Posts Tagged With: pearl mackie

Review: The Pyramid at the End of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Extremis

Warning: spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Have I got Whos for you (part 3000)

It’s all about the deleted scenes this week, as we reveal some abandoned concept art for ‘Oxygen’.

Elsewhere: that deleted scene from ‘Thin Ice’, cast into new light:

And the Doctor regrets not renewing the security option on his TARDIS console.

And yes, the TARDIS does have Windows. They’re just the wrong size.

 

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Review: Knock Knock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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God is in the detail (10-03)

I’m excited this morning. Not because it’s Friday and we’re going to the seaside tomorrow, but because I’ve worked out something ABSOLUTELY COLOSSAL when unpacking ‘Thin Ice’, and it’s all to do with the Eleventh Doctor.

Let me explain. We’ll start with the Sutcliffe residence.

Birds are the theme here. There are so many bird references in this picture it practically deserves its own blog post. For a start, consider Bill’s hat, made of white feathers: a symbol both of hope from beyond and also cowardice, recalling the moment in ‘Parting of the Ways’ in which the Doctor admits that he is a coward – only to be rescued by Rose, as played by Billie Piper.

The wallpaper sitting behind the red urn contains four birds, a clear and unambiguous allusion to ‘The Day Of The Doctor’ – in which Doctors 10 and 11, accompanied by the War Doctor, gather around the Moment, which takes the form of a big red button. Clara lingers in the background, and the sentient Moment itself, as played by – yep, you remember, BILLIE PIPER, lingers just out of shot. The urn itself is a symbol of death and remembrance: moreover the base of the red section is exactly (and quite intentionally) parallel with Bill’s nostrils, which itself conjures images of the Curator winking at the Eleventh Doctor, tapping his face and whispering “Who knows?”

Also consider the willow plate, which refers explicitly to a particular legend, in which two forbidden lovers are transformed into birds by the gods in order to cheat death. And yet it is the traditional (read: author untraceable) poem that surrounds the tale that is perhaps of greatest interest:

Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

Let’s unpack that.

You’ll notice I haven’t circled ‘willow tree’, and that’s because it deserves a separate explanation, alluding as it does to the Willow Tree Surgery in Hayes – a town that was used for location filming during ‘Day of the Daleks’. And what do you find in a surgery? Doctors. NEED WE SAY MORE?

The notion of the Third Doctor continues once when we visit the docks, and Bill’s big pile of poo.

There are 26 discernible bricks in shot, representing two sets of canonical regenerations, and you will note that Bill has her hand on the third of them. You will also note that Bill is wearing a velvet bottle green jacket, an outfit the Third Doctor often dragged out of his wardrobe – and that three buttons are visible on the left hand side (as we look at it). However, the Third Doctor isn’t the only one referenced here: note the cuffs, made of the same kind of hair used to construct the Yetis which the Second Doctor fought – and which were a product of the Great Intelligence, WHOM THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR LATER ENCOUNTERED.

Now have a look at this.

Cages – and birds – are once more the theme here, but it is the sign in the background that arouses particular interest. Because if we examine the big words – clearly THE ONLY ONES WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE ABLE TO SEE, we’ll detect a curious pattern if we pick them apart. And this being episode three, here’s what we get if we pull every third letter from them.

U N S N P S P G B O

All of which may be rearranged to form ‘SPUN NSP BOG‘, which ostensibly means nothing until you Google NSP, whereupon the fish scales fall and you can see with astonishing clarity. Because NSP is an acronym for ‘Nurse Scheduling Problem’.

I’ll just leave this here for a moment.

[Pauses to allow mind-blowing implications of this sink in]

Let’s move on, shall we? Behold: a banquet.

There are four glasses of milk. This in itself means nothing until you consider that the chemical formula for lactose is C12H22O11, which may be broken down thus:

We’re just saying, Legends of Tomorrow isn’t going to last forever. Eventually it’ll be Legends of Yesterday.

