Monday 10 December 2018

Doctor Who series 11 Verdict - 5 likes, 5 dislikes

Well, that was fun wasn’t it? No, I’m not saying I loved the series, indeed you can prepare yourself for some good hating ahead, but I loved the fact that everybody was talking about it.

I say everybody, obviously I live in a particular bubble of the sort of folks who talk about Doctor Who all the time, and whose most exciting Christmas present this year will be Blu Rays of the first Peter Davison season (which, for the record, I hated at the time and have watched with nothing but embarrassment since). But I have been delighted to find lots more people - in particular kids in schools - who have been aware of Doctor Who this year, and in some way engaged by it. 

A lot of this, true, has been tabloids and twaddle merchants banging on about the stories being “too PC”. Though, as Mandeep Gill pointed out in an interview, PC stands for Politically Correct, and “how can something be too correct?” QED. And there’s been heightened attention drawn to the fact that Jodie’s the first woman in the lead role, but most sensible people got over that fact by, oh, July 2017. Didn’t they?

So I loved my favourite telly show* (*I’ll qualify that when I give my rundown on my Top TV of the year, and you shouldn’t hold your breath in the hope of Doctor Who taking the top spot) being watched by lots more people than in recent years, and lots of them being kids and families. This was clear when I worked with kids in my Comic Art Masterclasses, among the sweetest being a 6 year old kid who described to me the whole story so far in lovely childlike detail, including how her Tardis was her Ghost Monument. That’s what I was waiting to hear. 

But what did I personally think of the series overall? Here are some likes and dislikes.


Personality and characters 

I’ve never been silent on the fact that I’m a Russell T Davies fan. He created and show-ran my favourite 4 years of Doctor Who, and I find the episodes from his run endlessly rewatchable. My biggest criticism of Moffat’s run when it started was that I didn’t relate to the characters. This is the part that Chris Chibnall has got right. Those moments between Graham, Grace, Ryan and Yaz have been the backbone of the series, and the one consistent thread that gets my vote every time. 

Twitter has been alive with Yaz & The Doctor’s girlfriend moments, and Graham and Ryan’s Grandad stuff. This is good TV drama writing and has been what’s led me to describe this series as “Call The Midwife with special effects”. In a good way. 

The topping and tailing of Arachnids In The UK with the scenes where The Doctor nearly loses then wins back her “fam” are the most effective such moments of character writing since Donna, Rose and Wilf.

Non clever-cleverness

I used to be the biggest Steven Moffat fan, especially when he was out-shining RTD during RTD’s own seasons. But when Moffat became show runner, and his love of puzzles, complexity, gag-driven wordplay, and fanboy-pleasing self-referential indulgence took over, it became harder and harder to warm to his stories. While the fanboy in me loved his Missy and Cybermen stories, and the comics reader in me appreciated the ambition of his River Song and other story arcs, reminiscent as they were of the Alan Moore books we both grew up with, the clever-cleverness alienated newcomers to the series. 

Chris Chibnall may be many things, but clever-clever isn’t two of them.

Chibnall has kept it simple, and when that works, it really works. Every one of these episodes, whether you liked them or not, can be easily described to friends the next day. Every one is “that one where”, and they’ve had a great level of quotability to them too. There has only been one episode (It Takes You Away) where any viewer would be left going “what just happened?” and having to explain it to a dozy relative or half-watching mate. And even then, that’s cos the story was a bit bonkers, not cos you had to “keep up”. When it helps accessibility and new viewers to join the party, I’m all for keeping it simple.

No old monsters

This was a brave move and a good one. Treat new viewers as new friends, make the series stand on its own. Russell T Davies almost did this with his first season, though he had to include the Daleks but managed to create mostly his own new enemies. Moffat’s first season had pretty well every old villain there had ever been chucked in there. For Chibnall to manage a whole run with only new characters and challenges is admirable. If only they’d all been… but we’ll come to that. 

Scheduling, presentation, promotion

Sunday night was an excellent choice, the best scheduling choice since 2004’s “let’s bring the series back.” Abandoning the pre-credit sequence was a nice touch. The 10 episodes only was a shame, for those of us who greedily wanted more, but good on him for making the choice and sticking with it. And the promotions, leaking the minimum amount of spoilage in advance, were excellently handled. Even the “Glass Ceiling” trailer was fine by me. 

The PR for this series, from the team’s instagram movies and tweets to all the press calls, have stood out and done the show favours. I cringe when I recall the announcement of Capaldi as the Doctor, way too OTT, and that Doctor Live Afterparty show they did with One Direction and the cast, shudder. Jodie Whittaker has been the best Doctor Who in interviews since David Tennant (sorry Matt and Peter, but she just has). 

And that theme tune

Best theme tune since the 1970s. I liked the 2005 orchestration, but this is just so much more alien and futuristic. Love it.


