Well, that was pretty good.
After the whirlwind of last week which spent most of its runtime setting up the future story threads, we finally get to sit down and actually enjoy one of those stories and... you know, once again, one really gets the sense that this is the form that Chibnall's Dr Who always should have been in. If you don't like Chibnall's quirks, you won't like them here either, but the way it’s all executed simply works better than it has before for the 13th Doctor. I don't even think this is the best episode of Chibnall's Doctor Who, but it is certainly the one that feels the most like it’s something that could be sustained.
My previous favorite episodes very much felt like one offs--you don't do Demons of the Punjab twice, or if you do, the second time isn't going to work as well.
Here, we have a structure that could be repeated across a variety of stories with different elements, and have it work. Again, this is because the structure is playing to Chibnall's strengths. We spent a lot of time doing set up last week, and because of that we can simply spend time with all of the different plot threads and character without needing to reestablish who these characters are, and reducing the guest cast with lines down to a minimum.
Which is also useful, because this is also a very obviously, "Effected by Covid" episode. Not in a bad way, it’s very well structured around that, but you can tell. Previous Chibnall series have reveled in being able to place several characters in frame at once, giving the show a feeling of constant presence, emphasizing connectivity between characters so that shots showing divisiveness strike harder. Here though, shots are much more isolated. Lots of shot / reverse-shot conversations where there isn't a "back of the head" body double for the other party they're talking to, as they're keeping the contact to a minimum. Lines of dialogue from characters feel sometimes like declarations being given to the room, as the actor was clearly alone on set during that shot.
But this isn't a criticism. In fact, I'd say it comes together stronger than the choices made in previous seasons.
Chibnall's Doctor Who has always wanted to be a character drama, but without the extended runtime of serialization, has often staggered at the attempt as there were too many characters in each episode trying to do too many things.
But here, our heroes are divided up, and given characters to play against directly. There's an intimacy to it all, a sense that we're really getting to meet these people and peer into their perspectives. Whether by design or luck, it’s a stylistic improvement, and one I hope we'll see continued going forward.
But what of the story itself? Well, it’s funny for one thing. John Bishop pulls off some punchlines that I had to pause on going back to them later, but I can't deny they worked. The Sontarans were a wonderful balance of evil and ridiculous and gave the biggest laugh of the night with "And I wanted to ride a horse!". The A and B plots, set in the modern day and in the Crimean War respectively, intertwine concerning a Sontaran invasion of Earth through time. They both shine, and I had a great time with both of them (aside from a thing we'll return to later...).
But what of the C plot? What of Yaz? Well... unfortunately Yaz doesn't get a lot to do in this episode. After a refreshing turn last week, this week we find things are once again happening to Yaz, rather than Yaz doing things. She is transported to a place, a flying upside-down pyramid tells her to do something, she follows it, meets Vinder, and then meets the bad guys who turn her into a replacement statue/conduit. It's the weak spot of the episode, mainly redeemed by how much damn fun the actors seem to be having. Swarm, Azure, Vinder, and Yaz all seem to be having a blast on set, and the energy that Swarm and Azure bring to their performances is clearly infectious. But they steal the show from Yaz, who already just had the show stolen by a pyramid, and it would be nice if the following weeks give her an episode focused on her character.
So, mostly its a good time. But what about that bit I said I'd come back to?
Well, the ending.
The ending is just the ending of "The Christmas Invasion", an earlier episode of Doctor Who, played out with the same emotional beats. Is it effective? Well, your milage may vary. But it left me pretty cold. I had been on board with the story, even the disappointing C plot, but the payoff felt like a whimper, even though it involved things literally going bang. Oh well.
Even so, I'm hoping the renewed energy and structure continues in the coming weeks. My fingers are crossed.
* * *
This episode featured three plots of people turning their enemies’ own possessions against them. Two of the plots have our heroes using Sontaran tech to defeat Sontarans, and the third has Swarm and Azure using the technology of "The Planet Time" for whatever their scheme is and turning two of the heroes literally into objects to use against their enemies.
Mary Seacole and the Doctor being healing figures is of course a contrast to Swarm and Azure placing two people into positions they will be hurt and turning to ash anything they don't like.
And once again, we have a return to Chibnall's body horror, one of the defining tropes of his era in my opinion. Yaz and Vinder becoming statue like conduits for time, covered in writing and markings, is a very nice piece of subtle horror. We'll see how it plays out.
And next week should prove... an interesting moment for my opinions on this series, judging by the preview. But more on that then.
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