The Sixth Book I've Read in 2020.

Books   Not a play I'm that familiar because it's also not a play I particularly like so I skimmed the lit crit section and went straight for the production history and textual examination both of which were as fascinating as these things tend to be.  Was the play produced in Shakespeare's lifetime or meant to simply exist as a reader's addition?  The length of the speeches and the more ponderous approach to scene structure would suggest so.  But why so many difference between the Quarto and Folio with the addition stage directions and revisions of language?  Did it in fact receive an appearance at the Inns of Court?  Onward to Julius Caesar.

The Fifth Book I've Read in 2020.

Books With the The CW's tv adaptation in the air, and in the wake of finishing Doomsday Clock, I decided it was about time to read the original comic. Whereas the Watchmen sequel was designed to acknowledge the existence and validity of all the various universes and timelines across DC's history making all of it "canonical", it's quite stark to find a comic designed to do the exact opposite, to dump out decades of continuity in order to streamline what was being published.  Inevitably, I prefer the former which implies that every universe, across media, is valid, the various multiverses part of a metaverse which contains all of fiction, or at least that's how I interpret it.

The scope is incredible, breathless and for all the suggestion that this was a self-contained story, it's sure to be a comics fan who'll get the most out of the references.  Nevertheless, I can appreciate the import of having the various incarnations of Superman working together and characters who've previously only had a minor focus in the various comics being thrust to centre stage.  Are there too many characters?  Probably and often the chaotic storytelling is difficult to follow.  Yet it is still incredibly exciting to see all of the various villains teaming up and enjoy the immensity of the battles.  It'll be interesting to see how the cee-dub interprets all of this.

Orphan 55.

TV OK, fuck it. On Sunday afternoon I offered a few tweets suggesting I wasn't going to review that night's episode of Doctor Who. That it would be good just to sit and watch it without having one eye on the ensuing review.  Well, friends, I've tried.  I have.  Look, it's even the middle of the week.  But damnit, the problem with being handed an episode as ruddy awful as Orphan 55, is that it generates opinions and they sit rattle around in your brain desperate to get out.  So here we all are.  It's Tuesday night and I'm typing away at 10:15pm while Google Photos syncs with my phone.  As Mark Kermode says on the Friday film programme he contributes to when some listener writes in to talk about the spiritual journey which resulted from them seeing some turd he had a good rant about the week before, "I'm very pleased that you enjoyed it but I disagree."  If you liked Orphan 55, good for you.  My first review of Fear Her was positive too.

It's not just that Orphan 55 doesn't work as an episode.  It's a comprehensive thesis on what's gone wrong with television Doctor Who in general.  Spyfall suggested an upswing in quality. with the current producers having some sense in what wasn't working after their first season.  But this almost felt like they'd read my year end survey and done the exact opposite.  We're back to the gossamer version of the Thirteenth Doctor with generic Doctor dialogue including insults which seem more suited to her predecessor, her only true emotional beat when her friends notice she's slightly out of sorts after last week's episode.  Once again we have a handful of underwritten characters because the script has to also service an overcrowded TARDIS in a limited episode duration and the Doctor also spends a lot of the episode reacting and offering explanations for stuff.  Plus some hopelessly generic rubber monsters lumbering around, their lighting trolling Mat Irvine with its illumination.

When he infamously appeared on Open Air, Chibbers said, "“It doesn’t seem to have much to it, it hasn’t improved that much since it went off the air. It could have been a lot better; it could have been slightly better written, especially the last story. [...] It was also very clich├ęd, it was very routine running up and down corridors and silly monsters.”  When he took over Doctor Who, one hope amongst many was that these words were like the drums inside Mr Saxon's head, throbbing along at the back of his mind so that he wouldn't and couldn't be capable of creating anything like that.  Yet here's an episode which is exactly that, very cliched, very routine with lots of running up and down corridors and as I said, some very silly monsters.  This third paragraph could be seen as belabouring the point already made in the second, but if he's happy to sign off on a script as repetitious as Orphan 55, then I'm confident enough to follow his direction.

Accusing Doctor Who of cliche, as we've discussed before, is a bit of a non-starter.  Like most long running sci-fi franchises, it's forever eating its own narrative tails.  But jesus, another one about the Doctor going on holiday by mistake?  In an oasis-like resort on an otherwise desolate planet?  Where everything goes wrong?  And everyone on the TARDIS crew is surprised including the Doctor.  Part of the artifice of the show to be sure, but having sat through the equally subpar Nightmare in Silver, another episode which has its fans (mostly fans of its author) but is equally bobbins, I have to wonder, has the Doctor ever had a vacation when everything went right?  True, we wouldn't necessarily want to sit through fifty odd minutes of the Doctor and her fam on sun loungers flirting with each other, but given what ranks as a ratings success on ITV these days, it would at least look like part of the zeitgeist.

