Doctor Who Review: The Witchfinders

The Witchfinders is the first Doctor Who episode this series that’s felt like it doesn’t know what it wants to say. As you might guess from the title, it’s another historical episode; set this time in 17th-century Lancaster, in a little village being terrorised by its landowner, Becka Savage, a woman obsessed with rooting out witchcraft. So far she’s killed thirty-five women, and as the episode opens she’s killing a thirty-sixth.

One of the things the episode is most interested in is the problem of Being a Woman in the 17th century. So, at the beginning of the episode, writer Joy Wilkinson sets up two pairs of women: the Doctor’s paired with Becka, as she tries to establish what’s going on in the village; these are both women in traditionally male positions of power and/or authority. And Yas is paired with Willa, the granddaughter of the woman killed by Becka at the beginning of the episode; these are both younger women with strong family links.

It all looks like it’s going to unfold in fairly typical Who style: Becka and Willa will provide clues, the Doctor will figure out what’s going on, and everyone will work together to defeat the inevitable aliens when they turn up, in a lovely female cooperative. (Oh, Ryan and Graham are around somewhere, but really only to provide comic relief. Or something.)

That web of relationships, though, is broken by the intrusion of, er, King James I, who turns up for reasons that are never made clear. Symbolically, though, he’s there because he’s the literal embodiment of male patriarchal authority, and as such he comes between these women. He refuses to believe the Doctor’s claim to be Witchfinder General, instead assuming that she’s an assistant to Graham’s Witchfinder General. His one-note insistence on wiping out witchcraft effectively breaks Becka’s budding sympathy with the Doctor, and turns her into a witch-hunt fanatic. And, later on, he uses his power and influence to bully Willa into turning against the Doctor and her companions.

This is all tied into the episode’s understanding of the word “witch” as simply a label for a woman who knows too much, speaks too loudly, gets too clever. The witch-hunts were a form of insidious misogyny manifesting as a way of keeping women in their place, individually and collectively. Destroy their networks, turn them against each other, and you stop them gaining power. (James is not aware of this, certainly not consciously, although in a bit of cod-psychology the episode roots his general paranoia in what he sees as an early betrayal by his mother.)

Which…well, it’s not an original historical reading, but it could have been interesting to see it played out all the way.

Instead, like Kerblam!, The Witchfinders, um…muddles its terms of reference a little. Specifically: we know, because we’re watching Doctor Who, that in fact there is something “not of this earth” going on in this village. We know that there is something for King James and Becka to hunt for. They’re not wrong. They’re just looking in the wrong place.

The Witchfinders could still work, at that, though. But the episode doesn’t just want to talk about misogyny; it’s also interested in interrogating the borders between science and magic. Or, at least, it gestures at doing that. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is a magic wand. Willa’s skill in healing is witchcraft, or it’s just knowing stuff. The tree on Pendle Hill is important because it’s Willa’s grandmother’s favourite, or because it’s made out of Science. The aliens (c’mon, you knew there were going to be aliens) are Morax warriors, or they’re demons. At the end of the episode, the Doctor quotes that old Arthur C. Clarke chestnut about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. We’re almost supposed to read this episode doubly: through the Doctor’s rational eyes, as a mystery to be solved; and through the historical gaze of the villagers, as a fairytale that ends with the destruction of evil.

I love this approach! But it complicates the misogyny reading of witchcraft in ways I don’t think Wilkinson intended it to. By blurring magic and science, it turns these women back into witches. It justifies the witch-hunt by confirming that there was something to look for after all. If there is evil at work in the village (and the Morax seem pretty evil to me; certainly the Doctor makes no effort to negotiate with them or treat them as sentient beings) then can we really blame James for burning the queen of the Morax as he’d burn a witch?

To be clear, I don’t think this reading is meant to be there. We’re meant to think James is misguided, annoying and a bit sad because of his stunted relationships. But this is a recurring weakness in this series: like Kerblam! and Arachnids in the UK, The Witchfinders hasn’t thought through its moral code. It’s interested in stuff, but not interested enough to follow right through and actually work out a coherent thing that it has to say.

(Arachnids in the UK certainly has things to say, and Kerblam! thinks it does. It’s just that the three episodes share a certain…fuzziness when it comes to working them out in the plot.)

That’s two weak episodes in a row. This’d better not become a pattern, BBC. Pretty please.

Doctor Who Review: Kerblam!

This review contains spoilers.

