Kiyan

Chris Chibnall, Yasmin Khan, and the Slow Burn

By Kiyan • 15 January 2021
 

It’s been almost two weeks since Revolution of the Daleks aired, and one of the biggest complaints about this latest Doctor Who special that I’ve seen online since is this:

“The Doctor should have spent more of the episode imprisoned.”

Well, maybe that’s a bit disingenuous.

It’s not that the Doctor should have spent more time in Judoon prison, people are saying.

It’s that the special’s marketing — its trailers, its pre-release screenshots, etc. — all seemed to indicate that she would spend more time imprisoned than she ended up spending.

I thought so too. But then again, look at this:
Revolution of the Daleks poster with the Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, Graham, and Jack
See what I mean?

No?

Look closely. See Yaz? There in the center-right? She’s smiling. And she looks super happy.

And Yaz smiling and looking happy was even less a part of the episode than the Doctor’s imprisonment was.

In fact, it’s the opposite. Yaz understandably didn’t have as big a role in this episode as Ryan or Graham did, but when it was her time in the sun, she was mopey, gloomy, and likely suffering from bouts of obsession, depression, or both.

But were people crying “misleading marketing” when it came to Yaz?

Oooooooooooof course not.

Look, I like my words like I like my meat: not minced. So I’ll say it:

Yaz is the unloved stepchild of the Chris Chibnall era of Who.

It’s sad but true. And also not surprising in the slightest. Back in Series 11, Yaz was a puzzle box of a character. Who was she? We didn’t know. Sure, we knew she was a cop. Sure, we knew a little about her family and how she got along (or failed to) with each of them. Sure, we knew a bit about her values — what she thought, what she believed in.

But compared to Ryan and Graham, we didn’t quite know as much about Yaz. Not at the time.

Flash forward to early 2020 (15 years ago at time of writing). Series 12 gave us more to dig into with Yaz, revealing a bit more of her backstory and delving into what makes her tick in episodes like Can You Hear Me?

But even still, her role and her character continued to fall by the wayside, backing off, it seemed, to make room for more screentime devoted to the Doctor and the Master and, indeed, Ryan and Graham.

On that front, this latest special is no different. Ryan and Graham (and cameo appearance/fan-favorite Jack Harkness) take center stage yet again in Revolution of the Daleks, leaving Yaz with a scant few minutes’ worth of the episode devoted to her.

It’s understandable. After all, Revolution of the Daleks is Ryan and Graham’s final episode. Of course it would be dedicated in the main to them.

The Doctor, Ryan, Yaz, and Graham huddling in Revolution of the Daleks

So despite my poking fun at people ignoring the discrepancy between the poster and the finished product, it ultimately makes sense that this small inconsistency would go unnoticed: Yaz’s emotional state understandably plays second fiddle to, well, pretty much anything else you might compare it to in the episode.

Still, even though Revolution of the Daleks has bigger fish to fry, the months Yaz’s spent obsessing over the Doctor and the unequivocally unhealthy lens through which the episode portrays her decision to stay with the Doctor are important.

They speak to the mode of storytelling we’ve been seeing on Doctor Who for the past two and a half-ish years, the mode of storytelling that sets this era of Doctor Who apart from what came before.

The Chris Chibnall era of Who has a very different feel from the RTD or Moffat eras. And that’s largely thanks to how we see characters like Yaz play out.

Once upon a time (2005-2017), Doctor Who was nothing short of a televised incendiary device. It liked to explode, putting its characters through bombastic, life-changing, outlook-shattering, horizon-broadening events each episode and packing everything it had into firecracker finales that left no grenade pin unpulled, all to the triumphant blare of Murray Gold’s unmistakable score.

In other words, Doctor Who liked to put all its chips on the table and, like a little kid too eager to tell a secret, giggle its way through the rest of the game until it got to show its hand. It kept nothing up its sleeve, played every card it had.

Plot beats, backstories, reveals: these came fast. Each episode sucker punched you and then took you on an emotional ambulance ride. Each season was synecdoche to the episodes themselves, propelling you through what felt like the entire range of human emotion, a months-long analogue to each week’s 45-minute slice. And it all culminated every year in gut-wrenching, heartrending finales the likes of which surely, you said, could never be topped.

And you were right. They couldn’t be topped. Which is why each season of New Who from 2005 to 2017 felt increasingly as if it had to outspeak, outperform, and outdo the last.

Along the way, there were a few soft resets that turned the “emotional” and “bombastic” dials back down to zero, or at least close to it. Matt Smith’s first episode for example. Capaldi’s third season.

But this was largely how things were, the modus operandi for 12 years.

No more.

New Who… New-er Who is different. When Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor fell to Earth, she brought Doctor Who right back down to Earth with her. Now, the characters are more grounded. The Bad Wolf and The Impossible Girl and The Girl Who Waited and The Last Centurion give way to a bus driver with cancer, a depressed cop, and a guy juggling dyspraxia with some serious family issues. The “greatest woman [Ryan] ever met,” Ryan explains at the end of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, isn’t who the episode leads you to believe it is at first. It’s not the Doctor; it’s Grace. This is a show, says that first episode of 13’s era, not about how amazing someone like the Doctor is, but about how “special” — that’s the word Ryan uses — an ordinary person like Grace can be.

