Tag Archives: Doctor Who

5 Sci-Fi Shows to watch instead of the New Doctor Who

Since I made the decision to give up on Chibnall’s travesty of a Doctor Who series, I have felt a palpable sense of relief. Sunday evenings are considerably less depressing now. For those of you in the same boat, I thought I’d recommend a few alternate ways for you to experience some good science fiction on TV. So here’s 5 of my favourites, all of which are considerably better value than any more hours with Whittaker’s Doctor will be.

1. Red Dwarf: The UK’s second longest-running Sci-fi series, Red Dwarf is about as far as you can get from Who. Political Correctness is usually mocked rather than adhered to. Comedy takes precedence over drama. The episodes are all around 30-40 minutes long. None of the characters are meant to be role-models, so they often get pushed into greyer territory. Most importantly, the series is meant for adults, not children, so we don’t get all this nauseating kindergarten-morality and dumbed-down explanations shoved in. As for the quality of the series, it is admittedly variable, but there’s some great runs in there (Series 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 are bloody brilliant) and even the more recent series, which can be comparatively weak, occasionally throw up an absolute gem of an episode (Series 8’s ‘Cassandra’, Series 10’s ‘Dear Dave’, Series 12’s ‘Mechocracy). The main cast are all brilliant, featuring Craig Charles (Corrie, Robot Wars) as the slobbish Lister, Chris Barrie (Lara Croft films) as the incompetent elitist Rimmer, Danny John-Jules (of this year’s Strictly) as the Self-Absorbed Cat and Robert Llewellyn (some tech shows on channel 5) as the subservient mechanoid Kryten. The interplay between the four of them is brilliant, and makes even less-funny instalments of the series watchable. The science fiction elements are quite good too, even if done in a knockout way. We get holograms, demented droids, time-travel, virtual reality and a lot of shade being thrown at Star Trek. What more could you want? Available on Netflix and UKTV play.

High Point: Series 6. One episode got a BAFTA nomination, but to be honest, all 6 episodes are comedy gold.

Low Point: Back to Earth. It may have got the series re-commissioned on Dave, but this three part special is short on laughs and high on stupidity.

2. Star Trek: Voyager: If you fancy a more serious alternate to Doctor Who, Star Trek is the obvious option that springs to mind from across the pond. With aliens, space battles, timey-wimey episodes and a MUCH larger budget than Doctor Who, it seems like a natural fit for Whovians. But which one to go for? Trekkies would probably either recommend the Original Series (the one with William Shatner as Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock) or the Next Generation (with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard). Both have their plus points, as does Deep Space Nine (the third series), but to be honest, they can all be hard to get into, as they’ve either aged a lot or don’t have stellar first series. I’d recommend avoiding Enterprise (the least loved prequel series) or Discovery (Netflix’s appalling spin-off). Personally, i’d go for Voyager. It’s got a more episodic feel to it, which makes it more accessible to casual viewers and people who aren’t all that familiar with Star Trek. It also has arguably the most engaging cast of any of the Star Trek shows. It’s very much an ensemble piece, including Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black) as the formidable Captain Janeway, Robert Beltran as her stalwart but spiritual First Officer, Robert Picardo as the ship’s hologrammatic Doctor (who has a terrible bedside manner), Tim Russ as Tuvok, a Vulcan Security Officer, Roxanne Dawson as the half-Klingon engineer with serious anger issues and Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine, a reformed Borg Drone (and arguably the best character in Star Trek) who turns up in Season 4. The show has a unique plot compared to most Star Trek series, as Voyager sees the crew utterly cut off from Star Fleet and any human contact, allowing for more inventive stories and a whole host of recurring alien races, most notably the Borg. The Borg are Star Trek’s answer to Cybermen, but honestly, it uses them far better than Modern Who has used the Cybermen. The Borg are relentless, genuinely scary, and while they do get overused later in Voyager’s run, they never outstay their welcome. The show was made in the late 90’s, so the effects still hold up very well, and while there’s a few bad episodes in the shows seven seasons, most are enjoyable on some level (and crucially, less dull than some of the other Star Trek series). Ultimately, this is probably my favourite Sci-Fi series at the moment. Best of all – its all on Netflix.

High Point: Seasons 4, 5 and 7 are very, very good. There’s so many strong episodes its hard to narrow that down much further.

Low Point: The Early part of Season 2 and the Middle Part of Season 3 are pretty bad, but both series’ eventually recover to finish on highs, so stick with it.

