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Welcome to Episode 211…

The News

Rose is getting her own story run at Big Finish, viewing figures for the last two weeks and some scarf action in the new New Years Day episode promo.

Merch Corner

New book based on an idea by Tom Baker up for pre-order and the next blu ray box set will be Series 18, out in Feb 2019.

“The Witchfinders” Review

Old English witch trial vibes for this one. Creepy enough to send the nippers behind the sofa or another lack lustre effort from this up and down series?

Thank you as always for joining us for 211. Next week will be our review of – It Takes You Away. Until then have a brill week and until next time – Allons-y!

When the Doctor stepped into I.M Foreman’s scrap yard on a cold, wet night in November 55 years ago, it represented both the start of a television institution and the defining role of William Hartnell’s long career as an actor.

The 1st Doctor, the original, you might say
The 1st Doctor, the original, you might say

Tragically, and in stark contrast to the entertainment business of today, Dr Who would not introduce Hartnell to Hollywood movies or starring roles in big budget Netflix series. Instead, due to ill health, he rarely acted again, save for an appearance in pantomime and a couple of television appearances, including one alongside Cliff Richard. The role of the Doctor was, therefore, more of a last hurrah to his acting career than its triumphant curtain-raiser. However, to celebrate this year’s anniversary, and more importantly, the man who started it all, we’re going to look back over Hartnell’s career prior to his fateful encounter with two school teachers, picking out some of his greatest roles that are well worth revisiting.

William Hartnell gives Eddie Byrne a good talking to in 'Jackpot' (1960)
William Hartnell gives Eddie Byrne a good talking to in ‘Jackpot’ (1960)

It’s a cliché when talking about Hartnell to discuss his typecasting as military men or street toughs, and, as strong as Brighton Rock (1948) and The Way Ahead (1944) are, this article is more interested in highlighting those Hartnell roles of which you may be unfamiliar. Indeed, a role that is rarely mentioned in the roll call of tough authority figures is his portrayal of Superintendent Frawley in Jackpot (1960). He shows up halfway through the film, following the robbery of a London nightclub, within seconds of which, you wonder how Jackpot made it through the first twenty-five minutes without him. Frawley is decidedly no-nonsense, barking orders to his underlings (“Why don’t you get yer hair cut?” being a particular highlight) and demanding information from any criminal or witness who stands in his way. Whilst Hartnell’s apparent ease in completely stealing the show from the ex-con and safecracker we meet at the beginning of the film is surely due to watching it post-Who, he is objectively the most charismatic and engaging actor in the production. That said, as entertaining as Hartnell clearly is in the role, it’s not the most developed character, essentially one of his infamous military men in a detective’s suit.

In contrast to upstanding lawmen like Frawley, Hartnell often played criminals, such as Pinky in Brighton Rock or Leo in Appointment with Crime (1946). There’s an entry on Hartnell’s Wikipedia highlighting that he also played criminals in a number of comedies, but was rarely allowed to flex his comedy muscles. If there’s an exception that proves the rule, it’s in the Brian Rix boxing farce And the Same to You (1960).

Vera Day and William Hartnell in 'And the Same to You' (1960)
Vera Day and William Hartnell in ‘And the Same to You’ (1960)

Hartnell plays Wally, a dodgy fight promoter organising matches in the church hall which he leases from the local bishop. The film itself is a fairly dated and tiresome farce involving fire extinguishers to the face, forgotten trousers and assorted other slapstick tropes. Thank goodness for Hartnell’s crafty, conniving boxing promoter ducking and diving his way through some stand-out scenes with rival Sammy Gatt (Sid James) and the visiting bishop. He’s given some wonderful dialogue to deliver (Dalek creator Terry Nation gets an “Additional Material by” credit), which raises the film above its hokier slapstick tendencies. It is in roles like this that you get a sense of the versatile character actor Hartnell had always aspired to be, and whilst those early days of Doctor Who were very much an ensemble piece, it’s worth taking a look at one of his other starring roles to understand how capable he was of shouldering a production but also to emphasise the tragedy of the illness that essentially put a stop to his acting career.

One of the finest performances of Hartnell’s career is in a 1945 film, long believed lost and rediscovered relatively recently, called The Agitator. Unfortunately, the film isn’t yet available on DVD but you can occasionally find it, and many other Hartnell films on the fantastic movie channel Talking Pictures, without whom this article would not exist.

Hartnell delivers an impassioned speech to his workforce in 'The Agitator' (1945)
Hartnell delivers an impassioned speech to his workforce in ‘The Agitator’ (1945)

Hartnell plays Peter Pettinger, a socialist activist who is forced to question his beliefs when he inherits ownership of the factory in which he works. It’s an incredibly layered performance, in which Hartnell rattles off long speeches (with nary a fluffed line) with a palpable sense of righteous fury, whilst his later inner turmoil is utterly compelling viewing. Pettinger is a fascinating character, the sort of extreme left-winger who irritates both the working man and the upper classes in equal measure. The feud that he has with his fellow factory worker is played with a simmering intensity by both Hartnell and Dad’s Army’s John Laurie, building to a violent showdown. There’s also a detectable sense of glee when the factory owners realise Pettinger is entitled to ownership of the firm. That we sympathise with him as he goes through such a radical reevaluation of not just his political beliefs but his own family history is all down to Hartnell’s nuanced performance.

