For a variety of reasons, I got drastically behind in my Doctor Who recaps. However, in trying to catch up, I also realized that the new season isn’t really lending itself to my recapping style – without having to research old continuity or work through time-bending story points, I’m really just saying what happened and then pointing out that Jodie Whittaker is good at acting. So instead of writing recaps that are a chore to read, I’m just going to mini-review a bunch of episodes at a time. This time, we’re looking at “Rosa”, “Arachnids in the U.K.”, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” and “Demons of the Punjab”.
I’ll be honest with you – I was kind of dreading “Rosa”. The potential for “The Doctor meets Rosa Parks” to go wrong is… significant. Genre material tends to sit uncomfortably with serious issues without healthy doses of metaphor. Captain Kirk has to visit Space Auschwitz, not the real thing. And to be honest, Who can be a little wonky in its version of America. I don’t fault them for that and I’m sure American television’s take on England causes people over there physical pain. But this is an important moment in history and if Who‘s version of Rosa Parks is as off as its New York can be, that’s a problem.
And, beyond Doctor Who itself, so many stories about the Civil Rights movement in particular tend to focus on the real unsung heroes: White People. It’s not hard to imagine a story where the magic white lady inspires Rosa Parks, and that would be straight up garbage. Beyond that, it’s just kind of a bad time right now. The week after this episode aired was pretty much nothing but white supremacists committing acts of terrorism. Before the episode, it still wasn’t great. It’s just a fraught time to do a sci-fi story about Rosa Parks and then blow it.
And, hey. It turns out, “Rosa” was pretty good. Quite good. And I think for younger viewers who maybe might not be familiar with the story, it was ideal. For me, the bits at the beginning and end where they stop for a history lesson were a little much, but it wasn’t aimed at me. I honestly don’t know how well know Rosa Parks is over in England, but I guarantee there are a lot of younger viewers who were introduced to her with this episode, and it’ll stay with them for a long time.
The episode smartly established Rosa Parks as a character before the Doctor and her crew show up and then our heroes simply made sure everything was in the right place so she could do her thing. (And the only reason they needed to intervene at all was the racist time traveler. More on him later.) And the Doctor’s pure joy at meeting Parks was really beautiful. The Doctor was starstruck, and that’s rad. As a sidenote, I can’t imagine getting tired of Jodie Whittaker expressing awe. This is a Doctor who isn’t jaded in the least and I love it.
There’s something I loved here that not many other shows could do, and it’s going to sound weird. But the portrayal of racism was really interesting. The bus driver and the guy who slapped Ryan especially had this dull look of hate that seemed almost inhuman. And on this show, that kind of face usually belongs on a Zygon or Auton or farty alien in a human suit before they reveal their true selves. When the bus driver yelled at Parks in the opening, I almost expected his mouth to open wide so the alien controlling him could pop out, because Doctor Who has taught us that this is what monsters look like. It’s a neat and maybe unintended effect.
And as good as it was to see a Vortex Manipulator again, I really don’t need to see evil time-traveler Krasko again. I mean, I like that he went full-on greaser and such, but a racist time-traveler as an ongoing villain is maybe a bit much. We know he served time in Stormcage, the prison where River Song went for killing her husband, so that’s a nice callback. But I’m not super excited to see the Doctor have to save multiple key historical points from a white supremacist. That’s just a bummer. And yes, I know his name is an anagram for Skaro K, which seems like a Dalek reference, but I’m still hoping he’s a one-off.
Two notes – Vinette Robinson, who plays Rosa Park, previously appeared in Season 3 of Doctor Who in the Chibnall-scripted “42”. It’s also worth nothing that this episode was co-written by Malorie Blackman, the first woman of color to have a writing credit on Who.
Well, they threaded the needle rather beautifully on that one. Let’s see if it all falls apart next time!
“Arachnids in the UK“
Boy, it’s weird to see Chris Noth in this episode, right? Who doesn’t usually bring in American guest stars, so that was kind of jarring.
Guys? I did not like this episode. At all. I was a little shocked just now to check the Wikipedia entry and see that it received largely positive reviews. Here’s my issue with it – it was utterly generic. This could have been an episode of X-Files as easily as Doctor Who. It actually might have worked better for X-Files, come to think of it. There’s nothing about this episode that requires it to be a Doctor Who story and so we end up with a Brand X sci-fi production.
It was nice to see Yaz’s family and I liked seeing Graham have a moment to grieve. I’m not entirely sure we’re done with Grace, by the way. They bring her up a lot, and I just realized that the title of the premiere, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, refers to Grace as much as it does the Doctor. And the Doctor was lots of fun – she’s settling into her personality now, and I like it. I loved that Matt Smith style run about the possibility of owning a sofa and I like the way she squints at people to take them down a notch. And that’s about it for the things I liked.
Noth plays a wealthy American who finds his luxury hotel complex overrun by large spiders. Turns out the spiders were created by his company and empowered by industrial waste that his company dumped illegally. So apparently they’re extra bad, between the dumping and the genetic experimentation. Probably could have gotten by with one or the other, but I’m not in charge. Oh, and then Robertson kills the largest spider by shooting it instead of letting it suffocate slowly. The Doctor doesn’t approve because she wanted the menacing spiders to die humanely. But, and I agree with the Doctor’s stance on guns, it seems like suffocating is a long and painful way to die. Robertson’s a jerk and we’re supposed to hate him, but I think it would have been more interesting to see one of the companions shoot the spider for a humane killing and have the Doctor deal with that moral conundrum. The hardline stance of “It’s better for them if they just stop breathing over a period of several minutes” is not great, really.