3. Blakes 7: While Red Dwarf is the UK’s second most known Sci-fi show, arguably the second best one is Blakes 7, which ran for four series from 1978-1981. It was created by Terry Nation, the man who created the Daleks for Doctor Who, and reflected the bleak, dark nature of his worldview and stories. Often described as ‘Robin Hood in space’ or ‘the dirty dozen’ in Space, it featured a regular cast of between five and seven rebels fighting against the tyrannical federation, a totalitarian regime that had control over Earth and the majority of human colonies in the milky way. Like Voyager, it works because of the characters, who are all various shades of grey, whether heroes or villains. There’s no boring ‘black and white’ morality here – the majority of rebels are convicted criminals (thieves, hackers, smugglers, murderers) and are somewhat justifiably presented by the federation as terrorists, while the villains are generally complex characters and never just moustache twirling villains. On the rebel side, you have the titular Blake, a fanatical but generally well-meaning leader, Vila, a cowardly thief, Jenna, a no-nonsense smuggler, Cally, a telepathic gunslinger/medic, Gan, a hulking if dim-witted giant and Avon, a thoroughly duplicitous hacker played by the marvellous Paul Darrow, who proved so popular he took over as lead actor for series 3 and 4. The villains include Travis, a ruthless federation officer with a penchant for leather outfits, and Servalan, his female superior, who is notably one of the first ever female villains in sci-fi and radiates power, malevolence and dangerous beauty throughout. There are some similarities to Classic Who and Classic Star Trek, but Blakes 7 is very much its own thing. While aliens play a part in events, its one of those sci-fi shows where humans are very much the real villains. There’s few high-concepts like time-travel, though teleportation and high-speed space travel play a big part. Overall its a gritty, dark thoroughly adult sci-fi show, which is still remembered on account of it having one of the bleakest and most infamous endings of any TV show. You have been warned. (For god’s sake don’t look it up in advance – that would be akin to spoiling the Red Wedding). You can buy the complete box set for around £20, which is pretty damn good for 52, fifty minute episodes.

High Point: Avon might just be the best anti-hero in Science fiction, while Servalan is definitely one of the all-time great female sci-fi villains.

Low Point: The special effects vary between dire and mediocre. Blame the BBC for giving it a shoestring budget.

4. Stranger Things: If you’re after something more modern, the best current sci-fi show I can think of is Stranger Things. I’ve reviewed it before, so I won’t go into as much detail, but Stranger Things is a great episode of how to mix drama, comedy, horror and fantasy into one great Science Fiction show. Set in the 80’s, it feels like a homage to a whole variety of 80’s cult and sci-fi films, including Aliens and many Spielberg films. The direction is universally good, the writing is consistently strong (even if both seasons take 3-4 episodes to properly get going) and the music is absolutely sublime. But the main reason you’ll stick with it is the cast, featuring established greats like Winona Ryder, Sean Astin, Dave Harbour and Paul Reiser, but also young stars like Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard. Given how often Star Trek and Doctor Who have been let down by poor child-actors, it’s refreshing to see an adult-oriented show that actually has a really engaging young cast. The sci-fi elements are really great, featuring alternate dimensions and creepy government labs, you’ll have seen it all before, but not as compellingly done as it is here. On Netflix, you’ll probably binge the whole thing in 4 or 5 days.

High Point: Hard to say, but the last three episode of season 1 and episodes 5-9 of season 2 are unmissable television.

Low Point: The first few episodes may not hook you, but there isn’t really a bad one so far. It’s a pretty consistent show to be honest.

5. (Classic) Doctor Who: Slight cheat this, but given how few ‘fans’ have ever really gone back and watched the classic series its a valid option, and given its stories are normally 4-6 part instalments of 25 minutes each, it feels quite different from the Doctor Who you’re probably used to. Given there are 26 series from 1963-1989, featuring 7 very distinct Doctors (most people would plump for Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton as the best, but Jon Pertwee is up there too) you can sate your fix for Doctor Who without bearing with Chibnall’s clusterfuck or re-watching Eccleston-Capaldi for the umpteenth time. While you may struggle with the cheap and lacklustre special effects and some mediocre stories and companions, there’s plenty of great Doctors, great companions (Sarah Jane, The Brigadier, Jamie, Ian and Barbara, K9, Romana – just to name a few) and some stories that are equal to anything the modern series has produced: The Invasion (1969), Inferno (1970), Genesis of the Daleks (1975), Earthshock (1981), The Caves of Androzani (1984) and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) are all some of my (and the fanbases) favourites, and are good ones to try out to see if you can handle the classic era. Don’t start with Hartnell and go chronologically – the majority of bad who stories come from either the early 60’s or the mid eighties. I’d recommend you start from Patrick Troughton’s second series (The Tomb of the Cybermen onwards) through to when Peter Davison exits. You’ll find the odd bad episode, but you’ll get some of the best Dalek and Cybermen stories out there, as well as seeing the introductions of Davros, the Master, the Sontarans, the Silurians, the Ice Warriors and UNIT, so there’s plenty of things to watch out for. Just don’t expect it to look anywhere near as good as the modern series. It doesn’t. The direction can be quite good though, even if the composers aren’t in Murray Gold’s league. Not all the episodes are easy to find, but many are on dailymotion and most are relatively cheap to buy on dvd.

