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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

27 Comments

  1. David Cook
    February 12, 2024 @ 6:28 am

    Perhaps the best story of the era. It’s a shame that it looks like an accident and it wouldn’t be repeated (and a year later, Nora Inayat-Khan, who should have had a story to herself, is just a sub plot in a Master romp)

    Reply

    • Einarr
      February 12, 2024 @ 6:38 am

      That’s the most aggravating thing – that in the middle of S11, there is this really quite strong model for historical stories going forward, namely, to avoid focusing on the trappings of celebrity historicals and Main Characters of History and to instead linger on the forgotten casualties of major events… and then the rest of the era doesn’t follow up on it at all, and instead doubles down on Famous People with Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Khan, Tesla, Edison, the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori, Mary Seacole, and Madame Ching (only ‘Village of the Angels’ after this point is a non-celeb historical, though it’s more of a genre piece than about any real events anyway). I don’t think the story was an accident, in that I think Vinay Patel was very conscious of what he was doing here and why, but clearly the rest of the team didn’t learn from it in any way.

      Typically, in this respect S11 is building off the good foundations laid down in S10, where (after a few years of Celebrity Mythological stories, e.g. Robin Hood) both ‘Thin Ice’ and ‘The Eaters of Light’ also dwell on real events but make sure that their focus is on forgotten or lost underdogs who are the victims of oppression.

      Reply

      • Arthur
        February 12, 2024 @ 6:55 am

        We also end up getting into the Wikipedia Whittaker era, where Jodie’s Doctor reacts to meeting famous people by gabbling a Wikipedia summary of their biography, because apparently it is impossible for a storyteller to explain a historical character in any other way, just not possible at all, it’s the scriptwriting equivalent of calculating the square root of minus one. (/sarcasm)

        Reply

  2. Arthur
    February 12, 2024 @ 6:53 am

    For me this episode is the high water mark of the era – not because any of your criticisms are incorrect, they’re all accurate to my eyes, but simply because this is the last time the Chibnall era actually attempted something like this – the last time we get the show selecting a particular historical setting outside of the narrow assumed experience of middle-class England and telling a serious story in which the political context of the place in question is significant*.

    You’re right that this is the sort of thing that social realist prestige drama does better than SF genre TV, but equally prestige drama seems to be where Chibnall actually wants to be a lot of the time, at least in season 11 and in flickering brief moments of season 12. But to me, this and Rosa feel like the sole times when the era’s dedication to diversity feels like it’s trying to do something a bit deeper than just a performative box-ticking exercise.

    I despise describing it in those terms, which sound incredibly reactionary, but equally Chibnall too frequently engages in a reactionary’s idea of what diverse representation is without actually showing much understanding of why that representation is important in the first place, or how it demands to be tackled. A person that truly ideologically cared about a racially diverse slate of companions would not give all the personality to Graham and leave only scraps for Ryan and Yaz; a person that was passionately dedicated to disability representation would not constantly forget about Ryan’s dyspraxia; a person who truly recognised the importance of getting Jodie’s run right wouldn’t have half-assed her era of the show. Chibnall strikes me as the sort of person who understands that the reactionaries are the baddies, but has a worldview shockingly similar to theirs, which is why he’s able to do a version of the show which seems shockingly “woke” to them and desperately regressive to us.

    In other words, as you say, he’s a centrist.

    For that matter it’s perilously close to the last time we get “fifty perfectly watchable minutes of television that actually possess aboutness”, though I will always go to bat for It Takes You Away, largely for being a high water mark for Jodie’s Doctor and her moment of least passivity.

    Reply

  3. Richard Pugree
    February 12, 2024 @ 7:05 am

    Having this as the remembrance day episode, and actually pulling it off, is one of the few moments where the era seems to really try to explore the question of what C21st Doctor Who c/should be doing – what it could be for and how it might intervene in a particular contemporary moments. It’s a real shame that it doesn’t recognise that and take it somewhere (and the next episode fluffs it completely)

    But as an engagement with remembrance day, this works much better, I think, than Moffatt’s attempt with Death in Heaven (which aired Sat 8th Nov), in which the series-long soldier stuff ends up being too on the nose – but somehow also still muddled.

