Saturday 25 May 2024

73 Yards: Ranking N/A (but around #115ish)

"73 Yards” (15th Dr, 2024)

(Series 14/1A episode 4, Dr 15 with Ruby, 25/5/2024, showrunner: Russell T Davies, writer: Russell T Davies, executive producers: Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter, Joe Collins and Phil Collinson**, director:Dylan Holmes Williams)

Ranking: #115ish reviewed 26/5/2024

On seeing the title: 'Gee, I hope this is a story about the Doctor owning 73 Totter's junkyards spread across the galaxy where he's lived out similar lives to the one he had with grand-daughter Susan and there's a temporal nexus point linking each one made up of his parallel lives that's then altered by an alien monster reversing the polarity of his timelines!'

On seeing the episode: 'Whose that batty old woman then? Oh...'


Well, that was an odd one. We seem to have been saying that rather a lot lately in the Dr Who community. So much for the Disney money meaning that they’re playing it safe this year! ’73 Yards’ is, at least, like lots of other Dr Who stories stuck together rather than something totally new: there’s the spooky ‘Wicker Man’ style folk horror and witchcraft of ‘Image Of The Fendahl’, the sense of being a perennial outsider Bill feels in ‘World Enough and Time’, that feeling of grief seen in ‘Hell Bent’, the watcher from ‘Logopolis’, the confusing internal logic of ‘Warrior’s Gate’, the anger and impatience of ‘The Girl Who Waited’ and the sense of life beyond the Doctor touched on in ‘Turn Left’, all stirred in a cauldron and left to implode, as if Russell T Davies has spent his time away from Dr Who watching his successor Steven Moffat and his increasing collection of blu-rays from the 20th century and gone ‘Ooh I wish I’d done that when I had the chance…Wait, why don’t I try them all?!?’. More than anything, though, this story resembles my favourite of Russell T Davies’ non-Who series from 2019 in which an ordinary happy world gets out of control one bad step forward at a time until we go from a life that’s recognisably like ours (to the extent that there was a voiceover made over the opening the day before transmission mentioning items from the new years, even though it had all been shot months ago) to one that had we come to it cold would have seemed impossible, with its right wing politicians, wars and robots. It’s an extraordinary bit of fortune-telling about Brexit, about Putin, about AI technology, about covid, about communities who used to be close turned on one another because they took a wrong turning somewhere, with a warning to us at home to make sure what steps we take and to stay alert to things around us, because one day that might be us. A lot of fans are calling it a ‘Twilight Zone’ story with a bit of ‘sapphire and Steel’ but honestly it’s not logical enough to fit the former or bonkers enough to fit the second: if anything it’s like ‘The Omega Factor’, the 1979 series Louise Jameson did straight after playing Leela, in which it’s left up to the viewer whether the paranormal investigator’s wife dying in a car crash is the result of meddling with witchy forces or a natural disaster and his grief in coming to terms with her loss and the world being even stranger than he thought it was when researching telepathy and telekinesis.  


’73 Yards’ (the distance it takes for a figure in the distance to  become  blurry, as measured by Russell himself from atop a Welsh pier when writing this story) looks, from first viewings on my timeline, the sort of story that you either ‘get’ or you don’t, a divisive tale that makes little logical sense in a scifi sense but which simply ‘feels’ right, working to its own internal spooky logic that ghost stories do. Me? I liked it, probably a little more than the other 15th Doctor stories so far, although I think I liked what I felt it was trying to say more than what it actually did if that makes sense: I love the fact that my timeline is full of fans desperately trying to work out what the heck ’73 Yards’ was all about, each one with very different versions of what this story meant because I love it when Dr Who is ambiguous to do that and it makes a great change from the other stories this year whose plots have all been so simple they can all be reduced to a single sentence (‘the one with the Beatles’ ‘the one where the Doctor steps on a mine’ ‘Space Babies!’) while still being a bit narked that there wasn’t just a little more logic inside there to stick it all back together again. For instance I’ve seen fans complain that the ending is the stupidest thing Dr Who has ever done and others who think it’s the single greatest twist in the history of the franchise; had this been by Chris Chibnall I’d have found it clumsy and had it been by Steven Moffat it would have been too clever by 7/8ths, but because its Russell T making the most of the wider palette his successors have left him and something he absolutely totally wouldn’t have done back when he had the keys to the Tardis the first time round it’s a surprise that works when you’re watching it, with its own internal instinctive feeling of being ‘right’ that makes no sense when you sit back and think about it. Like the story it’s an idea to like, even love when you’re watching, but which is also so far out of Russell’s usual strengths as a writer it also feels as if you’re strangely removed from it all, at a distance of perhaps 73 yards or so. 

The Doctor has been putting his foot in it a lot lately hasn’t he? There’s a lot of joking within the story about how it’s nearly like last week’s episode ‘Boom’ all over again, where the Doctor steps on a landmine (interesting in itself given that this story was recorded first – and is, in fact, Ncuti and Mollie’s first recorded episode even before ‘The Church On Ruby Road’, to cover for the fact that Ncuti still had the final episodes of comedy series ‘Sex Education’ to film before joining the cast fully). But ’73 Yards’ is very different to ‘Boom!’; whereas that story was Moffat playing around with typical Davies ideas (an emotional story from a ridiculously simple premise, of stepping on a mine) this is Russell nicking from Steven, a gutpunch of a life spent lived in fear and isolation as a result of something that feels like a fairytale.  The Doctor accidentally breaks a magic fairy ring on top of a Welsh clifftop and Ruby reads some scrolls she found there, turning around to find the Doctor gone and an old woman standing staring at her from 73 Yards ago. Like ‘Boom’ it’s sudden and violent, an act that comes out of nowhere to take everything that seemed safe and cosy away in an instant, just as the Doctor and Ruby are happily riffing off one another like a brother and sister who know each other really well, and then he’s gone, vanished as if he never existed. Instead of her best friend she was so close to there’s a stranger following her around, always at a distance, scaring off everyone she talks to. The rest of the episode is Ruby, a character who like Amy Pond before her is an orphan with abandonment issues, coming to terms with the fact that she’s now alone, abandoned by everyone she used to know in her old life by turn, a stranger in a strange land that once seemed so familiar. Ruby is distraught, never able to allow herself to get close to anyone in ase they get scared of, sometimes using that isolation to try to live her life small and empty, sometimes freaking out, sometimes trying to use her days for good such as the time she becomes an ‘insider’ in the campaign of a right-wing politician intent on causing harm. Only nothing works until she dies, a lonely old woman wondering what it was all for, until her death releases her ghost who sees how she should have lived her life, warning her just in time to take a step back from the wrong turning she took at the start, the one mis-step that haunted the rest of her life. Far from being the supernatural story about local Welsh weirdo Mad Jack who placed a curse on her, the way we’re led to think from the opening moments, it’s a story about how we can become our own ghosts, our own mistakes haunting us for the rest of our lives.       

On the one hand it’s a story about how we live our lives through how other people think of us. Ruby realises early on that she can’t get close enough to this mad old woman to talk her properly (a bit too quickly: it might have been better had we had an extra scene where she tries just that, rather than merely looking up after walking towards her to find the woman is still the same distance away). She sends strangers to talk to the woman who then run away with fear and a look of disgust over at Ruby, whose powerless to make them listen to her (including the mysterious Susan Twist whose in this episode again! That has to be a series arc clue but we still don’t have the first idea what that might be just yet). Ruby walks into the local pub to find that the locals don’t like strangers and talk to her as if she’s from outer space – despite thinking she’s an ordinary Londoner. There’s a fun bit where we think the Tardis has landed out of time because the locals act as if they have no idea about how you can use your phone to pay for things and then laughing say they were messing with her, only to charge her a fiver for a soft drink which seems extortionate even with austerity inflation to take into account, but no: apparently Ruby is back in her own time and they’re just ripping her off. They don’t like strangers in these here parts and can’t wait to get rid of her. So Ruby goes home, devastated to find out that even her mum rejects her. Then she’s befriended by UNIT in a welcome surprise return of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart who comments on how she’s used to looking after the Doctor’s strays and it looks as if Ruby’s going to be alright again – only the whispering goes on and soon our old friend is abandoning her too. Ruby turns hard and isolated, breaking up a romance because she can only see it going wrong before picking up on a throwaway reference the Doctor made in the last thing he ever said to her, about a right-wing politician from the future who puts everyone in danger and has just appeared on TV. Ruby uses her ghostly powers for good, getting the old scary woman to frighten him off as well and destroying his political career, so she at least manages to do some good from the curse that’s been placed on her, the isolation and damage she feels. You feel, given that this is Dr Who where karma is usually a thing, as if Ruby has done enough to break the spell, but no: she dies alone, still unloved. 

