Doctor Who: The Devil’s Chord review: Is this madness?

The following includes spoilers for “The Devil’s Chord.”

For a show about time (and space) travel interwoven with British pop culture since its start in 1963, a trip to visit the Beatles is an obvious premise. So obvious that this is the second time we’ve had a “what if” episode hinging on the Fab Four’s cultural impact. After all, both the Beatles and Doctor Who became global cultural exports as Britain flexed its post-imperial soft power. But while there’s plenty of material to mine in that premise, this isn’t an episode that’s interested in doing that, relegating the Beatles to little more than window dressing.

This has always been a trick in Doctor Who’s toolbox, especially when Russell T. Davies is in charge. He loves dangling an idea, or eye-catching visual, to lure in an audience before moving the focus to something else. I’m reminded of the kung-fu monks from “Tooth and Claw” which looked great in the trailers but had no real impact on the story. It’s “Tooth and Claw” that “The Devil’s Chord” feels similar to — an early season one episode that doesn’t quite work in and of itself, but does spend a lot of its time gesturing to this year’s recurring themes. (FilmStories reported from a recent Q&A, where Davies said that this episode lacked a central plot and was, instead, “Just some subplots.”)

Picture Shows: Episode 2 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) Picture Shows: Episode 2 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa)

James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

But to understand that, and my stance, we’re going to have to take a little look at The Context before we get to examining the meat. You see, during its history, Doctor Who has bent itself to fit the vision of its primary creative figure and Davies is a voracious watcher of TV. He’s obsessed with the form and format of TV as much as its content, and this is reflected in his work. His episodes often develop with news reports, CCTV clips and deeper forms of exposition revealed through screens. “Bad Wolf” is a great example, where the show lands at a TV studio that’s making sci-fi versions of the then-current pantheon of British reality TV.

Davies also trusts his audience to instinctively know the unspoken rules of TV even if they can’t name them. Which is why I think it’s worth looking at “The Devil’s Chord” as an episode that is, for want of a better phrase, collapsing in on itself. When Mrs. Flood talks to the camera at the end of “Church on Ruby Road,” it felt Deliberately Wrong, especially after she was seemingly unaware of the TARDIS earlier in the episode. Here, the numerous fourth wall breaks and lapses in storytelling are similarly an intentional sign of How Wrong Things Are. What starts out as a by-the-numbers celebrity historical quickly collapses into a fever dream like Sam Lowry’s descent into madness at the end of Brazil.

Picture Shows: Episode 2 Picture Shows: Episode 2

James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

We open in a concert hall in 1925 as a teacher outlines the basics of music theory for a young child. He shows off that he has “discovered” The Devil’s Chord and, by playing it, unleashes Maestro (Jinkx Monsoon), the embodiment of music. Maestro is a godlike elemental force and a child of the Toymaker – featured villain of the 60th Anniversary special episode “The Giggle.” After praising the musician for their genius, Maestro then sucks the music out of their heart and eats it like cotton candy before staring into the camera and playing the show’s theme tune on the piano.

When the titles end (notice the theme is playing out of the jukebox) it’s clear Ruby has been on the TARDIS for some time. She asks the Doctor if it would be possible to visit the recording of the Beatles’ first album at the EMI’s studios on Abbey Road. Before they open the doors, she asks if it might be worth them changing into less conspicuously modern clothes and they spring off to sample the delights of the TARDIS wardrobe, complete with a wig for the Doctor.

Picture Shows: Episode 2 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)Picture Shows: Episode 2 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)

James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

The pair sneak into George Martin’s producer’s booth but quickly spot something is wrong with the scene in front of them. Rather than playing any of Please Please Me’s big and recognizable hits, they’re turning out mop-top music about animals. The Doctor doesn’t know it yet but Maestro has spent the last few decades swallowing all of the music out of people’s hearts. It’s a genius way to get around the fact that, even with all the cash thrown at Get Back and Disney’s vast bank balance, Doctor Who still can’t readily afford to license Beatles songs.

Next door, (famous British singer / TV presenter / notorious diva) Cilla Black is similarly stricken with a case of the muzaks while a concert orchestra is just about mustering a version of Three Blind Mice. The Doctor and Ruby head to the canteen to corner John and Paul to try and find out what went wrong with history. They then head to the roof with a piano, where Ruby plays a tune she wrote to help a friend get over a breakup. But once the Doctor hears Maestro’s giggle, he sprints away, hiding in a nearby basement.

Picture Shows: Episode 2 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)Picture Shows: Episode 2 The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson)

James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

The Doctor explains that any villain who laughs is tied to the Toymaker and is a sign of the fractured universe. Fighting the Toymaker in “The Giggle” was sufficiently draining and difficult, especially given how powerful these elemental forces are, that he doesn’t want to do it again. Maestro is hunting for them, but the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to kill all of the sound in the area. (The Doctor knows just enough about how the form and format of TV works to turn the tables on their opponent.) Maestro works out how to undo the blocking – with some magnificent sound editing — but is then distracted from their pursuit of the Doctor by an older woman Ruby had inspired to play the piano.

The eagle-eyed among you will notice that this is the second time in two episodes that Ruby has inspired another person to be bold to their detriment. Her words were enough to encourage Eric to try and take on the bogeyman single-handed in “Space Babies,” nearly imperiling him. The older woman isn’t so lucky and gets consumed by Maestro

Because of how long Doctor Who has run, it’s often its own source material. Ruby, once they’ve escaped, assumes that everything is okay because she recalls listening to music as a child and so therefore Maestro can’t have won. So, in a scene pulled from “Pyramids of Mars,” the Doctor takes her to 2024 in the TARDIS to show the wreckage of the alternate future. Because while she’s protected from the ravages of continuity by the fact she’s traveling through time, the rest of the universe isn’t so lucky.

