Reviews

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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Review: The Pilot

Warning: spoilers.

If you took ‘Terror of the Autons’, stirred in elements of ‘Shada’ and then sprinkled it with bits of Educating Rita, the gumbo you produced would probably be nothing like ‘The Pilot’.

But it’s a decent beginning. Because the keyword for this week is…well, not the much-anticipated ‘reboot’ that we’ve been going on about for months. You can see quite clearly what they were trying to do, but that oversells it. Have the BBC produced an episode that can be watched by someone experiencing the show for the first time? Perhaps, and by the skin of their teeth. Still, that’s not the vibe you take from it. This may be the most accessible companion-breaking story for some time, but it’s not ‘Rose’. Doctor Who has too much history – even within its last twelve years – to be able to pull a stunt like that.

No, the word you may be looking for is ‘grounded’. Because this is an episode that roots itself (to use Peter Capaldi’s own words) before you’re allowed to go anywhere. This is not a Doctor who turns up and comically integrates himself (or rather fails to) into a community, as we saw in ‘The Caretaker’ or ‘The Lodger’. This is a Doctor who’s already been on the scene a long time, who cannot possibly be as young as he looks, and who is visibly offended when people fail to point this out. But there’s more to it than that: this is not another ‘Snowmen’, in which the arriving companion breaks the Time Lord out of a funk overnight. It takes time. The Doctor’s tenure may be well-established but it still takes a good few months (read: minutes) for his new companion to discover what’s really going on.

It may interest you to know that they used to run teacher training courses in the same way. You would sit in the lecture theatre for six months of theory, and then at the halfway point they’d drop you into a classroom and leave you to get on with it. These days the process is far more integrated: practical experience begins on day one (all right, day thirteen) and is woven in with the theory as the year passes. But what happens in ‘The Pilot’ is that Bill spends a lot of time on the theory and finds her experience of the practical limited to the occasional tantalising glimpse, until the moment (a little over halfway through) that she peeks behind her shower curtain, whereupon the whole thing explodes. (That’s the plot, not the shower curtain.)

Not that this is in any way a bad thing. I was going to say that this was the most leisurely-paced episode of Doctor Who in years, but I was forgetting about ‘Face The Raven’ – a story in which nothing much happened for ages and which was horrifically boring as a result. In this instance what happens is a delicate dance between its two central characters – close and simultaneously at arm’s length – to the extent that by the time Bill finally sets foot in the TARDIS she knows the Doctor quite well, without actually knowing him at all. ‘You talk all the time,’ said Donna, one of the most perceptive of the NuWho companions, ‘but you don’t say anything’ – and while Capaldi’s Doctor is considerably less prone to the bouts of verbal diarrhoea for which Tennant’s incarnation was renowned, it’s not a bad comparison.

The first half of ‘The Pilot’ sees Bill Potts – a canteen worker with an apparent interest in quantum mechanics – becoming the Doctor’s private student, working under his tutelage while she fends off her stepmother’s casual acidity and inadvertently afflicts an unnamed crush with a heart condition. There are awkward conversations over Christmas dinner – a scene which is both touching and, in its own way, desperately sad – and Bill wanders the campus of the university until we know it almost as well as she does. The Doctor’s office features heavily: the plush, distinguished opulence of established academics, right down to the TARDIS in the corner and the collection of screwdrivers on the desk. Through it all, Bill approaches the broadening of her mind with a sense of wonder. “When most people don’t understand something, they frown,” the Doctor says to her early on. “But you smile.”

What is to all intents and purposes a two-hander turns into a three-hander the minute Nardole arrives on the scene properly (he appears briefly at the beginning merely to establish that he has a screw loose, in a quite literal sense). We’re told that he has a reason for hanging around but that’s clearly a card that Moffat is playing close to his chest for the moment, presumably having decided to throw it on the table just before he reveals the three aces he’s got stashed in his underwear. At least it’s fun to watch. Matt Lucas may have spent half of his first episode stuck on top of a Power Rangers Megazord and half his second running around in search of a lavatory, but it is here – despite the reduced screen time engineered to favour Mackie – that he more or less shows his true colours, as a cowardly but largely competent valet, deviating between dry sarcasm and quivering cowardice; half Jeeves, half Penfold.

There is a plot, of sorts, but you know that by now. It concerns a girl named Heather, who finds herself trapped in her own reflection, reforming to become the monster of the week: a dripping, frightening thing capable of clearing small pockets of the universe in a single bound. ‘Water always wins’, as the Tenth Doctor might have said, and while Heather lacks the cracked, jagged appearance of the Flood she is still reasonably sinister, if only by being so quick on the draw. It calls to mind the first Droopy cartoon, ‘Dumb-Hounded‘, in which the titular dog is sent in pursuit of a deadly criminal, who races from Chicago to Hollywood to the North Pole only to find Droopy waiting for him everywhere he goes.

It takes a Dalek to bring down the reconstructed Heather, and it’s the episode’s dullest moment (although it follows a blink-and-you’ll-miss it shot of the Movellans, fumbling with laser guns in one hand and trying to play rock-paper-scissors with the other). It’s all very well surrounding Bill by images of the cosmos so that her mind is almost literally blown; it’s just a shame it had to be the story’s climax. Bringing up the pace only to immediately drop it to play mind games is seldom interesting, even when it’s closely linked to the idea of escape, and it makes for a tedious, lacklustre finale.

But that almost feels like a minor quibble. This is an episode that works, largely because by and large it doesn’t try to do too much. The cast are a big help – Capaldi is comfortable and self-assured as the Doctor, and his support make the most of what they have – but the strength of ‘The Pilot’ lies in its concept of space, in a strictly terrestrial sense. It introduces new characters and gives them breathing room – hence the Doctor and Bill are flung together not by impossible forces, but by a sense of mutual loneliness and the driving need to explore. By the time the Doctor has temporarily abandoned his plans to guard whatever it is he’s guarding in that vault and whisk Bill away to the stars (tellingly with a line that echoes Christopher Lloyd’s reckless abandonment of responsibility at the end of Back to the Future), it feels like an inevitability – and we cheer with her.

Cast your minds back a year, and it’s no great secret that I was one of Bill’s fiercest critics. To be fair, all I had to go on was that the introductory scene they used to showcase her arrival. You remember, the one where she’s rude about the Daleks. To call it slightly asinine is like saying that The X-Factor occasionally plays with the truth. Within the context of ‘The Pilot’, we might think of it as her ‘Runaway Bride’ moment: a few people will laugh, while many more will simply roll their eyes.

But it took seeing her in action to change my mind. Because it’s early days, but Bill really seems to fit. After the build-up, the preliminary interviews and a bunch of trailers that didn’t exactly do her any favours, I approached ‘The Pilot’ with a certain amount of dread, but it seems that I worried over nothing. She takes longer to get the hang of the TARDIS (“Is this a knock-through?”) than many companions, but I’m now convinced she’s absolutely the right person to be in it – and I can’t wait to see where it takes her, both geographically and emotionally, as the series plays out.

And if I can manage that, so can you.

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Review: ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’

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There’s a thing that’s always bothered me about Superman. It’s not the disguise. Henry Cavill recently proved there was a lot of mileage in a pair of spectacles with his recent New York stunt. No, it’s the fact that Clark Kent is surrounded by a supposedly cracked team of journalists, all of whom enjoy a close working relationship with him, and none of them – at least at first – are able to work out what’s really going on. A reporter who showed up in town the same time Superman did, who disappears at the first sign of trouble but who manages to bag all the exclusives? It’s too much of a stretch to think that someone wouldn’t have put two and two together by now – whether that someone is Lois Lane, the self-absorbed A-lister who loves one man and who is loved in turn by both – or Perry White, who spends most of his time with his sleeves rolled up shouting, but who’s obviously never heard of facial recognition software.

