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

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.


63 comments

  1. ok now it’s telling me “duplicate comment!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh

  2. OK 150% done done done…

    so I posted my brief story here: https://swordwhale.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/a-brief-foray-into-internet-epic-fail/

    with pics and all

    you guys are great, carry on

     

  3. @miapatrick and @ichabod

    I think Chibnall announced this smaller scale Doctor when he had her say “I’m just a traveller” in the very first episode.

    Time Lords have testosterone (or something that the TARDIS translated as the equivalent). The General commentated on it when she regenerated back to female – that she’d really noticed the high levels sloshing about in her system when she was male. In this case, of course, the Doctor will be noticing the much lower level sloshing about.

    Rebel Time Lord. Maybe the Doctor’s just found that there was a bit of male competitiveness about that? That in a lot of her regenerations she was interfering because she could, and not because she should? That Lonely God, Lord of Time, Oncoming Storm, all sound a bit – bombastic. Bit daft, really. Crap, did I really say that? What was I on? And if I was rebelling against my fellow Time Lords, why was I so often really keen to keep the title?

    If you combine the Witchfinders, Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, you’ve got a Doctor who is interfering – but only when she needs to. And not making a big hairy thing of it – again, unless she needs to. She keeps things on track in Demons and Rosa, because that’s what she needs to do. In Kerblam! she’s responding to a specific request for help. Somebody wants her to interfere – so she does.

    It can seem like a loss. The Witchfinders was, I think, the first adventure where the Doctor finds out that changing from male to female really can involve loss. She’s not really understood it before, I think, until it got blatantly stated by a Seventeenth Century monarch, rather than implied by a Twenty First Century Wannabee President. She’s lost status, she’s lost that natural assumption of authority.

    The interesting thing is that she could have got some of it back by insisting that she’s – not a Time Lord, but a Time Lady. Becca had authority as a female landowner. Derived from her husband, but authority all the same. The Witchfinders made a point of saying that they were intending to go to the coronation of another woman with authority – Elizabeth I. The Doctor could have claimed the noble title that she is, in fact, entitled to. ‘Lady The Doctor’ would have negated quite a lot of the ‘just a woman’ thing going on in James I’s head.

    Instead the psychic paper rubbed her nose in the way he’d automatically pigeon hole her as ‘subordinate’.

    So, possibly, even that ‘rebel Time Lord’ has become ‘rebelling against being a Time Lord‘ – and having to learn, painfully, the consequent loss of instant acceptance of her authority that comes when you’re a woman who is ‘just a traveller’.

  4. @swordwhale

    I don’t think I can delete all those ‘arrgh! How does this thing work!’ posts, but would you like me to replace the text with ‘duplicate post’ or something? Or add the post you had to do in WordPress (without pictures – they’re a bit tricky in the replies) 🙂

  5. @bluesqueakpip  Well, “I’m just a traveler” is in the tradition of “I — am an idiot!”  Just a bloke in a box jaunting around helping out when I can.  It’s not what I’d call a novel announcement, but I agree, CC is taking it seriously and putting the emphasis back on the Doctor without any high-handed claims to power.

    I dunno, though; I’ve always rather relished the sneaky paradox of the Doctor calling himself “just a traveler” and being at odds with the TLs, but at the same time flourishing in his adventures largely because of TL tech (the sonic, the TARDIS, a TL education, and the TLs’ grant of many life times).  Reminds me of rich kids I went to school with who went all revolutionary halfway through college (that their parents had paid for).  For me, that’s part of the charm of the character; he’s a bit of a hypocrite, but he tries hard to figure out how to be better than that, make it worth while.

    Then I get restless when there’s no (or not enough) alien-ness to a Doctor, as now, I think.  But I do like your analysis here, and I am glad to see the show grappling a bit with the “tough times for women” theme, in “The Witchfinders”.

  6. @bluesqueakpip, that’s a good point about status, this was still very a much a time of aristocratic power. The convents were gone, which had cut women down a little bit, but the patronage system was still very much in place, powerful women did exist. On the one hand, the lady of the manor was of lower class origins, on the other hand, she had control of the land, and that mattered (and of course, the wife took her rank from the husband).

