It’s SF/F-agogo in this month’s TV update, with new Star Trek, new Doctor Who, old Twilight Zone, and I’ve finally finished His Dark Materials too.
Doctor Who Series 12 Episodes 3-5
Well, it certainly has been an eventful first half to this series of Doctor Who! Never mind bringing back the Master and destroying Gallifrey (again) in the opening two-parter — showrunner Chris Chibnall has much bigger continuity-bothering ideas on his mind. But before that, two standalone episodes.
The first, Orphan 55, is currently the worst-rated episode of modern Who according to IMDb voters, with a score almost as low as the much-maligned Game of Thrones finale. But whereas I defended that episode, unfortunately I have no love for Orphan 55. I know a lot of people’s issue with it is that it’s a bit of a climate change polemic — some people just hate Who engaging with contemporary ‘political’ issues. Sorry, but it’s been doing that since at least the Pertwee era. It’s normally a mite more subtle than this, though. I mean, The Happiness Patrol is a blatant analogy for Thatcher, but at least it’s an analogy. So Orphan 55’s problem isn’t the content, it’s the delivery: an on-the-nose lecture, practically delivered straight to camera, stapled on the end like an afterthought. But it doesn’t exactly ruin the episode, because the rest of it isn’t much cop either: a logically-dubious runaround with a shopworn twist (one that Doctor Who itself has done before, in fact). But is it actually worse than previous “most despised” editions, like Fear Her and Sleep No More? Um, actually, I think it might be.
Thankfully, the week after things swung back in the right direction. In previous years Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror would probably have been regarded as a solid midseason bit of fun, but in the current era it virtually amounts to a classic. There were undeniable overtones of the Racnoss in the creature design, and Vincent and the Doctor in its depiction of an unappreciated-in-his-time historical genius (I half expected them to take Tesla into the future to show him there was a car named after him), but plenty of Who is like other parts of Who (it is 57 years and 879 episodes old, after all, not to mention the uncountable spinoff novels, audio dramas, comic strips, etc). All in all, it was fun enough.
But the real belter was the most recent episode, Fugitive of the Judoon. It’s most impressive as a bit of show-running stagecraft: foregrounding a popular returning monster in the title and publicity (the Judoon, obv) in order to hide the long-awaited return of a popular character (Captain Jack), which was a big surprise that in itself is designed to distract you from the real twist: another incarnation of the Doctor, played by Jo Martin. Social media and fan forums and whatnot have debated and analysed that revelation to death, so I won’t bother digging too much into all the possibilities of what it means — only time can tell. I will stake out this opinion, though: I am not a fan of the theory that she’s a pre-Hartnell version of the Doctor. The idea there were incarnations before the one we know as the first has always seemed disrespectful to me, somehow. Yeah, the Daleks ‘made’ Doctor Who, but Hartnell gave it his all too — without him week to week, and the effort he put into public appearances and the like, would the series have survived those early years? He’s not the only thing responsible for its success, and certainly not for its longevity, but he was The First — leave that be, thanks.
But, as I say, we’ll find out in time. More interesting to me, for now, is how showrunner Chris Chibnall is going about his job nowadays. Comparing his two seasons so far, Chibnall’s attitude to reusing stuff from Who’s past seems to be — very literally — all or nothing. Last season, he made a point of not using any continuity — no returning characters or villains, no significant references to the Doctor’s past or previous adventures. This season, he seems to be using all the continuity. I can’t remember a Doctor Who story so loaded with references to not-recent previous adventures as this one. Even the Chameleon Arch gets an outing, a thing that mattered in two stories that aired 13 years ago. It feels like Chibnall is an RTD-era fanboy revelling in bringing back stuff from a time when the show was at its peak of popularity. Maybe that’s what it needs right now. Though, in a broader sense, I feel like last season was Chibnall trying to copy RTD-in-2005 (fresh! new! start watching here!), while this time he’s doing his best to be Moffat-in-2011 (complicated mysteries! revisionist continuity! wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey explanations!)
