If the Chibnall era is, as theorized last week, a latter-day Pertwee era, this is the equivalent of The Sea Devils
. Not so much flawless as without any major issues, at several points veering into fascinating but still basically uninspiring, and an all around good showing for the period. As is clearly usual for Chibnall’s solo scripts, it is simply unconcerned with the idea that it should be “about” something. Instead it is a jumble of elements being juxtaposed purposelessly, with all the unexpected pleasures and awkward dissonance that implies, although at some point one has to admit that the consistency with which the balance trends towards the former implies some sort of underlying aesthetic sense.
At its heart, of course, it’s a fairly unreconstructed base under siege. As is often the case with Chibnall, however, the reduction to influences doesn’t quite work as an explanation. The convention of base under sieges, especially in the modern era, is to use the support cast as a supply of potential deaths to be drawn from when things are getting a bit dry. There’s typically at least some effort to give them characterization so that these resulting deaths have some emotional resonance, but everyone’s point is still basically to die. But that’s not what’s going on here. There are only two deaths, and one of them is a heroic completion of an arc as opposed to a tension builder. Only Astos exists to die and advance the plot.
Instead we have an episode structured as a bunch of people getting on with their private dramas while an alien attacks their ship. The result is compelling in its weirdness, particularly around Yoss and his baby, a plot which ends up absorbing half the regular cast and contributing literally nothing whatsoever to the nominal focus of the episode. The resultant final sequence, where Yoss’s delivery is intercut with the defeat of the P’Ting, is possibly the most rawly batshit sequence we’ve seen in Doctor Who since The Zygon Inversion. It is not entirely unreasonable to judge the worth of a Doctor Who episode in terms of how completely insane its weirdest sequence would look to a channel surfer. By that measure, this is a thunderous tour de force.
The plot around Eve is more straightforward: a character flagrantly marked for death dies. But it’s still handled competently, and keeps the cast doing things other than getting picked off by the P’Ting. Whittaker, meanwhile, is finding new ways to play figuring stuff out and being given new angles on the problem—her bit responding to the computer’s explanation of the P’Ting with an enthusiastic line about feeling really well-informed is a deft lampshading of kludgey exposition dump. The problem of dealing with the P’Ting feels well-sized and suitably vexing, and the resultant solution is a clever use of the gun that was carefully positioned on the mantelpiece.
The whole is defiantly valued at the sum of its parts, but in this case the math checks out. And if the constant refusal to aspire to any sort of glory is getting exhausting (and certainly I’m starting to struggle to figure out how to review its endless parade of adequacy), it’s at least consistently an hour of fun every Sunday that’s capable of surprises. I’ve said for years that this is all I wanted from Doctor Who, and now I seem to be having that theory tested with a program that offers literally nothing else other than a vague and detached sense of “yup, that’s weird all right.” Which, I mean, this is probably how I’d feel watching the Pertwee era in real time. Hell, it’s more or less how I felt watching the Pertwee era at age eleven off of a bunch of VHS tapes. But at the end of the day, for all that I’ve made redemptive readings of the Pertwee era and come to terms with its virtues, it’s one of my least favorite eras of Doctor Who. And that’s about where we are here. This is clearly perfectly good, but I feel increasingly empty about it.
The main ray of hope, as I see it, is to remember Series 8. If we’d stopped time at the halfway point, just coming off of The Caretaker, we’d have a sense that the Capaldi era was a collection of slightly tired standards being done competently but unremarkably. Admittedly Series 8 had had Listen by this point to show that it could be brilliant, but it was still basically in the same position of doing the basics and ticking off boxes. Like then, however, we’re about to go into a stretch of four consecutive episodes by writers who have never written for Doctor Who. And several of them look tremendously promising—Kerblam! feels like it’s got a shot at being the next Paradise Towers. If we can get some classics over the next month this could quickly become an absolute stunner of a season. As it stands, the “no fuckups” streak makes it to five.
- I’m apparently setting “no fuckups” on my personal taste rather than consensus, given that GallifreyBase slagged this one hard. Which I wish I were baffled by, but nah, I’m not. In any case, if we define a fuckup as a story in the bottom 25%, the streaks per Doctor are Hartnell: 3, Troughton: 1 (I could be wrong there—I haven’t rewatched The Highanders since I wrote about it), Pertwee: 13(!), T. Baker: 2, Davison: 1, C. Baker: 0, McCoy: 6, McGann: 0, Eccleston: N/A (no stories in my bottom 25%), Tennant: 5, Smith: 2, Capaldi: 4. So Whittaker can’t take the record until next season, but she’s already tied for third.
- A lot of people expressed consternation about the male pregnancy plot in the leadup to this episode. I thought it was basically fine. As with the Doctor’s gender, Chibnall gets away with this with a studious lack of awareness of the trans implications, instead telling a goofy and actually kinda sweet story about masculinity. I do wish that we’d stop acting like anxiety over parenthood is entirely a thing men feel, but I’m still utterly charmed by constantly cutting away from women fighting monsters for scenes of male emotional sensitivity.
- The design of the P’Ting was also apparently not a hit. I’m almost at a loss for what to say to this. The idea that monsters have to always be scary, and with it that Doctor Who is always inherently better if it’s scary is one of the most banal and depressing viewpoints in fandom. The P’Ting is a solid concept with a genuinely delightful design. Cute but dangerous is an entirely coherent aesthetic category, and one not enough monsters fall into. (Really only the Daleks.) They’re the first new monster since the Boneless to immediately strike me as worth a return engagement.
- I’m still really grappling with the difficulty of dealing with Chibnall’s tendency towards stories that aren’t really about anything. It’s hard enough in reviews, but if I let myself start trying to imagine the Eruditorum entries for this era it’s more or less just flailing panic. I mean, maybe things will clarify in a few years when I actually have to think seriously about doing it, but for now it’s much easier to talk about quality than what the fuck all of this means. (Though I wonder how much of that is that the historical narrative is unsettled. Writing the Capaldi era suddenly became a lot simpler when 2016 happened.)
- On a brighter note, halfway through the season we have final ratings that have the first four episodes in 1st, 4th, 4th, and 4th place for the week, and The Tsuranga Conundrum placed 6th on overnights. The series doesn’t need to hold up that spectacularly over the back half to be the first season of Doctor Who ever to have every episode land in the top ten. Whatever I might gripe about, this clearly isn’t harming Doctor Who in the long run. I said that what the program needed was to be less perfectly catered to me than late Moffat was. Looks like I was right.
- Anyway, podcast this week with Beth Axford of The Time Ladies and the Doctor Who Magazine Time Team. It’s already in the can because the week was weird, and I can tell you it’s a fantastic one.
- And next week we’ve got the partition of India. This might not have the flashy “don’t fuck it up” stakes of Rosa, but for my money it’s the story this season with the widest possible range of genius and cratering fuckup. Very happy with who I assigned to podcast it.
- The Tsuranga Conundrum
- Arachnids in the UK
- The Ghost Monument
- The Woman Who Fell to Earth