In some ways, The Agitator is a pre-cursor to the angry young man films of the British New Wave, given that it puts working-class life right at the heart of the story. These films gave the English working classes a voice and representation on screen, detailing their everyday life and class conflicts. Hartnell was cast in the last of the films to be grouped under the New Wave movement, Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963). Whilst critically acclaimed, the film failed to make much money at the box office and the Rank organisation decided not to invest any more money in “Kitchen Sink” dramas. To quote BFI Screenonline: “…producers were unwilling to invest their money in more gritty, realist topics. It was felt that audiences wanted escapism again.” Interestingly, on television, people like Sydney Newman were still keen to reflect real life through slots like The Wednesday Play which brought us Ken Loach’s (shamefully still relevant) Cathy Come Home and it’s the formats and processes Newman put in place that would also give us Mike Leigh. Loach and Leigh are, of course, still working today and are two of the only UK directors who directly address issues of class in their work. Sydney Newman of course, brings us, rather neatly, back to November 23rd, 1963.

Verity Lambert cites Hartnell’s tender portrayal of down on his luck former sportsman “Dad” Johnson in This Sporting Life as inspiration for her casting him as the Doctor. In a (mostly lost) episode of the Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs, Hartnell described This Sporting Life as the only other time, apart from as Dr Who, where he was “allowed” to fulfil his ambition of playing a much older character on stage or film. Both Lindsay Anderson and Verity Lambert clearly saw the potential in him as a character actor to take on these older roles and imbue them with such warmth and humour and sadness. There’s also something apt about This Sporting Life leading Hartnell directly to Who. Given British cinemas inclination to opt for more escapist titles following its poor showing at the box office, the UK film industry of the 1960s favoured The Beatles and James Bond and, for a brief moment, Doctor Who itself. UK cinema’s tendency towards familiar franchises and television adaptations continues to this day with Harry Potter and James Bond and Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie. The story of Doctor Who is often said to be the story of television itself, but in the story of its origins, it can also cast new light on British cinema.

Continuing their adventures with the Doctor, Vicki and Steven find themselves on a strange new world. This series of Early Adventures sees the TARDIS team go on a series of connected stories and An Ideal World, from Ian Potter picks up quickly where The Dalek Occupation of Winter left off. Quickly separated from the TARDIS, the gang find themselves amongst a crew of explorers in cryo-sleep, there are terraforming drones which are running amok, bad weather and something else stirring on the planet’s surface…

The Cover for An Ideal World
The Cover for An Ideal World

Ian Potter delivers another fairly solid Doctor Who adventure in the form of An Ideal World. It is a story where all the ingredients are there but don’t mix as well as one would like. That is a crying shame because Potter has delivered some very enjoyable stories to the world of Big Finish in the past. Perhaps the biggest problem I had with this story was how bleak it felt. Set during the early days of human exploration in space, thus setting it before Steven and Vicki’s time, everything is very strict. And this might have worked, believe it or not, I actually enjoy Nekromantia, an audio drama considered to be one of the worst Big Finish stories of all time, but I found An Ideal World got off to slow a start to really hold my interest.

There are some nice things though, Potter’s descriptions of things really capture the imagination and it is clear that he has a way with words. And his world building is brilliant. Even if I didn’t find the finished product all that great, the world and characters that Potter has created here worked very well. So for that, he must be given a lot of credit.

The performances from the main and guest cast were also really enjoyable. Maureen O’Brien and Peter Purves are always fantastic and they just seem to have an uncanny ability to turn back time. It feels like its 1965 all over again and the pair has a great chemistry. O’Brien is just amazing as Vicki, she’s always been considered by me as a great companion and hugely underrated by the rest of the Who community and she once again proves why she is a great addition to the cast, both in 1965 and in 2018.

Purves does a brilliant job as the narrator, Steven and the Doctor. Potter quickly takes the Doctor out of the action with a little nod and wink to the fact that the actors back in the day would always have an episode where they didn’t appear because they were on holiday and this mostly works here. It does mean though that most of the action is placed on Vicki and Steven and even though O’Brien and Purves are more than up for the challenge, it is a story that might have benefited from the Doctor has been in it more. Purves also performs the narration duties well, alongside O’Brien whom the linking duties are shared between. He has a way of bringing everything to life so he is always a welcome presence in this audios and he is obviously still fantastic as Steven Taylor.

The 1960s Reversible Cover for An Ideal World
The 1960s Reversible Cover for An Ideal World

Director, Lisa Bowerman has also assembled a strong guest cast to perform the characters of the less-than-perfect crew of the Magellan as well as those the crew meet on the planet’s surface. For her part, Bowerman does a great job of keeping the story going, even if there are a few pacing issues with the script. It is clear how much she loves working with Big Finish and that is still clear here!

Overall, An Ideal World is an enjoyable enough adventure. It boasts a strong cast whose performances are excellent and some strong direction from Lisa Bowerman who always does a tremendous job with anything she puts her mind too. If the script starts off slowly and then struggles to pick it up its pace, then we can rejoice in the fact that there is nothing here that, while I don’t think their budget would have stretched this far, wouldn’t have been in a 1965 story. We’ve got two companions at the height of their popularity, a brilliant Doctor, even if he isn’t in it that much, an interesting story and premise, a dodgy crew and a great guest cast. So maybe this is classic Doctor Who through and through?

SYNOPSIS

Light years from Earth, a vast human spaceship hangs in orbit over a cloudy alien planet. The crew have been travelling in cryosleep for many years, looking for a habitable world to settle, and have at last located one with potential.

