“Three years ago this was paradise.”
Oh, dear. What have us naughty little humans been up to now? An alien has brought an alien virus to the Earth to use us as a petri dish, but this is Chris Chibnall’s version of Doctor Who and it’s all about victim shaming. We provided the tools for the killer to use, you see. I guess that makes Spearhead from Space all our fault too.
“You’re poisoning yourselves as well as your planet.”
Yes Miss. Sorry Miss. Like I said when I wrote about Orphan 55, I have no issue with a Doctor Who story delivering a message like this. In fact, The Curse of Fenric is one of my favourites and has the same message. It’s just that there are ways to do it that integrate it successfully, and then there are writers lecturing the viewers using the Doctor as a mouthpiece. And I can’t quite believe that Chibnall (with Pete McTighe as his accomplice this time) is hammering home the exact same message again, just three episodes later. Yes, I realise he didn’t write Orphan 55, but he’s the showrunner. It’s his job to shape the series and not have two episodes in quick succession that do the same damn clumsy thing. It’s a blessing last week’s stellar episode was shown before this one, because this would have been my jumping off point. To be fair (although I don’t feel much like being fair), the ecological message is delivered with a little more subtlety than in Orphan 55, which is to say with the force of a sledgehammer to crack a nut instead of driving a tank over the top of it, but I remember the days when Doctor Who used to be about hope, and the Doctor’s favourite “indomitable” race. Now, in a week where the media is scaring the world about coronavirus, Doctor Who makes us a bit more miserable with an episode about a deadly virus and then gives us a lecture about it. Miserable.
So I’ll try to make this review a little less miserable by pointing out some of the good things this week, because this was nothing like as bad as Orphan 55. At least this time the clumsy message was dressed up in an enjoyable globe-trotting adventure. Doctor Who this year has been much more of an international affair than before, and this week the action is split across multiple locations, including South Africa Peru, South Africa Hong Kong and South Africa Madagascar. There are pros and cons to that. On the one hand Doctor Who now has a scale that it previously couldn’t achieve. It makes sense that alien threats would crop up anywhere rather than always in London, and it also makes good use of the TARDIS. The Doctor can be anywhere in an instant. On the other hand, a threat feels more real and exciting when it’s in our own back yard (e.g. Judoon in Gloucester) and the TARDIS is in danger of becoming the taxi service that it was during the Davison era.
But what this episode did really well was to give us some characters to care about, something that was lacking from Orphan 55. I love a good soppy romance and I enjoyed the reconciliation between Jake and Adam. Their relationship dynamics, with Jake feeling inferior, doubting Adam’s love, and trying to prove himself, were convincing, and Jake in particular was a great character, in denial about his police career being over, and gleefully taking down perps and locked doors. The survivor of the “two girls roaming”, Gabriela, was also a lot of fun, and I was also pleased to see a villain who was as far as you can get from a moustache-twirler: Suki was simply putting her own people first, which delivered a far more effective message about xenophobia than the ecological sledgehammer-nut-cracking by letting us join the dots for ourselves. It’s just a shame that Molly Harris’s performance wasn’t quite on point. I mean, she read out her lines, but that’s about it. In an episode filled with memorable performances from the other guest actors, the one who will probably fade from the memory the quickest is the villain of the piece. I think we’ll remember the aliens in gas masks though. They were creepy. And that brings to mind the Doctor’s speech about seven billion lives all being connected, “from the edge of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean”, because the one thing this series is showing us is how much writer’s lives are connected. Well, their ideas are, anyway.
Are you my mummy? RP
The view from across the pond:
“It’s like a curriculum for teenagers,” said my wife when we finished the latest offering by Chris Chibnall and Peter McTighe. Praxeus isn’t a planet, which was my original prediction. It’s a pathogen. (A what? Well, at least the episode had humor!) Chibnall seems to have taken the original remit of Doctor Who to hearts by giving us school lessons masquerading as exciting episodes. I’m sure Verity Lambert could have done a better job… oh yeah, she did… 56 years ago! The thing is, I probably could have liked this episode far more if it weren’t for the awful preach-fest that was Orphan 55. That was such an in-your-face, beat-you-over-the-head assault using Doctor Who as a soapbox for the writer that this episode felt like a tag-along to it. As an old owl used to say to me growing up: “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!” Got it. Really, truly: GOT IT!
This time we have a globe trotting adventure going from Madagascar, to Peru, to Hong Kong… should be good. Two women are going to the most beautiful lake in the world only to find it utterly jam packed with waste. This happens in the first 5 minute which instantly turned me off. I think had I not still been sporting the scars from Orphan 55, I would have rolled with this far better. To compound the issues I had with it, the two girls Gabriela and Jamila still camp on the site of all the trash, because of course rats and bugs wouldn’t bother them (let alone the smell). Then when Jamila is killed, her screams outside the tent go unheard. Did the tent have sound dampeners? The whole episode then turns into researching a virus that bonds with plastic and since our planet is so full of plastic and it’s even in our blood and our bodies… well, you see the problem here. What could have been a good episode felt like I was back in school and … why do I want to sit down for my favorite show if it’s going to lecture me? I used to have to pay for that, but I got a degree at the end, so it paid off. This just worried me about my own health all over again as I drink water bottles all day long. Isn’t water supposed to be good for me? Oh, no, not if I drink from plastic. So why not at least enjoy what I’m drinking and go for iced tea??? You can see the slippery slope this leads to!
