How’s The Writing Going? (February 2020)

So far in 2020, my attempts at fiction writing have not been going as well as I’d hoped. For several weeks, I’ve continued to wrestle with the vampire story that I’ve been working on for some time now. Sometimes, I’ve had some inspiration and written individual scenes of a few hundred words. But planning the story has been a real problem. I’ve been trying to rework the outline, but I’m struggling to plan out how the second half should go. And while the first two chapters are polished enough for me to have sought and received feedback on them, some of the scenes that follow feel boring, awkward or both. Somehow, it feels harder to turn the messy fragments I have into a cohesive story than it is to write a new story from a blank page for NaNoWriMo.

So perhaps I need to try something different. Being so frustrated with that project, I’ve set it aside for a while in the hopes of clearing my head. Instead, I’m spending some time with The Approach to the New World, the story set on the Titanic that I wrote for Camp NaNoWriMo in 2012. This remains the longest story I’ve written, the one I felt happiest while writing, and the one I still look at most fondly now. I haven’t spent much time re-working it in the intervening years since I wrote it just for myself and didn’t seriously intend to do anything more with it, but now I’m thinking it could make me feel more positive – and sharpen my skills – to see how I can improve it. Inspired by this advice by Anna Davis on reviewing a first draft, I’ve uploaded the document to my Kindle and am in the process of re-reading it and taking notes. It’s certainly different from reading it on the computer, and allowing me to see what can be polished more clearly.

I’m also still trying to learn and adjust my mindset. I recently finished reading Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull, about the management of Pixar Animation Studios; while most of the advice in the book is directed at managers wanting to encourage creativity among their team, there are also useful tips for solo artists. The main thing I took away from the book is that I shouldn’t be afraid of not getting a story right the first time. I’m a perfectionist by nature, and while I can churn words out during NaNoWriMo (usually after a good deal of planning beforehand), at other times I’m being held back by trying to ensure a piece of writing is going to be worthwhile before I’ve set it down. I need to allow myself to experiment, and accept that if one attempt at a story doesn’t work out, it’s not a waste of time. As pointed out in Creativity Inc, even Pixar films can spend years having their stories ironed out, with the final product often bearing little resemblance to the original pitch, only the heart of the concept remaining intact.

I’m currently reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, a short book which I think is also going to be useful. Pressfield starts by talking about “Resistance”, which stops artists from doing their work through forces like fear, rationalisation and the desire for instant gratification. The part I’m currently on is about the difference between amateurs and professionals, e.g. professionals understand that they are not their work and thus don’t take criticism personally. I’m hopeful that this book is going to help my writing mindset as well, and I can get into a routine of doing proper writing outside of November. I’m only going to get better if I put the work in!

 

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Doctor Who – Series 12, Episode 8: “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”

  • This episode had a particularly good atmosphere, with the eerily lit house and the stormy weather. (I think it helped that it was very windy outside as I watched it.) Obviously Doctor Who has done haunted-house episodes before, but this one still managed to feel fresh.
  • The way Yaz talks about the Doctor with Miss Claremont definitely felt like fresh material for the Doctor/Yaz shippers.
  • Graham is still providing the chuckles – he sees a couple of strange figures suddenly appear in the room with him, and his first thought is that they’ve brought him some food.
  • I knew the Cybermen were going to be in the two-parter finale, but it was a surprise to see one turn up an episode early.
  • Jodie Whittaker showed off some of her best acting yet as the Doctor in this episode: first, her angry determination not to see anyone else be assimilated by the Cybermen (presumably thinking of Bill), and then her outburst at the Fam when she is faced with the impossible choice of saving Shelly or stopping the Cyber-War. Stamping her authority and getting frustrated at her own moral responsibility like that isn’t something we see too often from Thirteen, but it shows that she’s still the Doctor.
  • There was a lot I liked about the lone Cyberman, like his half-converted look and how he still has a little emotion left in him, but not enough for him to be redeemed (good subversion there). The way he reaches into the chest and silences Elise is more impactful than if we had properly seen him kill her onscreen. And to cap it off, he becomes the inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster!
  • The biggest problem I had with this episode was that it had a bit too much going on – so many ghostly happenings that it seemed impossible they could all be brought together. And as it turned out, they weren’t: the episode pointedly gives no reasonable explanation for the ghosts that Graham saw and leaves us to assume that they were real ghosts which had nothing to do with Shelley or the Cyberman.