High Point: Tom Baker’s 2nd (1975), 3rd (1976) and 5th (1978) series are about as good as you can get, but Pertwee’s 1st series (1970), Sylvester McCoy’s last series (1989) and Patrick Troughton’s third series (1969) all feature some great stories and are pretty good throughout.

Low Point: There’s some really bad William Hartnell stories, and Colin Baker’s tenure was very hit-and-miss, but you can’t get worse than McCoy’s first series in 1987. It’s probably the only one worse than the series currently airing. It features four stories, all of which are bad, and Bonnie Langford’s Mel has to be the worst companion in the series 55-year history.

So there you go: my take on some shows disillusioned Whovians might appreciate at the moment. Or you can just go and rewatch Torchwood. Your call!

Advertisements

How Doctor Who S11 could have been saved.

I’ve been a Doctor Who fan (I hate the term Whovian) for over 13 years. The series has had its ups and downs in that time, but I’ve always stuck with it. Even series 10, which tested my patience, had the hooks of an intriguing finale and Capaldi’s exit to convince me to go the distance. But the current series has finally broken my resolve. My interest in the show, at long last, has died. The sad thing is, it really could have been so different. In the words of Peter Davison’s Doctor ‘there should have been another way…’

Having decided to give up, my weekly Who reviews will cease. I may eventually do more Who related content, but this will likely be revisiting either the classic era or episodes from the Davies and Moffat runs. So as a sort of last hurrah, here’s my opinion on how Series 11 could (and should) have been so much better.

Option 1: Fire Chibnall and hire a decent showrunner.

There’s still a possibility that S11 will get its act together with a run of four non-Chibnall episodes. But even if it did, Chibnall’s doing the finale and will still do the lion’s share of the following season – which makes me dead set against continuing. Showrunners have a massive impact on modern TV shows, and while the show can survive hit-and-miss writers (Russell T. Davies) and divisive showrunners (Steven Moffat) it can’t maintain the quality if the head showrunner is a consistently poor writer. A lot of my pre-existing concerns about Chibnall stemmed from his record as showrunner on Torchwood Series 1 and 2. While both series have highs and lows, Chibnall’s episodes were never the highlights, and often included some of the worst in each run (Cyberwoman, Countrycide, etc.). Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t involved in Children of Earth, which was Torchwood’s undisputed highlight, or Miracle Day, its more mixed sequel. This combined with his mixed record on Who should have ruled him out for the position. Especially when the other options were considerably better. I’m not a Being Human fan, but Toby Whitehouse’s experience as a showrunner of a cult fantasy show like that made him a prime candidate for Who (not to mention his record on both Torchwood and Who edges Chibnall’s). Other Who writers who’ve excelled in recent seasons might have also been good shouts (Peter Harness springs to mind – Kill the Moon, the Zygon 2-parter, The Pyramid at the End of the World). Jamie Mathieson would also be up there, as of course would Neil Gaiman. But frankly, its hard to envisage ANYONE having done a worse job than Chibnall. You could have given it to the Merlin/Atlantis guys, who’ve never even written for Who, and I’d probably be happier.

Option 2: Reduce Chibnall’s input and hire more of the proven Who writers. 

If the showrunner is flawed, the show can still succeed, but this is normally only true when the showrunner writes very few episodes. Think of Tennant’s first series. Davies wrote 5 episodes out of 13, but even though 2 of them were utterly dire (New Earth, Love and Monsters) it didn’t hamstring the series, because he nailed the finale and the other writers by and large did a very good job. Chibnall’s decision to retain NO existing Who writers never sat well with me. You need variety on a show like this, and that comes from different writing styles as much as different plots during episodes. Having 5 Chibnall episodes in a row at the start was beyond excessive (especially in a ten episode series), and its telling the only standout was the one co-written by Malorie Blackman. Even Moffat, Who’s best modern writer, never wrote half the episodes of any of his series. He had more sense than that. So, Chibnall should have spread his episodes out a bit more, as well as writing less of them (the opener, the 2nd episode and the finale would have been a good shout). If only he’d hired more proven writers. The number of former who writers who deserve another crack at it is very high: Neil Gaiman (The Doctor’s Wife), Tom Macrae (The Girl Who Waited), Rob Shearman (Dalek), Simon Nye (Amy’s Choice), Matt Jones (The Satan Pit) and Paul Cornell (Human Nature) all come to mind as writers of hit episodes who’d be welcome back. Sure, not all of them may want to, but you’re not seriously telling me NONE of them would?

Option 3: Recast the Doctor. (Hold fire people, hear me out).

It’s really hard to tell whether Jodie’s Whittaker’s take on the character is suffering purely as a result of the writing, or whether she just isn’t suited to the role. Her hit rate is slightly better than Chibnall’s (2 good episodes, 1 average, 2 bad) but her Doctor has some serious issues. Her preachy nature grates really badly, and while her pacifism is a Doctor-ish trait, its being pushed to extremes (think Tennant’s final season, where the character became excessively passive). Her manic energy isn’t as infectious as Smith’s, and her relentless enthusiasm is borderline annoying, and while Jodie’s acting isn’t in question, I do not think the way she’s playing the role suits either her or the character.

