The most important question a writer should ask himself is “why?” That needs to be asked throughout a story. Why am I doing this as a writer? Why is this character there? Why is this happening? If a writer fails to ask himself that question then you get a story where things happen just because they happen, and there’s no point to any of it. Let’s keep that in mind when we look at the different elements that make up this two-parter.
For the first episode (and specifically just for the first episode), we get a pastiche of a James Bond film. If that weren’t immediately obvious from the title then all the elements of the episode make it clear, right down to the beat-dum-beat-dum-beat-dum music: that old musician’s trick of doing something similar enough to bring a theme to mind without going far enough to breach copyright. Stephen Fry turns up as an M/Q hybrid, running the show but also dispensing the gadgets. It was quite a thrill to see Fry in an episode of Doctor Who at last, and a shame that his character was bumped off so quickly. Then we have the usual trappings of a Bond film: location hopping, with the drama playing out on a global scale, chases in cars and planes, and a powerful, rich villain with a mad plan.
That brings us to Lenny Henry as Barton. His performance is stunning from start to finish, especially when confronting the Doctor with such coldness and confidence. Henry pitches it just right: Barton is a man who has engineered his own success and now has everything, and is supremely confident in his ability to do anything. His company is the “biggest search engine on the planet”, which spoils the illusion a little bit. We all know what that really is, and as real world internet giant Facebook is referenced this is an uneasy contradiction of the extent to which a specific company is really being targetted by the writer. But then this is a Bond parody, so we must expect liberties to be taken with the way the world really works. What we can also expect from that, and what we definitely get, is a lot of unrealistic silliness. So we have the tech genius who sees his laptop loaded up by itself and just shrugs that off. And we have the same genius proving himself remarkably talented at shooting the front of a moving motorbike from a side angle, which is actually a much smaller target than the two people on the bike.
As pastiches of 007 go, this is reasonably effective and entertaining, but let’s not forget that important question: why? Doctor Who has often played with different genres and sources of inspiration and if you dig a little deeper you will nearly always find a reason for it. Often the original work provides a vehicle for telling a particular kind of story, or suits a particular kind of monster. I’m not convinced that is the case here. In fact, I’m not convinced Doctor Who is showing us a Bond parody this week for any more compelling a reason than just because it can.
As the Doctor hideously says at one point, let’s “park that”, because the second episode largely abandons the 007 stuff and does something different. Mainly what it does is throw in a lot of delaying tactics. The end of the first part is surely one of Doctor Who’s greatest moments. Gleefully unspoiled before watching this, I never guessed the true identity of “O” for one second. Mainly that was because his behaviour through the episode was inconsistent with what the Master would actually do, but we’ll let that slide, because that encounter on the plane was blisteringly good. Sacha Dhawan is immediately perfect as the Master, giving the role just the right blend of style, danger, and a hint of insanity. It was also a joy to see his Tissue Compression Eliminator return for the first time in forever. Now that special effects finally allow us to see it in action it truly is the terrifying weapon that it always had the potential to be.
The second episode, though, is an extended game of cat and mouse (well, cats and mice), with the major players kept apart until the time is right. As it is once again an hour-long episode, the pacing is tiresome to say the least. We go on a tour of notable women in history, from Ada Lovelace in 1834 to Noor Inayat Khan in 1943. OK, we need to ask that “why” question again. Doctor Who often shows us famous people from the past, and there always needs to be a reason for it beyond ticking off another couple of boxes in the I Spy Book of Historical Celebrities. Generally it is because their skills lend themselves to a particular story and help the Doctor in some way that no other random stranger could. But none of that really happens here. The Doctor picks up an historical celebrity, brings her along for the ride, and then picks up another one. They become pseudo-companions for a while, and don’t do much. They were both exceptional women and their skills should have been absolutely integral to the episode, but in the end they are there largely just because they can be.
So these are just distractions while we are marking out time before the big encounter between the Master and the Doctor, achieved via some “old school” telepathic “contact”. I loved the in-joke about the Master not being the “only one who can do classic”, or should that be “Classic”? And that brings us to an important point. Chris Chibnall shied away from the past of Doctor Who for his first season as showrunner. No returning monsters. No two-parters. A fresh start. That would have been great if he could have created stories to rival the classics of the past, but he couldn’t, and his first series wobbled and collapsed like a soggy sponge. Chibnall needs the past of Doctor Who, and when he is playing in that playground he does a much more competent job. That’s because a lot of his work is done for him. When you think about the elements that really work here, how much of it is Chibnall? He puts together a jigsaw of elements from the past and from another genre, and doesn’t match up the pieces very well. But they are pieces from wonderful pictures, so there’s only so far wrong he can go.