Worse, I might not have minded if Chibnall actually did his homework! I mean, let’s stick with the school analogy here! He wants to lecture us, but he’s not doing his homework. This could have been connected to Autons, which even the Doctor did suspect at one point, but it’s done wrong. I’ll accept that the race that decided to use Earth as the petri dish didn’t find the Autons first because it was established that the Auton homeworld was destroyed but there had to be a way to make it work better than just a passing reference. Or, if I’m honest, what I actually imagined would have been a far better option was to ignore the Auton connection and connect to another race from the past: The Faceless Ones. We never went back to explore them and what happened to them fully and looking at the faceless faces on these creatures did make me think of those old adversaries. This was an opportunity missed. Yes, I complain if they bring back a villain and I complain if they don’t, right? But it’s about circumstances. Bringing back a race we’ve seen dozens of times and adding new lore doesn’t hold up as well when by now, we should know them and there shouldn’t always be a new ability to add. But a race like the Faceless Ones (the Chameleons) might have given old and new fans something to be excited about.
Crazily, the episode does have some genuinely creepy moments that I really hoped would win me over. I love good, creepy settings and the abandoned hospital was outstanding. I also liked the supporting cast though I think Chibnall hates me because he keeps killing off some of the best looking ones. If Gabriela had become part of the crew for an episode or two, I would have been happy with that. And we can’t ignore the humor that goes on throughout the episode. There is a veritable ton of great lines in this episode, many of which had me laughing heartily. “Full of something…”, “shower gel”, “pathogen”, “behind this wall here”, “Inspector Morse”. Any one of those phrases should give you a laugh; they certainly do for me! “Look at you going off on your own and not getting killed!”
The episode also did a far better job than we saw with Edison and Tesla a few episodes ago: everyone who saw inside the TARDIS had a jaw-drop moment to some extent. Gabriela’s “is it an optical illusion” was wonderful, as she and Ryan sat in the doorway together. (And back to the humor for a second, when she frisks him and finds he’s got some muscles, you have to appreciate the fun they had with the moment.) There’s also a lovely little segment where Jake is talking to Graham about loving someone. It’s an emotional moment with a core: why we love who we love doesn’t need to make sense. We just do. And I really thought that was a nice element. I always love when science fiction has a philosophical core!
And if I take myself out of the lesson-mode for a second, I can admit that the episode has some things going for it, but when Yaz wants to go back for a piece of kit (which she never ends up with), the Doctor says she’ll be back “in one hour”. Why, I ask, didn’t the Doctor just jump forward an hour with the TARDIS? Storytelling? No – that could have been done through exposition later. It’s so they can all end up on the ship together after the bird attack and all the other nonsense. A bird attack that manages to only scratch one person: the person who got out before the bird attack! And then we were right back in Predictability Land. We knew without a doubt that the autopilot had to break and equally we knew with 100% certainty that Jake would sacrifice himself to launch a ship and save the earth. (Because any idiot can fly a spaceship! DUH!!!) But what I didn’t see coming was the Doctor being the hero again and actually saving Jake! Considering this Doctor’s track record, that was a massive win for this episode. In the end she pulls off a double win, then ends the series with a very positive closing monologue about the wonders of humanity.
Well… in the end, it saves itself from a lot of the vitriol I was ready to unleash. Oh… wait… I guess, I did unleash it, but the end played to the series’ many (oft-forgotten) strengths. It made the Doctor a hero again and spoke with hope about our future. So did it save itself from the jaws of oblivion in the end? I wish I could say yes but now I have to point out a few more things. The Star Trek communicator embedded in the neck: where did that idea come from and why have we never seen it before nor will we ever use it again? That needed something to be said about it, not just “hey audience, you bunch of plastic manufacturing idiots, deal with it because we wrote it”, but something more substantial even if Ryan says at the end “now, can we get these things out of our necks? They hurt!” Something would have been better than “because it’s there”. And we’ve all heard by now that there’s an “agenda” in Doctor Who. I never really buy into that sort of thing but when heterosexual couples are taboo, it really starts to get old, quickly. If there’s got to be couples (which there didn’t need to be; the two could have been brothers), let’s get a little more balance. The only couple I can think of this season was in Orphan 55 and then never even got to be a couple…
But the worst offense of all is that last episode was momentous. Captain Jack? A lone Cyberman? A possible alternate incarnation of the Doctor? Coupled with the Master’s recent warning and the destruction of Gallifrey… and how much of that got mentioned? Not a thing!! So while, as a stand-alone episode, it does redeem itself a bit, the absence of any of those major revelations is like a kick in the teeth. And after the beating I’ve taken about the head with taking better care of the planet, I just don’t have tolerance for any more scars. I suppose there’s always next week… ML
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