However, they’re not the only people to have arrived in this place. The TARDIS has landed on the planet’s surface. The Doctor, Steven and Vicki explore and quickly find themselves separated.

But it isn’t merely the hostile environment and rogue terraforming drones they’ll have to deal with. Something else is living on this world. Something deadly and waiting to consume.

It’s an ideal world. But ideal for whom?

Written By: Ian Potter
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman

Cast
Maureen O’Brien (Vicki / Narrator), Peter Purves (Steven Taylor / The Doctor / Narrator), Angela McHale (Kay / Christophe), Alex Jordan (Heathcote), Tom Stourton (Factotum / Fitzgerald / Samsara), Carolyn Pickles (Traherne), Oliver Mason (Grant / Danuka), Lisa Bowerman (Elias). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

The second historical story this year and now the pattern seems certain to me anyway as to where the strength of Chris Chibnall’s first series will lie.  These journeys into the past are the stories which are going to give heart to the series. Whether that is enough for those fans who prefer strong sci-fi concepts as part of their consumption of Doctor Who I’m not sure.  However, these stories are fulfilling the original remit of the classic series to be educational which saw the first Doctor taking Barbara and Ian to the Aztecs and Steven to the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve. Chris Chibnall has furrowed series inspiration from the historical burrow where the Tardis crew arrive at important events in history and learn something along the way.

“Whats the point in having a mate with a time machine if you cant nick back and see your gran when she were younger “ Yasmin Khan

It is an evocative unfortunate page of history that the partition of India was such a controversial arrangement which created tension which lasts to this day between India and Pakistan. The British had ruled parts of India since the 1750s but the British Raj where India was under the British crown was between 1858 and 1947. Lord Mountbatten, Viceroy of India, was charged with the task of creating two states in 1947 and due to lack of agreement between the various political leaders and impending civil war India was separated along religious lines. Having the Tardis go back to August 1947 and the partition of India could have been a complicated story but Vinay Patel uses the story of one family to explore in an effective way the emotional impact of that political decision.  Umbreen, Yaz’s grandmother is feeling her age, I am guessing she is meant to be 88 or 89 ( looking good by the way) and is giving mementoes of the past away to her family before “it’s too late”, a broken watch, a dried flower and old letters from her husband. Yaz wants more information, as I would, to see someone she loves when they were younger. I understand that urge because I’ve always wondered what my mum was like when she was 17 or 18. Stories from her are one thing, seeing a person as they were in the flesh is another. What I enjoy about the story is it unravels the assumptions made as we go along. Yaz has only ever had one view of her grandmother, as a loving wife to her grandfather, never imagining her as a young spirited woman in love with someone else.  We all have a past but do we ever reveal everything to our family or loved ones? Other characters such as Prem also have had assumptions of his younger brother Manish that the innocent young boy he knew before he went to war would somehow still have maintained his innocence.

Honouring the people who die alone
Honouring the people who die alone

Its no coincidence I think that the story was broadcast on Remembrance Sunday. Over 87, 000 Indian soldiers died in World War Two and it is acknowledged that Great Britain wouldn’t have come through two world wars without the Indian army. Of course, the political cost in a broader sense was Great Britain lost India, the great mother country unable to afford her crown jewel after the ravages of the Second World War. Vinay Patel gives us a very interesting script with a story resonating with themes of remembering, loss and what it is to honour. It made me think is there really honour in fighting? Prem, as a soldier in WW2, comments at one point that he is fed up of the fighting he did, feeling the personal cost in the loss of his older brother. But the greater emphasis is of course on the damage in that small community of neighbour fighting neighbour, brother fighting brother and the contrast of Prem’s moderate attitude versus Manish’s radicalised attitude emphasises it wasn’t partitioning that started the alienation, as it was there before then but the physical act of putting a border through one country exacerbated their differences. He berates his younger Manish, who has joined the militants favouring division “it wasn’t what they fought for “I would have liked a little more expansion in the dialogue between them to show the subtlety to their relationship to be honest but it’s a small thing as I felt as if the script had to be quite efficient and keep moving to fit 50 minutes.

I think the Tardis team all bring something different to this story. Within the context of her family at last Yaz gets her moment to shine coming across as quite inquisitive due to the love she has for her nani. Ryan has a smaller part this week but he pairs well with the Doctor in the ship. Bradley Walsh by all accounts is a real-life joker he is continuing to hit his performances almost perfectly undertaking drama and comedy equally well each week that I look forward to seeing him in a scene. The moment with Prem at his stag night is touching. Graham has become the wise old man of the team and there is a part of me that thinks with the conversation he had with Yaz, about what her grandmother would become, in the hands of Steven Moffat and RTD that talk would have normally come from the Doctor. It does seem appropriate in one way that Graham point out the privilege it is to travel with the Doctor as he is older and wiser but from a more critical perspective, it takes away the power of the Doctor as a character to really show the wisdom of a Timelord that she should.  I don’t know why it is but so far Jodie’s Doctor has rarely had the chance to talk one on one properly with her companions. I can only think of the conversation she had with Graham in “The Woman who fell to Earth” about his cancer and with Ryan in “The Ghost Monument” when he hesitated to climb the ladder. Perhaps it is because there are so many companions in the Tardis now.