Now, things are slower and more contemplative. There’s time now. Time to breathe and time to let words, sights, and sounds all sink in. Steven Moffat may have given Doctor Who time travel, but Chris Chibnall gave it time. What would have happened all in one season back in the day takes multiple seasons — years — in this current incarnation of Doctor Who. As of Revolution of the Daleks, the 13th Doctor still hasn’t decided what she feels about the revelations in The Timeless Children yet even after discussing it with her companions a couple times. We’re still waiting on that.

In Revolution of the Daleks, Yaz isn’t front and center. Her story, like the 13th Doctor’s, doesn’t culminate neatly in season finales or specials. Her life, like the 13th Doctor’s and like a real person’s in the real world, doesn’t change instantly thanks to single moments or simple platitudes or epic, emotional climaxes. Her story instead takes its time to grow. We’re still in the middle of it. It’ll show when it’s ready. If it’s anything like Ryan and Graham’s, it won’t end with the Doctor because (unlike how things sometimes felt with the companions of Doctor Who past) her story didn’t really start with the Doctor to begin with.

Yaz fades into the background in Revolution of the Daleks, just as she’s done since the very beginning of the 13th Doctor’s run. Who is she? Who is Yasmin Khan? We still don’t know. Not fully.
But I’m willing to bet we’ll find out.

So though New Who no longer adheres to its initial schema ― no longer winks and smiles and embarks on extravagant gambols and all-or-nothing gambles ― don’t fret and don’t despair.

And embrace the slow burn.


Two+ years in, what do you think of Yaz and the “slow burn” of current Who? Hit us up on Twitter or Facebook and let us know.

Posted by Kiyan in Blog, 0 comments

Torchwood Children of Earth and the Steven Moffat Effect

By Kiyan

On Trust Your Doctor, we’re currently deep in the weeds of Children of Earth, the third season of Torchwood.

And what wonderful weeds they are.

Surprising and surprisingly grim, Children of Earth leaves fetid, gnarly gashes where the previous two seasons of Torchwood contented with surgical cuts. It’s brutal, at least compared to what came before, and that’s a good thing. And we’re only two episodes in.

It’s with this brutality that Children of Earth delimits itself from what came before. “If you expected the same old Torchwood, think heckin’ again,” says Children of Earth as it dedicates its first episode to the wholesale destruction of everything Torchwood had been up until that point — from the new mini-series format replacing the standard 13 pisodes to the seeming disinterest in fantasy alien tech (“The technical name is a gizmo,” Gwen tells Clement of a device she uses to deactivate a security camera, waving a remorseless goodbye to the detail with which previous Torchwood seasons would have tackled this moment). It all culminates in the literal, sudden, upsetting destruction of Torchwood (Torchwood itself, the hub), which gets blown to smithereens shortly before the first daily installment of five is through. It’s a bold refusal to stick to the surefire, to rest on laurels already drooping under the weight of a(n admittedly great) second season. Right off the bat, everything changes.

But what really strikes me the most about Children of Earth so far is the balancing act that the season plays. Every moment of edge-of-your-seat action gets its quieter, more meditative complement, every further fathom of mystery into which the story plunges you its vitalizing oxygen bubble to keep you going — backstories for, revelations about, and contemplations on characters you care about; concrete (😎) stakes that keep you on solid ground while a sea of larger puzzles steeps off to the side. It’s an adventure as lost as it is found, offering the tonally and narratively new up in equal measure alongside remeditations on stuff you already know (and maybe even care) about. Children of Earth takes you on a journey that tiptoes the line between the unprecedented and the familiar, remixing the show’s brief past into its own future vision.

This approach ring a bell? It should for any Doctor Who fan. Because it’s largely what Steven Moffat did over the course of his 10+ years of work on Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat didn’t work on Children of Earth. He didn’t work on any of Torchwood for that matter. But Children of Earth feels more Moffatesque than many actual Moffat stories, and it all comes down to the Steven Moffat Effect.

And that’s not too surprising. Because the explosion? Turns out it doesn’t work. The hub may be gone, but Gwen, Jack, and Ianto all survive.

The explosion doesn’t destroy torchwood. It lays it bare.

What is the Steven Moffat Effect?

But what is the “Steven Moffat Effect?” Well, other than “the term I came up with to give this blog post a clickbait-y title,” the best way to answer that question is with another question:

“Is Doctor Who about time travel?”

Someone who’s only ever watched Classic Who will probably tell you no, or otherwise explain that time travel is really just the show’s conceit, that Doctor Who never really thematizes or, to appropriate the linguistic term, topicalizes it.

Ask someone who’s only watched New Who though, and they’ll probably say that, yes, of course Doctor Who is about time travel. What else would it be about? Blink is great. Haven’t you ever seen Blink?

