Last week we were treated to The Green Death 2.0. This week it’s The Ark in Space 2.0. Not that there’s anything wrong in that as such, but we need some new ideas as well. In a nutshell, the five episodes of this series have shaped up like this so far:
- Alien invasion
- Quest story
- Accidentally created monsters
- Base under siege
There are twists on some of those formats, but that’s basically it. At least we have a list of five different things, but they are five derivative things as well, and this week’s is the most derivative of all. We have a spaceship, all brilliant gleaming white like something out of the 1980s, under attack from an alien from space. Remarkably, for a story that borrows so much from The Ark in Space, the alien actually manages to be sillier (and one might also argue more poorly realised visually) than green bubble wrap. Almost as if Chris Chibnall realised there was nothing really going on beyond a standard base-under-siege in space, he throws in a pregnant man who is about to give birth, to provide a bit of extra drama. I’ve seen that trick played too many times in sci-fi, and I’ll settle for the Star Trek idea of the future thanks: beam the baby out! Ultimately this is the closest Doctor Who has come to pure sci-fi for a very long time. Your reaction to that will depend on how much you like pure sci-fi, but I can’t think of much that would be more boring. There were lots of yawns while my wife and I watched this one.
So what else is going on here beyond the basic plot? If we can’t find much that’s new or exciting, can we find anything that’s interesting? There were a few attempts at a human angle. Ryan, whose father is absent, tells a father-to-be to keep his baby and do his best, and that’s about the size of that. The bizarre insistence on making the Doctor a weak character continues. She takes 4 days to come round from being injured and unconscious (4 days! This is the Doctor!) and then wakes up last and spends the episode clutching her stomach. I was certain that was leading to something, some kind of revelation at the end of the episode, but in the end it was there for the sake of it, like most aspects of the episode. Perhaps there was supposed to be some kind of a thematic parallel with Eve Cicero’s illness, but the dots never got joined if there was. As for Cicero herself, there was some exploration of a hero trying to put across the image of a hero, and her brother trying to connect with her. If there’s anyone you should feel able to be vulnerable in front of, it’s your family. Then we had an android who was simply a human actor with a lot of makeup on (oh, the sci-fi clichés in this one), which again seemed to be some kind of an important subplot that led nowhere in the end. Mabil’s storyline should have been a heartwarming tale of somebody learning how to trust in her abilities and take charge when the moment calls for it, but again the elements were thrown in without doing anything beyond following a sort of Writer’s ABC of dramatic plot points. The Doctor continues to be the Doctor who avoids killing anything, however hostile, and that continues to be interesting and troublesome for the writer. It was done better here than before, with something akin to catch and release of a rodent infestation, but this particular rodent was set free to cause a lot more deaths in future. I could imagine a better writer concluding this with a neater solution – something that attracts all the Pting and keeps them fed so they don’t need to go after spaceships. Something that doesn’t mean the Doctor saving her own skin and a few friends and leaving the enemy free to strike again. You know, like she’s done in every episode so far. We had just seen a planet full of metal, which the Pting likes to eat. Maybe something could have been done with that? A way to get rid of waste and remove a threat at the same time? It’s hard to shake the feeling there was a neat way to tie this all up that a better writer would have found.
This is the point at which I would quit, if we were talking about anything other than Doctor Who, but it’s Doctor Who so I’ll press on. I wonder if it will be a tipping point for less dedicated fans. Five episodes in, five awful scripts from Chris Chibnall, the first four saved spectacularly by “style over substance”. Not this week. It’s time to let somebody else have a go. RP
The view from across the pond:
When Russell T. Davies was writing Doctor Who, I would get annoyed with him because his stories had a lot of plot holes. They were good stories, but he would miss what I considered to be important points. Steven Moffat, by contrast, didn’t have as many holes, but created some really complex stories. They started as the best of the series, but by Capaldi’s era, had degenerated into unnecessarily awkward knots. Russell was excellent at pulling the heartstrings. Moffat, not as much, especially in his later work, almost killing series 10 by making Capaldi’s season 9 utterly repugnant. It would be great if we had a writer who could do both: consistently pull heart strings and tell complex stories. Now we have Chris Chibnall. Chibnall does characters well, but his stories lack the emotional punch (unless he teams up with someone else) and so far, lacks the complexity of Moffat’s writing. His stories are very much pulp. Pulp with good characters, but pulp nonetheless. And how much of the character work is his writing and how much is just the marvelous acting of a great cast? Chibnall’s stories are the action/sci-fi stories of our bygone youth. The Tsuranga Conundrum throws us in at lightning speed and doesn’t let up. But what really happens? In the grand scheme, what’s the take away?
