Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Doctor Falls written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

This story in a nutshell:
Battered and bruised from his latest adventure, the 12th Doctor’s regeneration has begun…

Indefinable: Magnificent. Masterful. Unforgettable. Just three words you could point at Peter Capaldi’s performance in The Doctor Falls. Whilst Heaven Sent will always be his magnum opus in Doctor Who (after all how can you top the performance you give in an episode that is devoted entirely to you?), this will come an astonishing second place and pleasingly it is just before his departure. I thought this was going to be another action packed Cyberman blockbuster (understandably given the trailer) but instead it is a vehicle for the actors involved to really show what they are made of. When you are talking about actors of Capaldi’s stature, you’re in for some riveting television. What is especially eye-opening is the new shades to this incarnation that we see in the finale, proving that there is still a great deal of Capaldi to explore. I particularly loved his angry resignation towards the two Masters when he tries to convince them to stand at his side and fight a lost cause. Or the lovely moment when he doesn’t shout at the little girl for giving Bill a mirror that reflects the real horror of her situation, instead choosing to be kind and grandfatherly in that moment. The anger he displays at the climax where he is trying to hold back the regeneration is very different from a similar sort of scene that David Tennant faced in The End of Time. Tennant played his anger at having to regenerate like an arrogant, spoilt teenager who had bought in to his own myth. Capaldi’s Doctor refuses to regenerate (and it is really painfully put across) not because he thinks this guise is anything special but because he’s tired of all this constant change and wants a little consistency in his life. This is the first time it has been suggested that the Doctor is bored of regenerating and going through the whole cycle of change and adaptation. So, when Capaldi punches the ground and refuses the transition, you really feel the centuries weighing down on him. Perhaps he should lead a less stimulating life then. I like how the Doctor is battered in stages throughout the episode; beaten by the Masters, electrocuted by a Cyberman, shot twice and caught in an almighty explosion. It would be enough to bring a much younger Time Lord to his knees and force a new face upon them, let alone this weathered old bird. His impending regeneration in the face of such a hammering is quite understandable. 

Funky Chick: In plot terms, I think they dropped the ball on Bill slightly. But more on that later in the review. In emotional terms, she’s beautifully handled and Pearl Mackie gives her strongest performance in a season of already very strong performances. When she and Capaldi are together in this episode, it sings with quality acting, just like it has at the high points of series 10. Given they never showed the transition between Bill and the Cybermen in the last episode, I wondered if that would be skipped over in favour of focusing on the elements that were piling up in the plot. Colour me impressed then when some of the most affecting moments in The Doctor Falls feature Bill coming to terms with the fact that she has been filleted and squeezed into a ghoulish Cybersuit. Does the fact that Bill can hold on to her mind in the wake of conversion make any sense? Not really, but it would deny us the quietly haunting moments between her and the Doctor here and I did appreciate the mention that the conditioning would begin to seize her mind and take her over fully. This is her chance to emote, because her mind is slipping away. The Doctor tries to be extremely gentle with her whilst still being honest about her horrific situation and Bill responds as anybody would, angrily and wanting answers. The Doctor was in an impossible situation given the ship was in a black hole induced time distortion effect, he couldn’t reach her for ten years. Her fury feels real and justified, she feels as though she was abandoned to a terrible fate. How director Rachel Talalay intercuts Bill and the Cyberman she has become into the scene must have taken a lot of time to organise but the effect is startling. It means we get the chance to see Pearl Mackie emoting beautifully AND believe she has the visage of a ghostly Cyberman to boot. Whilst I think the Cybermen are reduced to stormtroopers elsewhere in this episode, in its treatment of Bill and how she handles the idea of conversion, connecting the idea emotionally and viscerally with the audience, I still think this is the most effective Cyberman story. Spare Parts dealt with a similar notion, getting the audience close to a family and stripping them of one and returning her as a Cyberman. However, I wasn’t half as invested in Yvonne as I was with Bill, naturally given we have had an entire season with this character and have gotten to know her and enjoy her company. 

Faithful Sidekick: I have a confession to make. I have rather fallen in love with Nardole in series 10. For me he has been a definite highlight. Was it because I had low expectations of this character and so how he has been expertly weaved into the series has surprised me? Not entirely, I think it has been down to Matt Lucas’s ability to play a consistent character (cute, blasé, useful) in all kinds of situations. Nardole hasn’t been explored like Bill has, I don’t think we have touched on his motives, his emotional wellbeing or what he would like to do beyond travelling with the Doctor. What he has been is a rock for the Doctor; somebody he can trust implicitly, someone whose knowledge and ability is far ranging and somebody who is committed to their mission to guard Missy. He’s been used for comic relief but it has mostly been underplayed and genuinely very funny. I don’t think Nardole can disappoint like Bill did in the Monks invasion two parter because expectations for him aren’t especially high. He’s in the rather fortunate position of being able to delight because I never expected anything particularly great from him. Moffat shows precisely how you can allow a character to exit with great dignity and strength without going to any crazy lengths like forcing him back into the 50s by the Weeping Angels or killing him and having him taken from his timestream at the point he died by the Time Lords. Nardole is given something precious to protect, just as he has done all season. He objects to the task but ultimately he has a big heart and he knows this community will suffer if he doesn’t look after. With compliant resignation he accepts his task, upset that he would be able to watch the Doctor’s back anymore. Who would have thought in Husbands that we would be treated to a scene as touching as the one here where the Doctor says goodbye to his loyal friend and Nardole has no words adequate enough to say back. It’s beautifully understated and moving because of it. That’s not before Nardole catches the eye of Hazran in what has to be one of the most moving mini romances I’ve seen on the show. The whole thing is played out with looks, gestures and only the slightest of advances. I really love how Nardole resists throughout and that never stop her making a bee line for him. The act of moving her cup to touch his I find really rather elegant, a very subtle way of showing that you’re interested. I hope they have a happy future together. 

The Two Masters: It’s wanky but like the Daleks and the Cybermen coming together in an epic battle, it’s also a great deal of fun. I can understand the criticism that neither of the Master’s get a great deal to do when it comes to the plot…but let’s be honest the plot never had a chance when these two shameless scene stealers were in the room together. Simm’s Master is looking very Delgado (black suit, beard), which is a look that I have heard Phil Collinson deride for its lack of subtlety but actually he looks far more the part here than he did during Tennant’s reign. He’s also sucked in the maniacal laughter and naughty schoolboy antics and as a result he is a much more menacing character. I’m not going criticise what Simm or Davies did with the character because I was rather fond of the juvenile schoolboy Master, railing against the universe and doing terrible things just to hurt people. He was a really nasty, giggly piece of work. But this is a brand-new approach with the character and it’s almost a shame we won’t get to see more of him because he’s a lot less pantomime. However, as good as Simm is in resurrecting the role and playing against Capaldi, the plaudits have to go Michelle Gomez who is something of a revelation in this story. I said in previous reviews that should Missy simply revert to form and turn back to villainy then the arc this season would be null and void, a bit like the hybrid last year. But Moffat doesn’t go down that route and it makes things much, much more interesting, Oh Missy gets to beat up the Doctor, to walk away from him when he begs for help, she’s witty and silly and irreverent and everything we have come to expect from her. However, the look of regret on her face when she follows the old Master and leaves the Doctor to his fate says everything you need to know about what is coming. The Doctor has made an impression on her, her time in confinement has forced her to come to terms with her horrific misdeeds and it is finally time for her to stop battling with her old friend and to stand with him. It’s been playing out over a whole season so it doesn’t feel like a rash decision or a betrayal of the character, but a natural progression. The fact that Moffat pays this arc of so stunningly and yet so subtly through a character choice makes it one of the most triumphant things he has achieved as showrunner. The fact that Missy doesn’t get to fulfil her character arc and help the Doctor (leading to his regeneration) is bitterly tragic and unfair. I cannot think of a more appropriate ending for the Master than the two of them stabbing each other in the back. Who else would be worthy of killing the Master than him/herself? It’s the highlight of the episode, exceptionally well played and refusing to devolve into anything mawkish or melodramatic. They murder each other and laugh at the irony and how perfect that end is for both of them. Missy has always been a highlight of the stories she has appeared in and Michelle Gomez has delivered a stunningly fresh take on the character. At the end of her time I think that she is the greatest innovation of the Capaldi era and I can certainly see myself revisiting his era just to watch her stories again. It goes without saying that the two Masters share incredible chemistry. I would have loved to have seen more of them together…always leave your audience wanting more. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I suppose what we’re really asking, my dear, is…’ ‘…any requests?’
‘People are always going to be afraid of me, aren’t they?’
‘It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. Just that. Just kind.’