Also, this is Doctor Who. Get our of here with your “dog-sized spiders are an acceptable threat for an episode”! This is where it starts to feel like Chibnall maybe didn’t need to write six out of the ten episodes this season.
“The Tsuranga Conundrum”
And here’s Chibnall’s fifth script in a row and it definitely feels like he wrote an episode or two too many. The Doctor and friends end up on a hospital ship after they’re injured by a sonic mine. Kudos to Jodie Whittaker for remembering to play injured though the episode. There are a variety of crew members and patients with their own individual mini-plots, including a pregnant man. Also, there’s an adorable alien called a Pting that’s wreaking havoc on the ship.
Despite a lot of supporting characters, there’s not much to this episode. Some plot points that are not surprising are treated like big revelations. The hospital is a ship! The Pting is attracted to energy sources! It just doesn’t add up to much and once again, it’s lacking a hook other than the fact that the Pting is cute. It’s perfectly fine and it feels like Doctor Who, which is a step up from the last episode, but there’s nothing to latch onto. At the end of the season, this will be the episode I can’t remember. I may recall the Doctor running funny because she’s still hurt, but that’s about it.
Graham and Ryan are mostly sidelined again, though Bradley Walsh’s charm still lands. There’s a bit where the two of them have to help the pregnant man give birth and Graham proudly states that he’s seen every episode of Call the Midwife. Ryan’s surprise that it’s every episode is pretty good, too. But if the Doctor is going to travel with three people, they’re going to need more complex plots so everybody has something to do. Rumor is that Graham and Ryan will be written out at the end of the season, which is a shame but might be necessary. Also, there are always a million Who rumors and the vast majority are not to be trusted.
And, of course, for the new fans who haven’t seen a dozen “trapped on a spaceship with a supporting cast” stories, this was probably significantly more fun. To me, it was pretty lackluster.
“Demons of the Punjab“
Oh, this is more like it. This episode is excellent, probably the best of the series so far. It opens with Yaz’s grandmother giving her family gifts from her past. She gives Yaz (her stated favorite) a broken watch and makes her promise never to repair it. Since she’s not taking further questions, Yaz asks the Doctor to solve this watch mystery.
They arrive on the day of Grandma Umbreen’s wedding in 1947, which is also the day before the partition of India. So it’s a history lesson episode, but it’s a thing in history I didn’t know anything about so I came away smarter. Anyway, Umbreen is marrying Prem who is a) not Yaz’s grandfather and b) Hindu, while Yaz’s family is Muslim. The first one is just weird, the second is controversial in certain quarters.
We end up with the Thijarians, a race of assassins, showing up and apparently killing a holy man. There are some fun shenanigans with teleport pods which is a neat effect and lends some action to an emotional episode. Ultimately, the Thijarians explains to the Doctor and they now commemorate those who die alone. They also show her that Prem’s brother, Manish, killed the holy man in order to stop the wedding.
The Doctor herself oversees the wedding and we get to see Ubreem accidentally drop and break the watch from earlier so now it’s frozen at the time of the wedding. It’s lovely, but Manish is bringing a group of Hindu nationalists. Everybody flees except Prem who stays to talk some sense into his brother. They execute him as the Thijarians look on (and block our view, which is a nice touch). In the present, Yaz has a better understanding of her grandmother and it’s very sweet.
I know that doesn’t sound like much, but the execution is absolutely beautiful. The Doctor taking Yaz (along with Graham and Ryan, who once again don’t get much to do) to explore her past reminds me of the Ninth Doctor and Rose in “Father’s Day”. And usually when the point is not to muck with the past, there’s actually a lot of mucking around. In this case, they spent most of their time with a false lead, and the only way the Doctor directly influences events is to help perform the ceremony.
The idea of the Thijarians is a clever one, and when Thirteen eventually regenerates, I feel like they’d be missing an opportunity if those two aren’t there to bear witness.
Ultimately, I think this is a really beautiful and human episode and it’s probably my favorite of the season so far. And it’s weird to say that about a slow-paced episode where the Doctor doesn’t really accomplish anything, but its a well-told story with some excellent performances.
I realize I’m still two episodes behind, but I’m going to end up with eight episodes to cover and my OCD forces me split them into groups of four. But we’ll get to those soon enough.
All in all, we’re in a pretty good place. I could use some more paradoxes and clever uses of time, but different strokes and all that. I still think Chibnall’s scripts need more of a hook, but the first solo new writer this season hit it out of the park, so that’s promising. The cast is great and Jodie really feels like the Doctor. I’m enjoying the quirks she’s bringing to the role, like what will soon be known as the Whittaker Squint. It’s a shame that Ryan and Graham aren’t being better utilized, but it’s hard to give everybody in a crew of four something to do. I think we’ve had about enough of every alien and monster this season being basically human and some variety there would be nice.
I have to say, they’ve done a great job of keeping this season accessible to new viewers. We’re getting a good mix of story types and a lot of this is probably landing better with those newcomers than it is with me. They haven’t seen the Doctor trapped on a spaceship without access to the TARDIS yet. So my gripes are pretty minor given that they seem to be doing exactly what they set out to do.