Reviews

Review: World Enough and Time

There are some episodes of Doctor Who that contain unambiguously great stories. ‘Human Nature’ is one of them: its tale of a vulnerable, humanised Doctor is sweeping and simultaneously intimate; a vast tour de force of a man who is not the Doctor, and indeed who has stolen the Doctor’s body, and whom we nonetheless grow to love so much we’re reluctant to let him leave it. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is another: a strictly local skirmish that opens a window onto the life of a single, tragic figure, heading irreversibly towards the end of his life, inspired briefly by the encouragement of friends, but ultimately not enough to eclipse the pain. ‘Time Heist’ jumps to the scale’s opposing end, and delivers a tale that is light on characterisation but embroiled in a mystery that is sufficiently interesting to draw you in and keep you guessing.

Other episodes are what we might call Event Stories. ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ (and its immediate follow-up) might be a decent example: ‘The Wedding of River Song’ is another. Monsters and threats are all present and more or less correct, but the McGuffins serve the dramatic purpose of padding out the running time between the twists. Paradoxically these are usually the ones that people remember, because they are the game changers – the ones that kill, that resurrect, that shine a torch onto the identity papers of heretofore mysterious, enigmatic guest stars.

‘World Enough and Time’ is a classic case of an Event Story. This is not an episode that you watch for the meat, because by and large there isn’t any. Oh, there are Things That Happen. Many of the Things That Happen will have the fans talking: one, in particular, will cause the collective dropping of jaws. Simultaneously, the story is essentially a series of sudden peaks amidst periods of comparative inactivity. Much of the point is that time is passing much faster for Bill than it is for the Doctor and the remains of his crew, meaning that the Time Lord is sidelined for at least half the running time, captured in a series of frozen moments, as if in a pocket universe held in a painting (read: TV screen), while for Bill the years tick by. (We do not know, by the way, precisely how many years it is, although there are undoubtedly fans on the internet already doing the maths.)

Essentially what happens in ‘World Enough and Time’ is this: the Doctor begins to regenerate, a flash-forward that serves to tease the finale early. Then Bill is shot dead, the hole in her chest sudden and gaping, with Bill herself seemingly frozen in time in much the same way that her mentor will be later in the story. Five minutes later she is up and about, a synthetic heart installed in the same manner as the reactor that’s kept Tony Stark alive. She lives a sort of half life in a nightmarish, dimly-lit hospital, accompanied only by a heavily-accented janitor, Mr Razor, whose total absence from the cast list ought to be a clue as to his identity.

What’s curious is the manner in which the story actively mirrors ‘Utopia’ but also mimics both Classic Who and the spoiler-obsessed contingent of the viewing audience. There’s a scene in The Phantom Menace which I rather like (now there’s something I never thought I’d say out loud): as Qui-Gonn and Obi-Wan cross the hangar on their way to a fateful meeting with the Trade Federation, Qui-Gonn castigates his charge for failing to concentrate on the gravity of the current situation. “Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future,” Obi-Wan protests, which prompts the response “But not at the expense of the moment.”

If anything, ‘World Enough’ actively fulfils this prophecy, taking a hammer to the fourth wall and spending much of its running time teasing the fans desperate to jump ahead, by introducing a character who will doubtless irritate many people simply because they’re waiting for the Master to turn up. It would be interesting to see how many people were angrily Tweeting at quarter past seven, annoyed as to why the much-anticipated return hadn’t happened yet, oblivious to the reality. Certainly Simm’s disguise is effective and his acting impeccable, and while many people will undoubtedly see through the ruse immediately there will be a great many more who don’t, even if they were around for ‘The King’s Demons’. This is one of those instances where false memory reigns supreme; watching the episode a second time – as I did, Thursday morning – it is impossible to not see it, and I suspect that there will be plenty of fans ready to lie about the fact that they did.

Certainly it’s not the only time. Missy’s early conversation with Bill and Nardole reeks of fanboy trolling – the morally ambiguous Time Lady, when asked why she’s calling herself Doctor Who, replies “That’s his real name”. It sounds precisely like the arguments I read (and frequently attempt to defuse) on Facebook, and Moffat knows it. Next week’s Tumblr prediction: an image of Missy dabbing, with this caption:

There. I’ve done it so you don’t have to. For reference: it is fine to call him Doctor Who if you want to, and it always has been. Such forms of address have been part of the show since 1963 – if it’s good enough for Peter Capaldi, it ought to be good enough for the rest of us.

For all its structural inadequacies, ‘World Enough’ gets an awful lot right. The hospital in which Bill spends the bulk of her time is dark and frightening, echoing the visual design of Silent Hill (the normal Silent Hill; the ‘other’ version would just be too much to cope with). The only thing that jars during these scenes is the fact that she seems so comfortable: it could be a mild form of Stockholm syndrome, but there is something implausible about her acceptance of the situation in which she finds herself, and something atypically mundane about her conversations with Mr Razor. If anything, the Doctor’s companion is perhaps a little too happy with her lot; perhaps it’s the presence of an artificial heart that’s caused her to basically lose her own.

Then there are the Cybermen: shadowy, shuffling and shambling, emerging from the darkness in cloth-covered stages of gradual exposure until the moment we see one of them up close for the first time (and, of course, it’s Bill). Most pleasing of all, the Speak & Spell voices are back, even at the prototype stage, the partially converted patients tapping away at buttons marked ‘PAIN’ like of those V-Tech laptops or talking phones my children have cluttering up the toy basket. The whole thing is a bit Stephen Hawking, and will undoubtedly alienate those fans who prefer the bland, metallic tones of Nicholas Briggs, but it looks like they’re probably back next week, so at least they won’t be whining for long.

Come the episode’s conclusion, the Master is back in the frame – reunited with what is almost unambiguously purported to be his future self (not that this will be enough to silence the naysayers) and Bill is a newly-converted Cyberman, weeping real tears instead of oil as she advances on the Doctor. It is a mistake that may not be undone, and that in itself is what makes it so terrifying, but it follows thirty-five minutes of meandering, punctuated by occasional flashes of brilliance. There are – once more – conversations about the Doctor’s eyebrows, although their supposed mightiness is thankfully left untapped. This is clearly an episode in which Moffat intended to drop several radical plot twists and decided that he add comparatively little of substance in between. The net result is not bad, in the way that, say, ‘Death In Heaven’ was – just rather disappointing after the character pieces we’ve had for the past few weeks. There is nothing to match the Doctor’s fire in ‘The Eaters of Light’, the fatherly reassurance he offers when Bill ventures into the TARDIS halfway through ‘The Pilot’, or his weary speech about moving on that provided the unexpected high point to ‘Thin Ice’.

I’m assuming all that’s coming. Certainly the trailer for next week indicates a maelstrom of mayhem and explosions and, I daresay, at least one scene where the Doctor stares at Bill and says “I know you’re still in there”. Whether Bill will actually emerge from her shell, perhaps tearing at the bandages like Jack Napier does in Batman, or whether the Doctor will somehow be able to open the armour, or whether the whole thing will simply be retconned somehow remains to be seen. ‘Redemption’ is mentioned as part of the Twelfth’s closing character development: does this mean saving her later? Is it too much to ask that Bill might actually endure the most horrific of fates without its instant undoing at the behest of the chief writer’s handwavium?

Then there’s ‘Spare Parts’. If we had the time we could find a way of making it fit, but it really doesn’t, and we might as well avoid that argument now, along with the whole question of whether or not Big Finish is canon. There will be some for whom the rewritten backstory is nothing short of sacrilege, but that’s the problem with an origin story that was committed to audio before it was televised: do you ignore it, as Moffat has done? Or do you work in a narrative that half the audience won’t have encountered and risk landing in Ian Levine territory? (Paradoxically Ian doesn’t like Big Finish anyway, so I can only assume that he will view tonight’s retcon with the sort of ambivalence that is liable to make your head explode. Well, we can dream.)

The bottom line (he he. ‘Bottom’) is that Moffat really didn’t have a choice, unless he’d told an entirely different tale – and I’m starting to find the whole ‘urinating on the legacy of Doctor Who’ argument fiercely dull, despite being, until recently, one of its most embittered advocates. Because everyone puts their own stamp on Doctor Who: you’re just a little kinder to the stuff that happened before you got the chance to watch it. No one questions the rewritten Time Lords in ‘The Deadly Assassin’, or. the notion that two Doctors can appear together at once. We shouldn’t question this. I just wish it had been within the confines of an actual story, instead of a collection of vignettes and moments, stitched together into a Frankensteinian whole, much like the shambling abominations that haunt the corridors of the Mondasian spacecraft.

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Review: The Eaters of Light

You have to feel a bit sorry for Rona Munro. There she is, making history – the first Classic Who writer to pen an episode for the new series, and the first story we’ve had from a woman since…well, ‘Survival’ that wasn’t either half-baked or utterly dreadful. For anyone who had doubts (and there’s no reason for you to have had doubts, but I will momentarily allow you that luxury), this week ought to be enough to dispel them utterly: women can write great sci-fi and they can write Doctor Who and ‘The Eaters of Light’ proves it in abundance. And what’s everybody talking about? Bloody John Simm.

Even I did it. Five hours after my episode 10 deconstruction I scheduled another Metro post that discussed the new promotional image for the series finale. There are YouTube clips from the Tenth Doctor’s confrontation with Rassilon, and quotes from Andrew Marvell. You go with the Twitter trends. I did, at least, decide that I’d make up for the shortfall in here. Because Rona’s tale of loyalty, empire and monsters in the darkness turns out to be one of the best episodes of Doctor Who this year, and possibly in a long time.

