Posts Tagged With: doctor who 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 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 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: ‘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”.

 

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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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Review: ‘The Woman Who Lived’

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Warning: spoilers.

There’s a scene about two thirds into this week’s Doctor Who episode that speaks volumes. We’re in an ornate, well-furnished house in Stuart-ruled England, and Ashildr – who last week had a heart attack under the strain of defeating the Mire, before being resurrected – is railing at the Doctor. “Human life is fleeting,” she says. “People are mayflies, breeding and dying, repeating the same mistakes. It’s boring. And I’m stuck here. Abandoned by the one man who should know what eternity feels like.” I’m not sure whether it was at this point that I realised we’d gone right through the fourth wall, but I do remember looking over at Emily, and realising what we were experiencing: a Doctor Who episode that, for the second time this series, dumped all over its predecessor’s potential, a good idea squandered in a sea of worthiness and the mire (no pun intended) of a mind-numbingly tedious narrative.

The problem with both of these episodes was that the settings and stories were to all intents and purposes immaterial, playing second (third / fourth) fiddle to the concept of killing Maisie Williams and then bringing her back. If last week saw the Doctor acting on impulse, ‘The Woman Who Lived’ (in which he catches up with her, albeit by accident) sees him reaping what he sowed, as the ‘new’ Ashildr is quite different: cold, self-centred and violent. It’s clear what we’re supposed to think: Ashildr is what the Doctor fears Clara may eventually become (and which she seemed in danger of becoming in series 8). The Doctor, for his part, regrets staying away quite so long, although to be fair the last time he saw her she was setting up a leper colony, so the misunderstanding was forgivable.

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That’s not a bad idea for a theme, as long as it has some sort of narrative to support it. Unfortunately in the process of dealing with the ramifications of functional immortality – to use the Doctor’s own terminology – Catherine Tregenna (four of the weaker episodes of Torchwood, which should tell you all you need to know) got so hung up on the emotional pathos that she forgot to include anything we might feasibly call a story. Instead we have thirty-five minutes of the Doctor chatting with Maisie Williams about how shit it is being immortal. Really this two-parter is an acting showcase: a chance to show contrasting sides of the same character, one young, fresh and paranoid; the other jaded and world-weary. (It’s telling that Ashildr’s abandoned her Viking lineage and goes around referring to herself as ‘Me’, which is one step away from adopting the name ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’.)

And it’s that sense of weariness that drags this second instalment down into the murky depths, from which (despite best efforts) it is never really able to extract itself. Narrative inadequacies may have plagued ‘The Girl Who Died’, but that didn’t stop it being fun. It mined enough clichés to wake a balrog (horns! dragons! VALHALLAAAAAAA!), but the episode was – at least until its final seven minutes – delivered with a sense of humour, to the extent that even the baby poetry didn’t matter that much. ‘The Woman Who Lived’ fares far less well, simply because somewhere along the line it had all the fun zapped out of it. It’s not even Who-by-numbers, which is a criticism I levelled at ‘Into the Dalek’ last year. It’s New Who at its most preachy and ponderous: a whole episode of brooding about the Doctor’s tendency to make monsters out of good people. At least in ‘Journey’s End’ we just had a bit of gloating from Julian Bleach, a clenched jaw from Tennant and a quick montage. This is an entire episode of seriousness, with no real life or soul to it.

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That’s not to say Tregenna doesn’t have a go. It’s just the results are a dismal failure. Listen, years ago there was a Big Finish story called ‘Bang-Bang-a-Boom‘ in which the Seventh Doctor and Mel find themselves involved in an intricate conspiracy surrounding an intergalactic singing competition. It is literally half Star Trek, half Eurovision. It is also quite marvellous, although one criticism would be that the Star Trek bits try way too hard from time to time, resulting in occasional awkwardness.