Before I get savaged by feminist Whovians, this has literally nothing to do with her being a woman. Her first episode proved that a woman can play the role without any issues (which Michelle Gomez’s run as the Master had already shown most fans anyway). I’d happily welcome another female Doctor, but I’d prefer it to be someone who’s a genuine fan of the show (like Tennant or Capaldi) or someone who can deliver a truly unique take on the character (like Tom Baker or Christopher Eccleston). Jodie’s a fine actress, but I’m not convinced she’s what the show needs.

Just off the top of my head, there are numerous actresses who could own the role (Claire Foy, Maxine Peake, Helena Bonham Carter, Krysten Ritter, Hayley Atwell etc.). If the BBC wanted to go another way for diversity, there’s plenty of non-white actors who’d do a great job (David Harewood, Mahershala Ali, Richard Ayoade, etc.) I’m not one of those people who ever believes acting roles should be cast on the basis of skin colour/gender (unless the character is intrinsically tied to being one way, such as James Bond being always male, Black Panther always being a black actor etc.). But the Doctor isn’t defined by either of those things. So frankly, it doesn’t matter who plays him/her so long as they can do the job. I’m honestly not sure Jodie can.

But from what we’ve seen so far and what’s been said in interviews, I sense Jodie mainly got chosen for two reasons: the BBC/Chibnall wanted a female Doctor; and Chibnall knew and liked her because she worked with him on Broadchurch. Neither of which are good reasons. Moffat’s worked with hundreds of great actors/actresses (Jack Davenport, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michelle Ryan, James Nesbitt) but he chose ones he’d never worked with before. Davies had no pre-existing ties to Tennant, and while he knew Eccleston, Chris was never his first choice. If Jodie was picked because she’s Chibnall’s vision of the character personified, that’s more justifiable but doesn’t help, as his vision is all out of whack.

Option 4: Totally re-work every aspect of Series 11.

Hiring better directors would be a good start (Bring back Rachel Talalay, or hire the standout ones who work for Netflix or Game of Thrones). Using some old monsters rather than dispensable villains-of-the-week (okay, the Daleks, Master and Cybermen have been overused, but there’s plenty of stories left to tell with the Weeping Angels, Sontarans or Ice Warriors, to name just three). Aim the show at a family audience or a young adult one NOT just at children. The show has only really been a pure children’s show once in its history (the early William Hartnell era) and the show wisely ducked out of that approach in the mid/late sixties. Who has always been, and always should be, a program both adults and children can enjoy – and right now it isn’t. Give it a proper story arc or make it entirely episodic (its currently trying to do both and thus is not succeeding at either).

Also, you could change the main cast. The show has only had two spells of three companions in the Tardis (1963-1965, 1980-1982) and to be honest, both those eras have a couple of very weak companions, even if some of them are stronger (Ian and Barbara, Turlough). This is natural, because let’s face it, developing four main characters in a satisfying way and giving them all enough to do on a show like Who isn’t easy. There’s a reason Moffat didn’t have River travel with Amy and Rory full time. If there has to be three companions, why not do something really different and kill Ryan in the opening episode, and have Grace travel with Graham and the Doctor instead? She was a much more interesting character in the premiere, and we’ve never had an older couple in the Tardis (or even an older woman), and you’d still have the whole grief plotline playing out over the series, and the superlative Bradley Walsh. Ryan is nothing we haven’t seen before (male sidekick character who gets involved in the action or serves as comic relief). Aside from his dyspraxia, he really has very little to differentiate himself from Mickey or Rory (particularly if they go the predictable route and pair him up with Yaz). No slight on Tosin Cole’s acting, but aside from the Rosa episode, the character hasn’t shown a lot of potential. Rather than making stupid political points in a ham-fisted way every two episodes, how about the show does something truly groundbreaking, like putting the Doctor and Yaz in a relationship (not only does that have TONNES of storytelling potential, but it would also give Yaz something to do, not to mention allow the show to explore the Doctor’s sexuality, which is a topic it rarely dares touch). Additionally, rather than glossing over the Doctor’s gender change with a couple of jokes, how about explore the impact this has on the character. I’m not saying the Doctor should visibly change personality or dislike the idea, but given the character has never changed gender before, you’d think we’d at least see some sort of phase where she gets used to it.

Well there you have it. I’ll bring this to a close before it goes any further into a full-on rant, but there you have it. It’s only my opinion, and the show may yet prove me wrong. But either way, I’m not tuning in to find out.

Since I’m no longer covering Who, expect a few more video game reviews and Netflix Shows on my blog in the future. I may have started the blog to write about Doctor Who, but honestly, it’s not worth it anymore, even if its behind some of my most-read articles.

Thank you to everyone who’s read, liked, or commented on my Doctor Who reviews and articles, but after 4 years of blogging and 13 years of watching, I’m hanging up my sonic.

