Tag Archives: Fantasy

Alita: Battle Angel

[3 stars]

There is a lot to like and a lot to hate in this epic adventure. It is packed with incredible visuals, a strong female lead, amazing fights, and some great moments. To dislike, with prejudice, are several chunks of the script and the non-ending (again, thanks to the script). Did I mention the script?

There was so much anticipation around this first big offering of 2019. The pedigree was solid with Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), king of the low-budget high-impact green screen, at the helm. It even had James Cameron behind it as producer and co-writer along with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon) with solid source material in a well-loved manga (Gunnm).

And, honestly, it starts off pretty well. Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) tackles Alita with a guileless honesty that manages to not feel stupid. Christoph Waltz (Tulip Fever) guides her journey with some actual depth and character. Even Jennifer Connelly (Stuck in Love), whose character is more than a little cliche, manages to broaden it out to something richer than what was provided on the page. Keean Johnson (Nashville) gives Salazar a reasonable foil and love interest, though he doesn’t quite have the experience to make the role much more than how it was written. Then, of course, there is Mehershala Ali (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), the man who’s everywhere this year. Ali gets to have some fun…if not blaze new ground or create a role of a lifetime. Jackie Earle Haley (Damnation Alley) and Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled) put together some fun, if unsurprising, villains as well. Even Ed Norton (Isle of Dogs) has a small and, unremarkable, appearance.

But the story is incomplete. It literally ends on an ellipsis without a sense of completion. That is entirely on the script. This film was clearly intended as a first installment in a franchise…one that will never get made (at least for the big screen). But rather than help it stand on its own with a possibility of a future, it simply gets through some stuff and ends without any feeling of resolution. Some slight edits at the end might have helped avoid that feeling by moving some of the final action into or after the credits, but that isn’t what Rodriguez did. After bringing the story to a rather nice climax emotionally, he drops the ball and speeds directly through to the final moments and images.

And then there are the eyes. Alita’s eyes, a weird homage to its anime roots and attempt to make her look different, are, well, distracting. I think there was some intent there to highlight her uniqueness. But in a world where cyborgs and body mods are common, no one there seems to notice them and, as viewers, we just keep getting put off. Salazar’s acting was more than enough to get across the point, the eyes were overkill. It doesn’t ruin the performances or film, but it was the one serious production mistake.

The truth is that if you have any interest in this story or movie, you should see it on the big screen (3D or not is up to you, I saw it in Dobly and was suitably impressed) because it really won’t translate to small screen. Like Valerian, this is a sprawling visual feast with a lot of story that feels pretty common since its release (almost 20 years ago in this case). It is worth supporting for its attempt to do something new, despite its weak script. On the other hand, if you aren’t living to see this or desire some visual acrobatics for a relaxing couple hours away from the world, there are plenty of other choices out there.

Smallfoot

[3 stars]

There are some real gems jammed into the goop of Smallfoot. For instance, the opening is a wonderfully rich satire that is a story in and of itself. Much like the opening of Up it was its own tale before the tale. And Smallfoot’s main message is equally as adult and important, and it is delivered cleverly with the Yeti and Humans unable to easily communicate (in a surprisingly accurate way).

But, ultimately, co-writer/co-director Karey Kirkpatrick (Spiderwick Chronicles, Chicken Run) gave us a kid’s film trying hard to be Frozen and slipping into silliness too often to make it a classic…or even all that good. The musical numbers are bolted on and poorly mixed, even if delivered with talent. The dialogue is just OK and the plot, generally, is way too obvious (though it has at least one nice twist).  One of the issues may have been the number of other co-writers and co-directors that worked on the film (3 other writers and one other director). Just too many chefs.

Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) takes the lead in the cast as a guileless Yeti coming to terms with new knowledge. Along with James Corden (Ocean’s 8), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Common (John Wick: Chapter 2), Danny DeVito (The Lorax), Gina Rodriguez (Annihilation), and even
LeBron James (possibly in prep for his upcoming Space Jam 2), the cast has quite the scope and solid delivery of what they had to work with. But you can’t overcome a weak script no matter how talented you are, you can only sell it well.

