Tag: Doctor Who

Doctor Who Review: The Timeless Children

This review contains spoilers for The Haunting of Villa Diodati, Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Children.

The Timeless Children is the last episode in Doctor Who‘s twelfth series, completing the arc that started with The Haunting of Villa Diodati and continued in Ascension of the Cybermen. With the Doctor and fam converging on the Boundary, a kind of gate that opens onto a random point in the universe, in an attempt to flee the Cybermen, the Master rocks up to ruin everyone’s day and reveal a dastardly plot to destroy the universe.

In my last couple of reviews I’ve been reading Ashad the Cyberleader as a focus for anxieties about social media radicalisation – basically, as a lone wolf white supremacist intent on re-establishing the dominance of what he sees as a threatened master race. I’m not sure there’s much mileage in pursuing this metaphor into this episode: although the Master’s nihilism speaks to Ashad’s in Ascension of the Cybermen, and although the anxieties about cyborg technology we saw in Villa Diodati are still at work (witness the monstrous CyberTime Lords the Master creates in the story’s final act), it’s not an episode that adds anything new to the conversation.

The Timless Children is at its heart a story about defiance through confidence in one’s self. The Doctor defeats the Master in a psychological sense by refusing to be cowed by the revelations he makes about her history and about the history of the Time Lords; by refusing to be defined by repressed abuse. It’s a focus on the power of asserting one’s identity and values that feels very familiar; I’m thinking of Luke Skywalker’s refusal to give into anger in Return of the Jedi, or Tiffany Aching’s fierce love for her land in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men. Added to the fact that the Doctor is essentially revealed as a Chosen One in this episode – the Timeless Child, the one from whom all of Gallifrey’s powers spring – it’s a narrative beat that gives an individualistic spin to this tale, victory coming not from community or solidarity but from individual strength and identity. Despite the “flat team structure” the Doctor’s been hyping for as long as she’s been Thirteen – despite series eleven’s themes of mutual personhood, understanding and tolerance – this is a story arc that puts the Doctor back in “lonely god” territory, making her once again the centre of the universe. Which is a shame: I’d like to see more stories that are about community-building and that deemphasise the importance of the individual, and I think series eleven was taking some interesting steps towards making that work in the context of Doctor Who. It is not individual power that will save us from the various messes we as a species have gotten ourselves into; it’s collective action, the hard work of loving and respecting each other as equals.

Doctor Who Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

Ascension of the Cybermen is the penultimate episode in New Who’s twelfth series; it follows directly on from the previous episode, the Gothic/Romantic Haunting of Villa Diodati, which I reviewed some weeks ago. The Doctor and her fam travel to the far future to try and stop the half-Cyberman Ashad from reawakening the Cyber army and destroying the human race, but they’ve failed before they’ve even started: in the future they reach there are just seven humans left. Their one hope is to reach the Boundary, a place that will transport them to a random point in the universe where the Cybermen cannot follow.

In my review of Villa Diodati I hypothesised that Ashad in that episode is acting as a locus for anxieties about radicalised white supremacists, a cyborg colonised by technology and hateful ideology. If that’s the case, then what we see in Ascension of the Cybermen is the nihilism that ultimately lies behind such ideology: “the death of everything is within me”, says Ashad, a line that we won’t discover the full significance of until the next episode, but the point for now is that he stands for homogenisation, the destruction of everything that is not Cyberman.