The 13th Doctor on wedding duty
The 13th Doctor on wedding duty

Saying that I enjoyed Jodie’s performance as the Doctor more this week as she thrived with some good action scenes confronting the Thijarians. I loved their look. We finally witnessed her confronting the aliens following some pretty weak villains since the Stenza in Episode 1 at the beginning of the season. She handled it so well that I wanted more. I talked about assumptions earlier and it would have been so easy for Vinay Patel to show the Doctor always being right to presume that the Thijarians killed the holy man.  I liked the switch that they were there to witness over and tribute people who die alone because it adds an element of hope at a bleak point of history. I like the deliberate red herring of intent where they ask the Doctor to leave their ship or they “will stand over your corpses” being it is as they were assassins once but now no longer. Also as a scatty questioning Doctor, I’m trying to think if any other Doctor would have given such a sweet wedding speech as the 13th doctor did here. From the classic era maybe the 7th Doctor.

“I don’t think any of us know the real truth of our lives because we’re too busy living them from the inside”

Visually and musically we were spoiled with this story. The traditional music from Segun Akinola is atmospheric transporting us to the location, really fantastic. Love how the Doctor Who theme is matched into the music It was also beautifully directed by Jamie Childs. The scene as Jodie comes out of the Tardis initially into the valley is done to take our breath away and certainly is stunning and I can only imagine how some of the producers of early historical done in the 1960s would envy the current budget and what can be done these days. Jamie Childs does manage with the location work in Spain to give sometimes a dreamy feel to the outside scenes, the team riding the cart, running through the forest, the wedding scene. Then there are the action sequences of the transmat which add some pace. The brief shot of a poppy field and the killing of Prem as the sun glints through the revolver are highlights too for me.

I really wanted to see straight historical stories this series, and this is a bit more involved with the sci-fi element than Rosa but it does work. I’ve watched this story twice and enjoyed it tremendously but I really can’t watch an intense story like this too often. It is a shame that Steven Moffat did his story about the role of Testimony harvesting memories from people at the point of death to avatars so recently in Twice Upon a Twice as I like the idea of the Thijarians honouring the dying who are alone as they die, prefer it actually but there does seem to be thematically some similarity. I hope Chris Chibnall isn’t planning to emotionally wallop us every time with the historical events stories. We do need a funny adventure set in the past. I got a lump in my throat as the inevitability of Prem’s death approached and the Tardis crew had to walk away. There isn’t a River Song here to mess up the timeline and just this one time I wish there could be.

Moving universal story of the casualties of war 9/10

Just in time for Halloween comes a fantastic new Short Trips adventure, focusing on the most nightmarish looking incarnation of the Master, Geoffrey Beevers delivers perhaps the best story focusing on his Master since he came back in 2001.

The cover for I Am The Master
The cover for I Am The Master

It is a sad fact that from the original series, including the TV Movie, we have only two living actors who have portrayed the Master. With Eric Roberts reprising his role in the upcoming River Song: Series 5 with all the other living actors who have played the role, Geoffrey Beevers has been playing the role since 2001 in Dust Breeding.

I Am The Master is a very special story indeed, not only because it features a fantastic performance from Beevers but because it is also written by him. Beevers is one of only a few surviving cast members who has a really great handle on the character and having played the character for as long as he has, it makes sense that he would know the character inside and out. It was a surprise, however, that he would get to write a rip-roaring adventure for the character.

Like all the Short Trips releases, it has to fit into the 30-40 minute bracket and luckily, it is a story that fits that brief, it isn’t some epic space-battle between the Master and his arch-enemy, The Doctor. Instead, it is a cracking story that focuses on a poor little planet and what happened to it when the Doctor wasn’t around to save it. It is a story that looks at how happy and prosperous that world was and what a horrific place it was after the Master has systematically destroyed it.

One thing that Beevers never strays too far from is showing us how thoroughly evil the Master is, even during some of the very funny moments. There is one moment when he takes a stab at David Attenborough, which is hysterical! And there are some nice subliminal messages that you have to listen to the audio to know about.

Working as both narrator and performer, Beevers gives us an excellent look into the mind of the Master, more than any other writer ever has. And what was also particularly enjoyable was that it wasn’t an overly complicated and convoluted plot. It was just the Master doing what he does best, manipulating people and destroying things, something that the Master but particularly this incarnation, has always taken great delight it doing.

Beevers is just hilarious here as well. His performance is full of dry wit anyway but his script is littered with funny little nods to the show and the real world. One wonders if Beevers has seen Deadpool as that is the sort of story this feels like. One of my other personal favourite moments from this audio is the mention of Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation of the Time Lord, it was something that I wasn’t expecting and the story is all the better for it, not just focusing on the previous incarnations but the current ones too.

I Am The Master is a superb story. It works brilliantly as a writing debut for Beevers’ and the direction from Lisa Bowerman only serves to improve the material on offer here. With funny little nods to the show and sly-asides to the audience, Beever’s performance cements why his incarnation of the Master has lasted so long with Big Finish. I would love another story like this from him and as long as it is as clever as this one, then I’ll be there. If I Am The Master does anything it only tells that Beever’s is one of the best incarnations of the character to grace our screens and bank-accounts.

He is the Master after all. And you will obey him…

SYNOPSIS

There is a message for you. It comes from a long way, from a dying world. No, not a dying world. A killed world. And the message is from the killer.

Please attend carefully. The message that follows is vital to your future…

However much longer that may be.

Producer: Ian Atkins
Script Editor: Ian Atkins

Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: Geoffrey Beevers
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman

Cast
Geoffrey Beevers (The Master)

Welcome to Episode 210…

The News

A short documentary for William Hartnell released on the Doctor Who Appreciation Society YouTube channel, viewing figures for Demons of the Punjab and Kerblam! and the Xmas Special is now the New Year’s Day Special.