So, yes, you can probably watch this once, alongside a youngster, without being too bored. However, if those same mini-people demand it on repeat, set it up and walk out of earshot. Once is more than enough for this, despite any of the good bits that it may contain.

Glass

[4 stars]

Go to Glass, but don’t try to watch the movie you wanted to see… see the movie that is on offer to watch if you want to enjoy yourself.

M. Night Shyamalan has always made the movies he wanted to make, for better or worse. He rarely compromises his vision, but he also often confounds audience expectations. And, sadly, most audiences don’t want to be challenged. Their loss, more often than not. And Glass definitely isn’t the movie you think it is going to be. Honestly, I loved it once I let go and went with it, but I know a lot of people out there were frustrated.

Another aspect weighing on Glass is that it isn’t a stand-alone story. Absent Split and Unbreakable, it means nothing and doesn’t work. Together, they are a great trilogy, but Glass has no individual foundation like the other two films. Ninteen years ago Unbreakable left us hanging with David Dunn’s and Mr. Glass’s story. It was a love it or hate it comic book film that predated the current rush of such things, but foresaw the tone. Split surprised us all a couple years ago by connecting to Dunn’s tale at the end. And now…Glass…the story we’ve been waiting for so long it was almost guaranteed to disappoint. To be fair, Shyamalan and the studios probably strung out the anticipation a bit too long to make this a complete success–we’ve had too long to plan on what we expected.

The challenges of the movie aside, Shyamalan managed to collect almost all the principles from the previous two movies. Bruce Willis (Death Wish), Spencer Treat Clark (Animal Kingdom), Charlayne Woodard (Pose), and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) all came back and felt like they’d lived the 19 intervening years. Likewise for James McAvoy (Sherlock Gnomes), and Anya Taylor-Joy’s (Thoroughbreds) three years since Split. Taylor-Joy, in particular, has a fascinating challenge for her character.

But these were from the past, and Shyamalan was just as invested in his world in the present. Sarah Paulson (Bird Box) with some assistance by Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and Adam David Thompson (The Sinner) create the framework for the new story…or the explanation of the old ones. As with all Shyamalan films, there are things that feel wrong or out of place, but if you trust the filmmaker, it will all eventually make sense.

In prep, I did rewatch Unbreakable for the first time in about 18 years and I was glad I did. It still holds up wonderfully and there are some important and minor aspects I’d forgotten. Unbreakable was also eerily prescient, coming out the year before 9/11 and with nods to other current movements in our culture. But, most of all, it was it’s intent on making an origin story that was ahead of its time. Heroes that are human, villains too, was not the coin of the day back then, but was about to sweep the entertainment world two years later with Spider-Man and eight years later with the launch of the MCU.

As the end of a trilogy, I think Glass will eventually find its place in the pantheon of fandom. Why? Because it is a real trilogy, with three different stories that connect into a great whole. Compare this to other trilogies that are just the same story but with raised stakes to sub in for more story (Hunger Games, Fast & Furious, John Wick). It is going to take some time for folks to adjust to the realities of this final installment and, perhaps, some investment in rewatching the previous movies to see how they all fit together so nicely. There aren’t many directors out there who would have even tried to complete that vision, and fewer still who have properties that deserved it. Shyamalan is still a storyteller I respect a great deal, even with some of his truly awful films like After Earth and The Happening.

So, again, let go of what you think the story is of Unbreakable, Split, and Glass. Give each character and tale their due, and trust a great storyteller to make something complete and satisfying, even if it isn’t quite the meal you expected to sit down to.

Voltron: Legendary Defender (series 8 – finale)

[4 stars]

What is it they say: Go big or go home?

I haven’t written Voltron up recently due to the uneven aspects of its story and the odd rhythm of release. But the good runs have been pretty good and this finale season definitely raised the stakes about as high as they could go while also supplying an interesting story.

It isn’t often an animated series, especially one that bridges younger and older viewers, is willing to do a complete cycle and finale. They’re usually designed to keep going and generate revenue as a business model. It is more common for manga series or adult anime where an end was always intended.