On the other hand this is a story about unresolved trauma and grief, the sudden shock of someone you love dying that cuts up your life in your tracks and what an isolating experience that is. Strangers whisper when you’re around and run away, even the people you love can’t get close to you and run away in disgust because you’re not who you used to be.  Like Bill being turned into a Cybermen you feel the same person inside but people treat you differently because all they can see is the monster they think you are and which you sometimes think yourself to be,  the ordinary person whose seen something so extraordinary terrible that it’s the first thing people talk about when you walk into a rom. Tragedy becomes your identity to the point where it both follows you around as your closest companion and keeps you at a distance from everyone, unable to get close in case they abandon you too. Whereas Moffat spent a whole episode of having the 12th Doctor re-living the same day, waking up and remembering the grief of losing Clara while playing hide and seek in a giant castle in ‘Hell Bent’, an episode every fan seems to love except me, Davies is more emotional about it: we see Ruby’s pain firsthand more readily than the Doctor’s, there are no ginormous and clumsy bits if symbolism and this feels less like a mystery that demands we solve it than an awful thing that just is, because awful things can happen in life. The fact that Ruby has to live with what happened to her, for the rest of her days, without the Doctor isn’t quite as heartbreakingly done as Russell’s own ‘Turn Left’, because we haven’t had a full chance yet to see what Ruby’s life might have turned out like without the Doctor there, but it still packs a punch. Equally the story isn’t quite as relentlessly cruel as ‘The Girl Who Waited’, where Amy once spent a lifetime in a separate time-stream waiting for the Doctor to save her. However you feel every turn and twist, especially the two moments when we think it’s finally going to be okay, that Ruby has found someone safe to be with, only for her mum and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart to abandon her too. Russell has had his own share of trauma, giving up his Who job the first time round primarily so he could nurse his partner Andrew Smith who was dying of a brain tumour and who passed away in 2018, nine years after his last Who script was finished (one of the last was 2008’s ‘Turn Left’ which is sort of this story in reverse, Russell’s story about having to give up Doctor Who and a love letter to how his life might have turned out without it). He knows the atomic bomb that losing someone close causes in the rest of your life and how you never get over it. 

Could it be too that this is Welsh native Russell T Davies despairing at the position his country has been left in by repeated decisions by the English at Westminster. The moment when the lady at the pub talks about fairies and spirits and how they live in Wales before her disgust at this London interloper putting her foot in it by not respecting local traditions is the sort of thing Russell’s hinted at before but never as strongly as here. It could just be a character saying the sort of things a character in her position would say and yet the fact that later in the story we have a clearly English politician talking from a mostly English government about blowing people up with nuclear weapons rather emphasises her point. Wales has been a separate country to England a lot longer than it’s been part of a union. For the longest time the English were the neighbours from hell trying to invade it every five minutes. Suddenly they think they’ve invented isolationism and want to be left in peace at just the point when being part of Europe is benefitting Wales (by making programmes like Dr Who): that’s beyond aggravating for many locals who have felt for many years that Britain’s democracy never speaks for them. After all, the rest of the story makes clear through Ruby how isolation and keeping your distance is bad for you. Brexit is one of those big British issues of the past ten years Russell’s been watching from the sidelines that wasn’t there in his Dr Who days but we know from ‘Years and Years’ and various interviews that he’s not a fan: after all most of his Dr Who stories are about the importance of community and co-operation. Ruby’s isolation could easily be a Brexit metaphor, the awful whispers that everyone else talks about her to strangers exactly the sort of hate the ‘leavers’ were engineering with their lies about the damage other countries were doing to Britain 9when really they were doing it to themselves). Although I wish Russell had thrown a lie written on a big red bus just to whallop the point home as if this is what he was trying to say it all got a bit lost in the metaphors.  

Goodness knows that’s enough to be going on with; I do feel as if there’s even more than that though. Russell’s story is quite a sad one when you know it – ‘the only gay in the village’ in Wales who was ostracised by so many for his sexuality (this is a rare story that actually has Wales as Wales after all, where Russell grew up long before Dr Who adopted it as ‘home’). There are endless moving interviews where he talks about how lonely he was in his teens, unable to find any people who were like him in the valleys, isolated while people talked about him behind his back (because it was the 1970s when people did that), whispers following him wherever he went. From what I understand his family were always supportive and he found his own friends on moving to London in the 1980s, people who were just like him (his series ‘It’s A Sin’ pays tribute to a lot of these friends) and yet it must have put a strain on every relationship he ever had; the people who started avoiding his own parents while they whispered and snickered, everyone keeping their distance from him. For a while Russell finds a community amongst Whovians, as represented by Kate Lethbridge Stewart, presumably chosen to represent us all as she’s the character who has the best overview of all the people whose lives have ever been touched by the Doctor; you would have thought a uniting programme about an asexual alien who believes in justice and fairness for everyone and who doesn’t even judge monsters from other planets would be a source of support (and mostly it was, judging by interviews and Russell’s open love letters  to the series in his other stories) but I’ve been around this community for long enough to know that there are always pockets of people who think the show is for ‘them’. As late as 2005-2010, when Russell was showrunner, there was a baying mob who complained at the show having a ‘gay agenda’ and were horrified Russell had been put in charge after writing other TV series about gay young men, even though that ‘agenda’ consisted of Captain Jack 9) bisexual character invented by Moffat) and a chaste kiss between lesbian cats in ‘Gridlock’. Suddenly Dr Who no longer felt like a safe space either. So there Russell is, a creative whose spent his life at a remove from everyone else, trying to use it as his ‘super-power’, allowing him to talk about what the world gets ‘wrong’. In this story that’s summed up by young gammon Brexiteer Roger, an MP who seriously thinks that Britain is better off in isolation and threatening people with nuclear warheads, even though the writer knows how important community is and how we should be closer to people not further away from them. If this reading is right (and, you know, it might not be – this is a subtle a script, at least compared to the rest so far this year) then it’s a sad ending: Russell thought that using this super-power and putting the world right would be enough to stop people whispering and kept apart from him but it isn’t; the world is as divided and prejudiced now, in the present time, as it ever was and how he might never escape it till death.  Would he really want to warn himself from choosing this path though? And how can it even be a path he chose to take, rather than the only one that’s open to him? 

Could it be, then, that this is a more general story about being a creative who finds it hard to fit in? Creatives scare people who only see what’s directly in front of them with our knowledge of the past and fear of the future – most of us live by intuition rather than fact, a spooky ‘sixth sense’ that means we can sense what’s about to happen in the world and our constant need to warn people about it, doomed to only be heard once it’s happened (I’m convinced that’s what ‘Years and Years’ is about). We don’t live in the ‘real’ world and walk around with the power of life and death over our characters (a lot of the 2009 specials feel like Russell’s paranoia all this writing was giving him a God complex). Goodness knows being a writer isn’t a vocation most of us would choose (and I add myself there even though I’ve sold a mere infinitesimal fraction of what Russell has because it has nothing to do with success): it’s low paid, unbelievably stressful and only other creatives respect you – everyone else thinks you ought to get a ‘proper’ job and should stop mucking about. It leaves you always slightly removed from the world, always looking at it through distant eyes, as if you’re a character yourself. No one else, however close to you, can truly join in with the party going on in your head at all hours and as Russell’s head includes Oods, Slitheen and The Moxx Of Ballhoon I’m willing to say that his inner world is every bit as weird as my own. There you are, taking a difficult path that you didn’t actually choose for yourself but did because it was the only one open to you because this is a vocation that very much chooses you not the other way around (and, let’s face it, most writers are pretty hopeless at day to day life and normal jobs, myself very much included). Everyone else thinks you’re mad for taking it, because they can’t share in that vision in your head that keeps you writing and haunts you like a ghost that lives inside you, demanding to be fed. The only thing you can do is tell yourself you’re doing good, pointing out the world’s mistakes and offering warnings for other people who are too busy living their normal lives to see it, like Ruby does with the MP. But even then it never quits, never lets you go, never lets you return to join ‘normal’ people. If that sounds far-fetched then maybe it is, but it would be at one with how Russell left us the first time around: I’m convinced ‘Turn Left’ is about Russell’s despair at having to give his favourite job up and that ‘Waters Of Mars’ was his punishment for refusing to, with the finale of ‘The End Of Time’ touching on all those things Russell felt he had left to write. It’s ‘Midnight’ though that this story reflects most: every moment he stays in his job, instead of being with his poorly husband, is poison, the Doctor’s own words and creative processes turned against him. One clue: Ruby makes it snow, again. Something that used to appear in so many of Russell’s stories (especially his Christmas stories) that it became a running gag. The line where a dying Ruby tells her nurse proudly ‘I made it snow once’ and she simply sighs ‘yes dear’ disbelievingly while plumping up her bed and doing something practical is the sort of end all creatives fear, their good work all for nothing in the ‘real’ world. Russell is, of all the showrunners and script editors who’ve ever worked on Who, the most instinctive, the one mostly to write what’s rolling around his sub-conscious simply because it sounds right: he’s less logical than Moffat or Chibnall, or for that matter Dicks or Bidmead or Cartmel (the closest is David Whittaker, right at the start, with ‘Edge Of Destruction’ a similar tale all round with just as controversial an ending. But even he never let his imagination run away with him quite as far). Of all the people who’ve worked on the show Russell is the one that’s learned to listen to his inner voice the most – it’s perfectly in keeping to turn that into a character that stares at him from a distance his whole life, as if he’s a character in his own story. Perhaps this is Russell in the interim showrunner years wishing he’d never brought back Dr Who (this is a story all about trying to live without him after all, just like ‘Turn Left’) and being a witness to all that magic because he’s been forced to live a boring ordinary life without him and it hurts (a mirror to Turn Left’, about how much he knew he was going to miss it). 

