I’m finishing 2021 by looking back at my top 10 choices for the best TV of 2021, which has been a surprisingly difficult mission given the sheer volume of television that has raced at us following the ebb and flow of Covid restrictions.
It’s been a fascinating year and, as always, TV choices subjectively differ among many a reviewer. Here were the TV shows that both affected me the most, and seemed to contain the greatest artistic measure, from 10 through to number 1.
Would love to know your thoughts as to your top 10 choices…
One of the curiosities of Doctor Who is that the series is an ongoing continuum, and despite an almost two decade gap, has been so since 1963.
Characters, even Doctor’s, come and go. Unlike most other science-fiction shows such as Star Trek, which rotates casts and time periods within different stylistic eras, Doctor Who is a constant. The concept has not changed, in essence, for almost sixty years. Yet the show does not always consider the journey as opposed to the destination, given how it careers from one universe bending, shattering narrative to the next. Revolution of the Daleks chooses, amidst a traditional world-threatening story, to take that breath and wonder. To consider quite what the journey with the Doctor means, and how to appreciate it.
Chris Chibnall’s era has rightly been castigated for a lack of significant character depth or development, with rather flimsy storytelling that avoided, certainly in his first series as showrunner, long-form Steven Moffat-style narrative construction. His second year saw him try and fuse Moffat’s plotting with Russell T. Davies’ earthy bombast, with mixed success. In both cases, the show has lacked a key element that made the previous eras distinct in their own way. Davies’ managed to take Who’s dated, kitsch concept and inject a modern, American-influenced level of production, and Moffat built on those foundations to deconstruct the show as a sci-fi fairytale. Chibnall’s era, to date, has lacked that signature difference.
Hands up if you were truly excited by Doctor Who Season 12? Nope, me neither.
I can remember the days I used to plan my entire Saturday night around this show, particularly in the era of Steven Moffat, who decrypted and deconstructed the very premise of the BBC’s strangest show, still on air after almost sixty years. Nights out with friends would be regularly predicated on whether new Who was watched or taped or somewhere in between. That started to change, in fairness, before Chris Chibnall’s era arrived. The final season or two of Moffat’s run, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, lacked the same kind of narrative or creative impetus than earlier years. The show began, to some degree, to eat its own tail.
Many fans, those who hadn’t been inexorably alienated by Moffat’s eternally divisive, glib and throwaway style of meta-fiction (or in this case meta-science-fiction), saw with Chibnall and the first ever female Doctor, as played by the already strong character actor Jodie Whittaker, a chance to clear the decks and provide something fresh and new. A move away from Moffat’s style of long-form narrative arcs, inverted stories that chewed away at traditional ideas, and the innate cynicism of Capaldi’s slightly curmudgeonly take on the character. Which is, by and large, exactly what we got with Season 11. It was lighter. It was self-contained. It had no real narrative through-line of note. And it was deliberately unburdened by eras past.
It was also, almost universally, rejected by critics and fans alike. Very few people enjoyed Chibnall and Whittaker’s first year. The knives were out. And as Season 12 premiere two-parter Spyfall proves, Chibnall has course-corrected in the most inevitable of ways. He’s turned back.
The funny thing is that this all happened because of a joke. As Mark Gatiss recalls, at a Sherlock premiere, he commented to the commissioner of BBC drama that Benedict Cumberbatch’s attire made him look a little like Dracula and was asked if it was something he and writing partner Steven Moffat wanted to do. The answer, eventually, inevitably, was yes.
In a sense, Dracula feels like the project this duo have spent their entire partnership building towards. A partnership born during Moffat’s tenure running Doctor Who, in which, as he had done for previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, Gatiss would contribute scripts to each season; a partnership which then gained huge success adapting another iconic character in Victorian literature, Sherlock Holmes, for the BBC. Even before this, both were headed in the same direction. Moffat penned Jekyll back in 2007, updating the Robert Louis Stevenson 19th century classic for the modern day, while Gatiss developed The League of Gentlemen which drew on a significant knowledge of Hammer horror and occult, British portmanteau cinema.
As a result, this version of Dracula—based on the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker which has been adapted countless times in cinema and on TV over the last century—would not be a clear, simplistic adaptation. That’s just not how Moffat & Gatiss operate. They are both too cine-literature, too aware of narrative tropes, too ensconced in the lore of classic horror fiction. To take on Dracula, a text that almost everyone even with a passing knowledge of drama roughly knows the story of, would be to invert, subvert and reclassify. As they did with Holmes & Watson in Sherlock, so they would do with the Transylvanian Count played by Nordic actor Claes Bang here. That approach was inevitable, as anyone with a passing awareness of their work would be anticipating.
Their Dracula, as a result, is both exactly what you expect from them, and at times not at all what you expect from this story. It is a Dracula born of the 21st century. The take of an immortal symbol of toxic masculinity seeking to control and dominate not just female, but human sexuality, human life and human death.
Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis.
Bidding goodbye to another incarnation of the Doctor has now become as much a staple of Christmas Day every few years as Del & Rodders or Morecambe & Wise used to be in the days classic comedy dominated the British television landscape.
Doctor Who over the last decade has cemented itself as the storytelling event in the UK on Christmas Day, after Russell T. Davies revived the series with a new, modern, American ‘showrunner’ style of production in 2005. We have in twelve short years got through four Doctors (five if you count John Hurt) and their life-cycle has become a repeating standard – barring Christopher Eccleston, every successive Doctor has roughly been around for three seasons over a three to four year period. Peter Capaldi has been no exception but this regeneration, in Twice Upon a Time, is different.
We’re not just getting a new Doctor. We’re about to get an entirely new Who.