TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Sheffield Steel, or a Subjective Look at the Thirteenth Doctor #11: “Resolution”

And so, the long journey of soul-searching the show has gone on over a few months ends.

Resolution” isn’t, of course, some kind of revolutionary masterpiece. But it is, very much notably, completely breaking away from the style Chibnall developed in his Whittaker episodes so far  – empty meditations about absence, a dramatization of the collapse of Who itself, call it what you want. As in the show, and its lead writer, had sort of decided to stop lamenting its inability to rise up to the task, and decided to go “eh, whatever, let’s try”; inverting the set-up of “The Woman who Fell to Earth” as to proclaim that this is the real beginning, that the previous statement of purpose of the era wasn’t quite the right one, and that now we can properly get to business. It’s quite like his work on Torchwood: broad, and kind of sloppy, but it has an energy and a truthfulness to it, bits of brilliance shining through.

It is, of course, difficult to separate genuine qualities of the script from additional meaning brought on by the visual spectacle or the viewer’s own interpretations – especially when said script is executed by a visual artist like Wayne Yip, who makes every shot absolutely sing with both beauty and significance. But – firstly, that’s the case with most media to begin with; and then, it can increasingly be understood as part of Chibnall’s own writing strategy. His comfort zone is very clearly in the interpersonal dynamics, in the mundane and the details – manipulating the symbols of science-fiction, loaded with theme and potential relevance, isn’t exactly where he shines. And indeed, Tzim-Sha, the rather undercooked villain we had to deal with in previous storylines, does rather feel like an attempt at retro-engineering that kind of symbolism without really understanding the storytelling processes that support it, and without having much to put say through that vessel. Daleks are therefore a good choice, because their political coding basically creates meaning all on its own, with very little effort required: it’s not so much a question of weaving an elaborate tapestry around them, more like giving them space and trying not to screw up. Which, to its credit, the episode doesn’t do, not really. There’s the spectacularly awkward bit of referring to the Dalek as a “refugee”, but overall, the techno-thriller aesthetic just clicks with the good old squids.

 

For starters, it reinforces a recurring aspect of their civilization that had been increasingly sidelined by the New Series – that the Daleks are a technological and industrial threat. While their ideology was always some kind of Nation-homebrewed diluted fascism, their aesthetics were firmly rooted in the fear of nuclear annihilation – emotions channeled through technology, to quote Steven Moffat in “The Witch’s Familiar”. And that persisted throughout the sixties: you legitimately could pull off a Marxist interpretation of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, with its workers slaving away in mines and turned into literal robots; and there’s of course “Power of the Daleks”, where David Whitaker isn’t exactly subtle, throwing at you Dalek assembly lines on a planet named after the Roman god of forges and craftsmanship. It’s a theme that has been followed up to this day, especially with David K. Barnes’ superlative 2018 audio drama “The Dalek Occupation of Winter”, which took a layered and cynical satirical look at the interplay between fascism and capitalism, showing middle-class managers so alienated by the emptiness of their life they’d rather commit to fascism because burning people alive and yelling “exterminate!” is at least fun.

We’re obviously not quite on that level of radicalism, but still – the visual of a Dalek being reborn through the remnants of industrial England is pretty neat. Not just that, but its strategy for conquest actively exploits tenants of modern capitalism: it gets its gun back from a tech company that is experimenting on it (surely to spread peace and happiness through the world, no doubt), and tries to contact its fleet through the Government Communication Headquarters, which treats most date that goes through the United Kingdom – while it was ruled that the GCHQ wasn’t breaching any human rights, it still remains an important part of a State-sanctioned system of surveillance, and there are definite instances of abuse on record. It is even capable, in a meta gag that gets even better if you watched the episode online, to control your own means of consuming media and enjoying the episode, with the action fading to a fake buffering screen for a second or two. That, overall, speaks to one of the episode’s greatest successes: the ability to convey the aesthetics tenets of “The Woman who Fell to Earth” through other genres – Sheffield Gothic might be engaging as a concept, but it also was conspicuously absent from most of Whittaker’s initial run, present more as a concept informing the characters’ motivations than as a real throughline. Here, though, you are able to see the full potential of the idea on display: elements from a historical, from a war movie, from a modern thriller, all stitched together to support that quiet sense of discomfort. It shows that it is, actually, a workable idea that could be the basis for a return to grace.