‘Doctor… I let you go’ (If only it had ended with Peter).

 

Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum Review

By Chris ‘can’t write for toffee’ Chibnall

Minor spoilers follow

The fact I’m insulting the writer in the first line probably tells you what I thought of this one. It many ways it wasn’t as irritating as ‘The Ghost Monument’ or ‘Arachnids in the UK’ but it had another, major, problem. It bored me.

First the (few) positives. The P’Ting was actually quite an interesting idea, even if it looked like a gremlin crossed with the crazy frog. The idea of an alien that isn’t inherently evil but causes misery via its own efforts to survive has been done before on Who (those Stingrays in Planet of the Dead for example) but never quite like this. Chibnall’s irritating and ham-fisted politics rarely reared their head here. Also the direction was competent and the special effects have never been better. Unfortunately, I just ran out of positives.

Even the things I’ve liked about previous episodes didn’t shine here. The music faded into the background and wasn’t remotely memorable. Bradley Walsh did a good job but had nothing to work with this time. Ryan and Yaz got a share of the action but had nothing interesting to really do (again!). Jodie’s Doctor was less preachy but her enthusiasm remains annoying rather than infectious (if they’re going for a female Matt Smith vibe, they’re failing badly!). It seems clear that Chibnall always places more emphasis on the guest characters than the main cast, which was okay in previous weeks because the guest actors were usually interesting, well written or performed well.

This week, they were well acted but poorly written and totally bland. I couldn’t give a damn if any of them survived, which is never a good sign. Whatever you thought of Russell T. Davies, at least his supporting characters dying had an impact on the episode (As shown by the flashbacks in Journey’s End). Whatever you thought of Clara, Bill, Amy or Rory, at least Moffat ALWAYS gave them something of note to do. Chibnall is failing on both counts right now. He’s wasting his energy writing sub-plots no one really cares about (such as the Cicero siblings animosity or the male pregnant alien – who the hell bloody cares!!). The only thing he throws in that has an impact is Ryan and Graham’s shared grief, but that’s 2 mins out of 50 and can’t carry things by itself. Ryan’s absent father plot might work depending on how it pays off, but his revelation to Yaz about his mother seemed really random and not naturally brought up – the writing felt forced, as if Chibnall thought this needed to be introduced now, when really it should have been drip-fed throughout the series.

The big problem in the episode was the threat level was high, but you knew it would be okay in the end (one character might die, but you know a ship full of main cast can’t be destroyed. Again, the supporting characters being bland doesn’t help either, cause they’re the only ones ever really at threat here. The most interesting of them is dead in the first 15 mins, too.

Overall, the episode looks good and has a memorable alien for the first time this year, but the writing lets it down again, with bland characters, a half-baked plot and an ill-used cast. I’m hoping the other writers might pick things up now Chibnall’s run of stories is done. But I won’t hold my breath.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Next Time: A Yaz centric episode? Let’s hope it finally gives Mandip Gill something to work with.

Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK Review

By Chris Chibnall

Minor Spoilers Follow.

So after an intriguing opener, a frustratingly bland follow-up, and a politically-charged, powerful but divisive third entry, has Doctor Who’s 11th Series finally found some rhythm?

No. No it bloody hasn’t. And it’s abundantly obvious who’s fault that is.

The cast do their best here, but while they keep things watchable, its very hard for actors to rescue things where the writing is this poor and the dialogue this ham-fisted. Bradley Walsh continues to impress, and it was a relief to see Mandip Gill get slightly more screentime this week (now her family’s been introduced hopefully that might help flesh her out a bit). You suspect in the Moffat/Davies years Yaz would have been the sole companion – and I feel sorry for the actress cause I think she would have knocked it out of the park back then. Now, the material isn’t good enough and she’s got little enough of it compared to the other four. Tosin Cole doesn’t get that much to do this week, but he seems to have settled into the role of Ryan well enough. I am not liking Jodie as much as I thought I would a few weeks back – but with this kind of writing its very hard to tell how much that’s on her. She’s clearly as good an actor as the previous Doctors but her Doctor’s personality is getting a bit wearing. Doctors are always on Thin Ice with me when they get too preachy (Tennant and Capaldi both came close to this during their last seasons) and unfortunately Jodie’s incarnation gets VERY preachy whenever she goes into moral outrage mode. Yes, the Doctor should always be someone who calls out injustice, stands up to evil and holds the universe to rights. But this NEEDS to be shown – NOT spelt out for the audience as if we’re all four-year-olds.

