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Ronny Chieng: International Success

Having already made his bones as an integral part of The Daily Show, Malaysian-born Ronny Chieng is taking centre stage in Ronny Chieng: International Student, a new comedy series based on his own experiences studying in Melbourne.
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Doctor Who S10 E12: The Doctor Falls

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The Season 10 finale of Doctor Who hits the ground running with a bravura climax, pulling out all of the stops and refusing to pull its punches as the Doctor and Bill’s 12-part journey comes to an end. Viewers who skipped last week’s episode “World Enough and Time” should absolutely jump back and watch it before approaching this second part.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is trapped on a massive colony ship caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole. Bill (Pearl Mackie) has been irreversibly transformed into a Cyberman, joining a growing army of them that are filling the ship. Two incarnations of the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, the Master (John Simm) and Missy (Michelle Gomez) appear to have joined forces. Above everything else, the spectre of regeneration looms in Capaldi’s penultimate episode in the role. After this, there is only the annual Christmas episode to go.

Series producer and writer Steven Moffat has a long-running tendency to surprise with his two-part storylines. Often the first half will set up a particular expectation, and the second will then unexpectedly subvert that set-up with something quite different in content and tone. While last week’s episode spent much of its time with the Doctor on the flight deck of a spaceship and Bill living years of her life in a dystopian hospital, “The Doctor Falls” primarily focuses on the Doctor defending a farmhouse of children from a Cyberman army. Far from being a disappointment, this relatively simple set-up frees much of the episode to focus on its lead characters. While there is plenty of action, the episode’s real strength lies in the protagonists: where have they come from, and how the events of “The Doctor Falls” changes them forever.

For Bill it means coming to terms with her new body, and the knowledge that she could succumb to new programming at any time; programming that would effectively erase her identity for good. It also means settling with the Doctor that his promise to keep her safe has been irrevocably broken, and that there is not an easy fix on the horizon to make everything okay again. Pearl Mackie has been one of the greatest strengths of this season. Her character has been well developed, and her upbeat and naturalistic performance has made Bill one of the most appealing companion characters in Doctor Who’s current form. If this is the end for Bill (and never say never), it is a shame we only got her for the one year. She had so much potential to feature for so much longer.

For Missy the episode means finally making a choice between being a good person or a bad one. This has been the first time Doctor Who has undertaken a story with multiple versions of the Master, and it pulls it off brilliantly. John Simm plays a darker and less playful version of the character than he did back in David Tennant’s days, and it is a take that suits him much better. The interplay between Simm and Gomez does not overpower the rest of the episode but is – one or two poorly chosen jokes aside – hugely satisfying.

Nardole (Matt Lucas) gets an exit from the series as well. He has been a somewhat difficult character throughout the season, working well in his early minor appearances and then grating the more material he is given. Here he works surprisingly well, due in part to his personality been a little understated by comparison the rest of the year.

Finally there is the Doctor himself. He has failed his companion, he has failed to convert Missy to becoming one of the good guys, and minutes into the episode he is mortally wounded and visibly running on fumes. Capaldi gives a towering performance, filled with guilt, sadness, empathy and rage. It is hugely emotional. In the episode’s climax, as he darts between the trees blowing up Cybermen with his sonic screwdriver and shouting out the names of all of the planets where he has previously defeated them, there is a profound combination of joy and sorrow.

‘Without hope, without witness, without reward,’ the Doctor says, explaining to the Masters how it matters just to be good, and to try and save the world whether you succeed or not, and whether you live or die. Nobody has hope in this episode. Critically, no lead character finds out the fate of anybody else. Nobody ultimately gets what they want. Doctor Who has never had a season finale this devastating, or as good.

All that and one hell of a cliffhanger lead-in for Christmas too.

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Doctor Who S10 E11: World Enough and Time

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If you have somehow managed to reach this penultimate episode of Doctor Who’s 10th season without learning anything of its contents, you should stop reading this review immediately and go watch it for yourself. It is one of the best episodes of the renewed series’ entire 13 year run: based around good science fiction ideas, packed with unexpected twists and turns, and featuring some of the edgiest horror the series has managed. It is arguable that in places “World Enough and Time” is not actually suitable for the children for whom it was made. I think that is a tremendous thing: children should occasionally watch things that are too scary for them. If nothing else it is educational for them.