This was a solid episode with a lot of good stuff in it; like Fugitive of the Judoon, I would like to rate it higher, but it was let down just a bit by being overly complicated. Rating: 4/5.

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Doctor Who – Series 12, Episode 7: “Can You Hear Me?”

  • Watching the opening scene in Aleppo, I thought the dialogue was a little too modern – but apparently there really was such a thing as recognition and treatment of mental illness in that time and place.
  • A lot of different characters are getting to ride in the TARDIS this season. It used to be that the “bigger on the inside” revelation was a special moment – now they’re not even bothering to show it.
  • Some unexpected references to Classic Who, with mentions of the Eternals and the Celestial Toymaker – and indeed, the villains in this episode do feel like they’d fit into Classic Who.
  • The “burning” in Ryan’s nightmare might or might not have been about climate change, but it is appropriate that Ryan makes that connection and immediately starts imagining the Dregs.
  • As Pitch Meetings would put it, defeating those eternal beings was super easy, barely an inconvenience.
  • Some people on Twitter didn’t like the Doctor’s reaction to Graham talking about his cancer fears, but I thought it was in character: male or female, the Doctor is good at general inspiration, but not so much at connecting with individual human problems on that particular level.
  • So the central theme of this episode is mental health: Zellin talks about how humans make themselves suffer with their own negative thoughts (if there are other intelligent beings out there, do any of them do the same thing?); the Doctor turns this around by pointing out how we manage to carry on anyway; the side characters are suffering from mental health issues; and just in case we didn’t get the point, the BBC offers a helpline over the end credits. Again, it’s an important subject to look at, and it’s handled better than the theme of Orphan 55, making for some nice scenes like how happy the policewoman is to see Yaz again. But it does feel like the story takes a backseat to discussing the issue; the villains are defeated with several minutes still to go, to allow time for characters to just talk.

After last week’s teaser, I was expecting more from an episode where the characters were forced to confront their worst fears. With more effort being put into exploring mental health, the story ended up being a bit bland. Rating: 3/5.

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Film review: Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey

2016’s Suicide Squad was not a very good film – but one thing that many people did like about it was Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. So to Warner Bros executives, bringing back Robbie for a film with Harley as the main character – while quietly pretending that Jared Leto never happened – must have seemed like a pretty good idea. And wouldn’t you believe, the end result – Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – really works.

After being dumped by the Joker (who, unsurprisingly, never appears onscreen), Harley Quinn decides that from now on, she’s going to be her own woman, and declares the fact to the world by blowing up the ACE Chemicals plant. Unfortunately, this means it’s now open season for the many, many people in Gotham who hate Harley, but were previously too scared of the Joker to touch her. After being confronted by one of these people, crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), Harley is forced to go and find a very important diamond, which has fallen into the hands of young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). With police officer Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), undercover informant Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a crossbow-wielding assassin called the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) also getting involved, a big mess becomes inevitable.

Even though I didn’t think much of Suicide Squad, the trailer for Birds of Prey made it look like a lot of fun – and that’s exactly what it is. Okay, perhaps the kind of black comedy that befits Harley Quinn – such as cutting from a pet store owner propositioning Harley, to her newly bought hyena gnawing on his severed leg – isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. But someone like me who goes to a lot of comic book films should be happy, particularly if they’re looking for something that feels very different from, say, a typical MCU film. There’s not much in the way of deep conversation and complex soul-searching here; just a bucket of raw action, on-the-mark humour and gorgeous, colourful style, helped by a particularly good soundtrack, which carries you on a very enjoyable roller coaster all the way to the end. The effort has clearly been put in on practically every level, and watching the end result feels like pure entertainment.