Merch Corner

Big Finish continues The Time War with Volume Two out in March next year and a few Who Black Friday deals on Amazon.

“Kerblam!” Review

Series 11 is ticking along quicker than we expected as we’re already at episode 7! Does this one deliver (pun intended) or does it suffer from some of our series 11 woes?

Thank you as always for joining us for 210. Next week will be our review of – The Witchfinders Until then have a great week and until next time – Allons-y!

Welcome to Episode 209…

The News

A new exhibition planned for Cardiff next year, more viewing figures for the last couple of weeks and confirmed titles for episodes nine and ten.

Merch Corner

A new dvd about the actors behind monsters of Classic Who, new Crimbo stuff from Lovarzi, Jenny to team up with the Fifth Doctor in next year’s The Legacy of Time Special, Character Options release version 2 of the latest sonic and a new 5.5″ figure.

“Demons of the Punjab” Review

We need a decent ep after a bit of a mid-series dip and, without Chibbers writing, does this emotional historical deliver?

Thank you as always for joining us for 209. Next week will be our review of the awesomely titled – Kerblam! Until then have a great week and until next time – Allons-y!

Nicholas Parsons once said: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” In the case of Doctor Who that’s often easier said than done. More than any other time since it returned in 2005, Chris Chibnall’s latest iteration of our favourite programme is playing to a younger audience, reinstating the Reithian values of creator Sydney Newman’s original vision. This back to basics approach that favours small-scale character drama over a high-stakes end of the world plotting has left some people cold and others absolutely furious, coming to a head with a bizarre, over the top reaction to The Tsuranga Conundrum, a perfectly enjoyable, if a little humdrum and disposable episode of Doctor Who.

Tom Baker at a signing attended by young fans
Tom Baker at a signing attended by young fans

Amongst all the grumbling about the cutesy creature of the week, men giving birth and Chris Chibnall’s writing overall, there was a tweet (now deleted) by the DWM Time Team’s Gerard Groves which stated:

“If you’re not enjoying Doctor Who you’re watching it wrong. I’m convinced…
It’s meant to be watched in a group with family or friends!
Have FUN with it – don’t watch it in a vacuum. You’re expecting too much: have fun with it, laugh with it, don’t take it too seriously.”

Astonishingly arrogant though this is, there is something in what Groves is proposing. Nice as watching the show with like-minded friends and family is, I have particularly fond memories of watching The Idiot’s Lantern with a large group of my friends in my halls of residence back in 2006, it’s not always possible or, indeed, necessary. Also, there is a multitude of reasons you don’t enjoy something. In a recent Twitter thread, the writer and script editor Andrew Ellard pointed out a number of issues with the episode, namely that there’s a problem with the ordering of events which results in a lack of tension. For Groves to suggest that by disliking something you’ve experienced it in the wrong way is as condescending as Matthew Waterhouse offering acting advice to Richard Todd.

What is pertinent about Groves’ tweet is the idea of “expecting too much.” Is it an episode’s failure to live up to high expectations that results in such vociferous reactions, calling for a showrunner’s head or writing off the next five episodes altogether? Where do these impossible expectations come from?
Reading various tweets, Facebook posts and blogs you get the impression that, between 1963 and 2017, Doctor Who was a never-ending hit factory, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece, a winning streak that has only ever been broken by The Twin Dilemma, Fear Her, and anything written by Chris Chibnall.
But as the old saying goes, the memory cheats.

As an occasional film reviewer, one of my least favourite sentences in criticism is “it’s not perfect”. Nothing is, a classic Doctor Who story like The Caves of Androzani has a rubbish big bat, whilst Genesis of the Daleks is an overlong runaround. They’re also two of Doctor Who‘s grimmest stories, one of them concerning sacrifice, human greed and self-preservation, the other an allegory for Hitler’s obsession with creating a master race. Is this what people would prefer week in, week out? In a television landscape populated by The Handmaids Tale, Westworld, Black Mirror and The Walking Dead, the appeal of Doctor Who is surely the hope, the lightness of tone, the likeable characters. Indeed, for this writer’s money, Team TARDIS is the most likeable companions we’ve had in a long time and it’s their friendship, their togetherness that provides a tonic for our divided times.

The world is a difficult enough place as it is right now without having to repeatedly watch it reflected in our popular entertainment. On a personal level, the first five weeks of Chris Chibnall’s era have also been an emotionally trying time in both my professional and family life. Sundays at 7pm (or thereabouts) have therefore provided 50 minutes of much needed, enjoyable escapism. New TARDIS interior aside, I’ve been broadly positive about the subtle changes Chibnall has made to the 21st century format. It’s certainly the most accessible the show has been in a while, airing on a Sunday evening to solid ratings and positive reactions from more general audiences who’ve maybe drifted away in previous years. If the brief was to retool Doctor Who as broad family entertainment, then Chibnall has certainly delivered.

Fundamentally, this has always been what the Daily Sketch once called “the children’s own programme that adults adore”. Perhaps the problem for some lies in being reminded of that fact. In rankings there’s often a disconnect between those fan favourites like Day of the Doctor, Heaven Sent, The Caves of Androzani et al and the types of stories that are more childish, like The Horns of Nimon, Time and the Rani, Love and Monsters, which often seem to garner the types of response that The Tsuranga Conundrum experienced on Sunday night. Are these stories less worthy because, with their heightened performances, moments of daft comedy and less than threatening threats they’re playing to a younger crowd? Are they really worthy of vitriol?

