from the terrifying noises she hears in the woods every day, and whose owner she suspects is behind the disappearance of her father.

So: are we in for a standard Doctor Who procedural, with scary alien monsters roaming the woods like creatures out of a fairytale? Or even a moody Scandi drama, with ‘orrible murders and Secrets and people drinking whiskey in the dark?

Of course not. The team behind Thirteen knows better than that. It Takes You Away is once again a reframing of what we expect of Doctor Who. There’s no monster, just bad parenting. There’s no villain, just a lonely sentient universe.

Wait, what?

I’m all for twists and turns that reveal the world we inhabit as a place bigger and more beautiful than we thought it was, but that kind of thing only works if it grows logically out of what came before it – and It Takes You Away doesn’t progress logically. Instead, it moves us hastily through a number of different settings and ideas that could all have sustained an episode on their own: a mirror that becomes a portal to another world; a wound in the fabric of the universe that manifests as a warren of slimy caves inhabited by flesh-eating moths and a weird humanoid bargaining alien named Ribbons the Seventh; an alternative universe where the dead come to life; a sentient frog who becomes Best Friends with the Doctor.

I think the reason I found this all so unsatisfying is that there’s no thematic or symbolic reason for it all to be here at once. In other words, there’s no overriding organising theme that would allow us to read the fantastic imagery productively. It Takes You Away kind of wants to be an episode about grief and the value of life, a culmination of the series’ quiet focus on loss and death that puts Graham face-to-face with Grace in the mirror universe, gives him closure. But it’s all handled so tritely. Graham has to “let her go” and return to the living (his grandson Ryan) as Hanne’s father has to let his dead/resurrected wife go and return to his daughter. Because we’ve never heard that take on grief before. Oh, wait.

Anyway, what does that have to do with the mirror and the caverns and the moths? That critical mass of Stuff just obscures the episode’s emotional throughline, making that climactic scene with Grace, and the Doctor’s abandonment of her frog friend, feel unearned and irrelevant.

I want to say that the episode did at least get Hanne right: she is blind (and played by a blind actor, Ellie Wallwork), but that doesn’t stop her being moderately energetic in the story, or from annoying Ryan in a peevish-teenager way. I don’t know, though, how to feel about the fact that she immediately recognises her mirror-mother as fake when her father hasn’t realised this in several days: is this the Blind Seer trope raising its dubious head?

Oh, conclusions. I hate conclusions. It Takes You Away is an irritatingly disjointed episode, and one that’s out of keeping with the rest of the season, stylistically speaking. I’m a little disappointed with where this season’s been going, actually: it started off pretty strongly, but the last few episodes have been lacking in focus and direction. Let’s see what the last episode’s like, though, before we pass judgement on the Whittaker Administration.

Doctor Who Review: The Witchfinders

The Witchfinders is the first Doctor Who episode this series that’s felt like it doesn’t know what it wants to say. As you might guess from the title, it’s another historical episode; set this time in 17th-century Lancaster, in a little village being terrorised by its landowner, Becka Savage, a woman obsessed with rooting out witchcraft. So far she’s killed thirty-five women, and as the episode opens she’s killing a thirty-sixth.

One of the things the episode is most interested in is the problem of Being a Woman in the 17th century. So, at the beginning of the episode, writer Joy Wilkinson sets up two pairs of women: the Doctor’s paired with Becka, as she tries to establish what’s going on in the village; these are both women in traditionally male positions of power and/or authority. And Yas is paired with Willa, the granddaughter of the woman killed by Becka at the beginning of the episode; these are both younger women with strong family links.

It all looks like it’s going to unfold in fairly typical Who style: Becka and Willa will provide clues, the Doctor will figure out what’s going on, and everyone will work together to defeat the inevitable aliens when they turn up, in a lovely female cooperative. (Oh, Ryan and Graham are around somewhere, but really only to provide comic relief. Or something.)

That web of relationships, though, is broken by the intrusion of, er, King James I, who turns up for reasons that are never made clear. Symbolically, though, he’s there because he’s the literal embodiment of male patriarchal authority, and as such he comes between these women. He refuses to believe the Doctor’s claim to be Witchfinder General, instead assuming that she’s an assistant to Graham’s Witchfinder General. His one-note insistence on wiping out witchcraft effectively breaks Becka’s budding sympathy with the Doctor, and turns her into a witch-hunt fanatic. And, later on, he uses his power and influence to bully Willa into turning against the Doctor and her companions.

This is all tied into the episode’s understanding of the word “witch” as simply a label for a woman who knows too much, speaks too loudly, gets too clever. The witch-hunts were a form of insidious misogyny manifesting as a way of keeping women in their place, individually and collectively. Destroy their networks, turn them against each other, and you stop them gaining power. (James is not aware of this, certainly not consciously, although in a bit of cod-psychology the episode roots his general paranoia in what he sees as an early betrayal by his mother.)

Which…well, it’s not an original historical reading, but it could have been interesting to see it played out all the way.

Instead, like Kerblam!, The Witchfinders, um…muddles its terms of reference a little. Specifically: we know, because we’re watching Doctor Who, that in fact there is something “not of this earth” going on in this village. We know that there is something for King James and Becka to hunt for. They’re not wrong. They’re just looking in the wrong place.

The Witchfinders could still work, at that, though. But the episode doesn’t just want to talk about misogyny; it’s also interested in interrogating the borders between science and magic. Or, at least, it gestures at doing that. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is a magic wand. Willa’s skill in healing is witchcraft, or it’s just knowing stuff. The tree on Pendle Hill is important because it’s Willa’s grandmother’s favourite, or because it’s made out of Science. The aliens (c’mon, you knew there were going to be aliens) are Morax warriors, or they’re demons. At the end of the episode, the Doctor quotes that old Arthur C. Clarke chestnut about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. We’re almost supposed to read this episode doubly: through the Doctor’s rational eyes, as a mystery to be solved; and through the historical gaze of the villagers, as a fairytale that ends with the destruction of evil.

I love this approach! But it complicates the misogyny reading of witchcraft in ways I don’t think Wilkinson intended it to. By blurring magic and science, it turns these women back into witches. It justifies the witch-hunt by confirming that there was something to look for after all. If there is evil at work in the village (and the Morax seem pretty evil to me; certainly the Doctor makes no effort to negotiate with them or treat them as sentient beings) then can we really blame James for burning the queen of the Morax as he’d burn a witch?

To be clear, I don’t think this reading is meant to be there. We’re meant to think James is misguided, annoying and a bit sad because of his stunted relationships. But this is a recurring weakness in this series: like Kerblam! and Arachnids in the UK, The Witchfinders hasn’t thought through its moral code. It’s interested in stuff, but not interested enough to follow right through and actually work out a coherent thing that it has to say.

(Arachnids in the UK certainly has things to say, and Kerblam! thinks it does. It’s just that the three episodes share a certain…fuzziness when it comes to working them out in the plot.)

That’s two weak episodes in a row. This’d better not become a pattern, BBC. Pretty please.