‘The Eaters of Light’ is one of those times when Doctor Who puts its own spin on an unsolved riddle. Agatha Christie, the Great Fire of London and the Mary Celeste have all had similar treatments (although really, spin-off material aside, why haven’t they done JFK yet?). And yet its windswept opening shows how much Bill has developed as a companion, given that the Doctor is, for once, letting her lead: she’s determined to find out what happened to the missing Ninth Legion, which may or may not have vanished in Europe some time in the second century, with the Time Lord taking the role of reluctant designated driver, in the manner of a father escorting a group of excited children to a Disney screening. From the outset to the conclusion, and all Tumblr-baiting monologues aside, we’re never in any doubt that Bill’s in charge: if this were a musical episode, she’d be singing ‘I’ve Got A Theory’, and Nardole would publicly admit his debilitating fear of squirrels.

It’s an interesting reversal: typically episodes open with a companion lamenting the fact that they’re on yet another grimy spacecraft, while the Doctor leaps around expressing enthusiasm for the workmanship. On this occasion it’s Capaldi’s turn to be grumpy: Aberdeenshire (all right, the Brecon Beacons) may be beautiful but the Doctor, you sense, is less than thrilled to be here. “It’s Scotland,” he harrumphs when Nardole complains about the weather. “It’s supposed to be damp.” Nardole, meanwhile, is stumbling over the rocks in his dressing gown like someone attempting an awkward Arthur Dent impression, but seemingly manages to ingratiate himself into the tribe within seconds of the Doctor stepping in to explore the cairn (although it’s been two days for everyone on the hill). Time passes much slower inside the portal than outside, acting as a neat forerunner to next week’s story.

In the meantime, Bill is making friends with what remains of the missing Ninth Legion, and is disturbed to find herself in the company of a bunch of teenagers: it’s like watching a sixth form caving trip gone horribly wrong. They’re hiding out in the woods, with low supplies and a visible sense of cabin fever, and despite some outward displays of bravado Bill is the Wendy they’ve clearly needed for quite some time. (I have an old friend who, in the aftermath of divorce, decided to go travelling; she seems to spend a lot of time hanging out with random twenty-somethings she meets in the hostels but in Thailand she ran into a group of male students who more or less adopted her for a bit, and watching Bill with Lucius and the others was not unlike how I imagine it was for her.)

It’s here that we’re forced to endure a ghastly vignette about equality and lesbianism – Bill, you see, is expecting a cacophony of awkwardness when she admits to Lucius that she bats for the other team, only to find that Lucius bats for both, and considers himself ‘ordinary’ – “I think it’s really sweet,” he adds, “that you’re so restricted.” We can see where they were going with this: ‘Ha ha,’ the BBC are saying, ‘look at you millennials, with your political correctness and cultural appropriation and so called enlightenment. You’re not the generation who invented sex, or non-binary.’ I’m not disagreeing, but that doesn’t mean it works dramatically – it sticks in the throat, a bitter, insoluble pill that you failed to swallow.

Thankfully that’s the only duff moment. Everything else just works. This is a self-contained narrative that is sure of its own identity. It is well-constructed and frightening when it needs to be, with decently-realised set pieces. Even the finale, which feels rushed and madly convenient (oh look, it’s the self-sacrifice trope again) is reasonably good. And Murray Gold – presumably on retainer at the moment – seems to have actually composed something of substance this week, with some pleasant enough New Age Celt things.

It helps that director Charles Palmer takes his visual cue from Nick Hurran by showing us the monster only sparingly. A single establishing shot of the Pictish beast racing towards the cairn (and a couple of illuminated flashes inside it) is about as substantial as it gets: the rest is all flourishes in the dark and wriggling tentacles. It is the ground itself that appears to have come to life: this is, of course, not the case at all, but it’s hard not to be a little unnerved when Bill is running through the woods with certain death right behind her. It’s notable that, like its spiritual companion, ‘Eaters’ suffers a little from a slightly tacked-on epilogue, but there has been a great deal written about that elsewhere and it’s not something I’m inclined to explore until I’ve seen exactly where it’s going.

Supporting cast are the usual mixture of affable, headstrong and irritating, but it’s the leads – and particularly the Doctor – who excel. Sidelined to an extent during ‘Empress’, Capaldi is in full flow this week, tossing his moods between scornful P.E. teacher and the dark sage we met at the end of ‘The Zygon Inversion’, although with considerably less shouting. It’s curious that in his two key scenes he’s addressing the same person, with varying degrees of contempt. “You got a whole Roman legion slaughtered,” he says to Kar about halfway through, “and you made the deadliest creature on this planet very very cross indeed.” It’s not the sharpest dialogue in the world, but it’s a moment where Capaldi sounds so incredibly like the Seventh Doctor you can picture McCoy sitting at home, saying “I could have done that. Actually I basically did, didn’t I?”

Still, it’s later (and not much later) that the actor really gets his chance. “Are you sulking?” he says. “When you want to win a war, remember this: it’s not about you. Believe me, I know.” It is whispered and understated, with Capaldi’s native Scots perhaps even more pronounced than usual, the way that newly repatriated residents often find their accents slipping back towards the native when they go home. It’s a stunning scene, worthy of the best of Tennant, but you sense that of the newer actors only Capaldi could really have pulled it off. If this series doesn’t win him a BAFTA, there is no justice.

Doctor Who episodes are too often rather hastily appraised. Much of the unsavoury reputation attributed to ‘Fear Her’ is down to its proximity to ‘Love and Monsters’; likewise I tend to view ‘In The Forest Of The Night’ with some disdain because ‘Do nothing’ is the solution to the problem twice in almost as many weeks. Similarly, there’s a very real risk that the good stories are being overshadowed this year because of headline-grabbing departures, regeneration rumours and long-anticipated character reappearances. What Munro has created this week is poetic and beautiful, but it will almost certainly be ignored in the weeks to come while excitement about the Master reaches fever pitch. It’s no secret that most fans seem more preoccupied with the words ‘Give us a kiss’ – and what that kiss might MEAN, BECAUSE IT’S IMPORTANT – than anything the Doctor said or did this week.

Because the inconvenient truth is that ‘The Eaters of Light’ is, at the moment, once more consigned to the undergrowth from which it came until the buzz dies down. For many fans it is a narrative hurdle, a story that was good fun but in which John Simm failed to appear. For still others there was resentment: where, I was asked more than once, was Rory the Roman? Why couldn’t we get a cameo? At least a nod? And I lament that this is how we do things now; that it is somehow expected that writers cater to the whims of fans simply because the fans now have an easy way of making their feelings known in advance. Never mind the fact that they had a legitimate excuse as far as the Telegraph was concerned, given that someone erroneously hit the ‘publish’ button six or seven hours before the episode went out. Are we really now at the stage where Doctor Who fans think they’re stakeholders in the writing process? (It is at times like this that I miss Points of View. At least you could only complain about stuff when it had already been broadcast.)

So much for fandom. Will end-of-series retrospectives and future rankings judge Munro’s masterpiece more kindly? Or is this a squandered opportunity, a story that will forever be resented for the things it chose not to do – and with good reason – than for the many things it did brilliantly? And good reviews don’t count. I want to see enthusiasm among the community. I want the audience to be jumping up and down and seeing this story the way I saw it, rather than with the nonchalance I witnessed on Sunday from those who thought it was ‘filler’, or ‘dull’, or ‘a good episode, I guess, but I’m stoked for the finale’. That’s not good enough. I want them to see it the way I saw it – to see that this is one of the best stories in years, and certainly one of the best the current series has offered. Can we get there? Against all odds, can we get there?

Time will tell. It always does. But sometimes they’ve already cancelled your show.

 

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Review: The Empress of Mars

I was at primary school with a kid called Steve. We all called him Spud, presumably because his head was unfortunately potato-shaped. He didn’t mind. Steve was a polite, if academically disadvantaged young man, and we were good friends. His parents divorced before we’d finished year 6, which was a bigger deal back in 1988 than it is now. He was a latchkey kid with access to the fridge and borderline unsuitable reading material. It was a different world.

One afternoon we were in the kitchen sharing a Diet Coke when I noticed his father was watching the end of something. The two of us looked round the door of the lounge: an actor, stabbed in the chest, staggering across a platform, evidently milking his death scene for all it was worth. He raised his face to the heavens and bellowed the single line of dialogue my brain recalls from that afternoon: “ODIIIIIINNNNN!!!!”

Thirty years on, I still haven’t seen The Vikings. But Bill has – and I’d be willing to bet that Mark Gatiss has as well. And as it turns out, that isn’t a bad thing.

There are writers who strive to forge ahead – for whom the most important thing is to tell new stories, or find new ways of telling those stories. And then there are writers who take their cue from the past. Gatiss has always struck me as one of those: a man whose Who-related work is rooted in the 1970s, in a self-conscious manner that flits between mind-numbingly tedious and tremendously enjoyable, depending on the episode. The criticism he receives is somewhat mystifying, given that a great deal of it seems to come from the very same component of the fanbase who actively petition for David Tennant’s return: a stilted, insular, nostalgia-driven quadrant, for whom the only way to fix a show that’s well past its prime is to make it exactly the same as it was, which misses the point so drastically I don’t have the willpower to unpack it.

