Through Time & Space: The Doctor Who Thread

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Re: Through Time & Space: The Doctor Who Thread

Postby Garrett Gilchrist » Sun Oct 28, 2018 2:42 am

"Rosa" is the strongest of the three Chibnall/Whittaker Doctor Who episodes so far. As this episode aired, I saw a lot of reaction on Twitter, from non-Doctor Who fans, which assumed that an episode about Rosa Parks was by nature an exercise in extreme bad taste. A lot of vomit emojis, and people saying they would rather poke their own eyes out than watch this. It felt at times like they'd mistaken Doctor Who for Rick and Morty.

Part of the original premise of Doctor Who in 1963 was that the characters would travel through time and make history come alive for the young viewers. The historical episodes, which involved no monsters and science fiction elements apart from the main cast, were a major part of the show when it starred William Hartnell's Doctor. By today's standards these were usually better episodes than the often ropey science fiction stories, as the cast and crew were familiar with producing period drama. However they were less popular with young audiences. This type of story was dropped from the show entirely as Patrick Troughton took over the part. The show focused on The Doctor fighting monsters, and from that point on, any story which had a period setting would also include sci-fi and monster elements (except maybe Black Orchid).

The Russell T. Davies era in 2005 introduced the "Celebrity Historical," in which The Doctor and company meet someone famous from history, and also fight a monster of some kind. The first involved Charles Dickens and the ghostly Gelth. The series didn't really do this sort of thing in the 70s and 80s, but it was a staple of the revived series to feature well-known figures like Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare. The Steven Moffat series did this most notably with Vincent Van Gogh, in the well-received Vincent and the Doctor - a more serious story which focused less on the monster of the week than on Van Gogh's struggle with mental illness.

Even with "Vincent and the Doctor" in mind, "Rosa" feels like something new for the revived series. I said of the Chibnall series so far that it's often lacked the cartoony fun of previous Doctor Who, but has worked surprisingly well as more subdued, serious drama. It does walk the edge of bad taste that our heroes are there with Rosa Parks on the bus, and get caught up in all kinds of shenanigans as well as the growing civil rights movement of 1955. But I can't imagine Doctor Who handling it any other way. The point is that we see these events through the lead characters' eyes, and that this makes history come alive for young viewers, as in the original concept for the show.

What feels fresh and new, because it hits like a ton of bricks, is what the episode is about - racism. Ryan and Yaz have to deal with being threatened by white people in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama. They have to hide from police, and Ryan's life is clearly in danger - something that the episode could have done more with. Although this would be way darker than Doctor Who is supposed to get. And it already is. There is no monster here, which would probably have been too silly. There is a time traveling villain from the future, who is meddling with the events of the bus boycott.The episode gets a little silly with the TARDIS crew very openly scheming how to get time back on track and make history happen as it should. One wonders how Rosa Parks and James Blake didn't catch on to what was happening, or overhear. But the villain's presence does help the story, as he's openly a white supremacist, and reminds us in an otherwise hopeful episode that this kind of racism hasn't gone away. These moments where Ryan and Yaz have to deal with being called racial slurs, or threatened, are very gutsy for Doctor Who, and work a lot better than the actual moment on the bus at the end of the episode.

Yaz reminds us that things do get better, citing the election of Barack Obama, but this rings hollow considering that we know this was directly followed by the openly racist Presidency of Donald Trump. Bill Clinton's honoring of Rosa Parks is also cited but not Clinton's own issues with mass incarceration. The episode is still a lot more nuanced about American politics, and American racism, than I would expect from a British series. There aren't even any truly bad American accents from the actors. Vinette Robinson, who previously appeared in Chiball's "42," is believable and empathetic as Rosa Parks.

If the 1963 Doctor Who, with William Hartnell, could go back in time to roughly its own era of 1963 (or indeed London 1965), you might get something like "Rosa." The Hartnell series also began with a four-person TARDIS team, although since this was 1963, some of their stories now come off as based on outdated and bigoted assumptions in their own right. "The Aztecs" suggests that there was something inherently evil about some of (not all of) the native Aztecs which led to their destruction, while saying nothing about the Europeans who murdered the native peoples of the Americas over centuries.

