Out of the comfort zone
Okay, we’re just over halfway there. Six episodes down, four to go, and the shape of the new era is starting to be visible, shimmering like the TARDIS in The Ghost Monument.
Well, I think so. 🙂
The slogan for Series 11 of AG Who was ‘It’s About Time.’
Now, if this was a Russell T. Davies series, that would mean that the Doctor faced a series of death-defying adventures with hundreds/millions/the entire universe at stake. There would be an ample supply of CGI explosions, deep suspicion of those in authority and a big, handbags-at-dawn fight between the Doctor and the Daleks/Cybermen/Time Lords. There will be a massive finale, where the Doctor may end up fighting the Daleks AND the Cybermen AND the Time Lords, and we will be treated to extensive use of CGI, huge spaceships, moving planets and exploding – uh, everything.
If this was a Steven Moffat series, the Doctor would be facing a series of paradoxical adventures where the real solution would be in one character’s past and the other’s future. There would, however, be a lot of deeply sinister aliens, CGI explosions and witty dialogue, together with some serious stretching of the fourth wall. And pay attention, you lot at the back, because there will be a memory test at the finale. The finale will not only include those details from Episode 5 that you missed because you nipped out for a cup of tea (you didn’t spot the jacket, did you? I told you to pay attention!) but it will also include every single villain that we can find a costume for.
But for both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, the series slogan would mean that ‘The Whole. Of Reality. ITSELF!’ was at stake. RTD would have persuaded Timothy Dalton to take the line, and the Moff would have decided he’d already got Peter Capaldi on contract, but both would have gone for a spectacular, explosive, possibly confusing multi-episode finale where the Doctor saves the day. Also the week, the year, and the entirety of the time stream.
And now we have Chris Chibnall. 😀
What can we tell to date? Well, the initial publicity has understandably surrounded the casting of Jodie Whittaker. But what seems to be happening is that Chibnall isn’t only involved in pushing hard-core fans like me out of our comfort zone with a woman Doctor, he’s also pushing us out of our comfort zones with the stories and the monsters.
The Woman Who Fell To Earth
This episode was mainly concerned with the regeneration of The Doctor, and introducing an entirely new set of companions. The ‘monster’ is Tim Shaw, and he fits the now-developing series theme. Yup, he’s a monster. Humans don’t matter, so he casually murders drunks, security guards and worried brothers. He’s also a completely crap monster. Not in the design, the make-up, the costume – or even in the hints that his race (the Stenza) might turn out to be the main villains in the finale. But he is, personally, really inadequate and generally crap at being a monster. He has to cheat to get even halfway there.
The Ghost Monument
The monster is – uh, who is the monster exactly? Epzo is definitely unpleasant, but we find out his ‘don’t trust anyone’ attitude is the result of some serious childhood abuse. And, by the end of the episode, there are signs that he’s learnt at least something. He can work with Angstrom; can make sure she gets her fair share of the prize.
There are hints in the background that the Stenza are ‘ethnic cleansers’ as well as bullies. Angstrom is trying to win so she can save her family from them. The dead scientists were kidnapped and their families threatened. But Ilin, who might be seen as the closest thing in this to the on-screen villain, is cold but plays by the rules (as long as they’re his rules, or he’s scared into modifying them). For example, he warns the remaining contestants about the water.
And the ‘monsters’ of the episode, the Remnants, are very BG Who – not so much a ‘shoe-string-budget’ monster but ‘we’ve got a ripped up old sheet here, can you do anything with it?’ Only this is AG Who, and the ripped up old sheet is lovingly rendered in crisp CGI.
Rosa is where the shape of the Chibnall period begins to appear. Apart from the clumsy coda (so clumsy that I wondered whether the episode came in short and Chibnall decided to fill in with an explanation about the real Rosa Parks) this is an excellent episode that impressed a lot of viewers.
Except for one thing that was often noted. The villain is … crap. Again. Are we noticing a pattern here? He’s quite deliberately crap; generally the SF device of ‘chip in head to prevent murder’ is used to transform someone from an antagonist into an unwilling protagonist (for example, see Spike in Buffy The Vampire Slayer).