The Good:
· There was something of a touch of Human Nature/The Family of Blood about The Doctor Falls with several scenes feeling as though they had jumped directly from one to the other. The sackcloth partially converted Cybermen tied to the stake like scarecrows and attacking the barn are extremely reminiscent. And the scenes of everybody in the barn preparing to defend against the Cybermen in screaming silence share a similar intensity to the attack on the school in the series three masterpiece. Talalay is simply too talented to copy somebody else’s work and gives these moments her own distinctive style and for once I don’t see the problem in one very good episode mirroring another very good episode. It doesn’t detract from this story (because these scenes work in context) and it reminds us of glories of Doctor Who’s past. Top marks for letting the rousing music bleed away when we are afforded the close up on the chillingly converted Cyberman.
· Moffat just loves opening with something spectacular (this time it is Bill as a Cyberman emerging from the crash shuttlecraft holding the bleeding Doctor) and then skipping back and revealing how we reached that point, doesn’t he? It’s a narrative hook he has done to death. It works here very well, and it’s his last ‘normal’ episode so it feels very fitting too. Another great musical sting too, that ghostly female scream as the Cyberman steps out of the mist. Very effective.
· Does anybody remember the series Bugs? A high octane, well budgeted 90s techno thriller series that veered from science fiction to drama alarmingly. At the beginning of series four they had to explain away the cliff-hanger to the previous year and in flashback the director chose an arresting, black and white noirish, which was extremely effective (and unusually stylised for that show). Talalay does the same thing here and it is just as powerful. I particularly like the cut to Nardole, looking back in horror at the mistreatment the Doctor is suffering at the hands of the Masters. We’ve never seen material quite like this in Doctor Who before, which makes it worth talking about. Cut to the nightmarish sweep over the hospital in an apocalyptic setting with wartime music warbling out of a gramophone and I was certain I was in for a good time with this episode, particularly in the hands of such a unique director.
· Hooray for the shuttlecraft that appears in a triumphant moment, looks just like it has stepped out of Star Trek and inside it features the best gag of the episode (‘The Doctor’s dead and he said he never liked you’).
· Bill looking in the mirror and seeing a Cyberman staring back is like the nasty alternative to the Doctor staring into the mirror in the first episode of Power of the Daleks. It’s filmed in a very similar way and is just as powerful.
· The Master touching up his eyeliner. Genius.
· In the face of the Doctor spitting out continuity references like an encyclopaedia of the shows greatest moments, he sends the Cybermen up in a bloody great explosion that almost finishes him off. The subsequent scenes of him lying in a scorched battlefield with a Bill falling to her knees in agony at the thought that he might be dead look and feel unlike anything we have ever seen in the series before. It should be frightfully melodramatic but it’s pitched perfectly, it’s an ugly wilderness, a beautiful score and Pearl Mackie delivers the sort of pain on her face that broke my heart. It’s another standout moment from the whole team executing this episode.
· The last scene was unexpected, despite possible rumours. I don’t think anybody thought they would have the chutzpah to pull it off. But no, here’s David Bradley, magnificent as ever, playing the first Doctor. The Christmas special promises to be a memorable one.

The Bad:
· Wank. Wank. Wank. Wank. This whole episode is basically a load of old wank. Albeit expertly written and directed. If you are going to forgo pioneering storytelling in favour of a story that features two Masters and the Cybermen then you better be damn well sure of what you are doing because just writing that sentence makes me shudder a bit. In an era that has spent a great deal of time exploring the past, this is the ultimate expression of that approach. The Doctor mis-quotes himself on more than one occasion. There are references back to The End of Time. Discussions of how the Doctor has regenerated. Two Masters at play. The Doctor blowing up Cybermen and throwing down continuity references to previous Cybermen stories like they are going out fashion. A potential regeneration on two occasions. And then the final appearance of you-know-who at the climax. This is ridiculously indulgent on the part of a fan boy who wants to fulfil all of his dreams whilst he is still in charge of this storytelling behemoth. I don’t think any of these elements are badly handled, I am a massive fan of Doctor Who and so I was smiling my way through most of them. I don’t even think a show with a history like Doctor Who needs to apologise should it occasionally choose to indulge in some self-love. However, I do think this is indicative of an era that has failed to add anything significantly ground-breaking to the Doctor Who ethos. It hasn’t forged its own way or developed its own identity. It has been so mired in the past that it has failed to push the show forwards. That could be why it has failed to capture the kind of audiences that the show used to. It could be why the show isn’t water cooler conversation anymore. It has spent too many seasons provoking the interest of fans that it has rather left the casual audience in the dark at how to have a relationship with Doctor Who. Looking back to series 5, 6 and 7, whilst I was less enamoured with the fairy-tale approach, there was far more novelty and invention in any one of those seasons (be it series five with it’s radical new take on the Doctor, series six which was practically serialised or series seven that introduced a companion as a mystery and changed the lineage of the Doctor’s in a pretty permanent kind of way). Aside from the odd episode (Listen, Dark Water, Heaven Sent and Extremis are the only four examples I can think of off the top of my head), the Capaldi era has played it safe and relied on the shows history to pull in the punters. The World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls are superb episodes, brilliantly delivered pieces of drama. But they are fanwank of the highest order and there is no getting around that. The show NEEDS to push away from this self-obsession now, in order to survive.
· The Master’s plan is revealed at the end The World Enough and Time and the Doctor defeats him eight minutes into The Doctor Falls. Thank goodness there are two Masters in this story otherwise he would be pretty redundant from this point.
· How the episode skips over the whole ‘genesis of the Cybermen’ that was promised in the previous instalment is masterful (hoho)…by basically just ignoring it. In fact how this episode refuses to fit this story into established continuity with The Tenth Planet and Spare Parts, refuses to even elucidate on the how the Mondasians came to be on an exodus ship or give the scenario any kind of closure should be very irritating. There is something to be said about having interesting characters after all, they can distract from the weaknesses in the plot elsewhere.
· I had a disagreement with my other over whether the appearance of Heather at the climax to save Bill and the Doctor was a deus ex machina or not. I thought not, given she had been established in the season, and he thought so. We both agreed it was a complete cop out and another example of Moffat refusing to follow through on a promise to polish of a companion. Actually, he’s rather written himself into an impossible situation here – did anybody hate Bill enough to want to see her remain as a Cyberman for the rest of her days or possibly sacrifice herself by the end of this story to bring her pain to an end? Of course not. But that would have been the fitting conclusion given the direction previous episode undertook. On the other hand did anybody want a fairy-tale ending where a magical water sprite popped up out of nowhere, cured Bill of her woes and took her on a romantic exploration of the universe? It’s a trite and easy and frankly threatens to take away all the bravery of having her converted in the first place. I think my question is this…do you prefer Doctor Who to be a programme that takes risks by killing off its characters and suggests there is a human cost to these adventures or do you prefer it to be a series where no matter what horrors are suggested that there will always be a happy ending for the characters? You tell me.
· In a random moment, Bill mentions one more time that she’s gay. Just in case the series hasn’t established it enough yet. I would have loved to have heard those words spoken by a Cyberman.

The Shallow Bit: Given this is a Moffat script and that the Master is both male and female I think it was inevitable that they would wind up flirting with each other. Is the universe ready for that kind of self-gratification? Probably not, and at least it will give the shippers something to write about for the next couple of years. I’m glad we never actually saw them kissing, it would have given Blinovitch a raging erection before he blew a hole in this corner of the universe. It’s just on the right side of gross, and I’m pleased that it was the Simm Master who fancied a bit of me-time and that Gomez metaphorically slapped him down.

Result: ‘Without hope, without witness, without reward…’ Not at all what I was expecting and all the better for it. Moffat has previous form in promising a great deal and delivering a less than satisfying finale so how is it at the last hurdle he has produced such a surprising hit? Actually, let’s get the few reservations out of the way first because this episode deserves a great deal of praise heaped upon it. One thing I was expecting was for Bill’s condition to be reversed and it was, in the most agonisingly fairy-tale manner imaginable and a repetition of Clara’s departure just one series previously. As if it wasn’t bad enough the first time around. Also, I was a little unsatisfied with how irresolute everything was left, with Nardole being abandoned with no knowledge of how the Doctor and Bill wound up, Bill leaving the Doctor to his fate and the Doctor with no clue that Bill isn’t a Cyberman anymore. Life doesn’t always tidy things up, but in fiction it is much more satisfying if toys are put away in the box neatly. Built out of continuity this episode might be but Moffat finds some chilling things to say about both the Cybermen (particularly Bill’s nightmare at being turned into one) and the Masters (who depart the series in an unforgettable scene of celebratory slaughter). More importantly he has gotten the tone and the emotional content of this episode spot on, tightly focussing on the characters and giving the plot a rest. Series 10 has, on the whole, done a great job of delivering an engaging group of regulars (and I would include Missy in that line up) and so splitting the Doctor, Bill and Nardole up comes with real poignancy. Capaldi gets the chance to shine in a series of brilliant scenes (his quiet moments with Bill in the barn, begging the Masters to stay with him and help, his wonderful farewell to Nardole and his anger at the climax at the approach of another regeneration), Pearl Mackie acts her socks off and reminds us once again why she has made such an impact this year and Matt Lucas gets to the chance to be casually cool in the face of romance, a Cyberman attack and a daunting responsibility. They are the most unlikely trio, but they’ve emerged as the strongest set of regulars in the Moffat era thanks to some highly engaging performances. The trailer promised a lot of bangs and flashes and when they come it feels like they have been earned. In a smart move Moffat holds back the action to the last possible moment, recognising that the promise of action and the characters reaction to it is far more enthralling. I would have loved to have seen more of this in the previous six series, far less plot complexity, more riveting character work. Responsible for the execution of this episode is the one of the most accomplished directors Doctor Who has been lucky to secure and so much of what makes The Doctor Falls impact as much as it does is Rachel Talalay. As a pair, The World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls are her greatest achievement; chilling, exciting, revelatory, poignant and tragic. Visually she brings something quite memorable to the show, it feels like every scene has been carefully considered to make a filmic impact. I cannot praise her highly enough. I recognise this is fanwank of the highest order but the look of the episode, the characters and how they interact, the impetus of great moments and genuine sentiment that rises to a powerful pitch make this a terrific finale. A huge round of applause for Steven Moffat at the eleventh hour: 9/10

Thursday, 29 June 2017

A Life of Crime written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Come to Ricosta! Tropical climate, untouched beaches, fabulous cuisine... and no extradition treaties. The perfect retirement planet for a certain type of 'business person' – such as Ms Melanie Bush, formerly the co-owner of the Iceworld emporium, now on the run from her former criminal associate's criminal associates... Some other former associates of Ms Bush are abroad in this space Costa del Crime, however. Not long ago, the time and space traveller known as the Doctor arrived here, alongside his sometimes-criminal associate, the reformed juvenile offender Ace. But now the Doctor's gone missing – and Melanie Bush is about to learn that on the planet Ricosta, the wages of sin... are death.

The Real McCoy: Nice try in attempting to convince that the Doctor has regenerated into Gloria but it would need to be executed with much more panache, both in terms of writing and direction, to be even halfway convincing. It’s a twist not worthy of a cliff-hanger, which Fitton denies it. Did they release part one for free with the hook of the possible regeneration to lure people in? Ginny Holder lacks any kind of personality, which would have made her the most subdued Doctor of all time. The Doctor thought that Mel wanted to travel with Glitz to see the wonders of the universe? Yeah, even McCoy can’t make that sound convincing. What could expose you to more wonders than the TARDIS? He also suggests that he thought that Mel might be a good influence on Glitz, rather than the other way around. Mel questions whether the Doctor is the imposter after all because he genuinely questioned whether she was doing the right thing or not.