Kerblam! is the first Doctor Who episode this season – apart from maybe the first one – that hasn’t really worked for me on any level. It sees the Doctor and her friends infiltrating the moon-sized warehouse of Kerblam!, the galaxy’s biggest retailer, after receiving a parcel with the words HELP ME stamped on the shipping receipt. Posing as new workers, they find an enormous fulfilment centre almost entirely run by machines – just 10% of the workforce is human, in accordance with local laws. But people are disappearing into the depths of this huge building…

Kerblam! is aimed squarely at the likes of Amazon and Sports Direct – in fact, it turns out that Ryan worked for Sports Direct pre-Doctor, or at least somewhere with a very similar name. Which is what makes the episode’s big reveal so disappointing. The Doctor discovers that the message was sent by the factory’s automated systems after they came under attack by a rogue maintenance man named Charlie. Charlie is an activist, a neo-Luddite who has a dastardly plan to discredit people’s faith in automation by making it look like the system has catastrophically, fatally malfunctioned. He hopes thereby to generate jobs for everyone displaced by automation, and everyone will live happily ever after, the end.

Charlie is Wrong, the Doctor explains:

The systems aren’t the problem. How people use and exploit the system: that’s the problem. People like you.

This does continue the series’ work of reframing our expectations, forcing us to rethink how Doctor Who works: it’s not the creepy robots who are evil, but this rather nice-looking cleaner! And normally, I’m all for stories that position systems and processes as benign, helpful and necessary. But here, in a tale about Amazon and Sports Direct? It monumentally misses the point. The thing that’s dystopian about these companies isn’t automation – it’s the very opposite: it’s their dehumanising labour practices, many of which Kerblam! deliberately highlights. The corporate surveillance: “there’s no such thing as privacy here”, Lee Mack comments in a particularly pointless cameo as a hapless worker with a sob story. The relentless focus on efficiency: no friendly chats allowed. The soul-crushing, petty cruelty of managers who know they can treat people like shit because there are hundreds of others out there who’d kill for the job.

The Doctor and her friends experience all this. Ryan has lived it. Oddly, none of them seem to care very much about redressing it. At the end of the episode, cheery, competent and generally likable HR manager Judy Maddox pledges to make Kerblam! “100% people powered”, which both seems at odds with the episode’s own conclusions (automation is good but they’re not going to use it any more…?) and does not exactly fill one with confidence that those people are going to be looked after properly.

The thing is: there are important questions to be asked about the role of automation in society, and whether meaningful work is necessary to human happiness. In another context, Charlie’s story could have been interesting and timely and pressing. (Just one example why: a company in Australia has recently developed a bricklaying robot that can build a house in three days. Previously, no robot could lay bricks faster than a human – now, hundreds of thousands of workers potentially face being laid off.) But confusing the issue of systematic corporate exploitation with the issue of automation and meaningful work does no good to either debate.

To add insult to injury, this season has a mini-problem with fridging female characters. First Grace; now Kira, Charlie’s crush, who the factory murders literally in order to make Charlie feel bad about what he’s planning to do. And we’re still supposed to think the system is benign and empathetic and fluffy?

Incidentally, the casting for this episode is the least diverse we’ve seen so far in this season: I think I’m right in saying that every single one of the secondary characters with speaking parts was white (outside, obviously, the Doctor’s gang).

One thing the episode did well, though, was Ryan’s dyspraxia: I liked the way it affected how he thought about things, but didn’t stop him doing them. It’s present, and a part of who he is, but, equally, not the whole of who he is.

Overall, however, Kerblam! is an unexpectedly disappointing offering from a season that’s mostly been doing good, heartwarming, progressive work. Here’s hoping next week is better.

Doctor Who Review: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Lots of fans apparently disliked it, but, you guys, I think The Tsuranga Conundrum might be my favourite Thirteenth Doctor episode yet.

The Doctor and her friends are metal detecting on a junk planet, for unspecified reasons, when they accidentally unearth a dangerous sonic mine. After the ensuing explosion, they wake up aboard a medical ship – one that’s under attack by a single-minded and indestructible creature called a Pting. (It is adorable.) The problem is, the ship’s automated, crewed only by two medical staff looking after two other patients and two hangers-on; and if the computer systems at their destination, a big hospital space station called Resus One, discover the Pting, they’ll blow the ship up to protect everyone else. The Doctor must draw on the skill and expertise of everyone on the ship to solve these puzzles, keep everyone safe and well, and bring the ship home.

The Tsuranga Conundrum is an episode about imagination. Or, rather, re-imagination: its characters are repeatedly called upon to reimagine their relationship to the universe and their place in it. Graham and Ryan have to reimagine their notions of (their own) masculinity when they’re called upon to be birth partners to a pregnant man; timid medic Mabli is asked to reimagine herself as competent and brave; resentful brother Durkas learns by the end of the episode to reimagine his sister’s robot consort Ronan as a member of society in his own right.