I first learned to love Mark Gatiss around the time ‘The Crimson Horror’ first hit: in a pondering, occasionally tedious series (and in the wake of an absolute clanger of an episode) it was a breath of fresh air, a story that wasn’t ashamed of its legacy and that eschewed self-importance in favour of…well, fun. It’s an underrated commodity. Stories like ‘Robot of Sherwood’ seldom make the top ten, but they’re fun. Sometimes we forget that Doctor Who is supposed to be fun, so consumed are we in telling everyone how important and groundbreaking it is. One of my favourite moments in the Harry Potter series occurs at the end of Goblet of Fire, where Harry finds a convenient use for the blood money he’s earned from the Tri-Wizard tournament, by investing in the Weasley twins’ joke shop business venture. “I don’t want it,” he says, “and I don’t need it. But I could do with a few laughs. We could all do with a few laughs. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need them more than usual before long.”

What to say about ‘Empress’? It’s not profound. It makes no real political point, save the kind of digs at the British Empire you typically see on Horrible Histories (a show in which Gatiss has appeared, along with his League of Gentlemen co-stars). It has a lot of stuff about queen and country, including a pleasing Pauline Collins reference. It has an amusing, if fairly derivative cold open – excuse pun – that is enough to draw your interest, even if it does not quite reach the hyperbolic praise that Moffat ascribes to it (“The best pre-titles idea [he’d] ever heard”, according to Doctor Who Magazine, which rather overstates its supposed brilliance). It has a bunch of gung-ho British soldiers speaking an indecipherable language (‘rhino’ is mentioned; I honestly don’t know whether this is colloquially accurate or whether Gatiss is just making this shit up). And it has a new form of squareness gun: it literally folds people up in a sort of fatal compression, useful for packing suitcases. (Gatiss describes this as “a new way of killing people”, suggesting that he’s never read The Twits.)

More to the point, it has Ice Warriors. The throaty voices from ‘Cold War’ are back, but you don’t hear an awful lot of them: there is but one grunt, a tea-brewing local who is mostly silent, leading you to wonder at first whether we’re back in ‘Doctor’s Wife’ territory. The episode is also graced with a brand new Ice Warrior, the titular Empress, frozen in carbonite and equipped with a distinctive, Predator-style helmet that presumably comes with its own feed of 1980s action movies, beamed straight to the eyepiece. She moves a little like Eldrad and growls like Sarah Parish in ‘The Runaway Bride’, with a similar mindset. Not that Iraxxa is irrevocably genocidal, of course – like the most rounded supporting characters her mind can be swayed, although she only listens to reason when Bill pleads with her to stop the fighting. Do we take this as a feminist-tinged political commentary on current foreign policy? If so, would that make Bill Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry or Nia Griffith? Is this a conversation I really shouldn’t have started?

While all this is going on, Nardole is stuck on Earth, in a seemingly malfunctioning TARDIS, which has obviously put its brakes on for a reason, whether the forces implementing it turn out to be internal or external. There’s a certain amount of cast-thinning going on here; Mars is crowded enough and it’s no great secret that Nardole’s presence in the episode was somewhat last minute – we’re back in Nyssa and Jamie territory – so the solution Gatiss (or, come to think of it, most likely Moffat) adopts is to temporarily maroon him. The subsequent appearance by Missy is functional but unnerving, suggesting something else is going on, and the episode’s abrupt conclusion indicates another scene that might have been dropped. It doesn’t work, but one suspects that Gatiss’ hand was forced for the state of the arc.

There are film references galore – Bill’s response to strolling around the caverns of Mars is to liken it to the movies she’s seen, which some may seem as irritating but which is really just a reflection of how contemporary culture works. Relatively contemporary culture, anyway – I was going to write that it was a wonder that she didn’t try and Instagram a selfie with Friday, but the truth is that every film on Bill’s list is at over thirty years old, and it is left to the Doctor to drop in a reference to Frozen. This token nod to the millenials aside, the story is, like much of Gatiss’ best work, not so much a product of its time as much as a product of somebody else’s (or, as someone put it on Facebook last night, “Gatiss’ stuff was great when other people wrote it first in the 70s”).

That turns out to work. ‘Empress’ has ‘filler’ stamped all over it, but there is nothing wrong with a decent filler. It doesn’t do anything particularly profound, but it has enough in there to hopefully pique the curiosity of newer fans who have yet to encounter the Ice Warriors properly, without completely destroying anything that was good about the original. Indeed, the appearance of Alpha Centauri, two minutes from the end, was enough to make me jump out of my chair – it is reckless, crowd-pleasing shoehorning, there for no other reason than to appeal to the more experienced fanbase and up the hit counts in the Classic Who groups, but I can live with that, even if most newer fans were probably wondering who on Earth that squeaky-voiced bug-eyed alien was, and why their parents were getting so excited. (At least they have an excuse: the Telegraph, in a review which has subsequently been amended, genuinely thought it was Pauline Collins. I can live with the show being reviewed by non-experts – but seriously, how hard is it to read the credits?)

Some episodes of Doctor Who are destined to set the world alight. Gatiss’ latest will not, but that’s not the end of the world. If its supporting characters could do with a little more depth, that’s a by-product of the forty minute structure (and something which, when Chibnall comes to the table, could do with a serious rethink). The leads acquit themselves more than adequately, even if the Doctor has little to actually do this week except react. And it has Ice Warriors doing Ice Warrior-ish things, in a self-contained narrative that, while popping the odd seam in its bag of containment, manages to just about stay inside it. Profundity can wait: this is fun. Really, what more do you want on a Saturday evening?

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Review: The Lie of the Land

I was sixteen when I first read 1984. It was one of those books that stays with you: a fable of hellish bleakness, in which there are no real winners, and where there are far worse things than death. In late summer 1994 (ten years after Orwell’s narrative had failed to come to pass) such a dystopian nightmare still seemed like a distant reality. It was only a few short years later that we found ourselves looking at echo chambers, fake news and always-on technology that monitored our every move, and wondered how reality had caught up with fiction without any of us actually noticing.

Nearly six decades after the publication of Orwell’s magnum opus, Ben Elton had a go. His version was called Blind Faith, and was similarly bleak, although it ended at the gallows, rather than a cafe. It was clunky, shallow, zeitgeisty and overstated its themes, but it was oddly prophetic, and I wonder if Elton still thinks of it fondly, or perhaps regards it with the same casual dismissal that John Lennon had when it came to his early Beatles songs. And I wonder, too, if time will judge Toby Whithouse’s series 10 offering with kindness or with cynicism – something that foreshadows a likely reality, or one of those right-on attempts at being topical without actually saying anything.

‘The Lie of the Land’ picks up some time after ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ left off, with a withdrawn, isolated Bill going through teabags far faster than any person living alone actually should do, given that she spends most of her free time having imaginary conversations with a woman she can scarcely remember. It sounds like the plot of a Talking Heads narrative, and indeed that’s almost how the episode starts, although it isn’t long before we abandon melancholy for intrigue. There is an element of humanity in this week’s story, but it is first and foremost a conspiratorial thriller, and Whithouse wears it like a badge of honour. This is a story in which you can trust no one, Mr Mulder.

Certain stylistic things grate. It’s largely down to the fact that dystopian narratives are generally aimed at an older audience – but this is Doctor Who, and consequently there is a need to explain everything. ‘The Lie of the Land’ is, to all intents and purposes, the Blade Runner of New Who, its voiceover cloying and unnecessary (it should be obvious that spot checks are frequent and dangerous in a totalitarian police state, without Bill having to give us the details). It is only in the final reel that its purpose becomes apparent, Bill’s mother becoming not just a convenient expository sounding board but also a crucial plot device: the whole thing is very Rings of Akhaten with the same wind machine they used in ‘The Pilot’ but you can, at least, understand why we’ve had to put up with half an hour of interior monologue.

The voiceover isn’t the only thing that jars: the structure is off, somehow, as if this were a very good two-part story crammed into forty-two minutes, because the Monks had taken up two episodes already and they couldn’t stretch to another. The society Whithouse creates is frightening and oppressive and reasonably convincing, and there frankly isn’t enough of it: fascist police states are encapsulated in single, cliche-driven boot-in-the-door scenes (first they came for the communists, and I did not speak out), where non-conformists are dragged away in full view of disapproving neighbours. How much more might we have benefited from a more comprehensive overview of those who rejected the Monks’ programming? The resistance movement, and the laughing men behind the guns that served under the Doctor? The figureheads in charge, kowtowing to the will of the Monks, struggling to remember a time when they succeeded or failed purely on the whims of political ambition? Even the Monks themselves, who linger in the background this week, motives untapped, barely uttering a word? How much better, indeed, might the story have been had it begun with the planet under a state of siege, with flashbacks to key moments from the Pyramid episode and all the ephemeral dialogue from last week scattered to the ashes and replaced with something a little more substantial?

Perhaps that’s too much to ask for, and places too much demand on an audience that already struggles with the narratives that are thrown its way. If there is one recurring sin that New Who commits it is that of needless exposition, but a glance through the questions that come up on social media show that the audience is often not as smart as it likes to think it is. And we’re not talking about the kids here; we’re talking about grownups who should know better or who at least ought to read more. Just the briefest of glances through any DW forum in the days that follow an episode is enough to make a grown man weep. At one extreme you have the conspiracy theorists who notice everything and analyse everything – something I outwardly parody on this site – and at the other extreme the people who genuinely cannot understand why the Eleventh Doctor was able to regenerate. I don’t for a moment believe that Who writers have the time to actually read any of this, but if there are accusations that New Who occasionally dumbs down, we might say that this occurs simply because on many levels its audience actively demands it.