Oh Wicked: The story felt quite fun until Ace showed up fifteen minutes in, all mouth and smugness. Am I wrong in suggesting that this story might have played out quite unusually (in a good way) without her? Sophie Aldred is shouting her head almost as soon as she ducks out the TARDIS. Subtlety has left the building. She’s accusatory to those in power (‘how much do the gangsters bung you to turn a blind eye?’), dismissive, insulting and wails like an insane banshee on heat. I’ve long given up on expecting new facets to her character (she’s appeared in more stories now across every media – TV, print, audio, comic – than any other companion) but to revert to this dreadfully childish and nauseating immaturity really grates on the nerves. We need the Doctor for the scenes where he reunites with Mel (that’s the point of the story, after all) but he could have easily have gone solo here and dispensed Ace infecting the story with its weakest moments. There’s talk of muzzling Ace in episode two, which would have been nice. Anything to shut her up. The story bothers to make the audience ten steps ahead of Ace when it comes to the fake regeneration, and she comes as being shockingly naive for it.

Aieeeeeeee: In contrast to Aldred, Bonnie Langford sounds as though she left the series last week but I guess that is the advantage of being slightly older when she played the role on television. I fail to comprehend whether this is supposed to be a seasoned Melanie who has picked up a few tricks from Glitz along the way or the wide-eyed screamer that we (ahem) enjoyed in season 24. So Bonnie plays the role somewhere in between and commits to neither. Mel was always in rather a lot of trouble when she travelled with the Doctor, so she should be accustomed to it. The Nosferatu has been impounded because they couldn’t pay the tax when they arrived at Ricosta. The idea of Mel wanting to leave with Glitz in the first place was suspect (it felt like a writer trying to ditch a character with no clue of how to do so) – she’s such a squeaky-clean Miss it felt completely out of character for her to go on the run with a bit of rough crook like Glitz. I thought maybe this trilogy would delve into her motive a little but that was asking a little much. The big twist in A Life of Crime is that Mel is still every bit the upstanding do gooder she ever was and that she has been cleaning up Glitz’s exploits as best she can. Really? Four episodes to learn that Mel has not developed one iota in her travels with an ardent conman? Mel literally states that things are black and white, right and wrong and that is how she sees things. That’s precisely how she was characterised on television and why she was so unsatisfying to watch. It isn’t, however, how she has been characterised on audio and with some of her better stories she has been afforded much more complex set of ideals. I do hope we’re not reverting to the ‘how utterly evil’ Melanie Bush of old. That would leave all the excellent work that Big Finish have done with her character since The Fires of Pompeii in the dust.

Great Ideas: A race that devoured the quantum possibilities of the soul, that’s an idea worth exploring beyond slavering aliens that simply want to eat people. It has a lot of potential to be explored in a dramatic way. These monsters just want to gobble up the Doctor because he has the most fascinating amount of latent futures.

Musical Cues: I appreciate that there are only a few ways on audio to make this have the same feel of a glitzy (no pun intended) heist movie and music is one of them but the moments when the hipster beat kicked in as criminal plans were made I wanted to blush to my toenails. Doctor Who is rarely this cheesy.

Isn’t it Odd: I can’t have been the only person to groan when I heard what the line-up for this trilogy was going to be, can I? Big Finish seems determined to play out every possibility, to fill in every gap of continuity and to return to what might have beens (such as here) with careless abandon to fill up their schedules. Dragonfire is hardly the dramatic zenith of Doctor Who and the Mel and Ace combination, while cute, hardly expressed enough chemistry to order up two trilogies worth of adventures with them. There has been so much material with Ace now I’ve given up all hope of trying to fit in where stories belong and the idea that Sophie Aldred still sounds like a teenager from the 80s is just absurd. When they grew the character up during the Hex years it was a sound move, but recently there seems to have been a resurgence in ‘The Rapture’ style Ace, a middle-aged woman going ‘oh Ace!’ and shouting a lot to pretend that she is an angst-ridden teenager. It’s more than a little embarrassing, frankly. That’s clearly what we’re going for here, capturing the feel of a fresh new Ace and an experienced Mel (although Dragonfire seemed to portray them the other way around) and I think Alan Barnes is hoping this sounds as though they stepped into the TARDIS together when they left Svartos. It’s a neat idea for a one off story, but to suggest there were a whole series of adventure with this trio when the series went out of its way to avoid that seems a little…wanky. But hey, it’s not down to me to suggest what Big Finish experiment with. I might disagree with the idea of something like the locum Doctors where it feels like a random generator has selected a Doctor and companion from different eras just to tell a story…but you can bet your last dollar that there will fans out there desperate for ANY new demand. And whilst there is a calling for new material, who cares about creative dignity? Besides, haven’t we done this already with Older Nyssa? And older Peri? As unconvincing as it is, surely the revelation that Gloria is the Doctor should have been the cliff-hanger rather than another unconvincing moment of jeopardy featuring McCoy gurning? Where is Glitz? Was Tony Selby not interested? The story always feels as if it is building up to a surprise appearance by everybody’s favourite crook that never happens. It leaves an unfinished taste in the mouth. The cliffhanger to episode two is the Doctor revealing that he is still in his old skin to his companions? That’s something we have been privy to throughout the episode! If you’re going to blow a kiss in the direction of another episode (in this case Turn Left) then make sure that the quality of your story is comparable, otherwise you run the risk of having egg on your face when you deal with the same ideas less effectively. There’s a dismal moment in the third episode where Mel and Ace are literally describing (for an audience that cannot see). ‘Look at all those ships! They’re huge! They’re blotting out the sky!’ ‘Tentacles! Covered in mouths! And they’re everywhere!’ ‘Those tentacles have wrecked the place and now they’re just hanging there…waiting!’ When the story boils down to Ace screaming ‘jump on this, barnacle features!’ whilst battling with giant tentacles, you know you’ve been taken for a ride. This far into Big Finish’s run I expect audio stories that present genuinely gripping scenarios like The Peterloo Massacre, not hideous audio action punctuated by cringeworthy acting and dialogue.

Standout Scene: The Speravores eat criminals, absorb their alternative realities at the quantum level. Every decision, the bigger the repercussions, the tastier the nectar. Some species have a collective consciousness, they have a collective digestive system. The sustenance that a multiverse of possibilities brings. Every wrong turn, every robbery, every crime, every moment of death, ever decisions good or bad. And it is delicious. And the scene where we experience this first hand is the best executed of the story.

Result: I went in with low expectations, and still managed to come out disappointed. Remember Grand Theft Cosmos, the witty, pacy heist story nestled in the third season of Eighth Doctor and Lucy adventures? That was how to tell this kind of sleight of hand, Ocean’s Eleven style romp, in an hour with plenty of twists and turns to fill it with surprises. A Life of Crime has similar pretentions but is twice as long as so it has to pad out the story with endless dialogue that forces the proceedings to a plod. It takes more than a (humiliatingly) hip musical score to convince this is an intergalactic caper. What this story really needs to sell that angle is energy and plenty of it. I felt as if I was being pulled in too many directions at times and that there was a lack of focus throughout; is this a story about the Doctor meeting up with an old friend, a regeneration tale, an alien attack action piece or a criminal operation in space? It’s all four and it doesn’t do any of them justice. The guest characters lacked sparkle, which is as much down to the performances as it is the writing with the star role of Gloria being a let-down, given the possibility of who she might be. I wish this had been a one-off story featuring just Mel following her exploits, they could have roped in Tony Selby as Glitz and gone to town on a giddy heist adventure. Most of episode one plays out just fine without the Doctor and Ace and I feel it could have continued very nicely in that vein. Saying that, I’m not certain if the universe is ready for The Melanie Bush Adventures. Episode three was my favourite because it spent a few moments to consider the reunion between the Doctor and Mel and we got to experience the digestion of a criminal by one of the Speravores, but ultimately that episode devolves into a horrible noisy mess. Top heavy with unconvincing elements and lacking pizazz, this is a criminal caper where the vault is empty: 4/10

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The World Enough and Time written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

This story in a nutshell: The Genesis of the Cybermen? 

Indefinable: When David Bradley as William Hartnell said in An Adventure in Time and Space that he could do it all with a look I thought he sounded insane. Until I saw the look in Peter Capaldi’s eyes when Bill was shot, suddenly and unexpectedly, in this episode. It’s one of sheer disbelief and horror. It chilled me to the core. The Doctor has high hopes that Missy can be helped, even if every fibre of his being tells him that she is incorrigible. I felt the weight of their history here, the fact that they have been friends a long time and that the Doctor is trying to forge a path to the relationship they once had. The Doctor and the Master had a pact once that they would go and see every star in the universe. The Doctor has lived up to that where the Master has just been trying to destroy them. 

Funky Chick: Oh Bill. Poor, poor Bill. Had Amy Pond or Clara Oswald been put through these terrors I probably would have applauded, but thanks to the warm performance of Pearl Mackie I have really warmed to Bill and that makes this episode quite a disturbing one.

You’re So Fine: I’ve always liked Missy and this is a great new angle on her character. We’ve seen her embrace villainy and madness but given this is the episode with the return of Simm it’s intriguing to note that she has never actually been written as opposing the Doctor or attempting to kill him, especially in comparison. Simm’s Master was all about humiliating the Doctor, making him see that his way is better. Missy caused a terrible Cyberman catastrophe in the series finale but it was in aid of handing the Doctor an army to command. She might have mistreated Clara terribly in the series nine Dalek spectacular but she was there as the Doctor’s friend, to help him. She has always stressed the relationship between them being a special one. He might not trust her, but she has never actively opposed him. So, this is her chance to step from the TARDIS and be him for an adventure. And what a jolly time of she has too, until people start getting killed. Can I believe that her time in the vault has had a serious effect on her and that she is genuinely on the road to redemption? Do you know I rather hope so. Because that would make this unusual arc (in the sense that it is not building up to some kind of calamity but the recovery of an old friend) something that was worth following and concluding. I would genuinely like to see Missy stand at the Doctors side, madness and all, and embrace the universe. In the meantime we get to enjoy her wit in insulting the Doctor’s companions and her shock as she comes face to face with her predecessor. It’s a good episode for her for sure, but as an indication of how strong this story is her story isn’t even the focus.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Look at them. They’re screaming in pain every second they’re alive!’