But it’s not just the characters who are asked to engage in acts of reimagination. We are asked to do so, too, through the Doctor, who is the heart of this show. At the beginning of the episode, she engages in a frantic search for the ship’s navigation systems and a way back to her beloved TARDIS – her determination to take over and her focus on getting her ship back are both hallmarks of the Doctor’s behaviour in earlier incarnations. So when medic Astos forces her to see this behaviour as selfish – she’s jeopardising not only herself, as she’s still recovering from the effects of the sonic mine, but also the other patients on the ship, as she’s taking medical attention away from them – he’s also asking us to reassess our ideas of what Doctor Who should be, and who the Doctor should be. In fact, it runs deeper than that: he’s asking us to reassess who the Doctor actually is, or was. Have previous incarnations of the Doctor ever been as altruistic as the show wanted us to think they were, if they could behave regularly and unchallenged in a manner that we now see was selfish?

There’s a similar moment closer to the end of the episode, when the Doctor finally works out how to get rid of the Pting, and remove the threat of automated destruction, in one fell swoop. It’s a solution that requires an imaginative leap, a reframing of the problem: to see the Pting not as something to be captured or killed, but as a being with needs that can be fulfilled. This is, admittedly, less of a leap for the show as a whole: the Doctor has always asked aliens what they want, and tried to reach peaceful conclusions. It’s less usual after hostilities have apparently been opened, though; so once again we’re asked to reimagine the show’s assumptions about how its protagonist (and by extension we) should respond to aggression.

With The Tsuranga Conundrum, the series really hits its stride, I think. It’s a statement about what the new Doctor Who is: a show that cares about people and non-sentient beings; a show that will ask us to readjust our perspectives and reimagine the universe to include others; a show about hope, and kindness, and support. A show continually, productively reimagining it

Review: A Game of Thrones

A couple of years ago I watched the first season and a half of Game of Thrones, and stopped because it was too sexist. I had no plans to read G.R.R. Martin’s series of novels, but one day I found myself in the library and the first novel was there looking all shiny and new and…well.

I’ve never been a major fan of epic fantasy, but I enjoyed it. It scratched an itch, wallowing in this cod-medieval world for 800 pages. The tale of two warring houses, the honourable Starks in the frozen north and the morally defunct Lannisters in the south, in the fictional land of Westeros, it’s told in alternating chapters from the point of view of characters on both sides of the feud: nine of them, according to Wikipedia, which gives you an idea of the scale of this 800-page doorstopper.

It’s also, famously, grimdark. Martin has form for killing off major characters, describing death and ‘orrible injury in graphic detail, and generally having nasty things happen. (Content warning for rape and general gore.) Calling it a reaction to Tolkien is such an obvious reading that it’s practically a truism.

And yet: I’m interested in how meaning and story is working in this novel, and particularly working for its characters. Martin’s particularly at pains to undercut idealistic notions of battle and chivalry, not just through general grimdarkness but also, specifically, by having chivalric narratives fail for his characters. So we have a singer, Marillion (sadly not the 70s rock band), volunteering to accompany the noble Catelyn Stark on a journey so he can sing about the deeds of her party, and then hiding behind a rock as soon as they’re attacked. Or there’s 11-year-old Sansa Stark, whose naïve belief in the true love of a noble prince (just like in the songs) is shattered far, far too late for her to do anything about it. Or her sister, Arya, who loves the heroes of legend, but is prevented from following in their footsteps by her gender. (Although it is worth mentioning that there are female warriors in A Game of Thrones – not in major roles, and they are clearly out of the ordinary, but they exist, pretty much as they would have done in real life in the medieval period.) These are people failed by stories, who go out into the world with the wrong information because of them – and I think it’s fairly obvious that Martin wants us to draw an analogy between them and us. Tolkienian fantasy fails us by not preparing us for reality.

(Incidentally, I don’t agree with him: I’m re-reading Tolkien at the moment, as I do every year, and it seems to me to have a surprising amount of relevance to the current political situation. A naïve reading of The Lord of the Rings is not the only possible reading.)

For me, the most successful part of A Game of Thrones was the magic, which is in short but significant supply: a dream here, an incantation there. A motif of note is an unspecified threat from beyond the Wall, a colossal barrier of ice separating civilisation from the wilderness in the north. In Westeros, by (I assume) some quirk of astronomy, summers and winters are decades long, and the novel is set as the world runs down to winter again. There are whispers of the Long Night, the Others and the white walkers. It’s effective precisely because it’s undefined, because these things are mysteries. And because everyone in power is ignoring them.

I’ve been thinking recently about the link between magic and meaning: in modern fantasy, I think, magic is meaning made manifest. Magic is a way of making literal our place in the world, our agency and our significance. So, these characters’ lives may be nasty, brutish and short, but the presence of magic – by which I mean real magic, shadowy, suggestive, mystical, random, never glimpsed full-on – tells them that, nevertheless, they have a place in the world, that there is a purpose to things, rituals to be remembered and performed, that there is somehow a right thing to do.