This is the prime example of the Steven Moffat Effect. The 2010-17 era of Doctor Who takes what was once just a conceit, a usually minor detail in the background that was never a main plot point or even really a big deal, and makes it important, primarizes it. Under Steven Moffat, Doctor Who became a show about time travel in a way that it never was before.

You can see the same thread in other Moffat works as well. Because believe it or not, the same is true of the 2011 Tintin movie that Moffat co-wrote… minus the time travel stuff. In the original Tintin comics, Captain Haddock’s drinking problem serves largely as comic relief. But the 2011 movie turns levity to gravity when it hinges its emotional climax (so its climax) on Tintin’s calling out the Captain’s alcoholism after it gets them stranded in the desert. (Though it’s been 15+ years since I last read a Tintin comic, and I saw the movie once in 2011, so some of this may be wrong(?), and if it is, feel free to correct me.)

Doctor Who and Tintin both have legacies that stretch back longer than most can remember (and the few who can probably don’t care to admit it), and when Moffat (and his co-writers) took the reigns, they ended up reevaluating what were once minor components in a much more comprehensive way and bringing them, in the process, to the forefront.

That’s the Steven Moffat Effect.

And to a large extent, it’s how Children of Earth approaches its being the third season of Torchwood: by taking what were once minor points or jokes and honing in on them with laser focus.

For example, take the…

Big Bad Bureaucracy

Children of Earth remixes a familiar facet of the Torchwood team — their close relationships with one another — and uses it to comment on something that extends far beyond either Torchwood (the team) or Torchwood (the series): bureaucracy.

If acquaintances agree where friends argue, Torchwood must have been really good friends. Because back when Owen and Tosh were alive, these MFers were at each other’s throats 25/8. So yeah, Torchwood is a close-knit team. And as both their somber moment together at the end of Exit Wounds and their adroit teamwork in Children of Earth indicate, Gwen, Jack, and Ianto remain closer than ever into their third season together.

In seasons one and two, this intimacy as a team usually serves as a source of either comedy or, well, basically strife.

But Children of Earth takes things in a different direction. This time, Torchwood’s close bond isn’t just about the three members who are left. It’s also about the possible dangers and potential pointlessness of bureaucracy. Throughout the first two episodes of Children of Earth, the Torchwood trio makes it out of what would otherwise be fatal scrapes either because they’re a small team, because the people they’re up against are the opposite of a small team, or both. In the first episode of the season for example, the team learns about the bomb embedded in Jack’s stomach just in time to save themselves because they’re a team of three who can communicate face to face. And in the second episode, where the government organization out to kill Jack has to pass information through bureaucratic channels coded and riddled with secrecy, Torchwood is able to communicate with each other while evading detection thanks to the intimacy of their network, such as when Ianto tells his sister via postcard to meet him “where dad broke [his] leg,” or when Gwen tries to set up a rendezvous point with Ianto by meeting up where they last “had ice cream together.” Reevaluated and contrasted with the workings of an organization whose commitment to secrecy (even going so far as to namedrop the Official Secrets Act) and middlemen has, so far, been its undoing (Gwen and Rhys are saved because John Frobisher needs someone to answer his phone for him), the close relationships our Torchwood members have with one another and the intimacy of their small team don’t seem so bad. The memory of the downsides that seasons one and two presented still lingers, but there’s a value, says Children of Earth, to the proximity, an importance to not getting so caught up in the business of running a business or an agency or a government that you forget, like Prime Minister Green, to care about other people. It may just save your life.

Ianto and Jack

Children of Earth also explores the relationship between Ianto and Jack in far more detail than ever before, detailing its implications and the effects it has on Ianto more deftly than season two does. When Ianto visits his sister and her family in the first episode of the season, we learn that he has never been in a romantic relationship with another man before. Complicating matters further, Ianto tells his sister that “[i]t’s not men [… i]t’s only [Jack].” And complicating matters further, Ianto’s sister has probably told a bunch of people about it against Ianto’s wishes.

Thoroughly exploring its ins, outs, and implications, Children of Earth mirrors Ianto and Jack’s relationship with its outlook on Torchwood’s intimacy. The latter, Children of Earth claims, isn’t all bad. Likewise, the former, it says, isn’t all good either. The happy fun times of Ianto and Jack’s relationship are just one of its faces, one of its facets. For Ianto, this relationship poses an entire sea of hardship to navigate, and he’ll likely have to crest more than a few challenging waves before all is said and done. As Children of Earth hones in on these difficulties that season two never really concerns itself with, the Steven Moffat Effect is in full force.


All in all, I’m enjoying the direction Children of Earth is taking things. Using familiar points as the launch pad to explore new reaches is an exciting method and a revitalizing approach to creating a new season of an established show. The Steven Moffat Effect, in other words, is indeed, uh, in effect. I couldn’t be more excited to see where it takes us.

That’s it for now. What are your thoughts on Children of Earth and its approach to the Torchwood formula? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

Posted by Kiyan in Blog, 0 comments