Voltron has bridged these audiences by creating a long-form, more mature story with a lot of kids-style animation spread throughout. They also took some interesting chances stylistically occasionally. It isn’t on the level of Attack on Titan, nor is it purposefully adult like Castlevania, but has definitely stretched to make something beyond the typical Saturday morning style stories. If you’ve not found it yet, give it some time and let it reel you in. I have to admit, it surprised the heck out of me, and only a few episodes really put my teeth on edge as too juvenile for my taste.

Cold Skin

[3 stars]

Cold Skin is a quietly intense, sort of Gothic-horror/science fiction story of isolation, surviving, and survivors, not to mention making a swing at defining the meaning of humanity. If that sounds a bit overly layered and burdened, it is, but it somehow all fits.

Ray Stevenson (The Transporter Refueled), David Oakes (The White Queen), and Aura Garrido (Ministry of Time) form an unlikely triumvirate fighting to survive on an Antarctic island with some unusual inhabitants. It is, in its bones, a simple horror tale of the kind you’ve seen before. However, Xavier Gens’ (Hitman) direction takes the script to a different level by helping the actors add flesh and emotion to those bones.

While you enjoy the mayhem and tension of nightly attacks, you also get to explore what drives these characters and what makes them human or not. The answers aren’t always comfortable. There is also a great “making of” featurette on the disc. I didn’t expect to watch it, but it hooked me quickly and actually discussed the movie and its making rather than just marketing what you’d just seen.

Aquaman

[3.5 stars]

Great, silly, popcorn fun. Yep, that’s about it.

I won’t bore you with the mountain of specific issues with the script. This could have been DC’s breakthrough, and it is close, but they still just don’t get how to make it about characters and not effects. Of course, that was never director James Wan’s (Furious 7) forte to begin with. In this case his script writers didn’t do him much service either; there was so much potential, but they went for too large a scope and lost the thread.

I will say that idea of weaving the origin story into flashbacks to make this into a single film was clever. But that created a problem for the story in that it doesn’t explain things until too late. You keep seeing behaviors and science and abilities that are wrong or foolish, and by the time they try to explain it, you’ve already dismissed it as a problem rather than going for the ride. This happens over and over again. Much like things blowing up to separate people (which becomes something of an unintended joke after a while).

Jason Momoa (Justice League) does show he can mostly carry a movie. Amber Heard (The Danish Girl) makes a credible play at being a super hero princess herself, though with oddly confused motivations. Surprisingly, Dolph Lundgren (Creed II) actually comes across as one of the more layered characters as Heard’s father. But Patrick Wilson (The Commuter) is so teeth-grindingly cliche it’s frustrating. Likewise for Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s (Boundaries) Manta. Even Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) doesn’t get to stretch his rather broad-based abilities thanks to the script and directing. Frankly, that’s just criminal.

Honestly, the only relationship and moments that work are Nicole Kidman’s (Boy Erased) and Temuera Morrison’s (Moana) framing scenes. They’re predictable as hell, but they work and provide the only emotionally satisfying payoff in the entire movie.

So, if you’re going to see this, and you likely will, see it on the biggest bloody screen you can find. Enjoy the pretty pictures and the occasional humor. Squint through the dialogue and plot and just accept it. Munch your popcorn and have fun. This isn’t the ascendance of DC quite yet, Wonder Woman still tops their attempts, but they’re getting closer to understanding what makes a great comic book movie.

Mary Poppins Returns

[3.5 stars]

Like its title character, the original Mary Poppins (1964) is practically perfect in every way. It is full of childlike wonder, entertaining humor, amazing pacing, fabulous music, and a sweet and affirming resolution. It is also one of my favorites of its type. So it was with both anticipation and not a little trepidation I walked into this sequel.

Ben Whishaw (queers.) and Emily Mortimer (Spectral) do justice to the Banks family. Getting to see Whishaw in a young father role was great and a nice evolution for him on screen.  And Mortimer mirrored Mrs. Banks’s character from the original admirably. Adding to the threads from the past, bringing forward Ellen the maid in Julie Waters (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) was also a nice gift. The new generation of children were also well cast. Pixie Davies (Humans), Nathanael Saleh (Game of Thrones),  and Joel Dawson are a great trio with talent and the ability to work well together.