Even more than that, like ‘Boom!’ last week I think this is all a covid metaphor, Russell too writing about the single biggest world event since he was showrunner. For Russell the world has always been a brilliantly happy place full of a network of support and one or two wrong ‘ums who cause things to go wrong, but there we were stuck in isolation, apart, that community that Davies loves so much falling apart. From what I understand he spent most of it alone in his flat, two years after losing his husband, broken only by the odd Dr Who tweetathon. Just look at how the old lady is always a set distance apart from Ruby, how she can’t get close to anyone old or new and is always going home alone, the way even after lockdown ended people were wary of one another, the way the locals are in the pub when Ruby walks in. You only need to talk to any under tens who lived through the lockdown (or those of us unfortunate enough to be immuno-compromised, for whom every day is still lockdown, because covid is still killing and disabling thousands of people every day, folk) to know how differently they see the world after a set period of their life where they had to grow up independently, without their friends and peers around them; even with adults there’s a level of distance and remove still there. For someone as open to the collective conscious and world suffering as Russell covid was inevitably going to feature in there somewhere but he doesn’t see it as a mine to  be stepped on so that everything blows up, the way Moffat did, he sees it as something more abstract, a ghost that haunts everyone.

The result is a story with many great moments: Ruby’s mum glaring at her daughter from inside a Taxi to Ruby’s great despair, the moment Kate listens in to what her soldiers are telling her and leaves in disgust even though Ruby pleads with her not to, the final oddly brutal moments in the hospital ward where Ruby figures her life is for nothing before her ghost goes on walkabout. Millie Gibson is extraordinary: I still can’t believe this was her first story filmed (not least because her performance in the first one we saw, ‘Ruby Road’, was so awful, pure soap opera acting): this one had nuance, panic, a world-weary despair that actors decades her seniority and experience would struggle to pull off. You really believe that Ruby is older and in her forties by the time she starts working as a volunteer for Roger; far more than the actually pretty awful makeup job (I thought the one in ‘The Girl Who Waited’ was disappointing in 2011, but this is just a wig and a pair of glasses). A lot of this episode’s brilliance is down to Mollie and she rewards the faith Russell put in her, when Ncuti was unavailable, a hundredfold. 

It does feel, though, as if this story was rushed despite the fact that it was filmed as long as two years ago (the single worst thing about being showrunner the first time round was how close everything was to deadlines and what a rush it all was, so Russell isn’t going to fall into that trap again, at least filming wise!), something in common with Russell’s other scripts so far this year. The old Russell was more nuanced and detailed a writer, less broad than the current one who’ll sketch a scene in and leave it at that. The opening scene with the fairy ring is muddled even allowing for the fact it turns out to be largely a red herring and merely means to set up a different sort of a story the whole thing about mad Jack and the scrolls and the curse is poorly explained. It feels like an afterthought, a desperate attempt to work this central idea into a story. Dr Who has done witchy stories in the past (not always successfully ‘Fendahl’s mixture of science never quite worked, ‘The Witchfinders’ is too historically inaccurate and empty to do much and the ‘K9 and Company’ pilot ‘A Girl’s Best Friend’ is absolutely bananas). There’s plenty of room for another, especially one that leans into the ‘Wicker Man’ stylings of this story’s opening few minutes, with a village cut off from the rest of the world still practicing pagan witchcraft. It’s a bit clumsily done though: surely the obvious thing for Ruby to do would be to go to the nearest library and research the curse to see how to break it. I mean, I wouldn’t head to the pub first thing: for a start Ruby doesn’t know if she’s putting everyone in immediate danger while I wouldn’t have dared leave the Tardis, even when locked (and why is it locked, even with her key? It would be easy enough to say that the Doctor simply hadn’t given Ruby her own key yet, but no – they make a big song and dance about that in ‘Space Babies’). I wish too the watching lady had been spookier: more like Logopolis’ ‘watcher’, a harbinger of what’s to come from an alternate timeline, the fickle finger of date that can’t be avoided. The ending is convoluted (there’s always a twist at the end!) and confused: surely Ruby would be able to recognise something about her future self, even at a distance of 73 yards. I mean, even older and with – apparently – an entirely different build (the downside of using another actress rather than Millie under ‘Sound Of The Drums’ style aged makeup) she still has the same mannerisms. There’s one great plothole too: how come the Doctor and Ruby listen the second time round when they didn’t the first time? It’s sad, tool that effectively the episode is all for nothing from Ruby’s point of view: she effectively killed that other self, just like the older Amy did in ‘The Girl Who Waited’ and Donna did to get the Doctor back in ‘Turn left’ in a similar scenario, but you really feel those sacrifices because they were made knowingly. In emotional moments of sudden realisation. Here Ruby’s ghost just discovers that she can do this at the point of death. The world isn’t saved by her actions (except for the MP with nukes bit – is that going to happen for real in this timeline now?), and her character doesn’t remember any of her experiences to learn from them. Honestly, great as this story was, Phil Ford’s Sarah Jane Adventures episode ‘The Curse Of Clyde Langer’ did being an outcast better – and Daniel Anthony was even  better at being a typecast scapegoat, despite being a ful five years younger than Mollie (someone give him a leading role – he’s the first person I’d cast if I was running a show of my own!) 

I do admire this story for being different though. It would have been easy for Russell to take the Disney money and rest on his laurels by giving us lots of lazy animatronic CGI monsters and the same recycled plots. Instead there isn’t another Who story quite like the atmosphere of this one – for all it has elements from other past stories. ‘Warrior’s Gate’ is the closest, a tale of time gone wrong and being separated from your real self by the mirror of your mind, but even that one doesn’t quite work like this: far from time being weird here it’s the enemy, eating away at Ruby in her Doctorless life. Heck, having the Doctor absent at all just five episodes into this brave new era is courageous enough, as is choosing not have the opening sequence (as far as I can tell only the third story ever to do that; this story is about the Doctor’s absence after all – it would be wrong to go from the Doctor disappearing to seeing the Tardis spinning through time and space). I’m not the biggest fan of either Ruby’s mum or Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, who are amongst the more one-note of Dr Who actors, but they both give their best performances here. We get Susan Twist’s biggest cameo yet 9so much for there being a twist at the end – this time she’s at the beginning) and you’re clearly meant to think that the plot is finally going to reveal who this mystery person is who keeps turning up across time, but nope – it’s another red herring as he runs away from Ruby never to be seen again (and surely she can’t be Susan, unless she lost her memory, as she sees the Tardis). The story really does belong to Mollie Gibson though and wouldn’t work anywhere near as well without her to pull it all together.  

In other words ’73 Yards’ is another ‘nearly’ episode, one with a lot to admire and one that’s arguably head and shoulders over Russell’s other comeback stories so far (though I still think ‘The Star Beast’ is the best script that owed its ideas more to Pat Mills and John Wagner who wrote the original comic strip it was based on) but which still leaves me feeling slightly removed from it, unlike the real emotions I felt from, say, ‘Turn Left’. There’s too much talking in this one and not enough feeling, not enough understanding just what Ruby’s been through – because she can’t and won’t talk about it. For me it’s not the classic half the fanbase are calling it – and yet neither is it the incomprehensible disaster others say it is, at least not to me (I reminds me of how I felt as the only fan who didn’t like ‘Hell Bent’, a story far clumsier than this). How strange that an episode partly about division and isolation is dividing so many fans! For me this story is a mere few yards short of a classic  (not 73 but a few) , the plotholes and loopholes getting in the way. However the fact there’s a story worth getting out teeth into again, one that asks questions in a way Chibnall never could and so far Russell in his comeback hasn’t tried, is a wonderful thing to be savoured. At last, ironically by charting the great unknown and doing weird unexpected things again, ‘Dr Who’ feels more like ‘Dr Who’ than it has in a long time. Let’s hope the rest of the series makes good use of the momentum it’s gained now and that we don’t just go back to normal next week. Though judging by the trailer that seems unlikely…     

POSITIVES: The spooky clifftop in Tenby (so not the one in ‘Power Of The Doctor’ where Dr 13 turned into Dr 14, which was Durnble Door – and thus wipes out a theory that it was really Jodie Whittaker who kicked this timeline off by stepping into a fairy ring then) makes you wish this really had been a witchy type of story, so atmospheric is it. The bent-over tree that appears in so many of the location shots is a gift for the story: it has nothing to do with it, sure (despite fevered speculation following the series trail) but it feels as if it belongs here, a bit of natural life withered away and bent double by time. Of course there’s a fairy ring here. How could there not be? 