But in Rosa it’s very obvious the real antagonist is abstract. It’s racism. That means the episode begins to make the overarching theme of this series come clear. It also clarifies Chibnall’s pre-series announcements that there are going to be no episodes where you needed to see previous ones. The audience can drop in and drop out as they feel like it, or they can watch every single episode. But they don’t need to watch everything if they don’t want to – because the antagonist is abstract. Discrimination and prejudice.
Prejudice against the Whittaker Doctor, because Jodie Whittaker is a woman taking on a previously male role. The kind of prejudice Yaz and Ryan face, which isn’t fictional either. I’ve noticed that Tosin Cole, who has displayed some pretty good acting chops to date, is getting a lot of nasty comments about his supposed inability to act.
Funny how it’s always the black actors who ‘can’t act’. Coincidences, huh?
There’s another theme in Rosa which comes up later: The Doctor’s commitment to not interfering in the past has, in AG Who, been more honoured in the breach than the observance. Yes, The Doctor doesn’t nip out to assassinate Hitler when he takes a companion to tea in 1930’s Germany – but Moffat wasn’t adverse to having the Doctor let Rory be the audience surrogate by socking Hitler in the jaw. The Tennant Doctor, in both RTD and Moffat scripts, kind of completely ignores the entire ‘Virgin Queen’ aspect of Elizabethan history.
But the Whittaker Doctor, so far, has had two episodes where she’s had to let things happen that she’d normally stop. She utterly hates having to take this ‘passive’ role – you can see that in the final bus scene in Rosa. But what’s particularly interesting about this is that Chibnall seems to have deliberately placed the previously male Doctor in positions where the former ‘he’ has to act in the passive way that women are socialised and conditioned into in many of our human societies.
This is clearly a deliberate choice, not some unconscious sexism, because Chibnall has also ensured that this ‘forced passivity’ is most apparent in episodes where the female supporting characters either aren’t remotely passive – or, like Rosa Parks, reject that passivity entirely.
Which leads us on to:
Anarchids in the UK
Generally, I thought this one was a Dinosaurs on a Spaceship fun episode for Halloween. But on a closer look, the series theme is apparent. Again, the ‘monster’ is – well, not crap (great CGI, by the way) but not really a monster. The giant spiders are victims, just doing what spiders do until they get experimented on by scientists who were just doing what scientists do – and then dumped into toxic waste which acts on them like radioactive spider venom acted on Peter Parker. They’re not even going to take over Sheffield; the mutagens force them to grow to a size their biology can’t support and they’re not going to survive.
Is the real antagonist the really-not-Trump, he’ll-sue Robinson? Our lack of care for the environment? Or is the real antagonist that abstract theme of discrimination and prejudice? Well, consider.
We’ve got a heck of a lot of sensible, intelligent, female authority figures in this episode. Yaz is a police officer, Jade McIntyre is an expert on the spiders, the Doctor is … The Doctor. Then there’s Yaz’s mum, Najia, who’s the hotel manager and Frankie, the niece-in-law, who clearly states that there’s a problem with the waste processing (or rather, the lack of processing).
And every single one of those women is ignored, negated, even fired by Robinson. He even ignores the Doctor when she tells him the spider is dying anyway.
I’m not sure how many of the audience picked up that theme. That Robinson was an authoritarian, cost-cutting, Trump style corporate bully, yes. But our culture is still in the process of coming out of ‘men have authority, women don’t.’ I’m not sure we yet pick up on sexism as readily as we can now recognise racism.
So – the scientist, the police officer and the President of Earth are all women – and Robinson treats them as if they’re of no importance whatsoever.
The Tsuranga Conundrum
I think this episode was The Beast Below of Chibnall’s first series. An episode which has many good ideas, but looks like it suffers from not having had quite enough time to finish the script. It looks like what we ended up with on screen was a draft which would have filled the original 42 minute slot, but wasn’t long enough for 50 minutes.
So the abstract protagonist was a bit underwritten. The ‘monster’ was – yes, you’ve guessed it! The ‘monster’ was crap. Cute, but crap.
Now, it’s at this point where I start to think ‘Hang on, this is Chris Chibnall. This is the writer who reinvented the Silurians. This is the writer who created the deeply creepy Soloman. He created a living sun that tried to turn the Doctor himself into a space zombie. He’s scared me … spitless’. 🙂
So if he’s produced a series with entirely underwhelming monsters, it has to be because that’s what he wants. And I think this is definitely an area where we regular fans are suffering, because we’ve spent the last ten series expecting the end of the world every other episode – not the S.F. equivalent of a mouse nibbling its way into a plane’s wiring.