The Good:
· Talk about getting your attention in the pre-credits. It has nothing to do with this episode but it’s a teaser for how much this story will affect the Doctor’s regeneration. We’ve heard that Moffat and Chibnall have collaborated on the regeneration and that it is going to be a bit different than before. Teasing it in this way before the event itself is quite unusual regardless. That sure looks like the Antarctic, the setting for the first Doctor’s first traumatic change of identity. Will this tie up with that story somehow? The fact that I am speculating like this show that it has gotten it’s claws into me.
· Effects have come a long way since the show was brought back in 2005. Over the previous ten seasons Doctor Who has been a showcase for some gorgeous CGI and physical effects work. Some people have criticised the show since the Mill hang up their boots but I don’t think anybody can deny that the luxuriously long and detailed shot along the hull of the colony ship is one of the most impressive piece of effects work the show has ever put out. It reminded me of the opening Trial sequence, heralding something important and foreboding. Zooming through the windows into cityscapes and beautiful vistas is the sort of visual imagination that I associate with Doctor Who at its finest. After four weeks of plodding, it felt with one expensive sequence that the show was back at the top of its game again.
· He’s gone and done it. Or at least I hope he’s gone and done it. He’s killed a companion in a shock moment without a speech or fanfare (Clara’s death seemed to go on forever). My jaw hung as the camera panned down to the gaping hole that the shot had left in Bill. Cutting to scenes of the Doctor and Bill enjoying each other’s company in the most mundane of ways – had it been the two of them off exploring the universe it would have been trite somehow – really drives home the injustice of her death and how close they have become because he can confide his secrets to her. How the scenes intercut is beautifully handled by Talalay, I’ve seen a similar shock cut back to a mortal wound in an episode of Buffy (Selfless) but I think it was handled even better here. I was shocked by the gun going off because it was sudden and unexpected but the abrupt cut back to Bill, the life draining out of her, was just as wrenching.
· He comes in for some stick. Re-using old music. Drowning out important scenes. Overstating the drama with the chorus of doom. Etc, etc. However, Murray Gold has been a mainstay on the series for ten series now and has provided some beautiful, shocking, creepy, memorable music. Series 10 has seen something of a renaissance, the music has been one of the strongest elements and The World Enough and Time is possibly the zenith of the series. He’s perfectly in tune with the episode, suggesting the wonder of the colony ship, the joy of Missy’s misadventures, the horror of conversion and the importance of the closing moments. I particularly like how he plays disturbingly with a violin during the moments of medical horror, the sack clothed zombies truly disturbing in the wake of his discordant theme.
· Wait for me. A subconscious message left by the Doctor to Bill. I thought the direction of the moments where the Doctor haunted Bill in the hospital were exceptional, more than justifying the concept. However, the pay off at the climax, to what I thought was a moment of touching character conceit, lead to four words that will burn in my mind. I waited for you. It’s Moffat’s writing at its most shockingly cruel, and its finest.
· I said to my friend Jack last night that it feels like Moffat is finishing his era as he began right back in series one. There is definitely an Empty Child feeling to The World Enough and Time. Some chilling ideas, a slow-paced build up, time for some atmosphere and the director to flex their muscles and a riveting climax. Between The Empty Child and The World Enough and Time Moffat has verged between delivering genius and absolute drivel, depending on your tastes but it’s interesting to see him ditching all that noise, spectacle, clever cleverness, timey wimeyness and sex and just concentrate on a slow momentum, character and atmosphere. Where he began. He never should have stopped.
· Bill explores the hospital in some of the most frightening scenes we have seen in Doctor Who for a while. Partly that is down to the stunning direction and the lighting, and partly it is thanks to the concept of being able to turn down the volume of agonised patients screaming in pain and begging to be killed. These scenes are slow and suspenseful, quite the opposite of the deafening spectacle we are used to.
· I pegged that John Simm was playing Razor about ten minutes after his introduction, but the fact that it took that long is a testament to what he achieves here. Razor is a memorably bizarre character, reminding me of somebody that might show up in The Doctor’s Wife. Just on the right side of lunacy to be an ally, but not entirely to be trusted. He’s funny and approachable, until it is time for him to reveal his true colours. When you realise that the Master has been grooming Bill for the entire episode for a very important role, these scenes take on a whole new dimension.
· I love the visual gag of the Doctor and co freezing every time we cut from them to Bill in the hospital, to show how time is moving at two different rates. More importantly it stresses how long Bill has been in the hospital (years) waiting for the Doctor to rescue her.
· Those smoky, grimy, desolate, apocalyptic vistas are exactly how I always imagined Mondas to be. A planet drained of life. This is just a teardrop of the suffering that is being experienced by the planet.
· Will that go down as one of the most effective cliff-hangers in all of Doctor Who? If they follow through on its implications, definitely. As much as he has tried (and he really has), Moffat has fallen a little short of providing historical moments of Doctor Who but with this – the coming together of two Masters and the Doctor’s companion bringing forth the genesis of the Cybermen – surely qualifies. It’s a moment we may be talking about in years to come. As a scene, it’s outstandingly realised. I especially love the creepy as fuck original Mondasian Cyberman walking out of the darkness and the growing horror on the Doctor’s face when he realises who it is. So little of Moffat has left me desperate to see what happens next. This is almost redresses the balance. I’m chomping at the bit.

The Bad: It’s always nice to have Missy take the piss but if I never have to hear the words Doctor Who within an episode again it would be too soon. There’s making a point and labouring one. And it would be very remiss of me as a reviewer not to point out, despite how well I thought those elements were handled here (and they were handled extremely well) that this story is part of the Moffat obsession with looking back at the shows past rather than embracing what it could be without heavy elements of continuity. I think a whole season without a single reference to the past might be in order next year.

Result: ‘I waited for you…’ A ghoulish nightmare of an episode, an important moment in Doctor Who history, exceptional build up to the finale and a masterclass in pacing, atmosphere and delivering shocks, The World Enough and Time is the classic that a lot of people have been waiting for in series 10. It’s been heralded by many as the best episode ever and I can see why, it’s chillingly well done and about as close to on the nose horror that Doctor Who can explore in its teatime slot. Has a companion ever had to suffer the sort of indignity that Bill does here? Moffat is a clever bastard in that for one year he has focussed all of his energy on getting the companion good and likable, making the audience fall in love with Bill a little bit. Then he waited his season as we got to know her and then inflicted terrors most foul on her in the lead up to the finale. Whilst many of the big revelations of this episode were spoilt in advance – and I’ll chorus with everybody else that that is such a shame because it would have made this episode scream with surprises – the fate of Bill slipped completely under the radar and as such the moment she was shot, or worse, the cliff-hanger where she is revealed as the first Cyberman in existence are agonising viewing. I was genuinely short of breath watching. I’m scared that the time distortion effect on the ship is Moffat’s get-out clause for this incredibly brave act but for once I’m hoping that I’m wrong and this is her fate because it would be a far more memorable way to go than anything the finale could conjure up. It’s ghastly. Rachel Talalay has proven herself three penultimate episodes on the trot now (Dark Water was insidiously creepy and Heaven Sent features possibly the best direction of any Doctor Who story) and her work on The World Enough and Time more than matches up. I have long been a campaigner for the conversion of the Cybermen to be explored more vividly, to use them use as cut-price storm troopers and really focus in on the act of losing your humanity and being turned into a machine. I can’t imagine the series topping this for sheer creepiness. Some scenes left fingers running up my spine (‘Pain…pain…pain…’). I pegged a particular actor halfway through the episode in another guise but that didn’t detract from the performance or the surprise reveal at the climax. Those last five minutes truly got my heart racing in a way that Doctor Who hasn’t for such a long time. That last scene will go down in history: 10/10

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Star Men written by Andrew Smith and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: Astronomical navigation is a tricky business. To help Adric with his studies, the Doctor sets course for Gallius Ultima – a planet on the edge of the Milky Way, housing one of the most impressive observatories ever constructed. But the TARDIS arrives to find Gallius U in a state of emergency, tracking the return of the Explorer-class ship Johannes Kepler from its mission into the heart of the mysterious Large Magellanic Cloud. A mission that met with disaster… To find out what overtook the crew of the Johannes Kepler, the Doctor and his companions must journey into the heart of the Cloud… and beyond, into the darkness of another reality altogether. The universe of the Star Men.

An English Gentleman: It feels very season 19 to have a token scene in the TARDIS stressing the domesticity of the crew before jumping straight into the plot as soon as they materialise. He hopes that one of these days that his three wayward companions will listen to him. The Doctor is so much more commanding now that Peter Davison is an older man, he has a natural gravity about him that was lacking in that squeaky voiced young man that piloted the TARDIS in the eighties. And I mean that as a real compliment.

Maths Nerd: Adric is attempting to learn how to fly the TARDIS but as it stands he has killed all aboard in every simulation to date. His mathematical excellence is really being utilised in a dramatic way, exactly the same sort of way he failed to engage in his TV stories. That is one of the joys of Big Finish, taking hold of these characters and using them in a more effective way than they were on screen. I guess that is the power of hindsight for you. Also, Smith is Adric’s creator so he has some authority on the subject. Waterhouse is a lot more comfortable reprising the role too, less of that floaty sing-song voice now and using more of his natural voice. He’s not so much pretending to be young but bringing to life an essence of the character. He’s had some heavy exposure to voice work with Big Finish of late, what with his involvement in Dark Shadows and has had a chance to hone his voice skills. He doesn’t want safe, he wants excitement. Adric gets something of a romance with Autumn but he awkwardly doesn’t seem to know what to do with her, except try and be brave around her. He proves himself to be quite the mental challenge, where other Doctor Who companions might have been taken over by the Star Men, Adric recites prime numbers to concentrate his mind and make a barrier. He knows the discipline of numbers and their power. At the climax, Adric is distracted by his feelings for Autumn, proving that he has a heart beating underneath all that cold maths after all.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan tries to have her customary whinge that she hasn’t made it to Heathrow yet but the Doctor quickly stops her in her tracks and informs her he is trying to broaden the horizons of her knowledge. About damn time.

