Flux, ed. Paul Driscoll

The six-part 2021 season of Doctor Who was produced under pandemic conditions, and by the time it ended, I was myself recovering from my bout with COVID and didn’t feel inspired to write about it. A year later, after the broadcast of The Power of the Doctor, I returned to Flux and wrote:

So. The 2021 six-part story, Flux, was a mess. There’s no kind way of putting it. I actually like John Bishop as new companion Dan Lewis; I love Barbara Flynn, whatever she is in; I was really thrilled by Thaddea Graham as Bel, the first semi-regular Irish character in almost sixty years [of the show’s history]; and there were some good spine-chilling moments, such as the destruction of Dan’s house and the Doctor being transformed into a Weeping Angel.

But unfortunately the plot made very little sense, and the climax took place largely offscreen. Of course it was filmed under serious constraints due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t excuse the writers from sitting back and thinking about what they were really trying to convey. For all their faults, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt generally remembered that they needed to please their audience as well as indulging their own inner impulses. I felt that Chibnall had lost the run of himself.

I rewatched it again for this blog post, and felt very much the same. This time around I had various plot summaries to hand, which helped me make a little more sense of it; but TV science fiction at its best, unlike say opera, is not normally one of those art forms which requires the consumer to follow along with notes. I love Whittaker as the Doctor, but there are far too many moments where she is attempting to carry the full burden of audience interest through facial expressions and body language, and not helped by the dim studio lighting, the lack of other actors to interact with, or (crucially) the script.

Once again, I did like the fourth instalment, Village of the Angels, much more than the rest – a coherent plot which is more than adequately explained, higher production values, and interestingly the only episode of the six for which a co-writer (Maxine Alderton) is credited alongside Chibnall; and it ends with one of the best visual cliff-hangers ever, as the Doctor herself becomes a Weeping Angel. Interestingly, when I surveyed the Internet Movie Database for the top-rated episode of each era and spinoff of Who, Village of the Angels was a clear winner for the Thirteenth Doctor.

In his editorial foreword, Paul Driscoll explains that the fact that there are six very tightly linked episodes provided a challenge for the Black Archive series. What they have done is to commission six essays from six different authors, topped and tailed with shorter pieces by Alasdair Stuart.

Stuart’s introduction reflects on the terror of the time, when Doctor Who became to an extent a pandemic coping mechanism.

James Cooray Smith’s essay on The Halloween Apocalypse, ‘Apocalypse? Now!’, starts by reflecting on Chris Chibnall’s previous career and how different his Doctor Who turned out to be from his previous work, looks also at the importance of Liverpool as a setting and 31 October as the date for the episode, and recognises the weaknesses in the characters of Karvanista, Swarm and Azure; as I like to say, their means and motivation are never made entirely clear.

Emma Reed’s ‘A History in Flux’, looking at War of the Sontarans, examines the role of history (and fictionalised history) in Doctor Who, especially the Chibnall era’s emphasis on women in history. It also explained to me what the Temple of Atropos stuff was meant to be about, a point which had escaped me on both viewings of the story.

In ‘The Primordial Division’, Once, Upon Time is examined by Philip Purser-Hallard. I found it a thoroughly confusing episode on both viewings, and rather hoped that everything would come out right with the rest of the show. Purser-Hallard explains to me much better what is going on than the actual script did. He makes a number of interesting observations also about the role of double identities in the story and the Jungian resonances, but basically he enjoyed and was interested in this episode and I didn’t, and he doesn’t sell me on it. The second paragraph of his piece is:

She’s perfectly correct, as ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’ has already shown: in the Ravagers’ introductions, Swarm was confined to a cylindrical energy shield, supposedly ‘since the dawn of the universe’, while Azure was reduced to ‘Anna’, a human woman living with her partner Jón in the far north of Iceland, without recollection of her extraterrestrial past.

Village of the Angels was broadcast on the worst day of my bout with COVID in 2021, and I did wonder when re-watching if it would hold up to re-watching. I’m glad to say that it did, and as noted above it’s my favourite episode of the series. I therefore had high hopes of Oliver Tomkins’ analysis, ‘The Angels Have the Goggle Box’, and they were fulfilled – it’s an in-depth look at the Weeping Angels, where the come from in terms of story and what they mean, why they are frightening and what they do, and how they break the fourth wall. Tomkins also looks at how the Bel plotline integrates into the Flux story.

