There’s no face in the new opening titles and no cold open – although I guess we’ll have to wait for next week to find out if that’s just because of the cliff-hanger or if that’s the new normal. Given how prevalent her face was in the series’ advance marketing, it’s a little odd that we don’t get to see the Doctor’s face in the opening. The new titles are pretty nifty, if a little dark at the beginning; kind of a modernised version of the Hartnell/ Troughton era before it transitions into more of a star-field with some gorgeous gravitational lensing effects. It’s a nice blending of the sixties and the eighties eras but I still wish there was a face in there.
Still reeling from their first encounter, can the Doctor and her new friends stay alive long enough in a hostile alien environment to solve the mystery of Desolation? And just who are Angstrom and Epzo?
There’s a whiff of “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” in the resolution of last week’s ersatz cliff-hanger (Graham (Bradley Walsh) definitely strikes me as the kind of person who’d never forget to bring his towel) and despite the fact we’re repeatedly reminder Graham, Ryan and Yaz have never been to space before, it quickly becomes apparent that Ryan has attended the “Prometheus” academy for crashing spaceship avoidance.
Despite obviously being filmed on location, it manages to make many of the scenes – especially in the dune-dominated opening scenes look cheap thanks to some curiously angled shots from Director Mark Tonderai which feel like they’re designed more to hide mundane artefacts than enhance the uneasy alien tension.
The appearance of the tent felt immediately like a throwback to “The Greatest Show In The Galaxy” but in this decidedly non-Easter Eggy era, it was always unlikely. Instead, we get Art Malik in a drab and ultimately empty cameo as some blowhard alien bigshot who’s running an intergalactic elimination race for a top prize of three point two trillion krin (it’s hardly “Enlightenment”) and the final just happens to be on this planet, which is filled with dangers!
Despite the (we’re told) toxic atmosphere and [super-cool sounding] flesh eating microbes in the water we hear about, none of them actually have any impact on the story. It’s hard not to feel that in another Doctor’s era, there would have been a few more crew members knocking about to succumb to at least some of the horrors we get told are jeopardising our heroes. Instead, we get a tantalising menu of horror only to be told that they’re out of everything but soup and salad. For a series which was gung-ho about killing people left right and centre last episode, it was conspicuously gun shy this week.
The Doctor wonders why you’d put robot guards on an abandoned planet when she should be wondering why you’d put such inaccurate and ineffective robot guards anywhere at all. Imperial Stormtroopers would roll their eyes at these guys. The revelation later on that the planet is actually an abandoned forced weapons research facility belonging to The Stenza (Chibnall’s own personal ‘fetch’) it makes even less sense. A range of robot soldiers that couldn’t hit a target standing ten feet in front of them wouldn’t be repurposed as guards, they’d be scrapped as failed products and the scientists would be forced to work on other weapons.
Again, Chibnall can’t seem to focus on one plot element or idea long enough for it to matter. The race is ultimately pointless padding and a way out of the cliff-hanger he wrote himself into last week. The dopey robots are another unnecessary flourish, especially when the episode has a better, creepier monster in its arsenal (Of Freedom, TNG fans – amirite?). The predatory, sentient scraps of fabric known as Remnants are a fantastic creation, especially with their telepathic taunting so it’s a pity they get about three minutes of screen time before they’re summarily immolated due to a conveniently delineated layer of acetylene (although not before dropping a drama bomb!)
As intriguing as ‘The Timeless Child’ may be (clearly the long arc that will propel the entire season and maybe beyond), it stands out like a stream of bat’s piss amidst the rest of the clumsy, obvious and stultifying dialogue. The Doctor’s still apologising for her present by comparing herself unfavourably to her past which is so unnecessary as to be irritating while her friends are reduced to mere bit parts as the Doctor asks and answers her own expository questions.
I’m still optimistic, with this kind of being the second part of a two-part season opener, we’ll be able to move beyond the timidity about the change and just get on with things, especially now she’s got her TARDIS back. The TARDIS isn’t the only hallmark that makes a welcome return either, as we get to see Whittaker’s ‘running down nondescript corridors’ form. It’s pretty good but not as masterful as her immediate command of the ostentatious brandishing of the sonic. Less welcome is the news that Chibnall’s first signature trope is putting tiny things inside people without consent.
The episode reaches its absolute nadir though in a scene where the Doctor appears to completely give up hope of ever managing to escape after the race is over and the winners are teleported away. It’s not only extremely un-Doctorlike but simply baffling given she’s on a planet with a huge amount of cutting-edge alien technology, far more advanced than the one where she managed to forge a new Sonic screwdriver and rig up an intergalactic teleport in the last episode. Thank goodness for Graham who tells the young whippersnappers to buck their ideas up. Only the literal deus ex machina of the TARDIS happening to turn up that very second saves her (and us) from having to explore the implications of the moment any further.
We don’t get much more than a quick tour of the new TARDIS interior, beyond the really weird fact that the exterior is now some kind of porch? It’s an amusing irony that she has to admit to losing her key given how prominently the key featured in her announcement. The design looks pretty cool, a kind of neo-Kryptonian spin on the old Eccleston/ Tennant console room but in a funny way, it feels a little claustrophobic thanks to its dark tones and darker lighting.
It’s still early days and there’s plenty of time for everyone involved to find their feet and start powering on. For the time being, though, everything in front of the camera is good but behind the camera, the cloister bell is chiming for me. Hopefully, next week’s episode, the first not written by the showrunner, will give us a better sense of the true potential of this TARDIS and her crew. It’s worth noting that the newest Whovian recruit in the Craggus household thought the episode was boring and didn’t like it – although she was at pains to confirm that she still likes the Doctor and the show itself lest it meant she didn’t get to watch next week. Of course we’ll be back on our sofas next week, refusing to give up our seats too.