Say you want a Resolution: Matthew Kilburn reviews the New Year’s Special, now half a year old

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Image Credit: Lyndsey Pickup – All Rights Reserved

Image Description: A Dalek mutant themed cake being cut into

Resolution felt a brighter and more energetic episode than many of its recent predecessors. In its immediate wake, several episodes of Series Eleven proper seem most memorable for their technical competence, whether the symmetrical settings of It Takes You Away, the CGI-heavy fantasy factory-warehouse of Kerblam! or the evocation of historical period, whether in the quasi-documentary attention to detail in Rosa and Demons of the Punjab or the more expressively freeform metahistorical commentary of The Witchfinders. In contrast, Resolution appeared more self-assured from the beginning, framing its world-threatening narrative as a bump in the start of a love affair in a straightforward way which would surely have appealed to Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat.

We all want to change the world

Visually, Resolution returned to the sharper contrast last seen in The Woman Who Fell to Earth with less of the dreamlike dawn-twilight palette which while often successful (as in the warm haze of memory which shone balefully across Demons of the Punjab) sometimes seemed at odds with the prosaic storytelling of much of the past series. Indeed, it went further, the cold blues inherited from Woman (and succeeding stories including The Tsuranga Conundrum and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos) now being offset by more reds, a concrete present which reminded me of Frontier in Space’s brutalist future, and of course the green of the reconceived Dalek mutant. It’s tempting to attribute this to the arrival of Wayne Yip, the first director with Doctor Who experience from before the Chibnall-Strevens era to return to the series. Television is a collaborative medium integrated vertically, horizontally and at all conceivable diagonals and so the answer is probably more complicated than that, but there seemed for almost the first time this Doctorate a strong sense of the TARDIS interior as a space in fictional and performance contexts. It was lit more brightly, becoming more clearly a place in itself, where too often in 2018 the TARDIS interior seemed to be made up of islands in a no-place but failed to achieve the sense of dislocation it might have sought.

Arguably, this was part of the deliberate mirroring spotted elsewhere. The Dalek pushes its new self—whether as its reassembled and regenerated form or previously when working through its parasitized host Lin—to its limits when building its new casing, just as the Doctor defined her construction of the sonic screwdriver within her discovery of her new identity in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Perhaps, then, the expulsion of the Dalek from the TARDIS at the climax deliberately recalled the apparent rejection of the new Doctor by the Michael Pickwoad TARDIS control room at the end of Twice Upon a Time. The whole series has been one of transition, with the Thirteenth Doctor now presented as the most at one with her ship she has been so far. I don’t think there were any complaints about ‘new systems’ here, with TARDIS glitches instead being the consequence of the Dalek scout’s jamming abilities. If Twice Upon a Time saw a TARDIS traumatised by a journey from one showrunner’s universe to the next expel something of the new while it could work out how it accommodated this new cosmos, Resolution shows people who have been made new cast out something which is determinedly old and seeking to revive an 1130-year-old mission.

When you talk about destruction

One critic of the current era of Doctor Who said that the series seemed to them to have forgotten how to blend comedy and horror. The cutaway to the screen-addicted family seemed an odd target for a series so much part of the connected world. The use of Impact for the early captions made many of the shots in the cold open suggest meme-spreading GIFs from internet social media, and while this might have been a wry comment about the transmission of the legend of the Custodians, if so it suffered from this legend receiving insufficient development and being sidelined by the time of the climax.

Comedy remains ill-handled and vulnerably dependent on performance alone rather than canny scripting. Horror, though, picked up, with the Dalek possession of first Lin and then Aaron being invasively grisly. Dalek-Lin and Dalek-Aaron were distinct kinds of horror performance, with Charlotte Ritchie’s phases of possession shifting from the confused to the terrified to the submerged to her final surfacing. The audience gets to know and like Lin as she struggles with her kidnapper and abuser. The point where she impassively fails to react to the Dalek’s praise that she is a “useful soldier,” soon after killing two police officers, chills because we fear we won’t see again the Lin we first met and whom Mitch loves. The Dalek has taken and redirected her vitality, though this vampiric element in Lin’s possession seems ultimately self-defeating as piloting Lin for so long causes the Dalek to weaken. In contrast Daniel Adegboyega portrays the hijacked Aaron as a shuffling puppet on the verge of being a living corpse; the Dalek has seized upon the depression and isolation on which Aaron’s sense of agency depends and physically caricatured it.