I’ll get to Poppins, for she is the key to it all, but if I don’t give a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda (Speech & Debate) as the lamplighter that steps in for Dick Van Dyke’s man of all trades to help out Poppins and the family, I’d be remiss. Miranda is incredibly talented, and the movie uses his particular talents well. He isn’t entirely credible as a Cockney, but he has the sense of the character well. And Colin Firth (The Happy Prince) brings his talents to bear well too. Even Meryl Streep (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) gets to have a bit of fun in a throw-away role.

Now on to Poppins herself. Emily Blunt (Sherlock Gnomes) is worthy of the role. She certainly brings some game, has good pipes, and brings a ton of on-screen charisma. But she isn’t quite comfortable in the role. It hangs on her like an oversized dress and feels just a little forced as she tries to make the part her own. Most of this isn’t her fault, but rather the fault of the script and direction. But to get to that, you have to acknowledge the difference in feel of the two movies.

The new installment is big and magical and entertaining, but it is more like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang than the original Poppins; much darker and with some bite. I enjoyed the choice to make it a continuation of the Banks family, but that also came with some timing issues. To make it Jane and Micheal’s lives in their prime, it had to happen between the wars…and yet, despite taking place between the wars, there is no hint of that hanging over the tale, which was odd. That darkness in the character and plot reflected more of today than the 1930s and ignored well-established and understood history.

It is the darkness that really changes the Poppins world in this movie. In fact, writer Dave Magee (Life of Pi) and director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) feel like they didn’t quite get Poppins at all in some ways. Emily Blunt is allowed to be far too arch rather than matter-of-fact in her actions and attitude. The original Poppins doesn’t have to work for anything, it all happens as she plans; no muss, no fuss. This Poppins seems to take glee in mucking about with people. It is less about wonder and magic and helping people and more about power and control.

And, on a script level, they never deal with her looking different, which felt wrong. They go out of their way to claim she looks “just the same” which is absurd and was unnecessary. Why can’t Poppins be more like Who or the Banks children recognize her but feel they remembered wrong or see her differently? Why pretend when we all know she’s been recast?

But it goes beyond these things. She is much less in control of the children in this story because she’s too intent on being the center of attention rather than controlling from the sidelines. Part of the joy of the first movie is watching Poppins get everyone to do what she wants and they need without them realizing they’ve been utterly manipulated.

In this sequel, she certainly makes demands and has some control, but the manipulations don’t feel much like they’re in her control at all. Also, one of the great things of the original was how utterly feminist it was. All the important decisions were by women. This sequel isn’t as feminist a movie…it is all about the actions of men and men’s decisions. Rather surprising given the current culture and 54 years in between flicks.

There is also another oddity in making the sequel. In the first movie, the story is really about saving Mr. Banks. The same focus is in this sequel, but because the father was the child in the first film, it somehow feels like she’s there for the children (even if the children are adults now). This isn’t an error in choices so much as just an unavoidable result, and brings in some odd echos.

OK, let’s face it, creating a sequel to such a classic is a near impossible task. Forcefully mirroring the original in structure, in many ways, hurt the overall result. This story isn’t nearly as tight. The music isn’t as nearly on point for the plot, even if it is entertaining. The story isn’t quite as satisfying. Certainly it is a level of musical in movies that isn’t seen often, making a nod back to the 40s in its scope. Kids will enjoy. Parents will reminisce. Awards will surely be offered if not gained. And it is going to be a huge success. But do yourself a favor and rewatch the original before you see this sequel (or watch it after if you don’t want to compare while watching). There is a magic to the to the 1964 classic that just isn’t replicated here, despite everyone’s efforts. I’m not even sure that it could be done in this time as we’ve become so much more jaded and aware.

