Doctor Who #976: The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo

"Can't we just send them back through the bunghole of time?" "Please say we're not calling it that."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.22 2016, back to back with the pilot.

IN THIS ONE... Coal Hill's football coach has a dragon living on his skin.

REVIEW: Oooh, the Barbara Wright building... Oh, sorry, I was distracted there for a second... Onward! This episode focuses on Ram, and given his trauma in the pilot, it makes sense to start with him. He clearly has PTSD over the gory death of his girlfriend, which makes me question the dramatic necessity of plunging him - that's one way to say it - into more blood and guts. By the time the cleaner's insides splash across his face by the bins, it's become a bad joke. Monsters aside, Ram's challenge is finding his way to accepting friend and family support. His hardass coach (pun intended) is cold and demanding, and that's what Ram best responds to. He doesn't want to be mollycoddled, doesn't want to talk about his feelings, doesn't want to relive the moment, and so he rejects what he really does need, and that's human contact, comfort and understanding. By the end, his life has been steeped in so much blood, he HAS relived it, and perhaps that's where his sense of catharsis comes from. He's the one who suggests a lethal solution, telling a dragon to drag the coach to some other dimension and use his skin as leather for a chair, and that's not exactly a positive evolution of the character. Will April have to act as a necessary conscience of the group going forward? Tanya reaches out to him, informing him of her own tragedy, and he tells his dad the truth about that night. If this is a metaphor for anything, it's a teenager's life feeling overwhelming because in this case it actually is, and a friend or parent relating without really having to hash things out in therapy.

The running theme is that of fathers, with Tanya's having died two years ago, April seemingly being estranged from hers (we get a quick hint of this, and one imagines it might be related to her mother's disability), and Ram looking to a harder, more distant father figure in his coach, though he has a very supportive father right there at home and on the football field. I quite like Ram's dad, a sympathetic figure to be sure, a man who may actually be warmer and more sensitive than his son. The cliché goes the other way, with a distant father having to find silent common ground where things are hashed out through sports or something rather than words. Here, Mr. Singh has to reach to his distant son using sports. A small but appreciated wrinkle. There's another paternal figure in this story, and that's Headteacher Armitage who doesn't fare so well. The one holdover from the Doctor Who episodes set in Coal Hill, he is skinned alive as part of the episode's body count. And here I thought he would remain a comic fixture. They may just be making way for an evil principal.

Because yeah, we should mention the prominent subplot about Miss Quill meeting her match (in several ways), a cold alien-ish inspector who infuriates her, who she then kisses, and who is demolished by one of the tattoo dragons. Turns out he was a robot. This whole subplot is played for the comedy, Quill still very much a caricature, like an amped-up version of Worf when he was in Klingon zinger mode (best bit, her testing the stabbing properties of chess pieces), but it's also setting up the Board of Governors, a mysterious group that apparently has a connection to Coal Hill. Tracking Prince Charlie? Overseeing the rift in space-time? We'll find out in due course, one imagines.

I haven't talked about the plot much, but it's a means to an end, letting us know some of the characters better, while giving them another reason to stick together. It's interesting to note that they solve the problem through talk and negotiation, like they've been taught by the Doctor. Visually, the show looks good even if the tattoo art is unconvincing (I can't believe the coach's friends don't hassle him about his sharpie drawing; maybe he doesn't have any). We start things off inside Ram's leg, which is an odd choice, though a fun one, and them immediately move on to Sherlock-ish texts coming in. I guess these things are now part of the cinematic vocabulary to represent the digital world on screen. After that, the style settles down to cold, blue light, proper for a serial killer story, which this essentially is.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - I understand the need to focus on each of the characters at some point, but I wonder if it's too soon for solo acts. Ram's story is gorier than necessary, but its themes are in the right place.

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