Now, take that awkwardness and crank it up to eleven, and you have ‘The Woman Who Lived’. The producers cast a stand-up comedian as a highwayman who also happens to be a stand-up comedian. You could forgive a character like this the odd joke here and there, but this isn’t enough for Tregenna. She inserts (perhaps at the behest of Steven Moffat, perhaps not) a plot-crucial scene in which he actually does stand-up. By a gallows. With the Doctor. Whose delivery is on a par with Yodel. It’s not even fun in a silly, “Ha ha this is my day job” sort of way. It’s just self-consciously naff. It’s like casting Katharine Jenkins as a beautiful maiden with a tragic backstory and then getting her to save the universe with her singing.

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[tumbleweed…]

Before we get to the stand-up at the gallows (featuring a mob with farming tools, which is in its own way immensely gratifying) there is an earlier scene in which the Doctor and Ashildr sneak through a mansion in order to find a thing that I don’t particularly care about, although it is blue and sparkly. The moment in which they attempt to hide from the snoozing guards by ducking behind tables is ostensibly bedroom farce, although it reminded me rather of the moment in ‘The Horns of Nimon’ where the Doctor, Seth (not Adric, as I erroneously wrote earlier) and Romana hide behind server cabinets in the Nimon’s laboratory: a scene that works because ‘The Horns of Nimon’ is deliberately pantomime, and stylistically consistent, even if Anthony Read doesn’t like it. (The moment in question is at 6:15, if you’re interested.)

If you’re going to run a sequence like this in contemporary Doctor Who, you need to use actors who possess at least a modicum of on-screen chemistry. Capaldi and Williams have precisely zero. It would have worked with Clara, but she’s off doing something else. This is just embarrassing. It’s like watching the Eleventh Doctor and River: a screen test that gets onto the DVD, rather than the sort of thing that results in a casting decision. It’s not that Williams is bad – although the change to her character was perhaps better embodied by the mute, fifty-second time lapse that closed the previous episode than by anything she says and does this week – it’s just that even a Game of Thrones veteran can’t polish a turd. You just get mashed-up turd smeared everywhere, making a horrible mess.

What else? Well, there’s a playful nod to ‘The Visitation’. There is this week’s plant and payoff (Google it) in the form of the second health patch, saved for a crucial moment. Oh, and there’s a cat, who does nothing of any consequence except breathe a bit of fire. I’m fairly sure this happened in at least three or four Tom and Jerry episodes, all of which had more story and dramatic conflict than the forty-five minutes of my life that I’m never getting back (ninety, when you consider that I now have to watch this story again in the company of my children).

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At the end, various questions are unanswered. How does Ashildr know the Doctor has a ship? What was in those missing diary pages? Could the foreshadowing of Clara’s supposed death be any more obvious? Did Peter Capaldi have a set number of guitar scenes written into his contract? Why on earth didn’t Clara notice Ashildr outside Coal Hill if she’s been stalking the Doctor? And have none of those people who said Leandro looked like Vincent from Beauty and the Beast seen ‘Warrior’s Gate’?

Most of all, do I actually care anymore? What does it say about me that I no longer want to talk about this show with my children, that I’m tired of good actors wasted and decent ideas squandered? The fan in me still doesn’t really want to believe that Doctor Who is in trouble, but the worst part is how little I find it concerns me these days. And who can blame me? When you serve up a hatchet job like this, BBC, how can you expect me to keep caring?

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Review: ‘The Girl Who Died’

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Warning: spoilers.

Before anyone says anything, I know that this isn’t a real review. At some point I will get around to actually writing proper reviews again. Consider this one more of a lighthearted redux of Saturday night’s episode – a story I enjoyed, even though the Vikings were essentially an irrelevance, there to provide historical context for certain things to happen. You will find assorted whining about historical detail, but this reflects what I’ve read online, rather than the way I actually feel about it personally. Seriously, complaining about period detail in Doctor Who is like whinging about the mixture of predatory and preyed-upon animals that populate the Jingly Jangly Jungle in Raa Raa the Noisy Lion. Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the story, or don’t.

Besides, this is the way it went down, isn’t it? Right?

 

SCENE ONE

[The Doctor and Clara are being frogmarched into a Viking settlement. The Doctor is wearing Patrick Troughton’s trousers. Clara is wearing the same spacesuit she wore the last time she faced off against evil spiders.]