The apocalyptic future the Doctor travels to in this episode, the run-down buildings, glitchy tech and spacefields littered with dead robots, caps off a series that’s been full of images of apocalypse – the monster-haunted nuclear wasteland of Orphan 55, the plastic-crazed birds of Praxeus, the god-razed planets of Can You Hear Me? – all tapping into the sense of fear and hopelessness liberals around the world are feeling right now. The Doctor in this episode finds herself helpless to undo her decision in Villa Diodati – to return the Cyberium to Ashad in exchange for the life of the poet Percy Shelley – and protect what remains of humanity against the reckless hate of the Cyber army: her gadgets, things which might have facilitated the denouement of another episode, fail in the first assault on the human refugee camp; the Cybermen pick off the people she’s supposed to be protecting, their numbers dwindling even further. The scientific rationality represented by her gadgets just doesn’t work against white supremacy and the alt-right; fear and panic reign, the refugee humans fleeing even as the Doctor warns them not to. It’s of course traditional for penultimate episodes, or the first parts of two-parters, to end in despair; we as viewers want to see how the characters will convert that despair into triumph, how they will climb out of this particular slough of despond. So it’s not particularly surprising or novel that Ascension of the Cybermen seeks to evoke despair. It’s just that it so precisely mirrors the tenor of despair we are all feeling right now about the direction the world is going in politically. (This episode was broadcast in February and filmed probably late last year, long before coronavirus was A Thing.)

(Nor will the next episode be particularly hopeful. But that’s a post for next week.)

Doctor Who Review: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

The eighth episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who, The Haunting of Villa Diodati takes us, along with the Doctor and her fam, back to the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, where Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Dr Polidori are playing happy families. Arguably the first science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is about to be born out of unseasonable rain and a night telling ghost stories. It’s one of the most famous house parties in literary history.

Except that when the Doctor and her companions rock up on the doorstep, the group is more interested in dancing than storytelling. The tale’s Gothic horror kicks up a notch when the characters start seeing ghosts and a disembodied skeletal hand starts rocketing through the corridors. Rooms loop back on themselves so it’s impossible to leave. And where is Percy Shelley, anyway?

It’s in this episode that we first meet one of the major villains of the series finale: Ashad, the “lone Cyberman” prophesied by Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon. Except he’s not quite a Cyberman: for reasons we’re not yet privy to, half his helmet is missing and he still feels the emotions that Cyberman technology usually suppresses – giving us a cyborg who’s much more uncanny than your standard issue Cyberman. In the episode he’s presented as the inspiration for Frankenstein’s creature, but I think he’s also speaking to our own anxieties about the permeable boundary between technology and the human: his un-Cyberman rage, his lone-wolf attempt to restore the race of the Cybermen and his rejection of the kindness and sympathy Mary Shelley offers him all have something of the radicalised white supremacist about them. And where does such radicalisation come from? The internet, of course; endless racist screeds colonising young men’s minds, creating rage-fuelled cyborgs determined to defend whiteness from a non-existent sea of threats.

In true Gothic fashion, placing the symbol of this anxiety in 1816 both distances it and makes it more troubling: on the one hand, it’s temporally distant from us, placed in a Gothic pastiche that’s rendered unthreatening by its familiarity; on the other hand, Ashad’s presence there, as well as the presence of the thing he seeks, is changing history itself (altering the inspiration for Shelley’s Frankenstein) and threatens to alter it further by causing Percy Shelley’s death six years too early. (To stretch the metaphor a bit, consider how internet white supremacy is linked to acts of historical revisionism like Holocaust denial.) And the threat Ashad poses is not successfully contained: he escapes, with the knowledge of all the Cybermen contained in the Cyberium, which Percy Shelley has unwittingly been hosting. The Doctor has to make a choice between Percy Shelley’s survival and the thousands of lives a regenerated Cyberarmy might claim: a choice we might characterise as one between the individual and the collective. The Doctor makes the Romantic choice, favouring the individual genius (Shelley) rather than following the utilitarian principle of securing the greatest good for the greatest number; but it’s a choice that leaves Ashad at large, the anxiety he embodies unresolved and uncontained. Here we see, perhaps, the Romantic ideal breaking down, its emphasis on individualism revealed as dangerous and imperfect – depending on how compelling we find the Doctor’s assertion that Percy Shelley’s death in 1816 would be worse for the future than allowing Ashad to rampage through it.

