Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Doctor Who’s 'The Devil’s Chord' features an intriguing new villain, a little taste of The Beatles, and imperfectly delivers a key message on the significance of music

(spoilers ahead)

'The Devil’s Chord' is an interesting episode. It’s very clear from the start that Doctor Who is once again embracing its fun and campy roots. Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor is excited to go on an adventure, meet new people, discover new things, and there’s great chemistry between him and Millie Gibson’s Ruby Sunday that further amplifies this energy of a new beginning. Jinkx Monsoon is a force of nature as the newly-introduced villain, and delivers a truly creepy and memorable performance as the Maestro. It’s also refreshing to see the show’s commitment to representation, from the diverse casting choices to the way gender and sexuality are casually brought up in the dialogue.

What 'The Devil’s Chord' isn’t, is a Beatles episode. Even if it was marketed as such. It is an episode that features the Beatles, honours the Beatles, visits Abbey Road Studios back in 1963 (when it was still called EMI studios, as it was renamed later, reportedly around 1976), mentions their significance, but it is not entirely focused on the band. The main focus of the episode, in fact, seems to be music itself, and the impact it has on the world. Which is not a bad thing, on the contrary, it is a genuinely interesting area to explore.
The way the show does it is by showing how the world changes when the main villain strips it of all music, which eventually leads to a dystopian future. It’s a shame that this wasn’t explored in more detail, beyond showing that when you remove music from the world, the world becomes a worse place. Because the core message holds some big truths. It only takes a brief study of historical events to realise how much music and the arts have contributed to social and political movements. Influencing, inspiring, allowing people to express their frustration, hope and anger, to protest and to show others that they are not alone. It is no exaggeration to suggest that by taking that factor away a lot of key moments in history could have turned out quite differently.

Nevertheless, the episode is not without its flaws. Nitpicking a bit, it’s not hard to find a few inconsistencies and questions remaining unanswered. Why is John Lennon wearing the round glasses in 1963? And if a sinister cosmic entity stripped the world from all kinds of music and rhythm and dance, then why are people forming bands, why are there pianos and orchestras around, and why are people even recording music with the same enthusiasm of someone having to go through obligatory jury duty, even though they are not forced to do it? Why did the world go on for decades only slightly changed since the incident in the 20s, but all that’s left of it in 2024 is an apocalyptic scenery. Then again, one could argue that suspension of disbelief and ignoring certain contradictions is more or less part of the show, and of pretty much every story involving time travel in general.

A more plot-specific question a younger person could very well ask is “why are the Beatles considered geniuses?”, and for better or worse this is a question the episode never tries to answer. It assumes from the start that the viewer is fully on board with the idea, and familiar with the band’s musical achievements. A shortcoming that could have been remedied if licensing issues didn’t prevent the show from actually including some of the Beatles’ music. Which is understandably very hard to do, and given the budget restrictions it’s not surprising that it didn’t happen, but it led to another way for the episode to unintentionally prove the point it was trying to make: an episode with the Beatles without the Beatles’ music is missing something special that would have made it better if it was there.

The way the Maestro is defeated is also clever, but the execution again heavily relies on the idea of ‘genius’. Which is not inherently bad, it makes sense that John Lennon and Paul McCartney figure the last note out instead of the Doctor, still it feels like the resolution lacked more nuance. There is absolutely no denying that there was something very special about the Beatles and the mark that they left in musical history, but what makes an artist unique doesn’t come from the singular place of being gifted, or a genius, or special. It’s the sum of who they are as a person, their skill, their effort, their life experiences, their heartbreaks, their low moments, their ability to transform emotion into art and communicate things through it.
On a more philosophical level, one could even wonder if a John Lennon who grew up in an alternative world that had been left without musical influence for decades, who hadn’t experienced the same things, hadn’t discovered the musicians that came before him and shaped his view on music, would have turned out the same. It would have been interesting to see these things explored on a deeper level, the way the Vincent Van Gogh episode did, making it one of the most emotionally impactful episodes in the show’s history. Perhaps in a way that would satisfy the nostalgia of old fans but that would also intrigue a new generation to discover the Beatles through their music.
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