CLARA: But they’ve got horns. Vikings didn’t have horns, except when they’d been away from their wives a really long time.

DOCTOR: And you call yourself a teacher. Why’d you think they raided the monasteries?

CLARA: I’m just saying, we’re two days’ boat ride from the TARDIS and I can understand everything they’re saying. Why is the translation circuit still working?

DOCTOR: That’s the way the TARDIS works. Wide radius of effectiveness.

CLARA: Don’t give me that. By that rationale you’d have whole countries of people who could suddenly understand everything in other languages every time you parked. GCSE French lessons would be a nightmare.

DOCTOR: Must be that range extender I got on Ebay. More powerful than I thought. Look. Don’t mess with it. It suits the needs of the writers, it has never been consistent and it probably doesn’t matter.

VIKING: Grrr. [Snaps Doctor’s sunglasses.]

DOCTOR: I feel as though you’ve just killed an old friend.

CLARA: No, he’s killed a new friend that none of us really liked and everyone hoped you would eventually realise was a bad influence.

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[Ashildr comes out of a doorway, singing ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, accompanied by random chickens.]

CLARA: Ooh look! It’s Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones!

DOCTOR: Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones? She’s in this week’s episode?

CLARA: Yes. Did you know she was in Game of Thrones?

DOCTOR: I did. But they don’t like to go on about it or anything.

CLARA: Does this explain the rough and ready quasi-historical setting?

DOCTOR: Yes, I think that was the intention.

CLARA: And this is the part where you dazzle them with a plastic toy.

[The Doctor reaches for his yo-yo, when – ]

WEIRD SKY GOD: BOO!

[There is a Star Trek special effect and half the men in the village disappear, along with Ashildr and Clara.]

 

SCENE TWO

[Spaceship corridor.]

CLARA: Ooh, look. A door. I bet we could-

VIKING: A moving wall! Quick! Push against it!

CLARA: Guys? There’s a door.

VIKING: Push! Push, we can brace it!

ASHILDR: THERE’S A BLOODY DOOR!

VIKING: If I could just…reach…my Viking…utility belt…

CLARA: Oh, screw it. Darwin was right.

[There is a close-up of a propellor, and then – ]

WEIRD SKY GOD / FAKE ODIN: Behold! I’m drinking Warrior Juice!

ASHILDR: Dude. Seriously kinky.

CLARA: I don’t think this ever happened on Game of Thrones.

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SCENE THREE

[Later. A recovering Clara is sitting in a barn, drinking ale. The Doctor is flipping through his diary.]

DOCTOR: I really can’t believe some of the stuff I wrote in this when I was younger. Listen to this: “Thursday. Dear Diary. I’m beginning to think that maybe Jack likes me, but – ”

CLARA: I still can’t believe they have horns.

DOCTOR: Oh, shut up. It doesn’t matter. You think people watch us because they want historical accuracy? The Robin Hood story we did was absolutely full of anachronisms. And A Town Called Mercy was like walking into a movie from the fifties. What we really should be worrying about is what we’re going to do when the Mire show up.

NOLLARR: We care not. We have lived full and epic lives. We shall die honourably on the blood-soaked battlefield, and WE SHALL BE TAKEN TO THE MIGHTY HALLS OF VALHALLAAAAAA!!!!!

VIKINGS: VALHALLAAAAAAAAAA!!!

DOCTOR: I’ll admit that this grates after a while.

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SCENE FOUR

[The Doctor is addressing a line of blacksmiths, farmers and generally weedy men. There are probably chickens.]

DOCTOR: Right, you lot! This is the comic relief bit, so I’m renaming you all. [He travels along the line, pointing as he goes.] You: amusing pop culture reference number one. You: amusing pop culture reference number two. You –

LOFTY: Can we have swords now?

DOCTOR: Oh well, what harm can it do?

 

SCENE FIVE

[Back in the barn. Everyone’s looking very glum.]