The five plates in the background refer to ‘The Five Doctors’, the 1983 anniversary special: note that Doctor Three is positioned directly above a silver bowl. This alludes not (as you might expect) to the Cybermen, but rather the Raston Warrior Robot, which the Third Doctor (yes, HIM AGAIN) and Sarah Jane so memorably encountered in this story, and which is due to IMMINENTLY RETURN in the series finale, along with Peter Davison. The painting above – a clear depiction of the Great Fire of London, which Davison’s Doctor helped start in ‘The Visitation’, is further evidence – as is the fact that ‘THE VISITATION’ can be rearranged to form ‘HAITI OVEN TITS’, and I think we all know what that means, don’t we?

Finally in this image, regard the holly on the table. Specifically, holly in the house of a dignitary – a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS REFERENCE to Holly Earl, who played Lily in ‘The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardobe’ – WHICH FEATURED RORY WILLIAMS. Coincidentally, Holly also played Christine Kochanski when she was momentarily transformed into a child back in Red Dwarf VIII, which has nothing to do with anything except that she was so goshdarn cute.

Oh, and did I mention that the crew were running away from a dinosaur? Everything is connected, folks. Everything.

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Review: Thin Ice

Warning: spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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God is in the detail (10-02)

I’ve had a busy week, what with birthday parties and cleaning and the like. Only yesterday I chopped eight swimming noodles in half so we could fashion them into makeshift lightsabers. But I’m not going to let a silly little thing like the vacuuming stop me from delivering your regular dose of speculation and analysis. So here’s this week’s installment of VERY IMPORTANT CLUES AND SIGNS – this lot, as you’ve probably guessed, are from ‘Smile’. Buckle up, the sea’s a bit choppy this evening.

First of all, here’s a good old universally compatible incorruptible map.

Consider the subject matter of this episode, and the concept of robots destroying humanity for its own good. It’s a safe bet that the cowboys who programmed them have never even heard of Asimov, but I suspect that doesn’t necessarily apply to you, dear reader – and if you’re not familiar with Asimov’s robot stories, now’s a good time to get yourself acquainted. (Just avoid that Will Smith film. It’s rubbish.)

Asimov’s most famous AI-themed collection, of course, was I, Robot – and if you examine the map you will discover nine of them, all turned sideways. This refers to the first nine Doctors. But in order to reach each ‘I’ without retracing your steps – known as the Chinese Postman Problem – a curious shape emerges. To illustrate, I’ve prepared this graph, which highlights both the ‘I’s and the required route.

What’s that shape? Is it a tower, perhaps? Or an upside-down ‘T’? It’s the latter, of course, but it’s what it indicates that’s interesting. Because it indicates an inverted – or parallel – Tenth Doctor (or Tennant, if you prefer).

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the theory falls apart, because as far as we know there are no inverted Doctors stuck in parallel universes.

Oh, wait – there are!!!

But that’s not all. Look closer and you’ll see that four of the ‘I’s are situated inside a hexagon: in other words this is a letter sitting inside a number. But if we transpose ‘I’ into its Roman numeral equivalent (and, lest we forget, Peter Capaldi made his Whovian debut playing a marble merchant in ancient Pompeii, before relocating to Rome) we have number 1 inside a 6-sided object: to put it another way, Six of One, which happens to be the name of the Prisoner Appreciation Society – A SHOW THAT IS CELEBRATING ITS FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY NEXT YEAR. You know as well as I do what’s going to happen next, so there’s no need to go on about it.

Now: a familiar sight, but totally transformed.

To interpret this we need only examine the letters over which Bill has placed each finger: the letters ‘D’, ‘E’, ‘A’ and ‘L’.

This works on two levels, and has numerous connections to past episodes. Notoriously, The Deal was a 2003 drama about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, starring David Morrisey and Michael Sheen. Sheen and Morrisey both appeared in Who as the characters House and Jackson Lake, respectively: a clear and ABSOLUTELY UNMISTAKABLE nod to The Lake House, Alejandro Agresti’s time travel themed romantic drama. If this needed any further qualification it should be noted that Keanu Reeves appeared in the Matrix trilogy (various episodes of Classic Who make references to the Matrix) and Sandra Bullock acted with former Torchwood star Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping.

