The Dark Times: so far little more than a cool sounding idea, a vague notion of a scary, distant past. This is the playground that Chris Chibnall is choosing to play in, and it’s surprising that no writer has really tried to go there before, except possibly for the same reason that the Time War was better left as a concept than something we actually get to see; it’s hard to do justice to such a big idea.
This of course ties in beautifully with Chibnall’s pre-Hartnell timeline, which I suspected was the game he was going to play this season, especially when it became clear that the Doctor was facing an enemy who remembered her, but whom she had forgotten. This is always going to be a polarising opinion, but I stand by my first thoughts on pre-Hartnell that it is a brilliant idea, with the potential to heal more past inconsistencies than it creates, and much more importantly it opens up some great story possibilities, as we are starting to see already.
What has happened to the Doctor works well as a representation of the frustrations of amnesia. While she is in the time storm she gets a glimpse of the past that is closed off to her, and in the end she is desperate to stay to find out something more, even if it means taking a deadly risk with her life. That shows the importance of memories. The Doctor doesn’t know exactly who she is any more, and that’s a gaping hole in her identity that would eat away at anyone. With the reappearance of the Fugitive Doctor, working for the Division, we get another piece of that missing puzzle, and I think she is a very well thought-out version of the Doctor from a time before the classic series episodes. During the early Hartnell episodes we saw him gradually gain his moral core, from a starting point of sometimes callous selfishness. In fact, it wasn’t until Vicki came along that he really learnt how to be the Doctor, so this morally ambiguous but still somehow heroic Doctor makes a lot of sense, threatening death to a being who brings death.
“Working for the Division must be so compromising.”
I suspect we aren’t going to have every question answered. There probably isn’t time now before Chibnall’s departure. But the broad brush strokes of the pre-Hartnell picture are starting to form, and I don’t think Doctor Who will ever be quite the same again, because there is always going to be this fascinating dark past to explore, for writers who want to have a go at exploring it.
The post-flux universe we get to see here is what we would expect from the Doctor Who universe in collapse, with three great powers remaining: Daleks (looking very shiny), Cybermen (ditto), and the muddy Sontarans. Meanwhile, the Angels stalk the time storm, which appears to be a chaotic version of the vortex. Frustratingly, the vast majority of the episode is wasted on the Doctor’s companions being lost in their own timelines, which all felt repetitive, irrelevant to the bigger picture of this season, and just added up to a massively padded episode. Dan and Yas’s timelines had absolutely nothing of any great interest to offer us, while Vinder’s backstory was at least moderately interesting, but I just wanted Chibnall to get on with things. With only six episodes this year, we could do without so much stalling. Let’s get on with the story being told. We don’t need to watch slow scenes of Yas sat in a car, and the Angel menace is starting to feel very tired… until the final scene with the Angel in the TARDIS, taking the controls. The cliffhanger ending has taken on a significance it hasn’t held since the classic series, so that’s one of several ways Chibnall’s era has ended up enriching the show. I never thought I would be able to say this, but he’s finally proving that he can do the showrunner job, and do it well. It’s been a long time, but it finally feels like Doctor Who is in safe hands. RP
The view from across the pond…
I’m really coming around to the notion that Chris Chibnall may actually manage to revolutionize Doctor Who. This, coming off two very weak seasons with him as showrunner, is a massively unexpected turn of events for me. Where I think the series is failing is something that may fall flat on its face by the end of the 6-part run, but while it’s still mid-stride, I feel like I have to give it the benefit of the doubt. I sort of feel like we’re watching Doctor Who as written by Quentin Tarantino – the story is told out of order and it’s left to us to mentally piece it all together. All good but let’s hope we’re not lying on our faces when it’s done. So far, we’ve had two massively frightening cliffhangers in a row: the end of the universe coming in smokey form right at the Doctor in part one and Yaz about to be torn apart by a snap from Swarm in part two. Scary stuff. The problem is that in both instances, there’s no conclusion but rather some hand-wave that says, “oh they got out of that”. Now if this ends up being Pulp Who, more power to Chibbs, but if we’re left with the magic “oh they escaped, don’t think about it”, I’m going to be mightily annoyed. That would be some bad storytelling right there, but because it’s part of a bigger story which seems to be coming together, I can’t help but think we’re still on a positive trajectory.