‘Doctor Who’s Mother’, by James Mortimore, looks at Survivors of the Flux, considering the colonial framing of the Time Lords (vis-à-vis the Shobogans, and the rest of the universe), and looking at Tecteun and representations of motherhood in the show.

Finally, we get to The Vanquishers. In ‘The Three Doctors… and a Sontaran Stratagem’, Matt Hills is disarmingly frank about its failure to provide satisfactory narrative resolution, and puts this down to Chibnall’s emphasis on surprise. He then looks at the triple-Jodie Whittaker Doctor in the episode as a tribute to The Three Doctors, and reflects on how a fannish show-runner reacts against fannish expectations. It’s a good explanation of what the episode was trying to do, though again I do not feel that it succeeded.

Alasdair Stuart’s conclusion, ‘You are the Universe, Doctor’, defends the whole sequence of episodes, though as will have become apparent, I am not convinced.

Incidentally there are six ways of arranging three different things, and I have arranged the episode title, essay title and essay author’s name differently in each of the previous six paragraphs.

In sum, I did learn quite a lot from this Black Archive, largely because it explained to me what several of the episodes were supposed to be about. I’m afraid that underlines to me that the entire thing was a failure of art. I prefer to understand my TV at the time that I watch it, rather than waiting until I read serious analysis two and a half years later. But you can get it here.

From here on in, I’m switching to doing just one Black Archive write-up per month, as I am catching up with current releases all too quickly.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

The Haunting of Villa Diodati, by Philip Purser-Hallard

I was lucky enough to watch this episode at Gallifrey One in 2020, and wrote then:

I’ll always remember The Haunting of Villa Diodati for the circumstances in which I first saw it, packed into the biggest hall in the Los Angeles airport Marriott with a thousand other fans, whose reactions were so voluble (and positive) that I needed to watch it again when I got home. It’s not the first Who story with Mary Shelley and a Cyberman, which is a really obvious pairing. But it looked good, sounded good, and more or less made sense both times I watched it. See John Connors here and Darren Mooney here.

Rewatching again for this post, I wasn’t quite so sure if it all made sense; it felt like there was a lot of act-ING and not a lot of character development, and the plot was a fairly standard alien intrusion tale. But perhaps that’s because my standards had been raised by the return of RTD and the Fourteenth Doctor (I was watching in the middle of last month, before the Christmas episode). Anyway, it still evokes happy memories of February 2020, just before the world changed.

Philip Purser-Hallard has produced a longish Black Archive on the story, and I am not sure if it is entirely to the point. The introduction says that the themes he will look at are darkness and light, the Frankenstein story and parenthood.

The first chapter, “‘This Night, June 1816′” looks at other fictional treatments of the writing of Frankenstein, and other historical Doctor Who stories. Purser-Hallard makes the interesting point that “The Haunting of Villa Diodati is unique in Doctor Who to date, in that every speaking (or crying) character who does not also appear in other episodes is based on a historical person”.

The second and longest chapter, “‘I Detest All Gossip, You Understand'”, looks in considerable detail at the family backgrounds of every single historical character in the story. It is here where I became uneasy; a Doctor Who episode is not a history lesson, it is an entertainment, and it seems to me a categorical error to grade THoVD against historical accuracy, especially since we know that it consciously diverges (in that the Frankenstein story is not actually written by Mary Shelly “on time”).