Lizbeth Myles of the Verity! podcast described Sunday’s episode as a super cosy version of Alien, which is really rather spot on. The opening scenes where Astos and the Doctor investigate what’s happening to the ship were well directed by Jennifer Perrot, building neatly to the inherent comedy in the reveal of the literal gremlin in the system. It may not be stalking the halls and bumping off our guest cast one by one, but the P’ting is still a proper threat to everybody’s welfare and one that is much better realised and less embarrassing than burping bins, big green cocks or Richard Briers in silverface.

The P'ting
The P’ting

The P’ting is also a very kid friendly creation, originated by writer Tim Price in the Doctor Who writer’s room, a ready-made Funko Pop that calls to mind the monstrous transformation of The Incredibles‘  baby Jack-Jack. Which raises another point, we’re living at a time where our popular culture is increasingly infantilised. Grown adults trapped in arrested development, topping up their Funko Pop collections whilst arguing over comic book movies, computer games, and kids television programmes. These vicious arguments around new Doctor Who are just a small part of this wider issue that often appears to be rooted in people of a certain age lashing out when it seems like the thing that they’ve spent so much of their childhood and adult lives adoring appears to be slipping from their grasp and into the hands of a new generation. Further to that, there also appears to be a bizarre notion that with a shorter run of episodes this year, and a potential 18-month gap, that Chris Chibnall shouldn’t be wasting 50 minutes of the show’s precious time dicking around on a hospital ship.

All that being said, the ratings for the past five episodes have been fairly solid, levelling out around the 8 million mark, not necessarily an indicator of quality but certainly of popularity, so the show will be around for a while yet. Is it really worth getting into such a froth over every Sunday night? You should watch your blood pressure, you’ve got work in the morning. What’s the answer?

If you’re truly not enjoying Series 11 then maybe it is indeed time to put away childish things, there’s still a lot of older stuff to enjoy. If there are nagging doubts or high expectations then let me impart some advice. I should point out that I’m not about to tell you how you should watch Doctor Who, only how I have watched it these past five weeks. Settle down on the sofa, grab yourself something nice to drink or eat, turn off your phone and forget about the fact that the weekend’s almost over, then let the latest episode of Doctor Who wash over you. Throw yourself into this big, mad, family show and acknowledge that you’re no longer its primary concern. It’s actually quite liberating. Turn off your critical faculties (save those for the inevitable rewatch/blog post/podcast) and enjoy yourself as a child would, because as a wise man once said: “What’s the point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes?”

Every single series of Doctor Who has had its dull episodes. For every The Invasion, there’s The Dominators. For every The Sea Devils, there’s The Mutants. Earthshock/Four To Doomsday and Revelation of the Daleks there’s a Twin Dilemma. That trend has followed with the modern series, for every Dalek, there’s a The Long Game. Tooth and Claw/ New Earth. And it seems that Chibnall hasn’t escaped this trap either. Five episodes into the new series and it seems that for every Rosa there’s The Tsuranga Conundrum.

Confronting the P'ting
Confronting the P’ting

The Tsuranga Conundrum had everything going for it in the opening ten-fifteen minutes. The Doctor and her friends find themselves on a medical ship, hurtling back to base and quickly find that something has latched onto the outside of the hull. It doesn’t take long before that thing gets inside and attacks the critical systems. This proves incredibly problematic because it is a hospital ship, there is a woman suffering from an injury inflicted from her time in a battle, her strange robotic companion and her estranged brother, who is desperate to know what is going on. And then there is a man who found himself pregnant after a night of passion with someone who didn’t the right precautions.

As if all that wasn’t enough to worry about, the ship runs on a drive using antimatter and the creature is attracted to energy. One bite in the coils and the ship will go boom, killing everyone on board. And then they find out the alien is the deadliest in the galaxy.

All that sounds enjoyable enough as a concept but The Tsuranga Conundrum, for its entire 50 minute run time feels more like the outline for a compelling episode rather than a compelling episode in its own right.

If my plot outline sounded familiar, then that’s because I felt the opening fifteen minutes felt like the plot to Alien, the famous Ridley Scott movie from 1979, with some Doctor Who embellishment’s thrown into the mix. There’s a famous story about the time Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Graham Williams and Douglas Adams went to see Alien when it first came out. Bored half-way through, Baker stood up and shouted at the cast on-screen to go to hold and kill the creature. Whether Chibnall seemed to subconsciously channel that story here but the crew and the Doctor quickly head to the centre of the disturbance, unlike Sigourney Weaver and her gang who wait for the alien to pick them off one-by-one.

But that is where the episode begins to falter, Chibnall spends too much time lingering on the effects of the TARDIS team’s encounter with a sonic mine and the Doctor’s futile attempts to get back to her TARDIS. Whether that was an attempt to add a slight layer of selfishness into her character, it just falls flat because it doesn’t add anything to the overall story. Had her selfishness put the lives of the other characters on the line, then it would have worked. Ultimately though, it didn’t and it doesn’t. The second mistake Chibnall makes is spending too much time on the supporting characters but in particular, Astos, played by Brett Goldstein, who, while I wouldn’t mind him being my doctor and who has worked with Jodie Whittaker before, is swiftly killed off. But Chibnall seems to think that we should have felt his death harder than we do because he is only in the episode for a few minutes. And that is a real shame because the two actors have a great chemistry and a lot of the story could have been formed around whether these two authority figures can come to understand and respect each other. Alas, it wasn’t to be and the episode decides to focus on something new and leaves that untouched. And it is never explained by the escape pod Astos is trapped explodes.