DOCTOR: Oh, thou bounteous mammary gland. I shall die in torment ere I see thee again. Break, heart, I prithee, break.

CLARA: This totally wasn’t what happened the last time you spoke baby.

DOCTOR: It’s a different period, Clara. They all speak like they’re in epic costume dramas. Even the kids.

CLARA: By epic costume dramas, you mean Game of Thrones.

ASHILDR: I was in Game of Thrones.

CLARA: Really? You were in Game of Thrones?

DOCTOR: Hang on. The baby’s given me an idea. We use the eels.

CLARA: You mean the electric eels that are native to the Amazon Basin, thousands of miles from anywhere the Vikings have pillaged?

DOCTOR: Maybe they were given them as a present. It’s a stretch, but it’s not impossible.

CLARA: They’re not even eels! They’re more like catfish!

DOCTOR: And you’re a whining like a puppy that just had to sit through The Twin Dilemma. Now, go and bond with the girl from Game of Thrones. I need to practice my Pertwee references.

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SCENE SIX

[Banqueting hall. The Mire have beamed down, set phasers to kill and are looking menacing, or would if we could see behind those helmets.]

CLARA: Ashildr. You set?

ASHILDR: Oh, I’d never have had to do this on Game of Thrones.

FAKE ODIN: YOU WILL DIE IN YOUR BEDS!

DOCTOR: Smithers! Release the hounds! And fire the electric eels we’re not supposed to have!

[The eels do their magic, and the Mire drop like flies. Then a giant CG snake appears, juxtaposed with the great big puppet thing.]

CLARA: That’s rubbish.

DOCTOR: It’s better than the one in Kinda.

CLARA: Anyway, here’s your MP4. I’ve added the Benny Hill theme.

DOCTOR: That was quick. Has it occurred to you that about half our audience have probably heard the Benny Hill theme on that rave video doing the rounds on YouTube, without having a clue who Benny Hill is?

CLARA: We should probably keep it that way, shouldn’t we?

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SCENE SEVEN

[The barn. A party is in full swing and has been for about half an hour. The Doctor is leading a conga round the room.]

DOCTOR: Lofty! Crack open another cask. Then I’m going to play you all a little song I know, called Stairway-

CLARA: Hang on. Has anyone seen Ashildr?

DOCTOR: Bollocks. She’s still wearing the helmet.

[They dart over and remove the helmet, whereupon Ashildr collapses to the floor, dead.]

DOCTOR: Oh dear.

NOLLARR: Oh, my sweet daughter.

CLARA: I once saw this exact same thing happen in a hair salon.

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SCENE EIGHT

[The Doctor and Clara, brooding over Ashildr’s corpse.]

DOCTOR: All this time, and I still can’t figure out why I look like Peter Capaldi. It just makes no sense. Why couldn’t I look like Tom Hardy? Or George Clooney? Christ, even Jeremy Renner would do.

CLARA: I think they wanted you as a grumpy father figure again. It’s one of those full circle things.

DOCTOR: You know what? I’m a Time Lord. I can fix this. DO YOU HEAR ME? I SAID I CAN FIX IT! AND I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK! I’M NOT LISTENING, DO YOU HEAR? DID YOU HEAR ME SAY I’M NOT LISTENING? I AM TALKING, BUT I’M NOT LISTENING! YOU CAN’T HURT ME ANYMORE! I…HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF…YOU!

CLARA: Do you realise you’re talking to thin air?

DOCTOR: To everyone else, it’s thin air. To me, it’s –

CLARA: Thin air.

[The Doctor does something clever, and Ashildr takes a big breath the way that revived corpses always do in films, unless they’ve been reanimated as zombies.]

DOCTOR: Right, we’re off before the implications of all this sink in. One thing, Game of Thrones girl: take this.

ASHILDR: What is it?

DOCTOR: The number of a friend of mine. He’s in a similar spot, and he’ll help you out.

ASHILDR: Ooh, thank you.

DOCTOR: You’re very welcome. Just – well, keep him away from your chickens.

[Roll credits.]

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