If the Dalek possession is horror, why are neither Lin nor Aaron despatched in a ghastly fashion like the possessed and transformed humans of mid-1970s Who or indeed 2000s episodes which paid tribute to that era such as The Unquiet Dead or The Satan Pit? Taking such a route with this story would have been dramatically wasteful and unjustly fatalist. We have no eugenicist Noahs, condescending Scarmans or fraudster Keelers here, nor a tragic abused Thea Ransome. Unlike Babylon 5’s Keepers, which they slightly resemble, there is no sign that a new Dalek will grow from remains left inside its host. Instead the violated characters survive and are restored so they can resolve their destinies and not succumb to fatalism—Aaron by dealing with the shadow of not being able to live up to his mother’s expectations, Lin by not running from a new romantic attachment. There’s a deliberate echo, no doubt, of 1974 story Planet of the Spiders—spiders, on the back or otherwise, take many forms. Here, release from physical possession by another leads to greater self-possession. It might be thought an elementary allusion, but part of Doctor Who’s remit is and has been to introduce audiences to the basics.

People with minds that hate

While Lin, Aaron and also Graham and Ryan all go some way towards resolving their relationship issues, the Doctor is the only person to specifically make a resolution in this story: “I’m coming for you, Dalek.” There’s another parallel here. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in 2005 was criticized in much the same way as Jodie Whittaker’s was in 2018, as a Doctor who stood at the side of the action and failed to take leads. This never rang true to me, as the ninth Doctor was clearly not just an influencer, but an interventionist and very capable of giving orders and having them taken seriously. (The roots of Danny Pink’s berating of the Twelfth Doctor as ‘officer class’ in Series Eight can be justified in the manner in which the Ninth Doctor takes command of soldiers in Aliens of London.) The Thirteenth Doctor too has been criticized for observing too much and acting too little, “sidelined within her own stories” [Max Farrow, Screen Rant, 8 December 2018] and less known to her audience at the end of her first season than any of her predecessors. She’s even been described as “kind of wet,” arguably the result of the Chibnall-led writing team having “overshot” a justifiable decision to cut back “that ‘lonely god’ stuff” [Jonn Elledge, New Statesman, 7 January 2019].

These criticisms emphasise what the Thirteenth Doctor isn’t rather than what she is. She has a certain priestliness, which qualifies the awkwardness in which she fits into the absent space in the Ryan-Grace-Graeme triangle. Grace O’Brien embraced and lived through her roles of mother and wife and nurse, taking things as they came and managing the lives of those around her, not necessarily to their benefit. It is questionable whether forcing the dyspraxic Ryan through the ritual of learning to ride a bike does Ryan very much good. Grace’s determination and belief that she will win through with indifference to the risks is fatal. This contrasts with the Thirteenth Doctor’s ‘radical helplessness’. An article at The Atlantic by Kelly Connolly [10 December 2018] which used this term in its headline finds that this version of the Doctor is frequently unable to overcome the severe social problems which she encounters.

Having exhausted being a Doctor of War, this Doctor expresses herself as a Doctor of Hope; but the Doctor is now open to the charge that she prioritises piety over effectiveness. I’d argue that this Doctor instead places herself among the pebbles and arranges them so that they may better cause the avalanche. The revolutions are not always obvious or even inevitable. Few observers seem to have been encouraged for the future of Kandokan society by the promises made by Judy and Jarva at the close of Kerblam! although this still left their employer and their world open to incremental changes in attitudes and social policy. The Doctor’s declaration of faith in love—“because love is a form of hope and, like hope, love abides in the face of everything”—in Demons of the Punjab seems to stand in the face of the story which is about to unfold, as Prem goes to his inevitable death. However, love succeeds in Umbreen’s second marriage, in her family, her life in Sheffield and Yaz’s life there and with the Doctor and with us, the viewers. The revolution is perpetual and capable of surprise; but this model is not far from the revolution of the wheel turned by anger and ignorance, as that fundamental text of literary-minded 1980s fandom, Kinda, told Doctor Who’s viewers in 1982. There is a potential challenge here to Doctor Who’s viability.

Returning to an earlier Doctor Who story influenced by Buddhism, Planet of the Spiders had its Time Lord projection-priest Cho-Je remark that when everything is new (or following an inevitable path of change) how can anything be a surprise? Dramatically, one might think Doctor Who thrives on surprise, of an endless stream of horrors perpetrated upon and sometimes by its lead character, whose benign activity has for much of the programme’s history been contrasted with unspoken—potentially unspeakable—darkness within. How, then, does a Doctor Who work where the lead character is not a mysteriously powerful being dealing with unprecedented trauma by ‘being kind’, but has been reincarnated as the high priest of hope? Perhaps Resolution tries to provide an answer, as Ryan’s experience of travel with the Doctor and his resulting acceptance of Graham’s grandfatherly love had lend to and inculcated in Aaron the strength to face his anger, accept his weakness and those of others, and strive for a path without resentment and without the literal Dalek-demon on his back. It’s Aaron who narrates this episode, after all.