That reassurance is, I think, something we’re increasingly lacking in the modern West, where rationality reigns and even our relationship to the seasons has been driven out by produce available on supermarket shelves all year round. Which is, perhaps, one reason why Martin’s work is so popular at the moment, despite (or even because of) its grimness and gore. Life is random and unfair, but it still matters what we do, what we choose. It means something.

Which feels, I guess, like Martin having his cake and eating it: ostensibly taking away the consolation of Tolkienian fantasy while leaving us with a premodern sense of significance and grandeur. I’m hoping to read at least the next book in the series, and I’d like to trace this idea further when I do.

Doctor Who Review: Arachnids of the UK

This post contains spoilers.

TW: spiders.

Despite a feelgood ending in which the Doctor and her companions pledge to form #TeamTARDIS, Arachnids of the UK, the fourth episode in Doctor Who‘s current series, feels ultimately a bit despondent.

Surely written specially for Halloween weekend, it’s a tale of giant spiders and corporate greed. The spiders of Sheffield are doing odd things, and it all seems to be centred on a luxury hotel that’s due to open any time soon. If you didn’t drift off to sleep thinking vaguely worrying thoughts about eight-legged bugs after you watched this, I don’t believe you.

But the Big Bad of the episode isn’t actually the oversized arachnids, which are big and hairy and CGI enough to be almost cute, and which the Doctor encourages us to view with empathy and respect; it’s the hotel’s owner, Jack Robertson, a global gazillionaire businessman rumoured to be running for the White House. I’ve seen and heard a couple of people compare Jack to Donald Trump, partly because the episode itself names him as a rival to the 45th president, but I don’t think that comparison’s quite right: Jack is oilier and cleverer and savvier than Trump, a man who (I imagine) can charm as well as order. He’s an arch-capitalist, putting his employees’ bodies between him and danger – quite literally on one occasion. Perhaps Elon Musk would be a better comparison than Trump.

In any case, Jack’s all about the profit, and it’s this corner-cutting, blind-eye-turning approach that’s fucked up Sheffield’s spider ecosystem (which we can read, perhaps, as a microcosm of the Earth’s ecosystem, similarly fucked up by late capitalism’s drive for profit). And Jack likes guns. When it’s revealed that the giantest spider of them all is in fact dying because she’s too grown too big to breathe efficiently, it’s Jack who shoots her, ignoring the Doctor’s horrified protests. That’s, more or less, where the episode’s plot ends: with a beautifully composed shot, surely destined for a poster of some sort, of the Doctor looking down at a spider corpse nearly as big as she is. The question Arachnids in the UK poses is the same as the one Theoden asks in Tolkien’s The Two Towers:

“How shall any tower withstand…such reckless hate?”

Except, in Arachnids, it’s not even hate, simply pure and monstrous selfishness. How can the Doctor’s preaching of acceptance and kindness ever penetrate such profound indifference to the lives of others? How can tolerance stand against men with guns and institutional power? As with every single one of Thirteen’s episodes so far, Arachnids feels incredibly pointed and incredibly topical. But where the first three episodes felt like a challenge to the creep of far-right nationalism, Arachnids is a sigh of despair, a confession of exhaustion.

And yet. I think writer Chris Chibnall needlessly muddles the episode’s ethical standpoint of “don’t kill things just because they are in the way”. The very first question I asked when Arachnids finished (I texted it to the Bandersnatch) was “but what happened to the little spiders?” You see, the Doctor and her friends lure the smaller spiders into Jack’s panic room so they can tackle the biggest, van-sized spider on its own. Their plan once they’ve done this is…unclear, to say the least. The resident spider expert they’ve managed to pick up along the way mutters something about “a humane and dignified death”, but that’s it. We hear nothing more.

Jack says that a gun would be cleaner, and he’s probably right: as far as we know, the spiders are left locked in the panic room to eat each other and eventually starve. And if Jack hadn’t shot the huge spider, and if she hadn’t been dying anyway, what then? What would they have done with her that wouldn’t have meant killing her?

There are certainly possible answers to these questions; Chibnall has the whole of time and space to work with, after all. But not answering them leaves the episode feeling hollowed out and insufficient, with no coherent ethical standpoint.

That’s a shame, because I feel it would have taken so little to make it wonderful – encouraging people to love spiders, the most sustainable bug control solution there is, often misunderstood and killed by the needlessly frightened. What an elegant device! And even just a throwaway line about their eventual fate would have made the episode more…substantial.

As it is, Thirteen remains a joy to watch, and the chemistry between her three companions is beginning to warm up a little. (Yas is my fave so far by a country mile.) But it’s not an episode that quite works for me.

Doctor Who Review: Rosa

So my thoughts about Rosa are…complicated.