I don’t mean to dissuade you from going to Mary Poppins Returns. You should. But it is impossible to see it and not think of the original. Or, for that matter, this delightful 2004 short with Andrews herself still nailing the sense and personality of her original. And, in fact, to bring this all home, I have to bend my rules a bit and go into some of the comparisons below. So don’t read on if you don’t want to have aspects of the movie spoiled.

 

WARNING: Some Spoilerage Lies Below

My frustration began with the opening credits. By preceding the movie proper with a lot of pre-production art, much of the plot was given away, which was a damned shame. Not sure why they didn’t follow the example of the original and just set up the tale and let Miranda be our guide. Instead, the film jumps straight into a musical number rather than framing it all, and easing us into the magical world. This is a fair choice, but it made it jarring rather than feeling like a bedtime story.

As a whole, the music and sequences aren’t nearly as tight as the first film. Everything in the first film comes back to have an effect on the resolution. That just isn’t the case for Returns. For instance, Meryl Streep’s scene, which mirror Ed Wynn’s Uncle from the original, had no impact on the story at all. Wynn’s scene supplies the necessary and plot-turning joke. Streep is just an amusing distraction with an emotional point that could have been done differently.

Likewise, the lead up to the finale with the lamplighter dance sequence has no real place, unlike chimney sweeps in the original. The sweeps seemingly overlong sequence is necessary to trigger the confrontation with Mr. Banks and so that the sweeps can shake Banks’ hand (more necessary for the children to see than the story) and it pushes Banks to his epiphany. The lamplighter sequence has no impact whatsoever. Yes there is a similar confrontation with the children, but it felt, much like Streep’s scene, to be there as a mirror to the original rather than with a purpose.

Taking it a bit further, the lamplighters do nothing for the resolution in this sequel. It is Poppins who turns back time, not the lighters. So why the whole insane sequence scaling Big Ben if she could just fly up there and move the hands?

And speaking of the finale, let’s face it, the location of the stock obvious from the moment we see the paper. I spent the whole movie waiting for them to notice it. I did like how it tied in the original kite. However, I just wish it wasn’t so bloody obvious… or that it was so we could anticipate the discovery as part of the story rather than it having to be a “surprise” near the end.

I did think the tuppence connection was nice from a story point of view. But having capitalism win over emotions and “what’s right” felt wrong for this world. Though, I will admit, it did provide a great thread for Dick Van Dyke’s return, however briefly, for the denouement.

I also do have to say I am so glad Andrews turned down the role that Angela Lansbury took on. Andrews was absolutely right, it would have been a huge distraction and dismissed Blunt’s efforts entirely.

And, finally, there were the choices for the finale, and perhaps this is where it flew off the rails the most. The ending in the original was redemptive all around, for all characters. Let’s Go Fly a Kite is an anthem of joy and possibility. In Mary Poppins Returns, Up in the Air  (or whatever the song title is) just isn’t, which felt wrong for the sensibility of that world. And though I’m sure the romantic in Magee and Marshall drove the choice, having to find Jane a partner was also just the wrong message for the younger viewers.

Again, I enjoyed myself, honestly I did. But it is impossible to see this new movie and not compare and think about the differences. You should still go, just unplug a bit or accept the differences a little more than I could<g>

Mortal Engines

[3 stars]

Let’s start with the positive: Mortal Engines is visually stunning and inventive. The production design is wonderful. Even the tech is cleverly thought through to make it just believable enough to go with it. If this sounds like it is leading up to a Valerian-sized “but,” you’re not wrong.

First it is worth noting Robert Sheehan (Mute) has finally been given a role and direction that keeps him contained and normalish, without losing his charm and ability. Of all the actors, he fares the best because it really added to his range of work. Hera Hilmar (Da Vinci’s Demons) is fine in what should have been the more dominating lead, but she doesn’t have much to work with. And the chemistry between the two isn’t quite intense enough to sell their decisions.

And, sure, Hugo Weaving (Hacksaw Ridge), Jihae (Mars), Stephen Lang (The Girl on the Train), Ronan Raftery (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Peter Malahide (The Paradise), Colin Salmon (Limitless), and even newcomer Leila George all do fine, but none get to act. They are all just pawns for the script and the moving of massive set pieces and effects.