Margot Robbie is still a perfect Harley Quinn, more than capable of filling the protagonist’s role. Despite her being a mentally disturbed murderer – the first half of the film, which skips all over the place chronologically, seems to reflect the disorganised state of her mind – she still manages to be a sympathetic character throughout. We want to see her move on from her abusive relationship with the Joker, and we feel sorry for her when, in a truly tragic moment, she doesn’t get to eat her perfect egg sandwich. Ewan McGregor is clearly having a great time as the villain, Roman Sionis: camp, narcissistic, and revelling in being the bad guy. The other Birds of Prey are great too, each going on their own journeys, though they don’t really come together as a group until the climax. I would have liked more of Huntress, who doesn’t seem to get as much screentime as the rest; I did like how there’s more to her than just being a female equivalent of the Punisher, with her being socially awkward and practicing one-liners in a mirror.

If you’ve got the stomach for it, and you’re happy with this kind of dark, crazy humour, Birds of Prey is a highly entertaining film that will put a smile on your face without any need for Joker toxin. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Film review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

ABDITN

Growing up in the UK, I didn’t get to watch Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood – all I really knew of Fred Rogers was the occasional reference to him on other American TV shows. I learned a lot more about him more recently from watching the documentary film Won’t You Be My Neighbour, and I find him a very interesting and affirming figure. With all the revelations about entertainers like Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and many others, it’s easy to imagine that Rogers was too good to be true and must have had some skeletons in his closet – but no, apparently his wholesome, optimistic, non-judgemental persona was entirely sincere, which is rather wonderful. So who better to play him onscreen than Tom Hanks, another beloved figure who, while actors all around him are accused of misconduct, remains pure and above reproach?

In A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, however, Hanks’s Mr Rogers isn’t actually the main character – he’s more of a catalyst and advisor for the central figure, a journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). While the film is inspired by a 1998 article written about Rogers, the story and Lloyd are fictional. Lloyd has a cynical attitude on life, much of which stems from being abandoned by his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) – so he is less than enthusiastic when he is given the assignment of writing a puff-piece about Mr Rogers. In their interviews, however, it ends up being Mr Rogers who asks most of the questions, gradually persuading Lloyd to look inside himself and confront his emotional issues.

The story of a cynic whose heart is thawed by a more optimistic figure has been told many times before, but I liked this take on it for its subtlety and humanity. Rather than having Lloyd learn some life lessons by outwardly embracing Mr Rogers’s world and philosophies – though this sort-of happens in one bizarre dream sequence – his development is internal: his time with Rogers acts like a gentle therapy session, as he learns and opens up through the power of talking and reflection. The overall tone is sentimental without ever being sugary-sweet, and if the film wants to encourage we, the audience, to think more like Mr Rogers, it doesn’t throw it in our faces. There’s a scene late on where Rogers asks Lloyd to reflect on something for one minute, and spends much of that minute gazing benevolently into the camera, clearly encouraging the audience to do the same – but by that time, we’ve been persuaded to go along with him just like Lloyd.

Even if Mr Rogers isn’t the focus, the story of Lloyd and his family is engaging enough to hold attention, with the central figures all feeling very human and understandable. Even Jerry, who could have been just a two-dimensional deadbeat dad, is instead more fleshed out, portrayed as a man who sometimes has a disagreeable attitude, but acknowledges that he has made mistakes and wants to make up for them. While Mr Rogers himself – who is portrayed very convincingly by Hanks – is not explored emotionally to the same degree, he is still made out to be human. He is not a saint, nor does he pretend to be, being surprised and almost confused when Lloyd asks if he sees himself as a hero; he is simply a man who wants to do good, and does. I also liked the aesthetic of the film, with Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood almost being used as a framing device; there are scenes of Rogers talking about Lloyd to the audience as if filming an episode of the show, and several scene transitions use the show’s models to demonstrate travelling somewhere, which adds another layer of charm.