In the third episode of new Who‘s eleventh season, the Doctor and her friends end up in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, the day before a Black woman named Rosa Parks is due to be arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white person. They discover that a far-future white supremacist by the name of Krasko (“I don’t like it,” declares the Doctor) is trying to stop her protest, and thereby prevent the entire civil rights movement from happening, by nudging history so that the infamous bus driver James Blake is on holiday, the bus is broken, there aren’t enough people on the bus for Rosa to give up her seat…and so on.

The actual logistics of the episode get a bit tedious, as Krasko and Our Heroes try repeatedly to foil each other, with varying levels of hilarity. There’s also a tendency for things to happen in a way that makes an (important and interesting) narrative or structural point, that nevertheless don’t make sense in the Doctor Who universe as I think we’re supposed to understand it.

For instance: the Doctor’s apparent lack of awareness about how segregation worked in Montgomery, despite her being able to reel off encyclopedic facts about Rosa Parks’ life in the episode, and despite the fact that one of the Doctor’s main functions is to know stuff that keeps their companions safe. Twice she takes Yaz and Ryan into unsafe situations – a bar and a motel – and at least in the first instance is surprised at the hostility they receive from white staff, customers and police.

This is a way for writers Chris Chibnall and Malorie Blackman (whose novel Noughts and Crosses has been used to teach young adults about racism since forever) to demonstrate the Doctor’s white privilege in a way that sets up the episode’s denouement, in which she and Graham realise that as white people they have to become complicit in Rosa Parks’ arrest. We see the Doctor as clueless about how segregation actually affects people of colour, because it’s never affected her personally. She doesn’t fully appreciate the immediate physical danger her friends are in because she’s brought them into white-only spaces.

And I do think that’s a clever thing to do with the Doctor, with the concept of the Doctor as this all-knowing supreme being: show up their cultural specificity, their blind spots as a white person. But this is such a famous historical moment. And the Doctor apparently knows Rosa’s entire biography! I feel like those two things, the Doctor’s historical knowledge and her cluelessness when it comes to the spaces her friends can safely inhabit, sit uneasily together.

And Chibnall and Blackman’s view on how history works feels a little off-base. The episode very much takes up the Great Person theory of history: the idea that just one person! doing something extraordinary! can Change the World! The truth is more complicated than that: Rosa Parks’ protest did not come out of a vacuum. She’d already been involved with the NAACP for twelve years. Even if she hadn’t refused to move on 1st December 1955, she might well have done so another day. Or the NAACP would have found another symbol to rally behind. Rosa Parks is important because she was an ordinary person, and she did protest, at significant personal cost. But she is not the only person who could have done so.

But then: I am white, and I am inevitably reading Rosa through a white lens. There’s a sense in which Rosa is not necessarily for me; in which it prioritises viewers who aren’t white; which is not, of course, a bad thing. One of the episode’s most powerful moments has Ryan in the same room as both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King: there’s this palpable sense of wonder, of Ryan’s delight and amazement at being part of a history that is his in a way that, say, Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst might be part of mine. It’s a history tied to his own family – to Grace, his dead grandmother, for whom Parks and King were personal heroes – and so, fundamentally, to his identity. In that context, we can perhaps read Rosa Parks’ specific actions that specific day as, in fact, vitally important to the narrative of the Black people who came after her; in trying to take that away, Krasko is perhaps destroying a foundational myth, an identity.

Generally, then, Rosa centres people of colour, relegating its white characters to positions of cluelessness, discomfort or complicity (hence, perhaps, my own discomfort at seeing the Doctor powerless to protect her friends from discrimination). I’m not sure, but that feels like something the show has never done before. In Rosa, Chibnall and Blackman position the civil rights movement as part of a long arc of justice and progress, of things slowly getting better for everyone. That might not be where the world is going right now, but it is at least where the show is going. And that’s a really lovely and really exciting thing.

Doctor Who Review: The Ghost Monument

It’s the Second Episode of Doctor Who! The season’s settling into its stride, telling us what kind of thing it’s going to be, bedding down and making itself comfortable. I’m very happy with that.

This week, the Doctor and her new companions get caught up in a massive galaxy-wide trial of strength and endurance. The final challenge for competitors Angstrom and Epzo – one of them fighting for her family, the other for himself – is to cross a planet simply and ominously called Desolation, to find the ethereally-named Ghost Monument; which turns out to be, of course, the Doctor’s own lost TARDIS.

Our Heroes have little choice but to go with Angstrom and Epzo, however much Epzo resents their presence. They all quickly find, in delightfully unsubtle fashion, that they are Stronger Together; that the only way to survive the horrors of Desolation is to pool their various skills and resources, and to learn about the planet and its secrets rather than simply enduring it.

Is it totally on the nose? Yes. Is it also a thing of wonder? Yes, yes, yes.

