The Past Month on TV #41

Christmas is on the horizon, with the usual glut of seasonal specials and high-profile miniseries/one-offs crammed into a couple of weeks. But that’s for my next TV column — this time, here’s a bit more of the usual stuff.

Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 8-10
It Takes You AwayThe most recent season of Doctor Who went out, not with a bang, but with a whimper, in perhaps the most underwhelming “finale” the show has ever done. It wasn’t really a dramatic and exciting culmination of this year’s run of episodes, which is what a true “finale” is. Rather, it was just the last episode shown before the season… stopped. Fortunately, before that were two more episodes that proved this new era’s best stuff comes from its guest writers rather than its showrunner.

The Witchfinders saw the TARDIS Team head into the past for the third time this season, and once again brought up a heavy theme: after racism in Rosa and religious division in Demons of the Punjab, now it’s the misogyny of 17th century witch hunts. Fortunately it wore this somewhat more lightly than the previous two episodes, which meant it lacked their emotional weight. Instead, it was a fun adventure, revolving around an alien race reanimating the dead, and a broad, camp, but occasionally nuanced performance from Alan Cumming as King James I. I thought he was a lot of fun.

It Takes You Away set its scene as a “monster lurking near a remote cottage” tale, but pulled off a couple of twists to reveal something entirely different. It was an episode rich in science-fiction ideas — almost too rich, arguably, as the emotional impact they led to was powerful but perhaps not given enough screen time to be fully processed. But with some typically Doctor Who quirkiness thrown in, this was one of my favourite episodes of the season. Even if the execution sometimes faltered, I admired its ambition.

Which brings us back round to the finale, the stupidly titled The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. It’s such a dumb, unpronounceable title that I don’t think I was alone in suspecting it was a cover for something else (in the same way the classic series used to hide the return of the Master by crediting the actor by an acronym in the Radio Times, for instance). But no, that sadly was the title. Even worse, it had barely anything to do with the episode itself — the titular conflict is over, with the Doctor and co arriving to help the few remaining survivors defeat the big bad. Or, rather, get a bunch of exposition from the survivor (with a few hoops jumped through to make sure that exposition is gradually doled out rather than received all at once), then virtually ignore him while they set about some other storyline.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av KolosTypically for showrunner Chris Chibnall, it was a half-thought-through tale, with regular logic gaps and narrative dead ends, and none of the impact you expect from a season-ender. Kinder viewers may say that’s because there’s a New Year’s Day special imminent which is the real finale, but I think that’s just being optimistic. Certainly, the BBC haven’t seen fit to include the special in the season box set (even though it’s released a fortnight after the special airs), which I’m sure is partly a shameless cash grab, but also indicates its separate status.

With that in mind, we can already take an overview of the season as a whole. It’s been a mixed one for me, with a lot of stuff I really liked, but frequently undercut by dodgy execution. I’m not at all convinced Chibnall has the necessary skills to be in charge of the show — even the best scripts exhibit a lack of polish that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat would’ve brought. And considering there are niggling faults across the board (the direction is rarely terrible, but pretty much every episode has some odd shot or editing choices), the blame must surely lie at his door. The next season won’t materialise until sometime in 2020 — hopefully that’ll be long enough to get things more in order. But with pretty strong ratings and praise in some quarters, I’m not convinced the production team will see where they need to improve.

Crisis on Earth-X
I ended up finally quitting all Arrowverse shows just before this crossover event aired last November, though I’d intended to make it through these episodes first (I fell behind and just never picked them back up). The crossover itself seemed to go down well, and with a new one having recently aired that I also intend to watch (to see how they’ve handled Batwoman), I thought I’d first catch up on last year’s.

Crisis on Earth-XWhereas the previous four-show crossover failed to really coalesce into a successful single narrative, Crisis on Earth-X manages to lose the sense of hopping about across different series to play more like a single four-part story. I suppose that’s not the only way to do a crossover, but for someone tuning in just for the event who isn’t interested in the ongoing storylines of each individual series, it’s more entertaining this way. That said, it’s not as if those elements go away: the story is kicked off by everyone coming together for the wedding of Barry Allen (aka the Flash) to his longtime love Iris West. The nuptials are eventually interrupted by Nazi doppelgängers from another dimension (I do love how outright comic booky these shows can be), but it takes most of the opening episode to get there — I’d forgotten how much time these shows spend on soapy stuff like weddings and relationship woes. In that regard, they’ve certainly been designed to fit their US network (The CW, more associated with teen-girl content until these series came along). From there it goes full superhero show, with large-scale action sequences and dimension hopping antics. It may not transcend its genre roots to be objectively high-quality premium TV, but it’s pretty fun.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot  Series 2 Episodes 4-6
Poirot series 2One day I’m going to watch all of Poirot from the start, but I happened to see these few episodes this month. They’re from the series’ early days (obviously), when episodes were an hour long and based on short stories (as opposed to the feature-length novel adaptations they did later). What’s remarkable is how different they are, structurally and tonally, from those later episodes, with which I’m more familiar. The feature-length ones each feel like a standalone movie, whereas these early episodes do feel like a TV series, with “case of the week” plots. For example, there’s a regular recurring cast (alongside the titular detective there’s his sidekick Captain Hastings, his housekeeper Miss Lemon, and trusty Inspector Japp), who all appear every week and each get some kind of subplot, even if it’s not tied to the main storyline — in one episode, while the other three are away solving a jewel theft, Miss Lemon has to hunt for her missing keys. And that’s another thing: there’s not always a murder. And there’s not always a pile of suspects, either — none of these episodes feature the famous “gather all the suspects in one room and explain what happened”-style finale, so synonymous with the series. So, in many ways it feels quite strange, but still entertaining.

Also watched…
  • Great News Season 2 Episodes 1-7 — See last month for my comments on season one, which still apply (they tried adding Tina Fey as a guest star for a few episodes at the start of season two, which doesn’t massively change things). This little run ended with a Christmas episode (a fun riff on A Christmas Carol), which seemed a good place to pause for now.
  • The Royal Variety Performance 2018 — I haven’t bothered to watch one of these since 2012, but somewhat accidentally caught this year’s. It turned out to be rather good on the whole, I thought. Not so much the song-plugging music acts, but the comedians and circus turns, yeah.
  • Would I Lie To You? Series 12 Episodes 5-6WILTY is regularly superb, but sometimes it outshines even itself. There was one such moment back in episode three this series; there’s another in episode six, when regular panellist Lee Mack says he had to turn down an invitation to the Royal wedding to film that episode. It sounds like an obvious lie… but the other regulars, who didn’t receive invites, are worried it might just be true…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Death by MagicThis month, I have mostly been missing Death by Magic — not a high-profile show, maybe, but a new Netflix thing that seems up my street. Other than that, I’ve been conspicuously failing to get around to a bunch of “box sets” (I hate calling digital collections “box sets” — there’s no “box” involved) that I’ve been meaning to get to for varying amounts of time: The Little Drummer Girl, Killing Eve, The Haunting of Hill House, Lost in Space, the Netflix years of Black Mirror, Ash vs Evil Dead, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (which even added a new Christmas episode), Riverdale, Mindhunter, Inside No.9… Not to mention everything that’s on my long-term back-burner, like Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, The X Files, things that don’t begin with a definitive article… There’s no doubt many more that are currently slipping my mind, anyway. With an abundance of Christmas specials incoming, I guess whichever series I dive into next will have to wait until January.

    Next month… is January, but expect an overview of Christmas telly before that.