Praxeus Breeds in Plastic (Terror of the Autons)

The rule, apparently, is that anyone talking seriously about this story has to start with Paul Cornell’s 1993 review of it. I’m not entirely sure why this is the rule—presumably because Cornell is surely terribly embarrassed by the review now that he’s firmly into the “everything is lovely, especially fandom and the Pertwee era, let’s all just get along and support New Labour” phase of his career instead of the “actually doing anything worthwhile” one. Or perhaps just because, in spite of Cornell’s latter day shame at having ever had interesting opinions, the review remains one of the most solid and important things ever said about the Pertwee era. It’s not that Cornell is correct per se—his vituperative denunciations of the entire cast along with everyone else involved in the story is excessive, not least in his claim that there are only two competent actors in the era, which more than doubles the actual number, although he at least correctly identifies one of them. It’s just that it’s petty, mean-spirited, and therefore exactly what the era needs, culminating in the utterly savage kicker that Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks “exiled the Doctor to Earth and made him a Tory.” ...

Ascension of the Cybermen Review

And so Chibnall, having egregiously whiffed the one-part finale structure (no shame in it, nobody else has ever made that work save for Moffat who cheated by having Heaven Sent work as a sort of first part), decides to fall back on a proven structure. This is not always a balm for Chibnall, who often seems to struggle with understanding how and why tropes work, instead simply faithfully repeating them shorn of key bits of context like a man in an increasingly bizarre quest to demonstrate how Searle’s Chinese room thought experiment might work in practice. Ascension of the Cybermen plays into that tendency, certainly. But there are relatively few misplaced steps compared to other Chibnall efforts. And this isn’t entirely because Chibnall is playing on easy mode. Yes, the basic structure pioneered by Moffat and Davies—a sense of mounting tension leading to a story-breaking reveal—is one of the easier ones to get to work, with the real challenge being in the back half. But Chibnall declines to go with the sort of zero frills monster runaround that he could have, instead interleaving the seemingly entirely disconnected story of Brendan the cop. 

This is, to Chibnall’s credit, a very ...

Before the Cataclysm (Inferno)

It’s May 9th, 1970. Between now and June 20th, Henry Marrow will be killed in North Carolina in a racist hate crime, two will die when police fire into a crowd at a demonstration at Jackson State University, a fourteen-year old fan will die after being struck in the head by a foul ball at a Major League Baseball game, eleven will die in Israel in a Palestinian terrorist attack, six when a plane crashes into an Interstate Highway in Florida. In addition, E.M. Forster will die of a stroke, Abraham Maslow will die of a heart attack, and unnumbered people will die in the ongoing Vietnam War whilst the world slides ever closer to the eschaton. Also, Inferno airs.

With Inferno, Doctor Who proffers a startling sense of lucidity, presenting a world in which drilling for energy sources destroys the world. That it is allegorized through an over the top “they dug too deep” narrative is of course a hedge, but only in the sense of doing the bare minimum necessary to pass this off as children’s entertainment. Within the pit of near universal awfulness that is Doctor Who fandom, this sense of apocalyptic frenzy is taken to ...

The Haunting of Villa Diodati Review

*deep, calming breaths*

OK, so it’s a highlight of the Chibnall era. It features several of Jodie Whittaker’s best moments as the Doctor. It has an effective sense of mood and creepiness throughout. The arrival of the Cyberman at the halfway point effectively turns the entire story on its head. It uses the Cyberman well, drawing more body horror out of the concept than anything since… OK, since the last Cybermen story, but it at least has the decency to acknowledge that the Capaldi era actually happened, and anyway, this is getting an appreciably different sort of body horror off the concept. Despite having the oversized TARDIS crew and a large supporting cast, everyone actually feels like they have a character and gets at least one clear-cut moment to themselves. And there’s a bevy of clever bits—the skull and hand in the cradle is one of the best jump scares in recent Doctor Who memory, and giving Shelley a vision of his death is poetic and unsettling. Oh, and the Cyberman quoting Shelley is magnificently fucked up. Really, this is not merely competent, it’s well-executed. If the show were this well-made every week I wouldn’t be a burnt out and ...