This Great Man theory of history is one we’ve seen a couple of times in Thirteen’s run (as well as in Doctor Who more generally), most notably in last series’ Rosa – which is where I want to pick up on another Thirteen trend, that of spotlighting notable women in history. The focus of The Haunting of Villa Diodati is initially on the truly remarkable Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein as a pregnant, unmarried teenager, as well as the equally unmarried Claire Clairmont, who in the episode recognises the narcissism and selfishness of her lover Lord Byron and decides to throw him off (sadly not something that really happened); that its Great Man turns out to be Mary’s lover Percy Shelley, who though he may have had a substantial impact on Western thought has not received anywhere near the popular and critical attention that Mary’s work has, does a disservice to both these women and the generally more inclusive bent of Thirteen’s series.

Having said that, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, though imperfect, is probably one of the best episodes in the series so far, with its Gothic creepiness and its array of well-written female characters. It’s also meaty enough to reward close engagement, with its use of Gothic and Romantic conventions, which I haven’t particularly found to be the case with other episodes this series. There were things which annoyed me ideologically about it (namely the prioritisation of the individual over the collective and the shift of focus from Mary to Percy Shelley), but overall it was a fun watch and a relief from the general pacing errors that have plagued series twelve.

Doctor Who Review: Can You Hear Me?

Can You Hear Me? is the seventh episode of New Who’s twelfth series, and for my money it’s one of the worst in a series that’s had more than its share of duds. Thirteen’s companions return home for an overnight visit, and all of them encounter bad dreams, a shadowy figure standing over them at 2am, and in Graham’s case visions of a woman in prison, calling for help. The Doctor’s detective work establishes that the woman’s trapped between two colliding planets, prompting a rescue, only she is more than she seems: her freedom has been engineered by the shadowy man everyone’s encountered overnight, and now the two of them, immortal godlike beings, can rain psychic terror down on the earth.

The feel is very Doctor Who Gothic: despite the supernatural plotline, there’s a lot of naturalistic action taking place down on Earth, in small murky rooms; the sense is of enclosure and imprisonment. This is an episode that’s explicitly about mental health and the various darknesses lurking in the human psyche – depression, anxiety, nightmares and the claustrophobia thereof. This is rich soil, and so it’s a shame that the episode mishandles it so dramatically.

The problem is mainly one of pacing: there’s a lot of time spent on the companions’ relationships with the family and friends they’ve left behind for their adventures with the Doctor – Ryan’s friend Tibo has slipped into depression in his absence; Yaz is late for dinner with her family – which, while it makes for some great character work and some unusually sober reflections on the psychosocial effects of travelling with the Doctor, detracts fatally from the prison plotline. The history of the immortals Zellin and Rakaya is told via a Burtonesque animation that effectively establishes their menace and their seemingly limitless power; only for the pair to be summarily defeated in about five seconds flat, nightmares repressed back into a tiny spherical prison, as if all psychological horrors could be dealt with so neatly. This is the narrative throughline of the episode; its failure reduces the power of the companions’ emotional journeys towards dealing with their personal baggage.

There are other missteps: we’re told that Yaz’s visit to her family is occasioned by the celebration of an ominous anniversary, but it’s not until nearly the end of the episode that we learn that she ran away as a teenager and apparently returned almost immediately (thanks to the intervention of a friendly police officer); the impression we get is not so much TRAUMATIC INCIDENT as it is “rebellious teenager doing what teenagers do”. It’s…kind of wrongfootingly odd that Yaz and her family mark the occasion every year.

Then there’s the conversation Graham and the Doctor have at the end of the episode: Graham confides in the Doctor about his fear of his cancer returning, and the Doctor says:

I’m still quite socially awkward, so I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something.

This is not so much offensive (as the apparently multiple emails of complaint to the BBC it elicited would attest) as, again, wrongfootingly odd: a bit of clumsy tell-not-show dialogue that doesn’t even seem to fit Thirteen’s established character – where is the calm, compassionate officiate of Demons of the Punjab? The BBC says that “The intention of the scene was to acknowledge how hard it can be to deal with conversations on this subject matter”, but it feels more like a sidestep than an acknowledgement; like the show truly doesn’t want to deal with something as mundane and mortal as a cancer diagnosis on an ongoing basis.