NEGATIVES: The whole MP and Albion party (the olde name for England) was a real lost opportunity. Had this been properly integrated into the script, had all the plot elements of Ruby’s life story been leading up to this moment, had it had more than a mere five minutes screentime, it could have been great. After all, the idea of taking down megalomaniacs who put their own prejudices ahead of the lives of people they’re supposed to be responsible for is very Dr Who: just as with ‘Years and Years’ it’s all a scarily plausible part of our future and having Amol Rajan, currently host of quiz show ‘University Challenge’ but back in 2022 still working  mostly as a news reporter and interviewer as per here, is a nice throwback to old times when Russell used to get cameos from real people to sell his fictional premises more (weirdly Amol is far more natural made up to look like an older version of himself nd reading a script than he is in any of his current appearances improvising). Having Ruby take him down with a mere word recalls the ‘don’t you think she looks tired’ line of ‘The Christmas Invasion’ that brought down Harriet Jones, all about the power of ordinary people (and timelords) to take down people who think they’re bigger than ‘us’. But it’s all so clumsy: we’ve never had even one inkling of Ruby’s politics before now: for all we know she’s as rightwing as he is. She somehow manages to wangle a job close to Roger despite starting as a volunteer: in a mirror of Ruby he’s not the sort to let people get close to him and it’s unlikely anyone without a background in politics could have wangled such a job with such an important person, even across years. It’s never made clear why Ruby only decides to ‘activate’ her whispering stalker when she does: Roger’s already admitted to wanting to use nuclear missiles but it takes a quick word with his underlings and how badly he treats them for Ruby to finally activate a detonator of her own. Surely if Ruby is close enough to be at this meeting, weirdly taking place on a football pitch (because football pitches are…wait for it…73 yards in length) she’s seen firsthand how badly he treats people. And isn’t threatening people with nuclear weapons enough of a reason to take him out already? It’s all a bit of a muddle, a draft away from greatness which is unusual for Russell (who, unlike Moffat or Chibnall, tends to get the most out of his ideas before they go before the cameras); if this really was the story Russell started writing then why not get a few mentions in of Ruby’s politics and Roger before this? Roger too is a caricature and nothing more, too young to be scary (despite the showrunner’s comments on the ‘Unleashed’  behind the scenes programme that this is the way politics are moving I haven’t noticed anyone like him – most of the scariest politicians look ancient even when they’re not; they do say hate ages you after all – just look at Davros). He doesn’t feel a real threat, just another rich kid with more money than sense who believes in his own brilliance yet is also easily talked out of what he says. It’s as if Russell’s forgotten how to write in both his big bads and his ’bad wolfs’ both. The irony of them announcing a general election two days before this story by the w\y (even though it was written two years ago and scheduled ages back): let’s hope we all heed Russell’s warnings this time…

BEST QUOTE: Kate Lethbridge-Stewart: ‘It’s what we do all of us, we see something inexplicable and try to make it work’.

Previous ‘Boom’ next ’Dot and Bubble’

Saturday 18 May 2024

Boom: Ranking - N/A (but around #130ish)

"Boom” (15th Dr, 2024)

(Series 14/1A episode 3, Dr 15 with Ruby, 18/5/2024, showrunner: Russell T Davies, writer: Steven Moffat, executive producers: Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter, Joe Collins and Phil Collinson**, director: Julie Ann Robinson)

Ranking: #130ish reviewed 19/5/2024

'You put your left leg in, your left leg out, shake it all about and...Boom! Gee, I guess this wasn't the right planet to start doing the hokey-cokey on after all!'

There we were, thinking that we had the Davies-Disney Plus era of Who sussed as a colourful cartoonish romp where the most bizarre things happened and it was all joyous fun and made for a new audience of hip six year olds with the Doctor footloose and fancy free then in comes Steven Moffat, writing his first script since ‘Twice Upon A Time’ seven years ago and suddenly, boom!, suddenly the Doctor’s put his foot in it and the universe is a much darker, scarier and more adult place again. Just like the last time Russell T was in charge in fact: Moffat’s episodes tended to be the darker, scarier ones that pushed Russell’s likeable characters to their limits to discover their bad habits and unresolved trauma, the landmine that was always waiting for them. I don’t know any hip and trendy six year olds watching Dr Who (and if I did they wouldn’t be hanging round with me in any case) but if I did I’m willing to bet they had the same whiplash I did trying to work out how we could from the brutal realism of ‘Remembrance Of The Daleks’ to the gaudy kitsch of ‘The Happiness Patrol’. Honestly the series needed it by this stage, after three specials, a Christmas episode and two season openers that felt as if they could have been Christmas episodes too and early signs are that this episode has gone down better than most later for confronting the darker side of nature in a story where, far from having a cartoon villain, the monsters turn out to be ourselves.

The story goes that Russell phoned Steven up to tell him he was taking over the show again and had cast his new Doctor though the former wasn’t yet looking for writers and the latter wasn’t looking for work the discussion naturally turned to what sort of Dr Who stories they’d both spotted in the world (which at this point was circa 2021: Davies is a long way ahead of himself with current filming). Moffat’s first question was what the new Doctor was like and when he was told Ncuit was energetic and youthful and always seemed to be moving decided that a good contrast would be to see what might happen to Dr 15 if he was forced to stand still. Which happens quite literally when the Tardis lands and the Doctor rushes out to embrace a new planet and steps out in the middle of a great big war onto a whacking great mine (one likes to imagine the ghost of Harry Sullivan yelling ‘the Doctor is an imbecile!’ right now, but to be fair to him it is rather well camouflaged). 
It’s very Moffat: The Weeping Angels in reverse and continues his belief that an attack in slow motion is more scary than one that’s swift: only this time it’s the Doctor who can’t move not the threat.And that’s it: that’s the plot, for 45 minutes tense minutes, as the Doctor stands on one leg, tries not to lose his cool and works out how to save himself and the planet from certain destruction. So much for all the extra Disney money spoiling our show: far from being an expensive extravaganza this is Dr Who pared down to basics again: not many characters trying to avoid certain death in a single (albeit rather impressive panoramic) set that is, to all intents and purposes, made to look like a quarry.

Once again Dr Who goes back to basics trying to bring peace to a war-torn society the way he’s been doing since the very beginning (and, indeed, in Moffat’s last episode 2017’s ‘Twice Upon A Time’ set in a similar battlefield in WW1). In stories past we might have learned a lot about this society at war – we get a few details sketched in, with a world full of ‘Anglican minister’ soldiers who seem to be humans in the future but for all we know it could be world war three, the cold war, a rogue human army in the glorious battle of the Sontarons empire against their Rutan enemies or a re-match of the Daleks and the Thals or the Movellans. In a sense, though, it doesn’t matter what the wars are about because all wars seem the same and in an era when Russia is at war with Ukraine and Israel and Palestine are lobbing great lumps out of each other and America is at war with itself and Britain is at war with itself and goodness knows what might happen next it could be any or all of them. This is a story that complains about how we really should be over this by now and doing better, moving on to a great united peaceful future not squabbling over land and money and resources. The children who grew up on the Who of the 1960s and dreamed of flying to the stars are really resenting still being here, taking the show over a second time, because their work still isn’t unfinished while humans remain Earthbound and petty.  Moffat even weaponises the ‘thoughts and prayers’ message, which has become so synonymous with 21st century conflicts, used by people in general but politicians in particular to sound like they care when really they know that nothing will ever change. For, like a lot of Moffat stories, though, the real villain is capitalism: countries make more money out of war than they ever do out of peace and somehow always find the money for illegal wars and costly invasions when they can’t find a few pounds extra to spare to their starving, suffering children. By the time the Doctor works out what’s going on (spoilers) we find out that there isn’t even an enemy on this planet – that they’ve long since died but the war is still being fought because it makes commercial sense to sell weapons to the fighters. So far so Dr Who but there’s an extra twist of the knife that even our own deaths can be turned into commercial gain, with futuristic urns that project costly holograms with final messages and social media feeds that you can pick and choose downloadable ‘memories’ from. Honestly it’s a wonder the war doesn’t come with its own sponsor. It’s more than a little like the capitalism message of ‘Oxygen’, only better and – despite the mine the Doctor stand on and (more spoilers) Ruby getting shot – far more nuanced and far less brutal in the way it handles the subject the knife wielded with surgeon’s precision rather than as a blunt instrument. 

Moffat’s on slightly shakier ground when it comes to the question of faith. This is something that’s turned up a lot in past Dr Whos too, the role that religion has in the universe and whether religions that are at their core usually about peace really ought to be used as an excuse for war. It is, if you will, ‘The Crusade’ 59 years on, asking the same questions about whether you really want to believe in a God that believes you should kill unbelievers. It’s a line that equates this story even more with the Israeli-Palestine conflict, which is interesting because given the length of time between the filming and broadcasting of stories now Moffat must have been mighty hot off the press writing about this. He makes the soldiers must closer to home by having them be Anglicans though, with the pithy line from the Doctor to Ruby when she expresses surprise that traditionally most soldiers have been religious – she’s just been brought up in a slim pocket of time when wars appeared to be about other things. There’s nowhere for the message to go beyond that though: Moffat tries to square the question of belief versus proof out by having the soldiers question the Doctor in a way they won’t their religion and by having the Doctor himself embrace the comfort of faith when an orphaned little girl believes that death isn’t really a final goodbye, but it all feels a little stuck on the top of this episode, not integrated as well as it might. There is one great line though: ‘faith means never having to think for yourself’.