Until We Could Be Almost Completely Replaced (The Invasion)

It’s November 2nd, 1968. Between now and December 21st, a mine explosion will kill seventy-eight in West Virginia, twenty-two will die in a factory fire in Glasgow, two will be shot by the Zodiac Killer, and numerous people will die in the Vietnam War, including 374 civilians in Laos when the US Military targets a cave in the incorrect belief that it housed Viet Cong troops and not refugees. In addition, Upton Sinclair will die in a nursing home in New Jersey, Enid Blyton will die in a nursing home in London, and John Steinbeck will die of heart failure in New York. A flu pandemic rages, ultimately killing one million, and the world drifts ever-closer to the eschaton. Also, The Invasion airs.

Miles and Woods begin their elaborately judicious review of The Invasion—a document that manages to at no point actually indicate if they like the story—by noting the peculiarity of its title. This is the definite article, as the saying goes—not an invasion of Dinosaurs, Androids, Zygons, nor even of Daleks, but simply the invasion—a type specimen against which all others are to be recognized. Given this, any interpretation must start with the money shot—the Cybermen marching ...

Can You Hear Me? Review

I have repeatedly criticized the Chibnall era for its dubious notion of “aboutness.” With Can You Hear Me? we have a partial success on that front, but its partiality ends up revealing the depths of the problem. The question “what is Can You Hear Me? about” is straightforward—an idiot could answer it. It’s about mental illness. And yet I find myself imagining the pitch meeting here.

“So what’s your story about?”
“Oh, it’s about mental illness.”
“Cool! What do you say about mental illness?”
“Ummmm… it’s about mental illness.”

Herein lies the difficulty. To ask a question I’ve asked plenty of times before, what, exactly, is all of this for? What perspective on the world is Doctor Who offering? What does it have to say? And when it comes to mental illness and this episode, the answer really appears to be “nothing.” Some vague platitudes about facing your fears being the essence of humanity (which come perilously close to “you have an obligation to willpower your way out of depression,” even if they do later endorse getting help) and that’s it. There’s no insights here—no substance.

The common right-wing asshole complaint about the ...

Dust and Darkness; I Find That Good (The Enemy of the World)

It’s December 23rd, 1967. Between now and January 27th, thirteen people will die in England when a train collides with a truck that had stalled on the tracks, 380 will die in a Sicilian earthquake, and 121 will die in a pair of submarine crashes in the Mediterranean. In addition, Mike Casparak will die of liver failure fifteen days after being the first successful recipient of a human heart transplant in the United States, while Bill Masterton will die of a brain injury sustained during a National Hockey League game, and huge numbers will die in the still-continuing Vietnam War. Also the world will progress ever-closer to the eschaton, and The Enemy of the World airs. 

The Enemy of the World is first and foremost a story about dictators. This is separate from being a story about dictatorship, which is the more usual way for science fiction to do this. There are tons of Doctor Who stories about dictatorship—it’s the default shape of dystopias, after all. But The Enemy of the World is not ultimately interested in the shape of a dictatorship—indeed, a dictatorship never actually arises within its confines. It’s not even particularly interested in the conditions out ...

Praxeus Review

Let’s start with the biggest upsides. The story did not end by suggesting environmentalists were the real problem. It didn’t conclude that disabled people should use fewer straws. Indeed, politically it was basically ideal—a clear moral and ethical point that was the backdrop for an actual adventure instead of being sledgehammered in a “the moral of this story was” ending. And on top of that, it had well-defined characters and a coherent plot.

Obviously this is Stockholm Syndrome. Once again we are in the position of being pleasantly delighted that a story has come in at “vaguely competent” with a minimum of trauma. Even better, it’s done it three stories in a row, two of them rewritten by Chibnall. (Who has apparently managed the impressive feat of rewriting every person of color on staff this year, given next week’s credits.) This feels like a result, and while we know it shouldn’t, that’s where we are.

Nevertheless, it’s harder this week to really revel in an adequate job done more or less competently than it has been for the past two. Mostly this is down to small things. To do an extreme globe-hopping adventure in Doctor Who always feels a bit ...

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