I’m intrigued by how the galactic obstacle course imagined by this episode recalls Tim Shaw’s ritual hunt in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Matthew Kilburn makes the link to Ryan’s ill-advised assumption that because he’s an expert at Call of Duty he can deal with several deadly robot snipers simply by shooting at them: competitions that reward individuals acting in isolation are, in Chris Chibnall’s view, toxic and counter-productive. It’s tempting to read in this a response to a prevailing political climate in which isolationism and competition is becoming the norm. It’s also tempting to see it as a corrective to Steven Moffat’s habit of making every single character who is not the Doctor into a puzzle to be solved, another game level to be unlocked.

People are not puzzles. A zero sum game is not a good model for a functioning society.

Unfortunately for an episode that’s so invested in the idea of community and humanity, though, the companions were easily the least interesting people on screen. That’s a shame: these characters and their dynamics are pretty unusual for New Who, and I want to love them, but I’m finding them strangely affectless and flattened, far outshone by the two strong female leads in this episode – Thirteen, of course, who remains a joy to watch, and Angstrom, a queer woman battling incredible odds to reunite her persecuted family (be still my beating heart).

Thirteen and Angstrom made this episode personal, godsdammit. In particular, the scenes in which Thirteen finds her TARDIS again make up for the unconvincing companions approximately ten times over. The Doctor’s relief and love for her ship are palpable, but there’s also a sense that these scenes are for every woman who grew up wanting to fly the TARDIS. All the Trumps and Kavanaughs and idle Twitterers in the world cannot stop us, harhar. Which is in some ways a fantasy, but it’s a delightful one, one which we can curl up in for 45 minutes every Sunday, and, as the late great Terry Pratchett said of fantasy:

You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?

For all its flaws and blind spots, this iteration of Doctor Who is shaping up to be a fantasy that’s worth believing in: one in which everyone has something to contribute and everyone is valued and tyrants can be defeated with a snap of the fingers.

Because: how else can these things become?

Doctor Who Review: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

I liked The Woman Who Fell to Earth. It made me happy.

I cannot tell you for why. Almost every coherent criticism I can make of the Thirteenth Doctor’s entry into the annals of Whoviana is a negative one. The story is shaky and oddly irrelevant; the characterisation, especially of Thirteen herself, is limited to the broadest of brushstrokes; the Doctor’s newly-canonical queerness is simply brushed under the carpet; and a fascinating woman of colour gets fridged in favour of Bradley Walsh.

Of course, the episode is labouring under a considerable burden: not only is it the First Episode for a new Doctor, always a tricky thing to handle, it’s also the First Episode for the First Woman Doctor. And I think a lot of its problems stem from how scriptwriter and showrunner Chris Chibnall chooses to deal with this burden.

Which is, essentially, with as little fuss as possible. The Doctor’s transformation into Jodie Whittaker is treated with remarkably little fanfare, given how much Matt Smith went on about his chin in his first episode. The Doctor’s a woman: oh, okay. Moving on. Nothing to see here.

Except: that characterisation. I felt very much as if Whittaker spent much of the episode declaiming at people, especially this week’s Big Bad, a blue alien with other people’s teeth embedded in his skin intent on hunting down random humans. This was Whittaker Becoming the Doctor: saying Doctorish things to establish that despite being a woman, she can also be the Doctor. The script never openly acknowledges that the Doctor being female is radical, and yet it gives us a Doctor who has to reaffirm her identity and her right to that identity near-constantly. That’s partly why, I’d argue, the story is so weak (even by the standards of most First Episodes): the episode is working so hard to affirm Whittaker-as-Doctor that it overwhelms the actual plot.

Given all that invisible work the episode is doing, its unspoken awareness that Thirteen has to prove herself as the real Doctor, its surface disavowal that her gender is unimportant feels disingenuous. If it really doesn’t matter that Thirteen is a woman, why are you working so hard to avoid the question altogether? Why not tell us what the Doctor-in-aggregate’s pronouns are now? Why not have the Doctor revel in her new body, as the Doctor has revelled in new bodies before, when gender wasn’t even in question?

If gender isn’t important, why aren’t there any queer characters in an episode that’s clearly working hard at representing older people, people of colour (bearing in mind the aforementioned fridging incident), disabled people and working-class people?*


Okay, I swear, I didn’t mean to complain so much about this. Because, as I said, I just liked this episode. I liked watching Jodie Whittaker gleefully leaping about doing Doctorish things. I liked that the secondary characters were, like, real people with real jobs and lives and interests beyond the Doctor (oh, such a change from Moffat’s chesspiece companions!). I’m really looking forward to seeing the next episode, which will hopefully not be so burdened by needing to establish the First Woman Doctor. And it’s very possible that the points I’ve raised here are going to be addressed later in the series. And despite its flaws, this episode gestures at a Doctor Who that’s better and more interesting than anything Moffat ever came up with.