Anyway, the writing. God the dialogue is atrocious in places. Gone are the dramatic, uplifting speeches of Moffat or the intense drama that Davies dished out. While some of the quiet, understated moments of emotion or humour work, this is largely down to Bradley Walsh or Tosin Cole, not the script. I can’t think of a single memorable line that Jodie has said so far to be honest. The plot is still riddled with clichés (monsters and toxic waste – really? Even comic books dropped that one a long time back) and while, yes it is very easy to take shots at Americans at the moment, the politics here felt REALLY forced. Chris Noth’s businessman was such an obvious caricature than it was hard to take him seriously as a character, and let’s face it, he was just incompetent and closed-minded, not devious or despicable enough to be a compelling villain. The Doctor having a thing against guns is nothing new (4 and 10 were especially notable for this) but most of them do, reluctantly, permit their use by allies when needed. Some of them have indeed used them in particularly dire scenarios (5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12 have all used some form of weapon when needed). But again, the issue here got very preachy – and the sympathy for the spiders was, while a doctor-ish trait, done in an on-the-nose and ham fisted way.

Now I’m no fan of spiders – I have a notable fear of the larger, hairier varieties. But these ones were not scary. Harry Potter had scarier ones with 2002 level special effects. While they certainly looked realistic, they weren’t creepy enough and never really threatened the main cast in a significant way. The direction was a mixed-bag – the show still looks miles better than it did even a couple of series ago, but the director really didn’t seem able to make anything remotely scary. For one thing, everywhere is too well lit – it doesn’t matter how proud you are of your CGI monsters, you know they’ll probably look better in the dark – and they’ll definitely be scarier. The composer gave it a decent shot (and let’s face it, creepy music wasn’t always Murray Gold’s forte either) but it was probably his least memorable contribution so far.

The guest cast seemed good (the one thing every episode has nailed so far has been the guest actors/actresses) but Chris Noth in particular seemed to deserve much better material (like Art Malik in Episode 2). Yaz’s family seem like interesting characters, which is a relief after Clara’s and Bill’s dragged things down whenever they showed up, so hopefully we’ll see a bit more of them as the series goes on.

In many ways ‘Arachnids in the UK’ reminded me of Oxygen last year. Poor writing, crap political asides and lame jokes coupled with uninspired direction and a cast that, despite their best efforts, can’t rescue it. Since Oxygen is arguably my least favourite Capaldi episode, this is not a good sign. Series 11 so far has had one of  the weakest starts of any modern series. Normally in Who when this happens, things pick up around episode 5 or 6. Fingers crossed.

Overall, while the episode was watchable and the cast shone in a couple of places, Chibnall is falling below my already low expectations for him. Even his ‘Cyberwoman’ and ‘Sex Alien’ episodes of torchwood had more oomph than this. The cast has potential, but you just get the constant sense that things could be so much better with a different writer and showrunner. Whatever Moffat and Davies’ flaws, they never had me this worried about the shows future.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Next Time: F*** knows. Something in a hospital. These teasers are just annoyingly bland now – they’re better off scrapping them completely.

On the plus side – only 1 more Chibnall episode left before we get 4 in a row where he isn’t involved. Whether I still care by that point is debatable.

Doctor Who: Rosa Review

By Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman

After last week’s frustrating debacle, my expectations were very low for this week’s instalment. Questions remain about Chibnall’s ability to write Who, and another week of underusing Yaz’s character, too much talk, overly-pc politics and weak villains seemed very much on the cards, particularly in an episode that was sure to be politically-charged given its focus on Rosa Parks, one of the most famous figures in the 20th century. Rosa’s story is undoubtedly important and still resonates with many today, particularly in the Trump era, but her story needed deft handling to work well as a 50-min drama. Who has a tendency to get very heavy-handed when getting moralistic (think 2017’s ‘oxygen’ and its broadsides on capitalism or 2014’s ‘In the Forest of the Night’ and its extremely cumbersome environmental message). Both episodes covered issues of importance, but on both occasions the moral/political message was put forth in such a ham-fisted and on-the-nose way that the episodes themselves ended up being some of the worst in their respective seasons. Doctor Who should always be free to bring issues like these up, but it is primarily a drama, not a documentary or an educational programme, and it needs to cover such topics a bit more subtly and a lot less-preachily. Get the message across, but in an entertaining way and without overshadowing the drama.

Did Blackman and Chibnall succeed in doing so? Surprisingly… yes they did. The episode showed 1950’s Alabama in a no-holds-barred way, which was both shocking and exactly the right thing to do. Segregation is a very, very dark stain on US history, and given that racism is still rife throughout the states today, reminding everyone of just how bad things were, AND how much more needs to be done, was a very timely message. The whole culture clash/shock that Ryan and Yaz experienced felt especially jarring, but crucially was done in a plausible way, which time travel shows can often fail to do (Legends of Tomorrow often ignores racial issues when travelling through time). There were still some clunky bits of dialogue (Yaz’s and Ryan’s discussion on discrimination could have been written by a six-year-old) but for the most part, the episode really hit home both as a moral message AND as a drama. Which is exactly what it should do.