The show's second crime - the underutilisation of Laura Fraser.  Regular readers will know that for years I've been desperate for the star of Virtual Sexuality to appear on Doctor Who.  Way back, given her association with RTD following luminous turn on Casanova, that she might have been Billie or Freema's replacement or turned up as a one off companion in 2009, but then time took over and always looked doubtful and now here she is playing generic security officer with a secret, mostly called upon to frown or look guilty for the half hour she's in the episode.  Fraser does this very well, but she's so much better than this material, as are all of the guest cast.  I was never a fan of The Inbetweeners, but it's pretty clear that James Buckley is a pretty big hire and yet he spends most of the thing being a rubbish mechanic who doesn't listen to his son.  In a green wig.

The problem is, like I said, the duration of the story isn't long enough to develop the characters beyond the thinnest of stock elements because so much time is spent with the regular companions.  Back in the old plus one days, remember how even what should be a fairly bland character like Father Octavian in Flesh and Stone received the incredibly poignant death scene because somehow amid the many dispirit elements we understood where he was coming from?  That's because between the Doctor, Amy and River we spent time with him amid the shouting.  Granted thumb sucking Bella resonates more here because of her interactions with Ryan, but do we truly care when she dies having been handed the hoariest of old family familiarity twists?  Apart from anything else, do we need another Ryan-centric story like this when Yaz is still right there?  Having three extras was fine in the Hartnell and Davison eras because of story duration.  Now it squeezes everything else out.

But it doesn't help that the supporting characters aren't especially well written.  One of the most fondly remembered characters since 2005 is Raffalo, the blue maintenance engineer in The End of the World and she only appeared in one scene which was only included because the episode was underunning.  Like Rose, she came from the service industry end of the workforce and illustrated to the companion that such social issues still existed in the far future.  It's unfair perhaps to compare Russell T Davies to someone who's only previous screen credits were a couple of episodes of Skins and otherwise mostly in theatre were he seems to have directed more than written but It Takes You Away was my favourite episode of last year so it's a shame to see Ed Hime lose it so conclusively here.  Luthor writer Neil Cross gave us both The Rings of Arkanoid and Hide so no one's perfect, but the character work feels like a first draft which has been rushed into production before anyone has had a proper thought about how they fit and reflect the overall story.

An example of how poorly this develops is in the couple of Vilma and her husband Benni.  You know what I'm going to say here.  In a scene which glances towards and RTD script, Yaz cluelessly interrupts Benni's proposal but beyond that we barely have much time with him before he's offed off screen after a death plea.  Despite the best efforts of Vilma actress Julia Foster (who I know best from playing Margaret of Anjou in Jane Howell's stunning BBC Television Shakespeare version of the Second Henriad back in the 80s) because we don't know (a) what exactly has been happening with the very much not aliens and (b) haven't seen him for most of the story, the moment doesn't land.  There's plenty here and elsewhere to suggest that the episode overran considerably and plenty of connecting tissue in character terms went missing in the cut in favour of the often poorly structured action sequences (it's getting late).

But back to (what there is of) the story.  It's probably unfortunate that Trial of a Time Lord was re-released just a few months ago and it's probably pretty ambitious to assume that a lot of the kids watching will have seen The Mysterious Planet and made the connection between Ravalox and this hunk of dirt but surely a few more of them will have been working their way through the rest of nuWho now its available perpetually on the iPlayer and Netflix and wondered whether humanity develops into these dregs (gettit?) before or after they've become the Toclafane.  Like the destruction of Atlantis, the fate of humanity is one of Doctor Who's returning story ideas, but to go back there in such a perfunctory manner doesn't do us or the message of the episode any favours.  Tellingly the TARDIS Databank episode for Humans hasn't been updated with this new data yet and but does find room for the Faction Paradox spin-offs.

Then, oh god, the final speech.  Now, I've seen this called the Thirteenth's iconic moment and its true, Doctor Who has had its spade naming orations when the subtext becomes text.  But the reason the likes of  "When you've killed all the bad buys ..." speech from The Zygon Inversion work is because they're usually addressing an antagonist and are part of the Doctor's own battle.  After an episode when the environmentalist themes have already been enunciated as best they can under the circumstances, this Gallifreyan TEDx talk felt about as natural as Tasha Yar's drugs are bad PSA to Wesley in TNG's Symbiosis. As Paul Whitelaw tweeted yesterday, "The problem with last night's Doctor Who wasn't that it made a political statement - Doctor Who has done that numerous times since the early '70s. The problem was this: an inarguably sound message about climate change was crudely tacked on to an absolute shambles of an episode."  Rosa feels a universe away.

Weirdly the one element of the speech I have less of a problem is how this global catastrophe can be averted.  As we heard over and again in the Moffat era, time can be rewritten.  There have been divergent moments like Cold Blood which almost cause global repercussions not to mention "Doesn't she look tired" wiping out a golden age for UK politics and heralding in Saxon as well as the wasteland the Doctor presents to Sarah Jane in Pyramids of Mars before they brazen their way into winning.  We know the planet blows up anyway some time after it becomes Ravalox.  I've been arguing for years that the universe reboots itself every time a TARDIS lands and the Doctor opens the door so what we saw in Orphan 55 is one possible future, although I'm not sure what the Doctor's three friends can specifically do themselves.  Perhaps Jodie should have just broken the fourth wall and been done with it.  Night, night.