A connected question: I wonder what the presence of Zellin and Rakaya says about the Doctor? The episode doesn’t draw any explicit parallels, but all three of them are legendary immortals who are often named in fear: is Thirteen’s character closer to their indifference to human suffering than we’d perhaps like? Many of the comments on Caroline Siede’s A.V. Club review of the episode speculate that she is cold, distant and doesn’t particularly care about her companions; I don’t think this is a reading completely supported by the show, but there certainly is something avoidant about her – witness all the times she’s refused to discuss Gallifrey with her fam. She is, like Yaz, running: from her past, from a kind of… emotional commitment. So, a possible reading of her conversation with Graham is not that she doesn’t care about him, more that she wants to avoid thinking about his mortality and death. Which is why, in turn, the episode avoids dwelling on it: from one perspective, ultimately the show doesn’t care about the Doctor’s companions; they can die or leave the Doctor, and the show will go on.

Can You Hear Me?, then, is an episode that’s heavy on character work but light on the plot and thematic coherence that would make emotional sense of that work. It frankly squanders its potent nightmare-imagery, and what could have been a fascinating diversion to 1380s Aleppo, by trying to do too much with too little airtime – something Doctor Who has often struggled with since Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. I’d hesitate to call it the weakest episode in a series that also gave us Orphan 55, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and part 2 of Spyfall, but it’s certainly up there.

Review: At Childhood’s End

At Childhood’s End is a Doctor Who novel written by Sophie Aldred (with help from Steve Cole and Mike Tucker), who played Ace, the Doctor’s last companion before the show’s extended hiatus between 1989 and 2005. So this is a story about Ace As She Is Now, in the time of the 13th Doctor: going by her given name Dorothy, CEO of mega-charity A Charitable Earth (get it?), possessed of secret lairs and shipping containers filled with alien tech and home-brew explosives of her own design. Once upon a time, homeless people begin disappearing from the suburb of Perivale that she calls home. Simultaneously, she begins to dream of a terrible alien desert filled with desperate people. And a mysterious satellite appears in orbit around the Moon.

It’s this last that brings her into the path of the 13th Doctor and her fam, who are investigating the satellite and its origins. Turns out that Dorothy’s parting from the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) was less than friendly, and Dorothy resents the Doctor to this day, in light of their habit of manipulating the people around them even when they have the best of intentions. At Childhood’s End is as much an exploration of Dorothy and the Doctor’s relationship past and present as it is an actual adventure story with aliens and laser weapons and all sorts of timey-wimey business.

For a start, it’s clearly being positioned as a More Serious novel than the usual run of Doctor Who tie-in novels: just look at that cover, which is far less obviously science fictional than literally every other New Series Adventure, and in fact reads more as crime than anything else. Here There Be (Attempted) Grit. Then there’s the fact that lots and lots of reviewers on Goodreads are reading the novel in the context of the show’s history rather than as a standard Doctor Who adventure: the focus is squarely on Dorothy here and on her place in the show’s canon.

Which begs the question: what does it actually do with Dorothy? Well: not a lot. Or, at least, not a lot that’s new or revelatory. The point of having Dorothy in this story, with this Doctor, is to undercut the Doctor’s goodness, their position as moral arbiter at the centre of the universe. Instead, at the centre of this universe is Dorothy. Her charitable work is reflected as in a funhouse mirror by the work of the novel’s villain, who’s collecting up the homeless and vulnerable of the universe for purposes nefarious under the guise of charity (a nice doubling of how the Doctor’s moral standing is undermined; what other crimes are committed on Earth in the name of charity? What about the Oxfam scandal in Haiti? Or the fact that LiveAid channelled millions of pounds to a repressive Ethiopian government for them to spend on weapons? The point being that charities are not infallible, as the Doctor is not). Dorothy’s the one having the dreams; and she’s the one on whom the villain’s schemes all depend, thanks to an adventure she and the Doctor went on when they were in their seventh incarnation. The novel’s villain doesn’t really care about the Doctor; it’s all about Dorothy, for him.

