Still not a spectacular insta-classic, but at least it’s an episode that stays away from most of the obvious things it could be as well. The double-threat structure means that there’s building momentum at all moments of the plot, which is good. Less good is the no-doubt budget-required decision to have two of the three plot strands consist of people standing in a room urgently discussing the plot. The biggest problem here is probably the strand consisting of Tanya and her parents, which ends up being in the kind of awkwardly stupid position of ineffectually relaying information between the two actual plots. But none of the plots are particularly high on urgency - it’s a significant problem that the flowers plot requires Dorothea to simply declare that they’re running out of time in order to garner momentum, and a pretty big one that Ram and April are essentially left with nothing to do but walk around for most of the episode.
So that’s what keeps it just shy of genius. On the other hand, however, there’s what the show always has, which is a dogged determination to be interesting. For instance, Ram and April’s relationship continues to be pitched well. It’s very eager to shout “WE ARE NOT FALLING INTO CONVENTIONAL TROPES OF TEEN ROMANCE,” which is probably irksome to some people, most probably teenagers, but the flipside of that is that it’s legitimately not falling into the conventional tropes of teen romance. Personally, I hope the season ends without them saying they love each other. That would be fantastic. (Also, though I missed a fair chunk of the details of the dialogue, the conversation about Ram’s Sikh heritage was a hoot.)
Even better are Charlie and Ms. Quill, who continue to go in unexpected directions. Has there ever, in the history of Doctor Who, been such a concentrated effort to take violent revolutionary politics as a serious moral position? I mean, it’s far from perfect, and the show would be wildly more interesting if Quill were presented as a hothead who considers violence a legitimate tactic as opposed to an ideological warrior for whom killing her enemies is her default setting. Indeed, and this is obviously a viewpoint influenced by political concerns that the episode couldn’t possibly respond to, I think equating violent resistance to slavery with the fetishization of violence is grotesque and irresponsible. But I still appreciate that this is a show willing to take the accusation of slavery completely seriously in the first place. And I want to be clear, I like Quill’s tendency to fly off the handle in the general case - her last scene with Dorothea is brilliant stuff. And I like that she’s being freed from her slavery now and that we get to see her unchained. I just wish that the surprisingly nuanced portrait of revolutionary violence was subtler yet.
But for the most part this is still another worthy but unspectacular example of the show’s default setting. It’s not leaning on any overly obvious plot structures, which is nice, but it’s not replacing them with interesting ideas either - just with a different sort of autopilot and wallpaper. And while that’s a form of progress, this was also probably the best shot the show was going to have to demonstrate an ability to do something extraordinary or surprising, at least in it’s first season. It deserves a second to keep trying, and I’m excited for the remaining three episodes, but I don’t see much that’s going to make this show stop feeling like a missed opportunity.