The third and shortest chapter, “‘Save the Poet, Save the Universe'”, looks at the use of Percy Shelley’s poetry in the episode to characterise Ashad the Cyberman, and Byron’s to characterise the Doctor. Its second paragraph is:

Many of Percy’s poems were profoundly political, and have been taken as inspiration by radical movements from the Chartists to the Arab Spring, by way of Tiananmen Square2. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK’s opposition at the time of the episode’s writing, filming and broadcast, was fond of quoting his response to the Peterloo Massacre, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ (written in 1819 but not published until 1832) at Labour Party rallies, and the line ‘Ye are many, they are few’ was credited with inspiring the party’s 2017 election slogan, ‘For the many, not the few’3. While it might be extreme to state, as the Doctor goes on to, that Ryan, Yaz and Graham ‘will not exist’ if Percy’s writings after June 1816 are erased from history, their world would indeed be detectably different if they were. As she insists, ‘Words matter.”
2 Mulhallen, Jacqueline, ‘For the Many, Not the Few: Jeremy Corbyn and Percy Bysshe Shelley’.
3 Londoner, The, ‘Londoner’s Diary: Jeremy Corbyn’s Romantic Notions Traced Back to Percy Shelley’; Shelley P, Selected Poems and Prose, p368.

The fourth chapter, “‘Something to Awaken Thrilling Horror'”, looks at the Gothic in Doctor Who. invoking Buffy and several previous Black Archives.

The fifth chapter, “‘That Writing Thing'”, looks at the parallels between Ashad and the monster in Frankenstein, and tries to illuminate this with the concepts of creation and parenthood.

The sixth and last chapter, “‘This World Doesn’t End in 1816′”, looks at darkness, light and the apocalypse in this story and in Chibnall-era Doctor Who.

Appendices illustrate the family trees of the Byrons, Godwin and Shelleys, and the historical timeline of events.

It will be apparent that I didn’t get as much out of this Black Archive as I have from some in the series. I don’t feel that the story can quite bear the analytical weight that is placed on it here, and I’m not comfortable with an interpretation that suggests that a deep knowledge of the shifting relationships in the Byron/Shelley/Clairmont household is necessary for a full appreciation of the story. But others may find it more useful. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos, by James F. McGrath

This was the closing story of Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Doctor. On first watching, I’m afraid that I was unforgiving.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos: (See also Matt Hills at DWRMatthew Kilburn at STT)
It’s not unusual for Doctor Who to muff the final story of the year, both in Old Who (The Time Monster in 1972, The Armageddon Factor in 1979) and New Who (Last of the Time Lords in 2007, Dark Water/Death in Heaven in 2014; not to mention End of Days, the appalling last episode of the first season of Torchwood, also in 2007). It’s still disappointing when it happens, though, and I felt that the final episode had a particularly complex setup (the Ux requiring considerable suspension of disbelief) which then failed to pay off emotionally or even dramatically – it seemed rather bathetic to lock the villain in a box from which the next space tourist will surely release him. Bradley Walsh’s Graham did get a bit of closure, but at the end of it all I didn’t really feel I understood the point of the whole journey. Maybe things will become clearer on New Year’s Day.

I rewatched it again for this post, and felt even less engaged, taking it on its own rather than as the last in a sequence of ten episodes. I could not really get into the plot; and to take a small but important point, the lighting of the whole story was dim and dull, as if we weren’t really expected to pay much attention.

When Twitter user @Heraldofcreatio ran a poll to rank all 296 Doctor Who episodes to that date, The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos ranked dead last, behind even The Twin Dilemma. I think that is a little unfair – there are several stories that I like less from both Old and New Who. But I rank it pretty low.

James F. McGrath is a theologian, and has chosen to take this Black archive as an opportunity to grind some personal axes against the yielding structure of a not very good Doctor Who episode. The result, as sometimes (but rarely) happens, is a book constructed to defend a not terribly good story by linking it to the writer’s personal interests. McGrath argues that The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos is making some terribly important theological points; I would feel more kindly towards the book if he admitted that it does not make them terribly well. (You’ll have deduced that this is not my favourite Black Archive.)

A longer than usual introduction places The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos as the final story in the Thirteenth Doctor’s first season.

The first substantial chapter, “What’s in a Name?”, asks whether it’s “the planet Ranskoor av Kolos” or “the planet of Ranskoor av Kolos”, and wonders how the Ux actually relate to it.

The second chapter, “The Ux’s (Misplaced) Faith”, tries to disentangle what the Ux understand by a Creator and how that relates to Tzim-Sha.