Essentially the last ten series (and assorted specials) have consisted of:
- The Doctor arrives in the new plot
- The Doctor discovers a problem
- Things explode. Lots.
- The Doctor solves the problem
Sometimes the problem can last until the finale, but basically that’s it.
Whereas Before Gap Doctor Who did have those meet problem/solve problem plots, but it also had:
- The Doctor arrives in the new plot
- The Doctor discovers a problem
- The problem is discussed for six solid episodes
- The Doctor can only solve part of the problem. If that.
For all its faults, The Tsuranga Conundrum demonstrates that older type of Who. The Doctor can help get the ship to safety, but her ‘solution’ to the Ptang is to send the now happily full little beast back out into space. It’s the equivalent of putting the field mouse out of the plane and back into the airport grass.
But what she can’t solve is the war going on in the background. She can’t save the General. She can’t save Ronan. She has to realise that she was nearly part of the problem herself, when her ‘patient’ status and general feeling lousy led her to display that good old Time Lord racism of seeing all the other patients on the ship as less important than one Time Lord.
Mabli has to overcome those self-esteem issues herself. Durkas has to realise that the way he treated Ronan was wrong – and make reparation by letting him lead the funeral. Babies have to be born without the Doctor saving them. And so on.
The Doctor, throughout the last ten series, has never been able to save everyone. In a way, the Doctor’s biggest abstract antagonist is death. As Clara said: to a Time Lord we’re all ghosts. And if you should ever meet The Doctor, better make sure your will is up to date and your next-of-kin has been informed.
But we’ve not, in this After Gap period, yet had a series where The Doctor has had to learn how not to interfere. Re-learn that she can’t sort everything out. Where her main series antagonist is an abstract evil that cannot be defeated, because it’s in everyone, even her.
Demons of the Punjab
Demons of the Punjab brings this theme to the realisation that the Doctor may be fighting evil itself in this series. The aliens in this episode aren’t metaphors for evil. They’re metaphors for redemption – a race that left bodies unburied, the murdered unhonoured – and changed.
We can honour the dead, says this story, even if their murderers never did. We can remember them, list their names, tell our children how they died. We can warn our children of the demons that hide in our own selves.
And this may be why, in this series, the Doctor has attended funerals. If you like, in the AG series, she’s taken a soldier’s view. My mates got killed, I didn’t, I have to carry on with the fighting. So walk away from them, don’t look back, and leave others to bury the dead.
Just as she had to do in this story. The dead might not be buried, but she has to walk away. Prem saved his wife at the cost of his own life. The Doctor can’t save everyone in the Punjab – she can’t even save Prem – but by walking away, she can save Yaz. At least save one. Just one.
But while that’s an attitude that helps a soldier survive a brutal war, it may not be the right path for a Doctor who’s discovering that the Time War is over. That the ‘monsters’ have got smaller, that the battles have got less clear-cut, that not everything can be solved by chasing off the alien-of-the-week or waving a sonic at it.
‘I’m The Doctor. Basically, run,’ works in a war. It doesn’t work when the repentant ex-combatants have formed an extra-terrestrial burial society.
And it’s a problem for us dedicated fans as well. We too want the big monster, the huge explosion, the problem that can be solved by some bit of knowledge that was an arc-word, or turned up in episode 5. We want to be able to get the joke about the Smith Doctor accidentally handing the Great Intelligence a map of the London Underground.
And we’re used to puzzling out logical conundrums, not moral and cultural ones. Is it significant that Mabli’s insecurity reflects the lack of self-belief that our own culture often programmes into so many women? What about the murderers in Demons of the Punjab – is it significant that they are Hindu nationalists? Are we looking at religious conflicts, nationalistic ones, or a toxic mix of both? And why is a cross-cultural family the victim?
It’s a new direction. And we (and The Doctor) are all out of our comfort zones. No more fun puzzles, time paradoxes. No more quick-fix monsters that get sorted out by the finale. No more problems that stay safely behind the screen. Yes, we can watch this on a surface level if we want; that option’s there. But we (and The Doctor) are being confronted with the hard questions.
It’s about time.