It depends which version you’re watching. Christopher Reeve, in all four of his films – from the glorious first to the dismal fourth – is a revelation, and anyone who doubted his skills as an actor would do well to look at scenes where he’s playing first Clark Kent and then Superman and note the differences. Reeve fumbles with the thick frames, smearing the lenses and only just managing to avoid damaging them. The posture changes, the body language becomes awkward and fidgety, and the whole voice goes up half an octave. Then go and watch Dean Cain – who, in The New Adventures, plays basically the same character with and without his glasses – and marvel at the fact that he gets away with it for so long.

That Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne manage to maintain and separate their public / private personas so consistently and successfully is down to three things. First, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief – the same resource we have to tap in order to accept that neither character seems to have aged very much despite both having been around for the better part of a century. Second, at least one blind eye has been turned to the telescope – Commissioner Gordon could easily figure out Batman’s true identity, but has presumably seen enough torture scenes to have realised that it’s in his best interests not to know. Similarly, Perry White is too bold and experienced not to put two and two together, but has chosen not to. Journalistic integrity is still alive and well, even in the twenty-first century.

But fundamentally the disguise conundrum plays on Shakespearian conventions. It was a running joke that the true identity of a disguised character in a Shakespeare play should be obvious to everyone except the characters onstage – it’s bled over into pantomime, and in Doctor Who it happened every time Roger Delgado stepped onto the screen. And thus, when it happens in ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’, it’s done as a joke that’s glaringly transparent to all but the girl who’s caught in the middle of it, and on this occasion it’s the Doctor who’s rolling his eyes.

‘Mysterio’ is, in essence, a crossover episode – the closest Doctor Who is likely to delve into the worlds of Supergirl or The Flash – and the creative team have the sense to play on this. Origin stories are revealed in flashback (tellingly, and with some degree of appropriateness, said origin story features the Doctor himself). There are numerous shots of characters hovering outside windows. And a crucial conversation between the basso-inflected superhero and his would-be girlfriend – with the Doctor listening in – is rendered with a three-way frame split. The superhero in question, a caped wonder whose body armour resembles that of Nightwing, doubles as a mild-mannered nanny when he’s not wearing the costume, zooming from house fire to traffic accident to bedroom, a baby monitor permanently attached to his waist.

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The net result of all this is that the Doctor feels rather like a supporting character in his own story. Having unwittingly created the whole situation through a simple misunderstanding, just about the only thing Capaldi is able to do this week is react as the narrative unfolds around him. Not that much unfolding actually happens – in origami terms, ‘Mysterio’ is more a twice-folded letter than a concertina. The story is the sort of conventional secret invasion fluff that wouldn’t be out of place in either a series of Doctor Who or a Superman comic, and is perhaps the episode’s weakest element: a couple of expository monologues aside, we never really get to know or understand the brain-swapping aliens behind Harmony Shoals, nor do we much care what they’re up to. (And really, didn’t we milk the unzipped head thing to death last Christmas?)

Tellingly, that’s not a criticism. Regular visitors here will know that I’m the first one to complain when I watch an episode of Who without any tangible story, but as it turns out this matters far less when people are having fun (which is not something I could say for, say, ‘The Woman Who Lived’). That the episode concludes with a colossal spacecraft falling on New York is far less exciting than it ought to be, simply because ultimately that’s not what ‘Mysterio’ is about. There’s a far greater tension in the fact that in order to save the Earth, the Ghost must reveal his true identity to a single person – and while the image of Justin Chatwin holding up the spacecraft with a single outstretched hand is uproariously funny, there is a far greater sense of narrative satisfaction in the kiss that follows it.

It helps that both Grant and Lucy are fun and likeable, even though we’re given comparably little time to get to know them. There are all sorts of questions that could be asked about the fact that he repeatedly leaves a small child unattended, although it’s made apparent at the mid-point that he’s able to race from one side of the city to the other in about the same time it takes a parent to climb a staircase, and the Doctor is only able to get there first because he cheats. Grant’s mutual, unconsumated attraction to Lucy calls to mind the tale of Craig and Sophie, and while the love story here doesn’t hold the same sort of narrative credence that was there in ‘The Lodger’, there’s something very satisfying in the fact that Lucy prefers her heroes with their spectacles on.

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Elsewhere, pathos remains. There are references to River Song (whose name would have been better left unsaid, although you can’t blame Moffat for wanting to avoid an epidemic of tedious fan speculation and Twitter theory) and a sense of melancholy loneliness that bubbles under the surface without ever really breaking through the skin. The net result is a story that is accessible and satisfying but somehow sad, as befits the best Christmas entertainment, with everyone making the most of the limited screentime that 2016 has granted them. He may not have a great deal to do besides watch and eat sushi, but Capaldi’s clearly enjoying himself this week, even though the Doctor isn’t.

I’ve got nine paragraphs in without mentioning Nardole, but that’s largely because he works so well. Comic actors in semi-serious drama is a lottery – Frank Skinner was a roaring success, Rufus Hound a dismal failure – and the fact that the reassembled Nardole is far less irritating than he ought to have been is a testament both to Moffat’s writing and Lucas’ ability to reign it in. Discounting an anomalous, cringeworthy opening sequence, Nardole is inhabited with the sort of understated, bumbling charm that’s been greatly missing in the TARDIS since Rory was trapped in New York, and he has some enlightening conversations with the Doctor. It’s too early to tell how this will play out in series 10, in which Lucas is purported to make a series of appearances, but we might currently file it under ‘Well, that was a pleasant surprise’, perhaps alongside ‘Donna Noble’.

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There’s a much-quoted and not entirely accurate cliché suggesting that absence makes the heart grow fonder. When the announcement was made, back in January, that we’d have to wait for almost a full year without the Doctor, the sense of lamentation among fandom was so great that you could hear it on Mondas. But whatever else may have happened during the past year (it’s tempting to look back at 2016 as an annus horribalis, although I suspect history may be rather more generous) there were some of us who took it as an opportunity to take stock and look at exactly what it was we enjoyed about the show, and after a long period of soul-searching I concluded that if they’d decided to rest it completely, I wouldn’t mind. Perhaps we’re at the stage where it doesn’t matter whether Doctor Who is on or not, and where we can stop complaining about the number of episodes per year, and make the most of what we have. I don’t think it’s something that comes naturally, not to me, and not to fandom generally – when writing this one up, I stayed off Twitter, stayed away from Facebook, and didn’t read a single review, because I knew what many of the comments are going to say.

I’ve often wondered whether the concept of making the most of things is a reason we’re overly charitable to ‘Rose’, although to conclude thus probably does it a disservice. It’s no secret that the last forty-five seconds of the TV broadcast of ‘Mysterio’ consisted of a glib, action-filled trailer for series 10 that introduces an already irritating companion whom most of us have seen fit to judge before she even steps into the TARDIS. As someone who’s a willing advocate of that ‘God she’s irritating’ mindset I’d nonetheless suggest that I was wrong about Donna, wrong about Smith being too young and wrong (at least this week) about Nardole. And perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. If there’s one thing that a year without Doctor Who has taught me it’s to take it far less seriously than I have been, and treat at least some of its shortcomings as a by-product of a difficult production process. Perhaps all the show has to be, in the end, is enjoyable, rather than good, but perhaps that’s partly our responsibility, rather than simply the writer’s. Perhaps this is what happens when you allow obsession to dissolve into apathy, but I wonder whether we’d enjoy the experience far more if we’re willing to occasionally put a blind eye up to the telescope.

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Review: ‘The Husbands of River Song’

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Spoilers follow.

I’ve thought for a while now that River Song is a little like Marmite. You either want to absorb her entirely, lusciously spread on toast, or burn her alive. You love or hate her and there is comparatively little middle ground.