(the Weeping Angels are scary but wasted in a shallow mechanical episode, don’t @ me)

*To be clear: those forms of representation are obviously important, and it’s fantastic that these characters are intersectionally diverse: we have three people of colour who are also disabled, working-class, female and older in various combinations thereof. My point is: Chris Chibnall is clearly aware of the importance of intersectionality and diverse representation, which makes the lack of queer characters feel like a rather glaring omission.

Doctor Who Review: Gridlock

This review contains spoilers.

Gridlock‘s another new Whoepisode that made me weep when I rewatched it recently. If anything has convinced me that, no, it is not just nostalgia that makes me hate everything Stephen Moffat has ever written, it is this.

In the third episode of new Who‘s third series, the Doctor and Martha visit New Earth. True to form, instead of the dazzling cities full of glittering skyscrapers that the Doctor’s promised, they find the most almighty traffic jam in the universe. Forget the M25 on a bank holiday; the people of New Earth’s motorway have spent entire lifetimes in their floating cars. It takes twelve years to travel just five miles.

There’s a plot going on somewhere about Martha getting kidnapped and the Doctor’s search for her, but that’s easily the least interesting thing about the episode. As in much of Russell T. Davies’ Who work, it’s the imagery of the story and the feel of the world that makes it memorable. We have some great secondary characters: an Irishwoman married to a cat-person (they have kittens, it’s adorable); two little old ladies who’ve been driving since they got married 23 years ago; the improbably good-looking pregnant couple who kidnapped Martha so they could get in the fast lane out to Brooklyn. There’s a sequence in which the Doctor drops through a series of cars and we get little insights into people’s lives: it’s a way of establishing the vastness of this world, the scale of the motorway, and the defiant individuality of those who are trapped in it.

But it’s the imagery that made me cry: the way the story works metaphorically. See, the secret of the motorway is that it’s been quarantined from a plague that killed everyone on New Earth in seven minutes. The Face of Boe’s been keeping the motorway on for 23 years, all alone with his carer Novice Hame, but now the Doctor’s here he can finally let them all out. Let’s not dwell on the dodgy plot logic here: the point is the image of thousands upon thousands of flying cars swooping up out of the shadows of the motorway, up, up into the sunset and a skyline full of glittering towers. I love how this image taps into something fundamental about the idea of a journey: we sit in traffic jams and endure overcrowded trains and comply with arcane and inconvenient rules about cabin baggage because we hope that there will be something wonderful at the end of it. Home, or friends, or a place we find magical. When we travel, we are hoping, and it’s a hope that nothing earthly ever exactly fulfils.

But, in Gridlock, it is fulfilled. That time on the motorway is, finally, worth it, as the people of New New York come into their own again.

There’s something very Christian, too, about Gridlock. I don’t think I really noticed this until the very end, when the people of the motorway sing notorious weepie hymn “Abide With Me” as they fly up into the sunset, but once I did notice it helped me clarify my feelings about why this episode works so well for me. We have not one but two saviour figures: the Face of Boe, who sacrifices himself to save the people of the motorway, and the Doctor, whose presence in some undefined way facilitates this action. The opening of the motorway is a sort of harrowing of hell, in that it’s full of smoke and there are actual monsters at the bottom, and of course its denizens literally ascend to the heavens, into a paradisical and empty city. And the Doctor is hunting for a specific person, a single sinner, we might say. This is possibly a stretch, but for me it calls to mind Luke 15:7:

there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s a hidden Christian message in Gridlock; just that it uses familiar images from the Christian story to push our narrative buttons. It works for British audiences because most of us grow up with these images of hell and sacrifice and celestial cities, and it’s so embedded in our culture it’s almost invisible. Traffic jams and warm fuzzy non-denominational Christianity are possibly two of the most British things there are.

I think, though, there is a reason why the Christian stuff is there; I think Davies is repurposing it. The people of the motorway are definitely Christian: references to Jehovah pop up in passing, and they actually sing two hymns in the episode. But it’s important that their ascension is secular and rational, that it’s enabled by that figurehead of rationality the Doctor. The episode is a humanist declaration, not a religious one; it places its faith not in an abstract god, but in the power of rationality, community, diversity and love. Despite its hellish trappings, the motorway is a community. Almost everything we see a secondary character do is about respect or support or friendship, whether that’s offering a random drop-in a cup of precious water or warning a stranger about the monsters at the bottom of the motorway while being eaten by them. It’s how they’ve survived on the motorway for decades. And it’s why they deserve the secular heaven they’re eventually given. Not because they’ve followed some obscure religious commandments, but because they’ve been nice to each other, because they’ve kept faith in their essential humanity.

And that’s why Gridlock made me cry.

A Doctor Who Review: In Defence of “Fear Her”

This review contains spoilers.

TW: child abuse.

The eleventh episode in the second series of New Who, Fear Her has a reputation in the fandom that can only be described as “dismal”. According to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, readers of Doctor Who Magazine ranked it the second worst episode of all time in 2014.