So even if you don’t know that much about Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is still very much worth a watch, for a good dose of positivity in a world that so often seems grim. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Doctor Who – Series 12, Episode 6: “Praxeus”

  • What with kicking off in a bunch of different locations, and it not being at all clear what’s going on, this episode’s opening feels reminiscent of some Steven Moffat episodes where he would try to be too clever and just make a complete mess. Thankfully, it’s much better than those, partly because a basic connection between the events is established relatively early.
  • According to the TV in the bar where Jake has a drink, Liverpool are “increasing pressure” on Manchester City. Either this story takes place during the 2018/19 football season or this is definitely an alternate universe, because when you’re 22 points ahead in the league table, you’ve rather passed the point of increasing pressure on your nearest rivals.
  • Jake reminds me a bit of Detective Duggan from City of Death, as an officer of the law who likes solving problems by getting physical.
  • There’s creatures in gas masks and the Doctor doesn’t make an “are you my mummy?” reference? What a waste.
  • Good to see Yaz taking the initiative and going off to do some useful work, given that of the three members of the Fam, she’s usually the one who gets the least to do. I also like how the Doctor is more impressed than annoyed to hear about Yaz using the teleport, unlike how previous incarnations would react – “Well, you don’t do things by halves” – and even expresses pride once they meet up again.
  • The main flaw of this episode is that there are too many side characters – Gabriela practically disappears in the third act.
  • You’d think that Jake might be more worried about the dangers of Adam’s profession than feeling unable to live up to him, but to the writers’ credit, that could be seen as avoiding the “astronaut spouse” stereotype, just as they avoid gay stereotypes with Jake and Adam in general.
  • Just like Orphan 55, the episode is built around an environmental message – this time, the problem of plastic – but it’s handled much better here. The issue is properly integrated into the story, with relevant facts being provided rather than blatant preaching; it’s foreshadowed early on where Gabriela and her friend find the river with trash scattered everywhere; and the main conflict still ultimately has an extraterrestrial origin which is merely exacerbated by what humans are doing wrong on Earth.

This is my favourite episode of Series 12 so far. It’s fast-paced, exciting, well-constructed, handles its message properly, and while there are a few too many side characters, they’re still not a bad bunch. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Doctor Who – Series 12, Episode 5: “Fugitive of the Judoon”

  • For one horrible moment in the opening, before we found out Ruth’s name, I thought that joke on social media that Chloe Weber was coming back was actually true. Don’t scare me like that again, Doctor Who!
  • The Judoon are one of those monsters I have no special affinity for but certainly don’t mind seeing either. They managed to be quite funny in The Sarah Jane Adventures.
  • It looks like the Thirteenth Doctor’s getting a bit more development as we see her coming into more conflict with her team – and it’s heartwarming to see their bond reinforced as they still don’t hesitate to stick by her.
  • With everything seeming rather too straight-forward at the start, I was expecting a twist somewhere. I actually wondered if Allan the inappropriately-behaving shop owner would turn out to be the fugitive until the Judoon killed him. As it turned out, there were quite a few twists – just not that one.
  • Captain Jack is back! That was brilliant – John Barrowman is so much fun. I liked how he thought Graham was the Doctor at first; just a shame he didn’t get to meet her this time round. Hopefully he will turn up again later, because it would be a terrible waste if he only came back for a glorified cameo to introduce a new plot thread. Fingers crossed…
  • “Beware the lone Cyberman.” So that’s something else to figure out this season on top of the Timeless Child, the second destruction of Gallifrey, and what the heck is going on with this episode’s big twist. Hopefully (there’s that word again), it won’t end up being too much.
  • With the revelation that Ruth was actually the Doctor, my first thought was, “Yeah, you tried that before with The Next Doctor and I wasn’t fooled then; Jodie Whittaker’s already said she’s doing another series!” But then it turned out Ruth wasn’t a future incarnation after all, and everything else about her seems legit. Possibly she’s the Doctor from an alternate universe, which could explain her differing characteristics like her ability to fight and willingness to rip a Judoon’s horn off – but then, what would Gat be doing in our universe too? This could potentially be an interesting one.
  • Should have realised Gat was Gallifreyan with that headgear.