While taste is always subjective, it’s a thing that doesn’t happen often. Few fans would argue, for example, against general conviction that Melanie Bush is an irritating carrot-obsessed fitness freak, at least on TV (Big Finish tells a different story, of course), or that Adric was a general twerp. On the other hand most people love Ian and Barbara. Still, River’s apparently ubiquitous presence in the seven years we’ve known her – and particularly in the last five – has generated as many detractors as it has fans, which is presumably why last night’s Christmas special, ‘The Husbands of River Song’, while actually being quite good, presumably had a good number of people pulling their paper cracker hats down in front of their eyes even before the opening credits. There is no middle ground with River, just as there is no middle ground with processed yeast extract. You either eat it by the jarful or you involuntarily gag as soon as it swims into view.

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But upon reflection, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s possible to have your toast and eat it too. I’d had more than enough of River by the time we’d wrapped up ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, but getting her out again for ‘Husbands’ seems to have paid off. The plot – such as it is – revolves around an attempt to rob the despotic, disembodied King Hydroflax, who happens to be carrying a priceless diamond in his brain. It’s the excuse for the ridiculous sight gag of a head in a bag – almost as ridiculous as River’s sonic trowel (although it is a nice plant, if you’ll excuse the pun, for the inevitability of the Doctor’s Christmas gift). The honour of playing the head of Hydroflax goes to Greg Davies, who is almost as uptight as he was in Cuckoo, and just as much fun to watch.

Essentially ‘Husbands’ is exactly the sort of romp that you need after a heavy series; the sort of story that ‘Last Christmas’ really ought to have been, and wasn’t. Neatly compartmentalised into three locations, with differing moods in each, it calls upon Moffat’s stock trade of sinister, nondescript monsters (this particular one has a head that unzips), pathos-drenched love scenes and general wibbly wobbliness. There is a crashing starship. River and the Doctor have dinner (twice) and argue over who gets to drive. It’s like one of those middle-aged romcoms that are vehicles for Robert De Niro or Barbra Streisand. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

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The central conceit is that of poor communication – something (to paraphrase Verne the turtle in Over The Hedge) that families do very well, and perhaps rendering this more appropriate for Christmas than it would be at any other time of the year. River doesn’t recognise the Doctor simply because she’s never met this version, and the Doctor’s irregular attempts at telling her the truth are met by interrupting sidekicks, sudden explosions or knocks on the door of the TARDIS. There’s a kind of arrogance to her assumption that there would be no loophole to the Doctor’s twelve-regeneration limit, but the real problem River faces in ‘Husbands’ is that she stopped buying breakfast cereal in 2013, and the free ‘collect all twelve’ fact cards that she’s been accumulating are from an older set that’s now two years out of date. Or perhaps it’s headcanon in action: there are, I’m sure, various Who fans who gave up on the show after ‘The Time of the Doctor’ (or significantly before that) because they couldn’t accept the idea of new regeneration cycles. Why can’t River be one of those?

Moffat teases this out for as long as he possibly can, largely to milk its dramatic / comedic potential to saturation point. This is equivalent to a disguised Shakespearian protagonist wandering about the stage in a dodgy false beard observing the outrageous behaviour of allies or enemies: the jokes come thick and fast (even if they don’t always work) and the dramatic irony goes up to eleven. The Doctor visibly blanches as he reflects on River’s apparent bigamy, callous disregard for life and financial ruthlessness (all qualities we already knew she had, so the bigger mystery is surely why he’s so surprised?). Twenty minutes in, the Doctor has to pretend he’s seeing the inside of the TARDIS for the very first time, which gives Capaldi the opportunity to ham it up like a loon. “OH MY GOD!” he shouts. “MY ENTIRE UNDERSTANDING OF PHYSICAL SPACE HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED! THREE-DIMENSIONAL EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY HAS BEEN TORN UP, THROWN IN THE AIR AND SNOGGED TO DEATH!”

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Such big speeches work well when they’re played for laughs, but like many of River’s other episodes, ‘Husbands’ suffers when it’s trying to be too serious. The story has its share of misfires, but the monologue that precedes River’s realisation that the Doctor is standing right next to her is simply embarrassing. I’ve never really bothered to find out whether Kingston can’t do dramatic speeches, or whether she simply can’t do dramatic speeches while playing this character, but either way it’s a low point. As low points go it’s not quite up there with the one at the end of ‘Wedding’, but it’s a top three.

Things are a little less clunky – although only just – come the end of the story, and it’s here that we realise that ‘Husbands’ is essentially a fifty minute build-up to get the Doctor and River to the Singing Towers. It’s Moffat finally writing the story he alluded to in ‘Forest of the Dead’, his own procrastination, perhaps, finding its way into the script when Kingston mentions that when it comes to the Doctor taking her to dinner, “You always cancel”. Or perhaps procrastination had nothing to do with it, and perhaps Moffat had always planned it this way. We’ll probably never know. Nonetheless, chronologically this is their last encounter before the Library, although the fact that a night on Darillium is twenty-four years long does rather sweeten the deal.

Indeed, the assumption here is that River will be back, either on Dirillium (which must have a Wyrmm’s nest somewhere, or at the very least a cave system containing frozen Ice Warriors). If Moffat had a theme song, it would be ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ (or, if you like, ‘It’s My Plotting And You’ll Cry If I Want You To’). Or, as Gareth puts it, “If this ‘last night’ is 24 years long, I assume that there’s no need for it to be their final meeting or final night together. As they can go off and meet lots and get back still during the same night.”

But given the manner in which it concludes, this is a story that couldn’t have happened before ‘Hell Bent’, and the lesson the Doctor learned about going too far resonates throughout his final speech. For all Kingston’s blustering about finding a way out, it’s a touching scene, expertly lit, the romance bubbling beneath the surface while being kept at bay by some pleasant, almost understated performances – particularly from Capaldi, who is always at his best when he’s turning it down. It helps that the two leads have a chemistry that Kingston never managed with Smith – perhaps it’s an age thing, but this feels far more natural than it ever did when the Doctor wore tweed. These are two people who give the appearance of being in their twilight years (the fact that the Doctor is clearly not is, for the moment, irrelevant) and this lends their love scenes a sensibility that grounds them even in the more overwrought moments. On balance, it works. ‘The Husbands of River Song’ lacks the accessibility of ‘The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe’ and the narrative oomph of ‘Voyage of the Damned’, but it substitutes an emotional core that winds up – just for a change – being far more than the sum of its parts. Of all the available Doctors that could have taken River to the Singing Towers, I’m glad it turned out to be this one.

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Review: ‘Hell Bent’

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There’s this bit towards the end of the first Bottom live show where Rik Mayall is about to commit suicide. Adrian Edmondson has wired up a makeshift electric chair. He pulls the lever: there is a colossal build-up, a wheezing and whining of unseen machinery, alarms, flashing lights. And then there is a fart, and the bang of a cheap firecracker, accompanied by a microscopic shower of sparks.

“Yes,” says Mayall, sighing. “Sort of a bit like having it off with Bonnie Langford, this really, isn’t it?”

It says something about the state of Doctor Who when your verdict of a series finale is “Not as dreadful as some of the others”. Might we say that we’ve sat through worse? Well, yes. ‘The Wedding of River Song’ was a low point, until we reached ‘Death In Heaven’, which had me throwing my Tenth Doctor action figure at the cat. The site of a resurrected Brigadier saluting at the Doctor across a graveyard seemed to vomit on the legacy of Nicholas Courtney and the Doctor who worked for him at UNIT, and those of you who were reading this will remember that I got very cross.

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There’s none of that this time. None of the grandiose, universe-shattering finales to which we’ve become accustomed. Oh, there’s a story about a prophecy that comes to nothing (more on that later). There are threats and recriminations and things that will probably come back to haunt the Doctor later, and a heap of unanswered questions (just where exactly is Gallifrey these days, given that they’ve moved it?) As a finale, it was empty and not terribly satisfying, but it could have been worse. With notable exceptions, that seems to be the best I can say for Doctor Who these days, which is something of a shame, but there it is.