    Reply

    • Einarr
      February 12, 2024 @ 7:21 am

      Yeah, I was saying this elsewhere – that the context of this episode’s broadcast is incredibly important, much as the exact season/date/time of broadcast was emphasised in entries on ‘Kill the Moon’ and ‘Death in Heaven’. It airs on a poppy-mad nation’s Remembrance Sunday, precisely 100 years to the day after the WW1 Armistice, directly screening after the pomp and pageantry of the Queen at Westminster Abbey, and using that as a way to meditate on paying witness and tribute and remembrance not just to the soldiers of various ethnicities who fought for Britain in WW2 but also the forgotten casualties of Britain’s own actions…

      There are even carefully lingering shots of poppies in the Spanish fields pretending to be the Punjabi countryside – they knew what they were doing and saying. “If you want to do Remembrance, for God’s sake, it should be THIS.”

      Reply

      • Elizabeth Sandifer
        February 12, 2024 @ 12:12 pm

        I think you (or someone) said something like this in the comments on Patreon when this first went up, but as that’s an entire Patreon ago pulling it up and looking at the feedback to see if I wanted to make a revision was more than I was up for before posting this last night.

        But yes, good point once agai.

        Reply

        • Einarr
          February 12, 2024 @ 5:28 pm

          Yeah, that was me way back, because I repeat my points ad infinitum cycling round from one year to the next 😆

          Thanks though!

          Reply

  4. taiey
    February 12, 2024 @ 7:23 am

    The Thijarians are the audience identification characters, of course. They tell us what we’re doing.

    Reply

    • Sean Dillon
      February 12, 2024 @ 7:53 am

      Isn’t that just what the Doctor is doing?

      Reply

    • Radek
      February 12, 2024 @ 6:46 pm

      The Thijarians are the British. They are the BBC. They were terrible imperialists but now they make a point of “commemorating” and remembering the victims (i.e. making Doctor Who episodes about them).

      Reply

      • Einarr
        February 13, 2024 @ 8:26 am

        They’re arguably an imperfect analogue because the Thijarians in the story are presented not just as reformed violent assassins, but also as having suffered the massively traumatic loss of their homeworld and their “ancestors”. The destruction of not only one’s home but also one’s culture and history is much more akin to the experience of the colonised than of any colonisers.

        That said, it’s probably true to say that Britain is (still) in the grips of a sort of post-imperial ‘trauma’ (very much in scare quotes because it’s nothing compared to the multiple real traumas it inflicted) arising from the loss of its Empire and a sort of existential malaise about its place in the world that has haunted it ever since. So it’s not an impossible read by any means!

        Reply

        • Ross
          February 13, 2024 @ 9:14 am

          One might quite unpleasantly consider how often you see privileged people perceiving the loss of the tiniest bit of their privilege as “They’ve taken away our country, destroyed our way of life.” I don’t think Chibnall is anywhere near far enough down the rabbit hole to actively imagine that Britain’s comparative loss of status is really equivalent to the literal destruction of a homeland and loss of cultural history. But he might be enough of a hack to parrot those tropes back without thinking them through.

          Reply

        • David Cook
          February 13, 2024 @ 10:06 am

          You mean the British establishment? The ironic thing about their empire, is that the life of ordinary people in Britain improved as the empire declined. In the 19th Century (Britain’s “Imperial Century” no less) most hadn’t the vote, men, women and children risked life and limb slaving in the coal fields of in factories (while their employers bought up land throughout the country and kicked the people living there out) and faced prison or transportation of they got involved with a union or had the army attack them if they protested. And let’s not forget about the “famine” in Ireland.

          Reply

  5. William Shaw
    February 12, 2024 @ 9:41 am

    I’m not sure I agree this could have been a pure historical; if this is a drama all about bearing witness to history, the aliens whose purpose in life is to bear witness seem pretty important thematically, if not in plot terms.

    (I’m also dubious about ‘pure historical’ as a term, but that’s another comment).

    Reply

    • Riggio
      February 13, 2024 @ 1:56 pm

      As I was thinking back about this episode, I couldn’t help but think that there could be a really interesting story of conflict between the Doctor and the Thijarians. The Doctor and friends would be in the middle of a crazy, messy sci-fi war trying to save people, but the Thijarians keep interfering so that they can witness the deaths of everyone the Doctor is trying to rescue.