    So Thirteen could as you say played on being a ‘Time Lady’, an aristocrat. What Danny Pink saw as officer class James VI and I would see as aristocratic. I always liked Danny for pointing that out, it seemed to slightly deflate Twelves self image as a wayward rebel. He was a wayward rebel who reeked of privilege. He was always rather Whiggish, as though his job was help human beings, with the authority of all his knowledge, experience, and fancy technology to be better. People complained about Clara The Doctor, but rewatching their seasons, it’s a lot like a series of training programs with the occasional disturbed realisation that he is, in fact, turning her into a Doctor. I’d take a Whig over a Tory any day, but there was very much an air of authority he was more or less born into. Now the focus is more on cooperation, ‘there’s more power here than Kings and Queens, there’s us, working together’ and the best thing about that is it wasn’t the Doctor who said it.

  7. @Ichabod and @miapatrick

    I think that’s one thing the Moffat era made extremely clear – that while The Doctor saw himself as a rebel, he was rebelling from a place of privilege. He’s got an assumption, sometimes unconscious, sometimes not, that he and his old college mates are the most important people in the universe.

    There was a couple of lines they cut from the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey, where he thinks a suitable punishment for the deposed Council would be doing street cleaning jobs. And Ohila calls him out – only an aristocrat would see a useful, necessary job like cleaning the streets as a punishment.

    I once defined a Time Lord in my head as ‘someone who’s never had to do the washing up.’ Interestingly, washing up is often seen as ‘the woman’s job’. I wonder if that’s where they’re going. Instead of sympathising with ‘the little people’ from a place of power, privilege and authority, the Doctor now has to sympathise from a place where that power, privilege and authority can all too easily be completely stripped away. Because she’s now a woman. And in many periods, will BE the one doing the cleaning and the washing up.

  8. @miapatrick  I always liked Danny for pointing that out, it seemed to slightly deflate Twelves self image as a wayward rebel. He was a wayward rebel who reeked of privilege.

    Yep, neatly put.  I liked that in Danny too, and it made me like Danny himself more than I think most people did.   Danny had a lot of undeveloped potential, as a character — he was presented as suffering from PTSD, and if only the writers had really gone with that — we could have seen a Doctor repelled by seeing too clearly in Danny his own (now fading) state after the Time War.  But then we’d have had a real story about two damaged veterans striking angry sparks off each other, instead of just two “rivals” for Clara’s loyalty and affection.

    @bluesqueakpip  Doctor now has to sympathise from a place where that power, privilege and authority can all too easily be completely stripped away. Because she’s now a woman.  And in many periods, will BE the one doing the cleaning and the washing up.

    Oh, nicely put — now I want to see that!  I’ve always thought it a bit too pat that the TARDIS apparently does her own housekeeping, letting the Doctor off the hook so s/he can go gallivanting with companions who also never have to wash a dish!  Kind of like a Victorian writer of adventure stories, working in his study, while his wife and servants keep the kiddies in order and see to the stocking of the larder . . .

  9. @ichabod, and to be fair, at times the actors did seem to be working to that reading, especially in the mentioned conversation.

    re: housework – all writers need a ‘wife and servants to keep the kiddies in order’ etc, really. Take it from a carer who is the only one in the house able to physically do the housework ;).

    @bluesqueakpip – it is an interesting thought that female Time Lords might end up a little more grounded, simply because, traveling through time and space, however privileged they might be, experience greater loss of privilege when they travel around.

    It would be interesting to see thirteen with the Master/Missy. Personally I think the slightly warped loyalty would remain. They appear to have been to some kind of boarding school establishment together, and I can testify, someone you’ve survived boarding school together is someone with whom you have a very close bond. (As you can see, I speak with experience regarding reeking with privilege even after essentially dropping out.)

     

  10. @miapatrick  the actors did seem to be working to that reading,

    They certainly didn’t shy away from it.  Now I think I see something to watch for here: the emergence of this disparity as an ongoing but not “strident” (which to too many men seems to mean “audible”, but hey) theme of the first manifestations of the first female Doctor.  Good for CC and co for taking it on, and fairly gently + a comic flavor, so as not to scare the (reactionary) horses.

  11. Did a post it went and disappeared

    Was maybe a bit of a long and winding road

    So to precis

    Awesome new Doctor

    Awesome new team

    Baddies shite (exception being Humanity in The Demons of the Punjab)

    BG 4-6 episodes to a story

    AG arc as a thread through the season

    Currently ………. hmmmm

    I know Pedant theorised “Scared and ….” but that is so elusive it makes all previous arcs seem obvious and a quick re-read through years of bonkerising on where  will illustrate the fun we had and how far off we were

     

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