To give credit where it’s due, ‘Hell Bent’ starts brilliantly. After a suitably enigmatic opening in a Nevada diner that – as is now customary with Moffat – will eventually subvert all our expectations, we move to Gallifrey, and a glorious, eight minute sequence in which the Doctor utters not a single word. It contains some of the best acting from Capaldi since he first complained about his kidneys, with the Doctor saying more with the simple act of picking up a spoon or dropping his confession dial in the dust than he could with the sort of monologue he got at the end of ‘The Zygon Inversion’, as good as that was.

Even after the Doctor starts talking, and the plot unfolds and the logic machine breaks beyond repair in a shower of cheap sparks, the acting remains impeccable – particularly from Donald Sumpter, who excels as the Time Lord President, a figure finally and unambiguously revealed to be the resurrected Rassilon. Sumpter plays Rassilon like a battle-hardened East End kingpin in a low-budget, independent gangster flick (something that Clara deliberately points out), chewing up the scenery and stealing every scene that he’s in. It’s a mesmerising performance, and it’s a great shame that there isn’t more of it.

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Instead we get a lot of back and forth about prophecy as the narrative twists in all sorts of directions. The Hybrid is the Doctor! No, that was an obvious joke and it’s Maisie Williams! No, it’s the Doctor! No, it’s the Doctor and Clara! It’s Missy! It’s Keyser Soze! Actually, it doesn’t matter because we’re going to leave this unsolved until Capaldi’s final episode! That’s a writer’s prerogative, but everything about ‘Hell Bent’ smacks of something that hasn’t been thought through. It’s like buying a washing machine when you live in a third floor flat with no lifts. It’s the same problem that dogs The Deathly Hallows, in which Harry, having spent most of book six looking for a set of objects, decides in book seven that there’s another set of objects he ought to be looking for instead. Similarly, the question of the Hybrid is teased throughout and then conveniently confined to the sidelines, another ball the Moff’s thrown in the air, teasing out his reign for as long as possible until all these questions are answered. He did precisely the same thing during Smith’s run, and I think most of us are wise to it by now.

This is, of course, an episode all about Clara, and having spent last week keeping her out of shot, Moffat places her firmly back into the limelight come the story’s second act. While I don’t dispute the unavoidably autobiographical nature of writing it seems ridiculous that Capaldi’s Doctor has become, to all intents and purposes, an extension of Moffat himself. He clearly can’t bring himself to kill Clara permanently, so the Doctor finds a way to save her. Perhaps I’m being churlish, but it says a lot about the way Doctor Who is written these days that the Doctor is prepared to move heaven and earth and break every law of time to save people he likes. You get the feeling that if ‘Doomsday’ had been a 2015 episode instead of a 2006 one, Rose’s separation from the Doctor would have been at the end of episode eleven and he’d have found a way to pop into the parallel universe to retrieve her almost immediately.

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I didn’t like ‘Face The Raven’. That’s no secret. But if nothing else, it did at least kill off a character in one fell swoop, even if it took longer than it should have done. The act of undoing that – simply because there’s a loophole – basically cheapens death. I have talked about this before and am reluctant to retread old ground because no one is listening anyway, but to see the writers take us this far and then pull a Davies (I think that’s what we call it now, isn’t it?) is seriously lame. If Doctor Who were action movies, we’d be in Taken 3 territory: losing your daughter once is unfortunate, two is frankly careless and three is just taking the piss.

On the other hand, ‘Hell Bent’ is crammed absolutely full of Things To Annoy The Fanboys; the sort of thing that sparks ferocious debate and keeps Twitter chugging over over Christmas until the turkey (no, I don’t mean ‘Before The Flood’) is a distant memory. The Doctor’s much-disputed half-human origins are teased. The head of security regenerates onscreen from a middle-aged white man into a younger black woman, ticking two equality boxes in one fell swoop. And it’s revealed that the Doctor left Gallifrey because he was told a scary story when he was a kid. There’s a bit more to it than that, but it’s the Whovian equivalent of Kevin from Home Alone coming face to face with the old man who carries the shovel, running out of the 7-11 and jumping on a bus bound for Nevada. Simultaneously, this isn’t Moffat re-establishing the canon, this is Moffat deliberately toying with us, and I’m not rising to the bait.

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Something else I’m still scratching my head about: we were told, through a variety of press releases, that we were going to be left “a tiny bit devastated”, and after watching an episode in which the Doctor sort-of-but-not-quite loses bits of his memory, takes over Gallifrey and regains his means of transportation, while a not-quite dead companion gets to wander the universe in a stolen TARDIS with an immortal eighteen-year-old…after all this, I’m still trying to work out where exactly I’m supposed to be devastated. Is it the memory loss, which counted for nothing the moment the Doctor saw Clara’s picture on the side of the TARDIS? Is it the fact that Clara is still destined to die on that trap street, presumably after a long and happy life of zooming around the galaxy in a floating restaurant? Is it the moment when the Doctor walks into his darkened TARDIS alone, just before he goes to spend Christmas with Alex Kingston and pick up another soap actress?

I mean, I’m always a tiny bit devastated at the end of ‘Earthshock’. Or ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’. Or Attack of the Cybermen’. Actually, most of Eric Saward’s stuff would do. There was a man who loved killing off supporting characters. I’m not saying I wanted the corpses piling up the way they do in ‘Warriors of the Deep’. I don’t even mind the fact that there wasn’t a single death this episode; it’s kind of par for the course when you’re doing a story about a species with a marvellous talent for self-healing, accompanied by a woman who is functionally immortal and another who was already dead. I’d just like to point out that for all the spiel about getting upset, the body count for this week is actually minus one.

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But there are elements of goodness. Gallifrey is pleasantly minimal, considering that in a decade of New Who we’ve never actually been there properly; it feels like a throwback to ‘The Five Doctors’. The retro TARDIS interior in which the final third of the episode takes place is a crowd pleaser; likewise the shattered corridor in which the end of the universe takes place is nicely realised. Even Maisie Williams throws in something that might almost be called a decent performance this week, which is a refreshing change after two hours of sulking.

Still, it’s not quite enough to save the story from mediocrity, largely because the story itself isn’t particularly interesting. The structure is as uneven as a toddler’s brick tower; it’s as if Moffat decided at the last minute to postpone his grand plan for another year and had nothing else to go in its place. I can’t say that I hated this episode as much as I did last year’s finale, or even ‘The Woman Who Lived’, but there must be, somewhere, the sort of finale that neatly straddles the road between Everything Happening, and Nothing Happening. If it sounds like I’m one of those impossible-to-please fans, I’d just point out that the crucial, series-defining moment in ‘Hell Bent’ is two characters debating whether or not they should press down on a piece of plastic. Honestly, it doesn’t get much more Bonnie Langford than that.

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Review: ‘Heaven Sent’

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Warning: spoiler heavy.

In 1976, right after he’d dropped off Sarah Jane in Croydon (by way of Aberdeen), the Doctor found himself back on Gallifrey. There was a sinister plot to assassinate the President – perhaps unsurprisingly, the Master is behind it all – with the Doctor caught very firmly in the frame. But there are a couple of things I remember about ‘The Deadly Assassin’: one is the tense, dialogue-light episode three, which we’ll come to later, while the other is the very first part of the story, in which the Doctor wanders around the TARDIS and the Gallifrey Citadel, talking to himself.

Tom Baker’s mid-70s assertion that he could carry the show without a companion was quickly shot down by the producers, and it’s easy to see why. ‘The Deadly Assassin’ is a great story, but the early scenes are frankly excruciating. Baker is always at his best when he is bouncing off someone else, even if it’s John Leeson on the other end of a radio link. The rest of the story more than makes up for it, but it was, you felt, the sort of thing that should never be repeated. And yet this evening the BBC broadcast an entire episode that featured Peter Capaldi running round a castle for an hour with only a bedsheet for company – and amazingly, it works.