The third chapter, “Tzim-Sha’s (Delusions of) Godhood”, looks at whether or not Tzim-Sha is a god. Its second paragraph is:

By the time Tzim-Sha and the Doctor meet again after a period of thousands of years, Tzim-Sha has had ample opportunity to develop a plan for revenge and to become powerful. He tells the Doctor, ‘You have made me a god’, in a manner that may be intended to taunt, but also seems to reflect a genuine belief. Previously, we considered the basis for the Doctor’s insistence that Tzim-Sha is a false god. Here we can approach the matter from the other side and explore what framework would allow a particular being to think of themself, and be thought of by others, as a ‘god’. The category of ‘god’ has traditionally encompassed entities that are similar to what Doctor Who depicts as powerful alien entities. It is a lack of familiarity with humanity’s many polytheistic traditions that probably accounts for the facile dismissal of the notion that ‘god’ could be an accurate label for such entities. Divinity has historically been defined in terms of power in many cultures, and that attribute is to the fore here2, as evinced in Tzim-Sha’s words:

‘It has taken thousands of years. Every fragment of scientific understanding the Stenza ever possessed, allied to the impossible power of the Ux. You will see, Doctor. I must be a god. I have the powers of one… This shrine is the weapon. The Ux worked so hard to keep me alive. And they’re right to worship me. I am unstoppable…’

2 On power and divinity see Smuts, Aaron, ‘The Little People’; Litwa, M David, Iesus Deus, pp58, 80.

The fourth chapter, “The Doctor’s (Flexible) Creeds”, looks at the Doctor’s own ethical framework when challenged by a Creator figure.

The fifth chapter, “Graham’s Devotion (to Grace)”, looks further at the Doctor’s ethical framework for dealing out judgement (to Tzim-Sha, the Daleks, the Family of Blood, etc).

The brief conclusion, “Travel Hopefully”, is succinct enough and true enough to the rest of the book to be worth quoting in full:

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos provides wonderful food for thought. The Doctor’s experience as a student and as an educator has sometimes briefly come to the fore in the plot of previous episodes. Here, however, we actually see the Doctor’s core convictions and pedagogical strategies articulated, exposed, and tested in a far more explicit and sustained manner than is typical. The episode thus provides a wonderful starting point either for wrestling with contemporary issues in the real world using Doctor Who as a base, or for exploring faith and morals in this fictional universe, which may or may not be in some sense ‘divine’ in the perception of at least some of those who inhabit it. To end with some sort of definitive summary or answer would be at odds with the ending of the episode. Indeed, it would clash with it in an extremely jarring manner. This study of major themes in the episode – such as faith, godhood, family, ethics, and power – does not grasp everything the episode has to offer for careful viewers. It points to important questions and invites you on a journey.

Keep looking. Travel hopefully. Doctor Who will surprise you… constantly.

Completists will want this, and perhaps those who want to find links between Doctor Who and theology as well, but I felt that it stretched its analysis rather further than the material warranted.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

Arachnids in the UK, by Sam Maleski

A Black Archive on the recently concluded 13th Doctor era, like Kerblam! looking at one of the more unsatisfactory Chibnall/Whittaker stories. After it was first broadcast, I wrote:

A very obvious riff on The Green Death, my favourite Third Doctor story, which also had some great return-to-Sheffield characterisation moments, and really impressive special effects, but completely muffed the ending. (What happens to the bad guy? Is it really more compassionate to lock the spiders up until they die?)

Rewatching it this time, all the same points occurred to me; the other thing is that the production was very obviously saving money by not having many extras – I mean, what American billionaire would go anywhere without at least half a dozen aides?

Some Black Archive books on similarly problematic stories try gamely to make us see the best in them. Sam Maleski here is frank about Arachnids‘ shortcomings as well as its thematic beats, and doesn’t go on too long about either, turning in a decent analysis of an inferior script.

The first (and longest) chapter, “Doctor Who and the Spiders from Sheffield”, starts by admitting that the story begins and ends on very different notes, but then goes into an in-depth analysis of giant spiders (and other creepy-crawlies) in science fiction film and in Doctor Who in particular. He omits Adrian Tchaikovsky, but he’s not really looking at print.