There is, I believe, a third protest going on – one that’s well hidden amongst the metaphors and leads on nicely from the idea of having ‘faith’ in governments to look after us when we’re better off looking after each other. The biggest change that’s happened in the world since Russell and Steven last played with their Dr Who toys on national television, of course, is the covid pandemic. There seems to be a mass hypnotism worthy of The Master around the subject now because no one talks about it, even though it was a massive universal trauma we’re all still recovering from and hundreds of people still die of it around the world every day and thousands more are disabled by its after-effects and the longer we move away from our mass lockdowns the more the figures go up not down. Given the simple format of this story it wouldn’t surprise me if this story actually started life as one of the ‘lockdown’ videos made by old writers and actors from the show’s past to comfort children before a mass tweetalong every week during the early days of the pandemic in 2020 before the politicians decided it was over and everyone had to go back to work (because it was costing too much to stay at home), only it’s been disguised. Covid was described from the beginning in terms of a war: it was something to ‘battle’ said Boris as he utterly failed to comprehend the seriousness of what was going (or, in the early days, walk down a single flight of stairs at Downing Street to sit in on early panicked meetings following the outbreak in Wuhan). The people who died were described as ‘casualties’. Many people died who didn’t need to because of economics: the governments messing around giving ppe contracts to their friends and cronies, who might as well have spent the money on hand mines for all the good it did people. Those of us who were and remain vulnerable were sacrificed in the hurry to get back to normal and have people buying things again – we were suddenly expendable again, no longer shielded at home, even though most of us had disabilities that wouldn’t have stopped us living full lives without a pandemic (just like the blind soldier John Francis Vater). We were unable to say goodbye to many of our loved ones in person, just through video – something which happens when John’s little girl Splice turns up and sees a hologram of her daddy, the contact nearly blowing everyone sky high. Because the landmines are set off by contact: the only we can stay safe and avoid blowing each other up is to remain in isolation, even in the middle of a war, even with a battle raging, even when we want to hug our loved ones, because it’s the only way we can keep each other safe.  And who is the first line of defence injured because he rushes in to save everybody, not realising the full danger? The Doctor of course (so many healthcare practitioners were disabled or killed by covid).More than anything else, though, Moffat captures both the evils of capitalism sending us out to fight while the danger is still there, from governments perpetuating a war that should have ended long ago but would cost too much to fix, while being forced to stand still in a world that’s changing far too fast. The only thing he’s missing is some zoom quiz nights and Ruby making banana bread and we’d have the whole package. Since when was there such a thing as an ‘acceptable casualty rate’ Moffat rages: we should all be trying to save each other and ourselves, even when the people in charge don’t want us to, in war or in plague, or what does that say about our humanity?After all, most TV studios – including Who – are still masking: programmes run to such tight deadlines that a delay from cast or crew being off sick would cause more problems than it would in most workplaces. Overall it’s a neat metaphor, cleverly hid – so cleverly hid I don’t think many people have picked up on it yet (unless of course I’ve just been on the wine gums again: gluten-free ones these days thanks to the price my digestion system is still paying for the damage done to it by covid). 

Moffat also gets to grips with the way big events in our lives like wars and covid speed up the normal human processes and there’s another very Dr Whoy theme about our mortality and the need to make every minute count. There we are bumbling along, thinking we have all the time to fall in love and dodge round the question of whether the person you like likes you back and that we will live to see our children grow, when a big moment suddenly mkes everything much more intense and urgent. The Moffat children who were still at school when their dad was showrunner (and helped shape his scripts by throwing in ideas for phobias and monsters and historical timezones) are now all grown up but you never forget what it is to be a parent and the relationship between the soldier and his little girl is one of the best. While the closing appeal from the Doctor for his hologram to put things right is a bit of an easy solution (albeit a clever inversion of ‘War Of The Worlds’ by having a computer virus save us from our invaders) it works well in the sense that early on Moffat sets up the problems raising children in a war (or indeed in lockdown) and there are lots of sweet links between the two (the hologram’s final goodbye comment that his girl should remember to brush her teeth is such a dad thing to say and neatly mirrors where the story started, ordinary life continuing on as it always does). The soldiers figuring that facing certain death is a good time to admit their love for each other rings true too and is a little more believable than when Chris Chibnall tried a similar trick in ‘Resolution’. All in all, with its dramatic opening and its moving climax, I can see why so many fans are calling the best story of the Disney era so far, with many saying it’s the best since Capaldi was the Doctor eight years ago.

I’m still not quite convinced (I have a very soft spot for ‘The Star Beast’ and there were a few of Jodie’s stories I rated highly too, even if it was a very inconsistent era): ‘Boom’ starts well and ends acceptably but it goes a bit weird in the middle. And honestly those centre fifteen minutes or so were pretty dull. And if you can’t be exciting when the lead character is standing on a mine about to be blown to bits when can you? In its aesthetics and brutality its ‘Caves Of Androzani’ twinned with ‘Genesis Of The Daleks’, a story with big stakes that is somehow too small to match the ambition and layers of those past classics. There’s only so much drama that can be rung out of a timelord trying not to put his foot down and a lot of it was rather overdone: particularly the moment Ruby is shot just as she’s about to save the day and put things right (the moment we nearly had covid under control before being sent back to the office, perhaps?) There are a few loose storytelling devices left hanging: for instance we’re told early on that the mine’s don’t just react to weight but subtle clues in a person’s blood pressure and heart rate so the Doctor has to stay calm and not get angry. Sometimes the lines do indeed flicker round when Ncuti raises his voice – but not always. And frankly hearing that his companion has just been shot (without being able to see how bad she is) and bawling ‘sorry!’ to all and sundry would have blown all the lights on the mine to kingdom come. Weirdly, even though ‘The Devil’s Chord’ specified that Ruby had been travelling with the Doctor for six months by now, this story claims that this is Ruby’s first alien planet: I really hope there’s a series arc about messing up with time or this would be the biggest continuity blow since the toy of Davros had the wrong arm amputated. In keeping with the new musical companion The Doctor has suddenly started picking up a habit of singing songs to calm him down out of nowhere – 20th century Earth songs, which seems a bit weird (wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to sing a new Murray Gold composition masquerading as a Gallifreyan lullaby? Although it did warm this fannish heart to hear the Doctor actually sing the words to ‘The Skye Boat Song’, the tune the second Doctor was always tootling on his recorder when he got the chance). 
In another neat link the Villenagrd systems were mentioned in chatter between the 9th Doctor and Captain jack in Moffat’s first Who TV story ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’ (in case you’re wondering he turned everything off in the wilderness years before he met Rose, which is why he doesn’t then turn everything off again at the end). It seemed rather inevitable too that if there were four spaces left on the mine before it blew up that we would use them all up before the end, even when things seemed under control. The closing remark, about how we’re all like snowmen waiting to be erased when the only thing that survives of us is love is incredibly tacky, the Hallmarks Greeting card version of love and death that runs through Dr Who (Moffatt can mess up on the odd line: what with a fan-pleasing reference to ‘fish fingers and custard’ this episode really is like a sampler album of all Moffat eras more than it’s like a Greatest Hits).  The Anglican soldiers who turn up don’t really add much to the story either – they felt more like filler to pad the plot out a bit longer.

One of them is actress Susan Twist making her fifth appearance in seven stories. I’ll admit I hadn’t even noticed it was the same actress until the fanbase pointed it out online, thanks to a dose of face-blindness and the clever makeup and costumes that have changed her appearance so much (I feel a bit better given the Doctor and Ruby haven’t spotted her yet either!) In this episode she was the ambulance driver, while other stories have seen her play Mrs Merridew (Isaac Newton’s maid) in ‘Wild Blue Yonder’, the woman who asks Ruby’s band to ‘give it some welly’ in ‘The Church At Ruby Road’, Gina in ‘Space Babies’ (the communications officer) and an Abbey Road ‘tea lady’ in ‘The Devil’s Chord’. Most of the time the parts are so small she’s uncredited but eagle-eyed  viewers recognise her from other things: surely the name ‘Susan Twist’ has to be a clue? Especially given the amount of times the Doctor keeps mentioning being a father and grandfather lately (Susan was his grand-daughter if you haven’t caught up with the earliest Dr Whos on the Whoniverse i-player yet: hint – you absolutely should, the 1960s was the show’s peak for me. Although it would seem a weird time to do it, given that her ‘creator’ Anthony Coburn’s son is the one holding up ‘An Unearthly Child’ from being added to i-player, much to Russell’s chagrin). And not forgetting the finale of ‘The Devil’s Chord’ mentioning how ‘there’s always a twist at the end’. And how does she link to the theme of time being changed so often and so bizarrely in most of the episode since the 60th anniversary in November last year, Ruby’s confusing beginnings (abandoned on the local church steps one Christmas) or the snow that’s fallen on three stories in a row now, including on a battleground in the blazing sunshine? Compared to the subtlety of ‘bad Wolf’ it’s a clue that’s beginning to scream we pay attention to it by now. And yet it would almost be more Dr Who like to plant all those clues and then make out afterwards that it was all just a coincidence, while the writers absolutely knew they were taking us for a ride and perhaps diverting our attention away from what was really going on. All will be revealed soon. Maybe...  

We haven’t really had enough time in any of these appearances to see if Susan Twist can act but we can the other characters and honestly the acting was a bit variable this week. Caoillin Springall wasn’t one of the more convincing child actors we’ve had in the series (though better than some) and Joe Anderson was a bit one-note as her dad (ironically enough he was rather good singing Beatles songs in the fab four equivalent of ‘Mama Mia’, the under-rated 2007 film ‘Across The Universe’, so maybe they should have got him in as one of the band for ‘The Devil’s Chord’ last week?) Millie and Ncuti continue to be class, though, with Millie continuing to be brave and helpful and the Doctor adding new shades as that ebullience from his regeneration in ‘The Giggle’ continues to wear off. Ncuti doesn’t quite nail every line this week the way he did the last three episodes but given he’s been robbed of the ability to act with his hands and legs (he’s a naturally very physical actor) he holds up very well (it’s a shame Moffat didn’t come up with this story for the 11th Dr though, can you imagine the fate of a planet resting on Matt Smith’s ability to stand still?! Tom Baker too!) The soldier Mundy is an interesting one: we know, given how far these episodes are being made in advance now, that actress Varada Sethu returns as a full-time companion next year (alongside Ruby despite rumours that Millie Gibson was being replaced for being a ‘diva’, rumours I’m amazed and a little dismayed Russell didn’t stamp out immediately). Is Mundy the new companion? Is her presence here part of the story arc, perhaps a Clara-style plot about someone keeping an eye on the Doctor to make sure history turns out the way it should as it’s being re-written by someone? (The Toymaker? The Master? Heck ‘Space Babies’ mentioned The Rani for the first time in ages so maybe it’s her?) Or is it as simple as the fact that Russell enjoyed her work on this story and decided to work with her again? After all, it’s not unprecedented having characters appear in other roles before the one they become known for – including Nicholas Courtney, Ian Marter, Colin Baker. Karen Gillan and Peter Capaldi.