In the end, though, he goes too far. We didn’t need another visit to Gallifrey. We don’t want the Doctor getting angsty about her past and her home, yet again. And good grief, we don’t need what seems to be about to happen: yet more tinkering around with the Doctor’s origins.
And most of all, we don’t need a Doctor who has learnt nothing about consent from her predecessor’s era, and wipes people’s minds while they beg her not to violate them in that way.
The view from across the pond:
After my all-to-brief return to Doctor Who this past year with the VR game, The Edge of Time, we finally get the first episode of the new season on New Year’s day. A mere 4 days later, the second half was released.
The structure of the episode is that we get a very James Bond-esque opening; spy thriller with a twist of Sci-fi, all done pre-credits. We come back from the credits with getting the gang back together before the action starts. The Doctor and company are in a car that gets taken over, the ominous looking driver disintegrated, then a phone call leading the Doctor to MI6 where Stephen Fry mistakes Graham for the Doctor because the files say the Doctor is a man. (Love the pretty blatantly feminist line “I upgraded” when Jodie points out that he is now a she!) Like James Bond movies, Q and M are replaced by C and O. C, Stephen Fry, doesn’t last long and O is just too much fun as a name. (Especially at the resolution of part two!) C is killed providing either an ignominious death akin to Jim Kirk’s “Oh my” or a hint about who killed him; he manages a simple “oh”. This sends the Doctor and gang running and things only start to get truly scary when the Doctor’s TARDIS is being infiltrated. But these creatures never hit the point of proper scary – they seem like they should but never really are. Yes, the scene in the outback is great, but that could have just as effectively been a werewolf or a jackal hiding in the dark. When the beings of light turn up, it’s still impressive, but they seem to do a lot of standing around looking bright. It’s not until Yaz is sent to a weird land of immense tree-trunk-like structures that the potential of these creatures starts to kick in.
Obviously, we get Yaz back and the Doctor and gang, with O’s help, begin a globe spanning adventure. They go to the party of Sir Lenny Henry’s Barton where the Doctor confronts him outright before he leaves. They give chase on motorcycles, but Barton seems utterly incapable of hitting a person, instead shooting only parts of the motorcycles that best ricochet bullets. The gang follow him to a hanger, watch him board a plane and they go running after it… After boarding, Sacha Dhawan suddenly outshines the rest of the cast. His transformation is utterly stunning as he reveals himself to be the Master. And he is frightening. As the Master destroys the plane, he teleports out and leaves the Doctor stuck in that same weird world we saw Yaz in earlier. As the plane plummets out of the sky with no cockpit, the Doctor is powerless to save her friends and the first part ends.
Most of part one is a setup. The ending creates a powerhouse cliffhanger that has me boggling. I have a potential gripe but realize I need to watch the second part first.
It begins with the gang (Ryan, Yaz and Graham) still plummeting to their death until Ryan finds a way out. Meanwhile, the Doctor encounters a woman in the void universe with her. Anyone ever see Farscape? Season one has this amazing cliffhanger that really left me desperate to see the next part, but when the show came back, everyone was OK again because we’d get flashbacks to explain what happened. I didn’t want that. But here again, I have to roll with it until everything is revealed. The Doctor time jumps to meet Ada Lovelace, mother of modern computing, and Noor Inayat Khan, World War II communications specialist, which puts the Doctor in the right places at the right times. She gets a chance to “contact” the Master and she arranges a meeting atop the Eiffel Tower. The Master says someone or something destroyed Gallifrey and the Doctor should go back there to see… oh, wait, he won’t let her because he’s going to kill her. The Doctor of course tricks him, escapes, sabotages his plan and that of Barton, and kicks the beings of light off the planet. There’s a bit of the Deus Ex Machina in this story, but it has such pace that I can let a lot of that go.
But I am left with questions and observations.