But…this isn’t really a new kind of story to tell with an old companion. We see the Doctor’s moral authority get undercut in Chibnall episodes like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, episodes where she’s blind to her own white privilege and powerless to confront colonial violence and racism. But, I mean, we were hearing about the Doctor’s toxic effects on their companions way before then, in Martha Jones’ arc, and in Rory’s hostility to the 11th Doctor. This, here, is just like…a logical end point.

Except it doesn’t even function like that. Here I want to talk about one of the difficulties a Doctor Who tie-in novel presents, which is that it can be informed by the TV series but cannot inform it in turn – at least not on a meaningful timescale. So, in At Childhood’s End the Doctor’s fam must reckon with the implications of Dorothy’s existence: does the Doctor consider her more important than them? When will they leave the Doctor’s side, and why? But the circumstances of the novel’s production mean it can’t actually follow through on those questions. Nothing important, continuity-wise, can happen in a tie-in novel (well, until that particular Doctor’s run is over) and nothing important will happen as a result of it. That’s a problem for At Childhood’s End mostly because it is specifically trading on its relevance to the show as a whole: it sets up Big Questions about this Doctor’s relationship to her companions, and how similar she is to the Doctor who hurt Dorothy herself, without being able to answer them meaningfully or lastingly.

The questioning of the moral authority of charity that I touched on a few paragraphs ago poses another problem: if we’re encouraged to think about the abuses that sometimes hide behind the guise of charity, where does that leave Dorothy’s own mega-charity? The novel doesn’t touch on this, but: A Charitable Earth has enough clout, apparently, to occupy an enormous office building next door to the fucking Tower of London – specifically so that Dorothy can spy on UNIT. Dorothy has a secret “batcave” full of high-powered vehicles, apparently housed in that same building. She lives in that building. Where’s the money coming from for these things, I wonder?

This is a novel that achieves exactly what it set out to do, even if what it set out to do is limited by its own production circumstances and by its authors’ ambition. This story has been told before, in other words, but that doesn’t mean it’s told badly here. Certainly it’s not offensive, or annoying, or even particularly boring. It feels ridiculous to critique it for being morally underthought: it’s a frickin’ Doctor Who novel after all, what do you expect? I do think you have to know a fair bit about Ace and the Seventh Doctor to appreciate it properly (full disclosure: I know nothing about either character except that Sylvester McCoy was in The Hobbit), and that its positioning as a Gritty and Serious novel is not quite on the mark. It features human-sized rats, after all, and centaurs. And if it was really trying to be those things it might have looked a little closer into Dorothy’s occupation as head of A Charitable Earth (what does this charity do, anyway?). But, ultimately – it’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you like this kind of thing.

Review: Borrowed Time

Naomi A. Alderman’s Borrowed Time is a Doctor Who novel first published in 2011 and recently re-released to capitalise on the success of Alderman’s award-winning The Power. In it, the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory visit the headquarters of the fictional Lexington Bank in the City of London in order to have ringside seats at the 2008 financial crash (???), only to find that there’s more than one speculative bubble in the making. The bank’s employees are impossibly productive and prepared, doing vastly more work than they should have time for. Turns out that two fishy characters by the names of Symington and Blenkinsop are lending out time to all and sundry: who wouldn’t relish having an extra hour or so in the day? But the wonders of compound interest have people owing more time than there is in a lifetime – tens if not hundreds of years.

Borrowed Time is, first and foremost, a lot of fun – unexpectedly so, for a novel about banking. The conceit of having time lent out like money, and on the same capitalist principles, serves to clarify the stakes of actual, real-world banking practices like those which precipitated the 2008 crisis: practices which ruined people’s lives just as thoroughly as they would have if they’d literally taken years from them. Poverty is still a major killer, even in the West, which makes bankers the biggest villains on the planet. Perhaps some of the imagery is a little on-the-nose: Symington and Blenkinsop, the predatory loan sharks, are also literal sharks. Well, shark-headed, anyway. And it’s a little difficult to believe that bankers would fall for the compound interest trick. But, hey, this is a book that’s designed to be accessible to older children as well as adults, so I can forgive a little narrative efficiency. (This is Doctor Who, after all. Subtlety has never been its strong point.)