Alien Orphan: Nyssa is very complimentary of Adric throughout this story, but there is no sense that she is attracted to him in any way. I’m pleased they didn’t go down that route because there wasn’t even a hint of romance between them on screen.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This is a planet at the edge of the galaxy. It draws all sorts; the scientific, the spiritual, the adventurous and the curious.’

Great Ideas: A research station housing one of the most impressive astronomical observatories ever built is situated on Gallius Ultima. This is the point where humanity is contained within one system but before long they will start to spread. One month ago, the explorer class ship Johanas-Keplar left Gallius U to the large Magallenic Cloud charged with an important mission, which confirms this is a crucial time for humanities development. Now returned, it is clear that the ship has come under attack. Isn’t it marvellous how Andrew Smith drops you along with the TARDIS crew straight into an intriguing science fiction mystery with such economy. He skips over the launch of the ship and its overdue return and leaps straight to the moment it is first sighted, damaged, building a level of foreboding. Especially since the Doctor has already stated how crucial this time is to the future of the human race. The Keplar is deserted, lifeless and it’s heading towards the outpost at the speed of light. Something is interfering with the established timeline, according to the Doctor history records the first flight as a complete success. The end of episode one is very nicely achieved, not a moment of false jeopardy (as season 19 was infamous for) but the Doctor and Tegan heading off into the promise of possible danger. The bodies of Keplar crew have been taken over. The Tarantula Nebula is full of new stars, intense radiation and stellar winds, which is where the Star Men come from. They use the red cloud to envelop ships, to penetrate and smother the crew. The Star Men are new to this universe, altering human history as they are about to expand across the cosmos. They are not aggressors by choice, but the last of their energy in their universe is being depleted and they need a new source from this universe. Several new-born stars in the Tarantula Nebula helped to rip a hole between the Star Men’s universe and this one.

Audio Landscape: Walking on the surface of the gravelly surface of the planet, boots, sticking the floor of the Keplar, a medical laser, splitting coral, the coral spreading,

Isn’t it Odd: Beings from another universe (handled better in Cortex Fire later in the year). Another universe where the energy is depleting. Going from one reality to another to plunder. An enslaved species mining riches for their masters. Ships going missing. This story is literally built out of science fiction clichés.

Result: The Star Men gets off to a flying start with a riveting first episode, one that gets to the heart of a gripping mystery with real economy. Classic Who was always good at grabbing your interest in its opening episode but this is a particularly first-class example of how it should be done. I’m trying to put my finger on what it is that makes Barnaby Edwards direction a cut above everybody else. When I listen to a story he has directed I am almost always bound to enjoy it, even if the script is lacking because he weaves some kind of audio magic around it that makes it so engaging. He reminds me of Graeme Harper from the new series; he drives the best performances out of people, strong, energetic ones and there is always a feeling that the whole piece has been crafted by a master, each element (music, soundscape) painstakingly considered to create an overall effect. He directed The Chimes of Midnight and Dr Who and the Pirates, The Eleventh Tiger and Son of the Dragon, The Eternal Summer and Death in Blackpool. He’s quite my favourite Big Finish director and his work on the first episode cannot be understated, the pace of it means the performances have to be bang on and he has cast the story expertly. I’ve come to expect clinical science fiction from Andrew Smith these days and he doesn’t disappoint with The Star Men. It’s not the most innovative of stories but it does present some old ideas in a direct way. Like evolution in Full Circle and cloning in The First Sontarans, these concepts have been explored before but Smith has a way of bringing science to life. He’s certainly better at it than Bidmead, especially on audio. Episodes two-four aren’t are nowhere near as strong, they feel much more humdrum than the opening instalment but my interest was maintained by the execution. Other highlights were Peter Davison’s performance, which is typically strong and the characterisation of Adric, and I never thought that would be the main strength of a story. After episode one it feels as though The Star Men should have been a better story than it turns out to be, but it is still above average and entertaining: 6/10

The Eaters of Light written by Rona Munro and directed by Charles Palmer

This story in a nutshell: Rona Munro returns to Doctor Who after almost three decades…

Indefinable: Dare I say this out loud? There were times where I felt that Capaldi was phoning it in a little, almost as if he knew it was his last (and not particularly interesting) standalone and he had had enough of this role a little. It was especially apparent during the climax where the Doctor attempts to sacrifice his life for the umpteenth time in a spectacularly unconvincing fashion. There is an entire arc that is playing out around this season that hasn’t been anywhere near polished off, is the Doctor really going to sacrifice himself here and leave Missy to roam about the universe in the TARDIS causing mischief? To boil it down to something insulting, the Doctor simply is not going to give up his life to guard a portal and save a bunch of Romans. You know it and I know it and Capaldi knows it and yet he’s forced to say the lines to the contrary anyway and it doesn’t come off plausibly. He said in a recent interview that there were only so many ways you can declare the end of the world…and I think he might have come to the point where it has become a little tiresome. I enjoyed the opening scenes of the Doctor, Bill and Nardole arriving and arguing about the mystery of the missing Roman Legion. It’s a shame that Nardole felt the need to mention the vault again because Missy is spending more time out of it than in it these days and the arc intrusion, for once, felt unnecessary. Let this scene be what it is, the Doctor and his companions landing in history and debating a point. You might think the Doctor is too hard of Kar, but she is so stubborn and inflexible I thought he wasn’t hard enough. The 12th Doctor of season eight would have thrown her to the light eating alien and gone and had some tea. 

Funky Chick: There’s a fine line between complaining about Bill harping on about her sexuality and somebody complaining that homosexuality features too much in Doctor Who and television in general. I do want to do the former, but I most definitely do not want to do the latter. I have met a lot of new people in past couple of years I don’t think I have had to explain my sexuality once, let alone several times as Bill has this year. The ‘get to know you’ scene smack bang in the middle of this episode where Bill and the Romans reveal who they sleep with felt very unreal, for once it genuinely felt like a political statement. Doctor Who is gay friendly and we want you to know it. That is a really wonderful thing and it should be embraced, but I personally don’t need scenes like this interrupting the flow of an episode to tell me that a Roman character takes it up the arse. Besides I wouldn’t want Bill’s character to be defined by her sexuality. What Russell T Davies did so cleverly in his era was to create vivid, real, memorable characters first and assign them a sexuality second. With this era does feel a bit like a token gesture without any of the substance. Beyond her sexuality and her mother dying, how else would you define Bill? I remember in interviews before the series came out there was an emphasis on Bill being gay not being important and just enjoy the series…but it is a point that is being made again and again by the people who gave those interviews IN the series. Hell, mostly thanks to the efforts of Pearl Mackie I really like Bill and I still think she has been the most successful female companion of the Moffat era. However, I do feel the character has lost some of her initial sparkle from the first half of the season, since The Pyramid at the End of the World the character has either been making really stupid choices or simply coasting. I hope she gets a really good send off in the next two episodes otherwise she will wind being a bit of a non-entity in canon terms. Odd, because you could hardly say that of the only other one season wonder, Donna. Why does Bill keep talking in that strange voice when she is being sarcastic? It was cute at first but she keeps doing it more and more these days. This is the first new series story to be written by a classic series writer and within 10 minutes Bill has gotten lost and fallen down a hole. There’s progression for you. No, that’s not fair, Bill is the one that drives the mystery, she heads off independently and she holds her own amongst a group of randy Romans. And to be fair to Munro she characterised Ace beautifully in Survival, giving her a predatory and sexual awakening and giving her a memorable homecoming. It’s not fair to compare the two as they are completely different types of story (aside from being obsessed with teenagers) but I’m a Doctor Who fan and it is what we do and Ace wins hands down in this category. Bill has a few charming moments in The Eaters of Light, but Ace was the beating heart of Survival. Bill’s decision to defy the Doctor at the climax and reminding him that he cannot take on every fight, was nicely done. She needs a few more moments like that, where she stands out and fights his opinion. 

Faithful Sidekick: The saving grace of The Eaters of Light as far as I am concerned, Nardole seemed to be the only character who was actually having any fun. I love how he steps from the TARDIS in a dressing gown and tea cosy and has no intention of getting changed, no matter how inappropriate. This episode is a nice chance to see how it would have been had the Doctor and Nardole gone solo this season. He tries to ingratiate himself with the local populace, which the Doctor finds nauseating. He sits around gossiping about future events whilst the Doctor is transfixed by the portal for a couple of days, irritating Doctor Who fans by offering a cheeky alternative theory to the disappearance of the Marie Celeste’s crew. In case the Doctor bears a grudge, Nardole knows 10% of the Doctor’s secrets (the dark ones) and he is the only one in the TARDIS who knows where the teacakes are.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’ll hold them back? What with your lollipop and your kiddie face paint and your crazy novelty monster killing tool?’ The Doctor can’t take these kids seriously either.

The Good: I don’t know if this story was shot in Wales or Scotland, but it sure looks rugged and beautiful. The landscapes on offer are an artist’s inspiration, the scenery offering more complex characterisation than the script. It looks exactly the sort of place where the TARDIS could plonk down, almost incongruously, and an adventure can begin. The windswept desolation brings to mind The Sontaran Experiment and the gorgeous autumnal glens reminded me strongly of The Mysterious Planet. The Doctor and Nardole discovering the great pile of bodies in the landscape is a moment that made me sit up and pay attention. Another visual that defies the slumbersome nature of the plot is the gate itself, a fearsome light show of spectres dancing given some welly by some Murray Gold bombast. 