Oh and one more (probably unintended) link. You remember The Beatles from last week? The last song they recorded their split (well, three of them anyway – Lennon didn’t turn up) was…’I Me Mine’. If the next few episodes feature a Ram, a Band on the Run and a utopia with no heaven, only sky (we already had the gnomes from ‘All Things Must Pass’, well goblins) then I’ll know that Russell T has been more inspired by The Beatles recently than he’s let on!

Overall  maybe it’s a good thing that we have so many of these extra things to think about because, as basic plots go, ‘Boom’ is one of the simplest. In a season where too much seems to be going on by far each episode it’s made for a refreshing change and the darker aspect, with the first deaths of a humanoid character in, what, four stories now (three if Goblins count) one of the longest gaps in Who without anyone dying on screen, a nice change of pace. There are a lot of worthy points in this story, most of them well made, and though Dr Who polemics about the stupidity of war and the dangers of capitalism used to be common it’s unique having the two woven together so tightly. I do wish there had been another layer on top of this plot though, perhaps a sub-plot for Ruby to solver given that she doesn’t get an awful lot to do this week – it feels as if ‘Boom’ is missing a layer to be a true classic of the modern age. Even so it’s still a really strong episode and proof that Moffat’s still got it following a difficult few years (Moffat threw his lot in with Netflix after Who and they’re going through a tough time of it lately so many of their newly commissioned series were paused or cancelled including ‘Dracula’ which ran to just there episodes in 2018, ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, a promising adaptation of Niffenhogger’s excellent and very timey wimey book, got dropped after one series in 2022, while stage play ‘The Unfriend’ was scuppered by covid and delayed two years). Steven had already gone down in Who folklore for having written more episode of Who than anyone, yes even Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes and Russell (this is his 49th – apparently a 50th has already been filmed, the Christmas special for 2025!) It really was like he’d never been away (there’s a sweet tale that at the tone meeting Moffat felt so natural he forgot he wasn’t in charge and started haggling over costs that could be pinched from other episodes, before the team awkwardly pointed out it wasn’t his show anymore!) For all my criticisms this is a writer who earned his stripes with this show long ago and he’s already nailed the 15th Dr the way he did 9, 10, 11 and 12 so the more we see of him in the future the better.
 For even if this episode isn’t perfect it’s undeniably a step in the right direction and moves the programme on again: all of which is quite ironic really when you realise that it’s about someone standing very still.

+POSITIVES Unless something turns up on a future DVD commentary/i-player special to contradict me I’m pretty sure this is the first Dr Who story to use a new computer software device called ‘Unreal Space’ created by Dan May for use in computer games, so that programmers can use a much bigger space and see where their sets all fit in with one another across previously impossible distances. To the best of my knowledge it’s not been used on TV before, which makes this a watershed moment for not just Dr Who but television in the same way the first chromakey was back in the 1970s or the first handheld cameras and Nicam stereo were in the 1980s (Dr Who has always been the guinea pig for new techniques). It works really well: the moment Ruby stares up at her first alien sky, a huge Jupiter-like planet dominating the skyline along with purple aurora borealis (not unlike the very alien sight we had in our own skies last week!), revealing that the actors weren’t just standing in a tiny set but in the middle of a vast battleground, is a really impressive shot. In time I suspect we’ll view it the same we do the Tardis’ first dematerialisation or the Tardis turning corners on a space wheel at the start of ‘The Trial Of A Timelord’: a real ‘money’ shot that’s there to show off just what the series can do. Given how much of this episode pared things back to basics (with no other sets) a shot like that to show off is money well spent I say.

- NEGATIVES Seriously though, all these however many years in the future and the holograms of the dead and dying still look like worse than ‘Star Wars’ from 1977? The circle of past pictures to download was done better by ‘Black Mirror’ too (in the episode ‘The Entire History Of You’ where Jodie Whittaker first came to fame no less). The only way I can square it is to imagine the people of this planet have had to invent an alternative to wifi (as I shouldn’t think there’s much chance of a decent internet signal) and started over again.  

BEST QUOTE: ‘Give it time – everywhere’s a beach eventually’.
Previous ‘The Devil’s Chord’ next ’73 Yards’

Sunday 12 May 2024

The Devil's Chord: Ranking - N/A (but #180ish)


"The Devil’s Chord” (15th Dr, 2024)

(Series 14/1A episode 2, Dr 15 with Ruby, 11/5/2024, showrunner: Russell T Davies, writer: Russell T Davies, executive producers: Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter, Joe Collins and Phil Collinson**, director: Ben Chessell)

Ranking: #180ish reviewed  13/5/2024


'And now, it's number one, it's  intergalactic top of the pops featuring those intergalactic Beatle tribute albums available now to buy at His Monster's Voice: The Ice Warriors "Please Freeze Me', 'Wirrn The Beatles' 'A Hath Day's Night' All-Cast Recording: 'Help!' The Wire 'Rubber Sucked Out Your Soul' The Menoptera 'Evolver' The Daleks 'Sgt Pepperpot's Lonely Hearts Club Band' The Vespiform 'Let It Bee', Zarbi 'Ant-Thology' Because every planet has a Beatles'.

‘If you remember the sixties you weren’t there’ famously said Jefferson Airplane (and Hugo scifi nominee) Paul Kantner. Unless, of course, you were there in a parallel dimension created by a demonic overlord.

Every fan gets one story that feels so right for them that it feels like they wrote it. Just as the fact that the Dr Who fanbase is so wide that probably every story has a different fan that was made to represent it (and if you happen to be reading this as the fan that ‘Orphan 55’ was written for then I’m very sorry and hope you feel better soon). ‘The Devil’s Chord’ is mine. Most of you probably don’t know but I started off my writing career (such as it is) as a music writer: not only is there an Album Archives Guide to The Beatles out there to buy but also solo books dedicated to John, Paul and George (sorry Ringo!) I can almost guarantee that none of you are aware of my scifi-romance series ‘Kindred Spirits’, in which the universe has twelve inhabited planets full of aliens who have to learn to work together, in which music, as much as anything, is the glue that holds us together and stops us attacking each other (and if Russell T Davies wants to borrow my Intergalactic Peace Orchestra for the sequel, made up of all different types of aliens, he’s very welcome). Put them together and you get ‘The Devil’s Chord’, a story about a Godlike entity with special powers who takes over the Earth not by starting a war or even pushing humanity into starting a war but by taking away all music, so that instead of bonding over the minutiae of Beatle trivia we end up beating each other up in an endless war. Though for me the sudden-ness with which the Earth suddenly started breaking out in wars is directly related to the rise of Spotify and streaming (seriously: it used to be the ‘job’ of musicians to bring issues to our attention we hadn’t noticed but then streaming paid so little and record labels cared so little about investing in new talent that there just isn’t any niche music being made any more because it doesn’t pay – instead the only ‘breakout’ stars are those who appeal to the most common lowest denominators so they don’t dare upset anyone) I approve of Russell’s measure that things started going wrong when The Beatles split, when they were no longer around to hold us together. George Harrison once made the famous quote that the world used The Beatles as an excuse to go crazy, but as I said in the essay in my Beatles book much more than that I always saw the world as using The Beatles as an excuse to go food: a lot of our social changes in race, in gender, in class, in generational class warfare, in knowing that there was more purpose to life than being a cog in a relentless industrial wheel, all stems from The Beatles. Other people added to it sure, other people are adding to it even now, but the jump they created from the ‘past’ to what we think of as the ‘present’ is seismic and their influence is still being felt in ways beyond music. Of course Ruby’s first request to travel back in time is going back to see The Beatles. I’m amazed no companion made it before. I’m beginning to like her a lot after finding her the weakest link in ‘The Church On Ruby Road’ and even more so when it turns out that she’s the first truly musical companion we’ve ever had (the closest till then has been Ace with her 1980s ghetto-blaster and Susan grooving to John Smith and The Common Men in the very first story ‘An Unearthly Child’ set just a few months after this.