Even the supposedly smart people have a go. “It’s horribly misjudged to show Bill turning a gun on the Doctor,” writes Patrick Mulkern in the Radio Times, “and firing not once but four times. We’ve seen nothing that would push her to such an extreme act. It cannot be rationalised or condoned.” Actually, it can. That we do not get to see her suffering does not mean that said suffering has not taken place. The very fact that this is not something Bill would typically do does not, in itself, mean that it cannot be condoned, or that indeed that it would never happen: it simply means that there is a narrative gap that the audience must fill on its own. Is that such a dreadful ask? Or are we now at the stage where even professional reviewers need to be drip-fed?

There is an awful lot of decent material this week, even if it isn’t always used as effectively as it might be. The opening montage, which openly parodies Forrest Gump, is nothing short of marvellous, particularly with the addition of Capaldi’s soothing voiceover, bookended by the most sinister of grins. Capaldi, indeed, is absolutely the best thing about this week, whether he’s comforting a suddenly remorseful Missy or – in the episode’s high point – explaining his apparent change of heart to an incredulous Bill with such fortitude that for a second you’re almost prepared to believe it. Unfortunately it’s a that scene concludes with a mildly ridiculous denouement, and a quite unnecessary regeneration from the Doctor – “A bit much?” he quips, mostly through the fourth wall, and thus confirming that the whole thing was more about deceiving the audience than it was about winding up Bill.

(As an aside, the version of the episode that Emily and I watched this week was really very different. We usually get something that’s close to final – although it sometimes has a time stamp, a watermark or the odd bit of dialogue that gets polished or removed entirely before the final broadcast. The preview version of ‘Lie of the Land’ was, we were informed, not quite finished, and was still awaiting a few key effects, notably during the regeneration, which was missing its trademark sparkly dust. We knew what was supposed to be there because we’d seen it in the trailer, but having a CGI-free Capaldi stand in that chamber, stretch out his arms to look at effects that hadn’t yet been added and then shout “YAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!” really was quite disconcerting, in an amusing sort of way.)

On the upside, the Doctor can see again, which makes certain things much easier for Nardole – although he’s largely reduced to hesitant glances and screaming like a girl when Bill threatens him with a dining chair. Mackie is typically marvellous, but we knew she would be, because she always is. The supporting characters are (sadly) once more ephemeral, consisting largely of Martyred Woman, Police State Nazi and Brainwashed Soldier: it is left to Gomez to provide what remains of the episode’s substance, which consists of sitting on a piano and crying over her victims. “You didn’t tell me about this bit,” she accuses the Doctor, in what appears to be a moment of genuine regret. It is most likely a ruse, because (as we have learned) we can no more trust Missy than we can the man who created her.

And perhaps that’s the lesson we take from this week’s story. As the Doctor and Bill share a coffee by an abandoned plinth – in a scene that smacks of the Moral Messages that would suffix every single episode of Masters of the Universe – we’re no closer to really knowing the truth about what we’ve seen, or why it’s happened, or why the Doctor had to put Bill through the wringer with quite so much vehemence. What’s left is a sea of fragments knitted into an enjoyable, if not entirely coherent whole. There is a monster who gives up too easily, and a story that raises more questions than it answers, but not in an open-ended, satisfying sort of way – rather (as I’ve already said) a brilliant two-part story shoehorned into a decent single installment. Still. ‘Decent’ is fine, even if we’re back in highs and lows territory this week – and even if, as we watch the Doctor stroll back to the Vault, we’re still not entirely sure what’s going on or who we can trust. The shortest distance between two points is usually a straight line, but that’s not the route that Moffat tends to take, and it’s hard to take anything at face value. Instead I’m reminded of Commissioner Gordon, watching Batman and Robin swoop off into the distance on the final page of the Knightsend saga, with its tales of false identity and duplicity and eventual redemption – as the Commissioner’s deputy assures him that, if nothing else, at least they can be sure that Batman is back.

“Really?” the Commissioner replies. “After all that’s happened, how can we be sure of anything?”

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Review: The Pyramid at the End of the World

It’s Friday, and I’m in the park with Edward. It is a weekly ritual: this odyssey of library books and shopping and sausage rolls and then going on a bear hunt on the back of a Wicksteed rocking horse. Later I will drop him at nursery and then go to the cafe and write. I am half thinking about the details, in between chanted verses about swamps and coal mines and radioactive wastelands, when the messenger app pings.

“So you’ve seen it, then?” said Phil. “What’s it like?”
“It’s shit,” I said.
“Oh dear.”
“Well, it’s not ‘Kill The Moon’ shit,” I added. “More ‘Into The Dalek’ shit. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, more that it’s just interminably dull.”

Peter Harness has never been one to shy away from a good moral argument. His Who writing speaks volumes (at least the bits Steven Moffat didn’t do himself). ‘Kill The Moon’ turned from a Hinchliffe-esque horror story into an abortion debate that immediately went south faster than Ronnie Biggs in 1966. The Zygon episodes were better, if also rather worthy in places – a reputation they’ve largely gained retrospectively, being perhaps the last Doctor Who stories to hold a strong political subtext until…well, this one. Harness is not afraid to tackle the big themes, even if (as it turns out this week) he appears to have not a great deal to actually say about them.

If anything, ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ suffers from Difficult Second Album Syndrome, or at least second act fatigue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, except to say that nothing very much happens. That’s something we’ve got used to this series, but that it’s suddenly a problem is less a hallmark of collective boredom and more the fact that a ponderous narrative like this does not sit well with the alien invasion badge the episode wears at its heart. This is the middle part of a trilogy, a fact that we’re never really allowed to forget.

The Doctor’s blindness is part of it. Reduced to a shell of the man he once was, he’s left stumbling both figuratively and literally, relying solely on Nardole to supply descriptive narrative of the details the sunglasses miss: as a way of instilling dramatic tension between the Doctor and Bill it works, but it was already tiresome last week and another dip in the pool doesn’t do the writing any favours. It doesn’t help that it now takes the Doctor twice as long to do anything, given both his visual impairment and a newfound despondency that places Capaldi at the episode’s dramatic centre – making the story more about him than it usually is.

This sort of personal journey approach works fine when you’re watching a character piece – as we did with, say, ‘The Pilot’ – but it’s less successful when large chunks of the story revolve around the Doctor travelling from one place to another, interacting with supporting characters who are presumably baffled as to why they’re having to contend with a cantankerous retired prog rock guitarist, and wondering when the real hero’s going to show up. “Coordinate your attacks,” the Doctor says with stunning nonchalance when the military commanders suggest a show of force (although it’s enough to wipe the smug expression from Nardole’s face; too bad we’re the only ones who got to see it). “If you demonstrate strength and unity, they might choose to step away.”

This is deliberate. The whole thing is less an act of purposeful deception (as it was when he opened the door to the space zombies, for example) and more a Doctor who’s feeling his way in the dark literally as well as metaphorically – something that makes sense given that this is the first time we’ve actually seen him in action properly since the events of ‘Oxygen’. Capaldi comes to the part with a new sense of weariness this week – perhaps even more overt than the melancholy figure who wandered into the camouflaged TARDIS at the beginning of ‘Hell Bent’ – staring through a glass darkly, brooding on the end of the world to the extent that he inadvertently causes it. As self-fulfilling prophecies go, this is as nihilistic and bleak as we’ve seen for some time, a clear forerunner to the next episode, in which the decrepit have inherited the earth.

But things get cluttered when the characters don’t really have time to breathe. The Monks appear, and then reappear, and then there’s a scene in the pyramid that looks like a modern art exhibition and then an imagined apocalypse, and then a bit more talking and then, finally, a bit of tension, and the problem is that none of it is very interesting. I said earlier that nothing happens: this is, perhaps, not entirely true. It is more accurate to say that it feels like nothing happens. The potentially interesting military leaders (at last, supporting characters I could almost get behind) are reduced to a series of military cliches and, in one scene, an excruciatingly tepid display of artificial comradeship, before being zapped into the ether.

Certainly casting has rarely seemed as diverse at it is this week. The international flavour is part of that, but it feels like the middle of ‘Four To Doomsday’, with a dwarf thrown in for good measure. That’s not to do Rachel Denning a disservice – of all the supporting cast she’s easily the most likeable, and it’s a shame that her appearance within the context of the story consists largely of babysitting a hungover colleague. (And for the record, Steven, we know that the world ends with the slamming of a door. We got it the first time. There’s no need to show it to us on multiple occasions. That’s the sort of thing your predecessor did, and we didn’t like it then either.)

If anything, it is the Doctor’s obstinacy that causes his (and the world’s) eventual undoing, something that was foreshadowed last week in a now-defunct conversation with Nardole (of course it is happening in your head, Doctor, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?). Nardole – at his best when he makes sudden, astute observations that crystallise the thoughts we’ve been having for years – is the one who tells the Doctor that “The moment you tell Bill, it becomes real. And then you might actually have to deal with it.” Far from the dashing, tedious hero we’ve encountered, this is a man who tactically misjudges an elementary problem and is doomed as a result. It’s the sort of character flaw you expect to see in superhero movies – we saw it in Iron Man, we saw it in Spider-Man, we saw it in The Avengers. Heck, we even saw it in Lego Batman.