Whether these additions to the mythology are interesting and productive, or whether it’ll be like “half-human” and fans ignore it ASAP, will depend on what’s to come. Either way, it’s the most exciting the show’s been in a good few years, and that’s something in itself.
Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episode 1
The Star Trek series boldly goes where it’s never gone before: into the Prestige TV market. (Despite initial appearances, based on things like the reviews I’ve read and variably-sized season orders, I’m not sure Discovery was really “prestige TV” in the end.) Is it up to competing with the big boys of this peak TV era?
Well, after just the first episode, I’m going to hang fire on answering that — on the evidence of this one instalment, it could go either way. It can certainly walk the walk: it looks very nice, with plenty of lush cinematography and expensive visuals (both globe-hopping locations and swish CGI), and it certainly wants to appear weighty, with themes of ageing and decay (not only of people but also institutions). But can it talk the talk? Does it actually have things to say beyond “Picard is old now, and Starfleet’s a bit shit”? Once upon a time I’d’ve said the fact it’s heavily (heavily) embedded in existing Trek continuity was a barrier, both to entry (“only fans will know enough to follow the plot”) and quality (“it’s so busy looking to the past it doesn’t do anything new”) and acclaim (“I’m not a Trekkie so I didn’t care”) — but that’s not necessarily the case anymore, as HBO’s Watchmen only just proved: you can reuse and remix and lean hard on previous texts, and still produce a high-quality work. That said, while Picard does invest energy in making sure newbies have all the continuity stuff explained, I feel like the show already shows signs of wavering towards Trek’s usual habits, for good or ill. But there’s an interesting enough set of mysteries just getting underway, and it’s always great to see Patrick Stewart, so I remain optimistic it’s going to go somewhere good.
His Dark Materials Series 1
I reviewed the first three episodes of His Dark Materials in my previous regular update, just over a month ago, but I’d actually watched them much earlier, so when I returned to the series in the new year I decided to restart from the beginning. That improved my opinion of them considerably, I must say, but then a second viewing always has the ability to help clarify things you were unclear of before. Still, I got much more invested this time, and was swept along for the ride and the mysteries the show unfurled. Like the two series I’ve reviewed above, there’s plenty of mystery and intrigue here — some of it answered, much of it left hanging for future seasons (there’s two whole books to come, intended to be adapted across four more seasons). But even in this first salvo, events and characters move in interesting directions. It’s a very dark show at times, especially for something adapted from what are ostensibly children’s books, but that at least creates a genuine sense of jeopardy and unpredictability. So too the way it handles its characters — there’s not just simplistic twists of “hero turns out to be villain” or vice versa, but definite shades of grey. With the promise of whole new worlds to come, I’m definitely excited to see what’s next.
Also, I bloody love the theme music now.
The Twilight Zone ‘Best Of’
It’s been six months since I did one of my “best of The Twilight Zone” roundups, but I always intended to continue them, so here we are again.
Having already reviewed the top ten episodes as ranked by several different sources (IMDb voters, ScreenCrush, and Paste), I decided to resume my journey through the original Twilight Zone by producing an average of various different lists to identify which instalments are acclaimed by consensus (because that’s the kind of thing I do). To help broaden the range of opinions, I added a bunch of new lists to my calculations — namely, Ranker’s The Best Twilight Zone Episodes of All Time as sorted by voters; Buzzfeed’s Ranking Every Episode by Arianna Rebolini; TV Guide’s 50 Essential Episodes Ranked by Joal Ryan: and Thrillist’s The 50 Best Episodes by Scott Beggs.
This new average ranking gave me a fresh top ten with a couple of episodes I’d not seen. The first of those was in 9th place (also, for what it’s worth, it’s now in IMDb’s top ten too, having moved up from 11th to 8th since I last looked). That’s The Masks, which I think is one of the series’ best-paced episodes. I’ve found that even some of the greatest episodes can feel a little thin, with a singular concept that only just fills 25 minutes, but this one doesn’t overstay its welcome by a second — and yet it’s as simple and clear a concept as any. That’s perhaps when TZ is at its best: simple but effective concepts, cleanly executed. And there’s a moral lesson too, of course.