The Bad: ‘Crows in the future are all in a huff?’ Every now and again Doctor Who loves to put out these cute ‘he talks baby’ moments. I didn’t mind the idea that crows can talk, it’s kind of creepy in how it was realised. What I do object to is the payoff to this idea and the reason the crows don’t talk in the future. Or only make one sound. My other half turned to me as they started screaming ‘Ka!’ at the climax and said ‘that’s just embarrassing.’ Kar is a character that should stand out for all the right reasons, a female warrior who is tired of the Roman arrogance to come and civilise the rest of the world. But as played by Rebecca Benson, I found her desperately unlikable, annoying even. There isn’t the weight of the slaughter on her shoulders, she just sounds like a whining teenager. And Dawn Summers taught us how irritating that can be. Listen to her dialogue, it makes a lot of sense but in complete opposition to The Empress of Mars you have actors that are sabotaging the complexity that is inherent in the script. The Roman characters were sweet but not particularly interesting, beyond their sexuality I felt as if I barely got to know them, just their situation. I’m wondering if it was the fact that I was dealing with two sets of teenagers that I had a problem with. If there had been adults involved I might have been able to have taken it more seriously. I’m sure Munro has researched this well and it is accurate, but it does have a feel of Doctor Who history 90210. Half the problem is that I never had a sense of real jeopardy here. The last time Charles Palmer directed an episode was Oxygen and every second I felt the setting and the situation tightening around the characters. But if the kids here can sit around and natter so much the desperation of the scenario is hardly apparent. And with a conclusion as easy as this, it could have been solved a lot sooner than it was. It’s rather amusing that Munro is a 7th Doctor writer and this has more than a touch of Paradise Towers to it, with two warring factions (including a teenage clan) coming together to fight their real enemy. It feels less triumphant this time around.

Result: This was the episode I earmarked for a watch with my very good friend Jack in Australia, we try and marry up one episode a season and we decided that it should be the episode written by a classic series writer. I wished we had gone for somebody more obvious like Matheson or Dollard, now. I wasn’t engaged by The Eaters of Light at all and by the end we watched Extemis just so I could wax lyrical about something this season. To give a balanced view I did find the first ten minutes, whilst never exactly riveting, set up the reasons the Doctor and company have arrived, luxuriate in a stunning location and introduce what appears to be an intriguing new monster. It’s everything that happens after that that is the problem. Not a great deal. There is a dearth of incident in this story after it is set up, a lack of tension, of pace and finally of a sufficient conclusion. The characters sit around and discuss this cataclysmic situation (and who they like to sleep with) and then join forces and step into a light. The end, there I saved you the need to watch this desperately mediocre slice of Who. Had there been some knockout characterisation, some confrontation with bite, some more insight into the light eater or even some logic behind how it was defeated, I might have been able to stay awake. It probably doesn’t help that Romans and barbarians and creating mythology in history isn’t really my bag, so I might have been onto a loser even if those things were in place. Series 10 has been a really mixed effort as far as I am concerned. Whilst there was a freshness with Bill and some initial excitement around an engaging new TARDIS team (The Pilot, Thin Ice, Oxygen and Extremis all working extremely well), there is also a tiredness in the writing and a feeling that this production team is trading on past glories rather than embracing the future of the show (and with the Cybermen and the Master appearing in the finale it looks like nothing is going to change). For me, there have now been more so-so episodes than good, especially since the middle the of the season. Practically every Doctor Who year ramps up towards its conclusion (look at the run up in series three and four) but series 10 seems to be limping to the finish line with a pair of disappointing Monk episodes, a love letter to the Ice Warriors and a failed attempt at attaching poetry to history. It’s hardly gathering momentum, is it? And if you think I am only hard on Moffat’s seasons, I think the run from Kill the Moon to Last Christmas is very strong, with only a few exceptions. Given the way Missy has been not-so discreetly shoehorned into so many episodes of late I would have thought this would have been her breakout episode before the finale. Even she seems less than impressed with this tale as she sums it up less than favourably in her five minute intrusion at the climax. Perhaps if this had taken place earlier in the season it would have felt more diverting. Somehow I doubt it. Think of some of the Capaldi standalones – Into the Dalek, Mummy, Flatline, The Girl Who Died, Fear the Raven, Thin Ice, Oxygen – why did this have to be his last one? This is Doctor Who in fatigue. It needs a creative defibrillator to pump some life back into it: 4/10

Friday, 16 June 2017

Empress of Mars written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Wayne Yip

This story in a nutshell:
If you’re a classic series fan who is disillusioned by the new series…this might just be the one for you!

Indefinable: Jon Pertwee is stunning in this adventure, one of his most commanding performances. What do you mean the Doctor is played by Peter Capaldi? Long term fan Capaldi has clearly seen his Peladon stories and studied Pertwee’s Doctor and he gives a terrific retro turn as the Doctor of old, trying to negotiate peace between humanity and the Ice Warriors and tearing his hair out at the stupidity of both sides. 

Funky Chick: Oh bless Mark Gatiss, it feels as though he hasn’t been watching the rest of the series at all. Because of course Bill has been dropping pop culture references all season, as though that is the latest in thing. And where was the reference to her mother? I didn’t think an episode could by without one…or did they lean on that so heavily in The Lie of the land that they thought they would take a break this week? After two weeks of Bill behaving in a very unusual fashion (surrendering the Earth and shooting the Doctor and all), it is very pleasant for her to simply play the role of the plucky companion for one week. In fact, given she wasn’t really Bill in Extremis, Oxygen was a powerful drama and Knock Knock featured her as the lead, this is her first chance to simply have some fun with the Doctor since Thin Ice. She throws herself head first into danger and is quick with a one liner or two but essentially this could be in companion in the role. And do you know what? That’s okay sometimes for a breather and that’s exactly what this is. Nothing distinctive but nothing offensive either. And let’s consider that a step up. Although I do wonder about a series that can present a character that goes through the sort of soul destroying actions that Bill has and have no fallout whatsoever. She’s back to her good old self this week. Just don’t let her think that the Doctor might side with the Martians. She might blow his head off.

Faithful Sidekick: Nardole is such a sweetie. I know people who have been quite resistant to the character, calling him just Matt Lucas in space and the like, but I think he has been handled extremely well in series 10. He’s been given dramatic moments (confronting the Doctor at the end of Oxygen, the reveal that he isn’t real in Extremis), funny moments (I loved his little scream after he threatened Bill in Extremis) and cute moments too (‘Cuddle’). I don’t think he has been overplayed but his presence has been felt (and explained well) throughout. It’s a shame that he had to be surgically excised from Empress of Mars so awkwardly because it feels as though he should never have been there in the first place. He bookends the episode, disappearing with the TARDIS (a very classic series device, cutting the Doctor off from his ship) and reappearing at the end to ask ‘what’s be going on? I did find his method of returning to them obvious but intriguing and the final scene with Missy in the control room gives the season arc a bit of a shove. Most of all I have found Lucas appealing in the role, my heart sings every time he is on the screen.

The Good:
· Dost my eyes deceive me or are there actual hot blooded (and cold blooded come to think of it) guest characters with personalities that hog some screen time from the regulars? One thing that series 10 has lacked in abundance is the presence of a decent guest cast in its episodes – I appreciate that this is the only season where we will get to play with this set of (generally) very strong regulars but the supporting characters add so much colour and detail to the stories too. Admittedly this bunch aren’t particularly skilfully written, there is some god awful Victorian cockney that I could barely stomach and they are painted in very broad strokes (victim/bad/coward covers the three main speaking parts) but I appreciate the effort to pad out the situation with some characters all the same. This is one of those cases where the actors chosen to play them add extra depth that isn’t there in the script and kudos to Anthony Calf, Ferdinand Kingsley and Ian Beattie for their heroic turns as Godsacre, Catchlove and Jackdaw. Despite the lack of complexity in their dialogue, I felt as though they were living, breathing people who had lives outside of this story. I haven’t felt that way about supporting characters all year. I particularly liked Catchlove, not the subtlest of villains but the way he smiles his way through every threat and insult makes him an imminently hissable one. As a poster child for British Imperialism, he’s no heart, all attack. Straightening his hair to ensure he looks his best whilst he descends into madness, I can imagine most of his problems spring from the fact that his name is Neville. He even gets the line ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’ after throwing one of his men to the slaughter.
· I’m very fond of the Ice Warriors despite the fact that they are occasionally very cumbersomely directed. How can you cumbersomely direct somebody I hear you ask…well go and watch certain scenes in The Seeds of Death and The Monster of Peladon where they look as if the heavy costumes are going to lumber over and fall on the camera at any minute. They’re actually much more effective (in the classic series) when they don’t move, with their imposing bearing and striking costumes (and unusually they look better in black and white). I love the game that Terrance Dicks plays with them in the Peladon stories, presenting them as allies (albeit ones the Doctor is suspicious of for some time) before reverting to type in the latter story and having them give the story a damn good kick up the arse by massacring as many miners as possible. They are a race that work both as characters (the original Ice Warrior featured some pleasingly individual creations, Izlyr from Curse) and as a race of menacing monsters. They were denied a reappearance in the 80s thank to the culling of the original season 23 and whilst Mission to Magnus transpired to be as camp and outrageous as people feared (and it can now be heard thanks to the efforts of Big Finish), I’m fairly certain that John Nathan-Turner would have done them proud, at least visually. It’s little wonder they featured so heavily in the spin of material in the nineties. Gatiss’ last stab at writing for them was the forgettable Cold War, which had all the hallmarks of a classic Doctor Who base under siege adventure but failed to inject much interest in the Ice Warriors. They certainly didn’t have a rush return, which seems to be the norm with the more popular monsters. They are particularly well realised in Empress, the soft light of the tunnels gleaming from their green armour. They seem to have learnt the art of picking up the pace, which leads to a very tense moment when the Doctor is confronted with Friday. The Empress is a fine addition to Ice Warrior mythology and Adele Lynch gives a wonderfully snarling performance that is worthy of a place alongside The Racnoss Empress for sheer over the toppiness. I think she’s wonderfully watchable, literally as though she has stepped out of 70s Doctor Who. Love the dreadlocks, she must go to the same hairdresser as the Movellans. I’ve heard criticism about the comic book way the Ice Warriors murder people in this story (bring back Mirrilon, declared one) but I think it’s rather grisly and ingenious. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it before and it must be agonising to have your bodied folded up into a ball in such an unnatural way.
· Victorian soldiers on Mars, now that’s a whacky idea that Doctor Who of old would brazenly try and pull off. As unlikely as it may seem, it feels as natural for the show try something this bonkers as Queen Victoria (who makes a small cameo) and werewolves. The small details of the tents and the afternoon tea on the Red Planet are just sublime.
· Trapped in the caves, firing a laser at rock, Ice Warriors dashing about and Alpha Centauri popping up…if you squint really hard you can actually turn this into The Monster of Peladon.
· Things get terribly exciting in the last third when the Ice Warriors attack and the Empress gives the order to thaw out her army. NuWho has been running short on genuinely iconic scenes of late but this must surely qualify, even if it is a riff on Tomb of the Cybermen. It might not be original, but it is visually arresting and dynamic and the release of the Warriors from their hives plugs a gap in continuity (How did the Ice Warriors become a member of the Galactic Federation?) to boot. A special mention for Wayne Yip who I was fairly dismissive of last week, he seems a lot more comfortable bringing out and out action to life and the attack scenes are given some real pace and punch. The Warriors bursting from the floor is just delicious.