And in itself, that’s not a bad thing. It’s worked before. ‘The Caves of Androzani’ employed a similar conceit: it is the one that tops the polls, and yet it is the one where the Doctor loses. ‘Midnight’ saw the Doctor snatched from the jaws of death by the grace of a nameless, unbelievably unselfish airline stewardess, and showed why it’s always a bad idea for a socially dysfunctional genius to travel without an entourage of middlemen to smooth over the bruised egos. This sort of thing goes right back to ‘The Daleks’, by way of ‘Warriors of the Deep’. Stories in which the Doctor blunders into a bad situation and makes it worse can be marvellous. Unfortunately, this week’s wasn’t one of them.

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Review: Extremis

Warning: spoilers.

A few years ago, there was a Big Finish audio called ‘Omega’. In it the Doctor takes a time-travelling tour ship to the Sector of Forgotten Souls, in order to solve an ancient mystery. As events unfold and people start dying, it transpires that malevolent Time Lord Omega – last seen in ‘Arc of Infinity’ – may be responsible. The rug is yanked out from underneath the audience at the end of episode three, whereupon it transpires that we believed was the Doctor – and, indeed, who believed himself to be the Doctor – is actually Omega, still trapped in the Doctor’s form, and it is at that point that the real Doctor turns up.

Big Finish actually pulled this stunt twice within a matter of months – I’m not going to tell you about the other story, as I’ve already ruined one. It is the sort of thing that is very easy to do on audio, dealing as it does with the deliberate withholding of specific information (the other story, for example, neglects to mention that the person we believe is the Doctor actually has eight limbs). Audio dramas rob you of your sense of sight – curiously appropriate, given this week’s content – and consequently it is much easier to tell particular types of story. For a while I held the conviction that it’s the sort of thing that would be impossible to do on TV, although there are ways round it; it’s just a question of finding them. Instead, I lamented the fact that the ultimate test of faith – a Doctor who was, for whatever reason, either untrustworthy or Not What He Seemed – was something that had for the most part been untouched in New Who, with certain exceptions. Oh, subterfuge is fine. Constantly the Doctor works against our expectations. And we’d had the trickery of the Eleventh Doctor and his Ganger duplicate in ‘The Almost People’, a minor skirmish to expose one of Amy’s particularly irritating character flaws. But that was as far as it went, until this week.

‘Extremis’ is, to all intents and purposes, ‘The Android Invasion’ for the Matrix generation, with the added twist that the false reality is the final reveal, buried in an ancient text that has leaked onto the internet. This news is delivered by a collection of cardinals and the Pope himself (Joseph Long, who – while not reaching the dizzy heights of brilliance he achieved in ‘Turn Left’, nonetheless provides the episode’s comedic highlight). The Doctor’s blindness is an assailable obstacle, thanks to a pair of headphones and Nardole’s penchant for filling in the blanks that the Daredevil-esque sonic sunglasses can’t provide, conveniently picking out essential details like a subtle, always-on audio description.

It concludes – get this – with the Doctor sending an email to himself. That’s the dramatic climax. Still, the notion of a Doctor-who’s-not-the-Doctor is quietly wonderful, even if its denouement is a little too neat. Characters in this newly-created ‘shadow’ universe reach their moment of clarity with sudden, unilateral nihilistic desolation: it is strange, somehow, that everyone who reads the text experiences the exact same reaction, almost as if it were as pre-programmed as the numbers they spout in the CERN cafeteria in what is arguably the episode’s strongest sequence. One might argue that – as with many of the series 10 episodes – ‘Extremis’ might have benefited from a two-part narrative. Moffat has clearly worked hard at the dynamic this year, to the extent that the stories have suffered: for the most part it’s not a problem, as the Doctor and Bill have been so wonderful to watch, but we paid the price in ‘Knock Knock’ when they were split up for long periods. ‘Extremis’ is a joy from start to finish, but you wonder whether the surprise of the simulated universe might have benefited from a little padding, perhaps split over a cliffhanger and its resolution.

Or perhaps it will be. It’s no secret that ‘Extremis’ is the first part of a loose trilogy – with the Monks taking centre-stage in next week’s ‘The Pyramid At The End Of The World’. Their presence in ‘Extremis’ is light and insubstantial, in much the same way that the Silence played a comparatively small part in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, before the meat was grafted to the bones in the second installment. The Monks are underwhelming – “Imagine if a Silent had died while cosplaying as a member of the Sibylline Sisterhood”, says Doctor Who Magazine, in what is as good a description as any – but their role in things is yet to be fully defined, and it is entirely possible that we will see the knock-on effect of the simulated universe in other ways. Unilateral suicide sends a strong message, particularly in light of the episode’s tiptoeing around the nicer side of Catholicism, but it seems unusual that it was the only response. Surely there’s a place for people who reject the truth of the Veritas, or those who, having been presented with the harshness of reality, choose to accept the illusion – as Cypher did over his dinner with Agent Smith.

It’s bonkers. The action moves from the Vatican to the Pentagon to CERN for no reason other than it can, with a global conspiracy that is almost as needlessly elaborate as the Cyberman’s convoluted plot in ‘The Wheel In Space’. Everything is duplicated exactly, right down to Bill’s neurotic stepmother. The technology involved must be astronomical, but presumably it’s no more difficult to do than the computer simulations run by New Line when they were planning the battle of Helm’s Deep (legend has it that during one such simulation, the pre-programmed orcs took one look at the seemingly impenetrable fortress, and promptly did a runner). It makes you wonder why the Monks are spending their time and efforts playing sitting inside playing video games instead of actually getting on with the invasion – but while you never quite figure out the answer, at least you know why their skin is so pockmarked.

The fact that the secret of the vault is ostensibly revealed not in a single climactic moment but in a laboured sequence of drip-feeding flashbacks is undoubtedly going to be a disappointment to the thousands of viewers who’ve been pacing the floor for the last six weeks. Through a series of remembrances we learn that the Doctor was asked by an unknown body to execute Missy and guard her corpse – only to be interrupted by Nardole, sent as an ambassador for the conscience-pricking River Song, leading to Missy’s apparent incarceration. It’s neither a shock nor a surprise – the flashbacks aren’t particularly interesting, and by the time we get to the last of Missy’s pleas you’re practically begging for the Doctor to pull the trigger and open up ‘the Pandorica – and the manner in which events unfold indicates that this is not the end of the story, particularly as we do not see the vault actually open, nor do we learn unambiguously who is inside it. Put another way, Missy supposedly went in – but we do not see this happen, nor are we even sure that she is still in there, at least in a form we would recognise. It may yet turn out to be as simple as the the provided explanation – but that wouldn’t be very Moffat, somehow.

‘Extremis’ is likely to be divisive. Some people will love it, others will hate it. On its own, it does not easily stand up: as part of a trilogy, history may judge it more kindly. Some will rail against its supposed cleverness; others (like me) will see this as an example of Moffat pushing things as far as he can, and perhaps not quite as far as he wanted (how more daring might it have been had we discovered that every previous episode, and not just this one, had been a simulation, and that it turned out that David Bradley was guarding the vault?). Some will cheer at the audacity of actually killing the Doctor; others will produce a series six box set and cough gently. This is not one for the ‘generally good’ or ‘generally bad’ pile: it will tread the uneasy tightrope between the two, with fans and critics either side, anxious to give it a push one way or the other. In the grand scheme of things, it’s Marmite. But that’s OK. I happen to like Marmite.

 

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Review: Oxygen

“Oh look,” said Emily, as the credits ground to a halt. “Zombies again.”

We’d just finished ‘Knock Knock’, and were watching the trailer for episode 5, which appeared to show hordes of the undead in space, all mottled complexions and empty, soulless eyes. By and large it’s something the programme doesn’t touch. Transmogrification is fine. So is demonic possession. Even shuffling skeletons are OK, provided you don’t overdo it. Still, the last time Doctor Who did an outright zombie episode, it was ‘New Earth’, and it was a disaster. Before you start scrolling down to the comments box, I know they weren’t zombies. If anything they were the biological opposite. But they moved like zombies and they behaved like zombies, and that’s how I choose to remember them.

You have to watch out for the kids, and that’s what Jamie Mathieson was doing with ‘Oxygen’. The undead – murdered by company equipment in a cost-saving initiative, and then re-animated – are a big part of the story, but they are rather less gruesome than you suspect they were meant to be. That doesn’t mean the episode isn’t frightening enough without some of the cutting room floor stuff (and this isn’t speculation, Mathieson himself admits as much in Doctor Who Magazine). This is one of the outright creepiest episodes of Doctor Who in some time – I’d say since ‘Heaven Sent’, but that sort of yardstick doesn’t seem fair – and while not without its flaws it is, in terms of the atmosphere it creates, a massive improvement on its immediate predecessor.

Things start simply enough. There is a comical misunderstanding about a pregnancy revelation – Sienna Guillory trying and failing to impart the same news to Colin Firth in the Red Nose Day Love Actually sketch springs to mind – before the usual pre-credits death (Doctor Who is like The X-Files; appearing in the teaser is the equivalent to beaming down to a planet in a red shirt). Meanwhile, the Doctor has found his sea legs but Nardole is adamant that they should stay on Earth – hence a little subterfuge is in order, only the planned excursion backfires and before you know it the TARDIS has gone and its former occupants are stuck in a corridor with a horde of advancing zombies.