Now to focus on that huge “but.” When Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh, the writers and producers of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, get behind a big steam-punk fantasy, you expect something spectacular. Instead, we get an impossibly weak script that is full of logic holes, dropped threads, bad choices, and cheap short-cuts. Worse, there are also no surprises. And I do mean none. Everything is obvious from the beginning. For the Wingnut gang to give something this big and complex to first-time director Christian Rivers, even with his years in their art department, did him no service. His direction isn’t bad, but he didn’t have the experience to see what wasn’t working and correct it. Given the messages in the story and our current times, a more experienced director could have done a lot more, even with the same bare bones to work with. They also did the movie no favor by releasing it during the holidays. It would have done much better in the spring or late summer, when the appetite and expectations would have matched it a bit more.

If you are going to see this because you’re a fan of the books or just looking for some pure popcorn escape, see it on big screen. It does deserve that scope and it won’t translate to anything smaller than a 75 inch screen at home. It is glorious to look at. It just isn’t a particularly glorious movie.

Basically, if you want to see some Jackson & co. magic this season, go see the truly amazing They Shall Not Grow Old. It may not be a genre flick, but it is much better film making.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

[4.5 stars]

Talk about an unexpected treat. This film has so much going for it: action-packed, visually inventive, well acted, clever story. Amusingly, some of these are also to its detriment, especially the visually inventive aspect. But the sum total is that it is a sure-fire hit and a near lock for the Best Animation Oscar this year, with all due respect to Incredibles 2.

The cast is loaded with talent; a list too long to completely discuss. But none really stand out either. The film is a wonderfully balanced ensemble, not a collection of star voices covered by ink. That said, Shameik Moore (Dope), as Miles Morales, in the lead keeps the story pumping along with his naivete and strength. Through him we get to experience Spidey’s origin story again (and again, and again) but without it feeling like a cheap reboot. And that’s saying something for the most rebooted storyline in current cinema (though Batman and/or Superman may exceed Spidey, now that I consider the statement).

It isn’t giving anything away to say there are other Spider people. Jake Johnson (The Mummy) and Hailee Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen) stand out in that crowded and entertaining field . And Morales’s extended family is top-lined by Mahershala Ali (Green Book) and Lily Tomlin (Grandma). And that’s just the beginning of the talent list. On the other side of the plot, Kathryn Hahn (Hotel Transylvania 3) and Liev Schreiber (Everything is Illuminated) bring some humor and darkness to the evil side of Spidey’s world. The rest should just be a surprise.

Phil Lord, half the team behind the unexpected hit The Lego Movie, clearly loves the material and the world of comics generally. It is in every aspect of the film. And that, in part, is what I meant by it is both a strength and a weakness. The movie literally looks like a comic, with overlayed shading dots on the surface of everything, word bubbles at times, framed action panels, and even turning pages. While visually engaging, it also kept knocking me out of the movie and the action. It was too self-conscious and never really quite allowed it to just be a movie. It was a movie-comic. That isn’t necessarily bad. Lord has succeeded in doing something directors and writers have been trying to do for decades: He’s manifested the comic book experience on the screen beautifully. Only a true lover of graphic novels could have done that. Lord borrowed and expanded his lessons on The Lego Movie very nicely.

Bottom-line is that this is an amazingly fun and funny movie. Unexpected in almost every way, even while cleaving to the tropes and stories we know, love, and expect. In Dolby Cinema it was glorious and bone-rattling (despite two rather important moments being marred by loss of sound during my showing–shame on you, AMC). Whether or not you think you like animation, this isn’t what you expect or assume. I admit, I didn’t expect this to be more than a cheap cash-grab at more of the Spidey universe, but it really is something new and wonderful for audiences of pretty much all ages above age 9.