I was slightly less impressed by The After Hours, which finishes off the consensus top ten. It’s an effectively creepy edition for the most part, with some genuine scares, but for me it was slightly undermined by the final explanation, which I don’t think quite hangs together with what’s gone before. A definite case of “it’s about the journey not the destination”, then, because up ’til that point it’s superb.
Moving beyond the top ten to complete the top 10% (i.e. the 16 best episodes), next is Number 12 Looks Just Like You (which, by-the-by, comes 10th on Thrillist). This is what some people might call “proper sci-fi” — an idea of the future spun out of what’s possible in the present, using it to present an analogy for the times we live in. And what is the analogy? In this case, there’s a few things you can read into it: mental health; conformism; the transition from childhood to adulthood; maybe all of the above; maybe something else. The only real downside is the episode hints at a wider world that isn’t explored. It’s mentioned in passing that the writing of Shakespeare, Keats, and others has been banned. Why? By whom? And while a bunch of middle-class white people are choosing which generic model they want to look like, what about other races? Class is less of an immediate issue because it seems this is a government-backed thing that everyone must undergo — but then, why do the lower classes get to look just the same as their ‘betters’? Surely there’d be different models depending on your social station? Never mind a 25-minute episode, someone could spin an entire series out of this… Still, having so much to ponder is one mark of a very good episode.
The Midnight Sun is the penultimate episode in the top 16, and also is another one that’s 10th on one list, this time Ranker’s. I’d probably put it even higher — this is definitely one of my favourite episodes so far. It takes a massive world-altering event and shows it to us from the point of view of two ordinary women; and not even from when the event happens or is discovered, but from a month into the new status quo, when it’s become a fact of life rather than some revelation. It’s a different way to approach such a story even today, and it works all the more for it. And, of course, there’s a twist (spoiler to come!) — one of the very, very few times “it was just a dream” works.
Finally for now, the last episode in the top 16 (and the only one of today’s episodes not in anyone’s top ten), Nothing in the Dark. Probably best known for staring a young Robert Redford, it’s about an old woman who’s paranoid and agoraphobic due to her fear of meeting Death; but when Redford’s cop is shot right outside her door, she has to let him in to save his life. It’s a nice idea for a story, but (to loop back to what I was saying about The Masks) it feels a little slight in the execution. Half of the second act is taken up in a diversion with a demolition guy which is just that, a diversion. Still, there are very good performances from the two leads, and it comes with a well-meant little message by the end.
Things to Catch Up On
This month, I have mostly been missing Good Omens… again! I didn’t get round to it on Prime Video when it premiered last May, and now it’s airing weekly on BBC Two but I still haven’t started it. I read the book as a kid and absolutely loved it (for a very long time I would’ve said it was my favourite novel), so when they announced a miniseries adaptation I was excited — especially as it was being managed by Neil Gaiman himself and starred a bunch of my favourite actors, not least Michael Sheen and David Tennant in the lead roles. That’s almost the problem: I want to watch it properly; I can’t just bung it on. Maybe I’ll get to it before next month’s column.
Also missed: The Trial of Christine Keeler (I hear it got pretty good, but only after a couple of episodes); White House Farm (I’m interested in the case, but apparently the series is overly slow and long-winded); Deadwater Fell (David Tennant again); and probably a tonne of other stuff that’s slipped my mind for the moment…
Next month… more Doctor Who, more Picard, more Twilight Zone. As for new stuff, Locke & Key finally makes it to the screen via Netflix… but that’s about all I can foresee for now. Maybe I will finally do Good Omens…
P.S. If you’re an attentive regular reader who’s thinking, “hold on, did I miss #53 and #54?”, the answer is no, you didn’t — the mistake is mine. A whole year ago, I forgot to count the 2018 Christmas post towards the numbering, which is the way I’d previously done things, so I am belatedly correcting for it by ‘hiding’ the jump alongside the one for 2019’s Christmas post. If you think that’s terribly confusing, just remember: it doesn’t really matter anyway.