Friday 17 May 2024

Doctor Who: The Devil’s Chord

Space Babies heralded the Disney era of Doctor Who with a double bill including The Devil's Chord, and Andrew Lewin and I would like to invite our readers to discuss all things Whovian on The WELL.

Nick Smith, after appearing on The Legend of the Traveling TARDIS podcast, returns to a not-so-swinging sixties and meets a glum Fab Four.

Guest post by Nick Smith

The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) returns to earth for his second adventure of this year, The Devil’s Chord.

After a visit to a baby-making space station, Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) has spent some time in the present before asking to go back in time to meet the Beatles. Whether she is successful or not is debatable.

It’s always fun to see a human companion exploring the past, from Martha Jones' (Freema Agyeman) encounter with the Bard in The Shakespeare Code to Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) helping to stoke The Fires of Pompeii. Inevitably, though, wherever the TARDIS goes, there’s trouble in store.

In 1963, a chaotic god has stolen music like an evil governmental entity removing arts education from schools. How could such a fiendish (yet cost-efficient) scheme possibly effect our world? Showrunner and scriptwriter Russell T Davies counts the ways, which include loneliness, loss of empathy and, worst of all, no Love Me Do from the Fab Four!

Jinkx Monsoon is Maestro, the colourful meanie who has turned ‘60s London into a no-singing, no-dancing homage to Footloose. Like Kevin Bacon in that movie, the Doctor and Ruby are willing to break the rules to draw Maestro out. If you like your villains to chew scenery with the insatiability of a termite at a wood carving convention, Maestro is for you. Luckily, Ruby can play beautiful piano music that sounds uncannily like a Murray Gold composition, and the Doctor can twist like he did last Christmas. Gold’s music has saved many a soul from the blues, and his music is one of the strongest elements in this episode.

Also strong: the lighting and visuals, showing that spending a little more time - and splashing more cash - on this season is paying off. There are some bum notes; the Beatles actors don’t look anything like the group, so the Doctor and Ruby might as well have gone to see the Rutles. Towards the end of the story, the John Lennon not-a-like appears from nowhere to help the Doctor, just like the last episode’s space babies with their flamethrower.

Davies has a habit of giving characters barely justified things to do because the plot requires it, rather than following them in parallel so we can believe what they’re doing is innate. Here, we get a Lennon Ex Machina sauntering up and plonking on a piano, which helps combat Maestro. Contrived to be sure, although it is established early on that music is in his heart somewhere, aching to get out.

Physical musical notes float in the air through a major piece of the story. They are not all necessary, becoming as indulgent as Maestro’s wardrobe. As with the talking babies in the previous story, just because production company Bad Wolf Studios can afford to go to town with CGI, that doesn’t always mean that it should.

A musical number is tacked onto the end of the story after the Doctor breaks the fourth wall. It’s not the first time he’s done this, and the charismatic Gatwa makes it palatable. The suggestion is that anything goes in this magical new version of Doctor Who. But it’s worth bearing in mind that without those grumpy old guardians of science fiction, logic and structure, it becomes harder to believe in or care about the story or worry about the Doctor. If he can get out of trouble with a song and a dance, the scrutiny shifts from the coherence of the storytelling to the quality of the choreography.

Since razzmatazz and rationality aren’t mutually exclusive, hopefully, this won’t be the last time the Doctor dances. This certainly isn’t his first brush with music – we have to go all the way back to 1966’s The Gunfighters for that.

The Devil’s Chord feels fresh, with eye-popping dashes of colour and some very funny moments. It’s refreshing after the darker moments of former showrunners Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall. Davies is obviously enjoying the carte blanche he’s been given on the show, which continues to surprise and excite audiences two decades after he jump-started the TARDIS.

Unlike Space Babies, The Devil’s Chord has many layers worth tuning into, and it’s undoubtedly a story that will improve with more groovy viewings.

New episodes of Doctor Who stream every Friday on Disney+ outside the UK and Ireland and every Saturday on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. Season one is available for pre-order (affiliate link).

Have you watched The Devil's Chord? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Nick Smith's new audiobook, Undead on Arrival, is available from Amazon (affiliate link).

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