After one or two of the discussions I had last week, I wondered whether (contrary to my conclusions in my review of The Woman Who Fell to Earth) this new Doctor Who was actually an ’empty space’ in the sense that it was setting out to capture viewers’ projections in the way that opposition politicians collect grievances and influence to use against those in power. The substance was minimal, but was reflective of concerns with which it was not necessarily deeply engaged. I am instinctively someone who tries to navigate to find a consensus between different points of view, but it’s not always possible to triangulate between the Series Eleven enthusiast and the Chibnall-sceptic. Chibnall’s authoring is less distinctive a voice than that of Steven Moffat or Russell T Davies, but he does have priorities. His love of ensemble casts is the closest thing he has to a signature, and here we saw part of the argument for it – that in life we are all part of ensembles and those who practise isolation and defend their personal sovereignty only damage themselves and others. If so, then Chibnall is seeking to provide a Doctor Who for the age of Trump and Putin and Brexit. Epzo’s ruthless upbringing is of a piece with what seems to be the diplomatic thinking of the high Brexiteers – that in a world of sovereign nations which are “empires of themselves” in the jargon of the court of Henry VIII, no agreement should be entirely binding, no word can be trusted – and Epzo’s attitude to Ilin’s race of the twelve galaxies parallels the test Tzim Sha underwent in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. (Edit: ‘Althusian’ is ‘Malthusian’ without its initial ‘M’.) This Doctor Who is a warning against overly individualist political and economic philosophies.
Chibnall’s dialogue remains straightforward and explanatory, with an emphasis on the banality of experience; his characters talk to each other about their situation and getting out of it rather than explore psychological corners of personality, although part of the reason is that they can’t or won’t. Grace’s death was mentioned just as its absence started to become irritating. This was an episode where the companion focus remained on Ryan – he’s presented at least twice as our principal viewpoint character, as on two occasions we awake with him – but extended to Graham and began to draw parallels between Graham and Ryan and also Graham and the Doctor. As Graham and Ryan applied a shared technical ability to the riverboat’s power supply, so Graham also supplemented the Doctor’s team management skills, made observations and chivvied everyone along. As a bus driver Graham has been a kind of time traveller himself, though one who steers vehicle and passengers through spaces and times charted by timetables.
This episode tantalized with arc elements; not only the well-trailed character ones, advanced here with hints about Yaz’s home life, but also the reintroduction (off screen) of the Stenza, whose culture was fleshed out with details of their enslavement or extermination of populations and some of the weapons they developed on Desolation. The Remnants (named as such in the credits) telling the Doctor that they knew about ‘the Timeless Child’ suggests another arc. This seems somehow more promising than ‘the Hybrid’ – more identifiable, perhaps. As for kisses to the past, the Doctor’s lost sunglasses are introduced with a backstory which may, or may not, refer to those we knew as the twelfth Doctor’s sonic ones; and I felt it frankly magnificent that the thirteenth Doctor, like the third, is a practitioner of Venusian Aikido, with a little more detail about the origins of the discipline and the Doctor’s qualifications which interpret the past in a way most with a knowledge of the era will probably find in keeping with their own thoughts.
The Ghost Monument seemed more of a travelogue than a quest. Perhaps the early confirmation of the widespread suspicion that the eponymous monument would turn out to be the TARDIS removed part of the mystery. In Hartnell-era terms it felt more like Marco Polo rather than The Keys of Marinus, with Art Malik’s Ilin as a self-invented tent-dwelling khan. I don’t know enough about computer games to say how much the story felt like one, but the scenarios were probably intended to recall a series of game levels. Even if Ryan’s attempt to interpret his situation in terms of Call of Duty failed, this is less a criticism of an entertainment sector as a whole, than a criticism of a particular type of game and the emotions and attitudes it encourages. Nevertheless, the special effect representing the disappearance of Ilin’s tent suggested a player switching a game off – or for that matter a viewer switching off their television.
So far, Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who has taken the audience through a series of familiar situations; the interest lies in how the characters develop as they advance through them and in the visual execution of each scene. Unsurprisingly at the end of the story the Doctor arranges that Angstrom and Epzo take the prize together, an altruistic gesture as Ilin leaves the Doctor and her friends stranded. The planet is named for the Doctor’s mood here – she is desolate in a fashion which is at odds with the episode structure, leaving her friends on the side of the audience who continue, entirely correctly, to expect the TARDIS. There are benefits to the obvious, and Jodie Whittaker’s performance as the Doctor is reunited with her time ship (though her hailing it as the ghost monument was a little heavy-handed) is rewarding as the Doctor and the episode take time to reintroduce the Doctor’s relationship with her ship – though it’s perhaps presented now on the parent-child or owner-pet models, not that of two spouses – with some very effective photography, both of the cast – especially Jodie Whittaker – and the curiously dark set whose detail – all overlapping walls and transparencies, as if the war headquarters of The War Games had met the lead-lined presidential office of The Invasion of Time – is of a different order to its predecessor.
As this is a stripped-down Doctor Who in terms of storytelling, so too is its iconography. The title sequence is technically proficient but its narrative is basic compared to what we’ve been used to in recent years and the pulsating image in the central section oddly recalls the necessitous mirrors of the 1960s and 1970s and to lesser effect. The TARDIS interior set represents another return to basics, on first acquaintance evoking the Ed Thomas control rooms more than they do those of Michael Pickwoad; this seems to be a place of stillness rather than the home of action in its own right, and where previous consoles presented the Doctor with a sonic screwdriver, this one feeds her with a custard cream. One to join the Jammie Dodgers and jelly babies for Doctor Who viewing parties.
I’ve learned at second hand that one 1970s production staffer on Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 was surprised to learn that the locations for this episode were in South Africa, as they thought they recognised a familiar quarry in Surrey. This probably reflects the time taken and distance needed now to make the same impression on a global audience watching on large HD screens that a trip to Betchworth could manage forty years ago for British audiences on small ones. Mark Tonderai’s choice of visuals – the credits revealed he was his own B cameraman – supplied a sense of direction and exploration, moving from the broad and cinematic to the oddly theatrical and back again, as if to say that at a time of fragmentation and regrouping of platforms, this is still television.
Next week, the Rosa operation, where I’ll be materialising at The Doctor Who News Page‘s Doctor Who Reviews.