The second chapter (almost as long), “Yorkshire Gothis”, looks at the ways in which the story is Gothic – a theme in several of the Black Archives I have read recently – and at the importance fo the setting in Yorkshire, and of the shadow of Donald Trump.

The second paragraph of the third chapter, “Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with Muddled Politics”, is:

But while the aesthetics of the episode are deeply and incandescently political, it seems rather unclear as to what course the characters, and by extension the viewers, should pursue as a response. It’s an episode marred by contradictions: these sometimes enrich its text, and other times simply prove frustrating. In order to demonstrate this, this chapter focuses on three focal points that the episode uses to signal its political nature: science, minority identities and the influence of political music.

It looks at how the story opens up, and then basically squanders, engagement with the politics of science, race and gender, and music. These points are particularly well made.

The fourth and final chapter, “Absence, or Clearing the Cobwebs”, argues that even though the story fails to answer a lot of the interesting questions it raises (including also what “family” means, for the Doctor and for us), that should not stop us from thinking further about them.

Sam Maleski took on a tricky assignment here, and I think did a good job as far as that can be done. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

Kerblam!, by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh

Next in the sequence of Black Archive analyses of Doctor Who, and the first to tackle the Thirteenth Doctor, published in 2019 about a story broadcast in 2018. I did not much like Kerblam!, and thought it one of the weakest stories of Jodie Whittaker’s first season. I wrote at the time:

[Kerblam!] left me cold. I was not happy that the Doctor leaves an evil system un-overthrown, having defeated the revolutionary who was trying to bring it down. As Darren Mooney points out, “The episode’s happy ending has the company giving the employees four weeks off, but only paying them for two of those four weeks.” It is totally out of whack with the show’s progressive history. The script, performances and especially the effects were all good, but the politics left a bad taste in my mouth.

Re-watching it four years later, I felt much the same. I also felt that the fridging of the youngest woman guest character was a bit gratuitous.

The Black Archive on the story is by Naomi Jacobs, who co-wrote the volume on Human Nature / The Family of Blood which I enjoyed, and Thomas L. Rodebaugh, who wrote the volume on The Face of Evil, which I enjoyed rather less. The result is somewhere in between.

An introduction admits that the story is politically problematic, and also asks about Doctor Who’s attitude to robotics and artificial intelligence, finishing with the question, “Who killed Kira?”

The first chapter, “Political Animals”, goes to some lengths to try and quantify the political ideology of the Doctor (and the show) along left-right and libertarian-authoritarian axes, which I did not really find compelling. It makes a valid comparison between the Doctor’s approach to Charlie in Kerblam!, and his approach to Taran Capel in The Robots of Death, making the point that the resort to violence is generally a problem for the Doctor. But this ignores the fact that Taran Capel is literally genocidal, whereas Charlie is not.

The second chapter, “Thinking Machines”, looks into the concepts of artificial intelligence and thinking machines, and the extent to which we could realistically expect a future computer to behave like the computer behind Kerblam.

The third chapter, “Some of my best friends are Robots!”, looks at the depiction of robots in fiction in general and in Doctor Who in particular. The second paragraph, along with the quote it introduces, is:

Karel Čapek first used the word ‘robot’ in his 1920 play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which told the story of artificial workers in a factory who gain self-awareness and incite others around the world to rise up against the humans. The word was originally coined by his brother Josef, and comes from a Czech word ‘robota’, which means ‘forced labour’ or an indentured servant 1. The play deals with issues not dissimilar to Kerblam! in considering human dependence on commodified labour and its consequences. The word and concept have a long history in science fiction, and the research field of robotics takes its name from the works of writer Isaac Asimov, who popularised many of the modern ideas and concepts of robots in his work. Most famously, he coined the Three Laws of Robotics, rules that he described as forming the foundations of the programming of any autonomous robot. These are:
‘First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
‘Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
‘Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.’ 2
1 Pappas, Stephen, ‘Karel Čapek and the Origin of the Word Robot’.
2 Asimov, ‘Runaround’ (1942), reprinted in the collection I, Robot (1950).