However, you will note that Bill’s index finger (that’s Bill Potts, now, not Bill Pullman) rests not on a single letter but rather straddles an ambiguous path that connects the ‘N’ of ‘Respond’ with the ‘O’ of ‘Officers’, thus creating the words ‘NO DEAL’, a reference to Noel Edmonds, presenter of the inexplicably popular Deal Or No Deal. Edmonds – he of the dodgy jumpers and questionable relationship with Mr Blobby – is a well-known advocate of Cosmic Ordering, a vacuous wish-fulfillment fantasy, and we may therefore conclude that Chris Chibnall’s first series in charge will see the Thirteenth Doctor encountering an extraterrestrial con artist offering enlightenment, played by Christopher Plummer. Further proof, as if any were needed, may be found in the fact that ‘Noel Edmonds’ may be rearranged to form ‘End old me, son’ – and it is from this that we may conclude that THE THIRTEENTH DOCTOR WILL BE PLAYED BY MICHAEL TROUGHTON.

Bit of scenery next. Ooh, look at all the little black dots.

There are two things going on here. The first is the appearance of the monolith from 2001: ANOTHER FILM CELEBRATING ITS FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY NEXT YEAR, making a Who-related crossover an inevitability. But note also the indented panels running down either side: eleven on the left, fourteen on the right, with Capaldi – the thirteenth actor to play the Doctor on television – SAT RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE. Also note that Capaldi is indicating the left column, and is indeed pointing to the furthest panel down, meaning that an Eleventh Doctor reunion is not just on the cards, it’s done and dusted and the ink is dry on the contract.

But there’s more to it than that, although in order to see it we’re going to have to do a little Photoshopping.

And you all know who that is, don’t you?

Our excursions into art don’t stop there, as we take a look at cubism.

Three cubes. Cubed: the power of three. There are three characters present in this scene, if you count the robot. The robot has three bolts across its front (just above the chin) and three on either side of its face (where the ears should be). And all this occurs in the third episode of Capaldi’s third series as the Doctor (assuming you count ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’ as part of the same block, which the BBC tend to do).

But consider a few things:

– ‘The Power Of Three’ featured a massive, global spate of cardiac arrests which also affected the Doctor, knocking out one of his hearts, thus recalling the Wham song ‘Where Did Your Heart Go?’

– The video of ‘Club Tropicana’, another song by Wham, was filmed in Ibiza, some 93 miles from the city of Valencia. Doctor Who celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 1993

While You Were Sleeping, a film we’ve already mentioned, can also be said to be the plot of ‘Last Christmas’ – also a song by Wham

– The cube layout on the plates reads 1+2, which can also be written as 12: the 12th Doctor’s 12th episode was entitled ‘Death In Heaven’ and was an encounter on the cusp of the afterlife, thus mirroring the song ‘The Edge of Heaven’ – also a Wham song

So what, you’re asking? Well –

That’s the City of Arts and Sciences in – yep, you guessed it, Valencia, the location of choice for the episode (and, I’m informed by an old friend with strong connections to the area, something of a local controversy, what with allegations of cronyism and the like).

And ‘SMILE WAS SHOT IN VALENCIA’ can be rearranged to form ‘WHAM IS SILENCE SALVATION’. And there it is in black and white, or at least black-on-off white, if you’re reading this on a PC. I think I need a lie down.

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Review: Smile

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

Warning: spoilers follow.

 

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

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

 

“I’m not Scottish, I’m just cross.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“They’re the skeleton crew.”

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

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

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

 

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God is in the detail (10-01)

Greetings, fellow Whovians! Welcome to Conspiracy Theory 101. This week, we’re taking a look at ‘The Pilot’ – superficially a thoughtful, crowd-pleasing character piece that wasn’t about anything except getting a couple of people together and giving them a chance to get to know each other.

