“What, like a race? Like Paris Dakar in space? Are you two space racing each other?”
After a solid if unexceptional season opener for a thoroughly revamped Doctor Who, new showrunner Chris Chibnall has clearly made an attempt to wow the audience in his second episode, with some amazing location filming, impressive effects, and a pair of great guest stars in Shaun Dooley and Susan Lynch. The story? Well, it was certainly more interesting than last week’s Predator visits Sheffield, but if I’m honest I doubt that what was effectively Top Gear Challenge in Space is going to go down as one of the all time classics.
The premise was solid enough – having been rescued from asphyxiation in deep space a la Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Doctor and her unwilling new crew find themselves caught up in the last stage of ‘the 12th Intergalactic Rally’, which turns out to be on a very mysterious planet indeed. And this may be a new Doctor, but just like all the others, she can’t abide an unsolved mystery.
Put like that, it has a lot of promise. And there was definitely some good stuff here. Jodie Whittaker continues to impress as the Doctor, after an already solid start. It’s been said that it’s pretty much an actor-proof part, but some have rockier starts than others; she, however, seems to have won most viewers over from the start.
There also seems to be the beginning of an attempt from Chris Chibnall to add new mystery to the character. During the nocturnal attack by the genuinely creepy mind reading killer sheets (if such they were), there were some pretty heavy hints dropped about memories she may not even realise she has. “The timeless child, abandoned…” With so much mythos already attached to the character, trying to add more could be unwieldy; but there again, the mythos is so well known that there’s no actual mystery to it any more. So it may be worthwhile.
The ep also continued to give depth to the new characters, who continue to be both likeable and convincing – even Bradley Walsh, who so many were sceptical about. I was glad to see that Chibnall’s script didn’t shirk dealing with the emotional consequences of Grace’s death last week, and used it as a springboard to further explore the uneasy relationship between Graham and Ryan. As the pair each tried to deal with it in their own ways, it gave further insight into their characters generally – “you talk about this stuff too much” “you don’t talk about it enough”. Simplistic perhaps, but it felt genuine.
Mind you, as with last week I felt that Yaz wasn’t given much in the way of depth or anything to do. It’s no fault of Yasmin Gill, who does well with the scant material she’s given; her quiet heart to heart with Angstrom was a nice calm moment in the heart of thee storm. But still, compared to Ryan and Graham, I don’t feel that I know much about her or what she’s like. I’m reminded of the similarly crowded TARDIS in Peter Davison’s first year, where there was never enough story for all four characters, and there was one drastic solution to that. Hopefully Yaz will get a better shake of the stick than Adric did, though.
Some good guest characters in Susan Lynch’s Angstrom and Shaun Dooley’s Epzo, too. It helps when you have so many regulars to keep the guest cast small if you want to develop them, and it worked here. Each was given background and motivation, and both were likeable (despite Epzo’s cynical hard man routine). The pair’s bickering, competitive relationship felt like it was being played, romcom style, towards an ultimate romance, but I’m glad the script didn’t take such an easy, hackneyed out.
Art Malik’s supercilious race organiser was less successful, being little more than a cipher, but then he didn’t really need to be more. But while it was a nice jolt that he and the competitors vanished so abruptly, I felt it robbed them of any resolution to their relationship with the TARDIS crew. After all, they’d bonded over a life and death journey, and didn’t get so much as a “bye then!”. Not their choice of course, and I wonder whether we’ll see Malik again – it seemed a bit odd to cast such a respected actor in such a thin and insubstantial part.
The mystery of what had happened on the planet Desolation gave the ep a good quest feel, with problems and mysteries to solve along the way. It also looked pretty spectacular, director Mark Tonderai making the cinematic best of some impressive South African vistas to give the sort of big budget feel the show can get from unfamiliar locations. I don’t know what that derelict building full of sniper robots was in reality, but it looked great onscreen.
As did the creepy ‘sheet monsters’ (I didn’t catch their actual name). The direction had dropped plenty of hints about them throughout, so when they came to life by night it wasn’t entirely a surprise; however, Tonderai made them genuinely scary, when they could so easily have just looked ridiculous.
Ultimately though, I’m not sure how I feel about the resolution to the mystery. Chibnall had previously said that there would be no story arc for this season, which could have been a refreshing change. However, it looks like he was lying. So, the planet (and Angstrom’s homeworld too) had been laid waste to by the Stenza, the villains of the last episode. The trouble was, I wasn’t very impressed with them then. If they’re being shaped up as the big new alternative to the Daleks, I don’t think the mobile pepperpots have much to worry about.
But the final piece de resistance to the story was the Big Reveal of the new TARDIS interior. Fair play to Mr Chibnall for saving it until this episode rather than playing all his cards in the opener – and also for not making the whole season about the search for it.
The new interior has a return to the semi-organic feel of the Eccleston/Tennant era, but retains the hexagonal panels so dominant in the Smith/Capaldi control rooms. There’s a feel of the planet Krypton from the 1978 Superman in those crystalline overhangs. A spinning police box on the console, which sort of makes sense if you want to visualise your exterior orientation. And it even dispenses Custard Creams!
So another mixed bag this week I thought. Great new TARDIS, spectacular visuals, good character work for Graham and Ryan. On the negative though, still not much character at all for Yaz, and the story was still pretty thin for nearly an hour of television. I’d say it was about on a par with last week, albeit with different strengths and weaknesses.
It’s also following a tried and tested formula with a new TARDIS crew – first ep on contemporary Earth, followed by one in the spacey future. That’s usually followed by one set in Earth’s past, and it looks like next week will be no different. However, the subject matter is more potentially controversial than usual, as the show directly tackles racial politics by getting involved with US civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Now this one I really am interested to see.