The rest of you may already know the premise: the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) has been slowly coaching his arch-enemy Missy (Michelle Gomez), formerly known as the Master, towards becoming a good person for once. He has decided to put her to the test: follow a distress call somewhere in time and space, loan her his companions, and see how she goes doing the Doctor’s job for him. Their destination is a 400 mile-long colony ship, slowly escaping a black hole. Extreme gravitational forces mean that time is passing much more slowly at one end than at the other. While the Doctor and Missy attempt to work out what is going on at the top of the ship, Bill (Pearl Mackie) finds herself trapped for months in a hospital 400 miles below.

The BBC genuinely did this episode a disservice by pre-announcing both the returning guest character and the returning monsters. Had either been kept a secret, they would potentially be the biggest twists of the television year. Thankfully there is at least one major surprise that remained zipped up until broadcast; it’s over and done before the opening titles, and puts a deliberate and hugely effective shadow over the remaining three episodes of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor.

So onto the two non-shock returns, since they both formed part of the episode’s advertising. Knowing of the return of John Simm as the Master spoils a perfectly good disguise, as he masquerades for much of the episode as the eccentric “Mr Razor”, Bill’s only friend as she recovers from heart surgery in the ship’s hospital. When he reveals himself to Missy it’s a tremendous moment, and the promise of the two versions of the one character interacting looks set to be a highlight for next week’s follow-up. We have had four multi-Doctor adventures over the course of Doctor Who’s history, but we have never had a multi-Master story. It’s shaping up to be rather wonderful.

Even more impressive is the return of the Cybermen, presented here in their original 1966 style when they made their series debut. The so-called “Mondasian Cybermen” were long considered a silly looking design – silvery balaclavas masking human heads, rather than the subsequent metal helmet – coupled with a ridiculous sort of voice. That is a sentiment with which I have never agreed. More than any other iteration of the Cybermen, the Mondasian originals do not let the viewer forget that cybernetically-enhanced humans live inside those suits. Their voices are deeply unnerving. The Cybermen have popped in and out of the series for more than 50 years now, and I honestly don’t think they have ever been more unsettling or horrific. An early scene sees Bill enter a waiting room filled with half-converted Mondasians. One keeps pressing on a touchpad to say ‘pain’, over and over. Bill hides as a nurse comes in and attends to the patient. She does not relieve the pain; she simply turns down the volume on the speaker. The pain simply goes on. A later scene reveals the pain never goes away; each Cyberman is simply fitted with a device to stop them caring about it.

This is a Doctor Who episode where simply everything goes right. The story is intelligent and dramatic, and laced throughout with horror – the genre at which Doctor Who has always excelled. The science fiction trimmings are inventive and inspire a great plot. The performances are top-notch throughout. The episode makes strong use of Doctor Who’s lengthy continuity, but does so in properly interesting ways. It all ends in one of the best cliffhangers I can remember. So much hinges on next week’s season finale – after all, the advantage of being Part 1 is that you don’t have resolve anything. Assuming “The Doctor Falls” does not drop the ball, this could be the making of one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time, and I don’t say that lightly.

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Doctor Who S10 E10: The Eaters of Light

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The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) travel to ancient Scotland, to settle the Doctor and Bill’s argument over the disappearance of the Ninth Roman Legion. They split up to search the countryside. The Doctor and Nardole are captured by a group of fearful Scottish teenagers, while Bill is hunted down by an alien creature before finding the survivors of the Legion; the only survivors of the mysterious beast’s attacks.

In a sense, this is it: the beginning of the end. With next week’s episode forming the first half of a two-part season finale, and then Peter Capaldi departing the series at the end of the 2017 Christmas special, this is the final regular episode for both Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor and for Steven Moffat’s seven-year run as showrunner on Doctor Who. How oddly fitting, then, that “The Eaters of Light” comes from writer Rona Munro. Her only previous writing for Doctor Who was the 1989 serial “Survival”, the final adventure of the original 26-year run.

It seems so inevitable that Doctor Who would tackle the fabled disappearance of Ninth Roman Legion, who apparently vanished while in 2nd century Scotland. In fact it actually seems rather odd that it has taken the series so long to get around to it. Using the legend as the basis for her script, Munro has developed a relatively simple but satisfying children’s adventure. Viewers hoping for something with complexity or nuance will likely come away dissatisfied. Those who have been enjoying this season’s return to straight-forward storytelling will have a much better time of it.

That said, it is a somewhat imperfect episode. The best material goes to Bill and the Roman Centurions, who are well-developed and engaging. There is a great scene exploring Roman concepts of sexuality which is so deftly written that it feels perfectly in place for family entertainment, which must have taken some doing.