The adorable P'ting
The adorable P’ting

Chibnall also doesn’t help matters by only introducing the titular ‘conundrum’ halfway through the episode. Trapped aboard the ship, heading towards a base that is threatening to launch missiles if they don’t respond with the supposed threat and the cast of characters have to figure out how to stop the creature. From this moment on, the story does work as a fairly enjoyable thriller, with vibes of eighties Doctor Who and some interesting main players coming to the fore. But because he has mishandled to opening fifteen minutes, you can’t help but feel the rest of the adventure is trying to play catch-up with itself. Unfortunately, though, there are so many supporting characters, the companions suffer, rather than giving Graham, Ryan and Yaz some exciting things to do, they are relegated to playing run-around and wandering around aimlessly in the background and it seems that ten-supporting characters proved to be too many characters. Maybe it would have worked if Chibnall hadn’t been on writing duties.

Thankfully though, the performances were actually surprisingly enjoyable. We’ve got Suzanne Packer adding some gravitas to the story of her 67th-century fighter pilot who is plagued by the debilitating illness she has. Chibnall rightly allows the Doctor to fangirl over her and it really helps hammer home that this a character we are supposed to care about. Actually, if you look past the failure of the world-building here, The Tsuranga Conundrum really does shine at the quieter moments, like where the Doctor and General Eve Cicero discover the effects of ‘Pilot’s Heart’, a condition which implies a lot without the writer ever having to really go into detail about what it is.

There is some comic relief to be had too, mainly from Jack Shalloo’s character of Yoss, who is a race of aliens where men and women can have babies. It is handled like a bit of a gag, provoking memories of the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie, Junior. But there is some credit to be given to Chibnall and Shalloo’s handling of the material that there is some surprisingly enjoyable commentary on becoming a parent and the fears that come with that. He even debates the idea of giving the child up for adoption. In a surprising move where all the companions are pushed to the background, these comments spur Ryan into giving us some information on his background and his absentee father. He inspires Yoss into keeping the child, telling him you have to just be there and not worry about being perfect all the time.

The Doctor and Eve
The Doctor and Eve

Looking at the tone of the episode is a bit of a conundrum too as it walks something of a fine line between comedy and drama, both in its handling of Yoss and the alien, P’ting. As I said at the beginning of this review, it opens feeling a lot like Alien, all the tension it builds up is completely undercut by the hilarious reveal of the actual creature. The P’ting looks like a mixture of the Adipose, Stitch and the Crazy Frog but it does serve as a reminder that not everything dangerous in the world and indeed the universe, has to be big and ugly. It can also be small and cute. How many times have you said, ‘Aww’ at some nature documentary? You wouldn’t be reacting the same way if it was ripping your arm off! So in a way, the P’ting is something of a traditional Doctor Who monster, certainly more traditional than the spiders in the previous outing, Arachnids in the UK. And the P’ting serves as a reminder of how far the visual effects in the show have come.

Throughout this review, it seems I have put a lot of the blame, not only for this episode but the series as a whole so far entirely at the feet of Chibnall. To a certain degree, his writing hasn’t been very good, he seems to be good had creating situations and characters but not at the melding of the two. That is a pattern that has followed in all his stories both past and present. But The Tsuranga Conundrum works had to have both its major threats cancel each other out. Retrieving the ship’s self-destruct, the Doctor uses it to lure the P’ting to an airlock. The P’ting then eats the bomb and absorbs the energy, floating happily away into space, its tummy full. And the fact that the P’ting is sent away rather than killed seems a good conclusion for an alien whose purpose in life is a little more chaotic than pure evil. It was also quite sweet to see it floating away with a big smile on its face. I just wonder how long it before the BBC release a number of P’ting related merchandise based on how cute the thing looked.

Oddly though, if you try looking hard enough at this episode, it serves as a narrative on the circles of life. The death of her mentor forces the young medic Mabli, played by Lois Chimimba. Durkas, played by Ben Bailey-Smith is forced to step up and pilot the ship following the death of his sister, and continue her legacy as well as developing a new-found respect for her clone-drone, Ronan, who serves as the episode’s least developed element. Eve sacrifices her life to make sure a new life is saved when it is delivered in the medical bay and watching this baby come into the world makes Ryan rethink his entire outlook on life. While there are a few too many subtexts littering the scripts, at Chibnall had a good go at it this time and it is hard not to think about Ryan’s en-passioned speech about what it means to be a father to Yoss and the group’s final prayer to thank Eve for her sacrifice.

We currently sit half way through Jodie Whittaker’s debut series, and so far, things haven’t really the new heights we were promised. But I wouldn’t say that there has been a truly terrible episode so far, certainly not one that when I come to watching the series back in a few years, will look upon with dread. My biggest hope going forward is that Chibnall takes a step back and allows other writers to just tell the stories they want to tell, look at Rosa and how well that was written that was and then Chibnall’s script for Arachnids in the UK to know what I mean. But the series has definitely got people talking and that isn’t a bad thing and the viewing figures on the opening four episodes so far have certainly proven that another series should be on the cards. Let’s just hope that Chibnall and his group of writers this year manage to pick themselves up and tell some more cracking adventures.

Hello, dear reader, I’ve been shivering not just from the cold weather that means our Indian summer is over but at the thought of giant spiders which invaded the UK recently (well Sheffield but Spiders in Sheffield doesn’t have the same ring).