That said, there are things that trouble me. The inclusion of Jo Martin as the pre-Hartnell Doctor was unexpected but thoroughly appreciated because I realize we are getting backstory that has waited nearly 60 years (or one year, depending on your perspective) to be told. Great! This is the sort of stuff I long for. But whether it was to give Jodie top billing or because the writers didn’t think we could understand it, Jo’s Doctor just flashes up on screen periodically only to be replaced by Jodie who is reliving her past. I think we drooling fans would have still understood if they let Jo play out her parts and I think it was a miss not to do that. (For the record, I don’t think we’re really that dimwitted.) Also, we do waste a lot of time having Jodie turn up in each person’s timeline to tell them the same thing: “I’m keeping you safe in your own timelines”. Got it. Didn’t need it four times over especially with a guy she barely met!
Now, those complaints seem big but I found myself on the edge of my seat throughout this episode and I think it was because the fright factor was kept so high. There’s a sense of urgency and danger to these events. I mean, Swarm and Azure just sit around in this episode but it comes across almost like they are watching pets move around, not that they are actually inept. On top of that, there are Daleks, Cybermen, Angels, and Sontarans in this epic journey… no surprise that the scariest is the Angel. Finally too – they’ve become less scary with each encounter, so actually making them scary again was well past time! There was also reference to the Dark Time, which was jaw-droppingly unexpected for me. I suddenly thought Chibnall might have been paying attention during McCoy’s era; an era that I found incredibly compelling for that very reason. The final scene with the Angel taking over the TARDIS does begin to feel suspiciously like we’re getting a checklist of baddies, but I’m not complaining. Done well, it holds up.
I may be spoiled by the supporting cast too. Vinder is played by Game of Thrones alum Jacob Anderson but he wasn’t even the biggest draw for me. Craig Parkinson was a bigger surprise; always good at playing a slightly sleezy character. (He was outstanding in Line of Duty!) But the one that surprised me the most was Thaddea Graham who was absolutely magnetic in The Irregulars, commanding every scene she was in. Finding that her entire mission was not to find the Doctor, but Vinder, was yet another surprise. Lastly, while I don’t recognize the actress, I love that Dan’s potential girlfriend is missing part of her arm – not that I’m glad she has a disability, but I love that she has such a prominent role and Dan is very fond of her. Maybe it should go without saying, but that’s not something you see often and I credit the makers of Doctor Who for casting her. Plus I really like her and her sequences with Dan are a mix of sad and scary; a great combination for drawing us in.
Do I think it’s perfect? Clearly not. I also think Jodie suffered from having the worst costume of any Doctor. I never fully caught on to the fact that her costume was meant to do for a woman what they’ve done for a man all these years: they threw her into a coat that might work for either of the Bakers, or even Tennant, but she’s swallowed up by it. She looks silly floating around for half the episode and the other half the time she looks like she’s trudging through terrain that’s too tough to maneuver in with such a large coat. The real contrast comes when they put her in the darker coat that ends up slimming her down. (NOT that she needs it, but the black coat doesn’t appear to engulf her anymore.) What doesn’t make any sense there, however, is that this is supposed to be the Jo Martin Doctor so why not just put her in Jo’s clothing?? Or allow Jo to do the scenes of the pre-Hartnell Doctor in her own clothing? It just fails to make sense, but the story is still too strong for me to bash that much. I want to know where it’s going from here. I do wonder if, when I am done with the 6 parts, it will still hold up and be as interesting as it’s been. I’ll have to watch it again in binge format when done to find out. In the words of the Seventh Doctor, time will tell. (If Time still exists when this story finishes!) ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Doctor Who Flux: Village of the Angels