I’m going to concentrate on the craft in my commentary of Doctor Who, because: brand differentiation. I’m claiming it.
Chris Chibnall is doing a couple of things with this story: cementing relationships and setting up the enemy.
Call Backs: Looks like the Stenza have been set up as the Big Bad, first hunting on Earth, now genocide on Albar. Was it too ambitious to feature a new ‘series’ enemy in the first episode and have an immediate reference in the second episode? My thinking is the Doctor and the TARDIS are linked, so it is no coincidence The Doctor encountered a Stenza warrior on Earth while the TARDIS ventured off to bring about an encounter with a Stenza survivor on Desolation. But it’s all implicit. By the end it will be explicit. Probably. This is old school story telling and I have form.
Call Backs: Grief and Grace
This is how you do it. If you are going to kill characters the impact should be felt, and to do this their absence must be present. Even on another planet, Ryan and Graham do and should remain raw in their new grief. How Grace died is fresh in their minds as they potter about an alien solar-powered boat. Frankly, I’m relieved. I was worried Graham would be a boomery mansplainer to the woman Doctor. But so far he is practical optimism guy…who…get this…wants to talk about his deceased wife and his emotions, and wants to imagine that his grandson via marriage is there for him. Ryan’s reserve towards Graham is also feels like a naturally immature response, which is great as it means room for development. Now for something for Yasmin to do beyond spot Ryan for ladder climbing.
Up for future discussion: is Graham the most positive father (figure) to appear in Doctor Who ahead of Grant (Return of Doctor Mysterio) and Craig Owens (Closing Time)?
Call Backs: TARDIS
How The Doctor speaks to the TARDIS is exactly how she has always spoken about her time and space vessel, only she “reversed the polarity” and loved the changes. Me too Doctor, me too.
Presaging the Future.
At some point in each series there’s usually some kind of alien, or tech, or spookiness that offers to tell the ‘truth’ about situations the main characters will face. Often it’s a recurring nugget of information that subconsciously links episodes. For example, in Season Four of NuWho, guest characters in the very first and then subsequent episodes mention missing or lost planets or moons (and also bees).
For Rose it was Satan telling her she was the “valiant child” who would “soon die in battle”. And she did, she was recorded as a victim of the Battle of Canary Wharf in Doomsday. For Clara it was recalling The Doctor’s encounter’s with earlier iterations of the Impossible Girl that enabled her to see what she had to do to save his life: ie, enter The Doctor’s time line and rewrite his history. Then there was Clara at first pretending to be The Doctor, and finding herself increasingly like him, before finally, stealing a TARDIS and running away with an immortal for adventures…
In Partners in Crime there’s another layer of foreseeing, when Donna presages her circular journey with The Doctor:
It’s like I had that one day with you, and I was going to change. I was going to do so much. Then I woke up the next morning, same old life. It’s like you were never there.
These lines were accurate during the episode, but absolutely tragic in retrospect, knowing what we know of Doctor-Donna. And of course, in almost every episode phantom Rose appears in person or on screens (Midnight), trying to warn The Doctor of impending danger. This culminates in Donna getting the message in Turn Left. So after these two episodes I’m thinking: what have the characters said that will define their journey with The Doctor?
Tell me the future
In Ghost Monument it was the bits of whispering murder material that mentioned The Timeless Child. Awesome title/name, no idea what it means, except going on past form, it will be crucial. You can’t have mysterious floaty strangle fabric say things and not have it be important. That and the final message of the scientists The Doctor reads. The fact the planet was out of alignment, part of a game controlled by someone else, and linked to the Stenza screams foreshadowing.
I guess the other bit of predestination is having the TARDIS be the Ghost Monument. While welcome, it was obvious, when I wanted it to be more of a surprise.
If last week was a bit Predator vs Gallifreyan, this week was more like the last stage of Around the Universe in 80 Light Years. Both these episodes feel as if the Doctor’s attention is on small, personal occurrences, while galactic-ly important tragedies are occurring just beyond the event horizon. A bit like how The Doctor and Martha Jones had adventures while a dangerous, misunderstood force got himself legally elected only to mess stuff up for the planet…(weird how that too sounds presagy).
Plotting a course
Obviously, the future is Stenza related. A warrior culture who conduct hunts to rule on political decisions, and who goes about “cleansing” entire planets should be addressed. But are they the ones realigning planets like Desolation? I hope it’s not going to be another Journey’s End, but we can only wait and see.
So Chris Chibnall is setting out the basics of an arc in these episodes. But there are also themes: found friends, solidarity vs individualism, consent (re body implants) grief, but also: games. There was a game to decide political power (a hunt on Earth) and a game to decide the winner of an immense fortune (race to a prize), and Ryan’s mention of Call of Duty. In these instances cheating is attempted and debated. I guess short circuiting sniper robots with an EMP is not cheating, but there you go.
The Doctor has been particularly cognisant of reassuring her new friends they are not about to die. This is an interesting and more compassionate take on The Doctor after the last iteration who had a companion who cared so he “didn’t have to”.
Speaking of not panicking…
If Doctor Who does go all Douglas Adams and several dead planets are out of alignment due to a drunken game of Space Billiards between alien gods, I’m going to be weirdly devastated/pretty pleased with my own ability to presage the plot. But it also makes me think of Missy and her game to put Clara and The Doctor together. Is the fact this series feels gamey an artefact of how I can read where the writing is pushing the narrative? After all, if there are games, who sets the rules? Once again, as under Steven Moffat, I naturally return to the notion of writers as rule setters, puppet masters, chess players moving pieces (and planets). They are gods creating universes, sitting like Missy did, watching how it plays out, below them.