In any previous season, this would have been a minor gem; in this context, it feels like a cool drink of water in the desert. After five episodes that repeatedly struggled at the task of being about things where the one that seemed to know what it was doing had its own deep problems, here we get an episode of admirable clarity and focus that deftly balances the broad historical and intimate personal scales. There’s nothing save for the agonizingly overdue engagement with India that makes the story extraordinary, but there’s also a refreshing lack of any significant flaws, and all in all this feels like the most developed idea of what Doctor Who should be in 2018 that we’ve had to date.
Let’s start with the politics. There are obvious fallings short; the clangingly bad line about the Doctor forwarding Prem’s complaints on to Mountbatten next time she sees him being the worst. And more broadly, there’s a milquetoast tendency throughout to place responsibility for the violence of partition on the masses instead of on the British empire, which finds itself blamed more for the carelessness of partition than for the exploitation that preceded it. None of this was sufficient to spoil my enjoyment; I suspect Jack will feel differently. Indeed, in some ways I hope that he does, because the show should be held to account for things like this. But as an American who learned a lot about partition from this episode, I’ll merely flag it as a concern and return to it in the podcast.
Instead, let’s turn to the story’s notion of what history is. Unlike with Rosa, what we have here is much more consistently a Whtitakerian “not one line” to history’s permanence. As with most of the Hartnell era (The Aztecs, ironically, excepted) this is not presented as a moral point so much as a pragmatic one. The TARDIS team is simply not put in a position to make changes to history. This isn’t a celebrity historical where the Doctor meets Mountbatten (which is part of why that line rankles so badly); it’s a story where she’s on a farm in a remote part of the border outside the Welshest forest in India. Changing history isn’t a concern in the first place. Even the inevitable death of Prem is largely taken out of the Doctor’s hands, positioned outside of morality by the fact that any other outcome would eliminate Yaz from history. The same sense of passivity that pervades Rosa is in play here, but it’s justified as something other than moral duty, and finds itself working, much as it did in 1964.
Indeed, this is in many ways the closest to a pure historical the new series has yet come. Rosa may have been low on sci-fi trappings, but the plot was still fundamentally science fiction: two time travellers fighting over history. There’s no way to rewrite it as a pure historical without losing the central plot. But there’s no real reason the Vajarian need to be here. The only key piece of plot they provide—the explanation of what actually happened—could easily have been accomplished through other means. Beyond that, they’re just there because apparently we’re not allowed to have Doctor Who without aliens any more; a feint to let the episode set up its later character drama.
Where the story differs from anything the 1960s would have done is the tone and nature of that character drama. It’s not just that the basic setup of having one of the companions learn about their family history was inaccessible to the era of fully random TARDIS landings. It’s that the 1960s, even when deep in the Lucarotti tradition of historicals, were still invested in treating the past as a genre to be visited. This is true even when the show visits British history, hence Miles and Wood’s blistering term “historical theme park Britain,” but it’s been acutely true in the handful of occasions when the show has tried to engage with non-western cultures. It’s worth noting that if we make a list of Doctor Who stories set in non-western historical eras we get Marco Polo and The Aztecs in 1964, The Abominable Snowmen in 1967, and then literally nothing whatsoever until this, which is also the first one to be written by a person of color. Widening the net to include depictions of non-western culture in general rapidly gets us The Talons of Weng-Chiang. I probably needn’t go on. The point is that even if doing a small and personal story about one family’s buried trauma were something 1960s Doctor Who would have considered, this specific story is simply unapproachable.
Are there problems? Yes. There’s an irksome sense that Manish only starts objecting to the wedding when the Doctor shows up, as opposed to this being a long-running family argument. The revelation that the Vajarians aren’t evil comes basically out of nowhere and lacks adequate setup. It forgets to really give Yaz a solid moment of her own in the climax. And it’s, to say the least, puzzling that the Doctor completely fails to notice a bullet hole when inspecting a corpse. But few Doctor Who stories are without a decent “Things That Don’t Make Sense” section, and these are minor sins by those standards. This is a mature and confident script that suggests the “so much for the showrunner’s scripts but the rest have a good chance of being interesting” view of the Chibnall era might yet work out. God we needed this.
- Something of a questionable decision to have an alien that’s essentially the same thing as Moffat’s final episode. God forbid a famous criminal dies alone and the Tessalecta, the Valjarians, and the Testament all show up simultaneously. (More seriously, why is this becoming a recurrent trope of the decade in the same way that Von Dannikenism is in the 1970s? The other big recurring trope here, monsters that aren’t actually monsters, makes a fairly intuitive historical sense, but what’s up with witnessing and testimony? Find out in a future TARDIS Eruditorum no doubt.)
- Although Jamie Childs’s direction, as with “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” is on the lackluster side (and we brought him back for two at the end of the run too? Why?) I love the mid-conversation teleport. That’s a properly good shot, simultaneously disorienting and smooth.
- One thing I’m really hoping we get this season is just a proper iconic Doctor moment. Whittaker has been good throughout, but she’s yet to have a moment I’ve felt is great. In this she mirrors the bulk of the episodes; good, solid, functional, and stubbornly unspectacular. She’s clearly capable of great moments, mind you; this is purely a writing problem.
- To check in with companions, Lawrence Miles’s episode one judgment is looking increasingly suspect as Graham, improbably, is increasingly emerging as the most solidly characterized of the bunch. Part of this is the consistency with which he’s given big moments, as with his last interaction with Prem, but it’s also just that Bradley Walsh knows what he’s doing and can sell a moment with a focus that his younger co-stars just don’t have. Yaz remains full of promise but let down by the writing, while Ryan splits the difference. All in all, though, this is a crowded series, which is exacerbating the degree to which nobody has had a properly brilliant moment.
- On a related note, I’m really not sure I’ve ever doubted my ranking as much as I do this season. I’m pretty confident in #1 at the moment, but every other story has such egregious inadequacies that I really just don’t even know what it means to rank them. I haven’t rewatched large swaths of them, and so a lot of it is based on comparing a sense of initial novelty to the memory of previous novelties. How one compares this, or even the idea of making qualitative judgments across the season feels faintly absurd.
- All of this makes it sound like I’m much more unhappy with the series than I actually am. It remains perfectly enjoyable, while still being spectacularly unsatisfying from the perspective of a long-term fan who has written way more about Doctor Who than anyone actually should.
- But seriously, this was a rock solid episode. Hard to think of another season it’d be at the top of as an episode six. But if I look at Series 3 or Series 4—two perfectly satisfying seasons—they’ve only got one story in their first half I like better than this. Actually, Series 10 is a pretty close-run thing in terms of whether this would top its first six. That comparison ignores average quality, but it at least speaks well of this episode.
- Anyway. Jack’s on the podcast on Thursday, and I’m tentatively really excited for Kerblam! So let’s see where we are in a week.
Increasingly WTF Ranking
- Demons of the Punjab
- The Tsuranga Conundrum
- Arachnids in the UK
- The Ghost Monument
- The Woman Who Fell to Earth