Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK

This week, Doctor Who returned to the Russell T. Davies era, with a mediocre episode involving the companions’ families in modern Britain.

It’s also clodhoppingly political.

There’s no reason why Dr. Who shouldn’t do politics, and do them well.  The old series was a liberal humanist program at heart; the Doctor solved problems by asking questions and wondering how the world worked.

Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor was left liberal Green, from a Buddhist perspective.  The Green Death dealt with big business and pollution, and introduced environmentalism to family audiences.  (It also had a Welsh mine full of giant maggots, a mad gay computer that hummed Wagner and quoted Nietzsche, the power of crystals, hippies saving the world, and Jon Pertwee in drag.)  Other episodes were about colonialism and independence, xenophobia, British membership of the EU, and mining strikes.

Final script editor Andrew Cartmel wanted to bring down Thatcher; the Sylvester McCoy era was angrily engaged with modern Britain in a way the series hadn’t been for years.  It was imaginative and literate, post-modern and magical realist.

Stories interrogating free market capitalism, the class system, the doctrine of survival of the fittest, the workings of dictatorships, and the way ’60s idealism turned into conformism, took place in tenement blocks, psychic circuses, creepy Victorian mansions, insistently happy colonies, and symbiotic planets.  The cyberpunk, Gaimanesque New Adventure books went even further.

Chibnall tells the blandest, most generic science fiction; his episodes feel like every other adventure show.  After the dazzling cleverness of the best Moffatt episodes, it feels like the show’s had a full frontal lobotomy.

(Can we expect anything other than mediocrity from the writer of 42, The Hungry Earth, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, The Power of Three, and The Ghost Monument?)

His episodes are political – and obviously,  dully so.

The “TARDIS team” are designed to be ‘diverse’: female lead; older white male; Muslim Indian woman; young black male (whose grime music saves the day).  Jodie Whittaker is bland, when she’s not David Tennant in skirts.  (Why is the default setting for modern Doctors that wacky, zany, bloody irritating mockney wideboy?)

So far, the season has done earnest episodes about guns, racism, and what the blogosphere terms “toxic masculinity”.  (Only one – the Rosa Parks episode – was remotely interesting.)  We get environmentalism in this one: toxic waste creating giant invertebrates, lifted straight from The Green Death, with a dash of Planet of the Spiders.

Chibnall gives us an amoral American tycoon who’s running for president.  “The villain’s just like Trump; boo, hiss!”  Later episodes will, no doubt, see Dr. Who versus an evil American president.

And why is it so dreary and grey?


Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth


So Doctor Who is now a Time Lady.

Jodie Whittaker’s casting has been hailed, as Xavier points out, as a great blow for female emancipation in some quarters, and with horror in others.

I don’t really care whether Jodie Whittaker is the first female Doctor Who.  It’s been mooted since the ’80s – Tom Baker suggested it in jest, and creator Sydney Newman in earnest.

Both sides (a woman Dr Who is a triumph for feminism! / the BBC’s insidious homosexual liberal agenda is corrupting our youth!) irritate. Besides, identity politics are reductive and divisive; ability and character should matter, not skin colour, chromosomes, or sexual orientation.

The important question, then, is whether Whittaker’s good in the role.

She’s likeable and fun.  She’s also a safe choice: a scripted zany, rather like Tennant, Smith, or the later Capaldi, but rather diffident, empathetic.  I’d have liked, really, to see someone more formidably eccentric – a Beatrix Lehmann, Sylvia Coleridge, Mary Morris, Elizabeth Spriggs type.

Actually, Sharon D. Clarke, playing Grace, the black granny, would have made a good Doctor.  She has warmth, intelligence, and presence.

As for the story…  It looks pretty.  The script, though, is generic – like Power Rangers, only with better characterization.  Males, worryingly, are incompetent – cowardly, curmudgeonly, or homicidal.  Chibnall is also prone to big mission statements.

I liked Moffat more than Davies, but had problems with both. RTD was often cheesy emotional, and used the story to hang big emotional setpieces on. (I couldn’t stand Tennant, either.) Moffat’s Dr. Who was insular, more interested in series mythology and fetishizing the Doctor than in exploring the universe, and asking questions. He wrote some really clever episodes, though, and I enjoyed the last two seasons (especially “Heaven Sent” and the run with Bill).

Chibnall’s Dr. Who credentials include 42 (bad), The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and The Power of Three (all mediocre), plus the abysmal Torchwood.  That’s not a promising pedigree.  This might be like Nicholas Briggs taking over the helm of Big Finish from Gary Russell, when an inventive, imaginative range settled for merely competent.

(When was the last really great Dr. Who audio play?  It can’t have been Night Thoughts and The Kingmaker, all the way back in 2006, surely?)

Dr. Who shouldn’t do “competent”; it should be rich and strange and mad.  (Anybody remotely interesting is mad, in some way or another.)

It’s practically its own genre. It’s at the intersection of B-movie, avant garde theatre, rep Shakespeare and absurdist comedy.

On one level, it’s an exciting adventure show that mixes horror with high comedy, sending impressionable youngsters hurtling behind the sofa, while older viewers laugh at the Doctor’s wit.