I’m not sure how to parse the weird meta doubleness of having all this go down in a bank. Of course it’s thematically appropriate and it’s a great way of explaining the complex economics of the sub-prime mortgage crisis; but making the bankers the victims of their own behaviour (without making it explicit that they too would engage in Symington and Blenkinsop’s trickery if they had the chance) perhaps lets them off the hook a bit. What’s more, one of the sympathetic human characters goes on to lead the bank, weathering the financial crash and achieving huge success – which definitely excuses her of culpability. The novel encourages us to think that there are “good” bankers and “bad” bankers, instead of a system that incentivises risky, predatory decision-making.

Having said that, would the story work as well if it was set in a management consultancy, or a law firm? I’m not sure. I think Alderman is aiming for clarity of purpose here rather than complete ideological purity, which might be beyond the scope of a Doctor Who novel anyway. As it is, taken on its own terms, this is a clever, light adventure story with a bit of depth to it – something for everyone to enjoy.

Doctor Who Review: Praxeus

Praxeus’ foresight looks almost uncanny now, more than three months after it was first aired and who knows how long since it was filmed. The sixth episode of Doctor Who’s twelfth series, it sees the Doctor and her fam investigating an alien bacterium, the titular Praxeus, that feeds on microplastics, threatening to spread a deadly disease to every living thing on Earth.

The handling of its environmental message – viz., that the way we’ve contaminated our entire planet with a material that doesn’t break down poses dangers we may not be able to foresee – is a nice corrective to that of the heavy-handed and weirdly Cold War-reminiscent Orphan 55. Unlike the earlier episode’s oddly insubstantial warnings of mass migration and nuclear destruction, that of Praxeus is specific, actionable and educational without being didactic. And the environmental theme serves the story in an organic (hah) way. It’s interesting that Praxeus and the pandemic it threatens to cause is presented as a problem basically of our own making, in the light of recent comments from people like Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, on the link between novel coronavirus and humanity’s destruction of wildlife habitats.

But Praxeus does less well on the details of epidemiology. Bizarrely, towards the end of the episode we find out that Praxeus is sentient (raising some moral questions about eradicating it that go unaddressed) and that it has built a kind of den at the bottom of the Indian ocean out of waste plastic after being released into the sea by an alien spacecraft.

Why? How? This isn’t how bacteria work! If Praxeus eats plastic, surely it would be breaking it down rather than building with it? And why does it need such a space anyway?

The Doctor and her friends work together to create an antidote to the disease caused by Praxeus and test it on Adam, a handy astronaut who’s been exposed to the bacterium. “You need a clinical trial, a human body, and now you’ve got one,” says Adam as he’s volunteering for this role.

Again: not how clinical trials work. You need thousands of people, not just one.

These are nitpicks, obviously, and generally I try to avoid such Watsonian critiques: they’re rarely helpful to looking at what a text is trying to do. But now, in the midst of the most significant health emergency the West has experienced since the Spanish flu…it’s important to get these things right. It’s important that people understand how disease works, and that writers don’t misuse technical terms like “clinical trial”. Misinformation is a killer.

In other areas, though, I felt Praxeus was a strong episode relative to the first half of the series, with a strong identity and a single unified theme. The relationship between Adam and his husband Jake is touchingly handled – the matter-of-fact inclusion of LGBT+ people is something this series is getting right. It’s not clear whether vloggers Gabriela and Jamila are a couple, but I certainly read them that way and I think the episode gives us the space to do so. Praxeus isn’t as good as its predecessor Fugitive of the Judoon, but it’s a solid entry in the series.

Doctor Who Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

This review contains spoilers.

It’s revealing that pretty much all the responses I’ve read to Fugitive of the Judoon (episode 5, series 12) consist of fan theorising, rather than, say, criticisms of character or plot. It’s not difficult to see why: this story of rhino-like Judoon descending into a weekday-morning Gloucester to menace an apparently unremarkable couple features a cameo from Captain Jack Harkness, back for the first time in ten years, a hitherto-unknown incarnation of the Doctor (the first played by a person of colour) and a cryptic reference to “the lone Cyberman” to which, we assume, the long arc of series 12 is bending. Oh! And a bonus sexy Time Lord. With its hints and mysteries, it’s not so much a standalone episode as it is a set-up for larger stories to come.