And it comes with a certain level of self-reflection, too – but not the kind that defined the series, this almost existential inner despair. It’s put to good use, it actively informs the plot and symbols: having the Dalek go through the same motions than Thirteen did in her first story, even going as far as possessing a female host, is not just a good way to metatextually position the mutants from Skaro as the antithesis to the Doctor (for after all, the Doctor is “not-the-Daleks”, as Twelve would say in “Into the Dalek”). It carries a sort of implicit criticism: the Doctor and the Daleks both drape themselves in that Sheffield essence, channel it in order to be reborn. Of course, the Dalek means nothing by it: it’s just a mean to an end. And that isn’t without drawing some parallel with the Doctor, who grabbed a working-class coding with both hands and yet ended up in a state where her privileges, more than ever, show through, and where she defends exploitative corporations. Sheffield steel, in both cases, is a pretty casing for something dark. Much like a police uniform can be – hiding real-life brutality, or in that specific fiction, stolen by a possessed woman and used as a disguise; and of course, one shouldn’t forget that the Doctor also travels using the guise of a policeman’s tools …

 

Obviously, there’s the frustration, loudly expressed in the post-air talks across the internet, that the text never actually refers to the Dalek as a fascist, or some kind of genocidal authoritarian figure, instead opting to qualify it as some kind of nondescript “psychopath”. It’s definitely a problem, and one that runs through the series; but I am not sure that it’s entirely explainable through the show deciding to be “apolitical” – indeed, bar “Kerblam!” ‘s nonsensical neo-centrism, I wouldn’t say the series has been. It’s more that Chibnall’s vision for the show is one that focuses almost exclusively on the microscopic: there is a repeated refusal of taking a larger view of things, focusing on small events, almost anecdotic details and lives repeatedly. It’s almost a mantra, but its application in concrete terms is mixed: it offers the series some of its biggest strengths, by lending it a power and specificity it wouldn’t have had otherwise – “It Takes You Away” and “Demons of the Punjab” being obviously, with their tales of broken families, the ones which benefit the most from it all. But it also often undermines the narrative by depriving it of a sense of actual scale (“The Ghost Monument”, to an extent, but especially “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos”, which fails to sell at any point the idea that a world-destroying conflict is playing out in front of us), or of useful historical context (by focusing on a couple days in the life of Rosa Parks, removing all larger context of activism and social struggles).

Here, the results are mixed – there is the frustrating vagueness of the Dalek’s ideology, but, in compensation, you do get the very good scenes where he possesses the bodies of innocent victims. While the ideologies are never named or analyzed, their effect on the body, controlled and twisted to fit an alien(-ating) will, is explored in vivid and gruesome detail. The choice of the hosts is especially relevant that way: a strong woman, who the opening scenes show as in control of her life and sexuality – whose possession scene, with Briggs giving a performance best described as “tentacl’d BDSM dominator”, and Yip making the shots fade into one another in hypnotic transitions, has strong undertones of sexual violence. And of course, a black single dad. The episode lingers on the sordid details – the tentacle buried inside the neck, Aaron’s gait being bent out of shape –, and the result, intentional or not, is a raw portrayal of political violence inflicted upon female and black bodies. That still, mind you, finds notes of grace and comedy that prevent the episode from ever feeling crassly exploitative – the cutaway from Thirteen asking how the Dalek move to a car, for instance, is inspired, as is Yip aping a shot from Men in Black as Lin attacks one of cops that pulled her over. And of course, the episode manages to depict violence inflicted against LGBT people, too, with the death of the gay security guard, which could be forgiven if it weren’t about the third instance of summary “bury your gays” this series, given that it’s relevant enough to the themes, and that it contains a rather delightful sex joke about fingering. It’s not good – frankly, a bit offensive – but there is some energy, verve and naughtiness behind it, which is way better than the limp nothingness of Chibnall’s previous script.

