With 2020 having firmly put the ‘anus’ in ‘annus horribilis‘, TV has perhaps become an even more important fixture in people’s lives than ever. For example, the explosion in use of streaming services, and the loss of access to cinemas, means that the small screen has been a vital portal, not just for our staying connected to the outside world, but also to provide a bit of relief and escapism.
Many people have been faced with what feels like an eternity of not being able to go anywhere, seemingly stuck within the confines of the same four walls, with only the occasional bit of exercise to break up the same feeling of going through the motions, and sitting there watching life just passing you by. Consider, then, the inherent irony in a piece of programming written and filmed before the pandemic taking on a certain resonance – albeit unintentional – by managing to reflect all of that.
In the finale of the latest series of Doctor Who, our hero was unexpectedly picked up by those officious space rhino police, the Judoon, promptly being whisked away to an intergalactic prison, in which she would be spending the rest of her life (or lives), due to an earlier self coming from a previously entirely unknown part of her personal history having been a wanted fugitive. Before she – or we – had any time to process this, it was cue the end credits as the Doctor was apparently trapped in space jail, and a wait for us of ten months.
To think that it was all before the first national Coronavirus restrictions or lockdown ever happened; it seems like much longer than that. As such, there is a real connection here in seeing the Doctor facing a slice of that sort of heavily limited way of existing from day to day, everything you know pulled out from under you with no time to prepare, or even a hint of getting back to something even remotely approaching what could be considered normal. Of course, all this is just a quirk of timing, as the filming was carried out in late 2019, so any of these similarities are purely coincidental.
It seems rather odd that, having landed the Doctor in such a situation, we fail to see any attempts to escape, and join her apparently decades into her jail sentence, broken and worn down. Similarly, you might think that there would be some opportunity taken to comment on the very nature of prison and punishment, but no, the whole thing passes by without remark. We never even get to find out who exactly is behind this Supermax institution, or see for ourselves quite how it happens to be so inescapable.
Writer and showrunner Chris Chibnall seems not to worry at all about wanting to flesh this out, seeing as how the whole thing is dispensed with in quite short order. Granted, seeing the Doctor utterly powerless and despondent for any length of time might be a bit of a drag, but she actually gets sprung within the first fifteen minutes or so, which does seem like indecent haste, having gone to all the trouble of making the Doctor’s incarceration a big deal, and makes you wonder why this was even done at all, if it ended up being so irrelevant to the story as a whole.
Perhaps even more galling is Chibnall’s continual insistence upon this version of the Doctor being subjected to whatever the female equivalent of emasculation would be. In the last series finale, she was unable to reach a big moral decision, and ended up having to be bailed of making this choice by a rather minor and, ultimately, dispensable supporting male character. Here, she is rescued by another man, which now feels like less of an accident, and more of a deliberate bit of characterisation, which in the process has effectively robbed the Doctor of any real agency.
Her saviour here, however, is no ordinary man: the immortal time travelling roguish lothario Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), of Torchwood fame. Ah, yes, the famously shy and reclusive Barrowman, who most definitely has not been sat by the telephone in full Captain Jack regalia for a decade, waiting for his call back to action. Having already cameoed in last year’s tale ‘Fugitive Of The Judoon’, it seemed inevitable that Jack would be back before too long, and here he is, ready to be reunited with the Doctor.
The actual story is a rather thin affair, and tends to fall apart if you study it too closely. Despite clutching at a number of different themes – prison life; racism and xenophobia; the nature of policing; the potential dangers of new technology; government cronyism and corruption; business practices of a very illegal nature – it singularly fails to make any of them stick. It also acts as a sequel of sorts to both ‘Resolution’ and the execrable ‘Arachnids In The UK’, even bringing back the latter’s villain, Jack Robertson (Chris Noth).
Another of Chibnall’s repeated failings has been in allowing some bad guys to get away seemingly without consequence, and nowhere was this more noticeable than with Robertson. In bringing him back, it seemed as though retribution might finally be at hand, and Chibnall may have been playing a long game; alas, such thinking seems to credit him with far more skill than he has actually demonstrated here. In fact, seeing Robertson not just getting away with it once again, but also seemingly getting plaudits, makes Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor seem even more ineffectual and toothless.
READ MORE: Pillow Talk (1959) – Rom-Com Rewind
Chibnall at least makes reasonable use of the Daleks, both in old and new forms, even though the notion of an internecine civil war between Dalek factions on grounds of racial purity has been done before, and so much better. He also manages to grind the tale to a halt by throwing in sudden attempts at big character development rather too late in the day, such as the big heart-to-heart(s) between Ryan (Tosin Cole) and the Doctor. Ryan has never been rounded out especially well, and Cole’s monotone, dull delivery has hampered things further, so the big emotional moments fall rather flat.
The episode is not without its merits, and the big set pieces work very well for the most part; it just feels rather empty in between, and frustratingly it leaves threads dangling as well as certain avenues unexplored. As a piece of New Year’s Day television, it does its job in not being too challenging for its audience, acting as junk food for both eyes and brain, full of empty calories. Alas, the revolution of the episode’s title has failed to extend to its storytelling.