Doctor Who (series 11)

[4 stars]

Beyond the series bringing us back to the sciencey end of the spectrum, it sets a new milestone with the first female Doctor in Jodie Whittaker (Venus, St. Trinian’s). Amusingly, and fittingly, that the Doctor is a woman really has no appreciable impact, at least no more than any new Doctor would. Whittaker has a good sense of the character historically and in energy. She is fun to watch, even if the series is slow to reveal her own particularly sensibilities and approach. In fact, a lot of the season is spent dealing instead with the new companions. With their three, overlapping stories, we lost time focused on the Doctor herself till well into the sequence.

Before the series kick-off, I rewatched the bittersweet finale of series 10 and Capaldi. It is a brilliant end to the cycle and Moffat’s vision. I didn’t always like his choices, but he pulled it together for his final go-round before Chibnall (The Great Train Robbery, Broadchurch, Torchwood) stepped in. With his arrival there has been a definite shift in sensibility. The show has returned to the darker and more of a science fiction feel. I, personally, prefer that mode of Doctor Who. It was always science-fantasy, but it was never really just fantasy. Moffat, by his own admission, disagreed with that and always pushed for the pure fantasy end of the spectrum. Forgetting his struggles with building seasonal arcs, it was that aspect of the last several years that tended to drive me bonkers.

As a whole, the series is fast paced and more political than in the past. There is much social commentary, but also lots of high adventure and humor. The individual episodes feel somewhat rushed and breathless, but definitely entertaining. I expect I’ll pick up more on rewatching some of them.  And there is a complete arc holding it all together, which builds on the efforts the new Who has had in play since it rebooted in 2005.  For Chibnall first season, it isn’t a bad indication of things to come and things to build on. My hope is that he’ll learn how to let the show breathe a bit more. The 10 episodes went by extremely quickly. The focus on the companions more than the Doctor herself also needs to shift a little so we understand and root for the Doctor more. She’s a bit mercurial during this introductory series; hard to pin down and sympathize with.

And now, as has been my tradition, an ep by ep set of responses, done as they were aired, to help keep me honest and to see how the series built.

Episode by Episode (with some spoilers)

The Woman Who Fell to Earth
Jodie Whittaker comes in with all the bravado and confidence you could have hoped for. The switch in gender is certainly commented upon, but hardly an issue. Who drives forward business-as-usual, as it should. This opener is an odd episode in that it breaks from tradition for the opening and it feels less like the Doctor finding his new crew than it does just an interesting story with that aspect eventually taking over. It may also be indicative of what’s to come as this opening show’s ending, much like its Christmas tale lead-in, is a cliff-hanger rather than a resolution. Of course, Twice Upon a Time left a lot of threads to clean up, so I’m glad Chibnall didn’t try to resolve them all in a rushed initial episode.

The Ghost Monument
Really, this is part 2 of the series opening. And it is a good one. Whittaker is really coming into her own and her posse is coming together. The delightful addition of Susan Lynch (Killing Eve) and Shaun Dooley (Misfits) to carry the storyline was great fun. Now that stuff is established, I’m ready for things to start happening (though a clear series arc has begun to form) from a Who point of view. Up till now, things are occurring, but are there as backdrop for the Doctor to get her feet under her. That’s fine, but I’m ready now so, allons-y!

Rosa
A powerful and powerfully told story that resonated nicely with today. Though clearly with an agenda, it wasn’t overly preachy and with some solid impact. On a Doctor level, however, I’m ready to start to get to know the Whittaker Doctor better. She’s quick witted, but unlike previous versions, we aren’t really getting a sense of her yet, only a delightful patter and set of wins. I want to see what’s beneath the surface, not just hear about it. Still very much enjoying the season, but it’s time to get real with it since there are only 7 left to go.

Arachnids in the UK
This episode riffs on a number of classic and reboot Who. From the classic side we have the coal mine refuse causing havoc with the bug life (remember those maggots?). And from the new Who we have the turning point for the companions, who have to shift from being pulled into the circle of the Doctor to making a choice to be there. What we don’t have yet is enough of the Doctor herself. She’s active and entertaining, and clearly we’re leading to something, but I’m a bit weary of the “I’m still figuring myself out” thing that is continuing. Jump in and commit already! As a story, this one made my skin crawl nicely and did expose some emotional cores of the characters. It also got to take some very unveiled swipes at the US with Chris Noth as a reflected stand-in for Trump. I still really enjoy the sensibility of this new season, but I want to get to the meat now. I can feel it building, but not with the same sense of tension and fun that Davies managed in his first sequence of the reboot. I may yet revisit that statement when it is all said and done, but this is purposefully a running log, not a recap. I want to track how it works as it unfolds. And, so far, it is working ep to ep, but not quite coming together for me as a series.