And yet it works pretty well, certainly in my view, as a lore-focused episode; in fact it’s probably the best of the series’ stories so far. Unlike, for example, Spyfall, it’s pretty consistent in tone and perspective, following a single mystery – why are the Judoon after a tour guide and someone who works at Bathrooms4U? – through to its conclusion, without getting distracted along the way.

I think that what makes it work so well as a fan-service story is that it’s self-consciously structured as one: it asks us to revise our understanding of Doctor Who just as it asks the Doctor to revise her understanding of her own past (a process whose significance will become clearer later on in the series). The first half of the episode juxtaposes the mundane and the alien: the Judoon in a quiet cathedral town, inside the cathedral itself (“this is a place of worship,” the Doctor says, “show some respect”), besieging an ordinary-looking block of flats.

The recurrent image of a lighthouse leads us, appropriately enough, into the second half of the episode. A lighthouse is decidedly not mundane; nor is the practice of living in it, as tour guide Ruth’s parents apparently did. This mysterious building, which Ruth sees a couple of times in flashback before taking us there, functions almost Gothically: it’s a liminal, haunted space where Ruth and the Doctor encounter unexpected truths about themselves, before travelling into the fully alien space of a Judoon spaceship.

So the episode leads the Doctor, and by extension us, through a psychological rupture, leaving our understanding of Chibnall-era Who fundamentally changed. Its biggest flaw is probably Captain Jack’s subplot: his literal only purpose is to kidnap Graham, Yaz and Ryan accidentally and give them a cryptic warning before depositing them back on Earth, which seems a rather clumsy way of removing the Doctor’s companions from the main plot. On the other hand, I appreciated the depiction of the Judoon as a trigger-happy police force – an analogy given particular force by the fact that Ruth is Black.

All in all, I’d call this the first good episode of series 12, a turning point leading into a relatively stronger second half.

Doctor Who Review: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, the fourth episode of Doctor Who‘s series 12, does not improve its impressively dismal run. Despite its pulpy title, I found it dull and uninspiring. I think I may have gone to unload the dishwasher at one point.

Set in 1903, the plot revolves around the rivalry between Nikola Tesla (pioneering, a solo flyer, has no money) and Thomas Edison (commercially-minded, wealthy), with a mysterious alien orb thrown in for good measure. It turns out that a vaguely lizardy/snakey species called the Skithra want Tesla for his engineering skills, and are prepared to destroy the planet to get him.

The overall thrust of the episode, broadly, seems to be that Stealing Intellectual Property Is Bad. Tesla dislikes Edison because he buys intellectual property and commercialises it; the Skithra are cheapskate deadbeats because their spaceship is made up of bits and pieces of other species’ technology. Be like Tesla! writer Nina Metivier seems to say. Invent your own stuff! Create the future!

Which is a mindset that neither the salvagepunk nor the socialist in me can get behind, fundamentally. It smacks of American exceptionalism, this idolisation of ~pure~ genius/creativity: not everyone can invent, and equally not every inventor is skilled at deploying and distributing their inventions effectively. Metivier’s Edison isn’t a corporate monster: he knows his staff and mourns their deaths at the hands of the Skithra; he doesn’t seem to be exploiting anyone. As for the Skithra – well, criticising their practice of cobbling together other species’ technology seems pretty rich for an alien whose time machine looks like a 1960s police box.

It’s possible your mileage may vary! There’s nothing outright wrong or offensive about Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – what it was trying to do just didn’t resonate with me. I found it a pretty dismal addition to an already fairly dismal series 12, though.

Doctor Who Review: Orphan 55

Hmm. Well, this is easily the worst Doctor Who episode I’ve seen this season. I see many critics agree with me on this.

