We’re two episodes into the new season of Doctor Who, and so far, it feels nothing like Doctor Who.
This isn’t a bad thing. I’ve been watching this show since I was six years old, and for all that time, it’s main message has been this: the only constant is change. Doctor Who is a story about an alien with a magic box that can go anywhere in time and space. That is possibly the greatest premise in the history of television, since it allows the show to do anything, to be anything, and to change it up from week to week. This is a show that flips genres every chance it gets, giving us a horror film one week, a science fiction adventure the next and a dramatic history lesson the next.
Add to that the concept of regeneration – the Doctor’s body changes completely every few years, allowing for new actors to play the part and entirely new casts to rotate in and out – and you have the perfect recipe for an infinitely malleable series. We’ve had 13 lead actors playing the part now, and each is very different from the other. But until this year, they’ve all shared one inescapable trait: they’ve all been white men. That’s changed with the brilliant casting of Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor, and it’s a shot in the arm that this series needed.
But here’s the thing: a new lead actor is rarely the sea change you’d think it is. The real changes come when the creative team refreshes, when the lead writers and producers who have made their mark on the show make room for new blood. In the revived series (the show ran from 1963 to 1989, then took a break until 2005, when Russell T. Davies returned it to our screens), we’ve seen five Doctors come and go, but the tone only significantly changed once: when Steven Moffat took over as show runner in 2010.
We’re in one of those seasons of change right now, and it might be the most significant and complete since the switch to color in 1970. Chris Chibnall, infrequent Doctor Who contributor and creator of Broadchurch, has taken the reins, and his mantra appears to be “change everything.” A lot of these changes are super exciting, from Whittaker’s casting to a whole new crop of writers and directors to the replacement of composer Murray Gold with Segun Akinola. Doctor Who, a show that has preached inclusion since the beginning, is now one of the most inclusive shows on television, hiring loads of women along with the show’s first writers of color and its first composer of color.
The result, as I said, looks nothing like Doctor Who. Virtually everything I have come to associate with the revived show, from the snappy pace to the quippy dialogue to the whole feel of the cinematography to the soaring orchestral music, is gone. Chibnall set himself a monumental task – to basically restart Doctor Who with an entirely clean slate – and he made it even more difficult by refusing to include any of the classic monsters and villains who have come to define the series as much as the Doctor and the TARDIS. No Daleks. No Cybermen. No appearances by the Master. These stories will stand or fall on their own.
So far, they’re standing, but they’re a little rickety. That’s not a surprise – Chibnall has never been the best writer in Britain, and when you change everything to this degree, there are bound to be a few growing pains along the way. Most people probably came into this 11th season (actually the 37th season, if you think of the old and new as one show) most worried about Whittaker, and how she would capture a character that has been male since its inception. As I thought she would be, she’s fantastic. She’s easily the best thing about this series so far. Her performance is manic yet measured, alien yet empathetic, much more immediately heroic than Peter Capaldi’s gruff twelfth Doctor, yet still as quirky and sometimes off-putting as every Doctor before her. She just, you know, is the Doctor, seemingly effortlessly, and when she’s on screen I can’t take my eyes off of her.
She has a full cast of companions this time, and we meet them all in the premiere, The Woman Who Fell to Earth. This is a pretty good regeneration story, Whittaker’s Doctor undergoing the usual mind-scrambling effects of changing every cell as an alien threat presents itself, and it feels intended to introduce our expansive cast, all of whom hail from the Yorkshire area of England. Graham, played by Bradley Walsh, is the gruff yet caring stepfather to Ryan, played by newcomer Tosin Cole. Ryan suffers from dyspraxia, a coordination disease, and I like how seriously the show and Cole have taken this so far. The cast is rounded off by PC Yasmin Khan, played by Mandip Gill, and she’s probably my favorite, even though we know the least about her so far.
One thing immediately apparent with The Woman Who Fell to Earth (and even more apparent with episode two, The Ghost Monument) is that the show has never looked this good. The BBC has clearly sunk some money into the cinematic style here, and the new directors seem more experimental than any of the older crop (except the amazing Rachel Talalay). There’s a darkness to the first episode that threatens to turn it into Torchwood, but the second is unfailingly bright – oppressively so – and it’s even more gorgeous. I can scarcely believe this is my little show, with its long history of rubber monster suits and wobbly sets.
As I expected, alas, Chibnall is the weak link so far. The two stories he has given us are… you know, fine. I was miles ahead of both of them, and they played out in a linear, straightforward way. Chibnall’s dialogue is functional, which is a huge comedown from the rapid-fire wit of Moffat’s Who, his characters are two-dimensional and his plotting is flimsy. The new monsters he’s introduced, the Stenza and the Remnants, are not winners, and the notion that the Stenza might be the big bad of the season is disheartening. Everyone’s doing their best with what Chibnall has given them, and I hope he settles in and finds a groove soon.
Until then, my hopes will lie with the other writers. Next week we get children’s author Malorie Blackman telling the tale of Rosa Parks, and man, I hope this is good. This season has introduced an astonishingly good new Doctor in a fairly mediocre way, and she deserves better. Honestly, everything about this season, from the actors to the cinematography to the pulsing electronic score, deserves better than what Chibnall is delivering. I’m hopeful that he’ll rise to the occasion soon enough, because he’s the only thing holding this back. Everything else feels nothing like Doctor Who, but feels right on.
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Speaking of Brits over 50, I have a couple of them to talk about this week.
