Monday 8 October 2018


I’m not likely to go back to reviewing New Who on a weekly basis. Frankly, I’ve discovered that it works best for me when I don’t pay it too much attention. What’s the point in continually testing the load-bearing weight of something when it’s already been proven to have such a thin back? But seeing as this is a whole new era, with a whole new team both before and behind the camera, let’s take a quick peep.

The storyline is pretty perfunctory, plus predictable. Is there a big film reboot currently going on in the cinema? There normally is. And is that getting recycled for this reboot over here? You betcha. But that’s the norm for new Doctor stories. Everyone’s going to be looking to the new star anyway, so what’s the point in trying to distract from that? Better to just go with it, and serve up something familiar.

Mostly it has the feel of a Children’s Film Foundation outing, some hijinks around cheap and accessible locations. Which isn’t a criticism. I’d rather that than more of the Lonely God stuff. But this leads to strange tonal inconsistencies, when at arbitrary points it suddenly goes dark.

Take the deaths. We had one Tragic Death, where a lethal fall somehow leads to someone passing away peacefully, without messy blood or any particular sign of broken bones. But again, the inherent absurdity of that isn’t the problem, it's best treated as a trope. The problem lies in the way it contrasts with two Terrible Deaths. One so grisly it Cannot Be Shown Onscreen, and must be covered up even within the story. While the whole confused last-minute alien teleport thing seemed based around avoiding an untidy fourth body.

And these inconsistencies seem to have induced quite a schizo response, like people could only parse one or the other. For example in El Sandifer’s comments section, one person found it “a kid's adventure show slotted into a prestige BBC procedural”, while others remarked on “the dour, dry, grim, miserable tone.”

Perhaps the show is just prone to such clashes. It’s a teatime horror story, after all, with both an adult and a child audience to satisfy. But in that case the smart thing would be to play the contrasts up. Suppose for example the line about finding this fun was transposed to their entering the warehouse, only to be confronted by the worst of those Terrible Deaths. The problem’s then twisted to work in the story’s favour.

Ryan’s dyspraxia, conversely, seemed a muddled attempt to get over a similar muddle, by playing fast and loose with the character’s age. He’s specified as nineteen but it allows him to do ‘child’ things, like learn to ride a bike, which might work for a younger audience without the problems associated with an actual child actor. (On the other hand Andrew Hickey, who himself has dyspraxia, found it a positive portrayal. So what do I know?)

But then (as already said) it’s all going to centre round Jodie Whitaker’s performance. Which, luckily, is highly effective. The whole thing’s somewhat like listening to a supposedly new but actually standard song, played fairly ploddingly but with a compelling vocal. I doubt five people running round Sheffield would have kept my attention for a full hour if not for her.

And, good news for me, her Doctor’s very much in the Tom Baker mould. Eccentric charisma becomes a kind of force within the story, as much as for the viewer. Standard responses just get dispelled, as reality warps to his/her personality.

Capaldi’s abrasive maverick frequently came into conflict with authority. Perhaps his most identifying line was “Who’s in charge here? I need to know who to ignore.” Whereas Whittaker just disregards authority, seeing it as something extraneous, water to her oil. When Yasmin tries to give her police rank, she’s told what’s needed is her name. Whitaker even rejects A&E, insisting “I never go anywhere that's just initials.”

But Baker was irreducibly alien. (Possibly even when not in character.) Whereas Whitaker’s never too strange. There’s something quite regular and matter-of-fact about her attitude; if the aliens invade, your natural response is to roll your sleeves up and tell them to push off. Whoever she bumps into at the time... they'll be enough to get enlisted in the struggle, surely. (Only in the Whoniverse would you gain intel on an alien invasion by going round the bus drivers.) Which is why the T’Zim Sha/ Tim Shaw gag works. You’re never sure whether she’s shrewdly disarming his aura of menace or simply repeating back what she heard, and you sense she probably doesn’t know herself.

Unsurprisingly, understandably, the Beeb is now angling the show back towards the casual viewer. Who was never likely to be found saying “Well I never, a Mondassian Cyberman is back.” But at the same time, in casting the first female Doctor they made a fairly bold move.

Within the episode itself, little is made of this. Only the title plays this up, or possibly her ‘lack’ of a sonic screwdriver. After all, these all-new characters don’t know this Doctor as anything else. In short, it works the way it always does. Whittaker performs well in the role, and just gets on with it. But the idiosphere were insisting before the first trailer she only got the job through political correctness gone mad.

Yet there is one moment of truth to all their ‘Social Justice Warrior’ conspiracy theories. Now she has been cast, if that pisses off a misogynistic bunch of dickheads so much the better. Of course, despite their threats they won’t stop watching the show. (See also: the super-rich threatening to leave Britain if Labour get in.) And even if they were to actually go through with a boycott, it would barely dent the overall viewing figures. (“It’s about the casual viewer” is really just a variant of “it’s the economy, stupid”.) But they will be looking to exploit that particular fault-line. If the viewing figures don’t increase, they’ll blame it all on central casting.

Of course they’ll do that anyway. But then we’ll have another ’Force Awakens’ situation, where they’ll just make themselves look more stupid than normal. And the audience appreciation figures look good. This time, I suspect the lighter tone of the opening episode will stick around for longer. So perhaps the audience response might too.

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