The show’s production did generally seem to work far better this week. The plot was a lot more engaging and less cliched than last week (maybe smaller scale plots are the way to go for Chibnall?) and didn’t involved a rushed or convenient ending. The new title sequence is definitely growing on me, and Segun Akinola is really convincing as Murray Gold’s replacement as composer. The music played a big part in selling the emotional resonance of the story, and while using songs over the final scenes hasn’t always added much to Who episodes in the past, it felt appropriate here. Director Mark Tonderai also had a much better week than last time (perhaps he’s more at home with period dramas than futuristic run-arounds). The cast seemed to relish better material as well, with both the guest actors and the regulars putting in good performances, particularly Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks, who was portrayed in a very believable and historically accurate way.

Yaz finally gets some decent screen time in this one, and Mandip Gill makes the most of it. Yaz may not have had anything that significant to do yet, but she does hold a lot of promise, and the character has a good dynamic with the other members of the team (at least when used properly). Bradley Walsh continues to be the best thing about the ensemble, and his rather understated take on Graham is a welcome contrast to the more lively Doctor and Yaz and the headstrong Ryan. His lingering grief at his wife’s death was touching, and Walsh seems to have a very good handle on the character already. Tosin Cole gets his share of compelling material too this week, and you get a sense the actor was really glad to be part of this story. Jodie Whittaker also fares a great deal better than last week – she doesn’t over-talk everything and plays a more significant role in events when she is involved, even if you do occasionally sense she’s still finding her feet.

There are a few lingering issues. The characters seem real enough, but they still aren’t always talking in a natural way (Chibnall’s dialogue doesn’t always seem to suit them) which has the unfortunate side-effect of reminding you that these are only actors playing a role. The dialogue does at times still feel very generic. The shows morality seems a bit variable too – last week the Doctor was annoyingly preachy about Ryan using a gun, yet this week she’s seemingly fine with him straight up murdering (effectively) the villain of the week? Be consistent please Chibnall. Speaking of villains, while Krasko was well-acted, he was essentially another one-note villain, who’s only interesting feature was his history as a stormcage inmate (its where River Song was imprisoned) – his plan was believable and well thought out, but his motivations aren’t really delved into any more deeply than simple racism and a nasty streak. While the episode was wayyyy above the level of the last two, I do have to wonder how much this episode’s success was down to Blackman’s involvement, because I’m still not entirely sold on Chibnall.

Overall, Rosa made for a powerful, emotionally compelling episode that takes a deserved swipe against some of the worst humanity’s past (and, unfortunately, present) mistakes. Rosa’s story was told in a sensitive (and crucially unpreachy) way that will (hopefully) affect most children and adults who watched it. I was pleasantly surprised. The series may still have its flaws, but this is the first episode where they faded into the background and allowed me to just enjoy the experience. More like this one please.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Next Time: Arachnids cause chaos in the UK (as if we didn’t have enough problems already) and we meet Yaz’s mum.

Well this episode has given me enough motivation to stick with the series, but I hope we can get this kind of hit on a consistent basis soon. And Chibnall really needs to get help on writing dialogue in a more purposeful and less heavy-handed way.

Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument Review

The Ghost Monument by Chris Chibnall

The first episode of Series 11 showed a lot of promise (particularly from the cast and the new composer), but a few lingering questions remain. Most importantly, can Chibnall live up to the relatively high standards set by both Moffat and Russell T. Davies? Davies may have written some absolute stinkers of episodes (The Long Game, Gridlock, Love and Monsters, the End of Time Part 1 etc.) and Moffat may have given us some deeply unsatisfying series arcs (The Hybrid, The Vault) but both oversaw very successful eras of the show and wrote some cracking episodes (The Parting of the Ways, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, The Waters of Mars etc.). To date, Chibnall’s best effort for Who (or Torchwood for that matter) is Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which I’d give a 4/5 to for its excellent comedy value and character work. But he’s never written a real classic for either series he’s worked on, which, now he’s showrunner, really needs to change.

After the Ghost Monument, I can safely say: it hasn’t yet.

Chibnall’s strength definitely seems to lie with character work. His previous instalments of Who and his efforts on Torchwood tend to support that statement, and it was no doubt a factor to making Broadchurch such a success. Unfortunately, his storytelling prowess isn’t anywhere near as refined. As with last week, the Sonic was overused to get out of trouble, the cliff-hanger was resolved with minimal fuss or logic, and the story’s villain were little more than window dressing. The plot, like last week, also isn’t all that inventive for sci-fi shows, and again didn’t justify the full runtime. While I’m broadly supportive of Chibnall’s decision to rely solely on new villains for this series, they need to be good ones for that to work. Focus solely on the heroes and neglect the monsters and villains they face off with and you end up with Thor: The Dark World or the Flash Season 3 and 4: superficially fun but ultimately inconsequential and forgettable. Last week I gave Chibnall a pass because he wrote Whittaker and the new companions rather well. This week even that was a bit shaky – having Jodie talk her way through half an episode doesn’t work when what she’s saying has no oomph or real interest. The dialogue was generally pretty forgettable – Moffat and Davies may have relied too much on flamboyance and punchlines, but as least they gave Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and Capaldi something that would actually hold your attention.