Let’s face it, there’s no “conundrum”! The Doctor wakes after a bomb goes off that she and her companions steadfastly tried not to escape, and wakes up wondering why she knows the word Tsuranga. It seems she recalls it as a hospital. Oooh, creepy! Exciting! NOT!! And that’s the conundrum part of the story done. Beyond that, it’s an out and out race to survive. It could have been called The Tsuranga Countdown. And the Book of Celebrant’s honoree, the Doctor, is surprisingly inept throughout this story. She can’t deactivate the bomb, she can’t stop an oaf from walking into an escape pod, she needs someone to tell her she’s being selfish and she can’t fly a ship that a Cicero “studies for”. Can you imagine Capaldi’s Doctor accepting being told it “takes dozens of years” to learn to be a neuro-pilot and not at least try anyway?
Meanwhile, the cast is put in the position of background characters standing around spotting things they shouldn’t as a little dot moves around a monitor as if it’s a light on the outside of the ship, rather than something that has to pass through corridors. That doesn’t stop some great character work. Graham is comical (Oh, we’ve all hacked into our loved ones medical records) and a really decent man. And his backstory is far from forgotten as he tells Ryan, “Imagine if your nan could see us now!” Ryan and Yaz get some great character work too as Ryan talks about his own dad and how his mother died. Yaz’s “do you mind me asking…” opener is simple but well done, showing the audience that these guys are still getting to know one another, even if at some unseen time, they were “rain bathing in the upper tropics of Canstano” (though when that was supposed to have happened is anyone’s guess!) The contrived idea of a dad not ready to become a dad could have been handled better. Unfortunately, we’re still in the “hey, look at us, remember, we’re friendly to every group” phase, so Chibbs wrote the situation just so Ryan could get introspective about his own life.
And that’s where the episode shines: the character work between Ryan and Yaz and later Ryan with the would-be dad, is handled beautifully. The problem is that they have this deep conversation while an alien runs amok on board. Would Sigorney Weaver’s Ripley stop to chat about her upbringing while the Xenomorph hunts her? I’d say not. And speaking of xenomorphs, what was the Pting? Some cute, indestructible little monster that can eat anything? Yes, watching it get full on an explosion is adorable, but will the toy really be a cuddly one of the kids? The marketing department might want to rethink the idea of cuddly toys; typically the kids shouldn’t worry about being killed by them. And if those cute little aliens are going to eat a sonic screwdriver, have the guts to really write it off, or don’t let it happen. Having it vomited up doesn’t make sense when we see the creatures stomach is like a TARDIS and can eat things bigger than it! Remember the adage: what doesn’t add to the story, takes away from the story. Truer words have never been spoken. (Except maybe “entropy increases!”)
Then there are a handful of other issues that were unnecessary. Do we have to have our children asking “what does it mean daddy, that he didn’t take precautions?” I sure am glad my kids are old enough to not have to have asked that. “Gee, daddy, what’s a consort?” But my 14 year old is old enough to have asked: why didn’t they use the Android to lure the creature outside? Couldn’t he have held the creature without any harm coming to him? (My 14 year old, also predicted feeding the exploding bomb to the Pting , so I am certain he didn’t wonder about “precautions”! Take that, comprehension deficiency!) Why write Yaz kicking the creature down the hall? To show she knows something about sports? Are we meant to forget there’s a cute little lifeform wrapped in that blanket? Maybe it’s ok to kick a cat if you first wrap it in a blanket… And why create some silly threat level “chalice” when red alert would do just fine?
But, look, it’s not all bad! It’s just… pulpy. This story does score some wins, even if they are not kicked into a goal. For instance, this season sees the return to some kind of educational format. Whittaker is masterful in her admiration for how Antimatter drives work. Not to mention the #51 being the atomic number for Antimony or the number of Federalist papers; these are things that I was unaware of! Having some educational content will raise Doctor Who above most modern television shows. And regardless of the pulp nature of the episodes, Whittaker has me sold – she is the Doctor. Which brings me around to Doctor Who itself, as a show. When confronted with a problem, having a message about using imagination is a great one for all audiences. That is the sort of show we want our kids watching; one that stresses the importance of imagination. But the most important aspects of the show for me, the one that has kept me energized since childhood, through thick and thin, is that Doctor Who is about hope. And this episode drills that point home. When the Doctor is asked what she is a doctor of, she lists a number of things (including medicine, Lego, candy floss) but ends with “hope. Mostly hope.” The Doctor says, “people prevail… hope prevails!” It also ends with a prayer about hope.
So could there have been more complexity to the story? More heartstrings tugged? Absolutely! But was it a terrible episode? Not for a moment. It was an episode of entertainment, pulp and hope. And I can respect that. Let’s face it, if I’m spending an hour watching TV, I’d like to spend it with characters I like and a ray of hope. So I call this a win. And with that…
May the saints of all the stars and constellations bring you hope as they guide you out of the darkness and into the light on this voyage and the next and all the voyages still to come for now and evermore.