This episode started out looking very basic, only to end up veering wildly in different directions – and once those twists got straightened out, it ended up being pretty fascinating. I’d like to rate it higher, but I want to see how good the ultimate payoff is. Rating: 4/5.

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Doctor Who – Series 12, Episode 4: “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”

  • This episode gets into the action very quickly, and generally keeps up the pace throughout – though it does have time for some nice conversations, particularly between the Doctor and Tesla on their shared passion for inventing.
  • I like seeing Graham, Ryan and Yaz in their period dress, and how their knowledge of Nikola Tesla reflects the majority of today’s population: Ryan and Yaz haven’t heard of him at all, and Graham knows he’s a famous inventor but can’t recall exactly what he invented.
  • It would have been easy to just make Thomas Edison a villainous Trump-style figure – but thankfully he’s not all bad, instead providing an interesting contrast with Tesla as a more pragmatic and business-minded inventor. Really, the closest this episode comes to maybe, possibly taking a jab at the modern political climate is the protester who calls Tesla a “foreign lunatic” and says he doesn’t belong in America.
  • After the embarrassment that was Hyph3n in the last episode, the Queen Skithra is much better done, with great makeup, jerky insectoid movements and a creepy-crawly voice. (And she’s played by Anjli Mohindra, a.k.a. Rani from The Sarah Jane Adventures!) I also liked the little detail of the Skithra workers being quite clumsy as they chase the heroes, hampered by too many spindly legs and top-heavy bodies.

My feelings about this series were not at their highest after last week’s episode, as it felt like it was just proving the haters right. But this episode was much more fun and felt like traditional Doctor Who – a reliable recipe of history, action, monsters, and a good mix of characters. Here’s hoping we continue in this vein. Rating: 4/5.

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What Do You Like About Your Favourite Fiction Books?

Recently, I started thinking about what my favourite literary works of fiction are. And then I started thinking about whether there are certain qualities in a book that draw me to it.

To help figure this out, I went over my bookshelves and Goodreads profile, and ended up with a list of 58 fiction books or book series that I especially enjoyed. While a book doesn’t have to belong to a particular genre for me to enjoy it – if it’s good, it’s good – I am often drawn to certain kinds of books: of those on my list, eleven were historicals, eleven were mainstream or otherwise had genres that were hard to pin down, nine were science fiction, six were fantasy and five involved vampires. Some of these are my favourite genres to write, as well: of the twelve original projects (i.e. not rewrites) I’ve completed for NaNoWriMo or Camp NaNoWriMo, five were historicals and four were fantasy. (The other three were fanfiction, a collection of short stories and a vampire-based thriller.) Maybe I should try writing science fiction for a future NaNoWriMo.

I know why historical fiction and science fiction appeal to me; I’ve simply always been interested in history and science. Fantasy is a little more tricky as I tend to only like certain fantasy books. My favourites, such as American Gods, Harry Potter and The Night Circus, tend to involve a hidden world within the more familiar one that we know: perhaps this makes things easier to grasp. I’ve often found it harder to get into a fantasy book that takes place in an entirely separate universe, such as The Name of the Wind or Assassin’s Apprentice. My favourite book series of this sort is The Gentleman Bastard Sequence: Scott Lynch focusses on his characters rather than getting bogged down in the rules of the world they inhabit, and has a knack for giving centre stage to fantastical elements that are especially engrossing, like gladiator fights with sharks.