On another, it is (to the horror of moralists like Mary Whitehouse) liberal humanist propaganda (with a side order of strangulation by obscene vegetable matter), in which the hero wins the day by being curious, asking questions, and challenging bureaucracy and authority.

On another, it is an intellectual comedy that deals in social satire, hard science and high end physics, evolutionary theory, Buddhist parables, and cultural relativism.

While having taxmen made of seaweed, dangerous monsters that decompose into narcotics, executioners made of liquorice allsorts, and alien criminal masterminds with six copies of the Mona Lisa in their cellar (with “This is a fake” written in felt pen).

And a madman in a box who lands in someone else’s story and warps the narrative around him.

The TARDIS doesn’t just travel in time and space; it travels in story. One story might show the Doctor land in a Shakespearean drama; the next, Hammer Horror or a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu; after that, a hard SF story rewritten by Tom Stoppard, or The Prisoner of Zenda with androids.

The show is, as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor observed, serious about what it does, not about the way it does it. As script editor Douglas Adams (yes, of H2GT2G fame) said, the programme is “complex enough for the kids to enjoy, and simple enough for the adults to follow”’.

Unsurprisingly, I lean much more towards rad than trad, and frock than gun.  My favourite TV story is Ghost Light.  My favourite Dr. Who writers include Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams, Donald Cotton, Lawrence Miles, Dave Stone, and Paul Magrs, with a dash of Paul Cornell, Jim Mortimore, and (of course) Terrance Dicks.  (If you understand that paragraph, drop me a line.)



Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Half a century of adventure begins with mild curiosity in a junkyard.

Two London schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton (science) and Barbara Wright (history), are intrigued by their pupil, Susan Foreman.

How can a 15-year-old girl know at once so much and so little? How can she have an astounding knowledge of chemistry, but be unable to tackle a physics problem in three dimensions? How can she mistakenly believe that Britain has a decimal system, yet know that a history of the French Revolution is wrong?

The teachers follow her home one foggy evening – to a police box, and her enigmatic grandfather, a genially malign old man known as “the Doctor”.

The first episode is something special. There is an air of mystery about it, a suggestion that the magical has intruded into the mundane world of 1963.

An ordinary blue police box – a common enough sight at the time – hums with power; it’s alive. It’s an impossible space: famously bigger on the inside than the outside.

For viewers at the time, stumbling from the dark, crowded junkyard into the vast, white, gleaming, brightly-lit space of the TARDIS must have been a shock.

And it’s a gateway into another world; it “can go anywhere in time and space”.

If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?

Where they land isn’t somewhere marvellous; it’s grim and hostile. A jungle where sabre-toothed tigers lurk in bushes; a cave full of smashed-in skulls; and a tribe that has lost the secret of fire, and huddle together in caves, freezing and terrified of the dark.

Za, son of the old leader, squats on his haunches, rubbing sticks together in a vain effort to make fire. Only the leader can make fire. Kal, the opposition candidate, thinks he should lead; he brings meat while Za does nothing. Old Mother, a crone with a face like Gagool, sits in the corner, mumbling jeremiads: “Fire will be the death of us all!” And Za’s lover Hur, like a Palaeolithic Lady Macbeth, schemes, and spurs on his ambition.

The story is grim and desperate in a way later Doctor Who will seldom be, with a headlong flight through the jungle, and a visceral fight to the death. The travellers are close to hysteria, and the Doctor tries to brain a wounded caveman.

It’s a far cry from exciting adventures with Daleks, let alone wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey shenanigans.

But nobody wants to have adventures yet. All they want to do is survive.

The Doctor is a scientist, and wants to explore – but when danger threatens, his first reaction is to escape. It will be a while before he fights the good fight for its own sake.

He is untrusting and untrustworthy; he doesn’t much like the people who burst into his home, and, desperate to protect his secret, he kidnaps the teachers. He uproots them from their settled, well-ordered lives, and throws them into the Stone Age, 100,000 BC.

Later companions will leap at the chance to travel the cosmos; here, Ian and Barbara are unwilling travellers. They long to go home, back to safe, predictable old London, vintage 1963. But the Doctor can’t control the ship, and there’s no way of returning. The teachers are cosmic flotsam and jetsam, adrift in the universe.

The travellers may slowly start to rely on each other – “Fear makes companions of all of us” – but, as they stagger back to the ship, grimy and exhausted, half-hysterical, all they want to do is get away.

But where they land next will be even more dangerous: a radioactive planet – home to the Daleks…

Serial A: “An Unearthly Child”.

4 episodes, broadcast: 23 November – 14 December 1963. “An Unearthly Child”; “The Cave of Skulls”; “The Forest of Fear”; “The Firemaker”

Written by Anthony Coburn & C.E. Webber (episode 1)

Directed by Waris Hussein

Produced by Verity Lambert & Mervyn Pinfield

Script editor: David Whitaker

Regular cast: Doctor Who (William Hartnell); Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford); Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill); Ian Chesterton (William Russell)

With: Za (Derek Newark); Hur (Alethea Charlton); Old Mother (Eileen Way); Kal (Jeremy Young); Horg (Howard Lang)