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Bedsheets are frightening, of course. ‘Listen’ was an episode of two halves, but the half that worked – the first half – was as tense and chilling as anything the programme had done in years, and certainly since ‘The God Complex’. The monster-of-the-week here is a wordless, faceless phantasm that stalks the corridors of the castle, always present and prone, like Ridley Scott’s Alien, to jumping out at any given moment. We get to see the devastating effects of its touch late in the story: it kills the Doctor, and not just once. The castle, too, is an enemy, shifting and rotating like the stairways at Hogwarts, with doors opening onto blank walls and corridors leading nowhere. The surroundings themselves are as important as the stunning New Zealand backdrop that made Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies work so well, and if they get a generation of children interested in English Heritage properties, so much the better.

It helps that even though the Doctor is usually alone this week, he’s never just talking to himself. When he’s not addressing the Veil, he’s monologuing to Clara – seen, for the most part, with her back to the audience as she scratches questions on one of the TARDIS blackboards. Moffat’s decision to eventually show her (albeit for a moment) is slightly cheap, and the interchange between the two that results is one of the episode’s weaker moments, but it does at least answer the question of whether it was Jenna Coleman or her stand-in (and truth be told, it was probably both). Is it churlish to say that this silent, visually obscured Clara is Coleman’s finest performance in quite some time? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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But it’s Capaldi who’s the real star, here, breezing effortlessly through a script that requires him to be angry, smug, weary and frightened, often within the same scene. The Doctor stalks the corridors of the castle with wariness and scientific curiosity and a sense of genuine sadness – it seems anomalous somehow, given that he’s lost companions before, and Moffat really is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but Capaldi is never less than absolutely compelling, whether he’s examining a skull on the castle battlements (a clear nod to the first and last acts of Hamlet) or chatting up a tree, for the second time in a decade. The TARDIS segments are less effective, capturing frozen moments in time with the same smugness that pervades Sherlock, but thankfully they are comparatively brief, allowing Capaldi to shine where he needs to. We all knew he could act, but it’s always nice when he gets to prove it.

It all threatens to go south as the plot unfolds proper. This is not a mind trip: it serves a purpose. If the Fourth Doctor entered the Matrix in order to find the Master, the Twelfth Doctor is dumped inside a prison of his making so that the Time Lords can eke the truth out of him, one nugget of information at a time. Once it becomes apparent that the Doctor we see is not the first one to arrive, nor will he be the last, the story threatens to unravel: the fact that every single narrative unfolds in precisely the same way, with the same outcome, seems alarmingly fatalist, while the Doctor’s two-billion year wall punch echoes a particular scene from Kill Bill. Oh, and we’ve not even discussed the metaphysical implications of the guy working with constant backups of himself from a hard drive, but I’m not touching that one with a three foot pole.

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Besides…look, to be honest, ‘Heaven Sent’ is one of those stories that works better if you discard its surrounding mythology. I don’t care what’s in the Doctor’s confession dial. I don’t care why he left Gallifrey. I’m not interested in what the Time Lords are up to. The episode’s final punch line – “The hybrid is me” – is an obvious internet talking point, pitting those who think it refers to the Doctor’s much-disputed half-human origins against those who’ve worked out that it’s almost certainly Maisie Williams. It’s dull and unnecessary and, like the scene it follows, sets things up for a finale that I fear will be an absolute trainwreck.

But for the moment, absolutely none of that matters. Murray Gold’s innovative-but-intrusive score doesn’t matter. Even the wider implications of the tedious series arc don’t matter. This was an episode that dared to think outside the box a little: a risk-taking episode, simultaneously grand and claustrophobic, telling a story that succeeded on its own terms, irrespective of where it sits in the grand scheme of things. It echoed ‘The Mind Robber’ and ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and ‘Castrovalva’ and ‘Scherzo’. It echoed 2001. It even echoed The Stanley Parable, which I was by an uncanny coincidence playing this very evening. It was beautifully realised, impeccably acted, and thought-provoking and contained several genuine scares. Whatever happens next, for once I really can’t complain.

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Review: ‘Face the Raven’

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Warning: spoilers and general weariness therein. If you enjoyed this episode, I seriously suggest you don’t read any further. I am probably just going to make you cross.

It’s 1997. I’m in a university common room watching Star Trek: Generations. This is a film that’s been hyped up beyond belief, and one which will be notable for its decision to kill Captain Kirk not once, but twice. If you are William Shatner the author, neither occasion counts. As for the rest of us, we will sit and scratch our heads and wonder why on earth this was given such colossal media exposure, given that the end – when it does come – is really not that big a deal. Kirk is murdered by Malcolm McDowell; his final words, to a reflective Jean-Luc Picard, are “Oh my…”

It’s 2013. A pretty girl is strolling through a haunted house in the company of three talented British actors. She is light, sparkly and fun, unconsumed by gravitas, self-importance or nastiness. I like her. This will not last. She will become, as is the destiny for all modern companions, an exercise in sociology, something more than a cipher but less than a person, warping around stories that should, by rights, be warping around her. She will become a plaything of the writers, as all characters ultimately are, and she will suffer for it. But this week, she is allowed to be a companion – someone who follows and just enjoys herself. There will be times in the future that I lament the loss of this side to Clara. These days, when it is there, it has a kind of smugness attached to it.

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It’s 1998. I’m in a darkened cinema. On the screen Leonardo DiCaprio is clinging to a raft. The boat sank half an hour ago but Leo doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to die. There is clearly room for two on the raft, but Kate Winslet isn’t budging. The woman behind me to my left is using up an entire box of Kleenex, James Horner’s mournful score all but drowned out by sobbing and sniffling. Leo shivers and mutters something about going on. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I am thinking to myself, “WILL YOU PLEASE JUST FUCKING DIE?”

It’s 2001. I’m in another cinema watching a bunch of young child actors walk through a visually stunning set. It is an alley in a hidden part of London, cut off from the rest of the world. John Hurt is selling wands. It’s 2015 and I am looking at a different set but the same set. That in itself is not a problem. There are disguised aliens in human form. This is an excuse for another press release, one that says “Cybermen! Judoon! Sontarans! Ood!”, all of whom appear for approximately three seconds each. I am trying to ignore the fact that none of these creatures behaves the way you would expect them to, even in a refugee camp. I am wondering when they are going to do anything except whisper “Murderer”.

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It’s 2014. Steven Moffat is on the phone to Sarah Dollard. He says he would like her to write a crucial episode for series nine in which Clara dies. Sarah says she would love to but that she doesn’t have any ideas for stories. Steven says that’s not a problem: no story is needed, as long as Clara dies.

It’s 2009. A Time Lord has made a semi-noble sacrifice; he’s given up his life for Bernard Cribbins, whining like a puppy in the process. He wanders off to die. It will take fifteen minutes. It’s 2015. An English teacher who has snogged Jane Austen has become reckless. Earlier she was dangling out of the TARDIS. Now she has gambled with her life, and lost. She takes approximately seven minutes to die. I know this because I spend most of it looking at my watch.

It’s 2015. I’m watching Maisie Williams whine about how crap it is to be immortal, trudging through events feeling as if things will go on and on forever. It is something I can relate to. It is slightly later in 2015 and the character has turned up again, and is no more fun than she was last time. She has dark markings on her neck and a sinister connection to a large black raven. It is like watching Brandon Lee. The raven looks a bit fed up. I am wondering if the batteries need changing.

It’s earlier in 2015. I’m reading another press release about how heartbroken I’m going to be when Clara leaves. I cannot ignore these announcements because it is my job to read them. It’s 2015, this evening. Murray Gold is clearly making up for lost time after last week. The strings are like eating five buckets of candy floss in a single sitting and having to vomit into your own mouth. Clara walks into the middle of the street in slow motion. We see the death from about five or six angles. It is a technique often used in the 1970s. It doesn’t work here.