While this is going on the space station’s surviving astronauts are debating whether they should kill the Doctor, but I couldn’t tell you what’s said or who says it, because I can’t remember any of their names. There are always going to be problems when you have to establish a story and solution and pay lip service to the series arc within three quarters of an hour, but the price you pay is, once more, the notion of character development – or indeed any character at all beyond the three leads. It’s reminiscent of the Honest Trailer for Rogue One (a film I enjoyed, although we could have all done without the fanatically airbrushed Princess Leia), in which the voiceover mentions “K-2SO, a droid with more personality than any of the human characters”. Just about the only memorable character in ‘Oxygen’ is the one who is memorable precisely because he shouldn’t be: the blue-skinned Dahh-Ren, who exists solely to expose Bill’s own (and quite understandable) prejudice, thus appraising supposed 21st century enlightenment with an ironic, critical eye, shortly before he meets a grisly undeath.

Part of the problem these days is the general dearth of effective supporting characters: I’m having difficulty recalling the last base-under-siege narrative in which we met people I actually cared about. Gone are the likes of Clent and Penley in ‘The Ice Warriors’, or the upstairs / downstairs social commentary in ‘Fang Rock’. There are exceptions. ‘The God Complex’, for example, works because time is deliberately allocated in order to flesh out the characters in the hotel – essential for the narrative, as they are ultimately undone by who they are and the flaws and traits they possess. And ‘Voyage of the Damned’ features a band of misfits who manage to surprise just about everyone thanks to the order in which they die – or, in at least one case, the fact that they don’t.

But these simply prove the rule. For the most part, supporting characters in contemporary BUS stories are groups of miners, astronauts or soldiers with scarcely a distinguishing feature between them. There are usually two or three different accents and as many diversity boxes as the BBC can tick in a single sitting, but that’s about all you can say about them. With certain exceptions (Adelaide Brooke, step forward) they all melt into one generic, slightly grizzled man in his late thirties, usually with designer stubble and a complicated romantic history with the base’s leader. Names and titles are meaningless and we forget them within minutes of the closing credits. What’s the name of the gay chap in ’42’? It’s OK, I’ll wait. And you’re not allowed to use the internet.

When Wikipedia editors are summarising episodes like this the only way to actually write them up is to say “The TARDIS crew gather in the control room with the surviving astronauts”, and (eventually) that’s exactly what happens. There are chases and mishaps and the Doctor loses his eyesight, but when he begins waxing lyrical about ‘a good death’, in precisely the same manner that Miss Quill does in the opening episode of Class, you know something is about to happen: and sure enough, it’s a ruse in order to trick the omnipresent AI, which is always on standby and able to hear anything. Thus, at its conclusion, ‘Oxygen’ becomes less a critique of unchecked capitalism and corporate greed, and more a dig at the Xbox One.

We need to talk about this, actually. A couple of months ago Gareth Roberts tweeted, in response to someone’s earnest-but-dumb comment, “Yep. Historical analysis and a critique of social hierarchy. That’s what I took from The Time Meddler.” At least I think it was Gareth Roberts. It certainly ought to have been; it feels like the sort of thing he’d say. ‘Sort of’ is pretty apt here, because I’m paraphrasing; I can’t find the damn thing to quote verbatim. The point is that in 2017 it’s very easy to get caught up in worthiness. How much of the praise heaped on ‘The Zygon Inversion’ stems from its sense of intrigue and excitement, and how much from that wretched Black Archive monologue? The situation hasn’t improved: the other week the BBC aired ‘Thin Ice’, an episode I thoroughly enjoyed, but it damn well wasn’t because the Doctor punched a Nazi. It’s because it was two people walking around London and interacting in a way that I found genuinely interesting. And yes, my favourite scene was the one where the Doctor said he moved on because he had to, in a few lines of dialogue that are destined to make the Facebook groups for years to come. But I also liked the bit when Nicholas Burns did the splits and fell into the river and got eaten.

You see where we’re going. It’s nice that people care about things, but the earnestness with which these throwaway lines of dialogue are adopted as profile signatures and – just occasionally – life mantras is something that puzzles me immensely. It’s as if Doctor Who is no longer allowed to be important unless it means something. Robert Holmes showed you can be political, and thus this is something you ought to do at every conceivable opportunity, with episodes that say Important Things left on a pedestal, while the more superficial, disposable stories (sit down, ‘Planet of the Dead’, your chops and gravy are in the microwave) are critically lambasted for being disposable candy floss. ‘Planet of the Dead’ is crap, of course, but you get the idea. There is bugger all social commentary in ‘The Invasion’; it’s Cybermen running around London. It is also tremendous fun. That really ought to be enough.

Thankfully, ‘Oxygen’ has the fun factor in spades, whether it’s the Doctor effectively kidnapping Nardole in the opening scene, or the mesmerising, wordless spacewalk (when people say things like “You’re about to be exposed to the vacuum of space!” in Hollywood blockbusters it sounds corny as hell; Capaldi pulls it off); or the moment, just a short time later, when the Doctor abandons Bill in a corridor. We know he has something up his sleeve, but we don’t know what it is, or why he’s being so quiet about it – or, indeed, why Bill is so goddamned calm about the whole experience. This is obviously some sort of proving ground, some way of testing her mettle, but he did more or less the same thing with Clara (across a series and a half, but notably in another episode with spacesuits), and that ended with her dangling upside down out of the TARDIS, laughing like an idiot. I just hope you know what the hell you’re doing, Doctor. That’s all.

Things fall apart a little as the episode concludes. A quick glance at the synopsis for next week – along with the series trailer – should make it reasonably obvious where we’re going, and once more the BBC have revealed a little too much too early. The Doctor’s continuing blindness, while predictable, nonetheless makes for an effective cliffhanger: unfortunately it suffers in its implementation. The scene with Nardole borders on soap-style melodrama; it would have been better had Capaldi concluded his conversation and then risen from the desk and caught his leg on its corner, or perhaps stumbled at the rug. That would have got the message across in an understated manner, or at least got the fans talking.

But this is Doctor Who, and for the most part these days they don’t do subtle. You take what you can get, and that’s fine. “Space is the final frontier,” the Doctor muses in the episode’s opening, “because it’s trying to kill you.” Too often, space is the vast and beautiful starswept aura that’s the backdrop for the birth of planets, the delicate ballet of a dancing Time Lord and his almost-wife, and the reawakening of a middle-aged man sitting with a Thermos and a sandwich watching the world go by in the most literal sense. That makes this week anomalous, but in the best possible way – space, in Doctor Who, is usually not dangerous, and it’s a refreshing change when it is. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it turns out to be one of the most effective and frightening monsters we’ve seen in the show for quite some time.

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Review: Knock Knock

Seriously, why didn’t they run with this title years ago? Is it one of those things the BBC always vetoed, on the grounds that you wouldn’t be able to take it seriously? The sort of title that you embargo because it’s loaded with playground gags? Is that why they went with the horror angle, as if to suggest that yes, there’s an obvious joke, but this story is about sentient woodlice swarms and a woman who looks like the love child of Pinocchio and Medusa? And Poirot is guest-starring?

(As an aside, I should mention that Edward has clearly been watching too much Doctor Who, because the other day we had this:

EDWARD: Knock Knock.
EMILY: Who’s there?
EDWARD: Doctor.
EMILY: Doctor…what?
EDWARD: I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS!

He’s three, for crying out loud. Three.)

‘Knock Knock’ opens with a montage. Bill and her friends are exploring properties for a house share – one of them, enthusiasts will note, is comically undersized and about half the height of its immediate neighbours, calling to mind the ‘transformed’ flat that appears briefly at the end of ‘The Lodger’. It seems that no six-bedroomed residence is big enough, so rather than do the sensible thing and siphon off a couple of the less desirable members of the group so they can afford to be less picky, the gang consigns itself to defeat – until salvation arrives in the form of the rather sinister Landlord, who apparently has no name to speak of. Alarm bells ought to be ringing, perhaps, except that one of the unwritten laws of Who states that week on week everyone is supposed to put their trust in a mysterious stranger who won’t tell anyone his name, so to a certain extent it’s business as usual.

The concept explored here is that of separation: the Doctor struggles to bridge the generation gap that suddenly appears when Bill spends time with her peer group. It’s not unlike the episode of Friends when Ross witnesses his student girlfriend caught up in a water balloon fight and realises the relationship isn’t going anywhere. Bill’s desire for a quiet night in is a hybrid of two different sorts of trepidation – her realisation that the Doctor is a magnet for trouble, fused with her need to be a whole and independent person in a way that Rose could never manage. It makes for some awkward moments (the sight of the Doctor dancing to Little Mix is amusing, but the episode would have worked better without it); nonetheless Bill’s desire to keep work and home separate is commendable in an always-on digital age, and it’s kind of sweet that she’s willing to keep the Doctor within grabbing distance but without letting him dominate it the way that Rose and Martha did. “This,” she tells him gently, “is the part of my life you’re not in.”