 

A more interesting aspect to the Dalek is the way it is set up as an historical threat, something coming back from a distant past. Really, “Resolution” bears its name well, in that it resolves some of the contrast and paradoxes of the series – for all that it used the past as a source of inspiration and storytelling, to honestly pretty admirable effects, it never actually seemed to unpack a thematic throughline from these adventures. Until this point, where several threads come back – History as an arbitrary whole arising from stupid mistakes and accidents (a watch being broken, a bus being too full or too empty, an arrow finding its target); and the need to reconstitute, piece back a narrative from all the shards, this time directly framed through the useful prism of archeology. After all, it’s not a coincidence if archeologists, from River Song to Bernice Summerfield, have weighed heavily on the Who narrative – for what is the Doctor if not someone who effectively pursues a sort of three-dimensional archeology as a social justice carnival ride? A definition that fits Thirteen especially well, given the historical focus of her adventures and the way she’s depicted as a ball of optimistic mania.

The narrative the archeologists uncover is essentially one that is unresolved, and that the episode is going to try to put a final stop to. It’s taking lessons from the past in order to cope with a dangerous present – not dangerous just because of the putrescent squid of the alt-right, but also because of destructive technology (see the Dalek getting mistaken for a drone), of humanity’s own alienation and disconnect from one another (the Netflix gag, which isn’t without some rancid condescension towards viewers, but does rather fit the overall mood) and of the institutions actively keeping you safe and healthy being shut down and undermined by a political context shifting towards the right. It’s hard to believe UNIT having to close down will stick in any way as a plot decision, but it serves its purpose within the narrative here: a message to stand and fight, in order to regain hope in a hard universe.

Of course, the theme of hope is a bit of a dead horse by this point, with nearly every episode of the series taking its turn passionately flogging it. Hell, the most cringe-worthy moment of “Resolution” ‘s narrative probably comes when we learn the battle in which the Dalek was originally defeated took place in “Hope Valley”. But while there’s an annoying superficiality to it, this specific story does actually manage to land its beats: the Doctor can properly be this “Doctor of Hope” mentioned in “The Tsuranga Conundrum”, because she’s faced with an enemy that both embodies toxic social trends but is also distant enough a catalyst to be properly defeated and exorcised. There is no grievous defeat, no trauma – just hard-fought victory. The arc of Ryan and his dad, while not necessarily mashing well with the scenes of Dalek devastation, at least fits well enough within that overarching theme: there is an adequate amount of raw emotion and difficult, nasty baggage for the reconciliation, as easy as it is, to feel relevant. Relevant is not excellent – and really, given the dynamics of race at play, aiming above perfunctory here was probably an impossible task: but it still works. Largely because Aaron is set up as being prey to this Absence that has haunted the whole series – in the best line of the episode, he talks about not going to Grace’s funeral because, while he was being stuck in this in-between (this Antizone, really), this liminal space of non-completeness, he could still believe that she was alive. But instead of showing someone that is spiraling into the abyss the way the show itself did, Chibnall shows us a man trying to better himself, and ultimately being given a chance at redemption. There’s an honesty to it that makes the vague promises of hope mean something. Especially when Yip and the script actually do their best to sold the idea of the entire world coming together to fight that threat – having Russian and Pacific Islanders keepers overseeing the burial sites of the Dalek is in itself a small detail, but it shows a personal involvement from cultures all around the globe far better than something like a bunch of fake news reports clips. Or, for another example, the incredibly large cast that ends up confronting the Dalek in the GCHQ – no less than seven named characters, of various ethnicities. As much as the individual pieces might wobble, it works on scale, and it works on sincerity, and that’s all you can ask for the last impression viewers will get of Chibnall’s vision for a long time.

 

Really, the move from Christmas to New Year makes sense. Of course Davies loved Christmas, a popular and populist fanfare allowing him to wallow in the most outrageous of aesthetics. Of course Moffat loved Christmas, a time where you tell yourself stories and face conflicted emotions. And it makes sense, for Chris Chibnall, who has talked so much about new beginnings, to have a fondness for the very first day of a new year, full of mystery and untamed possibilities. After a series that seemed to almost wrongfully revel in its own artificiality and emptiness, this “promise of tomorrow” really should not work. But, somehow, as the hands of lovers fade, becoming the edges of the spiraling Time Vortex, it does.

Maybe it’s all a lie, and more disappointment, more absence and collapse, are waiting in store. But it’s a well-old, beautiful one. Time will tell, and in the meantime …

… We can only hope.

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