We should start with the celebration-worthy return of Elvis Costello. I will put this as simply as I can: any list of the world’s greatest living songwriters that does not include Costello is woefully incomplete. We are now more than 40 years past his riotous debut album, My Aim is True, and in that time he has given us 24 solo records and several collaborations with the likes of the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint and the Roots. Along the way he’s tried on dozens of genres and styles, nimbly leaping from noisy guitar-rock to orchestral works to Americana to jazz standards without missing a beat.
You never quite know what Costello is going to give you next, but I’m always grateful for whatever he does. Listening to his work is like taking a master’s-level course in songwriting. His lyrics are bold and erudite, and the stories they tell rarely go where you expect. His musical choices are complex yet his songs are perfectly hummable, with new delights every few moments. He draws from so many different musical traditions that his albums often feel like classic songbooks, even though the songs themselves are all original. He makes records worthy of study, but they’re always just plain enjoyable too.
It’s been 10 years since Costello made an album with the Imposters, his longtime backing band. (They’re basically the Attractions with a different bass player.) Since then, he’s treated us to two records of dark Americana – I particularly love 2010’s National Ransom, an unheralded classic – and a stunning collaborative effort with the Roots. He’s back to business with Look Now, an absolutely wonderful collection of new songs with the Imposters and a host of guests. If you like the Elvis that made Imperial Bedroom, you’re gonna love this.
Look Now is sumptuous. Its sound is full and rich, its orchestral flourishes perfectly gauged. Costello himself sounds energized by these songs, many of which were written for Broadway shows that never saw the light of day. Several of them are sung from a woman’s point of view, including the resurrected oldie “Unwanted Number,” which adds complexity to these morality tales. Burt Bacharach and Carole King are listed as co-writers, and much of this record sounds right out of the classic heyday of pop songwriting. That the production has a Phil Spector tinge to it should not be surprising, given the material.
And the material is fabulous, from first note to last. Opener “Under Lime” is classic Costello, a sequel to National Ransom’s “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” that finds our not-quite-hero in a tryst with a showgirl. The music is amazing, taking melodic turns every few seconds and finding room for a choral arrangement and a brass band, as well as some sterling piano work by Steve Nieve. “It’s a long way down from that high horse you’re on” is as Elvis Costello a hook line as there ever has been. It takes a bit of courage to put this first – it’s so good that it threatens to outshine the rest of the record.
But the rest of the record steps up. We get some pretty piano pieces courtesy of Bacharach, like the gorgeous “Don’t Look Now,” and some killer bluesy pop, like the dark and fantastic “Mr. and Mrs. Hush.” King contributes to “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter,” a big-sounding minor-key pop masterwork reminiscent of Motown. “Suspect My Tears” is another classic, Costello giving it his all behind a sweeping string section. “I Let the Sun Go Down” is a lament for the man who lost the British empire. Amongst all of this, “Unwanted Number” (written for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart) fits in perfectly, Costello not sullying his tune by changing up the gender. (“How can I tell them, how can I express how it felt to step out of this life and into his embrace?”)
This is just a tremendous Elvis Costello album, a return to the classical pop he does so well. Not that he isn’t adept at the other styles he works in, but he seems to have a particular affinity for beautifully melodic pop music, one he hasn’t indulged in many years, and I’m overjoyed to hear him in this setting once again. The deluxe edition comes with a second CD with four more excellent songs, including last year’s single “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way.” Every bit of this album is a delight. I don’t know if Elvis Costello truly can do no wrong, but he’s certainly done no wrong here. Look Now is an instant classic.
Elvis Costello is 64, which makes him the second-oldest Brit in this column. (The Doctor is 55 this year.) The winner is Richard Thompson, who at 69 years old is still making vital, unshakeable music. I never see his name on lists of blisteringly good guitar players, and I’m always mystified by that. He’s been one of the very best for a long time, ever since trading in his acoustic when he left Fairport Convention in 1971. In the past few years he’s taken a tour of his catalog with three CDs of acoustic renderings, but now he’s come storming back with his 18th solo record, 13 Rivers.
And it’s awesome. Thompson traffics in a folksy-rock hybrid that finds him singing cautionary tales and old bard’s poetry over dark electric atmospheres. Opener “The Storm Won’t Come” is about a man looking for self-destruction, and it sets the tone – there’s a thunderous momentum to it, and Thompson stretches out both that deep, distinctive voice and his fantastic lead playing over six glorious minutes. I would be very surprised if anyone can hear the final minutes of this and still think Eric Clapton is all that.
The rest of 13 Rivers is just as swell. The stomping “The Rattle Within” lets loose on a tale of the darkness inside us all, with a thrilling percussive beat. The bluesy “Her Love Was Meant for Me” is a grimy crawl through a black soul. “Bones of Gilead” skips along like a freight train, “Trying” spins an oncoming wave out of bass and air, and the stonking “Pride” is like a creeping, dangerous take on a Byrds song. In the midst of this, he lets in a shaft of light with the delicate “My Rock, My Rope,” but that’s the only one. The other 12 of these rivers will drag you away in their current.
The fact that a 69-year-old man can make a record this vital, this alive, is sort of remarkable. Richard Thompson, like Elvis Costello, shows no signs of slowing down, or of sanding off the rough edges. As a guitar player and songwriter, he sounds just as hungry as he did 35 years ago. Every Richard Thompson album is worth hearing, but 13 Rivers is great even by his standards. It’s proof that he won’t go quietly, and I hope he keeps making records like this for a long time.
That’s it for this week. Next week, probably Neneh Cherry, and who knows what else. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.