History books, especially for children, have often downplayed Rosa Parks' activism, sometimes saying that she refused to stand on the bus because she was "tired" or her "feet hurt." This episode gets the events closer to correct than that. It does portray Rosa Parks as a principled activist who made a clear decision to act, and portrays her as part of a group of activists including Martin Luther King Jr., to the delight of a starstruck Ryan, in one of the episode's best scenes. But the episode doesn't portray the bus boycott as something planned in advance, which is unfortunate, and would also undo a lot of the episode's story, and its thesis that small events can have a great impact on history. I think that's a good thesis, as it empowers young people to change the future by changing the present. The ending of the episode becomes a bit messy and rushed. It does allow us to see the beginning of the bus boycott through the eyes of The Doctor and friends, but that's four people, who have been meddling with events in a very obvious way up to this point. I can't help but feel that this scene would have been better with less (or even none) of the main cast present, or if they'd kept more silent. It muddies the waters of simply observing this part of history. A pop song plays, we get back to the TARDIS with The Doctor summing things up, and the episode ends pretty quickly, leaving us wanting more.

"Rosa" does give all the characters something to do. I've worried about this set of companions. There are a lot of them and they're a little bland. But Ryan, Yaz and Graham have strong character moments this week, which they didn't last week, and it gives more insight into what their characters are really about. It's also something you couldn't have done with a white TARDIS crew. Jodie's Doctor stands out a little less than she has - her scenes feel talky. But that's also us getting used to taking her performance for granted. She does a good job standing up to the villain of the week as well.

It was a very gutsy move taking on racism and the American Civil Rights movement. The result is a surprisingly vivid episode which works better as "serious drama" than Doctor Who usually has. It doesn't feel sugarcoated beyond The Doctor's presence generally, and for it to have gone farther than it did would probably have been inappropriate for Doctor Who. The closest comparison is "Vincent and the Doctor," and that's a very good sign. People who hadn't watched the episode were concerned about the possible "bad taste," and certainly this subject matter does set the bar high and require a more sensitive take. "Rosa" doesn't get all the way there, but gets farther than we would expect from Doctor Who. It's blunt in a way which might really teach younger viewers something.

There is a danger in this sort of episode to portray racism as something in the past. For older viewers, we're watching our society regress right now. "Rosa" doesn't get an A+ for this, but it doesn't fail the class either. Its time-travelling villain from Stormcage might as well be someone from our era, but he also suggests - all too briefly - that the fight for civil rights had vast influence on the future, which is even more important. It's an episode that suggests that ordinary people can change history - like Ryan, Yaz and Graham, or like the show's viewers. And it's a hopeful episode throughout, portraying the fight for civil rights as a long and difficult struggle, one where Rosa Parks was eventually honored for her bravery. Martin Luther King Jr. paraphrased Theodore Parker when he said "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." That's hard to believe in our current political climate, but it is something young people need to believe if they're going to change the future.
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Re: Through Time & Space: The Doctor Who Thread

Postby Garrett Gilchrist » Wed Oct 31, 2018 5:12 pm

Doctor Who: Spiders In the UK -- This is our first straightforward "monster" episode this series, apart from parts of the first episode, and it acquits itself nicely, showing that Chibnall can pull off a "monster of the week." The choice to focus on people's fear of spiders is low-hanging fruit for a horror piece, and the episode wrings the expected scares out of the subject matter. It should scare kids and arachnophobes nicely. I was reminded a little of the Sarah Jane Adventures story which exploited fear of clowns. This year of the show really does feel like a Russell T Davies creation filtered through a more "adult drama" lens.