The Bad:
· Where the pre-credits was just about the best thing in The Lie of the Land, in Empress it is the dead weight at the beginning of a rather fun episode. I can see why it was thought to be a neat conceit, but it reminded me too much of the HELLO SWEETIE scrawled into the side of the mountain. It’s a little too up its own arse and self-consciously British. In storytelling terms it makes perfect sense, I just didn’t think the story needed the hook. It would be perfectly serviceable without it. Plus, I found the way the Doctor and his companions so smugly wandered into NASA and took over to be an unpleasant reminder of the Matt Smith era. That witless overconfidence that grates on the nerves. It’s a big, bold notion and its very Doctor Who but it just didn’t sit well for me. I thought we were on our way to third clunker…and it took me a little while to recover from that feeling. I would have poured the money from the (impressive) NASA sets into the effect of creating Mars.
· I very much enjoyed Godsacre living up to his cowardice and running scared during the climax. His redemption a few minutes later when he saves the day left a sour taste in my mouth. This story isn’t allowed even the slightest amount of shade.
· ‘We can stand together!’ declares Bill, holding Friday’s hand. Almost as trite as Sarah’s women’s lib speech to the Queen. The Empress’ quick turnaround after Godsacre’s sacrifice of Catchlove is equally unconvincing. That’s the sacrifice you make when you squeeze an entire narrative into 45 minutes, more often than not the climax of the story is rushed and unimpressive.
The Shallow Bit: I read a comment online where a fan of this episode said he thought the Empress was a bit of alright. He’s been sectioned now, but I thought I would share the reason why.

Result: ‘Welcome to the universe!’ Total hokum really, but massively entertaining for the most part and it serves to plug a big gap in continuity. The action was well staged and dynamic, the Ice Warriors looked better than ever (and the Empress was spectacularly realised) and the guest characters provided some reasonable support. I thought the setting was quite vivid too and whilst there was nothing particularly standout in their characterisation, the Doctor and Bill were engagingly handled. Like a said about The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witches Familiar and Hell Bent, this is Doctor Who aimed squarely at the fans. The pleasing touches throughout; the painting of Queen Victoria, RHIP, Victorian values (a follow up on Sarah Jane Smith’s ‘You’re still living in the Middle Ages!’) and Alpha Centauri all tickled me too but I have to wonder what a not-we would have thought about this. My friend texted me immediately afterwards and said she just wasn’t feeling it and I wonder with its leaning towards continuity the show has lost a portion of the audience that enjoyed the more open-door storytelling of the shows first four years. I’m pleased to hear in a recent interview that the show will be veering dramatically away from that and embracing the regular audience again, so I’ll take these massive kisses to the past whilst they are here. I’m sure there are fans out there declaring this the greatest episode since the show returned because they have been paid lip service but for me this story has a slight plot, shallow characters and a weak resolution. It looks great and I got really caught up in the action and the Ice Warrior porn. It’s is a nice story for Gatiss to go out on, like the best of his work elsewhere it has some really fun ideas and more than a touch of nostalgia (The Unquiet Dead, The Crimson Horror) whilst avoiding the clichés and blandness of his lesser episodes (Victory of the Daleks, Cold War, Sleep No More). He got to write a real love letter to the Pertwee era and Moffat indulged him. Somehow as a breather before things get turned up to ten again that feels entirely appropriate. I would take the stompy Ice Warriors over the Monks any day of the week: 7/10

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Series Ten

The Pilot: Welcome back Doctor Who after two Christmas specials that have erred on the side of high camp entertainment and the show has been off our screens, seasons wise, for longer than the hiatus is 1985. The Pilot would have felt like a welcome return even if it had turned out to be shit but the fact is there is much more to this than your standard Doctor Who episode. Whilst this will receive the same mark as both of those Christmas specials (Husbands had a glorious last ten minutes and Mysterio was one of the cutest pieces of television ever) because it has a number of issues holding it back, this is far more my kind of Doctor Who than either of them. The pacing is lethargic in the first half but that is just to give us time to get close to Bill and drawn into her relationship with the Doctor but things really pick up from the halfway point and it is ghoulish attacks and a whirlwind tour of the universe until the touching conclusion. As I’ve stated elsewhere, Bill Mackie is a revelation and I think this is the biggest surprise, in the eyes of fandom, since Catherine Tate turned out to be one of the strongest actresses to ever appear in the show. She’s effortlessly good and extremely watchable and much of the episode relies on you liking Bill and wanting to stick close to her so that is a really good thing. I love how much she questions and doubts whilst employing a keen mind and allowing herself to be afraid. Clara I know everything and nothing bothers me Oswald she aint. Gough’s direction is worth noting for its atmosphere, he gives The Pilot a lightness of touch and still manages to throw in a couple of effective scares. This is a very easy piece of television to like. Downsides? The Bill/Heather relationship never really came alive for me so I never truly felt anything when they were forced to part, there are the trademark unanswered questions that might frustrate the casual audience (my other half was baffled that so much was left hanging) and looking forward with Smile also being a little low key it is a very gentle introduction to the season. I wouldn’t expect a newcomer to be particularly knocked off their feet. But overall this is a triumphant return for the show in what feels like reboot before the reboot takes place. It’s funny how the introduction of a new companion can give the show a massive facelift and The Pilot confirm my suspicion (which I stressed in several reviews last year) that Clara simply hung around for too long. This opener belongs to Bill and Bill is fabulous and that means Doctor Who is fabulous for me again. Go figure, when Moffat said the show is all about the companion perhaps he was right. I’m optimistic once again: 7/10

Smile: ‘We’re in the utopia of vacuous teens…’ You said it, mate. So much of Smile relies on the interaction between the Doctor and Bill because very little happens in the first half beyond them exploring the empty colony. Barry Letts once said that the Doctor and companion should have an appeal that carries the story even when what is on screen isn’t particularly engaging and this is the living embodiment of that approach. I just think the show should be aspiring to something a little more riveting in its tenth season than a story that solely relies on the charisma of the leads because the story it is telling is so slight and dull. People have made allusions to the fact that this episode is a bit like The Happiness Patrol (forced happiness) and a bit like The Ark in Space (the clinical atmosphere of finding a human colony in slumber) but in truth beyond the ideas they have very little in common. For a start both of those stories have some substance and interest about them. When I compare one story to another I am often talking about direct steals or similarity in tone but Smile only has the most insincere similarities to those classic Doctor Who adventures. The pacing of Smile is way off balance; the first 30 minutes plays out like a really plodding classic series first episode and the last 10 minutes is a manic fourth episode condensed down. It flies from one to the other with a scene of painful exposition in between. I always applaud Doctor Who’s attempt to do something a bit different and Cottrell Boyce has tried that twice now and I clap my hands at the braveness of having two Doctor Who stories taking a less suspenseful and more cerebral approach. However, both episodes failed to engage me because of the lack of action, their lack of interesting guest characters, their unconvincing climaxes and their failure to do anything interesting with their core concepts. It’s almost as if the notions of the forest of London and the deserted colony are enough. This is aping the pace and tone of the classic series but it is failing to remember the one core ingredient, the engaging narrative. And don’t get me started on the Doctor almost randomly destroying the human race and the robots that murder because they don’t recognise a frown. The ideas Smile does flaunt I simply could not buy in to. This episode rests almost entirely on the characters of the Doctor and Bill and their reactions to pretty much nothing and it is a testament to their partnership this early in the season that this doesn’t bomb entirely. When episode one and two are both quiet, unassuming stories with small guest casts you have to wonder if the series isn’t losing its nerve a little. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Bill had asked the Doctor to take her home because travelling to other worlds is a massive yawn: 3/10

Thin Ice: The best episode since Heaven Sent, almost 18 months ago. Admittedly there have only been 5 episodes in between (which I voted 3, 7, 7, 7, 3 respectively) but it has felt as though Doctor Who has been coasting for some time now, albeit coasting fairly entertainingly. Thin Ice scores on several levels for me; the atmospheric and playful setting, the unusual reversal of the creature being misjudged, the enjoyable characterisation of the Doctor and Bill (three for three on that score), the drama of asking the question of whether the Doctor has killed somebody and dealing with the emotional fallout of that and the astonishing production values. Countering that is the fact that there is nothing truly original happening here, it’s old ideas (jokes about wandering through history, exploitative villains, a deadly creature that turns out to be nothing of the sort, the Doctor’s chequered past) presented in a new way. But given they are presented so stylishly, who cares? Thin Ice is just shy of being an out and out classic because of this but it achieves what it sets out to do to a very high standard indeed. If this quality was the average week in, week out, we would be in really good shape. You could watch this with the sound down and marvel at the beauty of the direction. But then you would be denied Dollard’s exceptional ear for memorable dialogue, her ability to get inside Bill’s head in a very emotive way and miss out of one of the best presentations of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor yet. He’s effortlessly pleasurable to watch. I simply cannot re-instate enough how much I am enjoying Pearl Mackie’s performance and with each episode I am hoping she hangs around to bridge the gap between Capaldi’s departure and the new Doctor’s introduction. I love how she underplays the drama, she makes Bill’s reactions to the horrors that she faces really count. Whilst this is the most dramatically presented of the three episodes so far this season, they have all been fairly intimate tales. It feels like we are being escalated through the season, the stories becoming punchier as they go. If things continue in this vein, the finale should be explosive. All I’m asking for now is a plot with a bit of substance. Thin Ice is a story that is well crafted, well characterised and well filmed. Take a step out of the TARDIS and enjoy a night at the Frost Fair of Old London Town. One to savour: 8/10