So we have our Tardis crew returning back to Sheffield and it’s important to do so because Yaz, Ryan and Graham never expected to be passengers on the Tardis. So what of our three companions? We get an introduction to Yaz’s family and Graham and Ryan return after the death of Grace. Graham is still the most interesting of the three as his grief and loneliness are explored sensitively by Chibbers as we get scenes of Grace out of focus. Grace is there as an exploration of his inner turmoil.

We are aware by now that Chris Chibnall enjoys creating character and backstory but the supporting characters this story offers are definitely the weakest so far this series and I will explain. Firstly Yaz’s family.  Her mum seemed to be very interested, for whatever reason, in who Yaz is going out firstly suggesting a lesbian relationship with the doctor and then a relationship with a boyfriend with Ryan. The dialogue is awkward, a bit cringy and not that funny if it was meant to be. Maybe because we don’t see her interacting with her husband initially I didn’t think she was that believable. Whilst having someone who was for a long time in a soap opera does help with audience recognition Shobna Gulati who plays Yaz’s mum doesn’t bring any warmth or freshness with her interpretation. Considering she is playing, in essence, the Jackie Tyler role I didn’t find her particularly strong as an actress, unfortunately.

I did however like the young actress who plays the sister but the actor who played Yaz’s father had some poor dialogue in the flat. Who realistically collects rubbish and leaves it in a kitchen? I wouldn’t want to eat anything he cooks and his wife would kick up a fuss I think so I was surprised it was left there. It’s early days but I don’t get a sense of cohesion yet with this family. Yazz is definitely the weakest drawn of the characters but I like her positivity and she could be a really good companion if she was consistently written. She’s written as a police officer but none of those skills seems to help her in this situation which she should be taking a lead on with the doctor. If she doesn’t want to be a policewoman what does she want to be we have no idea. Sang I want more but not explaining it or showing it is poor writing.

The TARDIS Team hunt down giant spiders
The TARDIS Team hunt down giant spiders

Other supporting characters either feel sketchy or caricatured. Mr Robinson’s assistant mentioned as his niece’s wife seems a heavy-handed comment to make a PC point which didn’t really have any relevance to the situation and poor Kevin the bodyguard has a shining moment as a sacrifice to the plot. I can’t remember the name of the scientist lady but she seemed a bit dim to not even check that the carcasses were dead and wouldn’t you ensure that your policies on disposal were a lot tighter perhaps incinerating carcasses and treating them as clinical waste.

After four episodes it does seem to have become a habit by Chris Chibnall that the villain is not well thought out enough or strong enough to be really effective. The Woman Who Fell to Earth could be forgiven for having a weak monster because we had a fresh Doctor and new companions to meet, The Ghost Monument had its flaws with the selfish Illini but visually looked stunning. Here we are presented with a caricature with just one vocal setting it seems which is unpleasant and cowardly. The Ed Sheeran joke will date this episode really quickly as will the Donald Trump imitation. Mr Robinson comes across as a one-note cheesy villain. It’s a missed opportunity for Chris Noth as he doesn’t have any particularly witty lines which can forgive a lot of things. Whether he was directed that way or not its a shame he plays the businessman without any redeeming features or subtlety. It isn’t very well explained whether there are any consequences for Mr Robinson with two dead bodies in the hotel, a giant spider, and a landfill site underneath his hotel. He shoots the Spider and off he goes put simply to get to the White House. I do admire the ambition to channel traditional themes such as the ecological messages of the Pertwee era’s “The Green Death” but dammit if you’re going to use them at least have some kind of line to say the team can call UNIT to clear up the mess. Loose ends like that should be explained as it makes for unsatisfactory viewing and smacks of laziness. It feels as if ideas are created but not fully thought through.

I’m liking Jodie as the doctor but not loving her. I can see that Jodie is working hard at being clever as the doctor but has yet to show her authoritative side but needs a lot of those moments very quickly from now until the end of the series. She efficiently works through the episode and comes up with a solution but the resolution feels a bit shaky as the spiders, presumably we are meant to accept every last giant spider even the ones across the city, are somehow lured to the hotel panic room by a song from Stormzy. If I’m honest this story is the least logical I’ve seen from Chris Chibnall so far this series. If you have watched the Pertwee story the Silurians you will remember how disgusted the Doctor was when the Brigadier blew up the Silurian Base and destroyed them all. Why would the Doctor now sanction that they meet a horrible death especially as they are not to blame for becoming giant spiders and doing what comes naturally to them?

There were things to enjoy about this episode. I’m not a great fan of spiders so to see them moving around generally gave me the creeps but they didn’t really do enough that was scary because as an audience member  I know how it’s all done as CGI. There was a mystery in the story at the beginning but as the title gives away the threat it’s what you do with the spiders that matter.  It’s only partly successful in that respect. What was good was where we saw shots of all the cobwebs and the reveal of what happened to Anna was quite effective. I really liked the ground level views at the beginning of the episode too. The direction at the house with the colour palette of dark browns, shadows and the tone of the scenes adds moments of quiet sadness which punctuate against the more comedic and horror moments of this episode.

In conclusion as an episode, it suffers from the same issues with ” The Ghost Monument”  in that it doesn’t use the situation presented to its full potential and it needed more development as an idea. Many of the characters lack depth and without a strong coherent sci-fi plot to override those weaknesses, it comes across as an average episode, not a good or excellent one which it had the potential to be.

Large ideas but needed  a bit more development 6.5/10