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Scene from Dr Who. Photo: BBC

Scene from Dr Who. Photo: BBC

After a period of audience decline and a lack of narrative complexity, the new series offers the hope of a return to form, argues Sean Coote

The world’s longest-running sci-fi show returned last Sunday with the screening of The Halloween Apocalypse, the first episode in the last season of Chris Chibnall’s troubled tenure as Doctor Who showrunner, an era marked by fan unrest and even worse viewing figures.

Such unrest has not been entirely unjustified. Part of the problem since its reboot has been down to its format. In the self-contained 45-minute episodes regularly used, little time has been left to explore the motivations of the show’s antagonists, leading to an over-reliance on established foes. The perennial Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master.

Yet here, things are clearly looking up. The Halloween Apocalypse is the first episode of six with an over-arching story arc, and its new characters have already been granted room to manoeuvre and develop. And the threads we pick up are many and varied. 

On contemporary and Victorian Earth, an ancient evil is breaking free from its bonds. In the meantime the Doctor is having trouble pursuing an anthropomorphic dog called Karvanista, itself intent on kidnapping hapless Scouser Dan (it transpires for the best of reasons) a food-bank worker brilliantly played by John Bishop. I was initially worried his casting was a throwback to the ‘80s, when the likes of Ken Dodd were crowbarred in to boost similarly flagging ratings (they’ve halved since Whittaker’s debut) but not a bit of it. Comedy-drama is hard to pull off, but his double act with the space-hound shows massive promise.

Unlike much classic BBC sci-fi, new Doctor Who at the very least can’t currently be accused of being London/RADA centric.

Meanwhile, in the background (fittingly, given our precarious times) something called The Flux (a kind of vast entropic energy field) is advancing on the Earth, eating planets and the fabric of space in its path. We know our arc is heading somewhere big and dangerous, and we want to be in on the journey - something that hasn’t been the case for some time.

The show in general however, is not currently without its critics, particularly regarding what is (tediously) referred to as its ongoing ‘political correctness’. And the amount of vitriol apparent on fan sites testifies to the dark side of what ought to be a benign obsession. Jodie Whittaker has suffered particularly here. For a show that boasts possibly the most infinitely flexible premise in television history, it was always reactionary nonsense to argue this shouldn’t include the idea of the doctor as a woman.

Yet not all criticism is baseless. If there’s a problem with Jodie’s Doctor, it’s not related to gender, it’s that there’s something gratingly gushing in her reading of the part. Too much Blue Peter, too little Time Lord, perhaps. And the best Doctor/companion dynamics have always been based on chemistry: this is hard to define (and harder to engineer) but with the Doctor and Yaz in particular, it seems rather absent.

And she needs to ditch the sonic screwdriver. It may have flashing lights, but it’s still a magic wand. “It’s better to believe in science” as Tom Baker’s companion (and reformed savage) Leela once declared.

A more contentious source of criticism regards the BBC’s legally binding representation quotas in their output. Purists (and obviously many racists) have found it hard to accept recent interference with the show’s mythology. But the principle of minority representation is sound. Jo Martin (of Jamaican heritage) spoke eloquently of her recent casting as an incarnation of The Doctor, apparently preceding established first Doctor William Hartnell in the show’s timeline.

A lot of black geeks who love sci-fi have sent me pictures of them doing cosplay. They thank me and tell me it’s great that they now have someone to dress up as [1]

Diversity makes cosmic sense - in fact, it’s an immutable certainty in an unimaginably large universe. What the BBC need to do when ensuring representation is avoid drawing attention to the process itself. Having minor characters arbitrarily announcing they’re gay, for example (this occurred in 2019’s New Year Special) leaves the door open to accusations of condescension or tokenism.

It should also be remembered Doctor Who’s history has always been multiracial and internationalist. In 1963 its first producer was a Jewish woman, its first director a Muslim. ‘Justice for all species’ as the Doctor once declared. Malcolm Hulke, one of the show’s great writers from the 70s, was a Marxist. Possibly his best story is The Silurians (1970). It challenges militarism and even humanity’s claims to the Earth - a complete reversal of the ‘alien invasion’ narrative. Yet at the same time it never forgets what it essentially is: a sci-fi adventure.

To cap Sunday’s episode off, the Sontarans turned up in a blaze of brutal mess-hall wit. They were always my favourite classic-era nemeses. They’re less interested in a final victory than the glorious and endless punch-up that leads in its general direction. Whilst the Daleks remain the ultimate capitalists, ripping the wealth from the planets they enslave in pursuit of utter (and joyless) supremacy, there’s a perverse purity to the Sontaran’s commitment to thuggery, and as such make them a fitting foil to the Doctor’s hands-on commitment to justice and fair play.

They’re on screen for less than two minutes, but Chris Chibnall absolutely nails them, the first writer to do so in decades.

Whilst the likes of Malcolm Hulke offered us socialism by stealth, Chris Chibnall and the BBC (with the best of intentions) offer us mostly liberalism by design. Nevertheless, The Halloween Apocalypse provides enticement enough to draw us back (it’s done so for me, anyway) to the six-part arc which may well act as a better epitaph than the current era perhaps deserves, and will hopefully give us some much-needed laughter and escapism in the process.

 

[1] Radio Times 2nd November 2020

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