Orphan 55 opens as the Doctor and her companions arrive at Tranquillity Spa, an all-inclusive holiday destination, for some intergalactic luxury. Doctor Who being what it is, of course, the relaxation doesn’t last very long, as the hotel’s defence system collapses and a horde of terrifying murderous creatures burst in, separating Ryan from the rest of the group. Fantastic! A good old-fashioned base-under-siege episode!

Except, as with Spyfall, the story pivots rapidly away from its initial shape: the Doctor discovers that Tranquillity Spa is built on an “orphan” planet, a planet destroyed long ago by its original inhabitants and left a toxic wasteland. The mutated creatures now living there – named, ominously, the Dregs – have taken Benni, one of the hotel guests; the Doctor and everyone staying at the hotel (including a child and an elderly woman) set out on a dangerous mission across the poisonous surface of the planet to rescue him.

Various inevitable complications follow: their armoured truck breaks down, Benni’s voice is heard mysteriously close, their oxygen begins running low as they make a dash for some underground tunnels. In the midst of all this they discover the awful truth of the planet’s origin: it is Earth, ravaged by a nuclear war caused by climate change-induced food chain collapse; while the benighted Dregs are the mutated remnants of humanity. In case we hadn’t quite got the message, the Doctor repeats it for us once the gang has escaped:

In your time, humanity is busy arguing over the washing-up while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided. You know that. The future is not fixed. It depends on billions of decisions, and actions, and people stepping up. Humans. I think you forget how powerful you are. Lives change worlds. People can save planets, or wreck them. That’s the choice.

I don’t think Doctor Who does edutainment well: in the mouth of the all-knowing Doctor, speeches like this come off a little too didactic. (Which is not to say I don’t think SFF should be political; on the contrary, all fiction is by nature political. But there are ways and ways of doing it.) Nevertheless, moments like this can be redeemed by a strongly-written episode, like last season’s Rosa. Orphan 55 is not strongly-written. On any level. There’s simply too much going on, and too much of that is frankly quite bizarre.

Firstly: I think Doctor Who episodes do best when they have a strong unity of place. I’m thinking of episodes like Gridlock, Midnight, even Blink, all of which explore a situation, a setting, and its various symbolic or psychological ramifications. (Spyfall, notably, lacked unity of place, as did many of Moffat’s episodes.) It’s a format well-suited to a 45-minute segment. The fact that we don’t see the toxic wasteland of Orphan 55 until about twenty minutes in, and that we don’t spend that much time in it, means that we never feel its full emotional resonance. The episode doesn’t take the time to build a sense of atmosphere, which means in turn we don’t experience the full horror of realising this barren wasteland is Earth.

Besides which, the anxieties on display here are weirdly outdated and difficult to connect with modern fears about climate change. The nuclear wasteland (which apparently used to be Russia) and the mutated Dregs feel more Cold War than anything – the Dregs especially tapping into racist concerns about purity and degradation. (It’s interesting that Orphan 55 shows signs early on of turning into a story about colonialism: “You built this somewhere you shouldn’t…The native species want you and your guests dead.”) The later Praxeus does a much better job of working contemporary environmental concerns into a compelling storyline, focusing as it does on plastic proliferation; I might also expect to see flooded planets, drowned cities (bonus if they contain recognisable buildings) or extreme weather events in a story about climate change. It is possible to repurpose old imagery to talk about new things, but it hasn’t worked here.

While the failed climate change messaging is the worst thing about Orphan 55, it’s not the only thing the episode fluffs. There’s plenty of stuff that just seems to be…forgotten? Why did the Dregs keep Benni alive for so long, and why does his death happen off-screen? How did three people run a spa on their own, and how did they hope to terraform a whole planet? Sure, the semantic content of popular SF narratives isn’t always important or worth interrogating, but the episode just doesn’t cohere on any level. It’s frustrating – a far cry from the simple, narratively satisfying episodes of season eleven.

And, look. As a species we need more stories about climate change – especially popular ones. There just aren’t that many that tackle it head-on; that present us with solutions, not moralising; that ask us to face the terrifying truth that the climate is collapsing, that everything is dying, that there is no place on Earth we have not polluted. This kind of half-baked storytelling? Is not going to cut it. Do better, Doctor Who.