I plan on talking about the negatives first. Such as… was it me or was there ever an adequate explanation for why Lovelace was in the void? No one else was. Why her? And how did she help the Doctor escape? What was the Kasaavins’ motives? The Master says he was showing them better ways of conquest I think, but they were really good at standing around and looking creepy. Will we see them again? But the real thorn in my side is what I ended part one with: where is the Master in his timeline? This is important because Missy’s demise was a magnificent coda to a great character. The Doctor and the Master were friends, but their friendship was always “off screen”; we never see it, only hear about it. As Missy is going back to be with her friend at the end of The Doctor Falls, she is shot by her past self. The friendship is kept offscreen always. This is magnificent; it is a beautiful bookend to a character that every fan loved. So will Chris Chibnall screw this up? It can still be the Master but the writing has to be spot on now!
Which ties into some positives. First, kudos to a great cast. Sacha totally sells the Master. He has a Mr. Hyde quality, channeling animal rage with a degree of insanity that is actually terrifying. That animal side is made more palpable by the way Sacha carries himself either dropping his head or wearing particularly bulky shoulder pads. Coupled with his diminutive stature but overwhelming power, he is a force to be feared. His dialogue with the Doctor about Gallifrey is outstanding and opens the door for more mystery of which we are given few hints. In other categories, the chemistry between Graham, Ryan and Yaz has never been better. The “Ryan’s Right” scene with them hiding out a la Tennant’s Doctor, Jack Harkness and Martha Jones is outstanding. Watching Graham learn to use the laser shoes (for which he never read the instructions) is hilarious. In fact, there are many great moments of humor especially when the gang see the Doctor’s two time-displaced friends and asks if they are being replaced. And I love some of the messages: “fascists never win” is a good one. But let’s not ignore the cautionary tale about technology as we all freely click the “agree” button without reading what we are agreeing to. Now, while everything Henry’s Daniel Barton says is true, the Doctor reminds us that technology can also be used for good. So there’s a balanced approach seldom seen in television. And I love that the episode has one of those old school moments in the TARDIS to wrap up where the Doctor actually tells her friends about who she is. (This, after another wonderful-but-nonsensical go-back-in-time-to-invent-a-way-to-save-the-gang moment!)
Thing is, there are tons of good things to say about this story. It’s exciting with some great action to open the season. It gives us a great villain who is played by a fantastic actor. It gives us Gallifrey!!!! But it leaves a lot of questions. The timing of the Master is one major worry, but so is the placement of Gallifrey. If Chibnall does it well, this is a Pre-Jacobi Master and Gallifrey is a pre-Hell Bent Gallifrey. We know it’s post-Day of the Doctor because the Master says its hiding it a pocket universe but the Doctor knows how to navigate to it. This only means her memories are intact though; it does not take away from the timing of Gallifrey’s existence. It can be restored even after what the Master has done to it. But it’s all about the writing.
Yet I find myself hearing the voice of some naysayers telling me it doesn’t matter. The Master is the Master. But like the Batman cartoon from the fantastic Youtube series by How It Should Have Ended, a simple explanation of Because He’s The Master doesn’t work for me. If it comes down to that, I ask why bother with continuity at all? Yet Chibnall does bother as the fans do too. He gives us “contact” like fans will remember from The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors. We get the 4 beats of the Time Lord heart from Last of the Time Lords. He gives us a reference to when the Master caused the Doctor to fall off the radio tower in Logopolis. And we get more about The Timeless Child, which was alluded to only once last season in The Ghost Monument.
I saw both parts at a special theatrical release on Sunday January 5th with a friend of mine who watched all of the rebooted Who except for Jodie’s first season. Did he remember the 4 beats? No. Did he know the reference to Jodrell Bank? No. Did he remember “contact”? No. And did it affect his enjoyment of the episode? NOPE! (Trust me, I asked him!) And I point that out critically. You can throw in comments that a non-Whovian will just take as banter or discussion and still enjoy the episode. But if you isolate the fans, you destroy the show. I hope Chibnall understands that the future of the show is in the hands of the fans he creates now. Getting it right matters.
We don’t know where the Timeless Child mystery will go, nor how we will save Gallifrey. We don’t know what those creatures were or how the Master will return. We know only that we had a strong, fun, action-packed opener. I can only hope it’s the start of an amazing season. And now we wait… ML