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It’s 2036. A fifty-year-old Jenna Coleman is being interviewed in a dark studio for a new DVD. She says she is proud of her final story. She says she hates it. She says she was pleased with the character arc. She says it was more fun just being a companion and that she fought against the changes Steven Moffat imposed. She says she thought Sarah Dollard turned in a terrific script. She says she wanted a stronger narrative. Pick one.

It’s 2015 and I am watching a middle-aged actor and his younger sidekick do their best with tedious dross. I watch Capaldi keep the Doctor’s rage in check. It is good but it is not enough to save the episode. Maisie Williams pouts and looks uncomfortable, as she always has. It’s 2015 and my wife says she fears she may be corrupting my ability to enjoy the programme. I point out that I watched ‘Before the Flood’ while she was in the bath and came away no happier.

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It’s 2015, early Sunday morning, and I watch the last five minutes of ‘Earthshock’. I am struck by how quick it is, even when you know it is coming. It’s 2015, two weeks ago, and I am watching ‘The Zygon Inversion’ and the Doctor has just made another cryptic remark about how sad he was to have thought that Clara was dead. I note how quickly he seemed to recover from Adric’s death. I remember that Adric was a douchebag.

It’s 2015. I am watching Jenna Coleman trying out for that BAFTA. I decide she’s done enough to secure a nomination. It’s 2015 and I am spent and exhausted and I need a new companion in the TARDIS and, if possible, a new chief writer at the helm. More to the point, it is not me who needs this; it is Doctor Who that needs this. It’s 2015 and I am looking out of the window at the tattoo parlour across the road, and wondering if it’s still open.

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Review: ‘Sleep No More’

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Disclaimer: What follows is not exactly a review, because this is the sort of episode that defies conventional reviewing. It is a dramatised behind-the-scenes look with the reviewer’s opinions shoehorned in; it is completely fictional, and any similarity to real situations is pure luck. Please take it in the spirit in which it was intended, i.e. hastily written and not terribly funny.

 

INT. STEVEN MOFFAT’S OFFICE. DAY

[A Thursday afternoon sometime in December. MARK GATISS sitting on a sofa, in conversation with STEVEN MOFFAT – who, unbeknownst to Mark, is playing Candy Crush on Facebook, even while thumbing through a script on his desk.]

STEVEN: Sleep deprivation’s been done, Mark.

MARK: Not like this.

STEVEN: The X-Files managed it twenty years ago.

MARK: It’s topical. Didn’t you see that whole propaganda speech I put in about hyper-productivity and how everyone’s going to be able to do more? That sort of thing’s always fun to tear down. The junior doctors are going to love it.

STEVEN: I’ve already got Peter Harness doing immigration. We can be topical but I can’t be seen to be too left-wing. The Mail already have me on speed dial.

MARK: This isn’t like the others. They don’t go mad and start killing everyone.

STEVEN: They don’t?

MARK: Page thirty.

[Moffat thumbs. Reads. Nods.]

STEVEN: Anything else I should know?

MARK: I wanted the computer to sound like GLADos.

STEVEN: Fine, but I’m casting British. We don’t want a lawsuit.

MARK: Hey, you Frankenstein, me Igor.

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INT. DOCTOR WHO PRODUCTION OFFICES. DAY

[A read-through is in progress. JENNA COLEMAN, PETER CAPALDI, REECE SHEARSMITH, MARK GATISS, STEVEN MOFFAT all present.]

PETER [reading]: “What used to be sleep in your eye has turned into a carnivorous life form.”

JENNA: Oh, you are shitting me.

PETER: Yeah, that’s – I’m pretty sure that’s not in the script, Jenna.

[There is laughter, with an underlying tension.]

STEVEN: Problem, Jen?

JENNA: This is utterly ridiculous! You’ve written –

STEVEN [pointing at Mark]: Hey, he! He’s written –

JENNA: I mean, he’s written, whatever, he’s written a monster that’s made out of sleep dust.

MARK: It’s never been done before, though.

JENNA: No, because it’s a fucking stupid idea! It defies common sense and logic! It’s the worst kind of pseudoscience! It’s worse than Spitfires on the moon! This is supposed to be new levels of realism and my suspension of disbelief just had its strings cut.

STEVEN: Don’t hold back, Jenna, tell us what’s really bothering you.

JENNA: Shut up. Look, it’s as bad as that episode of Red Dwarf where Chris Barrie was gonna clone himself out of dandruff. And that was supposed to be funny.

PETER: Yeah, that one was funny, actually.

JENNA: Was. I don’t know. Yeah.

MARK: Look, it’s – they’re gonna look horrible. In my head, I mean, they’re like big brown things. Big wrinkled brown things with enormous mouths.

STEVEN [to the room]: Don’t spread that around, everyone, it’s not on the list of controlled leaks.

JENNA: Made of sleep crust.

MARK: Yeah.

[There is a very tense pause.]

JENNA: Probably a good thing this guy wasn’t trying to cure the common cold.

[A burst of laughter across the entire team, and the tension’s gone.]

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INT. BBC CAFETERIA. DAY

[Lunch. REECE SHEARSMITH is sitting with ELAINE TAN.]

ELAINE: So how’d you get the Adventures in Space gig, anyway?

REECE: Oh, Mark owed me a favour. I said I really wanted to play Troughton.

ELAINE: For one scene.

REECE: There was supposed to be more of it, but it’s on a cutting room floor somewhere.

ELAINE: It didn’t make the DVD?

REECE: No.

ELAINE: It wasn’t really acting, though, was it? You just sort of turned up in a wig and did a bad impression.

REECE: But it needed to be there. It’s the whole transition thing.

ELAINE: And by the time they found out you couldn’t actually do Troughton, it was too late.

REECE: Exactly.

[They clink cappuccino mugs.]

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INT. SET. DAY

[A chase is being filmed. JENNA is running up a corridor; all of a sudden she trips and falls.]

ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Cut! OK, reset, we’ll go again.

JENNA: Owww! Shit, I think I twisted my ankle.

PETER: Oh, Terry Nation would’ve loved you.

JENNA: Shut it and help me up.

FIRST UNIT DIRECTOR: Jenna, you all right?

JENNA: These shoes are abominable. Why couldn’t I have worn the Faith ones? They were great. They were flat.

FIRST UNIT DIRECTOR: Listen, costume’s not really my department, but I think it was the cameras, they needed decent eyelines for the handhelds –

JENNA: It’s not my fault I’m short!

PETER: Listen, Caroline John managed a weir in a miniskirt, and that was in January. You can do cope with gratings.

JENNA: I’d like to see the Doctor manage this in heels.

PETER: So would half the audience, I think.

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INT. ANOTHER SET. DAY

[An abandoned power station somewhere. Neet Mohan and Bethany Black wander corridors.]

BETHANY: Quiet. Little too quiet.

NEET: Are you in character?

BETHANY: No, I mean generally. What is it? Something’s different.

NEET: No idea.

BETHANY: I think it’s Murray Gold.

NEET [sucks in teeth]: I knew there was something different about this week.

BETHANY: There it is.

NEET: I find it refreshing. Certainly a change from the usual overwrought stuff. At least you can hear the dialogue.

BETHANY: You say that like it’s a good thing.

NEET: It’s not?

BETHANY: The problem is it sounds like dialogue. It doesn’t – look, in real life situations, like the one this is supposed to be mirroring, people don’t do complete sentences. They talk over each other, they –

NEET: I know that, I’m just, I’m just saying –

BETHANY: – interrupt each other, there’s no –

NEET: – look, we don’t want to alienate the audience, right? If it’s too Woody Allen people are gonna switch off. We’re already pushing the envelope.

BETHANY: Please! The envelope is still on the table. The sealant is still applied. The corners are undamaged. The –

NEET: You know, I think I prefer you in Hulk Smash mode.

BETHANY: Whatevs.

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INT. ANOTHER SET. DAY

[PETER and JENNA are between takes.]