      It would give more context to the idea of fixed points in time that crop up through the series since 2005 too. I’ve talked about this in past Eruditora, but El’s misery creating this provokes me to think of it again. The Doctor can’t interfere in a lot of Earth’s history, but does all kinds of stuff in the history of other worlds. So maybe the difference is that the Doctor is so deeply integrated in Earth’s history, and their companions are usually from Earth, so the Doctor can’t mess with historical conditions that resulted in the birth of their friends. Barbara can’t save Aztec civilization because the Spanish conquest is a major event in her world’s history. Rose can’t save her dad because it won’t fit with the entire way she’s lived since she was a baby. Yaz can’t save her grandmother’s first husband because she won’t be born if her grandmother doesn’t remarry. It’s involvement, knowledge, and witness that fixes a point in time – so it’s only fixed for you. But cosmic witnesses like the Thijarians can fix all of time in place. And maybe that’s their goal.

      So here’s this planet where the Doctor is trying to do their Doctor thing, stop a war, save a bunch of people, save the whole planet mostly, and the Thijarians keep getting in her way, letting the war continue, and letting people die, because they consider their witnessing more important than actually doing good. Eventually, the Doctor just snaps.

      Reply

      • Przemek
        February 17, 2024 @ 11:19 am

        I like your idea very much, but now I’m trying to imagine Jodie’s Doctor “just snapping” and I just can’t do it. I feel like her “snapping” would amount to pushing over a garbage bin and then sulking in the TARDIS for a few days.

        Reply

  6. Brian Block
    February 12, 2024 @ 9:49 am

    The twist on “Kinda” is that the primitives are not primitives. That they in fact have advanced understanding of DNA, and that they have artificially bioengineered their planet to be the kind of planet they can live on lightly.

    Far from being imperialist gobbledygook, this is in fact a remarkably accurate metaphor for the real-life victims of colonization. The North American woods and plains, the Amazon jungles, the SE Asia rainforests, and the terraced Andes were intensely engineered, designed, managed locations, and I assume with less direct knowledge that so were most of the invaded parts of Africa. Colonists came and assumed untouched nature, falsely. And that, explicitly, is “Kinda”‘s situation, only even more so.

    Reply

    • n
      February 18, 2024 @ 5:55 pm

      Yeah, but having advanced technology shouldn’t actually be a requirement for being allowed to exist.

      Reply

  7. MrSinxist
    February 12, 2024 @ 12:00 pm

    2022? Shouldn’t it say 2018?

    Reply

    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      February 12, 2024 @ 12:11 pm

      Yeah. 2022 is when I wrote the essay, but that is indeed just confusing now.

      Reply

  8. John
    February 12, 2024 @ 3:12 pm

    To echo your thoughts at the end – this is the only Chibnall era episode so far where you’ve mentioned the characters in your essay and I was immediately able to remember who they were. 5 years, three and a half season’s worth of episodes, and this is the only one that had even that much of an effect on me. What is, in the context of the era it originates from, an absolute peak of pathos (and “aboutness” as you said), is in the context of other prestige television shows laughably below average.

    Reply

  9. Camestros Felapton
    February 12, 2024 @ 6:37 pm

    Absolutely – a lot to like here especially in that it does new things with the show (or at least unusual things). The Doctor’s passivity in the face of events is handled better here than in Rosa and paralleled by the aliens.

    And yet, it is still riddled with flaws. If it sat within a stronger season, that would be easier to ignore but not in one of the best episodes. And even here the show still doesn’t know what to do with Yaz in a fundamentally Yaz-centric episode.

    Reply

  10. magpiesovereign
    February 13, 2024 @ 6:37 am

    I rewatched this a few months ago, and while it does work quite well as an episode, it feels really dragged down by being part of a show that just isn’t working. Most clearly, the episode is obligated to find roles for Yaz, Graham, and Ryan, but the series so far has done almost nothing to establish them as interesting personalities. (For all its flaws, I think Kerblam does a pretty incredible job tackling the same problem, but the premise of that episode suits it better.)