The Tsuranga Conundrum
In some ways, this is the weakest of the series so far, despite being another Chibnall episode. It has a lot of action and some nice emotional lines for the side characters, but the monster in play isn’t realistic (and folks seem to know far too little about it despite having more than enough data to have gotten to the solution before the Doctor). Also, again, we’re not seeing a lot about the Doctor herself. It all feels very surfacey so far. Well executed. Entertaining. Just not feeling like a full meal yet. I expect that the main arc will reassert starting with the next episode. This was a hard left for the series as a whole with a new show runner, a new (and newly gendered) Doctor and crew. It needs some time to get its feet. I’m not disappointed, just not quite sated yet.

Demons of the Punjab
What has become clear this series is that the focus is very much on the companions, even more so than the Doctor. However, with this episode we’re starting to get a little more of who she is. We’ve yet to have a story the focuses explicitly on her and we’ve yet to see the main arc come back, after two early hints, but things are coming together. Another aspect that is coming clear is that Chibnall is not afraid to reflect the current world in politics or comment on what is going on. Who has always had social commentary, but Chibnall has stepped it up a notch and made it a little more pointed. Tackling Partition was certainly brave…taking it on in such a personal way was inspired.

Keblam!
A clever and fun respite as the trajectory of the series bends toward finale. It is pretty much a standalone (or appears so), but with the focus, finally, mostly on the Doctor. Ultimately enjoyable, even though I got somewhat ahead of it (in the hope that they were going to go the interesting way). It was surprisingly devoid of strong emotion, however, even with a couple of really painful moments. It tried to make up for that with the show close and the reaction of main bad guy, but still was surprising. Curious to see where the last three eps. take us.

The Witchfinders
This season continues to beat the political drum loudly, and I’m all for it as Chibnall is using history to reflect on current issues. In this case, it is more subtle than Rosa was earlier in the run. The episode itself interesting and fun, if a little forced in the clues and resolution (which is about as hand-wavy as you can get). But we are starting to see more about this Doctor and that is welcome. This had a very stand-alone feel to it, so I’m guessing this is the breath before the wind up to a finale (2 eps left, plus the New Year’s show which replaces the traditional xmas day episode).  At least I’m hoping so. There was clearly an arc being built at the top of the series, but we’ve not seen it built on much.

It Takes You Away
Some nice emotional work in this episode. And some additions to the Who canon as well. This is a fast-paced tale with some nice twists, and a few shortcuts. It isn’t brilliant Who, but it is inventive and full of some great asides by several of the characters. It also has begun to bend the arc back to the beginning of this series, which is necessary given the proximity of the finale. It’s been a good ride getting here, but it isn’t feeling like a cohesive whole yet. There is lots of character work and some big milestones, but the shape is a little amorphous and Whittaker is still a little vague as a character, ceding focus to the companions a bit too much in my opinion. However, I still feel like it is headed somewhere, so willing to have faith. Even if I end up unfulfilled on that point, it has been a fun season and a fairly smooth transition of Doctors and show-runners.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos
Wow, that was a fast season, but it definitely came full-circle, as expected. I’m not sure I felt as much a sense of completion as I’d have liked. The main arc was hard to hold onto and respond to since it didn’t get echoed quite enough to keep it fresh for me, even with the previous episode refreshing our memory of it, and Grace in particular. Still, a rich and complex story with a nice part for Mark Addy (Oasis, Game of Thrones) and button for the Tardis crew. I’d have liked something that felt like it came to more of a plateau, but it isn’t without a bit of bittersweet joy and an indication of new directions for the extended family in the blue box.