On the other side the Doctor and Nardole’s encounter with the Pictish children struggles quite badly. The spark that fires up the Roman characters simply doesn’t ignite here, and they wind up feeling slightly annoying and petulant. At the same time the Doctor’s characterisation has taken a wild backwards step towards Capaldi’s acerbic, slightly unkind portrayal from all the way back in Season 8. He does not so much inspire the children as bully them into action. Nardole simply keeps interrupting the flow of the episode with poorly written quips and jokes. I have found throughout this season that a little of the character goes a very long way. As a sort of fussy butler on campus, chastising the Doctor for leaving the vault he is supposed to be guarding, he works perfectly well. As a full-blown companion he grates very quickly on the nerves. This time around he felt positively interminable.

The episode is helped along by some strong direction and very attractive production values, not in the least the impressive-looking alien creature that threatens the Pictish and Roman survivors. The Scottish setting and generally folkloric tone also help to smooth over the episode’s shortfalls. It is not perfect Doctor Who, but it is at least broadly entertaining stuff. Is ‘mildly entertaining’ simply damning with faint praise? Possibly. Doctor Who is often much better than this, but to be fair it has often been far worse.

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Doctor Who S10 E9: The Empress of Mars

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Following a mysterious sign discovered by NASA, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) travel to Mars in 1881. There they find a squad of soldiers purporting to claim Mars for the British Empire with the assistance of a single Ice Warrior whose spacecraft they uncovered in South Africa. When their presence awakens a dormant Ice Warrior hive, the Doctor is presented with an intractable dilemma: protect the Ice Warriors from a human invasion, or protect the humans from a deadly Martian reprisal.

As a viewer of Doctor Who I have always had a fairly ambivalent relationship with Mark Gatiss, the actor and writer who has scripted “The Empress of Mars”. It is clear that Gatiss possesses a huge love for the series; he is one of several series writers who grew up as an active fan of the original series, and for the most part his scripts have reflected a sort of cosy nostalgic glow for the 1970s days of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. Gatiss is also tremendous at developing great concepts for episodes: a quick glance at his previous efforts reveals an Ice Warrior let loose in a Soviet submarine, gaseous aliens masquerading as ghosts in 19th century Cardiff, and Winston Churchill using Daleks to win World War II. These are all inventive, wonderful ideas for Doctor Who episodes, yet in practice Gatiss always seems to let his own concepts down with poor plotting and dialogue.

What a delightful surprise, then, to find Gatiss has crafted an enjoyably nostalgic hour of Doctor Who. He once again runs with a killer premise but in this case actually backs it up with a sensible plot and entertaining characters. He mines deep into the vein originally dug up by Burroughs and Wells, with 19th century soldiers fighting for Queen and Empire against Martians. While the results are hardly surprising or complex they are nicely entertaining. The episode fits very neatly alongside the earlier hours of this season, which have favoured old-fashioned self-contained stories with an awful lot of riffs and tributes to the original 20th century version of the series. Gatiss, being the fan that he is, manages to make his tributes particularly overt, including further development of the Ice Warriors and one or two completely unexpected cameos that will delight older fans without particularly confusing newer ones.

It is great to see the Ice Warriors back. They seemed set to be one of Doctor Who’s most iconic villains in the 1960s and 1970s, with four appearances across about seven years, but then lay curiously fallow until Gatiss himself revived them in Season 7’s “Cold War”. They are one of the series’ best returning monsters because unlike the Daleks or Cybermen they are presented as distinctive characters. Gatiss continues that trend here with the introduction of a Martian Empress – played wonderfully by Adelle Lynch – and a scarred Ice Warrior nick-named Friday (Richard Ashton). They have depth and motivation not usually afford to an antagonist.

“The Empress of Mars” is not a stunning episode, however it is competently made and works well as breezy entertainment. Like many of this season’s earlier episodes it pulls Doctor Who back to its natural position on the television landscape: science fiction drama for the intelligent 10 year-old that remains enjoyable for the rest of the family at the same time.

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Steven O’Donnell: Being Bajo Again in Trip For Biscuits

In the children's science fiction comedy series Trip For Biscuits, Stephen "Bajo" O'Donnell and a ragtag team of misfits investigate a hidden world of aliens, generally managing to cause more trouble than they were trying to solve. It is, as he explains, an evolution of the onscreen persona he's been developing for years.