Picture Shows: Episode 2 Jinkx MonsoonPicture Shows: Episode 2 Jinkx Monsoon

Natalie Seery/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

But this flash-forward, in an echo of the meeting with the Toymaker, flips from a visage of a bombed-out London to a stagey set. Maestro arrives behind a white piano to outline their plan to rid the universe of music, leaving just the aeolian tones of the wind brushing against objects. But the Doctor says that a universe without music, unable to express joy or anger through art, turns sour and destroys itself. It’s a feeling I can relate to — like when love becomes so painful in its absence that you’d rather disappear into the void than keep going on. Davies is also a nihilist so many of his episodes have revolved around the dark face of humanity that reveals itself when denied Earthly pleasures.

Escaping back to the ‘60s, the Doctor and Ruby meet Maestro and find the walls of reality are collapsing. Murray Gold’s swirling soundtrack isn’t just the background music, it’s bled into the fabric of the show itself. The Doctor and Ruby start trying to find a chord that will bind Maestro with the Mrs. Mills piano, a (real) fixture of Abbey Road’s studio. As they play, the notes are rendered floating over the piano, but the pair fail to identify the final note before Maestro turns up.

Maestro begins attacking, throwing around musical scores as weapons and hurling the piano into the hall. It’s here that the episode’s coherence starts to sag, the scenes get longer and odder, a wonky version of a standard monster-of-the-week TV show conclusion. The tension builds, and all looks lost, until John and Paul stumble upon the piano in the hallway. They’re able to see the notes hanging in the air over the piano and with their, uh, innate musical nous, and complete the chord to bind the villain. But before they’re whisked away, Maestro has time to reveal they aren’t the only one of the Toymaker’s minions coming, and “the one who waits” is lurking in the background.

Out of nowhere, the episode ends with a big musical number that features the cast dancing through the Abbey Road sets, delighted at the return of music. Even the steps of the road crossing light up as the Doctor and Ruby cut a rug across them. I can’t work out if it’s simply an indulgent sequence, or another big sign that the show’s structure is breaking down. That the Doctor and Ruby are blind to the apparent Wrongness of it all hints at the latter, especially given the deeper context of the song’s title — see below.

Picture Shows: Episode 2 Jinkx MonsoonPicture Shows: Episode 2 Jinkx Monsoon

James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

There are other signs that Doctor Who is collapsing into its own TV series, including the casting decisions. The older woman who plays the piano is June Hudson, the show’s costume designer from 1978 to 1980 — who famously redesigned the fourth Doctor’s costume. The musician at the piano during the dance number is Murray Gold, while the figures the Doctor and Ruby dance with at the end are Strictly Come Dancing stars Shirley Ballas and Johannes Radebe. Maybe the big nemesis haunting the series will be some form that could threaten its existence as a TV show itself.

It’s worth saying that Doctor Who has an uneasy relationship with “big” villain performances which can turn hard into hamminess. But Jinkx Monsoon manages to pitch Maestro as just big and flamboyant enough to steal every scene they’re in, but never too silly. It’s also the right side of charming and magnetic, and while they don’t have anywhere near enough time to properly face off against Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor, it’s still a great match-up.

The problem of Susan Twist

As much as I don’t want to get into the weeds here, it’s possible this stuff is going to come up later that I need to flag it. Doctor Who has been running for more than 60 years with a revolving door of creative figures who paid little-to-no attention to consistency. A convenient way to justify these is by suggesting time travel, by its very nature, would always mess up your personal history. But, in latter days, the show has often preferred to overlook the thornier parts of its backstory, like the existence of the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan.

When the show started, the Doctor was joined on his adventures by Susan and a pair of teachers who followed her home one night. Long before any mention of Time Lords or Gallifrey, she was just the kid figure who often wound up needing rescuing. Then, in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” the Doctor exiles her to 22nd century Earth because she wants to kiss a boy. His goodbye speech has been long since de-contextualized and made to sound noble. But it is essentially him going “yeah, you’re interested in boys now, so you go make babies (eww babies) and stay here while I go off running around the universe.” Yes, it is a bit yikes.

This ties in with a small body of writing about this trope in children’s literature about the way female characters are treated when reaching adulthood. In combination with a sexual awakening, this is often used as justification to dump them out of the narrative. It’s even called “The Problem of Susan,” albeit named after Neil Gaiman’s rebuttal of what happens to Susan at the end of The Chronicles of Narnia. If you’d like to learn more, you can read Elizabeth Sandifer’s essay on “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” which talks about this in some detail.

Why is this relevant? Because when Davies’ returned to Doctor Who, he cast the same actress in two different episodes. Susan Twist played Mrs. Merridew in “Wild Blue Yonder” and was seen again in “The Church on Ruby Road,” which sent keen-eyed fans into a frenzy. She pops up here as a tea lady and, on the roof of Abbey Road; the Doctor even talks about the fact another of his incarnations is living in Shoreditch in 1963 with his granddaughter. That the episode ends with a musical number called “There’s always a Twist at the end” with Ncuti Gatwa winking to camera is as big a neon sign as you could hope for.

Doctor Who fans — never ones to not scour the text, metatext and paratext of each episode — took Twist’s repeated casting as a signpost. They assumed, not unjustifiably, that this series would feature a twist about Susan, and that Davies was subtly signaling this to diehard fans. Given Twist’s appearance here, and that we get a song saying the quiet part out loud, seems to vindicate those theories. Unless, of course, it’s all a triple bluff, but I’m not sure how anyone could game that successfully. The only question that remains, of course, is what Davies’ plan is, and how exactly it’ll play out in the next six episodes.

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