Right, where were we?
(If you missed part one, it’s here.)
The Pyramid at the End of the World
‘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 basic problem is structure. The sort of personal journey that forms the story’s emotional core 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 episode 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. 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. That needn’t be a bad thing. 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.’
The Lie of the Land
‘Certain things about The Lie of the Land grated. The structure is off, somehow, as if this were a very good two-part story crammed into 42 minutes, because the Monks had taken up two episodes already and they couldn’t stretch to another. Its voiceover is cloying and unnecessary: it is, to all intents and purposes, the Blade Runner of Nu Who, and it is only in the final reel that its purpose becomes apparent, Bill’s mother becoming not just a convenient expository sounding board but also a crucial plot device. The whole thing is very Rings of Akhaten with the same wind machine they used in The Pilot but you can, at least, understand why we’ve had to put up with half an hour of interior monologue.
There is an awful lot of decent material this week, even if it isn’t always used as effectively as it might be. The opening montage, which openly parodies Forrest Gump, is nothing short of marvellous, particularly with the addition of Capaldi’s soothing voiceover, bookended by the most sinister of grins. Capaldi, indeed, is absolutely the best thing about this week, whether he’s comforting a suddenly remorseful Missy or – in the episode’s high point – explaining his apparent change of heart to an incredulous Bill with such fortitude that for a second you’re almost prepared to believe it. Unfortunately, it’s a that scene concludes with a mildly ridiculous denouement, and a quite unnecessary regeneration from the Doctor – “A bit much?” he quips, mostly through the fourth wall, and thus confirming that the whole thing was more about deceiving the audience than it was about winding up Bill.
But the voiceover isn’t the only thing that jars. The society Whithouse creates is frightening and oppressive and reasonably convincing, but there frankly isn’t enough of it: fascist police states are encapsulated in single, cliche-driven boot-in-the-door scenes (first they came for the communists, and I did not speak out), where non-conformists are dragged away in full view of disapproving neighbours. How much more might we have benefited from a more comprehensive overview of those who rejected the Monks’ programming? The resistance movement, and the laughing men behind the guns that served under the Doctor? The figureheads in charge, kowtowing to the will of the Monks, struggling to remember a time when they succeeded or failed purely on the whims of political ambition? Even the Monks themselves, who linger in the background this week, motives untapped, barely uttering a word? How much better, indeed, might the story have been had it begun with the planet under a state of siege, with flashbacks to key moments from the Pyramid episode and all the ephemeral dialogue from last week scattered to the ashes and replaced with something a little more substantial? We’ll never know, but it doesn’t stop me wondering.’
The Empress of Mars
‘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 s**t 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.
Basically, it has ‘filler’ stamped all over it, but there is nothing wrong with a decent filler. 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 40 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?’
The Eaters of Light
‘There is a scene about fifteen minutes into The Eaters of Light which is borderline painful to watch. It involves Bill in an excruciating, needless discussion about her sexuality, and it sticks out like a sore thumb because the rest of the episode is so good. Everything else just works. This is a self-contained narrative that is sure of its own identity. It is well-constructed and frightening when it needs to be, with decently-realised set pieces: it helps, also, that director Charles Palmer takes his visual cue from Nick Hurran – and, in particular, The God Complex – by showing us the monster only sparingly, a wriggling, tentacle thing where the gaps are filled by the limits of the human imagination.
Supporting characters are affable enough, but it’s the leads who excel – with the Doctor as compelling as he has been all year. “Are you sulking?” he says to Kar. “When you want to win a war, remember this: it’s not about you. Believe me, I know.” It is whispered and understated, with Capaldi’s native Scots perhaps even more pronounced than usual, the way that newly repatriated residents often find their accents slipping back towards the native when they go home. It’s a stunning scene, worthy of the best of Tennant, but you sense that of the newer actors only Capaldi could really have pulled it off. If this series doesn’t win him a BAFTA, there is no justice.’
World Enough and Time
‘Some episodes of Doctor Who fall under an umbrella we might label 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. Put simply, these stories are not about the story; they’re about traversing the arc. Event Stories 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 or two undoubtedly resulted in the collective dropping of jaws. Nonetheless, it is the moments, rather than the whole, that you carry with you. That’s not to do it a complete disservice: Bill is as good as ever, the hospital is appropriately creepy, and Rachel Talalay shows once more exactly why she’s one of the best directors in the business. John Simm is marvellous as the Fagin-like, heavily accented Mr Razor, and Missy’s “Doctor Who” exchange with Bill and Nardole takes an axe to the fourth wall and essentially summarises every conversation I’ve ever had on Facebook. It’s just a shame that that moments like these couldn’t have occurred 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.’
The Doctor Falls
‘It just wasn’t very good, really, was it?
I mean I could lie about it, if you want. That might have been the easier solution. I’ve had calls for my head this week. “When the show is cancelled,” someone said, in the wake of a negative write-up I gave it, “the finger will point at this, fair and square”. Clearly he’s overestimated the clout held by a single entertainment journalist, although I did appreciate the compliment.
Here’s the basic issue: the Doctor is old and tired and gives up. That’s it in a nutshell. His plan to get rid of the Cybermen is to blow up as many as he can while a group of colonists escape in a lift. It’s an excuse to write him into a situation where he is forced to regenerate – and then stubbornly refuses to, using pain as a stimulus in much the same way that Rutger Hauer staves off his death towards the close of Blade Runner. That’s the sort of corner that will prove difficult to write yourself out of the next time it happens, although that’ll be Chibnall’s problem, which largely explains why Moffat did it.
The leads, to be fair, acquit themselves brilliantly. Mackie is all tortured angst and wall demolition (she will, at least, be useful if the Doctor ever needs a knock-through); Lucas improbably gets a love interest, but his farewell is pleasantly understated; Gomez and Simm work well together, whether they’re dancing or (literally) at each other’s throats. Simm, in particular, is a revelation, the Master we could have done with ten years ago, instead of the mugging (if well-matched) idiot who came up against Tennant – each Master reflects the Doctor they’re encountering, and this older, less ridiculous version is the perfect foil for Capaldi. Speaking of Capaldi, we are once more in BAFTA territory, with the actor switching between tearful pleading and raging against the dying of the light, often within the same reel.
But the real problem with The Doctor Falls – aside from its failure to live up to the generally tremendous series that preceded it – is that Moffat once more sacrifices story for crowd-pleasing spectacle, Bill’s tedious (and overwrought) resurrection a depressing reminder of Clara’s. This is ultimately about pushing the envelope as far as possible before abruptly dropping it in the shredder: all you end up with is a bunch of plain white confetti, of little use to anyone. “Doctor Who,” says the chief writer, “shouldn’t really be about death. I don’t believe it’s the kind of show that says there are bitter, twisted, nasty endings because it’s not.” Keep telling yourself that, Steven.’