Knock Knock: Knock Knock had all the trappings of a great mini horror movie and I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth because it didn’t follow through on its promise. To say I shouldn’t have walked into this episode with pre-conceptions is fair but the trailer, the preview reviews and the first fifteen minutes all convinced me that this was going to be the most chilling Doctor Who of all time. Instead it falls way short of that when it decides to morph into an undercooked character drama in the last third. My favourite scenes were in the middle section of the episode with victims in the walls and the house locking itself shut and bugs stealing their first victims. For ten minutes or so Knock Knock does live up to its premise and attempt to get under your skin (hoho). Like the last three episodes though, it comes undone (and this is probably the worst example) in its climax. In this case it is because nothing is adequately explained (What were the bugs? Why did the Doctor seem to take such an interest in them and then just walk away from them? How can Eliza forget about her son? How do they re-constitute people?) and all the characters depart alive and well. It leaves you wondering what the point of the whole episode was, unless Bill’s friends are going to be recurring characters. In which case I hope they are characterised with a bit more chutzpah than they are here. I don’t remember a defining thing about any of them. Gosh, don’t I sound like a moaning Minnie? What did I like? The direction was generally sound; pacy, atmospheric and (in the opening third) fun. I think he captured the juxtaposition between young (the kids and their search for student lodgings) and old (the house and its creaky owner) very well. It’s a bit of a thankless part but David Suchet is absolutely superb as the Landlord and works extremely well when he is just a creepy old man that seems to be killing off young’uns to feed the house. Certain scenes did generate a sweat and my friend Alison I was watching with did jump at one point. And the make up for Eliza is quite out of this world, reminding me of the Pyroville from Pompeii (like a human being but quite unlike a human being and visually disturbing because of it). And there’s the secret weapon of series ten of course: the Doctor and Bill. I think this would score a point lower if it was in the hands of any of the other regulars in Moffat’s time. Knock Knock wasn’t a great episode, but it was entertaining enough. I’ve said this four times now though, series ten has had four relatively unassuming episodes in a row. I think it’s time for a blockbuster…and its certainly time for Nardole to take a bigger role. A disappointing horror tale but a fair piece of entertainment, Knock Knock should have had the courage of its convictions and sent the kids to bed traumatised. It is following the form of so many horror movies of late by having a decent atmosphere but taking a dive when it comes to revealing the nasty. Mind, most haunted house tales don’t undermine their genre in the final reel. That really is boggling: 6/10

Oxygen: ‘Bill I’ve got no TARDIS, no sonic, about ten minutes of oxygen left and now I’m blind. Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?’ Oxygen is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders. If there was any doubt that the series could reach the heights of its NuWho heyday then this was the proof. Whilst it was extraordinary, I can’t include Heaven Sent because it was such an unusual experiment. Oxygen is honest to God, nuts’n’bolts Doctor Who, refined and pitched to perfection. I mentioned in my review of Smile that FCB doesn’t write my kind of Doctor Who (that isn’t to say there aren’t others who find his tensionless sermons perfection itself) and in contrast Jamie Matheson writes exactly my kind of Doctor Who: bold, original, clever, tense, beautifully paced, characterful, funny and satisfying. In the Capaldi era his is the benchmark that everybody else is working to, just as Moffat was the standout under the previous administration. What you have is a threat on the inside (the oxygen suits that are working against you) and the outside (the dead-eyed zombies attacking en masse) and two companions that are allowed to be absolutely terrified. It’s the tensest the show has been in many years, probably since the Moffat era began. And it’s a formula for success that the show traded in for many years in the classic series that I thought had been long forgotten. Add in an already terrifying environment and you have a Doctor Who episode that ticks every single box when it comes to putting the willies up you (oh get a room). This is the bonding exercise that the Doctor, Bill and Nardole needed too, a race to survive together and a feeling that they are a group of friends working together. Each of the regulars gets their best moment of the season to date involving blindness, oxygen starvation and the killer line ‘Look at me!’ Oxygen holds back from being indulgent or overly spectacular like so much of this era, it focuses on a tricky situation with a small group of characters and some dastardly clever ideas. When Moffat makes the joke that he has finally figured out how to show run Doctor Who just as he is leaving is not only very funny in its self-deprecation but also quite true. Charles Palmer directs with exactness, capturing the claustrophobia and terror of the setting with the precision of scalpel. The performances are first rate. The music underscores rather than overwhelming the action. And the final scene is a doozy. I think Oxygen is a modern day classic Doctor Who. I genuinely got short of breath watching this: 10/10

Extremis: ‘I’m calling the Doctor…’ One of Steven Moffat’s tightest scripts, that pretends it is a scattering of ideas and random scenes for its first half and that coalesces beautifully around its big twist. I was frustrated, then I was shocked, then I was impressed and now after subsequent re-watches I’m ready to declare this one of the strongest of the season to date. How the clues are staggered throughout the episode (the static in the titles, the absurdity of the Pope visiting the Doctor, the nature of the Veritas and its suicidal effect of people, the first window of light in the vault, the apparently random skip to the Pentagon and SERN, the room of projections, the zombie Monks…) is expertly done with each step taking us closer to the truth. It’s an episode the rewards subsequent viewings in that respect. But along the way there are great lines, an intriguing plot, some real belly laughs, further examination of the Doctor’s blindness, some gorgeous moments between Bill and Nardole and terrific production values. It is the last ten minutes that astounded me; Nardole confronting the truth of reality, Bill struggling to come to terms with her situation and the Doctor proving that he is the hero no matter how he has been constructed. These are some of the most shocking, disquieting and triumphant scenes since Moffat returned to the show. If the series had been this on form for the past six seasons I would be hailing it the Golden Age of Doctor Who. Is this really the same writer who gave us The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and Time of the Doctor? Astonishing. The icing on the cake is the return of Missy and the knowledge that she has been in the vault all this time, hardly a surprise but it means that we can finally move on with the arc plot as well. Moffat couldn’t be cheekier…fandom has often accused him (rightly or wrongly) of taking liberties with the series and now he has written a script where he is able to get away with any damn thing he wants. And instead of taking the piss to give the game away, he writes the regulars and the episode at large as efficiently as possible to disguise his twist. As a prelude for the next episode, I couldn’t be more excited. Bring on the Monks!: 9/10

The Pyramid at the End of the World: A bit of a struggle, actually. This is a largely empty affair that feels once again like set up for the main event rather than the meat in a three-part sandwich. The Pyramid at the End of the World sacrifices its characters to the plot, a typical trait in this period of the show. There are a wealth of guest characters in this story but I at no point felt as if I got to know them, they are simply functions of a glacial plot. I’m not sure what to think of the Monks. On the one hand it is novel to have a different kind of invasion story, one where they will only invade once humanity has given its consent. However it doesn’t make them the most exciting of monsters, fondling their tendrils and hanging about waiting for a duff move to be made on humanity’s part. And they’ve featured in two episodes now and feel as I know absolutely nothing about them, their motives or their history. The first ten minutes feel fresh and interesting, the idea of the 5000-year-old pyramid that appears overnight is striking but I expected the initial talk to give way to some action that never comes. It doesn’t help that things are boiled down to their most simplistic level with both the disaster that will bring the world to its knees being insultingly signposted and the bringing together of the military leaders failing to work on any plausible level. This is The Sound of Drums. It’s The Day of the Doctor. It’s Heaven Sent. It’s the middle of a three-part Doctor Who epic and yet it feels so conversational and paceless. The Pyramid at the End of the World is trying to do something different, which should be applauded. However, within it’s intriguing premise it is plodding and childish and the talk there is lacks punch. Let’s hope that Bill’s ridiculous decision shifts things into a more engaging gear. A few extra points for some powerful visuals: 5/10 

The Lie of the Land: It’s a tough competition, for sure. The previous three ‘trilogies’ closed on Last of the Time Lords, Time of the Doctor and Hell Bent, three episodes that haven’t exactly gone down well in Doctor Who history. How does the The Lie of the Land fare against these damp squibs? It fits right in perfectly! Toby Whithouse has proven himself to be a very competent writer but all good sense seems to have abandoned him here and what emerges is his weakest instalment of Doctor Who. I’m not sure where to start with the bad; the Monks fail to make any impression despite appearing in the equivalent of a classic series six parter, their rule of tyranny is barely established before it is ignored in favour of all the (rotten) character work, the Doctor and Bill are mis-characterised to a factor of ten (it is hard to believe that their interaction could be fudged this badly given the excellent ground work in the season to date), the episode is paced inconsistently with nothing truly exciting happening throughout (and a five minute interlude with Missy intruding in the middle) and the ending, which in a long line of ‘love conquers all’ climaxes does fit a pattern in this era of the show but proves to be as unbelievable and annoying as all the others. No more so because it has two episodes of set up to drag down with it. Not to mention how this entire three parter is wiped from humanity’s memory rendering the whole exercise moot. It’s rare for a story to start as strongly as this did with Extremis and haemorrhage continuously until it limps to such a bothersome conclusion. Not to mention this episode plays out like an amalgamation of much better episodes, being a pale retread of the Master three parter in series three and Turn Left. I think Pyramid and Lie both have their emphasis wrong, the middle part should have dealt with the heavy characterisation and the climax should have been a lot heavier on plot, whereas the reverse is true. Especially when the characterisation here is so lacking, with both the Doctor and Bill coming out of the story with plenty of egg on their faces. I wonder why Capaldi didn’t object to the shooting scene. The last thing you should be thinking at the end of a three-part epic is ‘what was the point of that?’ The Pyramid at the End of the World and The Lie of the Land sit like a dead weight in the middle of series 10 and that is a real shame. My points are for the stunning pre-titles sequence (I wish the episode could have been more in that vein), a wonderful five minutes with Missy and for Pearl Mackie’s valiant efforts. She’s one hell of a find. The rest is drivel of the highest order: 4/10