The series aggravating inconsistency with format continues although this latest flip-flop is a welcome one as the cold open returns for the first time since “Spyfall” and it’s a corker too, utterly Doctor-free but set it an atmospheric historic location and featuring some fearsome new monsters. The opening credits reveal that this is yet another episode where Chibnall has taken a co-writing credit and, therefore, another episode which isn’t quite what it could and perhaps should have been.
Back in Sheffield, the Fam take some time to catch up with their loved ones, apparently unaware that there is absolutely no reason that three months (or six, or a year) travelling with the Doctor needs to equate to even the blink of an eye to those they leave behind. But while Yaz and Ryan find themselves troubled by visions of a sinister figure who haunts not just their dreams but their waking moments, Graham finds himself receiving plaintive cries for assistance from a woman trapped in a mysterious cage. The Doctor, meanwhile, decides to pop back to 1380 Aleppo, Syria, to answer a distress call and soon finds that she and her friends – old and new – are being manipulated in a millennia-spanning plot by some very, very old acquaintances of our favourite itinerant Time Lord.
It would be all too easy to parse this episode and attribute everything good to the work of Charlene James and everything clunky or discordant to the ham-fisted writing of showrunner Chris Chibnall, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do because all the issues this episode has are the same issues which “Praxeus” suffered from and it doesn’t take an arms’ length waving of the sonic to figure out what the connection is this time. (Why does Whittaker’s Doctor only use her sonic at fully extended arm’s length? Is it because it was bodged together in a Sheffield lockup using junk and spoons? Maybe it’s toxic at close range?)
The lack of understanding of non-linear time aside, Chibnall’s comfort blanket of bland Sheffield domesticity feels, as always, like padding and this is another episode – like the one which preceded it – where padding is the last thing it needed. If anything, this is even more deserving of being explored over two episodes, giving time for its two time periods to be explored (1380 Aleppo feels like a random and disposable location rather than a narratively significant setting) but also to give time and attention to its underlying theme of mental illness.
Given the series’ revived enthusiasm for evoking its past, I did briefly wonder if we were actually seeing the return of The Dream Lord (last seen tormenting the 11th Doctor, Amy and Rory) but it turns out that the episode had a deeper cut into the lore it wanted to make. Zellin, a literal hands-free nightmare harvester and one half of a pair of Eternals, the same celestial lifeforms who count amongst their number the Toymaker (who gets a namecheck), the Black and White Guardians and all those sailors who raced towards “Enlightenment”. It’s a classically creepy Doctor Who flourish, horrifying and a bit silly at the same time, even if actor Ian Gelder occasionally looks distractingly like Russ Abbott in certain lighting. The nightmares Zellin collects are used to provide some much-needed character development for ‘the Fam’, with Graham and Yaz particularly benefitting. Ryan’s story focusses more on his friend’s declining mental health, driven by Zellin’s cultivation of his nightmares, while the Doctor’s glimpsed nightmare focusses on the footage of what we’ve all assumed *is* The Timeless Child.
It’s a messy, clumsy episode which straddles three locations with little semblance of purpose, with the fulcrum being a distant space station where two planets are held in a perpetual collision, trapping the mysterious being who’s been sliding into Graham’s telepathic DMs to ask for help. It’s there, aboard the station, the episode starts to lose its way. Not only does the Doctor demonstrate, once again, a breath-taking lack of care or attention to her companions but she literally blunders into the most obvious of traps, boasting about her tendency to blunder as she does so. Zellin’s plan is one so obvious and transparent it’s the kind of trap previous Doctors used to trigger because they’d already sussed it out and were about to do something terribly clever. Thirteen never seems to do this, but then a character’s only as clever as the writer bringing them to life and clever, twisty plotting isn’t a hallmark of the current Whovian era.
Having spent a good amount of time creating impressive atmosphere and building the stakes, once Rakaya (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is released from her prison, the would-be universe dominating Eternals quickly settle for a parochial Earthbound plot like some pound shop Power Rangers villains only for the Doctor to figure out a way to re-trap them both a little too quickly and easily (ironically in a way that would have been immensely satisfying if it had been her plan all along). It’s a real shame, too, because Clare-Hope Ashitey is fantastic in the tiny sliver of screen time she’s afforded, exactly the type of villain who should be given time to develop and grow in menace but cruelly cut down to a glorified cameo in this.
It does feel like, when co-writing these episodes, Chibnall is commissioning new writers to write a “Doctor Who” story and then writing a whole episode himself and only then trying to retrospectively cut and paste the two together, cramming far too much into too little runtime and sacrificing clarity and coherence as he does so, thus underserving both the intriguing sci-fi ideas and the underwhelming character-driven stuff Chibnall believes is his speciality. Zellin and Rakaya had the potential to be huge villains, but they’re barely a footnote here in an episode which will probably be remembered more for the final exchange between Graham and The Doctor where he confesses his anxiety at the possibility his cancer may one day return and the Doctor brushes it off in a jokey, self-deprecating invocation of her social awkwardness. I don’t think the moment is out of character for the Doctor at all, but I do think it’s terribly written, gutting the moment of any kind of poignancy or humour. If it was a gag, it fell flat. If it was a ‘moment’, it felt flatter.
Chibnall’s repeatedly demonstrated a lack of ability to structure an episode and it’s starting to feel like he’s equally deficient in structuring a season, following “The Fugitive Of The Judoon” and its status quo-shattering revelations with two overstuffed and unrelated episodes and running promotional trailers basically dismissing them and encouraging viewers to countdown to the finale. He’s certainly not got the hang of foreshadowing, with his transparent lack of guile landing him somewhere closer to ‘aftlighting’ as he shines a spotlight on a flashing beacon which says ‘one or more companions are going to leave’.
And yet, we’re still riding high above the dismal depths of last seasons’ drudgery, having switched from not enough ideas to too many ideas. Perhaps in season 13, he’ll find the right balance.