Moving past Chibnall, the support cast are still generally working quite well. Bradley Walsh was probably the standout companion this week, though Tosin Cole still had a decent share of the action as Ryan. Yaz seems worryingly underutilized so far, generally existing to ask questions so the Doctor can go into long, never-ending answers. This is no slight on Mandip Gill, its just that so far, she hasn’t really been given anything decent to work with, which needs to change soon. Ensembles only work if all the cast add something and their characters get developed somewhat evenly. Jodie Whittaker didn’t impress as much this time round. She’s clearly a good actress, but talking ENDLESSLY and waving the sonic about is not what makes a good Doctor, and the writers really need to give her something more substantial to do (there was no real standout heroism this time, and the character’s pointless manic energy started to grate a bit).

The guest cast, at least, are good value here. Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley made for an enterprising pair of rivals/rogues, and Chibnall does give them both distinct personalities to work with. Art Malik also makes the most of his limited role as the rather sinister Ilin, who a better episode might have made far more use of. He gives up way too easily at the end, which was a sure fire sign the plot had run out of steam. The direction isn’t as good as the premiere but is still decent, and we’ve seen far worse effects on this show. Still, Mark Tonderai is no Rachel Talalay, and I hope he adds a bit more spark to proceedings next time. The new composer is still performing though, his more understated style a real contrast to Murray Gold (who did sometimes have a tendency to get a bit too loud and bombastic, even if he nailed it the other 80% of the time).

Overall ‘The Ghost Monument’ was a definite step back from the premiere. Whittaker’s Doctor suffered noticeably with weaker material, and despite Bradley Walsh’s best efforts, the companions didn’t shine as much either. The guest cast were good, but had so much emphasis on them they overshadowed the regulars. Another weak villain leaves me worried that Series 10’s flaws may not be entirely gone yet.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5. On the plus side, that’s what I gave Matt Smith’s 2nd episode, so the show does have a record of improving from here on out in a Doctor’s run. It better bloody get a move on though.

Next Time: The Doctor and friends run into Rosa Parks (aka Sergeant Donovan off Sherlock). The trailer was so ludicrously short that’s all I have to say. I mean, I don’t mind a lack of spoilers, but why even bother with trailers if they tell you basically nothing nor give you a reason to tune in next time?

Final Thought: While I’m ambivalent about the new Sonic Screwdriver, I’m really not a fan of the new Tardis design. I can see what they were going for, but it seems far too gimmicky for me.

 

The Woman Who Fell to Earth Review

By Chris Chibnall

Warning: Spoilers!

Well there were a lot of questions hanging over this opener. New Doctor, New Companions, New Showrunner, New Director and New Composer. 4 of them shone. One did not.

First off, the good news. Jodie Whittaker is great! She feels natural in the role from the first minute she’s on screen. She’s got a milder version of Smith’s maniac energy, but at the same time, her interpretation feels fresh and different from those that came before. Which isn’t easy after 12 (more if you count John Hurt and David Bradley) previous actors have given it their all. The script doesn’t ask too much of her, but what is here is very, very promising.

The companions aren’t bad either. Tosin Cole gets the lion’s share of the material as Ryan, but Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh come off just as well. Most importantly, they’re all likeable, and all somewhat relatable. Companions tend to work well if you feel like they are someone you could actually meet, and that’s true for all three of them here. I look forward to seeing how they develop over the season.

The direction is pretty good too, which is a relief after some of the weak efforts last season. The special effects look as good as they ever have, and this is an earth-bound episode! The monster’s design isn’t all that memorable, but it was hardly a disaster.

The music feels suitably different from Murray Gold’s style, but still fitting for the show. We’ll see how it goes going forward, but so far, Segun Akinola is doing a good job.

Now the bad news. I never had a problem with Jodie’s casting, but I’ve always been slightly nervous about Chibnall. His record on Who is alright but not inspiring, and his record on Torchwood is pretty damn shaky in places. Sure he wrote Broadchurch, but only the first season of that got critical acclaim, so my scepticism remained. I hoped he’d prove me wrong.

So far he hasn’t. He handles the character introductions well, and his character work in general is very good. But the plot isn’t particularly fresh, and some of the old who clichés are annoyingly present here (the Doctor survives a fall with no explanation how, the episode is resolved by some sonic wizardry which isn’t even hinted at). It’s pretty predictable stuff as well – you see every death coming a mile away.

Still, its only episode one. Russell T Davies took a while to hit his stride, and Moffat’s season openers were rarely perfect, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

Overall, there was plenty of promise, some upgraded special effects, good direction and  lacklustre writing. But the cast looks good, so I’ll be happy to stick with it for a while. Most importantly of all, Who is still Who, and any debate about Whittaker’s casting is over. She fits the role perfectly and I hope she gets the material to really show it soon.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Last Thought: That new version of the theme tune intrigues me. Its very classic, but with a modern twist. I think I like it!