The fourth chapter, “Making Connections”, looks at the Internet of Things and RFIDs and drones as they are today, and compares their depiction in Kerblam! with that in the Twelfth Doctor story Smile.

The fifth chapter, “Automated for the People”, looks at automation and employment, and the economic effects of greater mechanisation of work.

The sixth chapter, “Automated Message”, looks frankly at the weakness of the episode’s writing, proposing that it evades deeper analysis of the societal questions raised by its setting because of the demands of writing an exciting plot. It also looks at why the death of Kira is so problematic – unlike the traditional fridging, it doesn’t even change the behaviour of the key character (Charlie in this case). “[W]e are left with the sense that it is perhaps not so much that the episode doesn’t know what to do with the exciting inspiration from which it has plucked ideas, but that it thinks that merely using them in pursuit of structure and plot is clever enough.”

The seventh chapter, “Wrapping it all up”, finds a convincing metaphor for the story and indeed for the book. “The bubble wrap is not a plot hole, but, as with Kira’s death, is symptomatic of how the allegiance to the story’s structure makes many of the story’s clever concepts seem somewhat hollow: shiny on the surface, but liable to burst if some critical pressure is applied.”

Like Philip Purser-Hallard’s volume on Battlefield, this volume looks at a story I did not like so much and analyses what it was trying to do. I found it refreshing that the authors admitted the story’s weaknesses, but I ended up not really convinced that it could sustain the level of analysis that they had brought to bear. Be that as it may, you can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

Alternating Current, by Jody Houser, Roberta Ingranata and Enrica Eren Angiolini

Second frame of third issue:

I’ve seen some rather negative reviews of this online, but I really enjoyed it – another story of the Tenth and Thirteenth Doctors coming together, with a parallel timeline where Rose Tyler is leading human resistance to the Sea Devils, and also a return to the more recent story Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Houser catches a lovely dynamic between the two Doctors, in general it’s well realised by the artists, and I thought it was a lot of fun. You can get it here.

This was my top unread comic in English. Next on that pile is The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel.

Farewell Jodie (and a family note on Rasputin)

So, the Thirteenth Doctor era came to an end last Sunday, with the slightly unexpected return of David Tennant to the title role. Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall, the showrunner, were the subject of a lot of toxic commentary from the more entitled end of the fan base, much of which was undeserved. The worst of their thirty episodes were not as bad as, say, Kill the Moon, or Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, let alone The Twin Dilemma. But I am not alone in wishing that the high points had been higher and more numerous.

I have previously written up the first season, the second season, Revolution of the Daleks, and briefly noted Legend of the Sea Devils here. In terms of other media, there’s a great BBC audio story here, I’ve really enjoyed the Thirteenth Doctor comics that I have read (here, here, and here) and liked the books (The Witchfinders, The Wonderful Doctor of Oz, The Good Doctor, Molten Heart, Combat Magicks, Sophie Aldred’s At Childhood’s End); on the other hand the recent annuals have been very poor indeed (2019, 2020 and 2022).

So. The 2021 six-part story, Flux, was a mess. There’s no kind way of putting it. I actually like John Bishop as new companion Dan Lewis; I love Barbara Flynn, whatever she is in; I was really thrilled by Thaddea Graham as Bel, the first semi-regular Irish character in almost sixty years; and there were some good spine-chilling moments, such as the destruction of Dan’s house and the Doctor being transformed into a Weeping Angel.

But unfortunately the plot made very little sense, and the climax took place largely offscreen. Of course it was filmed under serious constraints due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t excuse the writers from sitting back and thinking about what they were really trying to convey. For all their faults, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt generally remembered that they needed to please their audience as well as indulging their own inner impulses. I felt that Chibnall had lost the run of himself.

This year’s New Year special, Eve of the Daleks, was a lot better. (And not just because it had not one but two Irish characters, played by Aisling Bea and Pauline McLynn.) The basic time loop story, where you get the chance to get it right next time, is a long-standing sf trope, as seen for instance in Groundhog Day and in Steven Moffat’s first published Who fiction, “Continuity Errors”.

