March 15th, 2020

doctor who

Doctor Who, Series 12 (or 38), 2020

Enquiring minds may or may not want to know what I thought of the recently concluded Doctor Who season of stories (I get very mixed up as to whether we are meant to call them series or seasons these days). First off, it gave me an excuse to revisit the twelfth season of Old Who, which was a nostalgic pleasure (Robot, Ark in Space, Sontaran Experiment, Genesis of the Daleks, Revenge of the Cybermen). That 1975 season was in retrospect a turning point - a new team, Baker Hinchcliffe and Holmes, finding their feet and raising the show to new heights of ambition. Forty-five years on, we're in the New Who's fifth Doctor's second season rather than Old Who's fourth Doctor's first, if you see what I mean, and so it's not quite as much of a turning point. And yet...

This was a good season. It is overall better than Season 11 of New Who. None of the individual stories was quite as good as that season's highs (Rosa and Demons of the Punjab), but equally none was as bad as its lows (Kerblam! and The Witchfinders). Before getting into it, I've drawn here on reviews by Huw Fullerton for Radio Times, John Connors (mostly) for Space Time Telegraph, and Darren Mooney on The M0vie Blog. To take them in order:

Spyfall had the stunt casting of Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry for the holiday special first episode, but much more importantly the first appearance of Sacha Dhawan's Master. Apart from the broken-down Dalek of last year's New Year special, this was the first real engagement by Chibnall-era Who with the show's past. The first half of it was a real high-octane cracker of an episode, ending with a tremendous reveal and cliff-hanger. The second episode got a little distracted with Nazis (which Who rarely does well, and this was not an exception) and Ada Lovelace, but basically landed where it needed to. See also John Connors here and here, and Darren Mooney here and here.

Orphan 55 has a holiday planet which of course is much more evil than it seems, and also then turns out to be a degenerated and ravaged far-future Earth. It was nice to watch but there seemed to me a bit too much plot and characters being thrown at the wall, without necessarily sticking. And it didn't quite land the political punch about protecting the environment that it really needed to. Still, it inspired me to finally get around to watching the new animation of The Macra Terror (of which more anon).  See also John Connors here and Darren Mooney here.

Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror is a different matter. (Someone pointed out to me on Twitter that it includes the first TV Who actually set in Canada, as the early scenes are on the northern side of Niagara Falls.) Welcome back to Robert Glenister, 36 years after The Caves of Androzani, as Thomas Edison; and welcome also Goran Visnjic as Nikola Tesla; and welcome especially to Anjli Mohindra, formerly of the Sarah Jane Adventures, as the alien queen. (I thought this might have been the first TV Who ever both written and directed by women, but in fact that was The Witchfinders last season.) It's a very good pseudo-historical, with interesting historical figures in an interesting place faced with a dangerous threat. See also John Connors here and Darren Mooney here.

Fugitive of the Judoon is the episode everyone will remember from this series. The return of Captain jack was basically fan service (though I then went back and rewatched Gridlock, and realised that there too the Face of Boe, possibly Jack at the end of his life, gives the Doctor a hint about his relationship with the rest of the Time Lords. And in fact there is another shout back to Season Three with the chameleon arch revealing the excellent Jo Martin's completely forgotten incarnation of the Doctor. I must say I found this tremendously satisfying rather than outrageous; I am old enough to remember the Brain of Morbius, and the hints then that the Hartnell Doctor was not the first. See also Tim Worthington guesting for John Connors here, and Darren Mooney here.

Praxeus then felt much more like business as usual, if anything a bit less exciting; the environmental message again didn't land quite right, and although it was great to have a geographical diversity, the Doctor, companions and incidental characters just happened to end up in the right place at the right time to help the plot along. It looked very good, though, and the consequnces of the bacterial infection were appropriately gruesome. See also John Connors here and Darren Mooney here.

Can You Hear Me? was a journey into the companions' inner lives in a way that we don't often get since the end of the RTD era, particularly Yazz, who is my favourite of the current crew (and apparently will be the only one to appear regularly in the next season). Darren Mooney is very good on how this works and also doesn't work; that Chibnall's heart is possibly in the right place but he doesn't quite pull it off over the long haul. Still, as a single episode I thought it was fine. See also Sean Alexander guesting for John Connors here.

I'll always remember The Haunting of Villa Diodati for the circumstances in which I first saw it, packed into the biggest hall in the Los Angeles airport Marriott with a thousand other fans, whose reactions were so voluble (and positive) that I needed to watch it again when I got home. It's not the first Who story with Mary Shelley and a Cyberman, which is a really obvious pairing. But it looked good, sounded good, and more or less made sense both times I watched it. See John Connors here and Darren Mooney here.

And so to the final two-parter, Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Children. I was tremendously excited by one aspect of the first episode - no single minute of TV Doctor Who had ever previously been set in Ireland, as I have previously written. Of course, with the revelation of the second part, it turns out that there is still on moment of Doctor Who set in the "real" Ireland, is the one that exists in the same universe as the Doctor and the Tardis rather than just being in the Doctor's imagination. Again, as someone who saw The Brain of Morbius first time round, I'm not unhappy with the disruption of what a lot of people thought was established continuity. See Matthew Kilburn guesting for John Connors here and here, John Connors himself here, and Darren Mooney here, here and here.

Whittaker is good. She is very clearly the Doctor, very much now saturated with continuity and with past lives that we (and the Doctor) never knew about. I don't really warm to Chibnall as a show-runner, but I think he has proved himself able to both do an entire season with almost no continuity bar the Tardis, and also to do a season with the Master, Cybermen and Gallifrey, and avoid being sucked into the spell of his own narrative (as Moffat so often did). RTD remains I think the best of the three New Who show-runners so far. I feel that the show's moral core has weakened a bit under Chibnall - see above re the environmental messages being blunted, and the disastrous politics of last season's Kerblam!

Anyway, more to come; in a very uncertain world, it's good to know that Doctor Who will continue, and there's plenty of Big Finish etc to catch up on while we are waiting. (And Annek Wills is sending me a signed copy of the new DVD of The Faceless Ones, so that will cheer me up.)