Last weekend’s TV ratings were dominated by an interstellar jamboree featuring strange entities, bizarre costumes and unlikely plot twists. Yes, Dancing On Ice really did return with a bang.
But even as it mopped up, poor Doctor Who was left trailing in second place to the tune of over a million viewers. This has led to mutterings of trouble in the Tardis, though the criticisms have been directed at show runner Chris Chibnall rather than historic first female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker.
Part of the problem may have been that the two-parter with which the new Who kicked off the series didn’t feel particularly connected to the franchise’s cosmic lineage. It was a perfectly serviceable James Bond pastiche with the odd alien tossed in, apparently out of a sense of contractual obligation. Some of us appreciated it on its own overheated terms. Yet it seems more than a few Who-heads decided they’d rather see Trisha Goddard landing on her bum over on ITV.
The good news, then, is that episode three is very, very (very) Doctor Who. There are fantastically wobbly sets, a pitched-battle clearly filmed in a quarry outside Who’s Cardiff HQ and, best of all, people in rubber monster suits menacing the Doctor and her trio of sidekicks, Yaz, Ryan and Graham.
Plus there’s a radioactive cherry on top in the shape of a plot twist pinched unashamedly from Planet of the Apes. That devastated world upon which the Doctor and her crew are marooned – the one populated by the rubber-clad nasties? It is – *sinks to knees and wails at the heavens* – our very own... planet… Earth! Specifically a far-future vision of Earth built on the premise that we continue to ignore Greta Thunberg, make merry with non-disposal straws and eventually trigger an environmental apocalypse.
The big reveal comes as a shock to our heroes as they’ve just beamed in for a quick break at what they imagine to be an inter-galactic holiday resort. The journey begins with Graham (Bradley Walsh) accidentally assembling a teleport device out of supermarket coupons (golly, the new scripts can be a bit ludicrous). And then, presto, the gang are whisked off to a deluxe Space Butlins.
Alas, said facility is quickly unmasked as the portal to a holiday from hell. They should have suspected something was up when the first staff member they encounter turns up dressed like a refugee from Tom Hooper’s Cats. Anyway, the upshot is that the luxury spa and retreat is bang in the middle of an Orphan Planet. That is: a world that has endured a cataclysm so horrible that 99 per cent of the population has perished, while the pampered one per cent have cleared off. Perhaps Meghan and Harry were just trying to beat the rush.
Of course, Doctor Who 2020 cannot simply be about our number one Time Lord fighting mutated ex-humans with their huge glistening jaws. So Chibnall and screenwriter Ed Hime chuck in an auxiliary story about an estranged daughter infiltrating planet “Orphan 55” in order to blow up the resort and get even with her aloof mother (who has a senior management position). The subplot feels tacked on, but who cares? The monsters are fantastically silly and Whittaker is great value as she flaps around in the semi-dark looking terrified.
Doctor Who has been a lot of things across the decades yet has always had a heart of purest hokum. So it’s a thrill seeing it reconnect with that lately under-serviced aspect of its personality. Whatever else you can say about Hime’s contribution to the canon, you can’t accuse it of losing its balance and landing on its rear-end. This is Doctor Who primed for lift-off and ready to skate back into the affections of fair-weather fans.
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