The silliest thing we get here is the sort-of villain, an American real estate tycoon who is described as a rival and parody of Donald Trump. No attempt is made to make the character as embarrassing and bizarre as Donald Trump actually is, so apart from a few lines of dialogue we simply get the sort of "mildly evil businessman" character that we're used to in fiction and real life. The character is more clearly seen as a critique or parody of America in general, as it currently is. The character's idea of "good business" doesn't include any concern for public safety, cutting corners that create the episode's problem. (I suppose this is spoiler territory but there's no alien interference here. The episode comes up with a pseudo-scientific explanation for the extra-large spiders.) The businessman ensures his own safety with a high-tech panic room, and thinks a gun is the answer to everything. It's a bit heavy-handed, especially the line about "fire and fury." It's also a contrast to The Doctor, who seeks a humane and non-murdery solution.

At this point, in the fourth episode, the series is still establishing the TARDIS Team and how they relate to one another, and the episode spends time on their decision to join The Doctor rather than fully resolve the spider situation, and the curiously mutagenic properties of the hotel site. A 70s episode might have blown up the toxic site at the end, but we're expected to assume that The Doctor's more humane plan was enough. I'd have been happier if she also did something about the abandoned mining tunnels below.

The TARDIS Team all get a few little moments to be charming, and despite the complaints about using Grace's death to propel the story, it's nice that Graham's grief is still a key motivation four episodes into the series. We meet Yaz's family, who are just barely entertaining enough that we don't feel we're wasting our time. And in an episode that references Donald Trump, it's nice that one of our heroes appears to be a Pakistani Sunni Muslim (note the decoration as Yaz leaves at the end). Last week's episode suggested that Ryan and Yaz could become a couple, while this episode doesn't, and instead suggests the same about ... Yaz and The Doctor. I'll take that as a joke but some of the fans won't.

We also see more of the Time Vortex, as it looks in this era, and the CGI is gorgeous.

So far this series has been really solid. It's not beating the viewer over the head with how stunningly clever and brilliant it is, but we've had enough of that for now. It has a more subdued tone which gives it the feel of a more adult drama. Not standing out as much as the series has, but also consistently delivering what we expect from Doctor Who. This series avoids falling into some of the traps of its predecessors while establishing a grounded tone.
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Re: Through Time & Space: The Doctor Who Thread

Postby Garrett Gilchrist » Mon Nov 05, 2018 2:08 am

Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum by Chris Chibnall.

Easily the worst episode of the year so far. Not exactly bad, but just sort of dramatically inert. The CGI alien is too cute to be a believable threat, and Jodie Whittaker and the cast seem to be reacting to an entirely different creature design. Then there's a bloodless male pregnancy. The episode looks good, set on a spaceship with sets and futuristic fashion trends that seem to recall 60s stories like The Ice Warriors. But it appears to have been conceived as a cheaper episode. Almost the whole thing is set aboard the ship set. There is a sense of peril but it's hard to care too much about anything that's happening here. The episode plays out in a fairly obvious way without delivering anything too interesting or unexpected in terms of character. It's just sort of ... there.
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Re: Through Time & Space: The Doctor Who Thread

Postby Oliver Judd » Mon Nov 05, 2018 5:04 pm

It's been a pretty flavourless run of episodes.
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Re: Through Time & Space: The Doctor Who Thread