But you and I both know that’s not what’s really going on.

Because the indisputed fact is that contemporary Doctor Who is absolutely loaded with hidden signs and clues and seemingly insignificant moments that will turn out to be VERY IMPORTANT LATER ON. We know this because the chief writer has designed it this way and because the internet says so. Still, collecting all these nuggets of information and analysing them and finding the hidden truths is a soul-crushingly lengthy process. Honestly, who has the time?

Me, as it turns out. So pull up a chair, open the Kool-Aid and let’s unpack it together, baby. Just make sure you don’t knock over anything fragile because all breakages must be paid for.

First, let’s take a look at those essay scores. Here they are stacked up for ease of reference.

88 and 92 first, because they both feature Daleks: 1988 marks, as everyone knows, the inaugural broadcast of ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ – and 1992, some four years later, saw the release of Dalek Attack, the side-scrolling platform game featuring several Doctors taking on a horde of Daleks. Hence we must conclude that the contractual obligation Dalek scene in ‘The Pilot’ WILL NOT BE THE LAST TIME WE SEE THEM THIS YEAR and that the Doctor is RETURNING TO TOTTERS LANE TO RETURN HIS LIBRARY BOOK.

But what of 1997? Does it refer to Destiny of the Doctors, the first-person game released in December of that year? Yes, it does. But not just that. To understand why, we must first unpack some of the episode’s other gems – basically, I’ll explain later.

Moving on for the moment: Christmas dinner.

Oh, there’s so much in this one it practically deserves its own entry. I mean look at those bookshelves. Look carefully. You see it, don’t you? It’s a stroke of genius, and I can’t believe the Radio Times didn’t spot it.

I thought it best to annotate this, rather than pick it apart in the text, so here we are.

Exhausted? Well, tough. Come on, we’ve got so much time and so little to examine. No, strike that. Reverse it.

Right, onwards.

Yeah, you spotted that too, didn’t you? The Doctor’s history with the Mary Celeste is well-documented, of course, with various incarnations encountering the ship – whether carrying passengers or bereft as the legend suggests – at different times. There’s probably even fan fiction, and I bet it includes Jamie and Zoe having a snog up in the crow’s nest.

But that’s not what’s going on here. This is about words. Because ‘Mary Celeste’ can be rearranged to form ‘Mel Ace Tyres’. In other words, the Twelfth Doctor and Bill will shortly be encountering former companions Melanie Bush and Dorothy ‘Ace’ McShane, both of whom travelled (in succession) with the Seventh Doctor and who have now established a successful tyre company in Streatham. THIS CANNOT POSSIBLY BE ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE.

Now, here’s the girl in the puddle.

This is a 14-sided object (don’t believe me? Count for yourself), thus referring to the thirteen canonical Doctors, including the War Doctor. But who is the fourteenth? Does it refer to the Doctor’s imminent successor? As it turns out the answer is no – it refers instead to the Valeyard. We know this because the puddle is located in a yard, and ‘vale’ ought to be fairly obvious.

What do you mean it isn’t?

In order to explain this we must delve into the world of Scottish folk – in particular the song ‘Wild Mountain Thyme‘, also known as ‘Purple Heather’. The connections to Who are transparent: Heather is seen wearing a purple top encrusted with flowers in the scene where she first meets Bill, and Prince – whose T-shirt, it has oft been noted, Bill has been observed wearing – titled one of his songs ‘Purple Rain’.

But there’s more to it than that, and it all links to 1997 – a year we explored earlier without ever really explaining why.

Consider:

1. Thyme grows among the Heather.

2. Bill is given photos of her mum.

3. Comedian Tim Minchin has a daughter called Violet, a form of purple.

4. Bill meets Heather in a bar – or a pub, or an inn.

5. 1997 – a year we’ve already mentioned – saw the release of Shooting Fish, which features ‘Neighbourhood’, a song by Space, on its soundtrack.

Still not with me?

I swear; sometimes I impress even myself.

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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.

Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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