Talking of which Russell T missed a trick here. Ruby requests going back to seeing the making their debut album ‘Please Please Me’ recorded in one great big long session on 20th February 1963 (bar the two singles that were already out). But Whovians have always been fonder of the second album ‘With The Beatles’, which was released the day before ‘An Unearthly Child’ went out (just imagine that as a weekend: Beatles album out on the Friday afternoon, news of JFK’s assassination filtering through that evening, Dr Who debuts the next night. I was worn out this year with a Dr Who double bill and Eurovision). The Beatles were huge scifi fans and watched the show when they could (you can hear the band discussing BBC2’s marvellous ‘sister’ series ‘Out Of The Unknown’ during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions, in a scene sadly cut from the ‘Get Back’ series also on Disney Plus). Famously there’s a clip of them performing ‘Ticket To Ride’ in the 1965 Who episode ‘The Chase’ on holovision, but the BBC tried really hard to get them to make an actual in-concert performance, dressed up to look like old balding men at their 50th anniversary gig at the Cavern in (gulp) 2012; they were all eager to do it had they had the time and not been busy making second feature film ‘Help!’ round an American tour at the time. Many episodes have name-checked The Beatles since too though, across the 1960s, the association between the two was more of a telepathic link of reflecting society: just look at how ‘The War Machines’ is the last Who story to go out before the release of ‘Revolver’ (in which swinging London is hip yet led by machines that point towards a darker underbelly in the nation’s capital), how ‘Evil Of The Daleks’ episode two aired a day after the release of ‘Sgt Peppers’ (both are obsessed with Victoriana and start off light before a gloomy second half that concludes with a ‘final end’) and how ‘Abbey Road’ was a bittersweet goodbye that looked forward and back and ended with a plea for peace and equal give and take mere weeks after ‘The War Games’ did the same (though, admittedly, Patrick Troughton doesn’t turn up thirty seconds after being put on trial by the timelords to sing ‘Her Majesty’. Worse luck). It’s even more than though: both The Beatles and Dr Who are dedicated to making the world a better kinder more tolerant place; it’s just that Who does the same for more than one world. Don’t think it’s a coincidence we got this episode as part of a double bill before Eurovision too: the plot about how music can be weaponised but how at its best can be a message for peace is perfect for the most politically troubled event in the singing contest’s 68 year history, with Ukraine there but not Russia, Israel there but not Palestine and the Dutch entry kicked out for (depending who you believe) protesting against Israel’s inclusion or beating up a photographer (or quite possibly both). Given Maestro’s links to The Toymaker from ‘The Giggle’ (although as her entrance is greeted with three knocks I was surprised she wasn’t The Master) she’s also what you might call a ‘Puppet On A String’ while the world goes ‘Boom Bang A Bang’ (before music rises like a phoenix).

Anyway, a universe without the Beatles is surely as unthinkable as a world without Dr Who, so Russell ups the ante straight away by having their life play out not quite right. There they are, the Doctor and Ruby in the actual Abbey Road (EMI, the record label that owns it, has been in dire financial difficulties for a while now and rents Abbey Road Studios out to anyone, which is also why we get a stupidly pricey Beatles box set every Christmas that costs at least £200 more than they should)  eager to see history happen when The Beatles open their mouths for that all-time classic ‘My Dog Fred’. Clearly something has gone very wrong and the look on team Tardis’ faces is priceless (it’s the same as the look I have on my face when people tell me The Spice Girls invented feminism, a mere thirty years after Janis Joplin and Grace Slick did it properly). Well, you think, maybe they’re just having an off day (or recording one of Ringo’s songs) but in the studio next door Cilla Black isn’t fairing much better. Even in the bigger, lusher studio no 1 reserved for orchestras it all sounds a mess (what a shame this story isn’t set a little later so Pink Floyd could have got in on the act too; I like to think The Hollies are in the car park preparing to record their first single). They say never meet your heroes: actually practically everyone whose ever met any of The Beatles for real has loved it (give or take Ringo’s grumpy no autographs phase) but that is true of parallel worlds: when the Doctor and Ruby talk to John and Paul (poor George and Ringo get short shrift this episode) they discover the awful truth: music took a wrong turning around the 1920s and it no longer exists, beyond a few tone-deaf ditties. That means no singing, no dancing, no love songs, no Eurovision, no…gulp…lengthy music review sites by anoraks like me! Paul (at least I think its meant to be Paul, the actor likenesses aren’t the best) talks about it being embarrassing making music, John (in his anachronistic granny glasses) talks about giving it up for a proper job. Both of them look puzzled though, as if they can sense the flow of chords in the back of their minds they can’t quite get a hold of. 

Around this idea is wrapped an intriguing plot I wish they’d made more of around tritones, a sequence of chords long said to be demonic and for a time banned by the Church from being performed (why? Well, our best guess is that it’s the sequence of chords for ‘amen’, as heard at the end of most religious hymns, in reverse – and as a lot of satanic rituals involved doing things in reverse that surely meant the same for music too). While, honestly, a lot of Murray Gold’s rather overwritten scores using tritons have made me feel otherwise there really is no such thing as a ‘devil’s chord’. And yet it’s a very Dr Who concept to work a story round that, to have a demonic presence hiding within those chords. Alas Russell doesn’t seem to know how to progress a story from there so the idea gets dropped as early as the opening tag scene, where Maestro suddenly pops up and harasses a music teacher named Timothy Drake whose teaching a pupil decoy named Henry Arbinger who turns out to be ‘harbinger’ for this being’s plans to rid the world of music. It feels as if he’s going to be a big character (and that this is going to be a plot along the lines of ‘Amadeus’ and Mozart’s jealous rival Sallieri) but in fact we never see him again. Nor, too, do we hear anything more about the concept of a ‘lost chord’ that, once heard, can unify us all in peace and true harmony (presumably that’s what Ncuti is trying when playing the Abbey Road piano but a few myths and legends from other planets and an explanation of bat it would do would sell that scene so much better). There is, as far as I know, no one connected to the real world of music named Timothy Drake and yet the name must mean something given that Russell quite deliberately has him saying his name when he could have just been ‘A N Other music person’; the closest I can find is a character in the Marvel comics (where it’s the real name of Batman’s sidekick Robin).

And surely ‘The Devil’s Chord’ is based more on a comic strip as anything else because, after such a strong beginning, the story goes greatly downhill. Like ‘Space Babies’ we’re in the broader, more cartoony end of Russell’s writing and what could have been a powerful character piece ends up being another bit of brash bold colour, with musical notes that end up actually appearing in the air and cosmic tuning forks, that never quite connects. There are good reasons for this which might be why we’ve never had a musical Who episode before now: music is hard to show visually and Dr Who is a very visual programme. The Beatles’ music is so expensive and so fiercely guarded by their litigation-loving company Apple that to use any of it would have cost the budget for half the series, even with Disney money (which is also why the sound of ‘Paperback Writer’ playing in a bar in ‘Evil Of The Daleks’ had to be removed from the soundtrack CD and replaced with Dave Dee Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch).

There’s a moment in the story where everything goes silent for one very weird moment that’s quite a Dr Who type moment, but that aside there’s no easy way of demonstrating music bar having Ruby and a few others playing the piano (one of them, the old lady attacked by Maestro when playing the piano, is 92-year-old costume designer June Hudson, whose most notable in Who circles for designing Romana II’s costumes and who Russell heard had always wanted a cameo in a Dr Who episode so he wrote her one). Maestro is a big cartoony villain, like the Toymaker on steroids, and while Jinx Monsoon is a really good actress who plays the part exactly as it’s written i.e. unhinged, her presence over-topples this story considerably. A story about music and togetherness quickly becomes an exercise in shouting and over-acting and the scenes where the Doctor ends up trapped inside a kettle drum while Maestro cackles and taunts most unmusically is one of the hardest to stomach in a little past sixty years, joining the worst of ‘Space Babies’ in surely making most of the potential news fans (and quite a percentage of the old ones if my social media is anything to by) switch off in droves. The result is in danger of looking like another larger-than-life show that was big in 1963 and every bit as wacky but which leaves me cold, ‘The Avengers’ (shudder).  Had this story been a cartoon from the beginning, had it featured a cartoon band (The Archies? No not that literally – say ‘The Spice Girls’) it would have made sense. But the lurches in this story from major to minor are way too clumsy so that instead of being swept up in the music you’re left going ‘ooh, that was a bad note’. Let’s just hope Maestro is (de) composing somewhere so we don’t have to see her again…

And then to top it all we end with a singalong because ‘there’s always a twist’, even though the twist was so 1962 and no one would have been caught dead dancing it in 1963 (besides, what the Doctor, Ruby and extras are performing here is really more of a frug)in an awkward wink to the camera that suggests Russell T Davies has been watching too many Dennis Potter plays and High School Musical films for inspiration when he should have been watching ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. Even for the sort of fan that thought the Goblin song from ‘A Church On Ruby Road’ worked, sort of, once, if you didn’t think about it too hard and only watched it drunk on Christmas Day, this moment is awful and rather spoils the whole episode. Indeed most of the last ten minutes, with Maestro over-acting and Ncuti trying to match her while fighting over the Abbey Road piano (Mrs Mills! All the Beatle references they could have included and they name-checked Mrs Mills!), is truly awful. Usually Russell’s really good at judging a mood and having a script hang together (albeit with a penchant for sudden endings that come out of nowhere) but he really drops the ball on this one.

