CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: A deadly virus vs Doctor Who

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews the weekend’s TV: A deadly virus vs the Doctor… can 7bn space puppies save the day?

Doctor Who




The Doctor will finally see you now. Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord has been unavailable for face-to-face appointments since the start of the pandemic in March last year.

But she’s back at last, taking on a deadly contagion with her sonic screwdriver as Doctor Who (BBC1) returns. The first episode in a six-part story had Halloween trimmings but the inspiration appears to be Covid-19.

The virulent villain, known as Swarm, escaped from a sterile environment on a lockdown planet. The scientists who were meant to be keeping an eye on it got careless with their social distancing, and Swarm vaporised them.

As its powers swelled, spikes popped out of its head. It looked like a coronavirus on legs.

Jodie Whittaker takes on a deadly contagion with her sonic screwdriver in Doctor Who

Obsessive fans of the show — Whovians, as they like to be known — will tell you the Doctor has faced a parasitic virus called the Swarm before, back in the Tom Baker era of the late Seventies.

The original monster looked like a giant green prawn. This new version is more menacing and comes with some expensive special effects. Anything it touches is blown to little red particles, like a sneeze in a bowl of potpourri.

A fleet of seven billion spaceships is racing to protect the Earth by forming an impenetrable shield around the planet . . . one UFO for every human. (Quite a nifty metaphor for the Covid vaccine — we all get one and everybody’s safe.)

But the real superweapon against the virus, of course, is a lockdown puppy. Writer Chris Chibnall knows that, and so the rescue fleet is piloted by 7ft-high fluffy dogs. And because this is Doctor Who, the dogs are an alien species called Lupa. But they are obviously labradoodles in space armour.

Nonentity of the weekend: 

As well as Cristiano Ronaldo, Liz Truss and David Attenborough, the new puppets on Spitting Image (ITV) included Mitch McConnell. Who? Apparently he is Washington’s ‘Senate minority leader’. I’m none the wiser. 

Chibnall has never seemed fully at ease with intergalactic fantasy. As the creator of Broadchurch, he is better with psychological plots, weaving criss-crossing storylines with multiple characters.

By reviving the Doctor Who tradition of a single story spread across weeks, he is able to play to his strengths. Inevitably, it is confusing at first: we met a sadistic capitalist in Regency England, a museum guide who was lured into a haunted mansion and a couple sharing a bungalow in the Arctic.

Chief among the new faces was comedian John Bishop, as an impossibly saintly man with bare cupboards and an empty fridge, even though he was volunteering at a food bank. ‘Other people need a can of soup more than me,’ he declared nobly.

You won’t catch spoiled brat Talitha volunteering at a food bank, in Showtrial (BBC1). The only commoners in her world are her drug dealers.

Actress Celine Buckens gives a convincing portrayal of a poor little rich girl who could easily come across as two-dimensional. Sneering at police who suspect her of being involved in the disappearance of a fellow student, Talitha is sarcastic, entitled, immature and a screaming snob.

But she is also vulnerable and insecure. It is easy to imagine her being exploited, perhaps by politician’s son Dhillon Harwood (Joseph Payne) who is her closest friend.

Her loveless father Damian is even more starkly drawn — an emotionless, greedy bully. He possesses no personality beyond his career as a property developer. But Damian is played by James Frain, who specialises in deep and subtle portraits of cartoon villains.

Showtrial takes a familiar theme, the hunt for a missing woman, and twists it in unexpected ways — such as giving the investigators pithy nicknames: DI Butch Cassidy and Sweet Baby James.

I’m in. This one looks good.

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