The central problem with ‘Knock Knock’ is that it simply isn’t very frightening. There’s nothing wrong with the setup: six people in an overly large house with dodgy electrics and a seemingly inaccessible tower, presided over by a sinister, seemingly omnipresent figure with the ability to suddenly pop into existence as if from nowhere, like a podgy Q from Star Trek. The contract is signed with nary a second glance at the small print – if anything, Bartlett has written a morality fable for the EULA generation that emphasises the importance of reading the terms and conditions. Only Bill remains wary – but even she is keen to avoid discussing the obvious problems lurking in the house, clearly seeing it as a means of escape. The students’ nonchalance is the sort of behaviour that usually has the audience screaming at the TV, but it’s very easy to do that when you’ve already heard the screams of the house’s first victim, and a seemingly blasé attitude is at least consistent with the jumping in feet first attitude that Doctor Who typically seems to espouse. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is – but how might we apply that logic to ‘the gateway to everything that ever was, or ever can be’?

Even before the credits have rolled the house has already claimed its first victim – Pavel, sucked into a wall as his record player catches in the background (a stylistic conceit that turns out to be a minor plot point) – but the students treat his apparent self-imposed isolation as a trademark characteristic, and it is left to the Doctor to point out, quite late on, that ‘no one does that’. What ‘Knock Knock’ needs is a little more of this and a little less of the mundanity that punctuates the earlier scenes: conversations about Bill’s sexuality spring to mind, as does the question of whether the Doctor is her father or grandfather…actually, can we just deal with that? Because it’s basically the sort of thing that gets shoehorned in to serve as workable fan theory, hearkening back as it does to the moment the Doctor glances both at the photograph of Susan and at his new pupil, as if to draw some sort of connection. It’s obvious where we’re supposed to think this is going, and while I wouldn’t want to hedge my bets as to whether it actually was, I did rather hope that it was the sort of thing they were leaving behind.

The episode improves. If the first half is a series of awkward social encounters, the second half is an old-fashioned ghost story, all shifting walls, banging shutters and things crawling out of the woodwork – in both a literal and metaphorical sense, as family revelations cast the horrific events of the last few minutes into a new light. It’s easy to scorn the Landlord’s behaviour until his relationship with Eliza is flipped on its head, and the new information we receive as a result of Bill’s deduction grants him unexpected sympathy. “There isn’t a little boy alive that wouldn’t tear the world apart to save his mummy,” the Doctor muses in ‘The Doctor Dances’, “and this little boy can.”

The set works well enough – Fields House in Newport, first seen in ‘Blink’, providing exactly the sort of gothic scare that ‘Knock Knock’ needs – and Bill Anderson brings the same sort of directorial flair he brought to ‘Thin Ice’, albeit with rather less success. The supporting cast really don’t have much to do except complain about the phone reception and then get eaten, but Suchet is reasonably watchable, alternating for the most part between Kindly Grandfather and Psychotic Bookshop Owner – at least until the final reveal, when his voice jumps an octave. Indeed, music figures prominently, from the Bach that opens the episode (stuttering and repeating odd bars, like a DJ’s loop) to the Beethoven that concludes it. Quite why the Master / Rani / Next Doctor / whoever the hell is in that vault decides to follow ‘Fur Elise’ with ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ is anyone’s guess, but even if it doesn’t mean anything yet, it will by the time the fans have finished with it.

It would be churlish to call ‘Knock Knock’ a bad story: rather it’s a good story with less-than-perfect execution, wobbly and uneven and occasionally tiresome. That it is somehow less than the sum of its parts is partly down to the writing, which is sub-par, and partly the BBC’s heavy emphasis on the horror angle – but without the gumption that, say, Robert Eggers (The Witch) might have mustered. This was clearly an experiment, and while the list of gripes (the fallback on conventional horror tropes; the Doctor’s effective relegation to sidekick status; the Freudian thing) is plentiful, they don’t make for an experience that is unilaterally bad, just one that feels like a disappointment after the last three weeks. But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that the bubble has burst. If this is the first time in the series we’ve had call to say ‘Meh’, then that’s a surefire indication that on the whole, they’re getting it right.

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Review: Thin Ice

Warning: spoilers.

We’re three episodes in. In 2005, this would have been ‘The Unquiet Dead’ – a story which was received with far more excitement and appreciation than it arguably deserved, given that it was the first time New Who had attempted period drama, with the comparatively lavish production values and bombastic guest star glossing over the many problems in the script. The following week, we were back in London for the Slitheen, and a story which was unfairly maligned. Twelve years later, in this supposedly rebooted series, Doctor Who returns to the past, only this time Bill and the Doctor are strolling around ‘Regency’ London, where something nasty lurks beneath the Thames. Sadly the elephant from last week’s cliffhanger was nowhere to be seen, a money shot that had no bearing on the story, save an inconsequential line of dialogue.

Actually, the elephant is here. The fact of the matter is that even after twelve years, the stories are still rather less than brilliant. ‘The Pilot’ is twenty minutes of whimsy and fifteen minutes of planet hopping, with a less than thrilling denouement. ‘Smile’ ripped off every story in the canon, and the Doctor’s solution was so archaic it should have been in a museum. And ‘Thin Ice’ features an unnamed creature being bullied by a charmless, featureless villain who dies the most comedic of deaths. Oh, it looks lovely, but that’s kind of the point: it is far more about atmosphere than it is about narrative, and far more about relationships than it is about the story in which they grow and develop.

And perhaps – just perhaps – that’s why it succeeds. Because ‘Thin Ice’ is one of those episodes that might have been tedious had it occurred under the watch of another companion. Perhaps Clara would have managed – early Clara, travelling with the Eleventh, before the smugness kicked in. But this seems to be tailored for Bill, in the sense that it is its immediate predecessor’s binary opposite: cold, foggy and throbbing with life, as opposed to the warm, sterile whiteness of the off-world colony that was home to the Vardy. The Doctor spent some time in ‘The Pilot’ racing from one end of the universe to the other in order to throw off the advancing Heather; the two episodes that followed are a direct extension of that, establishing the same pattern that the show adopts for its new companions by quickly showing them both the future and the past, as well as opening their minds to the hidden layers of the contemporary world that they took for granted. “There is strangeness to be found, wherever you turn,” Sarah Jane Smith muses. “Life on Earth can be an adventure too… you just need to know where to look.”

Race plays a part in all this. Regency London is, as Bill describes it, “a bit more black than they show it in films”, and this was quite deliberate – Moffat stating that “History is always white washed…People all didn’t arrive in the twinkle of an eye. It is bending history slightly, but in a progressive and useful way.” There are times when the sense of worthiness becomes tiresome (it may be something the chief writer says he is anxious to avoid, but if you’re going to write about these things that’s how it’s going to come across, particularly if you give the Doctor a long speech about it). London – at least the microcosmic cross-section we’re allowed to see – is the gloomier side of BBC costume drama, all soft focus and poor lighting. The effect is rather like Witness For The Prosecution, which employed a similar conceit. None of this would count for anything were we not experiencing it through the eyes of an enthusiastic young woman of mixed race whose eyes widen at every wrestling match or local delicacy. We have fun, because Bill is having fun – and when she is upset, we cry with her.

But the genius in Mackie’s casting isn’t Bill’s layman accessibility, or her presence as a BBC box-ticking exercise in diversity – it’s the chemistry she has with the Doctor. She and Capaldi spark in a way that he never quite managed with Clara, even at her best. There is a scene a third of the way into ‘Thin Ice’ where the Doctor puts himself in jeopardy not to save a child whose number appears to be up, but rather to recover a screwdriver. Bill is furious, and cannot accept his apparent indifference. “I care, Bill, but I move on,” he assures her, quietly. “You know what happens if I don’t move on? More people die. Do you want to help me, or do you want to stand here stamping your foot? Because let me tell you something: I’m two thousand years old, and I have never had the time for the luxury of outrage.”

It’s an electric scene. The dialogue helps, as does the fact that the Doctor is dressed rather like a Victorian funeral director, but Capaldi has possibly never been better than he is in this single moment: here, at once, we get a fusion; the fierce authoritarian we saw in ‘Deep Breath’, combined with the world-weary traveller in ‘Hell Bent’. We get a Doctor who has got over the mid-life crisis of his ‘difficult second series’, accepted the darkness within him and learned to live with it. He is reconciled, the same way that Forrest Gump reconciles the two approaches to life that he learns from those close to him. That Bill accepts this and moves on so quickly will be the cause of scorn to many viewers who’ve not realised that this is a long game, and something that will inevitably return later in the series.

The tension isn’t all above ground either: the Doctor’s solution is to ‘get eaten’, and we are, for just a moment, back in ‘Beast Below’ territory (to which we will return at the episode’s climax, and about which nothing more needs to be said). But the river bed is dark and silent and inhabited by a colossal leviathan observing the two explorers with a single, unblinking eye. It is mildly reminiscent of SOMA, a game I played just recently, which features an extended sequence upon the ocean floor, a tropical storm raging around you as you fight through caves of spider crabs, evading poisonous angler fish and trying desperately to stay in the lights. It is intense, claustrophobic and frightening. The floor of the Thames is never quite going to compare to that, but it works.

It helps, also, that Moffat has seemingly abandoned the big overarching mysteries, or at least relegated them to the sidelines. The vault is still a Rorschach: it contains whatever you want it to contain, although we can at least now surmise that its contents are conscious and quite possibly humanoid, given that whatever is inside apparently has the ability to knock. But the story is not about that: it does not linger, the way the crack did, or the way the mystery of Clara permeated every series 7 episode in which she featured (and even some of the ones where she was nowhere to be seen). If anything, the narratives we’ve seen unfold occur in spite of the vault, rather than because of them: the Doctor seeks adventure purely as a means of escaping his responsibilities, almost as if he were tired of having to maintain the sense of continuity and just wanted to tell stories. It’s tempting to believe that Moffat is projecting here, but the road to hell is paved with second guesses.