So then I thought about just what I liked about each of the books on my list and what they might have in common. So here are the things I like most in a book (not that all my favourite books have all of these features, of course):

  • Naturally, I’m drawn to a book that appeals to my interests, whether that be history, dinosaurs (e.g. Dinotopia), space travel (e.g. The Martian), autism (e.g. The Rosie Project) or just travel (e.g. The Beach).
  • I like a book that teaches me something or encourages me to think, particularly those that really delve into the human mind and the thought processes behind why people do things (e.g. The Humans, War and Peace). With having Asperger’s, I can sometimes still find it hard to read other people or understand why things happen the way they do, so it’s nice when a book gives a little extra guidance.
  • Linked to that, I want to have really great characters whose heads I can get into, or especially compelling dynamics between characters. Even if a character does morally reprehensible things (e.g. Perfume, Watchmen), I still find them fascinating if it’s explained in detail why they want to do it and how their thought processes are different from others. Features I like best in a character tend to be proactiveness and optimism (e.g. Mark Watney, Jacky Faber), a logical way of thinking (e.g. Jack Reacher, Sherlock Holmes) and a wry sense of humour.
  • Speaking of a sense of humour, it’s a definite plus if a book can make me laugh, whether it’s primarily geared towards comedy (e.g. the Adrian Mole books) or just has funny parts mixed in (e.g. the Harry Potter books).
  • I like a thrilling plot with plenty of suspense, though I don’t tend to be a fan of pure thrillers unless they’ve got something more to them – the Jack Reacher books, for instance, have their distinctive main character who’s got brains to go with his brawn and delivers no shortage of awesome moments.
  • And I like inventive authors who give their books a unique style, or a detailed world that you can really picture or have fun spending time in. Easily the best thing about The Night Circus, for instance, is the quality of the pictures painted in the prose, which are so good you can practically smell the titular circus.

Here are my Top 20 favourite fiction books or book series, in alphabetical order – I can’t really put them into an order of how much I like them as it goes back and forth too much, more than my list of favourite movies does.

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
  • Dinotopia by James Gurney
  • It by Stephen King
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
  • Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Bloody Jack Adventures by L.A. Meyer
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend
  • The Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams

Is there anything that you particularly like to see in a fiction book? Let me know in the comments!

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Doctor Who – Series 12, Episode 3: “Orphan 55”

  • When the Doctor mentions how she didn’t know it was the space squids’ mating season, one really hopes that’s actually a tentacle on the floor…
  • Hyph3n is definitely not a high point for Doctor Who‘s costume/makeup department; she looks like John Candy in Spaceballs. I guess their budget for this episode all went on the Dregs.
  • Line of the week: “If I had crayons and half a can of Spam, I could make you from scratch!”
  • Tranquility Spa – which I was hoping was on the Moon – looks rather bland from the start. You’d think a fake-cation would have a bit more effort put in if it’s funding the terraforming of a whole planet.
  • What exactly have all those Dregs been eating in this barren landscape before the tourists came along?
  • I really wasn’t that bothered about the side characters in this episode. Bella with her mummy issues had some potential, but became less sympathetic in the later stages. And Kane is given no motivator to suddenly change her mind and (apparently) sacrifice herself to protect the Doctor.
  • The Planet of the Apes-style twist that it was Earth all along doesn’t make much sense in the continuity of the show, given what we’ve seen about the future of Earth and humanity in other episodes.
  • I personally felt that in Series 11, the writers managed to integrate their social agendas into the episodes pretty well for the most part. But this time, I do have to say that they were too preachy, as much as I agree that climate change is a serious issue. The ending essentially has the Doctor turning to the camera and repeating Greta Thunberg’s “how dare you” speech to the U.N. That’s perfectly appropriate when Greta’s saying it to that particular audience, or when it’s a documentary intended and expected to educate people; but people watch Doctor Who to be entertained and have a story told to them. Directly lecturing and berating the audience doesn’t feel like the right approach to me in a production like this.

As perfectly watchable as most of the episode was, I have to take marks off for the bland or unsympathetic side characters, and for taking the sledgehammer approach with its message. Rating: 2.5/5.

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