Postby Garrett Gilchrist » Tue Nov 13, 2018 9:58 pm

Doctor Who: "Demons of the Punjab" by Vinay Patel. After a weak episode last week, and an only decent one the week before, this is the best of the six episodes aired so far. Like the other standout episode "Rosa," the episode tackles bigotry, set in 1947 at the newly-drawn border between India and Pakistan, hinting at the violence that Partition led to. It's a very emotional episode, as Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) meets her own grandmother and gets caught up in events, not unlike in Russell T. Davies' episode Father's Day. Indeed our four travelers get very entangled in the lives of these two families, making themselves part of the story to an almost absurd degree - also a problem that "Rosa" had, as an episode. What struck me, besides the Genuine Adult Drama of the piece (GAD), was that this team of TARDIS travelers is now absolutely working very well together, about as well as they're ever going to. They have a great chemistry, which has built up over the past few episodes. It helps that Yaz takes center stage here, and that Ryan doesn't have another scene about missing his dad. Graham gets a few scenes where he gets to be charming and it feels like the writing plays to the cast's strengths. The Doctor gets to do sciency stuff and deal awkwardly with her current gender, and the alien of the week is memorably designed with batlike heas, looking not unlike Hordark from the Evil Horde. The guest cast perform memorably, tackling very dark territory for Doctor Who. Although, even more so than with Rosa, the larger cultural issues at play are not dwelt on, and the role of the British in colonizing the controlling Indian culture is barely mentioned at all. But then, as portrayed here, this is a small, family story, where the larger issues of World Wars, national borders, and forced separation of races are forces of nature too large for those caught up in them to control. Unlike some of the episodes this year, this is a confident piece of television that knows exactly what it's doing and what it wants to be, and it's one episode this year I'd point to that really works and makes what it's pulling off look easy.
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Re: Through Time & Space: The Doctor Who Thread

Postby Garrett Gilchrist » Mon Nov 19, 2018 3:27 am

Doctor Who "Kerblam!" -- Another good episode from the season 11 team, as The Doctor receives a package - a fez, presumably ordered during Matt Smith's tenure - leading the TARDIS crew to go undercover at the biggest retailer in its galaxy. "Kerblam!" is a satire of Amazon.com, complete with miserable working conditions and an apparently crumbling society to match.

It feels like the episode is going to be a pointed satire of the current state of capitalism generally, as the setting seems to be a dystopia set after machines have replaced humans in most jobs, and humans are really struggling. However, the episode doesn't go into great detail about that, and never gets there, dealing with things on a company level rather than a societal one. In the real world, there's a discussion to be had about whether replacing human workers with automation can be a good thing, resulting in leisure time as long as the human jobless are cared for. But in a hyper-capitalist society with profit as the only motive that doesn't happen, and that seems to be what we get here. As the Doctor says, the system isn't necessarily the problem, it's how people use it.

That rings a little hollow when the System really is the problem, so much of the time. This story could have (and arguably should have) gone fully anti-capitalist, having depicted a world where people seem miserable at work, and without work - an automated system oiled by the human lives it wastes. Instead it's happy to just make sure the packages get there on time. Maybe the writer just couldn't imagine a future like what the Tumblr kids call "fully automated gay luxury space communism" - even though that would fit in with Doctor Who.

Right-wing viewers have been furious at the series this year, saying it's been taken over by leftie progressive PC SJW politics. By that they mean it stars a woman, and people of color exist in its universe. This episode makes that even more laughable, since the episode's politics aren't "leftie" enough to really make sense. Arguably it's a more right-wing episode coming out in favor of the giant capitalist company - although I think this may be reading too much into a fairly standard Doctor Who plot.

The story itself feels like a mashup of the classic Tom Baker stories The Robots of Death (robots of death), The Sun Makers (critique of capitalism) and perhaps, half-jokingly, The Ark In Space. It's straightforwardly "Doctor Who" and that's fine. Its plot was probably dictated less by politics than by trying to be a story in that mold (Robots of Death especially). But that does mean that my favorite stories so far this year have dealt with political issues (racism, colonialism, Donald Trump) without actually going into Britain's complicity in any of this and demanding progressive solutions that go beyond maintaining the current status quo. This makes the show both more and less revolutionary-minded than it's been in the past. The Doctor and friends were known for starting rebellions which brought down entire planets on the drop of a hat. Stories as early as The Space Museum come to mind. Whether by accident or choice, this year's stories go deeper into the reasons why revolutions happen, without giving us the satisfaction of one.

Jodie Whittaker is at her Doctory best when dealing with Kerblam's management, commanding respect immediately without needing to put on a show about it. Bradley Walsh continues to be interesting as Graham. When he's talking to younger actors, it feels like there's 58 years of life experience in what he's not saying, and what he carefully chooses to say when he's turning on the charm. Tosin Cole's Ryan Sinclair gets some story points about his disability and his past as a retail worker, which works. And Mandip Gill as Yaz has a few chances to be empathetic.
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