Still: perhaps the best thing about ‘Thin Ice’ is the wink it makes at the audience. It is not a story that pretends to be grand or significant. It is a story in which the Doctor rewrites Dickens and gets all fanboyish over a con artist. (It is difficult to watch the scenes with the pie man and not imagine a similar exchange between Capaldi and a persistent, autograph-hunting enthusiast.) It is a story in which an unreconstructed Nicholas Burns does the splits as the ground cracks beneath him. It is a story in which you wonder whether the thing in the Vault is actually John Simm, and whether the final ‘boom’ that accompanies the words ‘NEXT TIME’ is a simple sting for the episode 4 trailer or that crucial fourth knock.

But at its heart, it’s a story about the necessity of exploration: to scratch and forage, to find both the joys and the darkness therein, the frozen river serving as metaphor for Bill’s discovery of her mentor’s darker side. The path to enlightenment, it is implied, lies not in the certainty of tradition but the willingness to think sideways, whatever the risk. “Only idiots know the answers,” the Doctor insists, in the episode’s latter third. “But if your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s your future worth?” Ultimately, ‘Thin Ice’ speaks to us of the dangers of venturing deeper – the perils that lurk in the darkness and the fear of the unknown – but also of the unexpected clarity that results when you come back up to the surface.

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Review: Smile

I didn’t want to do a straight review this week. For some reason it felt wrong. What follows is a succession of jottings, ordered by mood, in a rough sort of chronological order. I don’t know why. It just makes me happy.

Warning: spoilers follow.

 

“Did we just jump-start a new civilisation?”

“Gaah,” said the random Facebook person. “Emojibots. Yeah, ‘cos it’s all about being down with the kids.”
“In fairness,” I said, “this is a Frank Cottrell-Boyce episode, and he’s arguably best known as a children’s writer.”
“Yeah, but they’re still doing it for the kids.”
“You make that sound like it’s a bad thing. As if the concept of a TV programme deliberately doing something that targets a significant part of its core demographic was some sort of cardinal sin. Doctor Who was always supposed to be a kids’ show – the fact that it appeals to families and bigger kids and grown-up kids on a nostalgia kick is a bonus. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional child-friendly episode and I don’t get why it has to be such a turn-off for the adults.”
“Yeah, well. It’s just trying too hard. Kids won’t like it.”
“Can we at least wait until the episode has aired before we come to conclusions like that?” I said. “Because my kids looked at the trailer and said ‘Ooh! Robots with emojis, great!'”

 

“I’m not Scottish, I’m just cross.”

It’s not so much that Bill is a mystery, it’s more that people are determined to make her so. There is an issue with the photograph of Susan: “I noticed you,” the Doctor says last week, regarding Bill with one eye and the photograph with the other. It does not follow from this that Bill is a regenerated amnesiac time-travelled version of the Doctor’s granddaughter: such a pursuit seems laughable and there is nothing in this week’s episode to indicate that this is the way she’s headed. I write such theories as satire; it is both comic and disturbing that others are prepared to take them seriously.

This week the two of them have abandoned the vault, and thus the series arc is fully established. The vault is a Rorschach (a Room of Requirement, if you’re under thirty): you see what you want to see. It has the Rani. It has the Master. It has the masters for ‘Fury From The Deep’. It will be far less interesting than it currently is in my head. The Doctor has the travel bug; Nardole is evidently taking this more seriously than he is, which is something that will have repercussions later and lead to lecturing from Matt Lucas while Bill bites her lip. In the meantime, it is a thing of intrigue, to be dissected or ignored at will. There’s an old piano and they play it hot behind the green door.

“I’m having this really childish impulse to blow it up.”

Opening with a two-hander was risky. Following it with another was riskier still. Cold open aside, only two of the supporting characters have speaking parts, and neither are particularly interesting: thankfully their roles are minimised to allow plenty of time for the Doctor to chat to Bill. They do so in Spanish wheatfields; in the deserted halls of a deserted museum; in the bowels of a buried spacecraft, nestled at the centre of the colony like the one in ‘The Face of Evil’, only without the scene where the Doctor walks inside his own mouth. Bill asks to see the future because she wants ‘to see if it’s happy’. Be careful what you wish for, Bill.

I’ve still not worked out whether the Doctor’s “I don’t interfere” maxim is an exercise in retaining an air of mystery for his companions to unpack later, or classic denial. Either way, Bill has him sussed. “You don’t call the helpline,” she says. “You are the helpline.”

“Do you know what it means when someone chases you very slowly?”

That’s the wrong emoji, really. Awkwardly, there is nothing even remotely frightening about this week’s monster, which is too small and clumsy to pose any real threat; it is like an offshoot from a Ninja Turtles episode. The Doctor faces off against one in the engine room and dispatches it with almost clinical ease: it would have been more fun, perhaps, if they’d had rotatable implements built into their hands, or perhaps a deadly groin attachment like the ones Kryten used to wear when he was vacuuming. The rabid flesh-eating particles of doom are altogether more deadly, of course, but we hardly actually see them, bar the obligatory cannon fodder scenes.

All in all the threat level is low, and it’s odd that Cottrell-Boyce makes such a meal out of it. The McGuffin takes a while to find, giving time for the leads to chat, but the delays are head-scratching. The impression you get is of a Doctor who is getting back into the swing of things: it’s like series 1 all over again, which I suppose is part of the point. “I can’t stop it,” he grumbles to Bill, “because I don’t know what started it last time”. Meanwhile it is Bill herself who is poking around and discovering withering corpses and eulogy-laden iPads while the Doctor is getting himself into trouble. Tennant would have had this one licked in a couple of minutes flat, and if there’s one thing that comes across this week it’s that fifty years of lectures and formal dinners have slowed the Doctor’s mind.

 

“You don’t steer the TARDIS. You negotiate with it.”

Caress those panels all you want. Land on the head of a pin. Manoeuvre a short hop so it materialises around you. If the TARDIS doesn’t want you to go back to Bristol the moment you left, she won’t. Perhaps there was a road closure and she had to take a diversion via Chippenham; that sort of thing happens a lot when the tax year’s winding up and they still have a budget surplus.

But it’s strange that the episode concludes on a not-quite cliffhanger, almost as if they ran out of story. Certainly after half a series of the Doctor picking up and dropping off Clara it catches you off guard. It would have been very easy to turn this into several episodes of the two of them sneaking back into the Doctor’s study like errant schoolchildren, only to find Nardole looking at his watch: that would be a predictable sub-arc, although it echoes Clara’s duplicitous treatment of Danny Pink and it is to be hoped that it’s something they don’t explore further. Ultimately this is about deflating Bill’s adulation of her tutor by exploring one of his core fallibilities: the notion of a machine he can’t always fly as well as he’d like to believe. It’s not quite Tegan throwing a hissy fit over stopped clocks, but having spent most of the last decade building up the image of a skilled pilot – particularly after last week’s spot of planet hopping – it’s nice to see they can still sweep away the rug, like Patricia Arquette does in the closing scenes of Lost Highway.

Has it been easier to think of the TARDIS as a person – or at least a metaphysical presence – since The Doctor’s Wife? Or did all this start with Parting of the Ways, where we’re never entirely sure whether we’re addressing Rose or the TARDIS core, or something that somehow combines them both? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: perhaps it’s simply about the disestablishment of patriarchy. The Doctor is not exploring the universe in the TARDIS: she is exploring the universe and taking him along for the fun of it, and there’s something sweet about the fact that even after all these years, he still thinks he can control her.

“They’re the skeleton crew.”

Cottrell-Boyce has been brushing up on his Who since the last time. The emancipation of a former slave race given newfound sentience echoes both ‘Planet of the Ood’ and ‘New Earth’, while the memory wipe the Doctor implements in order to do it has echoes of the Zygon gambit in ‘Day of the Doctor’. The human compost is a throwback to Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker, and the Vardy are to all intents and purposes the nanobots from ‘The Doctor Dances’, with the appetite of the Vashta Nerada. And look, the whole thing is basically ‘The Happiness Patrol’ without the social commentary. It’s curious that this came from a writer who produced a story which – for better or worse – was unlike just about anything else in the canon; if there’s one thing ‘Smile’ could potentially have suffered from, it’s a tendency to stick a little too closely to the deserted base formula.

But niggles aside this is brilliant. Who by numbers – and that’s what it is, truth be told – isn’t always a bad thing, particularly if you precede it with an episode that can theoretically be watched by just about anyone, whether they were a seasoned veteran or a complete novice. It is what the show does; it is comfortable, and comfortable comes packaged with its own set of dangers. It is only a few letters away from complacent. But it says something when an established writer can load his episode with so many homages without losing the essence of a story, and without producing something that feels like a shameless rip-off. This new approach works for me: this Doctor who is given room to breathe and this companion who asks the right questions. It feels like good stories told with a freshness that hasn’t been here since Matt Smith first stepped out of his TARDIS demanding an apple. The smugness is gone – and, at least for the moment, Doctor Who is fun again.

Although it is disappointing that no one says “MY GOD, THEY’RE COMING OUT OF THE WALLS!” Seriously. Not once.

 

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