Perhaps his hands were tied by not wanting to go near the parallel world Beatle projects that already exist: the execrable ‘Yesterday’ (where we’re seriously meant to think Ed Sheeran is on The Beatles’ level) and Big Finish’s superlative 5th Doctor story ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’, in which Susan’s rave favourites find fame instead of the fab four. There are many ways they still could have played it though: The Beatles could have been busking outside  Abbey Road while a failed bunch of wannabes (like, say, The Dave Clark Five) got big instead of them. Or a parallel world where Brian Epstein was from somewhere other than Liverpool. Or a worlds where the only songs allowed all had to be military marches and The Beatles tried to find a way to hint at peace underneath it all, culminating in  finale where John still got to sing ‘Give Peace A Chance’ to the masses during his honeymoon. Or they could have had the Doctor inadvertently saving John Lennon’s  mum Julia from being run over thus taking away his great drive to make a band and become rich and famous and heal the world. Or they could have had The Maharishi turning out to be infected by The Great Intelligence and make The Beatles perform evil music (‘The Abominable Snowmen’ is pretty close to that as a plot as it is). Or they could have done it like ‘The Rutles’, a parallel world band who are almost like the real thing but not quite. Doing it this way raises too many plotholes: why would any teenager back in 1963, when pocket money was rare and things were pricey, waste any of it on a wretched song about a dog? Why, without the influence of their beloved rock and roll acts from the 1950s, were The Beatles inspired to make music at all? How can Abbey Road afford to stay open – why isn’t it, say, an Abbey? And what the performers there play is still technically music, so shouldn’t Maestro be popping her head up during all their sessions?  
This episode still plays all the right notes though (if not necessarily all in the right order) and there are lots of individual scenes that I love. The Beatles’ song about a dog which, even if you half think is coming, is still very funny. Maestro’s chilling line that the sound of a nuclear winter ‘is the purest music of all’. The fact that Ruby plays the piano on a rooftop just before Maestro turns up (mirroring the peak of music when The Beatles quit just after their own performance atop their Saville Row headquarters) that causes her and the Doctor to leg it down to a basement to start all over again (a basement that looks a little like The Cavern Club’ where The Beatles started their career). The ‘Pyramids Of Mars’ style trip to an alternate future 2024 where Maestro wins and the world is at war, which was nearly as powerful when they did it in 1976 and such a neat trick that I’m amazed modern Who hadn’t tried it before. The fact that the world is saved (again) by Lennon and McCartney playing a chord suspiciously like the one from ‘A Day In The Life’. The Doctor’s sadness when talking about his first self being over there in Totter’s Lane somewhere with Susan, a grand-daughter he no longer knows is alive or dead and Ruby’s natural instinct to give him a great big hug, something none of his other companions thought to do – even Rose (although that in itself is questionable if Maestro successfully changed the timelines: the main reason Susan came to London in 1963 was to hang around swinging London and listen to pop music, though admittedly The Common Men do it for her much more than the fab four for some reason); presumably without music Susan no longer asks to come here, the Doctor doesn’t kidnap Ian and Barbara, the Doctor continues to be the crotchety old git he was when we first met him and the series looks very very different – having that plot strand in parallel, of the Doctor’s lives unravelling directly because of the removal of The Beatles from his personal timeline, would have made for a far better story that Maestro shouting at people and playing Peekaboo. They even go to the trouble of parking the same beetle car seen on the ‘Abbey Road’ album cover (which in ‘our’ universe seems unlikely to be there – it was tracked down years later to belong to a tourist who didn’t even know he was parked near Abbey Road who was most puzzled that it ended up on screen and who missed the hasty messages from the session photographer asking to have it towed away in case people read too much symbolisation into it being a ‘beetle’ car). 

Aside from The Beatle aspects The Doctor-Ruby partnership continues to shape up to be one of the better ones now that it’s got going and they spar off each other well. I like the new character touches they’ve given Ruby: after being the blandest and most generic companion of the lot in ‘Church’ (did Russell intend for Rose Noble to be the new companion then change his mind for some reason?) Ruby is being fleshed out nicely now, with her musical abilities, the lesbian friend Trudy she stuck up for and wrote a song about and the fact that she’s already looking out for the welfare of this mad stranger whose walked into her life, worrying about how he’s affected by stuff instead of just worrying how him being affected by stuff is going to affect her. Ncuti struggles a little more this episode compared to his last three, but then I defy any Doctor-actor to have been able to make the scenes of banishing Maestro by playing a tune on a piano look natural; he’s much better when talking about his tragic past than he was doing something similar in ‘Space Babies’ and his fright in meeting another plaything of The Toymaker after the ;last one ‘literally tore me in half’ is well played. We don’t often see the Doctor scared and this one, especially, seemed confident enough to face up to anything.

Mostly though this story will be remembered for The Beatles and as the biggest cultural icon of the 20th century, some of the few figures from the past that modern children will instantly recognise (well, the real Beatles anyway – the casting really could have been better) and even learn about in schools these days (why didn’t do that in the 1990s? That’s one time I’d have been guaranteed an ‘A’!) it’s inevitable they would turn up eventually. And even more inevitably now that Doctor Who is competing for space with the latest flux of Beatle documentaries and films on Disney Plus (I guess an actual Disney crossover is still a little too on-the-nose for now, although I’m looking forward to seeing Ncuti teaming up with Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear to defeat The Master and his/her hapless assistant Goofy one day, ‘Roger Rabbit’ style. The Rani is practically Cruella De Vil as it is. While if Christopher Eccleston never returns to the show Dumbo has the ears for it. In all seriousness if they ever do a Who crossover with Wall-E, my favourite of all the Pixar films – preferably with K9 along for the ride – I would be one very happy fan). While the story doesn’t use them as well as it might (this is the Lomax caricature cartoon Beatles TV series from 1964-66, not the ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ Beatles) it’s great that John and Paul save the world between them when even the Doctor can’t and the theme that music is humanity’s greatest strength and how awful and fragmented and angry and bitter and warlike the world would be without it, is the perfect plot for me. This might well end up being the hippiest Who story ever, in fact, just beating ‘The Space Museum’ (with a special mention for the ‘hippies turned establishment of ‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’ which in many ways is this story’s opposite) – even if, perhaps aptly, it rather looks as if all the people in charge of making it were on drugs. All that and filming inside the real Abbey Road too has made me a happy fan, for all my gripes. Although I can’t help but feel that there’s an even better story to come from the same source. The (Doctor) Who maybe? (‘Talkin’ ‘Bout My Regenerations!’) I mean, Pete Townshend wrote an entire (unfinished) concept album around the idea of a ‘lost chord’ that would unite us all: ‘Lifehouse’(which sort of became ‘Who’s Next’) has always struck me as the perfect Dr Who story, about the importance of community during terrible times. Or how about a sequel where The Rolling Stones come up with the triton themselves while recording ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ and unleashing a more monster-like villain out into the world? Or how about we just have The Spice Girls being sentenced to life imprisonment in Shada? So yes, it could have been a lot better but at least this story’s hearts were in the right place. In The Beatles discography I put it around a Wings LP, say ‘Wings At The Speed Of Sound’ or ‘Back To The Egg’: some great ideas and some lovely moments but way too many overdubs and production gloss with a habit for writing any old nonsense as filler in between the moments of pure inspiration. I do wonder what The Beatles would make of this story if they saw it. I hoped they’d appreciate the message that love and music is all you need, even if they struggled to recognise themselves. Maybe one day we’ll get that scene intended for ‘The Chase’ after all?  

POSITIVES + The costumes! Ruby walks out the Tardis wardrobe looking like Twiggy and the Doctor looks like Jimi Hendrix circa 1963 (when he was touring with Little Richard’s band). Both actors seem more natural in these costumes than in their everyday ones. They do, however, look far too hip and American: most of Britain wasn’t that hip yet and you think they would raise a few puzzled expressions (they’re clearly not at Abbey Road to make the tea looking like that; such clobber was expensive: if you want to know what everyone was really wearing back then ‘An Unearthly Child’ does a pretty good job).     

NEGATIVES –Not to make a song and dance about it but, seriously, what was that ending? While many Dr Who stories might well have been improved by a closing musical number (‘I was there for one brief shining moment in dear old Gallifrey!’ ‘Don’t Cry for me Andred and Leela!’‘Ood Glorious Ood’ ‘Face Of Boejangles’ ‘The Time Warp’) a song about The Beatles isn’t one of them: every time they’ve tried to do a ‘Mama Mia’ and use Beatle songs in place of a plot it’s gone horribly wrong (let’s be honest ‘Mama Mia went horribly wrong too though there seems to be an odd pact not to talk about how wretched it really is). It’s a moment that’s incredibly un-Beatles, incredibly un-Doctor Who and serves no purpose other than creating a storm of angry protests from old time fans who are currently hanging onto this series by a thread. In a story about how music unites us all it seems suicidal to put this here. And it’s not even a good dance, it’s the sodding twist! 

BEST QUOTE: ‘Sometimes genius is just hard work’.

 PREQUELS/SEQUELS: Seriously, if you even vaguely liked this episode and have a love of The Beatles and Dr Who you need to buy ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’. Released as part of the 1963 themed’ 50th anniversary stories back in 2013 it’s my favourite 5th Dr story including the ones that made it to television, a moving tale about the thin line between success and failure and how all of our lives might have turned out differently with even a slight nudge in a different direction.  For The Beatles it’s the continuation of National Service past 1960, which means that they have to disband and their audience never become interested in rock and roll and instead turn to other more warlike things (basically what happens to them is what happened to Elvis when he went into the army). It’s a fun story with a serious message about exploitation by businesses (and aliens), highlighted by Nyssa’s shocked response (they don’t have rock and roll on Traken!) and a twist about the Common Men’s origins that throws new light on Susan’s interest in them that I won’t spoil here. All I can say is: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 

Previous ‘Space Babies’ next ’Boom’


73 Yards: Ranking N/A (but around #115ish)

"73 Yards” (15 th Dr, 2024) ( Series 14/1A episode 4, Dr 15 with Ruby, 25/5/2024, showrunner: Russell T Davies, writer: Russell T ...