    I think this episode could have been a lot, lot stronger if it had been allowed to ditch Graham and Ryan and give their time to Yaz’s family and the Yaz-Doctor relationship. Even then, it would have been an uphill battle working with Yaz as such a blank slate! Imagine if this had been the 6th episode of Pearl Mackie as Bill rather than the 6th episode of Mandip Gill as Yaz! By this time, we’d seen a lot of Bill in a lot of moods and situations, and I feel confident that Mackie would have been able to make some really interesting performance choices with this material and the established character. In contrast, Yaz has been so generic up to now that the best Gill is able to pull off is “broadly sympathetic human going through a tough time.”

    Ryan is served worst. About 8 minutes in, he gets the line: “Oh yeah, I could go to a wedding every day if I could,” presumably because he’s been hovering silently in the background for more than 3 minutes. It’s his biggest line of the episode so far, superceding: “Yeah, I’m well up for it.” It’s phrased strangely, completely humourless, and tells us nothing about the world, plot, or characters except possibly that Ryan is a person who phrases things strangely. In the mouth of a character who was like, more extroverted than average or a hopeless romantic, it could at least serve to reinforce a personality but that just doesn’t seem to be who Ryan is. This is arguably the Chibnall era at its best, and yet this line is surely more utterly worthless than anything you could find anywhere in series 1-10. Even in Davies and Moffat episodes far worse than Demons of the Punjab, they were able to give their scripts a veneer of lively sitcom dialogue, but Chibnall just doesn’t seem capable of that (as a script editor, I mean).

    I agree though, that this was basically a good episode and a good move for the show, and I would have preferred to watch the series keep trying to do this kind of thing, hopefully pulling it off increasingly well, rather than the pivot to Doctor Who about Doctor Who in Series 12 and beyond.

    Reply

  11. Riggio
    February 13, 2024 @ 11:56 am

    Here’s a curious moment of insight into what I found one of the frustrating parts of the Chibnall years: “As with Rosa, it feels like its primary goal is to be able to say that Doctor Who has done a story about Partition.”

    What I couldn’t stand was the anemic publicity style of Doctor Who when Chibnall was in charge. Nothing specific, no hooks or images or funky images about the stories at all, were ever really used with any prominence in marketing the show. You’ve described it as being freakishly averse to spoilers of any kind, as if knowing the facts of the story were all anyone cared about in the unfolding of a story. That’s right. But there’s also the weirdness of content-free publicity.

    If you primarily cared about protecting the audience from spoilers, you could still do interesting, engaging trailers and previews using a bait-and-switch style. Use some clips and images in the advertising to make the audience think the story is about one kind of thing, but have it actually be about another. Surprise reveals, sudden plot twists that change the premise around. Those are great. But Chibnall seems to think that all anyone cares about in Doctor Who is that Doctor Who is here. “Stand in front of this nondescript background, everyone on Doctor Who. Now, when people see this publicity photo, they will look at the date and know that Doctor Who will be here soon.” All that seems to matter in Chibnall’s perspective is that there is Doctor Who, that Doctor Who is here doing this story. Doctor Who was, as of now, present at the India-Pakistan Partition. Just like the concept of the passive Doctor, all that matters is mere presence, not action.

    Reply

  12. Brett
    February 13, 2024 @ 10:54 pm

    “modern Doctor Who is a lot better suited to moral clarity than it is to poignant ambivalences”

    I prefer Classic, for all its flaws, over Modern Era, and you have just precisely articulated exactly what I couldn’t put into words, and didn’t consciously know, until I read what you wrote.

    Thank you.

    Reply

  13. Przemek
    February 17, 2024 @ 11:09 am

    Way back in the Troughton volume you offered a great explanation of why the pure historical had to die: because being unable to change history clashes with the idea of the Doctor as an active, heroic figure that fight evil. “Demons…”, being an almost pure historical, is the perfect showcase for that argument. The Doctor witnesses the horrors of the past, gets sad about them and leaves. It damn near destroys the entire point of the character (or it would have, had 13 not been designed as an ineffective figure right from the start).

    Are there ways around that problem? Sure, and the new series has already offered a few. The obvious point of comparison is “Fires of Pompeii” where the answer to the question “what does the Doctor do when they’re helpless?” turns out to be “they find a way to help someone anyway”. But “Demons” doesn’t really use that. The Doctor’s influence on the plot is negligible.

    The whole Chibnall era’s approach to the horrors of the past is disturbing. I guess “Demons” at least deserves praise for not making the Doctor and the companions actively complicit in making sure those horrors happen, like in “Rosa”.

    Reply

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