We’d all love to see the plan

When anticipating this series of Doctor Who, I’d remark that I was looking forward to finding out what Chris Chibnall’s authorial voice was, as I didn’t feel I’d heard it in his earlier Doctor Who contributions. I’m not sure that I’m any closer to finding out. Several critics, including some early reviewers in the commercial media, thought Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who is a police procedural drama echoing his greatest hit, Broadchurch, but also acknowledging his earlier work on Law and Order: UK and of course Torchwood. I’ve discussed this with those more familiar with the procedural genre than me; one friend described (I think, from memory) the current TARDIS team as consisting of the Doctor as the youthful, optimistic new broom inspector, Graham as the old sergeant who has seen all the angles and doesn’t think he can learn anything else, and Yaz and Ryan as the new constables, one an enthusiastic team player who looks up to the new boss and the other more of a loner, still dealing with personal issues which affect their work.

Series Eleven has been bookended by direct references to the police, first Yaz’s job, foregrounded in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and then (to the surprise and disappointment of several fan commentators) seemingly forgotten about; and the Dalek-possessed Lin in Resolution assaulting two police officers and then taking one of their uniforms. Both Yaz and Lin are presented as women younger then the Doctor, both in terms of physical appearance and experience; they are both in their way her acolytes, under what Steven Moffat’s Doctors might have called their duty of care, and in the Thirteenth Doctor’s case spontaneously adopted into her ‘fam’. There’s something about learning, accepting and having faith in the social cohesiveness which makes Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who tick, and that means promoting an understanding of the police as conciliatory rather than coercive, Yaz’s way of doing things over Dalek-Lin’s deceptions and murders. The Doctor in the shape of Jodie Whittaker is more pacifier than manipulator, moving with systems and events, navigating the flow of a lethal river like in The Ghost Monument.

The Doctor as teacher of peace might relate to another comparison made, that in consciously reshaping Doctor Who for Sunday night, Chris Chibnall has looked to BBC One’s most enduring successful drama series on Sunday evenings this decade, Call the Midwife. Call the Midwife blends a gentle and superficially undemanding tone with assertive treatment of historical developments in health care and wider society. It chooses when to land its punches and when to pull them. In the 2019 series, the formation of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1964 was presented through the election of Violet Buckle (Annabelle Apsion) as a councillor, but without any sense of the political disputes in 1960s Poplar or indeed of which party, if any, Violet was a candidate. In contrast the plight of an elderly woman (Clarice Millgrove, played by Annette Crosbie) in poor physical health and suffering in consequence from a mental health condition was treated more seriously, as were the limitations of the 1960s health service’s attitude to the vulnerable elderly. Scripting the attending midwife (Lucille Anderson, here acting in more general nursing capacities, played by Leonie Elliott) walked a tightrope between 1960s attitudes and those of the present day, assisted by the decision to make the elderly woman a veteran suffragette and a survivor of forced feeding.

Call the Midwife is in a sense a time travel series, its inexperienced younger midwives being educated not only in midwifery but in the history, especially women’s history, if the first six decades of the twentieth century. There are certainly correlations with Rosa, as the Doctor and her friends learn about white privilege and oppression against the black population, try to ameliorate the situation, but are imprisoned by circumstances.

You tell me it’s the institution

Dipping into academic work on Call the Midwife turns up articles examining how the series portrays women’s conversation across generations. The young National Health Service midwives receive instruction from older midwives from a religious order, care and learning passed on across the changing symbolism of turning ages. Doctor Who’s Grace O’Brien was not a midwife but a cancer nurse, but she represented a tradition of female action which she could pass on to the newly female Doctor. It’s tempting to argue that Grace’s death isn’t a surrender to a sexist comic book trope, but instead her adoption of a gung-ho confrontational attitude which might be characterized as masculine, inspired by the Doctor, leading to her death. She is not a victim, just another flawed person in a series of flawed people facing difficult choices. Through the lens of this model, in succeeding episodes it’s not just the two men, Graham and Ryan, who are inspired to become heroes, but the Doctor is enabled to move from hero to heroine. She becomes the older woman educating Yaz, but this is backgrounded partly because Yaz’s hero-worship of the Doctor (manifested in Mandip Gill’s performance rather than in dialogue, but probably intended) is based on how Yaz interprets the Doctor’s self-presentation. Widely, the Doctor takes time to understand herself in terms of the woman others see, only accepting this role as late as The Witchfinders.