PETER: It’s different though, you’ve gotta give it that.

JENNA: It is different. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done before. But the rushes are giving me nausea.

PETER: Do we even have those anymore?

JENNA: You know what I mean. There are just so many cameras.

PETER: And for the first time I can look at them without the fanboys ranting about the fourth wall!

JENNA: It just wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be.

PETER: Listen, Blair Witch was low-tech because it wouldn’t have worked any other way. The multi-camera thing is part of the story.

JENNA: Yeah, about that, am I missing a page? Is this one of those things where they only send it out to you, and you’re not supposed to tell me?

PETER: No, I think Mark’s lobbying for a follow-up.

JENNA: Hence the ending.

PETER: Hence that.

[Awkward pause]

PETER: You’re not gonna say anything, are you? ‘Cause we don’t want a repeat of the read-through.

JENNA: I’m just saying, why don’t they turn on the sprinklers? Boom. Problem solved.

PETER: Because they don’t have sprinklers.

JENNA: They have space-sprinklers.

PETER: Don’t start that again.

JENNA: Hey, I got him to put it in.

PETER: Look, it’s not Ibsen, but it’s better than the Daleks one.

JENNA: My nephew’s written better than the Daleks one, and he’s seven. You’re just defending it because he gave you Shakespeare.

PETER: I really, really want that nomination.

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INT. STEVEN’S HOUSE. NIGHT

[STEVEN is sitting with his feet up; fingers thumb the surface of an iPad. SUE VERTUE is on a laptop on the other side of the room. An iPlayer broadcast of the episode has just finished: somewhat anomalously, the credits roll.]

SUE: Well, that’s gonna freak out the kids.

STEVEN: Always the plan. Come on, you have to hand it to him. A story about getting enough sleep, or else, broadcast just before bedtime.

SUE: Except everyone uses iPlayer these days.

STEVEN: Well, I can’t do everything.

SUE: How’s the Twitter feed?

STEVEN: Oh, it’s downright hysterical. There’s a guy here who decided to explain the word ‘pet’ to the Americans.

SUE: Just don’t go on the Guardian. You know it affects your blood pressure.

STEVEN: I won’t.

SUE: Coming to bed?

STEVEN: Shortly. Need to do the next set of soundbites for the press releases. See you so-

[He looks up from his iPad and notices that Sue is giving him a very odd look.]

STEVEN: Why are you staring at me like that?

SUE: Don’t stay awake too long.

[She dissolves into sleep dust. Steven screams. Cut to black.]

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Categories: New Who, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Review: ‘The Zygon Inversion’

Spoilers, sweetie….

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“The other day a woman came up to me and said, ‘Didn’t I see you on television?’ I said ‘I don’t know. You can’t see out the other way.'”
(Emo Phillips)

I sometimes wonder what Russell T Davies makes of current Doctor Who. Certainly I’m not sure whether anyone ever asks him. You cannot move online for press snippets and paragraph-long teasers from the current showrunner about the ‘fun chase’ that the Christmas special is promising to be, or how devastated everyone will be when Clara departs. I’m of the opinion that Doctor Who ought to stop telling its audience how we ought to be feeling and allow the drama to breathe and speak on its own terms, but that’s another day and another blog post, and one I may write, so let’s not dwell on it now.

But does Russell (yes, my animosity towards the man has evaporated to the extent that I can call him that now) sit in his flat with a vodka and tonic and a curry and cheer on this new, reinvented Doctor? Does he lament the fact that his five-year legacy of the tortured soul has been all but undone? Does he sit and weep while this new chap, the ageing Scot with the impressive eyebrows (because I’ve just finished The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who, and eyebrows get mentioned practically every page) talks about how close he was to an act of genocide before a soap actress pulled him back from the brink? Or does he nod and smile and say “Yes, that’s probably where I would have gone with it”, and then leave another message on Peter Davison’s voicemail?

We may never know, and in a way that’s fine. But I’ll bet he was watching last night, and thinking “Gosh. I could have had fun with the Zygons.”

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Certainly Moffat has. In a way, this sort of story fits with his writing style like Mary Tamm’s tailored outfits clung to her bosom. There are three ways of writing hidden identity narratives: make the audience aware and play on the dramatic irony; keep them entirely in the dark; alternatively, allow them to spend time believing one thing before pulling the rug out from under their feet. Moffat has done the last one so often that the rug has almost worn threadbare. Vital missing seconds from scenes change allegiances, set booby traps, resurrect the dead. Moffat uses the concept of time like a child experimenting with Playdough, twisting and reshaping it into anything he sees fit. Lest we forget, at the end of series six he built an entire dramatic conceit upon the single use of the word “Actually…”

Peter Harness may have been responsible for the story, but you can feel Moffat lingering at his shoulder. Having spent last week building up to the moment a previously trustworthy character revealed their duplicity, here he does the exact opposite. It’s a trick that doesn’t work quite so well second time around, largely because we do not see an awful lot of Kate until the final act, and she is given a single scene with the Doctor before revealing that her true colours. Still, Jemma Regrave does a convincing sneer.

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We know that we can trust Osgood and the Doctor, so it’s left to Coleman to thicken out the concept. Harness and Moffat achieve this by imprisoning her in a bricked-up flat, where the toothpaste tube is full of what looks like excrement and nothing much works except the TV. It’s a perfect opportunity for a Blake’s 7 marathon if ever I saw one, but Clara discovers that she has a limited control over her Zygon counterpart, as embodied by some rather silly hand movements.

In 1998, I saw a film called Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Helen – whose life branches in two directions depending on whether or not she catches a particular train. In the film, Happy Helen cuts her hair short and dies it blonde, presumably because blondes have more fun; Miserable Helen retains its original length and colour. So too this week Bonnie’s brisk and businesslike demeanour is embodied by a pony tail and bright red lipstick, while Clara spends most of the story looking like she’s just got out of bed. Bonnie strides with a glacial stare where Clara ambles; she could also learn a thing or two from Bonnie’s posture. Coleman brings a distinction to both roles; it’s the first time we’ve seen her play an out-and-out villain, and it works, despite occasional lapses into caricature.

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By the episode’s end Bonnie has assumed the identity of Osgood – so there are now two of them, at least one of which is a Zygon – but it would be inconceivable to think that Moffat will not use Coleman again at some point. “Clara,” he assures us, “will never return”, but at no point has he suggested that Bonnie will not. Indeed, if the nature of Clara’s death (assuming that’s where we’re going) is in any way ambiguous, who is to say that he couldn’t have the internet debating whether he actually killed Bonnie instead? That’s what he does, after all.

The plot of ‘The Zygon Inversion’ is essentially built around the nuclear option. The action sequences are sparse and consist largely of people running away: the Doctor and Osgood escape the police, and then pursue an unmasked Zygon in an empty supermarket only for him to commit suicide rather than spend his life unable to cloak. “I never wanted to fight anyone,” he insists, not long before pulling the trigger. “I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?”

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If last week’s episode was largely about immigration policy and the expectation of assimilation, this week is largely about extreme options and final solutions. We are once more in the Black Archive, with Capaldi raging and shaking in a speech that couldn’t be more obviously ‘BAFTA nomination’ if they’d stuck a flashing subtitle underneath it. The sunglasses are off, the preaching comes thick and fast, and the fact that “Do nothing” is once more the solution is, for once, not to the story’s detriment. It’s an impressive moment, worthy of the best of McCoy, and destined indeed to be recreated by past Doctors at conventions and posted across the internet.

Various jokes pepper the script and some of them are very funny. Capaldi bails out of an exploding plane with a Union Jack parachute – the fact that Spectre opened only last week is almost certainly a coincidence, but it helps. London is described as “a dump”. And the Doctor’s look of incredulity when Osgood reveals she does not know what TARDIS stands for is priceless, even more so when she admits that this is because “I’ve heard a couple of different versions”.