I thought it worked well, it was not self-indulgent and showed what Chibnall could actually do on a good day. As previously noted, I also enjoyed the Easter special, Legend of the Sea Devils – I cannot claim it was Great Art but it was at least entertaining, and the cast were clearly having fun; Whittaker being allowed to be the kind of Doctor she wanted to be, perhaps.

And so to the end, with The Power of the Doctor and its mildly unexpected denouement.

Actually, no, before we get there, here’s a brief note about Rasputin, his murderer Dr Lazovert, and my grandmother.

Rasputin was a sinister monk who worked his way into the affections of the Tsarina/Empress of Russia. The Power of the Doctor featured Sacha Dhawan as the Master posing as Rasputin and playing Boney M. Those of us with older memories recall that one of Tom Baker’s biggest pre-Doctor Who film roles was in Nicholas and Alexandra as Rasputin.

Rasputin was murdered in December 1916 by a group of Russian nobles who resented his influence. The doctor who they recruited to administer poison to him was Stanislaus de Lazovert. (In fact the poison didn’t work and in the end they shot Rasputin.)

Four and a half years later, in summer 1921, my American grandmother (aged 22) was sharing an apartment in Paris with Colette Blanc, daughter of Irina Procopiu, a lady in waiting to Queen Marie of Romania.

My grandmother and Colette went on holiday in July 1921 to Sinaia, the Romanian royal family summer retreat, by train from Paris. Madam Procopiu asked an old friend of hers to keep an eye on the girls on the train.

My grandmother wrote, “Col and I were exhausted when we caught the 5.30 Orient Express at the Gare de Lyons on July 12th. Madame Procopiu had asked Dr Lazovert to keep an eye on us, and I think it was at dinner that first evening that he told us, with some pride, that he was one of the murderers of Rasputin. It sounds as though I were very stupid and ignorant, but I had no idea who Rasputin was; it seemed to me rather odd, though, that a murderer should have been asked to look after us.”

Dr Lazovert was of course a completely respectable member of the Russian exile community in Paris, involved in the Romanian oil trade. He lived to 1976 and is buried in Père-Lachaise. I doubt if my grandmother ever saw him again.

Anyway, putting all that aside, I really enjoyed The Power of the Doctor. The plot was still a bit rambling, but mostly it hung together well, and a lot was packed into it. The Master’s desire to transform himself into the Doctor is completely understandable, and knowing as we did that this was Jodie Whittaker’s last episode, there were all kinds of options for how the hero might escape; and I was satisfied by the ride.

We old school fans were of course watching it for the return of old favourites; we had been well prepared for Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred as Tegan and Ace…

…and it wasn’t a massive surprise to see McGann, McCoy, Colin Baker, Davison and Bradley back again, or some of the other old companions. But I think there was a collective gasp from many of us as we realised that the chap sitting on the right in the final scene was none other than Russell Enoch, William Russell for stage purposes, Ian Chesterton in the very first episode in November 1963, and turning 98 next month (96 when the scene was filmed last year), beating Ysanne Churchman’s record as the oldest actor ever to be on the show and beating the world record for the gap between first and last appearances in the same role in any TV series.

I confess I was a little sorry that the Doctor and Yazz didn’t end up a bit more overtly sapphic, after the hints dropped in previous stories, but you can do a lot without saying a lot.

And the Fourteenth Doctor’s shock at the end paradoxically reassures us that we are in good hands again with Russell T. Davies, and indeed Disney, who can be expected to bring a lot more in terms of resources to the show. Roll on 2023.

Doctor Who Annual 2020

Second paragraph of third section (“The Rhino of Twenty-Three Strand Street”, by Dave Rudden):

Patricia Kiernan didn’t say it because she thought anyone was listening; people didn’t listen to Patricia, as a rule.

Wow. This really is lazy stuff. The latest Doctor Who Annual consists of two extracts from books that I already had, with summaries of each story from Series 11 (or 37), the Thirteenth Doctor’s first series, as filler in between; and that’s basically it. Even less thought has been put into this year’s annual than last year’s, and not surprisingly none of the editorial team wants to be credited by name. I have occasionally commented that this book or that play is really only for completists; I’m not sure I could even go that far with the 2020 Annual. What a disappointment. You can get it here if you really want.