How might this apply to Resolution? The Doctor becomes not just Yaz’s mentor, but Lin’s, protecting her as far as she can and urging her to keep up her spirit and resist the Dalek. The Doctor heals Lin not unlike a nurse in Call the Midwife’s Poplar, administering medicine with a sometime hard-partying northern lass’s advice on hangovers and how to deal with them. Lin is played of course by a former Call the Midwife regular, Charlotte Ritchie.

Call the Midwife has a narrator, its episodes topped and tailed by Vanessa Redgrave as the mature Jenny, the (by 2019) long-disappeared original lead of Call the Midwife played by Jessica Raine. In Resolution, this role is assumed by Aaron. His reference to “unlikely friends” in the closing narration grates, as two of the Doctor’s extended fam are colleagues who have fallen in love and the core team all know each other well and have been shown to have complementary character traits. Nevertheless the speech recalls Call the Midwife’s emphasis on the bonds forged between women of very different backgrounds and life experiences.

We are perhaps supposed to take away that it’s Aaron who has learned the most from the episode, and become a better person and father, with Lin and Mitch holding hands as a pledge to his future as much as theirs. The dematerialisation of the TARDIS acts here as much as a parting of the veil between worlds as the Doctor’s blessing of the marriage of Prem and Umbreen did in Demons of the Punjab, and with a comparable effect.

A real solution?

I suspect there’s a lot to be said about the Thirteenth Doctor standing at the crossroads of feminism, between an essentialist view which sees feminism as defending the worth of those roles seen by late twentieth-century western culture at least as historically female, those of caregiver, peacemaker and consensus-builder, and that which rejects the confines of gender expectations. (Chris Chibnall has form here: see the replacement of Russell T Davies’s excessively militaristic and compassionless UNIT with the calmer civilian-led version introduced by Chibnall in  2012’s The Power of Three, the civilian leader being a woman, Kate Stewart.) The Thirteenth Doctor might stride across worlds in a long coat and trousers like Tom Baker and David Tennant, but she’s much more concerned that the community confirm her as the instrument of moral consensus, asking her friends to witness that she gave the Dalek a chance for a negotiated settlement before attempting to kill it at GCHQ. If the Doctor’s attempts not to play god end in her accepting from The Witchfinders onwards that she can’t be a bystander even when the norms of the society she is visiting demand it, she will at least do so having asked others to restrain her if they think it right.

Returning via Kinda to another Doctor accused by critics of being ‘wet’, Peter Davison’s Fifth, the Doctor has tried here to mend their ways after acknowledging there is a problem. Viewed in the context of the continuous narrative of the programme, whereas (as Frank Collins wrote at Cathode Ray Tube [2 January 2010] of the change from the Tenth to the Eleventh Doctors) the price for previous Doctors’ achievement of self-knowledge was to regenerate and return to adolescence, here the Twelfth Doctor’s recognition that the core of what he did was being kind has led to a Doctor who more than any other most obviously loves her enemies and is not outwardly troubled by the consequences, but whose maturity robs the character of much of the inner conflict which has engaged viewers in the previous ten series.

Problems with Doctor Who in 2018 have been as much about intention as execution; the relationships between the Doctor and her friends need to have been written with more wit and energy to carry them through the changing situations with sufficient continuity. Unlike in Call the Midwife there’s no fixed setting against which the audience can measure the slow evolution of the characters. Resolution was a step towards re-energising Doctor Who. The concentration on Graham and Ryan’s story this year, together with hints (in The Ghost Monument) of Doctor-centric arc material to come, suggest that Chris Chibnall is playing his game long, refusing to burden his series with questionably satisfactory  linking high concepts such as Series Nine’s Hybrid. At the same time, he’s yet to convince that he’s found an adequate replacement, or that he understands the senses of terror and the absurd which have underpinned the best Doctor Who. He is evidently highly conscious of the programme’s role as social observer in a manner which recalls the first Russell T Davies series. Hindsight may be more confident of Chris Chibnall’s handling of the programme than many feel now. Resolution was more exhilarating than most episodes in Series Eleven, which had other priorities, but there remain issues which suggest the production team need to engage further and more deeply with the Zeitgeist.

Tides 43 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link

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