 

wayne

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As with last week, there are misfires. The Doctor’s American accent is almost as dreadful as Missy’s (it’s nothing to do with Capaldi or Gomez, who manage fine; it’s just a criminally bad idea). Various scenes don’t make complete sense: the Doctor’s encounter with the police officers feels like it’s going somewhere and then doesn’t, while the ending is slightly muddled. Structurally, the whole thing feels slightly off-kilter, as if it would have benefited from a pacing rethink.

But in the grand scheme of things, this is nitpicking. We’re two thirds of the way through a series as bumpy and uneven as its immediate predecessor; mediocrity pervaded the Dalek story, the promising ghosts were ruined by time travel, and a fun romp through Valhalla was followed by dreary, plotless philosophy. There’s a risk that in calling ‘The Zygon Invasion / Inversion’ an obvious series highlight, I’m damning it with faint praise, and that’s unfair to everyone. In a year of lacklustre ideas and squandered potential, of course it stands out. But that doesn’t stop it being a darn good story in its own right. And just when all seemed lost. Tweak my diodes and call me Petronella.

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Review: ‘The Zygon Invasion’

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Many years ago, I went to see X2. My abiding memory of the evening – aside from the realisation that Nightcrawler was the most awesome character in the history of comic books – was a deep sense of sadness that they’d killed Jean Grey. This was before I went away and read the Phoenix storyline, whereupon everything made sense, insofar as it ever does within the multi-layered and thoroughly confusing Marvel multiverse.

But what sets the second X-Men movie apart isn’t the blazing action sequences, or the stupid foreshadowing with Pyro, or its refreshingly forgiving take on contemporary Christianity. It’s the fact that it’s two parts social commentary to one part superhero flick. The X-Men are shunned and feared for their differences, distrusted and ostracised by society owing to the actions of a few: the fact that this was released fairly soon after 9/11 was not a coincidence. Later, the mutants are analogised with closeted homosexuality: in a notable second act scene, Bobby Drake effectively comes out to his parents, who ask “Have you tried…not being a mutant?”

Peter Harness’s 2014 Doctor Who episode was ‘Kill The Moon’. It was an episode I hated, partly because of the slapping but largely because of what it eventually became, as opposed to how it started. It was an initially terrifying horror story that slapped on an abortion message in the last twenty minutes, which was a colossal misfire – one that Harness avoids with ‘The Zygon Invasion’ by putting the political drama front and centre from the very opening image.

Because ‘Zygon’ is a tale of two societies that are struggling to get along. The nods to ‘Day of the Doctor’ come thick and fast – indeed, this story acts as a direct sequel – and the repercussions of the Doctors’ actions in that story become alarmingly clear right from the outset. The upshot is that twenty million Zygons have come to live in England, assimilating so as not to frighten the locals. An uneasy peace has existed for a while, but it’s now apparent that many Zygons are angered by what they see as extraneous pressure to adopt British values at the cost of their own cultural identity. This in turn has led to splinter factions operating terrorist activities out of a mountain base in a fictional Baltic state, to which the anticipated UNIT response is to bomb the shit out of all of them. It’s left to the Doctor to explain that the very activities of the rogue Zygon factions are intended to promote distrust and fear and paranoia, even though – as one particularly militant colonel explains to the Doctor halfway through – “It’s not paranoia if it’s real”.

This is possibly the most outright political commentary in Doctor Who since Russell T Davies’ Massive Weapons of Destruction, but it would be churlish to criticise Harness for being somewhat heavy-handed, because it’s no worse than most of the Pertwee era. Indeed, UNIT’s gung-ho tendencies in this story are a clear and presumably deliberate echo of the ‘shoot first, interrogate the corpse’ approach that the Third Doctor despised. It’s just that much of the social commentary of Pertwee’s stories has been lost in translation, particularly when viewed by a modern audience, which has no idea of historical context, layered symbolism or political leanings of the writers unless its members watch the documentaries. (Biblical parables, incidentally, work in much the same way – a contemporary audience will see them as interesting stories with a moral or theological point, but the intended audience of Hebrew farmers and fishermen would have understood a great many subtleties and references therein that we tend to miss.)

‘Invasion’ is a story that preaches, then, although it is sensible enough to include the viewpoints of both sides and garner some audience sympathy for both the assimilated Zygons and the trigger-happy military. Is this a story that works best in the UK, given the current climate? Perhaps, although countries facing similar immigration issues and terrorist threats would undoubtedly empathise. Immigration may be this year’s political hot potato, but the notion of welcoming strangers and expecting them to learn the language and ditch the hijab goes back to the Israelites in Egypt and probably before that. This is a story for our time, but also for all time – that said its prediction of the crisis in Syria is eerily uncanny.

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None of this would matter if the episode were all moral handwringing and no story, but that’s not the case. If anything, ‘Invasion’ suffers from having a little too much story (which compensates in a way for ‘The Woman Who Lived’, in which there was no discernible story at all). After the setup, everyone goes their separate ways: Kate Stewart heads to a ghost town in New Mexico (featuring ACTUAL TUMBLEWEED), the Doctor goes to the former Soviet Union to rescue Osgood, and Clara nips back to her flat to pick up some things. Or does she…?

The notion of doppelgangers works most effectively when it’s applied to the show’s main characters, and in this case the victim turns out to be the one person we thought we could trust. Viewers who have seen ‘Terror of the Zygons’, of course, will recall the moment in which the Zygon copy of Harry Sullivan attacks Sarah Jane in a hay barn. In that story the ruse was noticeable almost immediately – here, Harness allows us to spend almost an entire episode in the company of the Zygon Clara before giving away the secret, which turns out to be the game-changer, rather than the cliffhanger. With Kate Stewart similarly incapacitated, the stage is set for a fiery part two, although Harness sensibly keeps the stakes comparatively low, with the Doctor facing certain death aboard his private jet.

The script is chock full of references – subtle and otherwise. The Doctor has an early conversation with two children in a playground that faintly resemble the Grady twins in The Shining (and, in a refreshing twist, the two girls do actually turn out to be Zygons, thus avoiding the stock comedy scene where the schoolchildren are grossed out by the creepy old man). The scene in the lift has been done to death, but here it recalls similar moments in both ‘Paradise Towers’ and ‘Night Terrors’. And there is a wry nod to the UNIT dating controversy when Kate Stewart reminisces that ‘Terror of the Zygons’ took place in the “seventies or eighties”.

Not everything works. A scene in which the UNIT soldiers are greeted with Zygons posing as captured relatives may ostensibly recall Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Third Expedition’ (among other things) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t excruciating to watch. The dead remains that the Doctor and Colonel find in the church look like enormous cat hairballs. The narrative is occasionally head-scratchingly baffling, and while there’s absolutely no way to avoid this, the notion of previously trustworthy characters turning out to be alien duplicates is starting to feel tired, simply because Doctor Who’s done it so much. On the other hand, the Zygons are frightening for perhaps the first time in the show’s history, transformations occurring largely off camera (presumably for budgeting reasons) while the phallic monstrosities are shot from below, towering over their intended victims with menacing leers.

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On balance, ‘Invasion’ succeeds far more than it fails. It may all go south next week, of course: this series of Doctor Who has been, quite literally, a game of two halves, containing stories that are half great and half lacklustre. Unnecessary time travel trickery ruined ‘Under The Lake’ / ‘Before the Flood’, while more recently a superficial, enjoyable Viking story was paired with a dreary interchange on the nature of immortality that – rather like the space-bound Ashildr – wound up going precisely nowhere. But if nothing else we have a decent, proper Zygon story, decently acted, glossily produced and directed with flair. And just for once, the most underused monsters in the canon are given full backstage passes, rather than sharing the limelight with John Hurt before being relegated to the sidelines in the final twenty minutes. Irrespective of flaws – and whatever happens in a week’s time – this was a high point.

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Categories: Day of the Doctor, New Who, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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