Lack of visual imagination

One thing the RTD era will always have is visually memorable villains and supporting characters. From the Slitheen and Lady Cassandra (the stretched-skin woman?), through Weeping Angels and Clockwork Robots, to the best ever designs of Daleks and Cybermen, Russell T Davies ensured there were great designs to make into toys for Christmas. Moffat arguably gave us less memorable designs, though you can’t deny he was trying with The Silence, The Spinners (not, not the folk band, I mean those whirly-headed things in The Beast Below), and the worst ever designs of Daleks and Cybermen.

What has Chibnall given us? Household objects but blown up big.

Electric cables that wriggle and an alien in black leather. Shreds of paper that wriggle. A time-travelling Fonzie. Spiders, but big. The Absorbaloff, but small.  Aliens in black leather again. Delivery bots (OK, they were good). Mud monsters from The Curse Of Fenric, but more monotone. A talking frog (OK, that was good too). And the alien in black leather again, who I will confess did have interesting teeth stuck in his face.

But a guy with teeth on his face, delivery bots and a frog on a chair aren’t going to be the toyshop smashes that the Cybermen helmet and the remote controlled Daleks were. They’re not even going to give The Face Of Boe a run for his money. (Yes, I still have a Face Of Boe, worth nothing on eBay I’ve found.)

Lack of drama

I went into The Tsuranga Conundrum in some detail in this blog (and don’t get me started on stupid titles like this and The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos) so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice it to say I’m disappointed in Chibnall’s dramatic writing. We believe in the characters, that bit he’s nailed. But then they get into situations which they explain and re-explain every single time, with exposition taking the place of action at every opportunity. It’s like he missed the Show Don’t Tell module of a creative writing course. 

This has resulted in every episode coming across more like a radio drama than a TV show. There has been so much standing around - in space ship control rooms which all have their operating system in the middle of the room, like a Tardis but with less imagination - and talking through situations. And how many times did the nature of the problem and/or the solution just pop into The Doctor’s head? Rather than being a surprise, a discovery, a twist, a revelation, or the work of one of the characters? Not often enough.

It is this fault that has been my biggest complaint of the series. Moffat may have been too clever-clever, but when you got to the solution of one of his twist storylines, at least you’d get some Keyser Soke-like satisfaction (eg The Empty Child, Silence In The Library, Missy is The Master etc). With Chibnall, whatever you expect is going to happen is exactly what then happens. Often with the help of the “Get Out Of Jail Free” overuse of a Sonic Screwdriver.

And slow bloody motion! How much more slow motion did we have to go through before we all started crying out "wait a minute, this 45 minute show only has 30 minutes of script!"

Lack of ambition

By the middle of this series I was full of praise. Chibnall had set up the best start of a series since Russell T Davies. He was even following the same template as RTD’s first season. Episode 4 had a title that riffed on a pop song (Aliens Of London / Arachnids In The UK), there was an episode title with 4 letters, the first 3 if which were Ros, and most importantly it made you believe in the central characters, rooted in their hometown, and now we were off to enjoy the ambitious stories. 

With RTD it came with Dalek, then Fathers Day, then The Empty Child, then the brilliant finale. The best TV episodes Doctor Who had ever seen. RTD found great new writers and broke new ground in storytelling. He kept doing it himself, with stories like Love & Monsters, and Midnight, stories you couldn’t tell anywhere else. Moffat did this too, bringing in writers like Simon Nye, Richard Curtis, Neil Gaiman, Jamie Mathieson, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and giving them a creative carte blanche. To mixed results, but at least they tried.

Chibnall managed this once, with Malorie Blackman’s Rosa. And it’s possible that Kerblam and It Takes You Away will be seen kindly as such standout episodes. But was anything trying to do stuff that you’d never seen on TV before? I’m not sure.

The same damn things over and over again

How many times was there a ’thing’ on the floor in a clearing in a forest? How many times did The Doctor stand her gang round in a circle and explain things? How many spaceships did we get sucked into whose console was in the middle of the room? How many villains spoke in cliched dialogue like a 1970s kids TV show, usually with their voice modulated to sound deeper? How many times did the Doctor suddenly remember who these aliens were and then explain their entire history? How many times did the whole gang and some hangers on walk down a big dirt track in the middle of a quarry/desert/bit of Punjab/junkyard while the camera panned down to show objects in the foreground.

I’m sure someone is already putting together a compilation of all the bits of this season of Doctor Who that just looked the same as each other, if they don’t get too bored.

And no new series in 2019?

I am reminded of the Woody Allen joke. The food here is awful. Yes, and such small portions.

I know everyone will disagree with everyone else’s opinions, I just wanted to get mine down for the record. And, as I’ve said a million times before, if I’m so clever why aren’t I writing Doctor Who? I should put up or shut up, but for the time being here I am doing a bit of neither. Allons-y.

Kev F Sutherland, as well as writing and drawing for The Beano, Marvel, Doctor Who et al, runs Comic Art Masterclasses in schools, libraries and art centres - email for details, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. View the promo video here

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...