That’s including classic as well as New Who. I mean. Really? Worse than everything that got made in the 60s, when special effects were basically non-existent and nothing happened for entire half-hour segments? Worse than everything Stephen Moffat wrote before 2014? Even accounting for the conservative tastes of adult Doctor Who fans, really?

Confession time, here’s what I got: Fear Her made me ugly cry when I rewatched it a few weeks back. I’m reasonably sure it made me ugly cry the first time I watched it, too. But in a good way.

I wonder if this is something to do with different ideas of what Doctor Who is. My first Doctor was Ten, my first showrunner was Russell T Davies. My idea of Doctor Who is rooted in those things: it’s a sentimental, slightly rickety science fantasy show where maybe the special effects aren’t great and the monsters are a bit corny and the plot is mostly held together by reversed polarities and neutron flows and wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey nonsense, but, and this is important, it all has complex, wonderful, ordinary people at its centre, people with complex relationships and complex feelings. Like, I am not at all saying that Doctor Who was ever a showcase for world-class characterisation, but it always had that intention, that compassion, at its beating heart. The Doctor is great, but in the end he’s not really the point. We can admire him, we can love him, but his function is to introduce us to wonders, and to make them more wonderful. That’s what I always loved about the show, anyway.

And so, to Fear Her. The Doctor and Rose land in London, 2012, just before the Olympic Games are due to start. (2012 is still six years in the future for Rose, and for the episode’s original audience; even New Who is old.) The people of the recently renamed Dame Kelly Holmes Close, Stratford, are getting ready for the Olympic Flame to pass just feet from their doorsteps. There’s just one spanner in the works: children have been going missing from the street, there one minute, gone the next. Where have the kids gone? What’s the strange metallic smell in the air? And what’s 12-year-old Chloe Webber doing, standing ominously at her upstairs window…

At the heart of the episode are a lonely little girl and her mother, who have grown apart in ways small and subtle since the death of Chloe’s abusive father a year ago. Chloe has retreated to her room, where she draws obsessively. Her mother Trish is simply relieved to be free of her partner, and doesn’t understand her daughter’s retreat from reality.

Nina Sosanya’s performance as Trish is one of my favourite things about Fear Her. She plays a single mother who cares desperately about her daughter, and a single mother who’s afraid of her daughter, as the Doctor points out, but also, I think, for her daughter. She responds to the Doctor’s offer of help for Chloe with hope and fear in equal measure. Hope, because she’s worried about Chloe and doesn’t know how to get through to her. Fear, because in her eyes not being able to get through to Chloe means she’s a bad mother. And in the Doctor’s authority lies, for Trish, a real-life bogeyman: the threat of social services, the threat that her daughter might be literally disappeared from her by forces just as shadowy and unaccountable as that taking the other kids in the close.

Which is not to suggest that the entire episode is a metaphor for evil social services people swooping down and stealing children from their parents, because that would be ridiculous and insensitive. And because much of my reading of Trish is, I’m aware, subtext at best. Fear Her works, I think, because its handling of the issues it touches on – single motherhood, loneliness, the lingering trauma of abuse – is both metaphorical and literal. Which is to say: the SF elements in the episode represent and reinforce the realistic ones. Kids are disappearing because a lonely alien has given a lonely child the power to transport them to another dimension: that’s a way of talking about the degrading effects loneliness has on mental health, but it’s also a kind-of sad story about a lonely alien. Some things are universal, it seems. Similarly, when the Doctor inevitably restores everyone Chloe has drawn out of the world, the reappearance of her abusive father in a demonic drawing is a metaphor for how she’s still haunted by the trauma of him, but it’s far from the only time the episode mentions that she’s so haunted.

So: let’s talk about the Doctor and the Olympic Flame, a focus for popular ire and also one of my favourite parts of the episode. The Olympic Flame is not, I will grant you, very well incorporated into the main story; it would not be unreasonable to call it something of a deus ex machina. As for the Doctor’s carrying it into the Olympic Stadium after the torchbearer collapses, well, that’s pure theatre. (It’s awesome, though.) But the lonely alien’s use of it to escape Earth, borne on the tide of love, is both a way of combating the fear that runs through the episode – fear of unexplained, unresolved disappearance, of shadowy figures drawn on the back of wardrobes and standing in judgement on single mothers – and a beautiful image in its own right. It’s the public counterpart to the private scene a few moments earlier when Chloe and Trish sing together to defeat the rising ghost of Chloe’s father, when they heal their rift and defeat fear with love. It’s a way of symbolically healing society in preparation for the great celebration of global humanity that is (at least conceptually) the Olympic Games – just as the singing is a way of symbolically healing the relationship between a mother and a daughter.

And that kind of echo, that call and response between the literal and the metaphorical, the real and the fantastic, the public and the private, is what Doctor Who is all about. For me.